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The Habermas-Rawls Debate


James Gordon Finlayson


New York: Columbia University Press, 2019

Paperback. xiv+294pp. ISBN 978023 164115. $35


Reviewed by J. Donald Moon

Wesleyan University, Middletown (Connecticut)




Although the title of this book, The Habermas-Rawls Debate, is perfectly apt, it seriously understates the book’s significance. The title suggests that the book focuses narrowly on the famous exchange between Habermas and Rawls originally published in the Journal of Philosophy in 1995, possibly also including a further development of Habermas’s critique in “Reasonable vs. True,” which was published in his The Inclusion of the Other three years later. This exchange (especially the first two pieces) is widely seen as disappointing, one in which the protagonists talked past each other more than with each other. In this book, however, Finlayson goes beyond the narrow “exchange” of views between the two thinkers to frame a deep, scholarly, and engaging account of the political theories of Rawls and Habermas and their differences – the “dispute” between these theories, with an eye to identifying their differences and the ways in which we can learn from them in thinking about political life today. In doing so he surveys the vast scholarly literature focused on these preeminent thinkers, carefully drawing on these accounts as well as on Habermas’s and Rawls’s writings to identify the issues that are both significant and genuinely in dispute between them. The book concludes with a close analysis of their contrasting accounts of the legitimate role of religion in formulating law and policy in a democracy, illustrating the different frameworks the thinkers use in presenting their theories and, one might add, in how they see the point or value of theory itself in grappling with issues of public life and practical reason. Unlike much of the literature in this area, the writing is exceptionally lucid.

The book makes an important contribution to the field by drawing on Rawls’s and Habermas’s criticisms of each other’s theories to develop a clear, in-depth interpretation of both theories, using each to illuminate the other. Since it begins with accounts of each theory taken separately, it should be accessible to students and scholars who come to these theories without much prior study. Specialists will be challenged and their understanding of these theories will be deepened by the sustained engagement with these works at the heart of the book in Parts III and, to a lesser extent, Part IV, in which Finlayson sets out his account of the real differences between the two theorists once misundertandings and misinterpretations have been removed. The discussion of these remaining differences, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of their positions on these issues, is very complex and nuanced, defying easy summary.

At the end of the book, Finlayson turns to a theme that has come up from time to time throughout the work, that of what Rawls and Habermas have in common. Noting that “our current political actuality is moving ever further away from the moral and political vision of democracy that Habermas and Rawls championed,” he reminds us that respecting the “fundamental ... rules of human coexistence” and being “prepared to call things and events by their proper names” have never been more important than it is now, and that no one has done so “more conscientiously than Habermas and Rawls” [247]. Finlayson’s admiration for the moral and integrity of these thinkers is well taken, but in the context of current political trends it raises the question of the relevance of their work to our political situation. One suggestion may be that whatever relevance they may have had to our political life in the past has eroded, and that we have little to learn from them today. Or, perhaps, it suggests the opposite, that if we care about the realization of democratic values and practices we might draw on them for inspiration and ideas moving forward. Supposing the latter, it would seem that Finlayson would advise us to turn to Habermas rather than Rawls because, in Finlayson’s view, Rawls does not adequately engage with the reality of democracy, but imagines a staid politics in which there is a consensus among civil and reasonable citizens, the absence of which is perhaps the most salient aspect of our politics at this time. Finlayson stresses the importance Rawls attaches the “political values” that he takes to be central to the political culture of a democratic society upon which the political conception of justice is erected, but this imagined consensus on the political values overlooks the messiness and conflicts of actual political life.

