Forrester’s In The Shadow of Justice a summary and discussion

Below I will briefly outline the central outline of Forrester’s book ‘In the Shadow of Justice’. The primary aim of the blow will be to outline what the central arguments are she presents in each chapter. I will present a more thorough criticism of the book in my next blogpost.

Chapter 1 of Forrester’s ‘In the Shadow of Justice’, focuses on the development of Rawls Theory of Justice. Forrester portrays Rawls firmly as a man of his time who took on the concerns of his time and firmly integrated them into his political theories. In the aftermath of World War 2, with the rise of communism in Russia, western thinkers were concerned with the dangers of totalitarianism.  In Forrester’s view Rawls philosophical system was shot through with concerns of too much state control drifting towards a totalitarian state. Hence, key concern of Rawls’ Theory of Justice was to minimise state control except where necessary. Rawls two principles, (1) to maximise liberty to the degree that one’s liberty didn’t impinge on others liberty and (2) The equality principle: differences in income were only permitted if they differences benefited the least advantaged members of society, was a threadbare structure designed to ensure basic justice while minimizing state interference. Forrester’s chapter seems to be written for an intended audience of analytic philosophers who, to their detriment, sometimes focus entirely on abstract philosophical argumentation and downplay the importance of time and context in shaping theories.

            While Forrester does a good job in tracing the roots of Rawls’s Theory of Justice, she doesn’t go into much detail in evaluating the justification for Rawls’s theory. Forrester details the influence of linguistic philosophy (Wittgenstein’s, Ryle etc) on Rawls’s conception of a society being like a game which consists of rules made by people, but she never questions whether Rawls was justified in adopting this approach. She notes that Rawls attempted to constrain his conception of what a just society could look by grounding his view of human nature in facts discovered in psychology, in particular Piaget’s developmental approach to human nature. While Forrester places Rawls’s firmly as a product of his time in terms of societal trends and philosophical concerns, she fails to do so, when it comes to scientific influences on Rawls’s theory.

            While Rawls obviously cannot be faulted for scientific developments which occurred after he was writing, contemporary scientific, research indicates that Piaget’s developmental story underestimated the innate constraints on human development. Any conception of society models it on an analogy of man-made games will have to face the question of whether the type of games we can play will be constrained by our innate psychology. While Forrester does a good job of tracing the degree to which Rawls is a product of his times in most cases, she doesn’t sufficiently detail the degree to which his scientific understanding was time specific, and how this time specific scientific world-view effects the validity of Rawls’s theory of justice.

Chapter 2  ‘Obligations’ centres on Rawls and his contemporaries evolving views on our obligation to the state. The sixties in America were a time of unrest, and there were protests centred on a variety of different issues, such as civil rights issues, anti-war protests, nuclear disarmament protests etc. Forrester notes that one of the hot button issues philosophers needed to address when considering our obligations to the state is civil disobedience and when it is justified. When appealing to the notion of civil disobedience Rawls modelled it on the concept of fair play. By entering society and receiving the benefits of being a member, people acquire obligations to that society. One such obligation is to not engage in practices that are harmful to that society. A key concept for Rawls when thinking through these issues was the importance of the stability of our society. Rawls argued that if most people had agreed on the principles and constitutions for society then this limited the scope of legitimate protest. Rawls went as far as to argue that even if a person could show on utilitarian grounds that civil disobedience could do more good than harm then this would not justify the disobedience. He argued if people are part of a fair practice and receiving benefits from it then their duty of fair play bound them to abide by the laws even if they personally find them unjust. Forrester notes that Rawls did offer some scope for civil disagreement noting that if a society is deliberately disadvantaging a particular group of people, then they are no longer bound by the duty of fair play.

            Forrester does a good job of showing how philosophers writing at the time disagreed with Rawls views on civil disobedience on the grounds that it proposed a very high bar on when civil disobedience is justified. And she does a good job of situating Rawls philosophical in their historical context, which is something which isn’t always done when discussing philosopher’s philosophical views.

