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Nussbaum [1999] Rawls

Nussbaum [1999] Rawls

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Conversing with the Tradition: John Rawls and the History of Ethics Author(s): by Martha C.

 Nussbaum Reviewed work(s): Source: Ethics, Vol. 109, No. 2 (January 1999), pp. 424-430 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/233901 . Accessed: 29/09/2012 23:01
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Y. The choice. (This was conspicuously not the case in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. true of an earlier generation in the study of the Greeks: Gilbert Ryle reports that his tutors treated Plato’s Republic ‘‘like the Bible. 1. Hobbes. ed. too close to the earth. and. Rousseau. eds. challenging its value as practiced. Ethics 109 ( January 1999): 424 – 430 1999 by The University of Chicago. instead. Barbara Herman. Marx.’’ in Ryle. and Christine M. Nussbaum John Rawls is the most distinguished political philosopher of our century. however. Wood and G.00 424 . judged that ‘‘most of it seemed. is far from surprising. Reclaiming the History of Ethics: Essays for John Rawls (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.: Doubleday Anchor. had reduced it to a narrow type of linguistic and conceptual analysis. This bad state of things was compounded by the way historical texts were typically approached by those who did approach them: for either they were taught only to be dismissed as hopelessly behind the times. P. after positivism. 1970). 1997). in consequence. Those thinkers were in considerable disrepute at the time when Rawls began to teach.’’ and that he. Positivism suggested that they had made fundamental errors about what philosophy could achieve. Those who did not study with Rawls might therefore expect a volume of essays in his honor to consist of contemporary theorizing about political questions. or else uncritical veneration and deference made them look like scripture rather than like philosophy. Parenthetical references in the text are to this work. O. Rawls always viewed his work not only as the articulation of a particular theoretical view.Conversing with the Tradition: John Rawls and the History of Ethics* Martha C. with a volume of essays on the major figures of the historical tradition in moral and political theory: Aristotle. the fashion for linguistic analysis suggested that they were unsophisticated and out of date. N. above all. Immanuel Kant. All rights reserved. Pitcher (Garden City. Furthermore. Hume.. however. where the Rawlsian approach found valuable allies. no better’’: see ‘‘Autobiographical. his work and teaching are responsible for much of the other fine work currently being done in this subject: for he revitalized the field and renewed its confidence. Korsgaard. It was. 0014-1704/99/0902-0005$02. philosophically. the trend toward highly formal work made them look cheaply practical. Many will be surprised to discover that his students have presented him.) 1 Rawls’s teaching and writing did much to change this unfortunate * A review of Andrews Reath. but also as an attempt to reclaim the space within which the great thinkers of the tradition worked.

’’ what we might call their ‘‘philosophical core’’ (p. you always needed to see whether it could be answered within the theoretical framework. in its classics’’ (p. He varied the readings from year to year. Given Rawls’s great personal modesty and his love for the great works of the tradition. right around the beginning of Rawls’s career. And his teaching contributed even more profoundly to the revival of interest in the history of ethics. bringing out ‘‘the deep insights and vision that were moving their authors. Hume’s and Rousseau’s theories of moral development. they would learn the most from the texts. 3). They were urged to treat the views as systems or theories. in that way. unlikely to yield a deep understanding of what a great thinker was undertaking. albeit issues that arise in particular historical settings. or whether it would require a deep alteration in the framework. His writing has revivified not only the social contract tradition and the tradition of Kantian ethics. as attempts to solve philosophical problems. In other words. Rawls rejected a detached historicized engagement with the texts as insufficiently philosophical. rather than the deeper and p. L. 2. and to ‘‘make the best of’’ a thinker’s position. Approaching the texts systematically put up a barrier to superficiality: if you had an objection on a particular issue. changed things. (One day at an American Philosophical Association meeting. Phil. Rawls offered two standard courses. alongside the distinguished contributions of G. The great thinkers are seen as addressing fundamental problems of political life. . When the candidate left. Rawls’s teaching exemplified an approach to texts that is respectful without being deferential: students were to treat the works as examples of especially fine and complex attempts on the great questions of moral theory. but they were to grapple with them critically. classes in Oxford. Rawls urged. Rawls spoke critically of the department that had educated him: it had encouraged him to focus on simple forms of utilitarianism exemplified in contemporary journal articles. Owen and Gregory Vlastos. It was also a renewed confidence in the subject’s tradition. Rawls and I interviewed a glib job candidate who had lambasted utilitarianism with relish. ‘‘What was so influential about Rawls’s work was not only the confidence it inspired in the fruitfulness of the methods of philosophy and the potential practical value of its results. As the editors write. But he also rejected a superficial and ahistorical importation of modern concepts and ideas into the text: for if one did that. 2). not just collections of observations on particular topics. but the philosophers represented in this collection (along with others such as Hegel and Mill) made up the staples of the curriculum. Ryle’s own vigorous teaching of the Greeks in B. and Henry Sidgwick’s account of method in ethics. which is likely to be richer than modern fads. he almost always taught from historical texts. E.Nussbaum Conversing with the Tradition 425 situation. one called Moral Philosophy and the other called Political Philosophy. one would be unlikely to learn from the text. but also the Aristotelian search for the well-lived life.

