by Bernard Yack, Brandeis University
Political Liberalism (1993) is both the title of John Rawls’s second book and a rallying cry for philosophers, like Martha Nussbaum, who believe that “more than any other modern work of political philosophy [it] carries forward one’s hope for humanity in an era of religious and ideological turmoil.”1 Rawls’s book argues that we can establish a just and stable order for ourselves even though we differ profoundly about our conceptions of the good. But it insists that we cannot do so until we are ready to leave aside the “comprehensive doctrines” that we ordinarily rely on to justify our beliefs and take up what Rawls calls a “political conception of justice.”
Students of politics, you might think, should welcome Rawls’s so-called “political turn.”2 After all, a common complaint about his landmark Theory of Justice (1971) was that its success in defending liberal principles came at the expense of an almost complete abstraction from political experience. If the world’s most famous philosopher shifts gears and urges us to develop “political, not metaphysical” conceptions of justice, if he draws inspiration from “ideas implicit in the culture of a democratic society” rather than assumptions about rationality,3 if he focuses on public reasoning among democratic citizens rather than the choices made by individuals whose identities are hidden by a metaphorical “veil of ignorance,” does that not greatly enhance the importance of the study of politics?