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A Historical Critique of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice: 
Failure to Communicate the Tradition 
by Jfirgen Habermas 
from of series of lectures delivered in Frankfurt July 2003 
(translated from the german) 
John Rawls' A Theory of Justice has attracted more attention in the Anglo-Saxon world than any 
work of its kind in a generation. Its vogue results from two facts: it is the most ambitious political 
project undertaken by a member of the school currently dominant in academic philosophy; and it 
offers not only a defense of, but also a new foundation for, a radical egalitarian interpretation of 
liberal democracy. 'In method and substance it fits the tastes of the times. Professor Rawls believes 
that he can provide persuasive principles of justice that possess the simplicity and force of older 
contract teachings, that satisfy utilitarianism's concern for the greatest number without neglecting 
the individual, that contain all the moral nobility of Kant's principles, that will result in a richness 
of life akin to that proposed by Aristotle, and that can accomplish all this without falling into the 
quagmires of traditional philosophy. This is a big book not only in the number of its pages, but in 
the magnitude of its claims, and it deserves to be measured by standards of a severity commensurate 
with its proportions. 
Liberal democracy is in need of a defense or a rebirth if it is to survive. The practical 
challenges to it over the last forty years have been extreme, while the thought that underlies it has 
become in credible to most men living in liberal democracies. Historicism, cultural relativism, and 
the fact-value distinction have eroded the bases of conviction that this regime is good or just, that 
reason can support its claims to our allegiance. Hardly anyone would be willing to defend as truth 
the natural-right teachings of the founders of liberal democracy or of their philosophic masters, as 
many, for example, defend Marx. The state of nature and the natural rights deriving from it have 
taken their place beside the divine right of kings in the graveyard of history. They are understood to 
be myths or ideologies of ruling classes. One need only recall the vitality of the thought of liberal 
democracy's great opponents, Marx and Nietzsche, and reflect on the absence of com parable 
proponents to recognize the magnitude of the crisis. A renewal in the light of these challenges, 
theoretical and practical, is clearly of the first importance. 
But, disappointingly, A Theory of Justice does not even manifest an awareness of this need, 
let alone respond to it. In spite of its radical egalitarianism, it is not a radical book. Its horizon does 
not seem to extend to the abysses which we have experienced in our own lifetimes; the horrors of 
Hitler and Stalin do not present a special or new problem for Rawls. Rather, his book is a correction 
of utilitarianism; his consciousness is American, or at most, Anglo-Saxon. The problems he 
addresses are those of civil liberties in nations that are already free and of the distribution of wealth 
in those that are already prosperous. The discussion is redolent of that hope and expectation for the 
future of democracy that characterized the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, forgetful of 
the harsh deeds that preceded it and made it possible, without anticipation of the barbarism that was 
to succeed it. 
Just as the political concern which appears to motivate Rawls is narrow and thin, so is his 
view of the theoretical problems facing anyone who wishes to accomplish what he proposes to 
accomplish. Simply, historicism, whether that of Marx or that of Nietzsche and the Existentialists, 
has made it questionable whether an undertaking such as Rawls's is possible at all; yet he does not 
address himself to these thinkers. He takes it for granted that they are wrong, that they must pass 
before his tribunal, not he before theirs. Marx is not treated, and Nietzsche is quickly dispatched, 
improbably, as a teleologist. I am aware that it is not Rawls's intention to write a history of political 
philosophy, and it is not incumbent on him to present a critique of Marx and Nietzsche. But the 
issues raised by Marx and Nietzsche must be dealt with if Rawls is to be persuasive at all. If liberal 
democracy is just a stage on the way to another kind of society, then Rawls is merely an ephemeral 
ideologist. And if rational determination of values is in the decisive sense impossible, then Rawls is 
only a deluded myth-maker. He supposes that his method makes a detour around these roadblocks, 
that there is no need to discuss nature and history. Throughout this book one wonders about the 
status of Rawls's teaching. Is it meant to be a permanent statement about the nature of political 
things, or just a collection of opinions that he finds satisfying and hopes will be satisfying to others? 
One finds no reflection on how Rawls is able to break out of the bonds of the historical or cultural 
determinism he appears to accept, and no reflection on how philosophy is possible within such 
limits or what it means to be a philosopher. Is he a seeker after the truth or only the spokesman for a 
certain historical consciousness? 
What Rawls explicitly undertakes to do is to provide principles for our preexisting moral 
sense, to elaborate the implications of our institutions or convictions, to tell us what we mean when 
we speak of justice, to find a basis of agreement among our contemporaries. He believes that there 
is a via media between subjectivity pure and simple and telling us what the world is really like. But, 
again, the question always present is whether that moral sense is anything other than a mere 
preference, one conditioned by our time and place. Rawls takes it for granted that we are all 
egalitarians. Aristocratic teachings are inadmissible, but it is not clear whether this is because they 
are based on an untrue understanding or because we do not like them any longer. Conversely, it is 
unclear whether our egalitarianism is a result of the revelation of the fact of men's equality or 
whether it is just what we happen to like today. 
Rawls thinks that his procedure is Socratic. Socrates, however, did not begin from 
sentiments or intuitions but from opinions; all opinions are understood by Socrates to be inadequate 
perceptions of being; the examination of opinions proves them to be self-contradictory and points 
toward a non-contradictory view which is adequate to being and can be called knowledge. If 
opinion cannot be converted into knowledge, then the rational examination of opinions about 
justice, let alone of senses about justice, is of no avail in establishing principles according to which 
we should live. It is even questionable whether such examination is of any use at all. Rawls begins 
with our moral sense, develops the principles which accord with it, and then sees whether we are 
satisfied with the results; the principles depend on our moral sense and that moral sense on the 
principles. We are not forced to leave our conventional lives nor compelled, by the very power of 
being, to move toward a true and natural life. We start from what we are now and end there, since 
there is nothing beyond us. At best Rawls will help us to be more consistent, if that is an advantage. 
The distinctions between opinion and knowledge, and between appearance and reality, which made 
philosophy possible and needful, disappear. Rawls speaks to an audience of the persuaded, 
excluding not only those who have different sentiments but those who cannot be satisfied by 
sentiment alone. 
Thus those who turn to Rawls hoping to find a reasoned statement of the superiority of 
liberal democracy to the other possibilities or a defense of the rationalist tradition of political 
philosophy will not find what they are looking for. They will find reassurance that their sentiments 
are sufficient, that they need not enter the disputes of the philosophers; they will be made to feel at 
home rather than made to long for distant worlds; they will be nudged in the direction of more 
reform and tolerance in accordance with the prevailing tendency of our times; and they will be 
given a platform that would appeal to the typical liberal in Anglo-Saxon countries -- democracy 
plus the welfare state leaving open whether capitalism or socialism is the most efficient 
economic form (so that one did not have to be a cold warrior); maximum individual freedom 
combined with community (just what is wanted by the New Left); defenses of civil disobedience 
and conscientious objection (the civil rights and antiwar movements could find their satisfaction 
under Rawls's tent); and even a codicil that liberty may be abrogated in those places where the 
economic conditions do not permit of liberal democracy (thus saving the Third World nations from 
being called unjust). This correspondence, unique in the history of political philosophy, between 
what is wanted by many for current political practice and the conclusions of abstract, rigorous 
political philosophy would be most remarkable if one did not suspect that Rawls began from what is 
wanted here and now and then looked for the principles that would rationalize it. 
A theory of justice must show what a decent regime is and what duties citizens owe to it. 
Rawls's problem is the classic one: what kind of a civil society would a reasonable man choose to 
live in and why should he obey its commands when they go against his grain? Rawls assumes that 
there is a form of civil society that can reconcile public and private interest and hence that a true 
political philosophy is possible. He argues that the principle of utilitarianism the greatest good of 
the greatest number is the one generally accepted today and that it does not suffice. Out of the 
many possible criticisms of that principle he selects the one that it does not satisfy the demands of 
the few, in particular of the economically disadvantaged few. He accepts the utilitarian position that 
each individual's view of his good is his good and that it is the business of society to attempt to 
satisfy the individual to the extent the fulfillment of his wishes does not do harm to others and not 
to propose or impose a view of the good on the individual or to have a collective end. The objection 
to utilitarianism is that it does not insure consideration of each individual and that, in spite of its 
individualist basis, the disadvantaged are sacrificed on the altar of the collective. Rawls proposes a 
contract according to which every man gives his adherence to civil society only on condition that he 
be guaranteed certain minima which one might call rights. Such a contract serves to set the goals 
and limits of civil society, to prescribe duties to rulers and to motivate the citizens' adherence as 
well as to define their legitimate claims. 
