A review of Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, by John Rawls, edited by Barbara Herman

John Rawls is almost certainly the best-known American practitioner of the ancient discipline of political philosophy — although just the other day I did meet someone in a university who had never heard of him. Most of us who do know of him do not particularly associate him with the history of philosophy. He plies his trade more in the mode of contemporary Anglo-American analytic philosophy, which tends to draw a rather sharp distinction between "doing philosophy" and studying the history of philosophy.

One of these analytic gentlemen, for example, said recently to a distinguished acquaintance of mine who has spent many years studying Kant and German idealism, that he always wondered "what it was like to be a scholar," with the understanding, of course, that "mere" was implicitly modifying "scholar" in that query. In his own most famous works, A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism, Rawls never says anything quite so patronizing, and indeed he mentions figures from the history of philosophy from time to time. Nonetheless, from these mentions and the general style of his thinking one would not conclude that he takes the history of philosophy particularly seriously. Indeed, from some of the comments he makes about thinkers like Aristotle or Nietzsche in A Theory of Justice one might be led to wonder whether he had ever read these authors.

That conclusion must now be substantially revised with the appearance of Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. This volume is one of several new works by Rawls that have appeared in recent years when his actual writing activity has been sharply curtailed if not ended by ill-health. As the title suggests, the volume at hand is the text of a course in moral philosophy offered at Harvard in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. The actual coverage is a good deal narrower than the title implies, for Rawls limits himself to modern philosophy entirely, and is very selective within that field. Ten of the 20 lectures are on Kant, five on Hume, two on Leibnitz (present as a point of contrast and background for Kant), and two on Hegel (present as a critic and supplement to Kant). There is, in addition, an introductory lecture on Modern Moral Philosophy providing a background in the entire history of moral philosophy prior to the moment when Rawls picks up the story.

Clearly, the central figure is Kant, not surprising, given the frequent identification of Rawls as some sort of Kantian. Interestingly, the editor, Barbara Herman, a former student of Rawls and herself a distinguished writer on moral philosophy, tells us that the course whose lectures we have here supplanted a more general (and more standard) course in ethics where Rawls treated the "usual suspects" in moral philosophy — Aristotle, Kant, Mill, and rotating others — as exemplars of the chief alternative types of ethical systems, perfectionist, deontological, and utilitarian. The older course of lectures predated A Theory of Justice; the newer course evolved out of work Rawls undertook on Kant beginning around 1974, i.e., after A Theory of Justice.

I dwell so much on the history of Rawls's Lectures because a volume like this always raises the question of where its real interest lies — in the insights we glean from the philosophers, or in the insights into the thought of the historian-philosopher himself? This question obtrudes itself strongly when we look at the historical writings of philosophic figures like Hegel, Heidegger, or Leo Strauss, and it does so in Rawls's case as well. Certainly in the cases of Hegel and Heidegger we are often driven to conclude that what they see in the thought of their predecessors has much more to do with their own philosophic activity than with the (mere?) scholarly attempt to understand accurately the philosophers they study. Both Hegel and Heidegger are famous for eschewing the goal of attempting to understand the thinkers of the past as they understood themselves. Both, of course, have elaborate philosophic justifications for rejecting that particular aspiration.

Rawls is not like them. Perhaps surprisingly, he is much closer to Strauss in his approach to the thinkers of the past. He does not accept the perspective of many of his fellow 20th-century philosophers, who believe that contemporary philosophy has superseded historical philosophy as, say, contemporary mathematics or physics supersedes historical mathematics or physics. He does not agree that philosophy is or has been "progressive" in the way that (arguably) mathematics and physics are. Thus he claims "philosophic," not mere historical or scholarly interest in the history of philosophy. "Philosophic interest," as he understands it, pushes him in two somewhat different, partially conflicting directions. On the one side, he seeks to be historically accurate. This requires patient listening to the philosophers, involving, above all, an attempt to understand them in their own terms. That means trying to see what problems they were trying to solve, what they thought the tasks and means of moral thinking were, and not holding them up to some model of the problems or methods of philosophy regnant today. Thus, to understand Kant, for instance, means to set his moral thinking into the context of the rest of his philosophic project and of the chief alternatives that Kant saw to his positions. After reading Rawls's Lectures, nobody would rank him among those scholars of the history of philosophy, who single-mindedly attempt to reproduce the context of a given thinker's philosophic activity down to the most minute minutiae (I will name no names), but the reader will respect Rawls's sober effort to take the philosophers on their own terms and to reproduce their philosophic enterprises as they saw them.

On the other side, Rawls avoids reducing philosophers to their historical context because he approaches past texts with a philosophic aim. By that he means that "the study of these figures" is supposed to "help us now . . . with our problems." In other words, "These texts have much to teach us." Rawls is not afraid to learn from, as well as to learn about the philosophers of the past. "Knowing these works puts before us possibilities of thought vastly different from these we would normally be aware of." Rawls attempts to appropriate the thinkers of the past into his own thinking, and thus to the question I posed earlier — does this book tell us about the philosophers discussed or about Rawls — the answer is, both. In some ways what we have here is an instance of what the late Hans Georg Gadamer described as a "fusion of horizons," with both the attendant strengths and difficulties of that enterprise.

