Linker Replies

Damon Linker was kind enough to send a response to my doubts about his take on Richard Rorty. You'll find it below the fold. I'll write some more about this later, but for now here's Linker:

Rorty certainly did claim that he and Rawls agreed about these questions, but I'm unpersuaded. Rorty was a proselytizer for anti-foundationalism, claiming (in any number of places) that metaphysics in morals or religion is, as such, a danger to liberal democratic politics. The same holds for the belief that science and reason tell us timeless truths about the world, as opposed to helping us solve practical problems. In Rorty's ideal world, everyone would be . . . just like Rorty -- denying the existence of capital-T truth, treating metaphysical commitments with moral and intellectual suspicion, and so forth. As it happens, I've come to agree with Rorty on many of these epistemological questions, but I think it's both politically foolish and morally troubling (in a word, illiberal) to insist that my fellow citizens need to embrace these views as a precondition of contributing positively to the nation's public life.

The pluralist position I attribute to Rawls, Berlin, and Oakeshott is, in this respect, very different. It demands that all citizens affirm liberal principles within the sphere of politics -- like, for instance, that individual rights (in some sense) exist and deserve to be protected by the state -- but it is indifferent to (most of) their views in other areas of life. Whether citizens are atheists or orthodox Christians, whether they believe that science grants them knowledge of the way the world Really Is or it's merely a useful story we tell ourselves, whether they conceive of their rights being grounded in pre-political dignity that derives from human beings having been made in the image of God or they think that rights have come to be asserted because of historical contingencies -- about these and many other (indeed, most other) extra-political matters, political liberalism is and ought to be agnostic.

So, the issue between Rorty and Rawls is not whether Rawls's liberalism needs deeper philosophical foundations. Rorty and (in his late work at least) Rawls both ground their political reflections not in a rationalistic first philosophy but in a certain narrative of Western history (one in which liberalism was developed as a rescue operation for European life after the bloodletting of the religious civil wars). The real issue separating the two thinkers is, rather, whether liberalism should be (in Rawls's terms) a "comprehensive" theory -- that is, does it require, as Rorty seemed to think, that liberal citizens affirm a particular view of human knowledge, God, the grounds of morality, etc., or does it merely require, as Rawls maintained, that liberal citizens refrain from using state power to impose their own (wildly divergent) views about such questions on others.

Focusing on the issue of religion, in which the difference between the thinkers is most pronounced, one could distinguish between them as follows: Rawls's pluralistic liberalism prevents religious orthodoxy from using the state to further its ends, but it allows orthodoxy to flourish in non-political spheres of liberal society. Rorty's anti-foundationalist liberalism, by contrast, seems to be deeply incompatible with orthodoxy of any kind. And given the persistence of piety in the United States, that makes Rawls's pluralist liberalism the better fit for America.