Rawls, Oakeshott, Obama And Modernity

A reader writes:

While you have always celebrated your attachment to conservative thinkers like Michael Oakeshott, your views often strike me being most closely aligned with John Rawls.  Your discussion today about modernity smashing the social good into little bits could have been a passage out of Political Liberalism.  You captured the essence of the book in this sentence

"That way is to agree that our civil order will mean less; that it will be a weaker set of more procedural agreements that try to avoid as much as possible deep statements about human nature."

Rawls found that in the modern world we’ve come to accept that the differences between comprehensive theories of the good embodied in various religions, cultures, and individual belief systems (i.e. the "deep statements about human nature") will never be conclusively resolved.  They are too much contingent upon traditions, inherited cultural values, superstitions.  The questions these theories purport to answer are fundamentally irresolvable–no one comprehensive theory is going to ultimately triumph over all the others.  Consequently, all must recognize that their own comprehensive theories have no special claims any other people.

The necessary result is a pluralistic society in which the government must not embrace any comprehensive theory of the good, but instead works to establish some procedural fairness and promote the overlapping consensus of the various theories while leaving each individual free to pursue his or her own comprehensive theory of the good. Given your general background in political philosophy it would be unsurprising if you have read Rawls and are familiar with his arguments (in fact, I would be a bit surprised if you’re not). But I find it curious that his name never comes up in this discussion, and I wonder if you’re aware of the parallels. To be honest, I’m surprised Rawls has not gotten a bit more attention of late given the deep influence he appears to have had on one Barack Obama. When Obama gave his first major address on religion, he said the following:

"But it’s fair to say that if any of us leaving this church saw Abraham on a roof of a building raising his knife, we would, at the very least, call the police and expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away from Abraham. We would do so because we do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that we all see, and that we all hear, be it common laws or basic reason." This is a deeply Rawlsian view. Obama further argues, again tracking closely with Rawls, that in a pluralistic democracy, when advocating in the public sphere, "the religiously motivated [must] translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values."

I think this philosophy undergirds much of what you have found appealing about Obama. The Rawlsian approach requires one to acknowledge at the outset that regardless how deeply attached we are to our own comprehensive theory, it is but one of many, and none of us know for certain which is right (or even whether any of them are "right" in a meaningful sense). Obama radiates a sense of humility with respect to the limits of his own knowledge, and openly acknowledges of the validity of the differing views of others. It’s one of his best features, and, frankly, Andrew, one of yours as well.

I’m grateful for the email. And, of course, I did study Rawls, and when I was in graduate school, his late work – where his epistemology became much more explicit and much more modest – was all the rage. Habermas made the same broad argument. And I do not disagree with it, so far as it goes. Where Oakeshott comes in is providing a Burkean, historical context for political liberalism as a tradition in England and America. The key essay is the final one in "On Human Conduct." Oakeshott threaded the needle for me because he explained how Rawlsian liberalism could be undergirded by conservative epistemology and by a resort to the tradition of Anglo-American freedom. Oakeshott’s is a conservative defense of liberalism – which is why, to my mind, he is such a crucial intellectual figure. He escapes the categories.

If you’re interested, all of this is thrashed out in my dissertation on Oakeshott, which includes several references to Rawls. It is now in print, and can be bought here.