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More Than Just a Theory

April 2, 2013

Chinese students protest for social justice in Tianamen Square, China, 1989.

By David Brill

John Rawls never occupied a seat on a presidential cabinet, organized a political movement, or faced down Chinese government tanks. Nevertheless, his theory of justice has found its way to all those places.

As a philosopher, Rawls is regarded by many as the preeminent political thinker of our age. His criticism of the “welfare state” for marginalizing and undermining the self-respect of capable, productive citizens influenced President Clinton’s 1996 sweeping reform of the US welfare system. And his belief that all citizens have a valid claim to the basic resources needed to make meaningful use of their liberties helped to shape President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Acts of nonviolent protest, from Henry David Thoreau’s refusal to render taxes to a government that condoned slavery to the civil rights marches in the Jim Crow South, reflect Rawls’s insistence that civil disobedience in the face of grossly unjust laws is not merely a citizen’s right but an obligation. His argument for the priority of extensive and constitutionally assured basic liberties helped rouse the Chinese student protestors who, in 1989, amassed in Tiananmen Square. According to media reports, some of the protestors brandished copies of Rawls’s magnum opus, A Theory of Justice (1971), in the faces of government oppressors.

For the lay reader, Rawls’s writing can drift into the ether and address theories and principles that seem remote from the day-to-day travails that occupy members of our diverse democracy. “But Rawls was writing for and about us as free equals; the joint authors of our institutions and collective actions,” says David Reidy, Rawls scholar and head of the UT Department of Philosophy.

At one point, it was feared that Rawls’s work might lose its relevance. But thanks to Reidy and a newly formed cluster of scholars under his direction, UT has become a premier destination for the study of Rawls’s theory of just democratic societies.

Reidy first read A Theory of Justice as an undergraduate at DePauw University in the early 1980s. “It’s a difficult book,” he says, “and I didn’t understand much of it at the time.”

David Reidy

David Reidy

After earning a law degree from Indiana University in 1987 and beginning his graduate studies in philosophy at the University of Kansas, Reidy became reacquainted with Rawls’s book and experienced something of an epiphany: “All of a sudden, the book spoke to me in a way that it hadn’t before,” says Reidy. He came to the realization that Rawls was addressing a practical question faced by all democratic citizens: How can we reasonably and fairly exercise the political power that is given to us?

Midway through Reidy’s graduate studies, Rawls published a second book, Political Liberalism, and Reidy saw “an opportunity to enter, at ground level, the conversation that was going to happen about it.” He also discerned a reasonable focus for his future academic career.

As Reidy drafted his dissertation, two fortuitous things happened. First, in October 1995, Reidy attended a symposium commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of A Theory of Justice at Santa Clara University, where he was able to meet Rawls.

Second, in 1996, Rawls published a revised edition of Political Liberalism. Reidy had kept in contact with Rawls after meeting him in Santa Clara and followed up with phone calls to discuss the new edition. The timing allowed Reidy to produce a dissertation that “was about as current and informed on Rawls’s latest work as anything could be.”

Reidy’s dissertation–a finalist for the 1996–98 Council of Graduate Schools Dissertation Award–gained him national visibility and quickly led to a number of publications on Rawls, including articles in Res Publica and the Journal of Social Philosophy.

After joining UT’s Department of Philosophy in 2000, Reidy sought a short-term, high-profile project that would earn him tenure. Rawls, once again, intervened.

In 1999, Rawls published his third book, The Law of Peoples, in which he set out the principles that a just democracy should follow in its relationships with other nations. The book, which Reidy describes as “shorter and less ambitious” than A Theory of Justice, received consistently negative reviews in scholarly literature.

“Even some of the leading proponents of Rawls’s earlier work trashed the book,” says Reidy. “I felt they were missing its point.”

In Reidy’s view, the book, though overshadowed by the enormously influential A Theory of Justice, advanced a number of worthy ideals. But to act as Rawls’s defender would require knowledge of international law, human rights, and foreign policy. Reidy spent the next year and a half boning up before publishing a series of articles defending The Law of Peoples against “waves of criticism.” As he did, the scholarly tide began to turn.

“By 2006, a sizeable group of influential scholars who had been mostly silent came out in support of Rawls’s book,” says Reidy. His defense not only helped establish the merit of Rawls’s final work, it also helped Reidy earn tenure.

Following Rawls’s death in 2002, Reidy detected a “creeping thought among philosophers that we had entered a post-Rawlsian phase,” he says. “I thought that was entirely premature.”

Reidy set out to secure Rawls’s continued relevance by articulating the “synoptic vision that Rawls had of his own work.” In 2008, he garnered a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant to peruse Rawls’s archived papers and interview family members and former colleagues.

Reidy is now at work on a monograph, tentatively titled John Rawls: A Democratic Vision, and has forthcoming two edited collections, The Cambridge Rawls Lexicon and The Blackwell Companion to Rawls.

Reidy’s reputation has attracted other likeminded academics to his department, including three promising philosophers with substantial interests in Rawls: Adam Cureton, Jon Garthoff, and Markus Kohl. Together, they are an impressive lot: a Rhodes Scholar and two Woodrow Wilson “Newcombe” Fellows with advanced degrees from Oxford, UCLA, Berkeley, and UNC-Chapel Hill.

UT’s Rawlsian research cluster is also attracting graduate students from around the world, including doctoral students and visiting scholars from the People’s Republic of China, one of whom serves as China’s leading translator of Rawls’s collected papers.

“Beyond our interest in understanding and extending Rawls’s own work, we’re influenced by his approach to doing philosophy, which regards the history of philosophy as relevant to contemporary questions,” says Cureton.

Rawls lived just long enough to see the dawn of the new millennium. If he were alive today, he would undoubtedly be disappointed that social and political justice continue to elude countless millions around the globe. But it’s also likely that he would find solace in the notion that his idea of a just and fair polity, as Reidy continues to demonstrate, remains relevant–even vital–to a world ever struggling to find its way.