Political Liberalism: Political not Metaphysical

In both his initial article on Richard Rorty and in his reponse to my original criticism posted on this blog, I continue to feel as if Linker is misreading Rorty, John Rawls, or both. Linker says we should be Rawls-style "political liberals" whose liberalism isn't intrinsically tied to any comprehensive metaphysical (or, in Rorty's case, anti-metaphysical) view and that this vision is preferable to Rorty's. I say -- and, crucially, Rorty says -- that this is Rorty's vision.

Linker concedes (in his response) that Rorty says his view is the same as Linker's. But Linker thinks Rorty is confused. He thinks he's a Rawlsian but, in fact, in "his 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." By contrast the pluralist position merely "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."

Here's where I think the confusion sets in. Rawlsian political liberalism is indifferent to most of people's views in other areas of life. But Rawlsian political liberalism doesn't say that individual people -- especially including political liberals in good standing -- must be indifferent to the comprehensive views of other. It's not as if in Rawls-land the priests and imams and rabbis and art critics and yoga instructors of the world are all supposed to stop offering opinions about good and evil, beautiful and ugly, because "hey, we're political liberals, we're indifferent to that stuff."

The goal is to hive off an autonomous political domain in which we bracket our views on broader, deeper questions and engage one another on the basis of a much-shallower but more widely held set of views about the conception of a citizen.

Where Rawls and Rorty diverge is that Rawls, at least in his published writings, actually is indifferent about the "background culture" questions about God and truth and beauty. He doesn't work in those fields. He's not saying nobody should work on those questions, he's just saying he doesn't, that one doesn't need to do that stuff in order to do political philosophy, and that one shouldn't appeal to that stuff when conducting political arguments. Rorty, by contrast, isn't indifferent. He's a passionate advocate of secular humanism and anti-foundationalism in the background culture, and also a political liberal in the political domain.

If Rorty's aspiration that his background views might someday gain universal adherence makes him a bad liberal, then we're going to have to conclude that essentially every even-vaguely-orthodox Christian and Muslim are also bad liberals. That, however, clearly can't be what Rawsl was trying to put forward.

John Holbo has a different take on this, taking issue with what he calls Rorty's "rhetoric of anticipatory retrospective." I agree that this gets to be a somewhat annoying tick and I think John's conclusion that "his one tool – preaching conversion by preaching the meta-possibility of conversion – is unsatisfactorily limited in a number of ways" seems about right. On the other hand, it seems to me that very few people have had a huge degree of success in advocating for the sort of American social democratic vision that Rorty espouses. After all, if anyone was wildly success at this, it would be a very different country.