Plato, Rawls and the Liberal ‘Comfort Zone’ at Harvard

JRAWLS.jpgThe reason that Sandra Y.L. Korn’s article in the Harvard Crimson went viral is that she audaciously wrote what so many sophisticated Americans now think: that “academic justice” should be privileged over “academic freedom.”  The Harvard undergraduate contends that self-evidently unjust opinions  contradicting both the findings of academic studies and politically correct university policy should be banned from the campus and especially from the classroom.

Ms. Korn is sure we know what justice is.  When it comes to opposing racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and so forth, we’ve achieved wisdom.  That wisdom has become easy, and much of education consists of outing those, past and present, who do not share it.  In that respect, the point of academic freedom is to defend the truth, not pander to those who contradict the truth.  Ms. Korn, in fact, could find only one Harvard professor lacking in wisdom concerning justice, Harvey Mansfield.  Mansfield is one of the few Harvard professors to loudly and proudly vote Republican, and probably the only Harvard government (political science) professor to vote that way.  Although it’s just, in some ways, that the classroom mirror the “diversity” that is America, it shouldn’t, in justice, mirror our political diversity or pretty equal division into Democrats and Republicans.

At Harvard, Mansfield might also be distinguished by his conclusion that the ancient or classical political thought of Plato and Aristotle is actually more true than the modern political thought found in both Machiavelli and John Rawls (in photo)–and, of course, lots of thinkers in between.

What Is Justice?

After my students and I finish reading Plato’s Republic, I always ask the class what justice is.  They really still don’t know, although they had learned a whole lot about justice and especially what justice is not.  The discussion seemed to have had the same effect on the idealistic young men talking with Socrates, none of whom thought he knew enough about justice to try constructing or even reforming a city (country) in real life.  At the end of the discussion, my students were less confident that they knew the truth about justice and injustice than they were at the beginning.  They did become confident that talking about the big questions that accompany being human–such as what justice, who or what is God, who a philosopher is and who a true ruler is–is worthy of a whole lifetime.  That is, in fact, the devotion to “lifelong learning” that is one of the goals of higher education.

One criticism of the Republic is that it has a kind of paralyzing effect on idealists.  Caught in doubt that they really know what they’re doing, they end up not doing the good they might have done.  Still, it’s really good for them to know that action involves the suppression of some doubt.  It’s chastening to be reminded–and maybe the foundation of true prudence–that no political leader can be sure he knows what he’s doing and that the results of his action are inevitably far less than ideal.  Those modern leaders oblivious to the limits to what we can know and do about justice usually end up cruel tyrants.

What Rawls Misses

The definitive modern and American book about justice for our sophisticates was actually written by a very serious and admirable Harvard professor.  That is, of course, John Rawls’ huge A Theory of Justice.  Rawls claimed to know what justice is in a highly detailed way.  He ended up admitting that his theory isn’t “metaphysical” or deeply true, but “political,” or a description of what counts for being rational in a liberal society.  His book is less about wisdom simply than about our wisdom.  Anyone who disagrees with it can’t be part of our rational, public dialogue.  Well, you can probably disagree with some of the details, as does Harvard professor Michael Sandel, but you can’t dissent from its general spirit of liberal wisdom.

Rawls’ theory has a lot more moral baggage than not being racist, sexist, or classist.  It has to do with not allowing any rational respect–and so, in principle, any presence in the classroom–to religious dissent from Rawls’ theory on issues such as abortion or marriage or the virtues we should share in common or how to raise kids.  Rawlsians, from one view, are all about “multicultural diversity,” but from another view, they’re completely closed to the possible truth of religious/cultural/political/philosophical challenges to our alleged wisdom about what acceptable diversity is.

All in all, we can say that Rawls’ elevation of his view of justice to a theory unquestionable to us liberals is, from an educational point of view, tyrannical.  It, as they say, keeps us complacently in our comfort zone of the liberal box.  Opinions outside the liberal consensus shared by almost all Harvard professors turn out to be unwise and unjust.

A Loud Dogmatic Relativism

In his way, Socrates goes beyond Rawls by displaying democracy as the political arrangement most conducive to a genuinely open-minded discussion about justice.  That’s not due to purely democratic theory, which tends to be privilege diversity over truth and to deconstruct all forms of moral ranking with a loud, dogmatic relativism.  The upside of that easygoing relativism is that there’s no official opposition–in the name of communal justice–to considering what’s true and what’s not about every form of human moral and political relationship.

What’s wrong with Rawls’ turning his well-intentioned idealism into a comprehensive theory is that it deprives our professors and students of taking advantage of the openness of  democracy.  Higher education’s shameless and even manic freedom of thought in pursuit of the truth shouldn’t be distorted by a particular political community’s relatively closed or dogmatic view of what justice is.  It goes without saying that an academic community has communal rules,  but they should be centered around the idea that truth is out there to be discovered, and no prejudices or “personal issues” (or even concern for “triggers”!) should be getting in the way of that.  They involve being constant alive to the possibility that what we assume justice is might just be a prejudice, and even that “theory of justice” might be an oxymoron.

In the Republic, students even today can learn the case for and against aristocracy, timocracy (domination by rulers obsessed with honor), oligarchy, democracy, and even tyranny (which does have decisiveness going for it).  They can even learn that our country reconciles liberty, prosperity, justice, and virtue as well as it does because it contains elements of aristocracy (meritocracy), timocracy (special forces), and oligarchy (obviously our rich guys have lots of power and status), democracy, and perhaps even tyranny.  Our country, at its best, has quite a noble and diverse view of what justice is that can’t be reduced to an unquestionable theory.  It might even be said that the cure for what ails democracy is often a bit less democracy.

One thing the Republic doesn’t give us, of course, are the cases for and against the truth of Biblical revelation, but that’s why they should also read Pascal, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and atheists old and new with open hearts and open minds.   Who can deny that our view of equality owes something–if not everything–to the Biblical view of each of us as a unique and irreplaceable person?  And it’s Biblical revelation, after all, that taught us that true theology isn’t civil theology–or a way of propping up the American theory of justice.

Another problem, of course, with taking the theory of justice too seriously is negating another advantage of democracy.  It’s so easy for us to see all the human goods that trump political justice in ordinary life and in genuinely higher education–such as love, friendship, the family, theology, and true philosophy.  The beginning of higher education–as opposed to merely civic education–is openness to the limits of justice.  Socrates patiently explains that a single-minded pursuit of justice ends up with communism of women and children and even the politicization of sexual relations.  But one great thing about our country is that we’ve never been so psyched up about justice that we’ve thought it should trump what’s naturally good about our intimate personal and relational lives.

(Photo: Former Harvard professor John Rawls. Credit: The Economist.)

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.

One thought on “Plato, Rawls and the Liberal ‘Comfort Zone’ at Harvard”

  1. Informative essay, Professor Lawler.
    The way we get from Hume and Madison to Rawls and Korn is with Historicism, updated with relativism and social justice.

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