             The primary question discussed in this chapter is when is civil discontent justified? It is a timely question and one that is obviously pertinent today. The protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd which were screened all over the world paint a visceral reaction in most people. And people’s response to the riots have divided people in America and across the world. Rawls’s general principles seem very disembodied and abstract, but they do offer proposals for when civil dissent is justified. However, as Forrester correctly notes the bar set by Rawls for legitimate civil dissent is extremely high and does rule out a lot of dissent that citizens would argue is justified.

Chapter 3 ‘War and Responsibility’, focuses on Rawls and his fellow philosopher’s reaction to the Vietnam War. The Vietnam war raised several philosophical issues. In the wake of the war some philosophers wanted to thread a line between the extremes of Utilitarian justifications of any war crime on pragmatic grounds, and passivism which condemned any war act no matter how justified. The backdrop of these philosophical discussions were war crimes in Vietnam such as the My Lai massacre which involved the mass murder and rape of hundreds of innocent Vietnam citizens. While the My Lai massacre was an obvious case of a war crime; philosophers wanted to find a set of moral principles which could deal with more ambiguous war acts. One attempted principle was the doctrine of double effect which roughly put states that if a person does something which is morally good, but which has an unintended side effect which is bad, we can judge the persons act as ethically ok. Forrester describes Anscombe’s explication of the doctrine of double effect and outlines the responses of philosophers such as Philippa Foot, and Rawls to the argument. And she notes that Rawls found the doctrine somewhat compelling as an alternative to Utilitarianism. Furthermore, Rawls found the argument convincing as it gave him a way of avoiding the supposed extremes of passivism and utilitarianism. Nonetheless despite Rawls being impressed with the arguments for the double effect doctrine he claimed that the best way to explicate the limits of a just war was to argue from the Original Position. Thus, Rawls noted that no rational agent would opt for a genocide option when reasoning under the veil of Ignorance.

            The central focus of the chapter is on how philosophers tried to rise to the challenge of the Vietnam war and the horrific acts that occurred during the war. She notes that philosophers tried to deal with the ethical challenges raised by the war using a series of thought experiments designed to help us think clearer about the ethical issues it raised. She did an excellent job in explicating the various positions philosophers took on the ethical issues. However, the central subject of her book John Rawls played less of a role in the chapter than he did in other areas of the book. The chapter could have benefited from her going into more detail on Rawls evolving views on the ethical challenges posed by war.

Chapter 5 ‘Going Global’, details the various attempts by philosophers influenced by Rawls to deal with problems of global justice. Forrester details the responses of three Rawlsian Philosophers (Brian Barry, Charles Beitz and Thomas Pogge) to dealing with problems of global justice. Forrester outlined the fact that Singer’s 1972 paper ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’ which was a utilitarian attempt to sketch our global duties to each other. Rawls had been very critical of utilitarian philosophy in general and his Theory of Justice was very critical of utilitarian conceptions of justice. With criticisms of Rawls Theory of Justice abounding and Singer presenting a utilitarian account of international justice; Rawlsian philosophers set out to explicate how Rawls theory could be developed to cope with problems of international justice.

            Rawls had been sceptical about whether his Original Position could be scaled up to a global scale. He thought that it was psychologically implausible that people across the international community could realistically comply with the principles. He argued that in order to realistically expect people to comply with any principles agreed to in the original position they would need to be from a shared community. Charles Beitz argued that Rawls was incorrect in this assumption and that if Rawls really accepted this assumption, then he would find it hard to explain how his Original Position would work for people who lived in large states. Beitz argued that once in the Original Position in an international arrangement people would agree that redistribution was necessary from poor to rich states.

            Beitz’s Rawlsian position was criticized from a number of directions; some philosophers noted that Beitz’s position because it abstracted from history, was guilty of being unable to handle the facts that some nations are poor because of their exploitation by other nations in the past. While others such as Brian Barry noted that Beitz’s theory had the conspicuous failing that he never told a plausible political story of how we would convince richer nations to redistribute their wealth.

            Forrester tells a story of philosophers beginning to deal with international justice in concrete terms before becoming more and more abstract and concerned with internal consistency and the world fell from view to Rawlsian Philosophers. I think she made her case very well and went into good detail in exploring the various philosophical attempts to make Rawls theory of justice cross international boundaries. However, since her ultimate focus was on how Rawlsian philosophers became so abstract in their theorizing they lost sight of the world, I think her case would have been helped by contrasting the Rawlsians with Utilitarian Philosophers who were becoming more and more concrete in their thinking at the same time Rawlsians were losing sight of the world.

