Popper and Rawls: Two Liberal Fallibilists on Justice

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Popper and Rawls: Two Liberal Fallibilists on Justice

Larry Udell

Department of Philosophy

West Chester University

West Chester, Pennsylvania 19383



Presented to Rethinking Popper

Institute of Philosophy

Czech Academy of Sciences

Prague, Czech Republic

10 – 14 September 2007

This paper compares and contrasts the political philosophies of Karl Popper and John Rawls. Although Rawls cited Popper only once (a passing reference to The Open Society and Its Enemies in the 1971 paper, “Justice as Reciprocity”), a recent opportunity to peruse Rawls’s personal library led me to discover that he carefully read Popper’s Conjectures and Refutations from cover to cover and made copious margin notes. In light of this, I explicate the Popperian elements in Rawls’s method of reflective equilibrium, then move on to consider their substantive political philosophies. Notwithstanding some significant differences, I agree with Alain Boyer that their political philosophies are complementary; indeed, the principal difference between Rawls’s and Popper’s political philosophies is that The Open Society and Its Enemies reflects Popper’s preoccupation in the first half of the twentieth century with totalitarianism, whereas Rawls’s political philosophy reflects the very different problems of Western democracies in the second half of the century; and as Jeremy Shearmur has emphasized, these were very different times. Yet throughout his life, Popper shared Rawls’s deep and abiding concern for justice and adhered to a social democratic perspective that might have served Rawls well. Moreover, it is Popper, not Rawls, who identifies and emphasizes the connection between justice and full employment. I conclude by sketching a conception of justice that incorporates a full employment principle into the Rawlsian framework, and show why this new conception is more Rawlsian than Rawls’s own conception.

Karl Popper and John Rawls were both in search of a better world, but was it the same world? The question is difficult and may seem impossible. Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, reflects the state of the world in the fourth and fifth decades of the twentieth century, whereas Rawls’s A Theory of Justice reflected the concerns of an American philosopher in the last decades of that century. These were, as Jeremy Shearmur has noted, very different worlds; any attempt to compare them therefore requires caution. I agree, but show how comparing their conceptions of justice points toward a hybrid theory, superior to Rawls’s and Popper’s own accounts, as well as superior to other accounts.1

I begin by outlining some of the important similarities between Rawls and Popper on political theory. Shearmur has proposed that we should understand Popper as concerned primarily to show “the possibility of a programme of humanitarian social reform, undertaken through a process of trial and error, and with respect for the liberty of the individual,”2 Rawls would have found such a characterization of his own project extremely congenial, and we can take this agreement as an initial point of agreement between them.

Of course their works do apply to different worlds, and they therefore address different problems. Popper’s addressed the big questions that were prominent in the middle third of the twentieth century. The world at that time was engulfed in the greatest crisis in history, and the concerns were the big questions about capitalism, socialism, and democracy (to borrow a turn of phrase from Joseph Schumpeter). These themes are thus never far from the surface in The Open Society and Its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism, and they remained major themes in 1971 when Rawls published A Theory of Justice, and in 1975 when Allan Bloom bemoaned the fact that at a time when “liberal democracy is in need of a defense or rebirth if it is to survive [challenges from relativism and historicism,]…A Theory of Justice does not even manifest an awareness of this need, let alone respond to it” (Bloom, 1975, p. 648). Bloom, in other words, wished Rawls’s political theory had been a bit more Popperian.

Rawls’s neglect of these big questions may explain why Popper never discussed his political theory in any detail,3 and why Rawls returned the favor by mentioning Popper only once (and that in passing). And this mutual inattention to one another may further explain why the secondary literature on Popper ignores Rawls’s views, and vice versa.4 I shall have a bit more to say at the end of my paper on these big questions, but let us for now set them aside return to the comparison of Rawls and Popper.