Although Rawls goes back in time to seek a model for his theory of justice, he brings a fresh 
set of concerns to the contract doctrine. It must somehow be transformed to accommodate 
sensibilities that have emerged historically out of utilitarianism and popular dissatisfaction with it. 
Men must have equal rights not only to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," but to the 
achievement of happiness. Inequalities, whether they stem from birth, fortune or nature, should be 
offensive to us. Thus to the familiar principle of liberal democracy that each person is to have an 
equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others, Rawls 
adds a second principle that all goods are to be equally distributed or, if unequally distributed, this 
unequal distribution must be agreed to be the advantage of all as measured by the desires of the 
least advantaged member of society. Rawls seeks a new morality which will constrain the 
advantaged to admit that the possession or use of their advantages depends upon the permission of 
an egalitarian society, one which will persuade the disadvantaged that whatever inequalities exist 
are to their advantage. Rawls's innovation is to incorporate the maxims of con temporary social 
welfare into the fundamental principles of political justice. Not only must material goods be 
provided to each citizen, but also an equal sense of his own worth, recognized by others; for, after 
all, man does not live on bread alone. 
The disadvantaged or, to say what Rawls really means, the poor, must be listened to, not 
condescended to or told how they should live; and the attention paid them must be grounded on the 
most fundamental right which precedes institutions and in accordance with which institutions are 
formed. A man does not, as Plato said, have a right to what he can use well; or, as Locke said, to 
that with which he has mixed his labor; or even, as Marx said, to what he needs; he has a right to 
what he thinks he needs in order to fulfill his "life plan," whatever it may be. With respect to ends, 
government for Rawls must laisser-faire; with respect to the means to the ends, it must beaucoup 
Once Rawls has determined what is wanted, he seeks for a way of deriving or demonstrating 
his two principles of justice that will be persuasive and that will exclude conflicting principles. A 
contract made by all the future members of the new society to abide by these principles would fill 
the bill. But why would superior men agree to a contract that requires them to make sacrifices for 
the benefit of the disadvantaged? A common ground of advantage, more fundamental than any 
particular advantage, must be found in order to gain unanimous consent. This need for a common 
ground is the source of the elaborate construction of "the original position" which is the feature of 
this exceptionally complex book. 
Every understanding of man must have some vision of the fundamental situation, free from 
the accidents and trivia which distract us from the one thing most needful, a situation in which a 
man can discern what really counts and on the basis of which serious human beings guide their 
lives. The Best Regime of Plato and Aristotle, the City of God of Augustine and the State of Nature 
of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau come immediately to mind as powerful alternatives according to 
which we are asked to take our bearings. Now comes Rawls's "original position" which, if we are 
willing to assume it, will compel us to accept his two principles of justice and his version of society. 
The "original position" amounts to something like this: Ask a man, any man, what kind of a 
society he would like to live in, assuming that he wants to live in a society. He would describe one 
that fulfilled his idea of the good, one that would make him happy. But he knows that the other men 
have different ideas of the good that conflict with his, so that it is unlikely that his idea will prevail; 
and even if it were to do so, those other men would be deprived of their happiness. If he were to 
imagine that he did not know what view of happiness, what "life plan," he were going to have, but 
did know that he would have a "life plan," what kind of society would he choose? In this case he 
would be choosing under what Rawls calls "the veil of ignorance." Since there are many possible 
"life plans," none belong to man as such; therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that men in the 
original position do not know their goal but know only that they must have one. The different final 
goods cannot be reconciled, and it is undesirable that they be so. Inevitably, according to Rawls, a 
man in this situation would choose a liberal society, for at least he would be permitted to pursue his 
goal, if it did not do harm to others, whereas he would otherwise risk losing his happiness 
altogether. Better a little than nothing so cautious calculation would seem to indicate. This 
provides a ground for agreement among men who are similarly situated. They would accept 
Rawls's first principle of justice. 
Further, although this man does not know the good, the final end, he knows that there are 
certain things that will contribute to the fulfillment of his life plan, no matter what its content. These 
things one can call primary goods, good because they serve whatever good is final. They are things 
like rights, liberties, birth, talent, position, wealth, a sense of one's own worth. Our typical man 
would want to have as much of these primary goods as possible. Some are natural and others are 
effects of social arrangements; but possessing them depends on chance. He would want a society 
which encourages the use of what nature gives and assures that he gets the most of what society can 
give. But, if the veil of ignorance descends again, he would opt for equality, since, given the fact of 
the relative scarcity of primary goods, he would be likely to have less rather than more of an 
unequal distribution. The natural primary goods he would choose to use and develop only insofar as 
they contribute to the happiness of all and they are harnessed by the institutions to that end. The 
social primary goods, like wealth, he would allow to be unequally distributed only to the extent that 
the least advantaged member of society, which he might be, would gain from that unequal 
distribution and could hope to improve his own situation thereby. 
In this condition of ignorance, calculating men will agree to Rawls's second principle. A 
contract is made for mutual advantage on a basis of equality. This contract sets down the rules of 
the game; justice in a man is abiding by his agreements, keeping his word. Justice is fairness in the 
sense that it is only fair to abide by the results of a game the rules of which are seen to be 
reasonable and just, even though one might have wished for another result and would like to alter 
the rules for one's personal advantage. Rawls's recipe contains equal measures of selfish calculation 
in the original position and public spiritedness in the form of fair play after real social life has 
begun. A man cannot be expected to join a group in which his happiness is not promoted equally 
with that of others. A society which gives him that equality of treatment deserves his adherence. 
Once men are aware of the original position they will abandon their overreaching: they will 
recognize that there are no legitimate claims to special privilege and will be dissuaded from using 
the power deriving from any unequal possession of primary goods to command such privileges. 
The "original position" is an imaginary foundation which RawIs wishes to insert beneath the 
real edifice of liberal society in order to justify that society. It is invented rather than discovered, 
and one may well doubt whether it is substantial enough to support such a structure. 
In order to see the difficulties inherent in the "original position," it must be compared to the 
"state of nature" in the contract teachings of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, for Rawls intends his 
invention to play the same role in his presentation of justice as did the state of nature in theirs. And 
the change of name is indicative of the decisive difference in substance. Rawls banishes nature from 
human and political things. The state of nature was the result of a comprehensive reflection about 
the way all things really are. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau could not be content with a figment of 
the imagination as the basis for moral judgments. Nature is the permanent standard; what the good 
man and the good society are depends on human nature. The state of nature is the result of a specific 
understanding of nature founded on a criticism and a rejection of an older understanding of nature 
and its moral and political consequences. The state-of-nature theorists, therefore, agreed with Plato 
and Aristotle that the decisive issue is nature; they disagreed about what is natural. Metaphysics 
cannot be avoided. If there is to be political philosophy, they believed, man must have a nature, and 
it must be knowable. Rawls does not wish to enter into such disputes, the validity of which has once 
and for all been refuted by his school. And his political goals are furthered by the imperatives of his 
method, for he does not wish to accept the iron limits set by nature on the possibilities of 
transforming the human condition. Although he sometimes rests an argument on what he calls 
human nature, his thought is directed not only at overcoming those injustices which are against 
nature but at overcoming nature itself. He wants the advantages of the state-of-nature teaching 
without its (to him) unpleasant theoretical and practical consequences. 
The state of nature presented a picture of man as he really is, divested of convention, 
accident, and illusion, a picture grounded on and consistent with the new science of nature. Man, 
according to the real contract theorists, is a being whose primary natural concern is to preserve 
himself, who enters into the contract of society because his life is threatened and he fears losing it. 