This criticism of Rawls is not implausible. He does focus more on the problem of political justification than on democratic functioning, and he has relatively little to say about the institutions and practices of a democratic society. It is easy to view Rawls as too complacent about democracy, seeking to explain why it is legitimate, but taking for granted its importance and pervasiveness in modern societies. But there is another reading of Rawls that suggests not only an enormous scope for democracy, but also that the “political values” are very abstract and general, allowing for significant political contestation and change, not fixed ideasspecifying a particular political conception of justice.(1) In his last book, Justice as Fairness : A Restatement,(2) Rawls argues that one fundamental task of political philosophy is to help resolve “divisive political conflict” [The Habermas-Rawls Debate : 1] by uncovering “some underlying basis of philosophical and moral agreement” to allow “political differences” to “be narrowed so that social cooperation can” be “maintained” or even enabled [2]. The key idea here is the idea of social cooperation, the fundamental political value around which Rawls’s thinking is oriented. Central to his conception of political philosophy is the “idea of a well ordered society – a society effectively regulated by a public conception of justice” [8]. For Rawls, a well ordered society “is a fair system of social cooperation over time from one generation to the next” [5], in which the “role of the principles of justice ... is to specify the fair terms of social cooperation” [7]. Crucial to this conception is the distinction between social cooperation and “socially coordinated activity – for example, activity coordinated by orders issued by an absolute central authority” [6]. Social life is impossible without coordination; cooperation is coordination realized through rules or procedures that participants accept as “appropriate to regulate their conduct,” in part because the rules enable them to realize their own good in ways they regard as fair. As Rawls puts it, “Fair terms of cooperation specify an idea of reciprocity, or mutuality: all who do their part as the recognized rules require are to benefit as specified by a public and agreed-upon standard” [6].

Note that the idea of social cooperation or a well-ordered society is only well defined when the “fair terms of cooperation” are actually spelled out in a specific “political conception of justice,” and that Rawls explicitly allows that not only are there different political conceptions of justice, but also that as time passes different concerns and issues may surface, leading citizens to challenge the governing (set of overlapping] political conceptions of justice, calling for their revision to address these new issues. Thus, Rawls argues that political liberalism “does not try to fix public reason once and for all,” and that “new variants may be proposed from time to time and older ones may cease to be represented” [“The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” reprinted in The Law of Peoples : 142]. This open-endedness is desirable, for it means that “the claims of groups or interests arising from social change” can be recognized and “gain their appropriate political voice” [142-143]. However, since all of the conceptions that satisfy the “criterion of reciprocity” [141] are reasonable, political liberalism narrows the scope of disagreement sufficiently to make a well-ordered society possible, at least to the extent that its citizens do in fact seek to live cooperatively with others and accept the existence of reasonable disagreement among adherents of different comprehensive doctrines.

Rawls’s account of justice in his later writings, then, is dynamic, rather than static: there is no ideal of justice which holds across time and different societies. Rather, the specific content of any political conception of justice is open for debate and revision over time, and different democratic countries may be based on different political conceptions of justice. Moreover, and fundamental to his argument, is the recognition that liberalism – especially political liberalism – is decidedly not the ruling paradigm for any actually existing society, but one of many contesting views, one that has been engaged in a centuries long struggle with non-liberal visions. Though he endorses the goal of a well-ordered society, he recognizes that such a society emerges – when it emerges– from a modus vivendi that over time evolves into genuine acceptance by a citizenry. Such acceptance involves two processes. In the first, they come to see the political conception as possible – that in our political life they learn not to insist upon the whole truth because in a morally and philosophically pluralist society such insistence makes a cooperative society impossible. In the second, they come to see that the “great evils of human history – unjust war, oppression, religious persecution, slavery, and the rest” [The Law of Peoples : 6-7] can be overcome, an outcome that is not merely “a logical possibility, but one that connects with the deep tendencies and inclinations of the social world” [128]. The open-endedness (in several dimensions] of Rawls’s idea of a well ordered society creates more space for democratic engagement and contestation than Finlayson seems to acknowledge. But this alternative reading of Rawls does nothing to diminish the importance of Finlayson’s work as a contribution to our understanding of these fundamental issues. Both Rawls’s and Habermas’s texts are incredibly rich, lending themselves to a range of interpretations, each of which opens up new lines of inquiry.


(1) The rest of this review draws on my book, John Rawls : Liberalism and the Challenges of Late Modernity (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

(2) This text was not prepared for publication by Rawls, but by Erin Kelly, who drew on the most recent versions of his lecture notes for a course he taught on political philosophy. As she explains in the Editor’s Introduction, “Revisions were kept to a minimum and care has been taken not to alter the substance of what Rawls wrote. All changes were made with the author’s knowledge” [xiii].




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