the Philosophical Review — or even Ethics. however. as well as its excellence. but those dangers will threaten less menacingly if one keeps reminding oneself that one is reading history to learn something that one does not know and to be in contact with a conversation partner who sees things in a way different from one’s own. for they may have important links with the neglected parts. (When we note that ten out of the fourteen contributors are women. Historicist interpreters of historical texts will surely feel that the Rawlsian approach has some real risks. Reclaiming the History of Ethics shows how much Rawls’s approach to the history of ethics has done to enrich both moral philosophy and the study of its history. there are few such dead spots. Thus the Rawlsian critic is unlikely to adopt a piecemeal approach to an ethical text that would single out only certain bits for update. And this means.) In short. recasting our very concepts and categories. the Rawlsian critic will overlook some parts of a thinker’s work that have historical interest but do not seem to offer much to contemporary thought. one may overlook genuine historical differences of concept and context that are germane to the correct interpretation of a text. such as Sharon Lloyd and Hannah Ginsborg. this might lead to distortion of the aspects of the work that one does treat. Let someone else do that if she wants to. So the Rawlsian project has potential dangers for the Rawlsian enterprise itself. But another worry remains: for if the aim is to make the best of a text and thus to learn something from it oneself. they include both early students such as Onora O’Neill and much more recent ones. one may miss the novel and surprising ways in which some great texts do so. In some areas of philosophy. All the contributors were students of Rawls. 4). Rawls wanted young philosophers to carry on ‘‘a kind of conversation with the historical tradition that uses it as a resource to understand present and perennial problems in the subject’’ (p.426 Ethics January 1999 more complicated views of Sidgwick and Mill. too. This one ought to grant: the Rawlsian reader of Aristotle is indeed unlikely to focus on Aristotle’s recondite views of the cosmic bodies and their motions. that one may actually lose sight of some insights from which one might learn: for if one hastens to make the text answer to contemporary questions. In ethics.) All contributors are fine philosophers. we notice how much Rawls’s teaching has done to increase the gender justice of our profession. all show their respect for Rawls by producing work at the top of their capaci- . and it is a rare part of a great work that seems utterly outdated. thus obscuring the structure of the whole. For one thing. because the central problems keep recurring. This warning is heeded by the best Rawlsian criticism in the contemporary academy. He was convinced that the conversation would teach them far more than the trendy conversations they might easily have with new work in Mind.