That fear is not an abstraction, a hypothesis, an imagination, but an experience, a powerful passion 
which accompanies men throughout their lives. This passion is sufficient to provide a selfish reason, 
a reason that men can be counted on having, for adherence to a civil society which is dedicated to 
preserving them. The conflict between particular interest and public good disappears. The reason 
why this passion is not ordinarily effective 
enough to guarantee lawful behavior is that men in civil societies which protect them forget 
how essential that protection is. They get notions of self-sufficiency; they pursue glory; they break 
the law for their pleasures. And, above all, their religions persuade them that there are things more 
important than life or that there is another life, thus calming the fear of losing this one and 
encouraging disobedience to civil authority. The state of nature is intended to reveal the nullity or 
secondary character of these other passions and these hopes of avoiding the essential and permanent 
vulnerability of man. Death is the natural sanction for breaking the contract, and the state of nature 
shows both that this is so and that the goods which might conflict with desire for life are 
insubstantial. The positive law is merely derivative from this sanction and gets its force from nature. 
The state of nature demonstrates that the positive goals of men which vary are not to be taken 
seriously in comparison with the negative fact on which all sensible men must agree, that death is 
terrible and must be avoided. They join civil society for protection from one another, and 
government's sole purpose is the establishment and maintenance of peace. This origin and end of 
civil society is common to the contract theories of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau in spite of their 
differences. And whether they believed the state of nature ever existed or not, it was meant to 
describe the reality underlying civil society. Man's un social nature and the selfish character of the 
passion that motivates men's adherence to civil society limit the possible and legitimate functions of 
that society. 
Now, Rawls's "original position" fails to achieve what the state of nature teaching achieved. 
Apart from the fact that there is nothing in the original position that corresponds to any man's real 
experience, the fear of death disappears as the motive for joining civil society and accepting its 
rules. Rawls is very vague about the reasons for joining civil society and, because he does not want 
to commit himself to any view of man's nature, it cannot be determined whether the attachment to 
society attachment in the sense of obeying its laws is really so important for a man in fulfilling 
himself. With the disappearance of the fear of death as the primary motive, the sanction for 
breaking the contract also disappears. In civil society contracts are protected by the positive law and 
the punishment it can inflict. Prior to civil society, there must be a natural punishment or none at all. 
A man whose desires or view of happiness urge him to break a contract that has no sanctions, no 
authority, would be foolish not to do so. After all, life is not a game. He exists naturally, while civil 
society is merely conventional. Either there is some essential harmony between private and public 
good or there is none. If there is none, on what basis can one arbitrate between the two? Rawls does 
not provide a basis for the reconciliation or anything more than a sermonizing argument for the 
nobility of sacrifice to the public good. 
What Rawls gives us in the place of fear is fairness. But that is merely the invention of a 
principle to supply a missing link. Why should fairness have primacy over the desire for self- 
fulfillment? Once we leave the "original position" and the "veil of ignorance" drops, the motive for 
compliance falls away with it. When we leave the state of nature, the passions found there remain 
with us and provide powerful reminders of that earlier state and our reasons for preferring the civil 
one. But the original position is a bloodless abstraction which gives us no such permanent motive. 
Fairness is a reasonable choice of enlightened self-interest only in the original position. Fairness as 
something more, as choice worthy for its own sake, cannot be derived from the original position. It 
is a tattered fragment of an earlier tradition which argued that man is naturally political and that the 
practice of justice will make a man happy. The state of nature begins from the natural isolation of 
man and teaches that society and its justice are good only as means to an end. The natural sociality 
of man is inconsistent with individualism or anything like the freedom of choice among ends which 
Rawls wishes to preserve, or the notion that man's relation to society is in any way contractual. It 
requires a rigorous subordination of particularity to the community and all the harder virtues of self- 
restraint about which Rawls never speaks. He is an individualist, but he does not wish to accept the 
harsh practical and theoretical consequences of that individualism. In order to pose the issue clearly 
he would have to confront the views of human nature underlying the contract teaching with those 
that assert that man is by nature a political animal. Fairness simply does not cohere with his shrewd, 
calculating individual in the original position. 
Rawls's egalitarianism is similarly without foundation, for he does not want to accept the 
low common denominator of the true state of nature theory. He wants an equality which extends 
beyond mere life to all the things social men care about. All men, no matter what their qualities of 
mind or body, no matter what their virtues or their contributions, must have a legitimate claim to all 
goods natural and social, and society's primary concern must be to honor that claim. He must 
therefore abstract from all the evident inequalities in men's gifts and achievements, but he can find 
no firmer ground for this abstraction than that it is what he wants, that it is required for his "original 
position" to work. But it is a long way from the rights of nature to 
the rights of the original position. The latter rights are hardly likely to inspire awe in anyone 
who believes himself to be superior. The contract theorists consciously lowered man's sights and 
his view of himself in order to make equality plausible and found a common interest. It is not in a 
situation of neutral "reflective equilibrium" that man chooses civil society, but in the grip of 
powerful natural passions which control and direct his reason and reduce him, willy-nilly, to the 
level of all other men. Rawls does not want to follow these theorists in this respect, although he 
wants to have all the advantages he sees in their teachings. The state-of-nature teachings are 
connected with a denial of the nobility of man and thereby of the nobility, if not the utility, of 
morality, and their authors were aware of this. Rawls does not wish to stoop low enough to benefit 
from their solidity, but what he adopts from them prevents him from soaring to the moral heights to 
which he aspires. 
As opposed to the contract theorists who taught that the strongest thing in man is his desire 
to avoid death and who took their bearings by that negative pole, Rawls insists on the positive goal 
of happiness. The contract theorists took the tack they did because they denied that there was a 
highest good and hence that there could be knowledge of happiness; there are only apparent goods, 
and what happiness is shifts with desire. Men have always disagreed about the good; indeed, this 
has been a source of their quarrels, particularly in matters of religion. The contract theorists tried to 
show that this factual disagreement reflects a theoretical impossibility of agreement. Out of this 
bleak situation which seems to make political philosophy impossible, they drew their hope. If the 
importance of all particular visions of the good can be depreciated, while all men can agree on the 
bad and their inclinations support its avoidance, then solid foundations can be achieved. But it has 
to be emphasized that a precondition of this result is the diminishing of men's attachment to their 
vision of happiness in favor of mere life and the pursuit of the means of maintaining life. Rawls, 
while joining the modem natural-right thinkers in abandoning the attempt to establish a single, 
objective standard of the good valid for all men, and in admitting a countless variety of equally 
worthy and potentially conflicting life plans or visions of happiness, still con tends, as did the pre- 
modem natural-right thinkers, that the goal of society is to promote happiness. Thus he is unable to 
found consensus on knowledge of the good, as did the ancients, or on agreement about the bad, as 
did the modems. He is able to tell us only that society cannot exist without a consensus, but he does 
not give any motive f abiding by that consensus to the man who is willing to risk the breakdown of 
actual society in order to achieve his ideal society which is what any man who loves the good 
must do. Only the "veil of ignorance" in the "original position" makes consensus possible; but once 
the scales fall from a man's eyes, he may very well find that his life plan does not accord with 
liberal democracy. Rawls asks that only those life plans that can coexist be accepted, but he is not 
sufficiently aware of how far this demand goes and how many life plans must be rejected on this 
ground and all for the sake of a peace the value of which is unproved. 
Because Rawls does not take seriously the possible conflict of important values, because he 
really presupposes the existence of the consensus he believes he is setting out to establish, because 
he would prefer to simplify the human problem and narrow our alternatives rather than face 
fundamental conflicts requiring philosophic reflection, Rawls does not see that the contract theorists 
could not be satisfied with rejecting some views of the good as merely incompatible with the 
contract but had to find grounds for showing that they are untrue. Their understanding of nature was 
requisite to their political teaching, for opposing doctrines to which men were passionately 
committed denied the authoritative status of the civil law and the contract from which 'it stems, as 
well as the value of the life the contract is intended to protect. Rawls speaks condescendingly of 
Rousseau's assertion that men who think their neighbors are damned cannot live in peace with 
them. We know better than Rousseau; our experience shows that pluralism of religious belief works 
just fine. We need not worry, for only a few fanatics who, constitute a clear and present danger need 
be restrained. But Rawls does not know what faith is. He looks at the believers around us, not 
knowing that religion has been utterly transformed, partly as a direct result of the criticism of the 
contract theorists, partly as a result of the liberal society of which they were the inspirers. The kind 
of men who fought the wars of religion could not be asked to give up their quest for salvation for a 
peace they despised; they had to be made to disappear. Either they were wrong in their beliefs, or 
their actions were justified. 