Chapter 4  ‘The New Egalitarians’ tells the story of the publication of Rawls theory of Justice and its reception by his critics. Several of Rawls critics on the left argued that his conception of man in the Original Position was unrealistic and influenced by the concept of homo-economicus. They further argued that his distributive principle offered little practical advice on how to implement it. They noted that Rawls theory relies on the rich being benefactors for the most disadvantaged but does not tell us how convince rich people to depart with a proportion of their wealth and redistribute them to the poor. Having sketched a number of objections to Rawls from the left Forrester goes outline criticisms from the right in the form of Robert Nozick’s famous criticism of Rawls in his Anarchy, State and Utopia.  Nozick argued that Rawls principles of redistribution were unjust because they ignored the historical conditions in which wealth was acquired. For Nozick people have rights independent of any social contract and the historical process of acquiring one’s wealth and property gives us rights that should not be overridden by any social contract theory. Forrester argues that the challenge set by Nozick’s criticisms led to a series of philosophers self-consciously identifying as Rawlsians. Forrester claims that there are three principles that self-described Rawlsians seemed to share: (1) The importance of basic structure, (2) An egalitarian commitment (3) Lack of sensitivity to historical arguments (ibid p. 130)

            The Rawlsian argument that involved abstracting away from historical contingencies didn’t just draw ire from people on the right like Nozick, for many on the left Rawls ignoring history was very problematic. In the era of civil-rights disputes activists noted that black people had been systematically disadvantaged throughout the ages, through slavery and institutional racism. A proposed resolution for this unjust state of affairs was the notion that reparations should be paid to those whose lives have been systemically made worse because of these historical facts. Forrester notes that because of the conceptual features of the Original Position that Rawls sketches he hasn’t got the resources to deal with things like reparations and his redistribution position is blind to considerations like reparations. Overall, Forrester does a good job of outlining the reaction to Rawls book by the left and the right. And she made an interesting case that it was a reaction to Nozick’s criticisms that lead a lot of philosophers to self-consciously identify as Rawlsian philosophers.

Chapter 6 of Forrester’s ‘In the Shadow of Justice’ focuses on philosophers who were influenced by Rawls (either positively or negatively), and their attempt to understand what our ethical obligations to future generations were. After the publication of the Ehrlich’s 1968 best seller ‘The Population Bomb’, the issue of what our duties are to future generations became prominent for philosophers. Rawls 1971 ‘A Theory of Justice’ didn’t appear to have the conceptual resources to deal with the issues raised considerations of our obligation to the future.

            A key question of the original position was who was in it. Rawls had argued that subjects in the original position represented people from all areas of society. However, he argued it would be psychologically impossible to include parties from all generations in the original position. But Rawls didn’t want people in the original position think only of the present moment and to entirely discount the future. For this reason, he inserted two arguments into his Original Position (1) People behind the veil of ignorance were deprived of knowledge of what generation they were from, (2) People behind the veil were part of a family line stretching into the past and the future. Rawls believed that having people as members of family lines would make them sympathetic to people a couple of generations down the line. While not knowing what generation they were from would temper them from being too parochial in their thinking.

            Forrester details several critics reactions to Rawls attempt to deal with the problem of the future. One major criticism sprung from Hardin’s conception of the future as being one which will inevitably lead to population crises, famine etc. Rawls famous circumstances of justice made it of a criterion of the principles of justice that there is ‘moderate scarcity’ in resources. Having moderate scarcity as a criterion meant that Rawls principles of justice would not be binding an any future like the lifeboat story Hardin told where severe scarcity ruled. Forrester goes on to note that philosophers influenced by Rawls tried to handle difficulties raised by his principles of justice by focusing on different aspects of his theory to save it from criticism.

            Forrester does a good job of surveying the different reactions to Rawls theory of justice in relation to problems of duties to future generations. She also manages to clearly demonstrate how by emphasising different aspects of Rawls theory different philosophers were capable of shaping his theory for different purposes.