close reading of the notes makes it clear that the editors.’’ Hume.’’ Onora O’Neill offers a clear account of Kant’s views about religion. by far the greatest number of the essays deal with the thought of Immanuel Kant.’’ sets out the tension in Hume’s moral psychology between a view about rational self-interest that he derives from Hobbes and a complex doctrine of sympathy that is antiHobbesian in its emphasis on the importance of ‘‘the general point of view. Not surprisingly. as he attempts to show that philosophical explanations need not capitulate to the sense that evil is fundamentally incomprehensible. arguing that a Kantian ‘‘hermeneutics of reason’’ evinces profound respect for religious texts and persons. The late Jean Hampton. It therefore seems best to give a brief sense of what each essay contains (without repetitive praise— all are hereby praised) and then to turn to one article as an exemplar of the Rawlsian method of doing history and the contributions it can make to our philosophical understanding.’’ arguing that we cannot understand why Kant felt the need for such a notion without thinking of how social unions can express the rational nature of persons. Susan Neiman’s ‘‘Rousseau on the Problem of Evil’’ follows the complexities of Rousseau’s response to Voltaire and the Lisbon earthquake. respect seems to militate against a substantive engagement with three or four articles to the neglect of others. she plausibly claims. In ‘‘Coercion. one usually notices an argument being made more subtle and nuanced by the articulation of a pertinent distinction. asking which ones we really have reasons to reject. she argues. it is thus a problem at once intellectual and emotional. Marcia Homiak’s ‘‘Aristotle and the Soul’s Conflicts’’ argues that Aristotle’s analysis of akrasia diagnoses incontinence as resulting from a failure of proper self-love. Contemporary virtue ethics. Moreover. Because there is no dead wood of the sort one finds in most edited volumes. thus helps us to think critically about Hobbesian elements in contemporary theories of rational action. we will have made progress in thinking about education and the public shaping of social norms. if we ponder its elements. who has remained at the heart of Rawls’s work and teaching. . Ideology. Barbara Herman’s ‘‘A Cosmopolitan Kingdom of Ends’’ follows the cyptic and tortuous course of Kant’s appeal to the idea of a ‘‘kingdom of ends. and the reasons we may have for rejecting them in favor of a richer psychology. and Reath in particular. and Education in Hobbes’s Leviathan.Nussbaum Conversing with the Tradition 427 ties. especially in the area of property.’’ Sharon Lloyd argues that Hobbes’s account of social indoctrination is less easily dismissed than many have believed. The demands of this idea require us to think critically about existing institutions. in ‘‘The Hobbesian Side of Hume. can be illuminated by Aristotle’s complex moral psychology. have done a great deal to improve the papers by careful criticism: whenever Reath is thanked by an author. In ‘‘Within the Limits of Reason.

Finally. accepts the authority of law. interpreting purposiveness as conformity to normative law and arguing that the purposiveness ascribed in an aesthetic judgment is to be understood in terms of the judgment’s claim to universal agreement. In ‘‘Kant on Aesthetic and Biological Purposiveness. If this account is correct. Reath argues that Kant’s ideal entails a deeply egalitarian conception of political authority that can and should inform modern democracies. Christine Korsgaard’s ‘‘Taking the Law into Our Own Hands: Kant on the Right to Revolution’’ unpacks Kant’s arguments against this right.’’ without a justification of justice for its revolutionary choice.’’ Hannah Ginsborg investigates the account of teleology in the Critique of Judgment. many communitarian critiques of liberalism need rethinking. Thomas Pogge’s ‘‘Kant on Ends and the Meaning of Life’’ identifies two distinct strands of Kantian thinking about the point of the universe and humanity’s role within it. 226). Nancy Sherman’s ‘‘Kantian Virtue: Priggish or Passional?’’ argues that modern proponents of virtue ethics can find in Kant far more interesting material about character and motivation than is usually supposed. arguing that Kant helps us think well about the relationship between objectivity in ethics and scientific objectivity. Dan Brudney’s ‘‘Community and Completion’’ interprets the early Marx’s ideas about sociability and the process of production. the ability of others to accept one’s conclusions is thus constitutive of one’s own autonomy.’’ by contrast. yet in circumstances in which institutions systematically violate human rights. This shows us that autonomy is a lonely business. Andrews Reath’s ‘‘Legislating for a Realm of Ends’’ provides an especially lucid account of the social dimensions of the Kantian idea of autonomy. showing that they . hence of reason. Korsgaard argues. The ‘‘worldly account.’’ Adrian Piper tackles Kant’s metaethics. In ‘‘Kant on the Objectivity of the Moral Law. trying to square them with Kant’s evident enthusiasm for the French Revolution. arguing that autonomy ‘‘presupposes as the locus of its exercise a community of agents with the ability to guide their conduct by what they regard as good reasons’’ (p. reason is ‘‘turned against itself. makes room for the value of human enlightenment and directs us to an urgent practical political task: the realization of morality. Pogge argues that the ‘‘worldly account’’ is one that modern Kantians can and should adopt. The religious account makes the highest good forever out of reach and does little to direct human endeavor. offering no easy consoling answers. in this world.428 Ethics January 1999 they also (in circumstances of social pluralism) require us to extend the community of moral judgment: the Categorical Imperative thus grounds a cosmopolitan ideal. The virtuous person. yet with a demand of virtue that something be done. Kant’s conception of character offers valuable guidance in thinking about how moral interest relies on nonmoral desires and emotions.