My title notes that both are fallibilists and liberals, but I cannot emphasize too strongly that both fallibilism and liberalism are not just happenstances, but are central elements in each philosophy. Rawls’s method of reflective equilibrium—a cornerstone of his moral methodology, which is in turn a cornerstone of his moral and political philosophy—is implicitly fallibilist. Rawls had a strong interest in methodology, from his first publication (Rawls, 1951) to his last (Rawls, 2001). Rawls holds that neither our moral principles nor our individual moral judgments are foundational in ethics; rather, principles and judgments must be brought into balance (equilibrium) with each other, and accordingly calls this method ‘reflective equilibrium.’ He credits his Harvard colleague Nelson Goodman with the name--probably for good reason since they regularly interacted in person—but the method is clearly fallibilist and is entirely in the spirit of Popper’s critical rationalism, as a brief explication of the method will show.

Rawls’s method reflects his recognition that a strong moral conviction about a particular action or institution—e.g., slavery, sexism—may override the appeal of an otherwise appealing moral principle, indeed to the extent that we reject the principle simply because it would justify that single heinous act. On the other hand, some moral principles are sufficiently powerful to lead us to revise some of our moral judgments about particular actions. Rawls’s solution is to balance principles with actions; each will on occasion influence the status we accord to the other. We work back and forth, revising our principles and revising our judgments until we succeed in balancing them.

This method amounts to an outright rejection of foundationalism in ethics, and mimics closely Popper anti-foundationalism. And of course Popper the first anti-foundationalist philosopher in the analytic tradition, and he remains its best response to both foundationalism and relativism. Critical rationalism that aims to show how objectivity can survive without a foundation, which is precisely what Rawls’s reflective equilibrium proposes to do in moral philosophy. Moreover, it was Popper who first raised the kinds of problems with logical empiricism that Rawls’s colleagues Quine and Goodman subsequently developed. Hence, it is natural to view Rawls’s reflective equilibrium as an extension of Popper’s critical rationalism into ethical theory, although Rawls credits Nelson Goodman with the idea.

For more on these similarities, I refer you to Alain Boyer’s excellent paper,5 a paper I said I would criticize in this paper, but can’t because I have no significant differences.6 Boyer points out similarities between our two fallibilist liberals concerning intuition, the linguistic turn, individualism, the notion of a plan of life, and liberty and the state. He also shows that some places where Rawls cited Willard Quine actually have a rather loud Popperian ring.7 In placing Rawls with Popper, I do not deny that Rawls’s Harvard colleagues deserved much credit; day to day contact with our colleagues is clearly an important factor in our intellectual development but there are other influences as well. Let me briefly share some anecdotal evidence that Popper may have influenced Rawls’s philosophy more than Rawls himself indicates.

In February 2005, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to peruse John Rawls’s books, housed in the soon-to-be Rawls’ Library in Brattleboro, VT. While browsing Rawls’s books I came across his copy of Conjectures and Refutations, and noticed that it had been read from cover to cover, including multiple readings of four essays: “Conjectures and Refutations,” “Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition,” “Truth, Rationality, and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge,” and “Public Opinion and Liberal Principles.” That Rawls had taken extra care with these four essays is evidenced by red, as well as black, marginal marks in those essays; every essay had been read and marked in black, but only those four showed red ink as well.

There are no marginal notes (only a few question marks) so it is impossible to be specific about what Rawls took from these readings. What is clear, however, is that Rawls not only knew of Popper—as did any philosopher of his time—but he took the time to study Popper carefully. Were Rawls’s views on truth influenced by his reading of “Truth, Rationality, and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge?” Boyer notes some striking similarities. Perhaps the similarity is more than coincidental, and perhaps Rawls took more from Popper than his collegial nods to colleagues Goodman and Quine would indicate. Perhaps.

But my main concern is with what we can learn about justice from the juxtaposition of Rawls’s and Popper’s philosophies. Notwithstanding Shearmur’s warning about the difficulty we face in interpreting The Open Society today, there are threads throughout Popper’s political philosophy that we can readily weave into Rawls’s theory of justice.