Chapter 7 ‘New Right and Left’ focuses on philosophical reactions to the rise of the right in both Britain and America. With Thatcher as prime minister of England and Regan as president of America the philosophy of free market capitalism was very much in vogue. This free market capitalism with its emphasis privatisation of public goods and the confident belief that the market could magically fix all ills was key belief of a substantial amount of people in power in the late seventies and throughout the eighties.

            Forrester discusses how philosophers on the left and right reacted to the above political developments. Philosophers like Dworkin reacted to the rise of the right by a social democratic theory that is decoupled from its association with the labour movement. Dworkin was cheerleading the movement of the labour party away from its leftist origins towards a more centrist position. With his thought experiment about people stranded on an island Dworkin argued for a basic structure where people would agree on trade solutions and a kind of social insurance picked from a veil of ignorance. When behind this veil of ignorance, the people do not know whether they have a disability or a marketable talent. Each person can buy insurance against the risks they take. Once out of the veil of ignorance they either win or lose depending on the level of insurance they have and the marketability of their talents. But at this stage any risks they take and whether they win or lose is up to them. Forrester notes that Dworkin’s notions of responsibility, choice and markets were ideas shared by people on the right.

            She goes on to argue that philosophers on the left began to incorporate a lot of Dworkins ideas of responsibility, choice and markets and these ideas became a kind of framework for centrist thought. She ends her chapter with a discussion of how Rawls tamed challenges to his views from Marxist perspectives and domesticated analytical Marxists to quasi Rawlsians. Ultimately, she argues that leftist politics morphed into a Rawlsian redistributive paradigm working within market forces and not really challenging them.

            Forrester does an excellent job of telling how philosophers reacted to political developments in the late seventies and eighties. It would have been interesting to tell the story from the opposite end and discuss how the market forces shaped the type of stories these philosophers felt comfortable telling.

Chapter 8 of Forrester’s book explores a sleuth of philosophers who were very critical of Rawls. She uses these philosophers’ criticisms of him to try and tell a story of how Rawls brand of liberalism fell out of favour. Forrester notes that (1) Rawls is regarded as one of the best and most influential philosophers this century, (2) He is a paradigm exemplar of liberal philosophy, (3) Liberal philosophy not very respected in contemporary political discourse by a substantial proportion of the population. A key aspect of chapter 8 is to try to explicate Rawls liberalism as a product of its time and to explain how liberalism fell out of favour.

Forrester draws on the work of a dozen critics of Rawls liberal philosophy in her chapter 8. Philosophers as diverse as Stanley Cavell, Alister Macintyre, Charles Taylor and Richard Rorty attacked Rawls liberal philosophy as relying on an aminic notion of the self and an atomised conception of the self that ignored the social world of engaged active agents.  As Rawls philosophy developed over the years, he came to stress Kantian aspects of his philosophy. To his critics Rawls views of the self with its emphasis on rules and rational agents downplayed the importance of the lived world. Forrester explicates Bernard Williams attack on Rawls rule-based conception of justice as being psychologically implausible. She also does a good job of detailing other philosophers such as Cavell and Rorty who use evidence from art and psychoanalysis to demonstrate that Rawls conception of the self and is implausible and this fact undermines the whole theory of justice which is built on this conception of the self.

            Forrester notes that there is a great irony in the criticisms levelled at Rawls in that he at times held similar views to those of his critics such as Williams and Cavel. In his 1963 ‘The Sense of Justice’ Rawls sketchs a moral psychology which he argues is consistent with the choices that would be made in the original position. While Rawls conception of the developing self is told in abstract academic tones, he does take on bord considerations from theorists such as Freud, Piaget. In short Rawls sketches three kinds of guilt (1) authority guilt, (2) association guilt, and (3) principle guilt (The Sense of Justice p.100). Rawls conception of the child developing his moral principles based on feelings of guilt tells a story of the self that is not quite as abstract and disembodied as critics like Cavel and Williams suggest.

             A major difficulty in her treatment is that because she discusses so many theorists, she doesn’t give herself enough space to delve into the argumentative structure of Rawls’ major critics. Aside from her quick treatment of Rawls critics I would argue that the narrative she was trying to tell of critics of Rawls leading to defanged liberal philosophy blinded her to liberal critics of Rawls whose views are eminently practical such as Nussbaum and Singer.

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