As Sunder notes, a number of recent contributions to the discussion of equality have sought to distance themselves from the ideas of John Rawls. John Milbank's latest comment on the subject is a case in point.
While I am far from thinking that Rawls's is the final word on this subject - witness (shameless plug alert!) my own book on equality - I do think Rawls makes an enormous contribution to our thinking. Moreover, it is a contribution that builds on, and develops, ideas in long-standing social liberal and ethical socialist traditions. So I am frequently puzzled by the negative way his ideas are treated (or just ignored) in contemporary comment, including comment on the left.
The issue of what might be termed 'Rawlsphobia' is a broad one, but for the moment I am going to focus specifically on John Milbank's latest comment.
The two principles of justice
What does Rawls argue? What is his main claim?
In his A Theory of Justice, first published in 1971, updated in Justice as Fairness, Rawls argues that a socially just society must satisfy two principles:
(1) Each person has the same...claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties...
(2) Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).
The principles are also presented as having an order of priority: securing a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties has priority over the second principle.
Roughly speaking, then, what Rawls is saying is this. If you want a just society, the first thing to do is to ensure that everyone enjoys a secure set of 'adequate basic liberties'. These basic liberties include freedoms of conscience, expression and (within certain limits) association, and political rights to vote and stand for election. They do not include (for example) unlimited rights to private property.
Next in your search for a just society, you would have to secure 'fair equality of opportunity'. The aspiration here is to a strong form of meritocracy in which individuals with the same natural ability and motivation have roughly the same opportunity of ending up in a given occupational group regardless of their parental background. This implies a commitment to preventing disadvantage due to discrimination. But it also has implications for things like education and the transmission of wealth across the generations.
However, in Rawls's view this kind of meritocracy, enjoyed against a background of adequate basic liberties for all, does not suffice for social justice. For even under the most perfect meritocracy - which we will anyway never achieve (more on this below) - there will be inequality in rewards due to the unequal abilities that individuals are born with. But if it is unfair for people to be disadvantaged by their bad luck in the social class they are born into - the intuition behind fair equality of opportunity - then surely it is no less unfair for people to be disadvantaged by their bad luck in the genetic lottery - that is, by being born with less marketable ability.
On this basis, Rawls argues that inequalities of reward are not inherently deserved, but can be justified (only) if they improve the position not only of the talented worker but the less talented as well. This gives us the famous 'difference principle' which, simplifying somewhat, says that reward inequalities should be arranged to maximise the position of the group least able to command market rewards.
Having set out in very rough and ready terms Rawls' theory, we are now in a position to consider John Milbank's latest intervention.
Milbank's objection to the Rawlsian view is stated as follows:
'What is the problem with the Rawlsian model as regards delivering equality? The following I think: Rawls is bound to be limited to equality of opportunity and this leads to an aporia. It’s true that he expands liberalism to include levelling out of disadvantages of birth etc but only in the interests of a Lockean or Kantian equality of negative freedom. Why is this aporetic? Because logically it would require one to abolish in every generation for the children the acquired and legitimate meritocratic differentials established by their parents. When we remember that ‘generation’ is an artificial construct because new children are born every day, one can further extend this aporia into pure insanity. The Rawlsian agenda would require one simultaneously to allow and to destroy every properly emergent and rule-legitimated inequality! But let’s assume that generations can be tidily separated. This still suggests that really children should be removed from their parents by the state – or that maybe all parents should read to their children the same amount of storybook every night etc -- and such idiocies have indeed been suggested by contemporary liberals. So at this point one is somewhere between tyranny and impossibility.'
I am not sure that this passage is altogether coherent. It starts by saying that Rawls's view is 'bound to be limited' to equality of opportunity. But then, as if aware that a cursory reading of Rawls' work would reveal him to be arguing for something more, Milbank immediately acknowledges, rightly, that 'he expands liberalism to include levelling out of disadvantages of birth etc.' As we have seen, these 'disadvantages of birth' include, for Rawls - as for Young and Crosland - those of genetic inheritance and natural ability, and so take us to a view that goes well beyond equality of opportunity.