Consider first Rawls’s first principle of justice, which gives priority to the individual liberties of the citizens of a democracy. The value of liberty is inviolable, and Rawls will not accept trading it off for other social goods. We may fairly label this principle Rawls’s “open society principle,” a label I think Rawls would readily embrace, particularly in light of his revised statement of it in the post-1975 editions of the book.8 As liberals, clearly Rawls and Popper valued individual liberties highly.9

The agreement might be less apparent when we turn to Rawls’s second principle of justice. Popper said in The Open Society10 that the attempt to specify the content of the concept of justice is unimportant and futile,11 and this view seems to echo Popper’s friend and fellow traveler Friedrich Hayek, who rather famously claimed to be “certain that nothing has done so much to destroy the juridical safeguards of individual freedom as the striving after [the] mirage of justice” (Hayek,1978, pp. 110-1). Now while Hayek and Popper clearly agreed on much,12 Shearmur, who had access to correspondence as well as published works, notes some important differences between their perspectives on justice.13 In particular, Popper’s proposal of “piecemeal social engineering” as a way to address a wide range of social and economic problems and his defense of the welfare state in The Open Society and Its Enemies apparently puts him at odds with Hayek’s preference for free market solutions. (I say ‘apparently’ because—libertarians please note—Hayek was not opposed to government interventionism, notwithstanding his status as the godfather of Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia.) But although the extent of Popper’s and Hayek’s agreement and disagreement remains hazy, Hayek undeniably wanted greater limits on the role of government than Popper.

Incidentally, it is not clear where this sort of disagreement between Hayek and Popper leaves us with respect to Rawls, since Hayek himself explicitly approved of even Rawls’s difference principle suitably interpreted, although Rawls would not have liked Hayek’s interpretation.14 In accepting Rawls’s principle that inequalities in society should be arranged so as to benefit those who are worst off, Hayek maintained that “[t]hanks to [the] unequal distribution, the poor get in a competitive market economy more than they would get in a centrally-directed system” (Hayek, 1979, p. 14). I conjecture that Hayek would extend this claim to not only centrally-directed systems, but social-democratic planning as well.

Whatever one thinks of this interpretation, Rawls’s presentation of his theory involves a deep indeterminacy that has prevented it from having an impact outside of academic circles. Hayek’s endorsement illustrates this failure to generate a theory of justice sufficiently robust to produce any specific policy recommendations, but the insertion of Popper between Rawls and Hayek yields a clearer, better understanding of justice. Indeed, it leads us straight to the missing principle in the Rawlsian theory of justice.

While Popper’s political writings fail us here, his central conception of justice is clear. Consider his interview with Adam Chmielwski in Ian Jarvie and Sandra Pralong’s volume The Open Society after 50 Years. Popper there said:

Well, I still do believe that in a way one has to have a free market, but I also believe that to make a godhead out of the principle of the free market is nonsense. If we do not have a free market, then quite obviously the things that are being produced are not produced for the consumer, really. The consumer can take it or leave it. His needs are not taken into account in the process of production. But all that is not of a fundamental importance. Humanitarianism, that is of fundamental importance.

Traditionally, one of the main tasks of economics was to think of the problem of full employment. Since approximately 1965 economists have given up on that; I find it very wrong. It cannot be an insoluble problem. It may be difficult, but surely it is not insoluble!

Our first task is peace. Our second task is to see that nobody be hungry; our third task is full employment. The fourth task is, of course, education. (Jarvie and Pralong, 1999, p. 36)

Now it is interesting that Rawls too endorsed full employment, and wrote in section 43 of A Theory of Justice that the administration of a just society will aim at “reasonably full employment in the sense that those who want to work can find it.”15 Rawls, however, had nothing more to say on the matter, and asserted this as almost an afterthought—or what comes across as one—in the Institutions section of the book, thus ensuring that it would attract little attention. Indeed, I have not found a single commentator on Rawls who even mentions it.