The state of nature was intended as a substitute for the biblical account of the origin of man 
and society, a rational account in place of the one provided by revelation. Its theorists had no 
objection to a tepid faith, one that would not lead men to challenge civil authority. 
But in order to achieve this result the meaning of faith had to be drastically revised. Rawls, 
looking at the believers of our day in America, whose religious views are the fruit of Enlightenment 
thought, assures us that faith is no threat to the social contract and that Locke and Rousseau were 
needlessly intolerant. Thus he profits from their labors without having to take on their disagreeable 
responsibilities. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau knew that their teaching could not be maintained if 
biblical revelation were true and that there was no way to avoid confronting it directly. Rawls, 
counting on men's having weak beliefs, simply ignores the challenge to his teaching posed by the 
claims of religion. 
This becomes clear in Rawls's discussion of what he calls the primary goods. The notion 
"primary good" plays the same role in Rawls's teaching as does "power" in Hobbes's, and Rawls's 
list of primary goods is similar to Hobbes's list of powers. But for Hobbes powers are not simply 
neutral. They depend on ends, and there are some ends or life plans for which all the listed primary 
goods would be evils. What is wealth for him who believes that it is easier for a camel to go through 
the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven? What is health for him 
who believes with Pascal that sickness is the true state of the Christian? And how does the sense of 
one's own worth, rather than humility, accord with the man who believes he is a sinner? To treat 
these things as goods is equivalent to denying that view of things in which they are the opposite. 
And Hobbes does deny the validity of the opinions which are incompatible with the powers 
on his list. Rawls avoids denying such opinions by not paying attention to them. He only takes 
seriously opinions which fit the society he proposes. For example, the possibility of revelation was 
a question which occupied much of the best energies of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. It is 
quite evidently not a question that bothers Rawls very much. At the very least, Hobbes must argue 
for the preeminence of this life and deny that happiness in this life can be achieved or maintained 
without these powers. A comprehensive reflection about the nature of things is implied in this list of 
powers. Hobbes argued that we cannot know what will make us happy (although we must know 
what will not and cannot make us happy) but that we can know the means to the satisfaction of 
desire. It follows, therefore, that we should pursue those means, we should seek power. And thus it 
also follows that, consequent to the depreciation of the ends, power in a way itself becomes the end. 
The low tone, the philistinism, the concentration on preservation and wealth in Hobbes is a result of 
the primacy of power in his teaching. The popular criticism of the bourgeois is really the criticism 
of Hobbes's man. But that tone follows inevitably if the great and noble ends are merely 
insubstantial opinions whereas health and wealth are the stuff of being. Moreover, in the 
establishment of public policy, one inevitably concentrates on what is real and what the citizens 
have in common. It is by way of Hobbes and of Locke who follows Hobbes in this respect that 
economics comes to the center of politics, where it remains for Rawls. 
Rawls's acquiescence in the emancipation of the means from the ends makes him an 
unwilling collaborator in Hobbes's moral revolution. He would undoubtedly protest that his interest 
is men's happiness, but he has little to tell us about it. When it comes to the primary goods, 
however, he has much to say. His political proposals are nothing but a means for their distribution. 
This means that his society promotes the kinds of happiness dependent on his primary goods. Or, 
put an other way, the purposes of his government are alien to those emphasized in classical political 
philosophy or biblical revelation. Government, instead of making men good and doers of noble 
deeds, as Aristotle would have it, has as its goal providing what Aristotle would call equipment or 
external goods. And the ends of government almost inevitably determine the characters of men. The 
beginning point of Rawls or rather Hobbes-Locke fixes the outcome. His democratic man hardly 
resembles the classical object of admiration: Socrates, who was born in poverty and lived in poverty 
but was the happiest man of his time. Even the way Rawls treats his own addition to Hobbes's 
scheme, the sense of one's own worth, partakes of this mode. The sense of one's own worth, he 
reiterates time and again, depends very much on the esteem of others. Socrates required only his 
own testimony, but Rawls's man cannot withstand unfavorable public opinion. Rawls tries to 
provide him with esteem no matter what his life plan may be; Rawls's man is in every way 
dependent, "other-directed." Hobbes determined the worth of a man on the basis of others' 
consideration of him; as he put it, in his direct and vigorous way, a man's worth is his price. Rawls 
differs from him only by engaging in price fixing. 
Rawls, because he substitutes the equal right to happiness for the equal right to life, must 
equalize not only the conventional primary goods like money but also the natural ones. This latter is 
harder to envisage (apart from the salutary work of geneticists who, Rawls believes, might one day 
improve all our progeny). One thinks of Herodotus' account of the Babylonian law by which all the 
marriageable girls were auctioned off; the beautiful ones brought high prices from the rich and 
voluptuous men; the city used the money so derived to provide dowries for the ugly girls, thus 
making the naturally unattractive attractive. Nature's injustice to the unendowed is what the 
thoroughgoing egalitarian must rectify. The redistribution of wealth is hardly sufficient, for, as we 
all know, the most important things are those "that money can't buy." The ugly girls will surely be 
grateful. And the beautiful ones, who are forced to sacrifice the satisfaction for which they are 
equipped to the greater number whom nature has endowed less generously but whose dreams are of 
similar stuff, will not be discontented, for when the veil of ignorance still covered their nakedness in 
the original position, they had no idea that they would be beautiful. Rawls is not in agreement with 
Aristophanes who, in the Assembly of Women, indicates that, when the law compels the beautiful 
to be at the command of the majority, not only does tyranny result but eros rebels. The original 
position works miracles, in the precise sense of the word, for it stops the course of nature. 
This leads to the further questions of the relation of quality to equality, a question which 
Rawls treats only obliquely. Although the desire of the least advantaged persons remains decisive, 
Rawls assures us that the less fortunate have no interest in policies which would reduce the talents 
of the more fortunate. Not only does he fail to offer us proof of this assertion, he does not seem to 
be aware of the possibility that the majority, with all the goodwill in the world, might not appreciate 
what the higher talents or activities are and hence might not be willing to allocate scarce resources 
to them or set up the "structures" necessary to encourage them. Leveling does not seem to be a 
serious danger to him. One might suspect that he does not address himself to the problem of the 
great man for fear that it would under mine the persuasiveness of his argument that his version of 
civil society can reconcile all legitimate interests. Aristotle, for example, did ad dress this problem 
and concluded that republican cities would either have to ostracize the great man or renounce their 
non-monarchic regimes and make him their ruler. Both alternatives are unsatisfactory, but Aristotle 
presents them because the nature of political things forces him to it. Rawls suppresses the conflict. 
But the suspicion that he ,avoids it in order to make his case stronger is probably unfair to him. It is 
rather that he does not see it. If "life plans" are merely a matter of preference and are in principle 
equal, then the distinction between the great man and the common one disappears. If everyone is to 
have an equal sense of his own worth, superiority must not exist. The habit of such beliefs has, I 
fear, the effect of making a man incapable of distinguishing the great from the mediocre. The very 
distinction is seen as the result of injustice and snobbishness. 
In Rawls one finds none of the concerns which preoccupy Tocqueville, who, although a 
democrat convinced of the justice of the principle of equality, argued that intellectual and moral 
superiority would not find fertile soil in modern society. Hard choices had to be made, according to 
Tocqueville; it was essential for democrats to be aware of the fact so that they might attempt to 
mitigate the loss. Similarly, although Rawls admires John Stuart Mill, one would never know from 
Rawls's account of him that the primary intention of On Liberty was to protect the minority of 
superior men from the tyranny of the majority, that Mill believed mankind was threatened by 
universal mediocrity. For Rawls, as for most Americans who speak of it, the tyranny of the majority 
is a threat only to the disadvantaged. One can only hope that the problem posed by Tocqueville and 
Mill has not been solved by the loss of the capacity to recognize the great and the beautiful or by 
the very disappearance of the great and beautiful themselves. 