again like the Stoics. is a pessimist: greed and inequality have caused the basically innocent amour propre to turn into ‘‘inflamed’’ or ‘‘diseased’’ amour propre. are really not so. as Rousseau himself does. it argues that the citizens in Rawls’s ‘‘well-ordered society’’ can be seen as Marx sees the producers and consumers of communist society— as reciprocally appreciating and confirming one another’s talents and thus as completing one another. therefore nothing forces us to reject as unrealizable the . like his Stoic forebears. and that it is solely by [our] institutions that men become wicked’’ (p. The apparent contradiction between this claim and other texts that ascribe to people a diseased type of self-regard can be resolved if we carefully distinguish. Detailed and painstaking in its exegesis. Rousseau really does believe what he says: ‘‘that man is naturally good. But the Rawlsian method of historical exegesis can best be understood by a more extended engagement with one essay. showing how such an engagement can help us answer live philosophical questions. Joshua Cohen’s ‘‘The Natural Goodness of Humanity’’ is. something too seldom appreciated in Rousseau scholarship. 103). Cohen’s mastery of text and historical context makes it perfectly plain that a Rawlsian constructive use of history need in no way entail historical superficiality. Much of the work of the essays consists in the careful textual demonstration that this distinction makes sense of the evidence and in the detailed unpacking of the interestingly complex moral psychology that results. and containing as well the roots of compassion. was an optimist: human nature is intrinsically good. (Cohen gives a good account of Rousseau’s debt to Seneca. engage with historical texts in a systematic and textually rich way. it will clearly rank for some time as among the major accounts of Rousseau’s moral psychology.Nussbaum Conversing with the Tradition 429 offer us useful ways to clarify some modern debates between communitarians and liberals. All the essays. at thirty-seven pages.) About the latter. Cohen argues that Rousseau’s views about evil. then. The most overtly contemporary piece in the collection. between the abstract potentialities inherent in human nature and the determinate expression of these potentialities as the result of social circumstances. which outstandingly exemplifies its idea of how one ‘‘reclaims’’ a historical text in order to learn from it. which appear confused and contradictory. These ideas can help us reflect better about what a community is and thus to assess better both the views of Rawls’s communitarian critics and the changes introduced by Rawls in Political Liberalism. however. and have inhibited the operations of compassion by preventing people from seeing all humans as sharing possibilities with them. containing only a nonvicious form of self-love. indeed. Rousseau. Thus it is Rousseau’s view that the ubiquity of vice does not compel us to conclude that humanity is basically evil. About the former Rousseau. by far the longest in the collection.

we can’t abandon its pursuit. If we can hope for justice. can be understood far more plausibly in Rousseau’s way. when he asserts that both an optimistic Rousseauian psychology and a darker psychology would be compatible with his general account. we are wrestling with evil all the time. One might deny that we need so much natural goodness in order to support the hope for some kind of political justice. which we can answer. We may and should pursue a society that ‘‘answers to the demands of self-love and freedom’’ (p. Where. An equally valuable resource is supplied by Rousseau’s larger argument about goodness and evil.430 Ethics January 1999 hope for political justice. there is another that seems to disconfirm it. however. that is. which has frequently lacked a subtle account of desire. is a valuable conceptual resource for modern political thought.2 Although Rousseau knew that he could never finally prove the believers in original evil wrong. especially his account of the deformation of desire by social inequality. but as a practical one. which we may never be able to answer. Like Rousseau. he felt that he had satisfactorily shifted the burden of argument. Nor does empirical observation appear to settle the question: for every observation that confirms natural evil. but because that is how unequal structures have made them. . and yet they are with us at every turn. with Rousseau (and also Kant). We may no longer offer hopelessness as an excuse for laziness. its formations and deformations. Cohen’s essay is surely a fine example of a constructive reading of a text that ‘‘makes the best’’ of it. to think of the problem not as a theoretical problem. Cohen makes it clear that Rousseau’s moral psychology. If we say this. Self-interest. A part of the social contract tradition would take this line. not because that is how human beings are. frequently treated by social science as exogenous. Cohen urges us. provide a convincing argument that natural goodness is not ruled out and that therefore this worldly progress toward a just society is possible. 131) unless it has been shown to be utterly unrealizable. We can. one might maintain that intelligent self-interest was by itself sufficient for a certain sort of just political order. and Rawls appears to take a related line in A Theory of Justice. Inequality perpetuates itself. as an expression of a deformed idea of self-worth deriving from an abstract capacity that itself might have been expressed differently in different social circumstances. 2. John Rawls’s entire career is honored in this conclusion. a hardwired element in our makeup. is its relevance in solving contemporary philosophical problems? Cohen says nothing direct about contemporary issues. we console ourselves for our failures to achieve justice. and it is very tempting to say that it is the way human nature is. understood as requiring that citizens respect and treat one another as equals.

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