In this respect, Popper’s understanding of justice was superior to Rawls’s. Popper placed the problem on center stage; Rawls buried it where it would go unnoticed. Consider Philippe van Parijs’s interesting expansion of Rawls’s difference principle in Real Freedom for All, for example, totally sets aside the employment problem and focuses instead on a guaranteed basic income.16 I do not take issue with everything van Parijs has to say, but his total exclusion of full employment as a requirement of a just society is a glaring error that undermines the credibility of his explication of Rawls’s theory of justice.

To firmly establish the place of full employment in an adequate theory of justice, let us slip behind Rawls’s veil of ignorance and into his original position. Rawls’s conception of justice as fairness requires that we set aside our natural partiality and deliberate in a setting where we lack knowledge of our personal talents and assets. We are to imagine ourselves and others deliberating about and discussing the basic structure of society, without anyone knowing her endowments or her final place within the society that is to result. This ignorance of our eventual placement in society ensures that in deliberating about various alternatives, we will take care to ensure that the interests of all are equally secure, and we secure the interests of all by securing the interests of those who are worst off (or, as Rawls prefers to put it, the interests of the least advantaged). Rawls’s famously called this requirement the ‘difference principle.17

Some of Rawls’s sympathetic critics have approved his limited egalitarianism, while criticizing his emphasis on what he called ‘primary social goods’ as the objects of this egalitarianism,18 but for purposes of this paper I accept the Rawls’s metric, which he always defended, but modify it in a fundamental way that, I should argue—but will not today—not only leads to my modified Rawlsian theory of justice but also eliminates the objections of those who have criticized the primary social good metric.19

Rawls noted that “[w]hat count as primary social goods depends…on various general facts about human needs and abilities, their normal phases and requirements or nurture, relations of social interdependence, and much else…While the list of primary social goods rests in part on the general facts and requirements of social life, it does so only together with a political conception of the person as free and equal, endowed with the moral powers and capable of being a fully cooperating member of society” (Rawls, 2001, p. 58). That said, I want to suggest that as parties in Rawls’s original position, knowing—as Rawls allows that we should know—that we are citizens of a modern, advanced society in which markets are pervasive, and that in this society the distribution and availability of jobs will be regulated by a labor market, we should show great concern for the structure of such a market. Indeed, there is little (if anything) that would be more important to us. Moreover, the difference principle entails that we should insist that the structure of the labor market ensure that those least well off would at least have an opportunity to secure a job at a livable wage.

I noted previously that Rawls subscribed to full employment as an objective of a just society. The problem is that he did not sufficiently emphasize it. By treating employment as a primary social good that is an object of concern to those in the original position, we amend Rawls’s theory to include a full employment principle as a corollary of the difference principle. We treat full employment as a central feature of any just society, indeed as more basic than income. This is a strong statement, and it runs counter to such currently influential theories as that of Philippe van Parijs. While I cannot adequately develop that theory in this paper, I find a powerful clue in Karl Popper who would, I believe, unhesitatingly subscribe to this modified Rawlsian theory. My evidence for this is not only Popper’s remarks on full employment in his interview with Chmielwski, but his single comment on Rawls, a comment found not in his political writings, but in The Self and Its Brain, where he praised A Theory of Justice as “in many ways very important book,” but directed his attention to Rawls’s conception of a plan of life “to characterize the purposes or aims which make of a man ‘a conscious, unified moral person.’”20 Popper continues:

The most widespread aim in such a plan of life is the personal task of providing for oneself and for one’s dependants. It may be described as the most democratic of aims: remove it, and you make life meaningless for many. This does not mean that there is no need for a Welfare State to help those who do not succeed in this. But even more important is that the Welfare State should not create unreasonable or insurmountable difficulties for those who try to make this the most natural and democratic of tasks a major part of the aims in their life.