But Rawls's treatment of Nietzsche does not provide much foundation for this hope. He 
takes it that Nietzsche has a subjective "value" preference for men like Goethe and Socrates and 
wishes to impose it on the majority who are not like Goethe and Socrates. Rawls's reading appears 
to be slight and uninformed. He does not see that Nietzsche really addresses the questions which 
Rawls from his own point of view has to address: how one creates a "life plan" or horizon when 
there is no objective good, or, what is the same thing, how values are created (Nietzsche was the 
first to use "value" in the modern sense; Rawls unawares adopts Nietzsche's invention); what the 
self is, if one believes as does Rawls, that there is a "self" and that it is productive of values rather 
than determined by them; how philosophy is possible, if human thought is historical. Rawls 
discusses only the preconditions for making life plans and value creation, not the ways in which 
they are actually made. Nietzsche teaches that only a certain kind of man is capable of creativity, by 
which he does not primarily mean the writing of poems or the painting of pictures, but the 
production of values by which man can live. He wants the very thing Rawls claims to want a 
variety of rich and satisfying "life plans" but he has thought through how one gets them and has 
some inner experience of what they are. 
Let us, however, assume that Rawls is right and that Nietzsche has a mere preference for 
"culture" in the current watered-down sense of the word. Surely it would nonetheless be distressing 
if there were to be no more Goethes or Socrateses. One would have to reflect on the conditions for 
their existence and try to determine whether they coincide at all with the conditions for Rawls's 
society. But, although Rawls seems to take it for granted that such men will be present, his teaching 
holds that it makes no difference whether they are or not, for pushpin is as good as poetry unless 
one or the other appeals more to the least advantaged. All talents are but resources for the greatest 
happiness of all and get their price in today's happiness market. Any how, Rawls has a solution, for 
he has established an exchange branch of government which distributes resources for the public 
benefit. Nietzsche can go to it and make an application for a study grant. To characterize this 
solution to the problem of greatness in democratic society one would need the talents of a great 
To complete his reincarnation of contract teachings, Rawls at tempts to lend his "original 
position" the glow of Kantian moral nobility. As always, he reads older philosophies only for 
support for his own much narrower thought. He picks and chooses, never really caught up in the 
necessity of their arguments, sure that he looks down on them from a higher plateau. Rawls not only 
does not accept the truth of the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason, which 
is the precondition of establishing the possibility of a realm of freedom, and which is presupposed 
in Kant's moral writings. More important, he does not understand what Kant means by morality. 
Morality must be chosen for its own sake; it must be a good, or rather the highest good; the 
goodwill is the only unconditional good. There must be an interest in morality just as there is an 
interest in money or in food and one which has primacy over all other interests. Rawls has done 
nothing to establish such an interest. Surely it is not interest in morality that motivates men in the 
original position, whose goal is to enjoy as much happiness as possible. If happiness, however 
conceived, is the end, then morality is a means to that end, good instrumentally rather than in itself. 
Happiness, to use Kant's language, is a heteronomous rather than an autonomous motive for 
obedience o the moral law. 
Kant's morality is not that of the social contract, for the social contract teachings are all 
heteronomous. Morality in them is only a tool constructed by men for the fulfillment of prior, non- 
moral, natural ends. Part of Kant's political teaching is indeed hypothetically contractarian, but 
there is a problematic relation between his political and moral teachings. Morality and civil society 
are linked by a philosophy of history which is itself problematic for Kant.. The three moral 
postulates God, freedom, and immortality are necessary supplements to morality, without which 
it would be overwhelmed by politics and history. Morality does not look to consequences, for that 
would make it contingent. Social benefit is Rawls's goal, whereas morality in Kant's view need not 
be helpful in the establishment of a just society or in making a man happy. Kant says, consistently 
with his principles, that a moral man must never break a law. Rawls preaches the legitimacy of civil 
disobedience and conscientious objection. The preservation of his life must not, for Kant, be any 
consideration for a moral man, nor should his conduct be affected by the actual state of affairs. 
Rawls makes it clear that heroic sacrifices are not a necessary component of his social man and that 
prudential modifications of principle are legitimate and desirable. 
Rawls's fuzziness about morality is summed up in his denigration of the primary importance 
of generality or universality in Kant's thought. For him the essential element of Kant's moral 
teaching is autonomy, i.e., the combination of freedom and rationality. But Rawls fails to see that 
what Kant means by freedom and rationality is universality. A man is autonomous if he is able to 
act according to laws derived by universalizing the maxims of his action; one is both free and 
rational when one so universalizes. In order to act freely a man must obey the law he has made for 
himself, without being compelled by other men or by particular circumstances or by nature. Acting 
according to his own desires is not freedom, for he does not make those desires; they are given. A 
man may desire to tell a lie, but he can immediately see that lying cannot be accepted as a rule of 
conduct for all men. If he is able to obey the rule possible for all men in opposition to his particular 
desire, and if he is not motivated by future gain or by fear of punishment, ridicule, bad reputation, 
or anything other than a respect for the universal principle, then he can be said to act freely, 
independent of the contingent and conditioned; otherwise he is the slave of man, institutions, or 
nature. He is free because the principle is arrived at by the examination of the meaning of his own 
desire. And he is free in a higher sense by virtue of his capacity to overcome his own desire for the 
sake of the universalized principle based on it. This proves his capacity to act for the sake of 
morality alone. 
Rawls's men in the original position act in terms of individual desire; they are deprived only 
of the knowledge of their particular circumstances, so that they will choose those rules which will 
be most useful for satisfying whatever desires they may turn out to have. For Kant, the moral man 
acts with full awareness of his particular circum stances and chooses to obey the universal rule in 
spite of them. Particular desire and universal law are only coincidentally harmonious, so that the 
man who always acts according to the law shows that he is free. And in acting freely, a man is also 
acting rationally, for universalization is the activity of unconditioned reason, and universality is the 
form of reason and of any rational law, political, moral, or natural. The calculation of a man seeking 
to satisfy his passions (or to set up principles in the "original position") is only an instrumental use 
of reason to attain ends which reason played no role in establishing. But if his end is not the 
substantive intention of his action but the universalizability of the maxim governing his action, he is 
dedicated to reason simply, to non-contradiction. Kant's categorical imperative is the imperative of 
universality, and it comprises both freedom and rationality. Therefore, a true Kantian interpretation 
of Rawls's man in the original position is that he is neither free nor rational. 
Rawls's denial of the crucial significance of generalization is most revealing about the 
character of his enterprise. Rousseau, while accepting the view of nature contained in the state-of- 
nature teachings, insisted that the natural inclinations cannot provide a basis for a decent 
community or for anything but mercenary morals. Nature provides preservation, low selfishness, as 
a common ground. Natural freedom is to act according to one's inclinations without concern for 
others. If there is to be concern for others, another and higher common ground must be found. 
Rousseau found that ground in the will to generalize one's desires, to think of oneself as a citizen 
and not as a man (although the motivation for doing so remains the natural desire for preservation). 
When men think generally, they are at one. Hobbes and Locke brought men together as passengers 
on a ship whose interests are private but who all equally have the desire to keep the ship afloat. 
Rousseau, and Kant following him, bring them together by giving them the same interests. This is 
obviously a profounder and more certain harmony, but it goes against nature; this moral freedom 
requires what Rousseau calls the denaturing of man. This denaturing is effected by a severe 
morality, which is established in the name of freedom but requires the overcoming of natural 
inclination. The natural man and the citizen are at opposite poles. Generalizing is itself easy; the 
will to generalize is difficult to attain, because it requires indifference to one's own happiness. 