So, what do we learn from Rawls about Hume, or Kant, or Hegel? We learn first that Rawls has studied their works very carefully; that he has tried to set their thinking about morality into the broader context of their thought. For example, he gives a brief but provocative account of the "fideism of nature" in Hume's theory of knowledge, into which he argues Hume's moral philosophy properly fits. Another example: he gives us an extremely helpful account of the "categorical imperative procedure" in Kant, an account that responds to the frequent criticism that the categorical imperative is merely an empty formation, unable to generate any content for its moral demands, or at least unable to do so without illicitly appealing to empirical and consequentialist considerations that seem ruled out. He gives, as well, a highly plausible account of how the three formulations of the categorical imperative cohere. He shows himself to be a reasonably good reader of Hegel, a thinker I would have thought very foreign to his cast of mind.

It must be said that in his interpretation of the philosophers Rawls is not always original; he adopts from time to time others' interpretations of the thinkers as the basis or as part of his own interpretation. It must also be said that Rawls does not claim any sort of finality for the interpretations he puts forward. Indeed, his presentation is marked by a refreshing modesty and respect for his subjects: "I always took for granted that the writers we were studying were much smarter than I was. If they were not, why was I wasting my time and the students' time by studying them? …All the great figures…lie to some degree beyond us, no matter how hard we try to master their thought."

Valuable as Lectures is for insight and reflection on the philosophers discussed, to my mind the book is yet more revealing about Rawls himself. Over the years, Rawls has given us three or perhaps four different versions of his political philosophy. He has not always been clear on how he understands the relation between the different versions, and a good deal of debate exists over how he means to ground the system. Lectures helps, for it comes in the period between Theory of Justice (1971) and Political Liberalism (1993), yet it does not particularly support the position taken in either. As Barbara Herman points out, the period in which Rawls delivered these lectures was the period in which he developed his famous statement on "Kantian Constructivism." Readers familiar with that will notice many similarities with the Kant portions of the Lectures. We see in Lectures the evidence of Rawls attempting to work over Kant so as to bring him into closer propinquity to Rawls's own theory. 

In Theory of Justice, Rawls eschewed lengthy reflections on the methodology of moral theory; he referred the reader to an early essay, which was, in turn, a stripped-down version of his doctoral dissertation. The account of moral theory underlying Theory of Justice was Humean, however, in the sense that, like David Hume, it attempted to expound morality in a way that would be equivalent to the scientific accounts of natural phenomena, like the motions of the planets in the solar system. This method was meant by both Hume and Rawls to be a way of circumventing the difficulties posed by the distinction between Is and Ought — between what is and what should be — that Hume had analyzed so fiercely in his early Treatise on Human Nature. Unlike many of his followers, Hume did not conclude that the Is-Ought distinction implied that no moral judgments could be valid, but it did turn him toward a style of moral theory meant to steer clear of this so-called gap. For Hume the real issue was not whether there could be valid moral judgments — he recognized that there were such — but rather how they could be. How did the ought premises in our moral judgments arise? Where did they come from? He found their source not in reason but in the feeling or moral sentiments, in turn traceable from the moral judgments normally made. 

Rawls's substantive analysis was quite different from Hume's, however, and veered in Kantian directions, although he did not reproduce Kant's position on justice, either. The most significantly Kantian element was his claim that one of the primary data for moral theory was the judgment that individuals are not to be sacrificed to the good of each other, or even to the good of the whole: no one is to be treated merely as a means. Rawls rightly understood this principle to point away from all forms of utilitarianism, including Hume's proto-utilitarianism. This insight led Rawls to revive what had seemed a discredited approach in political philosophy — contractarianism. His doctrine of the "original position," the hypothetical, pre-political condition from which the principles of justice were to be deduced, reflected the imperative that society honor the claim that no one be treated merely as a means. Rawls guaranteed this by demanding that the principles of justice be those that could achieve unanimous agreement by self-interested but risk-averse persons in the original position, a requirement that would unfailingly generate a kind of redistributionist welfare state in which no one could be treated merely as a means. 

On the basis of his sustained encounter with Kant in the Lectures, Rawls reformulates many, perhaps most of the important elements of Theory, excising its rational-choice side and replacing it with the Kantian-style notion of "the moral powers" of rationality and reasonableness. But this deeply Kantian moment proved to be a transitional one, as Rawls moved on to the "political conception" contained in Political Liberalism

The interaction between Rawls the interpreter of past philosophy and Rawls the theorist of justice is what makes Lectures so interesting a book. In his confrontation with Kant we can see something of the impetus behind his own thinking, but we can also see how his own philosophical interests shape his reading of Kant in certain directions. Rawls produces a very non-metaphysical Kant, not entirely persuasive in light of Kant's title for his chief ethical work, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Although Rawls's "fusion of horizons" may set up insuperable barriers to his achieving the more strictly historical side of his project in those lectures, he gives us here a good, if challenging, reading of several of the great moral philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries. If you are interested in Kant or Rawls, it is definitely worthwhile even if you find yourself (as I do) dissenting from Rawls's own political philosophy.