Popper recognized that a person’s work is an essential part of human life; we are, in an important sense, what we do. Hence, a society with significant involuntary unemployment effectively deprives those who are unemployed of one of the central primary social goods, the social basis of self respect. Indeed, if we can agree that self respect is properly understood as having a social basis,21 we must require that the citizens of a just society have access to full employment. This is not something to be reduced to a single comment, as did Rawls, but to be emphasized as did Popper. Again, I recall Popper’s comment that the achievement of full employment is a central task of economics, and that it is “very wrong” that economists have given up on it.22 It is also very wrong that philosophers have omitted it from their analyses of justice.

In closing, let me return to the big questions that Allan Bloom chided Rawls for neglecting. Bloom complained of Rawls’s neglect of the capitalism/socialism debate, but why did Rawls neglect it? His answer is simple, and one that Popper might well approve; Rawls believed that justice is a matter of the conformity of a society—any society—to the principles of justice. Thus if a socialist society complies with the all of the principles of justice, it is just; Rawls saw no need to reject it simply for being socialist. (Of course, one might reject it on grounds other than justice, but that was not Rawls’s concern.) Now in 1943, when Popper had just finished The Open Society and Its Enemies, Michal Kalecki, a Marxist economist in residence at Cambridge, England, noted that “[i]f capitalism can adjust itself to full employment, a fundamental reform will have been incorporated in it. If not it will show itself to be an outmoded system which must be scrapped” (Kalecki, 1943, p. 429). There you have it; we are back to the large questions that Popper was addressing and Rawls was not, but we are addressing them from the perspective of the Cambridge tradition of Keynes, Kalecki, and Joan Robinson, rather than the perspective of Popper’s friend Friedrich Hayek. Indeed, Popper’s conception of justice put him closer to Cambridge than to the London School of Economics. This brings me to the next chapter—but I am out of time.

Larry Udell

West Chester University

West Chester, PA 19383


Bloom, A., 1975, “Review: Justice: John Rawls vs. the Tradition of Political Philosophy” (American Political Science Review, v. 69, no. 2, pp. 648 – 662)

Boyer, A., 2005, “Is an Open Society a Just Society?: Rawls and Popper” (Learning for Democracy, v. 1, no 2, pp. 7 – 27)

Daniels, N., 1990, “Equality of What?: Welfare, Resources, or Capabilities?” (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research v. 50 Supplement, pp. 273 – 296.

Dworkin, R. 2000, Sovereign Virtue (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)

Freeman, S., ed., 1999, John Rawls: Collected Papers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)

Goodman, N., 1955, Fact, Fiction, and Forecast, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press)

Hart, H.L.A., 1973, “Rawls on Liberty and its Priority” (University of Chicago Law Review 40)

Hayek, F. A., 1973, Law, Legislation, and Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

_____ 1978, New Studies in Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and the History of Ideas, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press)

Hayek, F., 1979, Social justice, socialism & democracy: three Australian lectures. Turramurra, N.S.W: Centre for Independent Studies

Jarvie, I. and Pralang, S., ed. [1999] Popper's Open society after fifty years : the continuing relevance of Karl Popper. (London; New York: Routledge)

Kalecki, M. (1943) Political Aspects of Full Employment,” Political Quarterly, vol. 14, no. 4

Moloney, D. (2004). “Rawlsian Self-Respect and the Respect of Others” (American Philosophical Association Eastern Division)

Nussbaum, M, 1992, "Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism," Political Theory 20, pp. 202-246.