Rawls to the contrary, Kant is an austere moralist, because he recognizes the demands of 
morality. A choice must be made between natural satisfaction and moral action, between the private 
and the public, between the particular and the universal. These tensions make it impossible for man 
ever to be simply whole. Sentiments of justice are as much inclinations as are sentiments of 
selfishness and have no higher status. Rawls does not like such choices; he does not like restricting 
inclination. The struggle of self-overcoming is not at home in his relaxed society. In sum, his 
thought has nothing to do with that of Kant, for whom, at most, the moral man can hope for 
happiness and the coming to be of a just society, but cannot alter his conduct to realize these ends. 
To repeat, Rawls's teaching is only utilitarianism made contemporary, and utilitarianism is in its 
turn a modification and simplification of the teachings of Hobbes and Locke. That tradition was not 
influenced by the moral criticism of Rousseau and Kant. Its concentration was and is on the 
satisfaction of particular desire. Rawls's teaching is almost entirely of that tradition. The goal of his 
society cannot by any stretch of the imagination be taken to be Rousseau's citizen or Kant's moral 
man. His refusal to think about nature makes it easy for him to confound natural and moral 
freedom, as well as the two alternative and opposed grounds of community in modern thought. 
There is no halfway house between Hobbes and Kant; and Rawls's Kantian interpretation of the 
"original position" does nothing but lend it a spurious moral dignity. 
Limitation of space makes it impossible to discuss the institutional castles Rawls builds on 
the sands of his original position. These amount to a restatement of American constitutional 
arrangements, reinterpreted to include the imperatives of the welfare state. Whether the more 
detailed practical consequences he arrives at actually follow from his premises is more than 
questionable. He constantly returns to our common wishes and familiar experiences to make his 
undemonstrated conclusions appear convincing. He is persuasive because he supports familiar 
contemporary beliefs, not because he provides rational grounds for them. 
We must, however, turn to the last and most intriguing part of the book. It is here that Rawls 
promises to show that there is a rational way of determining what is good for us and that the 
practice of justice will make us happy. For all its apparatus, the first part of A Theory of Justice 
really only tells us the obvious: society needs rules, and it will only survive if most men in a society 
obey those rules. Rawls has not, up to this point, succeeded in showing in any convincing way that 
the individual interest and the public interest are identical. Consequently, he feels constrained to go 
back to the oldest question in political philosophy, the one posed to Socrates by Glaucon and 
Adeimantus in the Republic: "Is the just man the happy man?" The answer must be yes if the law is 
to be compelling for a man who seeks happiness. Only by abandoning happiness as the goal could 
Kant avoid answering this question. Rawls, despite his Kantian pretensions, is, in Kantian language, 
a eudaimonist and tries to approach the old theme in the new mode. The difficulty is great, for his 
liberalism keeps him from excluding any preferences; his egalitarianism keeps him from saying that 
some goods are more reasonable or of a higher order than others; and his method keeps him from 
talking about the true nature of things. But he must make the attempt if he is to avoid relativism and 
If there is to be political philosophy, reason must be capable of guiding our fundamental 
political actions. Now Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau argued that the fundamental human fact is the 
desire for self-preservation. Reason cannot establish the reasonableness of that passion or talk men 
out of it. Reason does not establish the end. But it can find the means to the end. Reason is crucial 
but only instrumental. Community is established by the fact that for all men this passion supplies 
the most important motive. Reason cannot establish its reasonableness, but it can establish the 
unreasonableness of views of the good which contradict it. This is sufficient for the possibility of a 
political philosophy. But the society founded on that philosophy is limited to the ends which 
passion provides to it. Rawls, who wants society to do much more than is legitimated by the 
contract teachings, wants reason to give what the passions refuse. In this section he engages in an 
endeavor more characteristic of ancient philosophy which taught that reason can establish the ends 
as well as the means. It is, therefore, not surprising that here he invokes the name not of Kant but of 
The last part is entitled Ends, and it contains three subsections: Goodness as Rationality, The 
Sense of Justice, and The Good of Justice. Rawls's strategy is first to show that reason is sufficient 
to determine ends, then to describe the sense of justice in us, and finally to show that the society 
which embodies the principles implicit in the sense of justice and allows that sense its activity 
would be chosen by reason as good, as the end. His stated purpose is to show that collective activity 
is good; actually he wishes to show that collective activity is the highest, the unconditional good. 
Rawls's discussion of goodness as rationality immediately disappoints the expectations 
aroused by his, title. He does not even show that it is good to be rational. That is finally left up to 
the decision of each individual. What he thinks he shows is that reason can be of use in establishing 
a "life plan" if one wants to have a rational life plan. Furthermore, a rational life plan is not 
rational in the sense that the ultimate goals are established by reason, but only in the sense that 
reason has played some role in the formulation of the plan. Desires, tastes, preferences, values, what 
have you, are the ultimate deter mining factors in a life plan, and Rawls does not tell us where they 
come from. He apparently believes that, without determining the desires by reason, he can develop 
rules which will limit or constrain the indeterminacy of desire sufficiently to make a community 
possible. The bait which will draw men to the acceptance of these rules is the promise that they will 
be happier if they follow them. 
Happiness, according to Rawls, is the purely subjective contentment accompanying success 
in the fulfilling of one's plans and the expectation that the success will continue. Instrumental 
reason can, of course, help to insure the means of fulfillment, but the only way reason, in Rawls's 
presentation, could call into question a life plan is by showing that it cannot succeed. Success 
becomes the real criterion. If you have safe life plans, you are likely to be happy, if happiness is 
only contentment. 
Rawls tells us that "For Royce an individual says who he is by describing his purposes and 
causes, what he intends to do in his life. If this plan is rational, then I shall say that the person's 
conception of his good is likewise rational" (p.408). He then proceeds, through tortuous 
argumentation, to set down the rules for determining the rationality of a plan. The means for it must 
be available. Its success must be likely. It must be compared with other possible life plans. The 
intensity of desires must also be considered. It must include as many desirable ends as possible. Its 
compatibility with the plans of others must be considered. The probability of its continuity must be 
evaluated. And then... we have to decide. That decision is a leap, and there is no reason to believe 
that the abyss that must be leapt over has been narrowed by this machinery of "deliberative 
rationality" that Rawls provides. He talks about the rationality in life's decisions, but his discussion 
underscores their essential irrationality. A rational man would be reduced to nihilistic despair or 
irrational commitment. Only a man irrationally attached to safety and contentment could remain 
satisfied with such a solution, for safety and contentment are merely "values" like any others. It is a 
laudable thing to wish to advance the cause of reason, but to do so one must have an under standing 
of the world such that reason can play an important role in it. Rawls devotes no discussion to what 
emerges, albeit unconsciously, as the most important component of happiness the irrational 
formation of ends or values. 
But let us listen to Rawls in his final statement on the matter: "But how in general is it 
possible to choose among plans rationally? What procedure can an individual follow when faced 
with this sort of decision? I now want to return to this question. Previously I said that a rational plan 
is one that would be chosen with deliberative rationality from among the class of plans all of which 
satisfy the principles of rational choice and stand up to certain forms of critical reflection. We 
eventually reach a point, though, where we just have to decide which plan we most prefer without 
further guidance from principle (p. 64). There is, however, one device of deliberation that ! have not 
yet mentioned, and this is to analyze our aims. That is, we can try to find a more detailed or more 
illuminating description of the object of our desires hoping that a fuller or deeper characterization of 
what we want discloses that an inclusive plan exists after all." The only rational way out is to 
combine all competing charms. One can frequently have one's cake and eat it. 
Rawls continues, "Let us consider again the example of planning a holiday (p. 63) .... 
Often, however, a finer description fails to be decisive. If we want to see both the most famous 
church in Christendom [Rome] and the most famous museum [Paris] we may be stuck .... "(p. 
551), And so we are. This eloquent summation of the human condition also summarizes Rawls's 
thought. Its ridiculousness quenches indignation. How could a man who is telling us how to live 
turn to the example of a holiday when discussing the most important question of all? Why not 
reason versus revelation, love versus duty to one's country, life versus dedication to the truth? Can 
one wonder that a generation has turned away from reason when this is the level of its most eminent 
representatives, when this is the sort of guidance it can get from them? Rawls speaks to men with 
the souls of tourists. 
