Is Rawls Defending Liberalism?
“A defense of liberalism” is any argument which aims to show the correctness of liberal principles to someone who does not share the liberal outlook already. Under this definition it is an open interpretative question whether John Rawls in his thought in fact defends liberalism, as opposed to merely elaborating it. The main question of this paper is: what kind of interpretation of Rawls is needed for him to be viewed as truly defending liberalism? I outline three distinct ways to read Rawls’ work, especially his Theory of Justice. I claim that the first one, “rational choice” reading, could in principle provide a defense of liberalism, but it is untenable, because it cannot justify many features of Rawls argument. Therefore, it is necessary to read Rawls as trying to embody certain intuitions concerning a conception of person into his theoretical structure. The intuitions thus play a crucial role in all the important junctions of Rawls’ argument. But does Rawls try to justify these intuitions? If he is only trying to make them coherent while their ultimate source is in our shared democratic tradition (second reading), that is no defense at all. Ultimately (third reading) I argue Rawls must be interpreted as grounding his normative conception of person in human empirically demonstrable capacities, which would justify him in holding this conception, thus providing a defense of liberalism. This paper ends with a short consideration of possible drawbacks and advantages of this interpretation.