Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Rawlsian Empire Rebuked

"Liquidating the ‘Nearly Just Society’: Radical Evil’s Triumphant Return"

William L. McBride

in Modernity and the Problem of Evil

Alan D. Schrift, Ed.

Indiana University Press, 2005

pp. 28–38         

William McBride, a leading authority on Sartre’s philosophy, looks at John Rawls’s theory of justice from an unusual angle. He calls attention to the seldom-cited last paragraph of A Theory of Justice. In it, Rawls speaks of his "original position" in quasi-religious terms.

For Rawls, the original position is the "perspective of eternity": "Thus to see our place in society from the perspective of this [original] position is to see it sub specie aeternitatis: it is to regard the human situation not only from all social but from all temporal points of view. The perspective of eternity is not a perspective from a certain place beyond the world, nor the point of view of a transcendent being; rather it is a certain form of thought and feeling that rational persons can adopt within the world" (John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 587).

Such an awe-inspiring perspective merits total devotion: "Purity of heart, if one could attain it, would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command from this point of view" (Ibid., p. 587). McBride finds this attitude one of "considerable hubris" (p. 31); but the theory does not become dangerous—McBride goes so far as to call it evil—until his later work The Law of Peoples.

Rawls ranks the nations of the world in an order of merit, with the United States, as a "nearly just society" in the top tier. Below this elite group are "decent hierarchical peoples," "benevolent absolutisms" and "societies burdened by unfavorable conditions." At the bottom are "outlaw" or "rogue" states, and here is where McBride senses danger.

What does Rawls mean by characterizing a regime as an outlaw state? "There is, in Rawls’s book, at least one salient characteristic of an outlaw state that could serve as the (partial) basis of a definition: expansionism: ‘A liberal society cannot justly require its citizens to fight in order to gain economic wealth or to acquire natural resources, much less to win power and empire. (When a society pursues these interests, it no longer honors the Law of Peoples, and it becomes an outlaw state’" [p. 35, quoting Rawls].

But why does McBride think Rawls here approaches evil? Is not Rawls perfectly correct that states ought not to be expansionist? McBride agrees, but he notes that as Rawls applies his doctrine, the United States does not count as an expansionist state. True, our country has sometimes aggressed against others, but this shows only that a liberal society sometimes acts wrongly. The United States can never be moved out of its preeminent Rawlsian moral rank. "Blatant contradiction, sheer confusion, or simply special pleading? I leave the choice of label to you, dear reader" (p. 35).

As Rawls applies his doctrine, the outlaws are always elsewhere: "Early modern France, Spain, and Austria-Hungary were outlaw states, according to him [Rawls]; Bismarck was not a statesman, whereas Washington and Lincoln unquestionably were. It all seems so neat, so foreordained—a supposedly theoretical category reinforcing preconceptions if not outright prejudices" (p. 35). But once more our question arises. Rawls’s view may be narrow-minded, but why is it evil? The answer arises in how "nearly just" states are supposed to deal with the outlaws. Rawls "proceeds to contrast liberal and decent peoples, on the one hand, with unnamed contemporary ‘others’ whose conduct is ‘wrongful, evil, and demonic’" (p. 34). McBride finds in this language "an undertone of belligerent self-righteousness." If an outlaw nation is demonically evil, may we not preemptively attack it? This is exactly the foreign affairs doctrine of the Bush administration, and it is this that McBride finds radically evil. Rawls did not live to see Bush in action; and McBride hopes Rawls would be dismayed by Bush’s "arrogance and belligerence." Nevertheless, he holds, "some of the supercilious and denunciatory language of Rawls himself, in The Law of Peoples, can be seen as anticipating, if not actually endorsing, that arrogance and belligerence’ (p. 35).


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