The reason for Rawls's behavior is that this irrationality of ends is not a problem for him. He 
is convinced, as the weight of his book proves, that we know what is most important -- society i.e., 
preservation. He is not tormented by these questions; they are matters of indifference. One can 
believe what one wants and do what one wants, so long as it does not get in the way of liberal 
democracy. His rational rules, such as possibility and inclusiveness, are fit only for that cramped 
little risk-fearing man in the original position. They determine the kinds of ends possible before 
those ends are even considered. Single-mindedness, dedication to the one most important thing, 
facing impossible odds, are now irrational. Rawls counts on an audience of men whose horizons 
have been so confined that the great dangers in the great decisions are no longer visible to them. He 
devotes no attention to those varied and rich expressions of individual nature which he promises 
will flourish in his society. In order to do so he would have to water the irrational roots out of which 
values grow in his system. By being fed on reason they grow frail and colorless, for it is only the 
reason of utility. The kind of diversity he thinks of is that found in obscure but harmless religious 
sects or in obscure but harmless sexual practices. The kind of diversity which produces great 
actions, great art, or great new civilizations is out of his reach. He provides a soil which is not 
salubrious for the growth of a diversity that is worthy of the name. The solid thing is survival; in a 
world where the great value decisions are akin to the choice between vacationing in Paris or Rome, 
where they cannot change the fundamental character of civil society, there is no reason for 
difference. Man will be alike or will differ by their insignificant differences of preference or their 
insignificant perversities. 
Rawls counterattacks. "Human good is heterogenous. Although to subordinate all our aims 
to one end does not strictly speaking violate the principles of rational choice... it still strikes us as 
irrational, or more likely as mad. The self is disfigured and put in the service of one of its ends for 
the sake of system" (p. 554). If we pursue contradictory ends, no matter. That is but the proof of our 
freedom. The principle of contradiction, the foundation of reason, strikes our philosopher as 
irrational, nay, mad. Such formulas provide us with a fine-sounding excuse for not thinking about 
the important questions. This rationalist makes a virtue out of unreason when it suits his purpose. 
The ship he has so painstakingly constructed sinks to the sound of his applause as it slides down the 
runway. He thinks it is afloat. 
He adds that "the self is prior to the ends which are affirmed by it" (p.560), which means 
that the self creates the ends instead of being determined by them. It knows no masters, including 
reason, and it cannot be comprehended by reason. Professor Rawls owes us and himself a fuller 
account of the "self." A little study would teach him that this notion had its origin in thinkers who 
were friends of neither reason nor liberal democracy, and that it is manifestly inconsistent with his 
Once having established the goodness of rationality, after his fashion, Rawls gives reason a 
new tool, for the judgment of the rationality of life plans the "Aristotelian principle." This 
principle is invented to show that men want to use the capacities required and encouraged by 
Rawls's society, and that therefore we should rationally choose that society and its form of justice. 
Kant was brought in to pronounce the benediction over a society grounded on selfishness. 
Now Aristotle, the central contention of whose moral and political teaching is that there is a highest 
good and who is according to Rawls therefore mad, is constrained to give his blessing to a notion of 
happiness founded on whatever a man believes to be the expression of his value. The Aristotelian 
principle, which RawIs admits was not enunciated by Aristotle, but alleges to be in accord with 
Aristotle's intentions, holds that "other things equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their 
realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the 
capacity is realized or the greater its complexity" (p. 426). Rawls cites Nicomachean Ethics, VII, 
11--14, and X, 1 5, apparently unaware that Aristotle in these passages is showing that there is 
one highest activity which accords with human nature and which is productive of happiness. Far 
from praising inclusiveness and complexity, Aristotle attributes whatever need we have of them to 
the weakness of our nature, which we should try to overcome. He concludes in VII 14 that "God 
always enjoys a single and simple pleasure." Far from praising the interdependency of social life, 
Aristotle teaches that the only real pleasures are those that are self-sufficient, that are connected 
with eternal things, and that can in principle be enjoyed in solitude. In short, Aristotle teaches that 
philosophy is the only way of life that can properly be called happy. He arrives at this conclusion 
after examining all the claims to happiness and showing that all the others besides philosophy are 
without foundation and self-contradictory. The philosopher is not as such a social man; Aristotle 
never even says that the moral virtues, including justice, are necessary to the philosopher in order to 
It is true that Aristotle teaches that the activity of our faculties is what makes us happy. But 
he does not mean by faculties what Rawls means by capacities "innate or trained abilities." 
Aristotle's faculties are natural components of our constitution like sight or intellect. They have a 
proper development and are exercised on appropriate objects. Men may possess and exercise these 
faculties in greater or lesser degree, but they are accordingly more or less men. There is a structure 
and a hierarchy of the faculties based on their contribution to happiness. Aristotle can tell us in quite 
detailed and concrete terms precisely in what happiness consists. But Rawls, for all that he may use 
the word "nature," means nothing by it. Whatever a man does express his capacities; whatever he 
believes himself to be, he is. Rawls believes that man has a self; Aristotle believes he has a soul. 
These terms are mutually exclusive. The self is self-determining; at best it is a mysterious and 
elusive source, infinite in its expressions. The soul has a nature, for it has an end which determines 
it and of which it is not the cause; but the self has no nature, it is protean. Rawls, in order to avoid 
being incapable of saying anything about ends emanating from the self, insists that a man must first 
deliberate and suggests that the more complex activity in any genre should be preferred (for 
example, chess over checkers). Rawls draws the inspiration for this suggestion, God knows how, 
from Aristotle. Rawls's criteria for the actualization of capacities are purely formal and external, not 
helping us to deter mine whether they are true or counterfeit expressions of a man's nature or to 
distinguish skillful safecracking from the making of beautiful statues. And, after all, Rawls tell us, 
the man who enjoys counting blades of grass may be fulfilling his nature, too. Aristotle might very 
well agree, but he would insist that such a person, other things being equal, was an inferior man. 
This Rawls will never do. He will simply try to find a group of men who will support this man's 
sense of his own worth. 
The Aristotelian principle enables us to reach the penultimate stage on our journey to the 
promised society. This is the elaboration of the sense of justice. It is one of those "capacities (innate 
or trained abilities)" the exercise of which human beings enjoy. The sense ofjustice is the condition 
of our being members of and maintaining a good society, and the good society will make us happy 
because it satisfies our sense of justice. The sense of justice is a psychological principle, and Rawls 
presents a three-stage history of its development. Once the sense of justice is developed, we have an 
unbreakable psychological need for and attachment to society. It becomes as much a part of our 
psychological constitution as any other sentiments. We are social because we possess the sense of 
justice. The ambiguity of Rawls's "innate or trained abilities" leaves us with an exquisite doubt as 
to whether the sense of justice is natural or only the result of habituation. However that may be, 
Rawls tells us that if this sense exists, and society meets its demands, the society will be stable. This 
leaves the further doubt whether the society is truly just or merely satisfies .the sense of justice. 
The three stages are, roughly, as follows: When we are children we obey out of love, trust, 
and respect for our parents. This is the morality of authority. It is childlike but is preserved in men 
like Thomas Aquinas or believers of any kind. The second stage is that of our youth. When we are 
attached to our group we see our good in it, and we are motivated by praise and blame. This, too, 
though useful, has its evident limitations. It is the morality of George Washington and patriots. 
Finally there is the morality based on rational adherence to principles, on the recognition that one's 
society is reasonable and fair, that it follows the imperatives of the "original position." It is the 
morality of adulthood and is practiced by Rawls and philosophers like him, as well as all members 
of the promised society. Rawls does not show us that these three moralities are harmonious or that 
the third achieves the synthesis of the first two. To do this, one would have to study regimes 
founded on reverence or piety and on loyalty, honor, or patriotism, compare them with those 
founded on reason, and determine the various advantages of each. It would require an achievement 
comparable to that of Hegel to show that the society founded on reason contains the political and 
moral advantages to be found in holy awe of the sacred or in selfless loyalty to friends and undying 
hatred of enemies. There is no reflection here on what really constitutes rootedhess. Only after the 
completion of such an undertaking could one look down on these older principles as an adult looks 
down on a child. On the surface, it would appear that reason substitutes selfish, low, and sure 
motivations for noble ones. Does this reason really perceive great goals beyond calculation of 
advantage? Rawls, as always, has no taste for examining alternatives. 