But this is to avoid addressing Milbank's main point which is that, insofar as Rawls is committed to equality of opportunity, Rawls must end up calling for something which is either impossible or tyrannical. For the only way to get true equality of opportunity is to abolish the family.
However, once we place Rawls's commitment to fair equality of opportunity in the context of his overall theory of justice, we can see why he is not committed to anything impossible or tyrannical.
First of all, the commitment to equality of opportunity is bounded by the prior commitment to uphold an adequate scheme of basic liberties for all citizens. It might be argued - and I would certainly argue - that the freedom to form and enjoy some form of family life is tied up with certain basic liberties. Forming a family is an aspect of freedom of association. Reading bedtime stories to your children is part of freedom of expression. If family life is linked to specific basic liberties in this way - and one might think it a test of the adequacy of a theory of basic liberties that it does connect with family life in this way - then 'abolition of the family' is ruled out by the priority Rawls gives to the first principle of justice over the second.
This does not mean that equality of opportunity sets no limits on family life. It almost certainly sets some limits on bequest and inheritance, on nepotistic employment practices and, perhaps, on the right to buy a private education. But Rawls's theory does not commit us to the family's abolition.
Milbank's rhetorical strategy here is one we often also see at work in Phillip Blond's writings. We might call it the mad monomaniac strategy. The strategy is to pin a concept, X, on someone or a school of thought (Rawls, liberalism); push X to a logical extreme; show that something daft or appalling then results; and, hey presto, conclude that Rawls or liberalism or whatever is daft or appalling.
This is argument by caricature. For in almost all cases, when we actually look at the thinker or school of thought concerned, what we find is that that while they do believe some version of X, they also believe Y and Z etc., and their belief in X is qualified and tempered by the other beliefs they have. The Milbank-Blond picture of the intellectual universe is a remarkable one, full of strange, mad monomaniacs roaming around affirming absurd ethical positions, while they stand in brave defiance to them all. But it is a self-dramatising nightmare of their own imagining.
Rawls agrees with Milbank that there is a tension between the institution of the family and equality of opportunity. But he also seems to take it as obvious that we are not going to abolish the family. The point he makes - Milbank, incidentally, makes no reference to Rawls's own discussion of the issue - is that this reinforces the argument for complementing strong meritocracy with the 'difference principle'. (See A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition, pp.64, 447-448.) Given that the family remains, inequalities of market reward will reflect differences in ability due to genetic differences and due to differences in family circumstances. All the more reason, then, to make sure that the inequalities of reward we allow do work to the benefit of those least able to command market rewards.
In a way, this seems to bring Rawls's position quite close to Milbank's. Rawls appears to be saying that in a just society, some people will have greater opportunity than others because of family-based advantages that we could not eliminate unless we abolished the family (which we are not going to do). But they may benefit from this advantage only to the extent that this raises the life-prospects of those born into less favourable family circumstances. Their good fortune is a gift to be used for the benefit of all, not just themselves. Isn't there here, perhaps, just a touch of the idea of noblesse oblige?
So, what at the end of the day, does Milbank's intervention amount to?
Again, he proceeds by defining his own position in opposition to a rival one, but that rival position is mischaracterised, indeed caricatured, in the process.
On the other hand, when we engage in a careful analysis of the rival position we find that it may in fact have some common ground with Milbank's own. If all Milbank means to say is that we have to accept that perfect meritocracy is impossible (or undesirable because it would require abolition of the family) and that those who are favoured by residual inequalities of opportunity should understand that their good fortune ought to be put to the benefit of the wider society, not just their own, then Rawls and Rawlsians will agree.
Though they might wonder at the political utility of making this point here and now.
For there is, surely, an awful lot more we can and should do to diminish inequality of opportunity before we start running up against the inviolable core of family life. And, in the meantime, we could and should do a lot more to shape the reward structure of our economy, its distribution of income and wealth, in the direction of the 'difference principle'.
To be continued...
Milbank is hardly alone in his dismissal of Rawls. In Rawlsphobia, Part 2, I'll take a broader look at the criticism - or simple neglect - of Rawls on the left.