______ 2000, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

______, 2003, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership: The Tanner Lectures on Human Values (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press)

Popper, K., 1962, The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton, NJ; Princeton University Press)

________ 1992, In Search of a Better World (London, New York: Routledge)

Popper, K. and Eccles, J., 1977, The Self and It’s Brain (London: Springer International)

Rawls, J. 1951. “Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics” (Philosophical Review, vol. 60, no. 2, pp. 177 – 197)

______ 1971a “Justice as Reciprocity,” originally published in John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism with Critical Essays, ed. Samuel Gorovitz (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill; reprinted in Freeman, 1999

______ 1971b, 1999, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press)

______ 2001 Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press)

Sen, A., 1980, Equality of What?: The Tanner Lectures on Human Values

______, 1992 Inequality Reexamined (Oxford: Clarendon Press, Cambridge: Harvard University Press)

______, 2000, Development as Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Shearmur, J., 1996, The Political Thought of Karl Popper by Jeremy. London: Routledge

Van Parijs, P., 1997, Real Freedom for All: What (if anything) Can Justify Capitalism? (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

1 Although this paper does not enter into a discussion of Philippe van Parijs’s guaranteed minimum income proposals, it is implicitly a critique of it. I argue that full employment, not guaranteed income, is the preferred means for achieving justice. But I do not wish to be too hard on van Parijs; Ronald Dworkin, for example, proposes insurance schemes rather than full employment, and his only discussion of employment is his argument for unemployment compensation.

2 Shearmur, 1996, p. 38.

3 Popper does discuss Rawls once, and that single mention figures prominently in my argument here, Nevertheless, it remains a single comment consisting of a couple of paragraphs in, of all places, The Self and Its Brain.

4 Rawls is largely absent from Shearmur’s analysis of Popper’s political philosophy; for example, and Popper does not figure in the analysis of anyone currently publishing on Rawls, or indeed, on justice or equality in general.

5 Rawls famously called justice in political philosophy comparable to truth in systems of thought (Rawls, 1971, p. 1).

6 My abstract for the conference suggested a problem with Boyer’s suggestion that Popper would perhaps reject Rawls’s constructivism, but I shall not pursue.

7 Cf. Boyer, 2005, pp. 8-9.

8 Rawls had revised A Theory of Justice by 1975 when the book was published in numerous translations, but the English language revised edition curiously was not published until 1998. Thus, if one refers to the 1998 edition, they might think of the revisions as nearly turn of the century, when they were completed closer to the date of publication. The revised principle was a response H.L.A. Hart’s trenchant criticism of Rawls’s original first principle of justice. Hart (1973) noted that liberty meaningless; people in fact have various liberties, and Rawls agreed and modified the principle accordingly.

9 I stop short of providing an exhaustive list and analysis of the various liberties, although it plainly would include speech, association, plan of life, etc.

10 Throughout this paper, I shall employ this shortened moniker for The Open Society and Its Enemies.

11 Cf. Popper [1962], p 89. (Chapter 6, section I).

12 Their agreement was strongest regarding the methodology of economics and the importance of individualism, and Hayek [1973, v. 2, p. 148] went so far as to assert that his Great Society is interchangeable with Popper’s vision of the Open Society. Popper, for his part, dedicated Conjectures and Refutations to Hayek and always found Hayek’s views on knowledge and methodology to be very much in tune with his own.

13 Cf. Shearmur, 1996, especially pp. 28 – 30.

14 I am not aware of Rawls ever commenting on Hayek’s interpretation of his theory of justice.

15 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971, 1999), Section 43. (All references at A Theory of Justice are to section numbers in order to be consistent with both editions. Unless not

16 Van Parijs, 1997, pp. 89 – 133.

17 Cf. my discussion of Hayek’s agreement with Rawls above.

18 Cf. Daniels, 1979; Sen, 1980, 1992, 2000; Nussbaum, 1992, 2000, 2003

19 The primary social goods include basic liberties, income and wealth, freedom of movement, free choice of occupation against a background of diverse opportunities, offices and positions of authority and responsibility, and what he calls ‘the social bases of self respect’ (Rawls, 2001, pp. 58-9).

20 Popper and Eccles, op. cit.

21 Daniel Moloney (2004) has argued that Rawls was mistaken to view self respect as socially based.

22 Cf. p. ___ above.

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