But more important, Rawls has not proved either that adherence to the principles developed 
in the original position is rational or that reason can demonstrate the goodness of strict obedience to 
the laws of a society founded in accordance with these principles. In the absence of such proofs one 
can say only that the morality of principles does not rest on impulses, feelings, or instincts as do the 
other two kinds of morality and that it involves the use of reasoning though it may culminate in 
rationalizations or ideologies rather than reasons. This three-stage doctrine of moral development 
looks suspiciously like what is today called political socialization, that is to say, a way of making 
men part of the group whether it is natural or good for them to be so or not. Rawls must prove that 
these stages are part of men's development in the same sense as is the formation of their organs, or 
risk acquiescing in a process of indoctrination for the sake of social goals. His abandonment of 
nature does not open new domains of human freedom so much as make way for the unlimited 
manipulation of man. 
And, now, at last, we are at the goal, "the idea of social union," the community that reason 
chooses and that makes us happy while unifying private and public interest. Not only is society 
necessary, not only does it give us satisfactions we would not have without it; it incorporates us so 
that we are parts of it. From the atoms of the state of nature Rawls has constructed a social organism 
in which we feel with the whole and are pleased or pained along with it. Socrates' extreme and 
ironic paradox is here presented deadpan. Nothing good is outside of society; nothing transcends it. 
We are wholly of it, but we do not even know what that society is like. It is very "Aristotelian" 
i.e., very complex -- so that everything that can be contained in man finds its expression, and we all 
enjoy it. It is based on a moral and intellectual division of labor which increases the quantity and the 
kinds of production for the enjoyment of all, without risk of the deformation wrought by narrow 
specialization or alienation of our labor. We get everything from society, and we owe it our total 
allegiance. If man had a nature, it would be social. We are always partial; only society can have all 
the perfections, but we possess them through it. We should not try to be self-sufficient, but should 
accept our weakness, join the team and play fairly, recognizing that everyone makes an equal 
contribution to the collective result. The man who is not sociable is radically imperfect and has a 
deficient life. He is the only man Rawls is not willing to treat as an equal. For Aristotle the man 
who does not belong to civil society is either a beast or a god. For Rawls he is only a beast. For 
Rousseau, the solitary is the only good man. For Rawls he is the only bad one. All the ambiguity of 
social life disappears. 
RawIs has accomplished the complete socialization of man by beginning from the weakest 
and most vulnerable individual and envisaging a social arrangement which will protect him in his 
weakness, guarantee his subsistence, allow him to pursue and fulfill his wishes and plans, and give 
him the same sense of his worth that the rich, successful, and honored individual has. Going far 
beyond the more modest goals and hopes of earlier thought, Rawls proposes to make it the purpose 
of society to fulfill men, to make men happy, accepting as happiness what each believes happiness 
to be and providing each with what Rawls takes to be the universal elements of happiness no matter 
what its form. Since neither God nor nature fulfills any such plan and might even be viewed as 
opposing it, society must take on the whole burden of providing and distributing the elements of 
happiness; and the disadvantaged person recognizes that it is only society that considers his interests 
and battles a hostile nature and chance for his sake. Society exists for him, but he, in the most 
decisive sense, is its creature. 
It is easy to win the allegiance of the disadvantaged to this scheme, just as it is not difficult 
to obtain the participation of the poor in a plan for sharing the wealth. The real problem is the 
stronger or the more advantaged, for they might be willing to take their risk in a less equal 
arrangement or even try to be substantially self-sufficient. Thus Rawls's book is in large measure a 
polemic against them. He socializes them by persuading them that they too are weak; by 
confounding natural with social inequality; by denying that there can be self-sufficiency; by 
habituation and the inculcation of shame and guilt; by obliterating alternatives; and above all by 
endless sermonizing. The harmony between the advantaged and the disadvantaged is not natural and 
is brought into being by a suppression of nature. The rough edges, the fundamental conflicts, always 
present in earlier practice and theory, can, therefore, be understood by Rawls to be the results of 
mere perversity. Since man has no fixed nature, social planning, even the use of genetics, can 
ultimately smooth all of this away. Rawls's original perspective from the point of view of the 
disadvantaged makes other considerations vanish. The consequence is a closing of the exit from the 
cave. There is no way out and no hiding place. "In justice as fairness men agree to share one 
another's fate" (p. 102). 
What Rawls creates is an enormously active government whose goal is to provide the 
primary goods, including the sense of one's own worth, and therefore to encourage the attitudes that 
support the production and equal distribution of those goods. What can the future of liberty be in 
such a scheme? Liberty is, to be sure, Rawls's first principle of justice, but it is qualified by having 
to be "compatible with a similar liberty for others." Rawls does not elaborate the extent of that 
qualification. There is, to repeat, no natural-right teaching in Rawls, no absolute limit of any kind. 
All freely chosen life plans must be restricted by the fundamental demands of social union. Conflict 
will be resolved practically and theoretically in favor of society. We have only Rawls's assurance 
that nothing important can fail to find acceptance within the terms set by the original position. 
Man's plasticity, made even greater by the absence of nature and its limits, permits all those little 
adjustments in men which will make the idea of social union possible. Society is the one absolute in 
Rawls's thought, although it is without foundation. 
And what is the purpose of all of this? An artificial happiness of an artificial man. Rawls's 
promised society is a desert. It feeds on false tales stories about its being the final product of 
evolution and history, stories that make unequal things appear to be equal. Democracy, which was 
to free us from the myths which perverted nature, becomes the platform for a strident propaganda 
that denies nature for the sake of equality, as the myths of conventional aristocracies denied nature 
for the sake of inequality. The community desired is one without tension, without guilt (except for 
those who do not go along), without longing, without great sacrifices or great risks, one made for 
men's idle wishes and for the sake of which man has been remade. The language of maximum 
liberty, diversity, and realization of capacities is so much empty talk, the only function of which is 
to support our easygoing self-satisfaction. 
The greatest weakness of A Theory of Justice is not to be found in the principles it proposes, 
or in the kind of society it envisages, or in the political tendencies it encourages, but in the lack of 
education it reveals. Rawls's "original position" is based on a misunderstanding of the state-of- 
nature teachings of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. His "Kantian interpretation" is based on a 
misunderstanding of Kant's moral teaching. His "Aristotelian principle" is based on a 
misunderstanding of Aristotle's teaching about happiness. And these three misunderstandings 
constitute the core of the book. An authentic understanding of these thinkers would have given him 
an awareness of the problems he faced and of the nature of philosophic greatness. We are in no 
position to push ahead with new solutions of problems; for as this book demonstrates, we have 
forgotten what the problems are. 
The most essential of our freedoms, as men and as liberal democrats, the freedom of our 
minds, consists in the consciousness of the fundamental alternatives. The preservation of that 
consciousness is as important as any new scheme for society. The alternatives are contained in the 
writings of the greatest men in the philosophic tradition. This is not to assert that the last word has 
been said, but that any serious new word must be based on a profound confrontation with the old 
ones. That confrontation has the added salutary effect of destroying our sense of our own worth and 
giving us higher aspirations. Rawls is the product of a school which thinks that it invented 
philosophy. Its adherents never approach an Aristotle or a Kant in search of the truth or open to the 
possibility that these old thinkers might have known more than they do; and since they have a 
virtual monopoly on the teaching of philosophy, there has been a disastrous, perhaps irreparable, 
loss of learning and extinguishing of the light which has flickered but endured across so many 
centuries. His book is a result of that loss of learning and contributes to it in turn. His method and 
the man he wishes to produce impel me to think that Nietzsche abused by Rawls, although not 
culpably because ignorantly--might provide a more appropriate title for this book:. A First 
Philosophy for the Last Man.