Obama’s debt to Rawls?
Anyone who doubts the ability of philosophy to influence ‘real world’ politics should study the text of Obama’s victory address. They should then read John Rawls’s Political Liberalism. (That’s if they haven’t done so already, of course.) There are points in the speech at which Obama’s remarks parallel certain key Rawlsian theses in such a striking way that one has to ask oneself if the resemblance could be more than accidental.
Let me give a couple of examples:
- The first is Obama’s emphasis upon the diversity of opinions and beliefs within American society, and the consequent necessity for argument. Thus; Obama says, ‘We have our own opinions. Each of us has deeply held beliefs’ and’ ‘We can never forget that as we speak people in distant places are risking their lives right now just for a chance to argue about the issues that matter.’ As I see it, there is an obvious similarity between this and Rawls’s specification of the problem of political as, ‘‘[H]ow is it possible for there to exist over time a just and stable society of free and equal citizens, who remain profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?.
I find this striking because, like most modern democratic societies, American society is characterised by many forms of diversity, for example, by a diversity of ethnic and religious groups. (Admittedly, the latter are defined, in part, by their adherence to this or that doctrine, but I would be disinclined to say that the difference between one religious group is simply the difference between one ‘doctrine’ or another.) Then again, it seems obvious that American society – like any complex modern society – is characterised by a multiplicity of potentially conflicting interest groups – and having an interest is not equivalent to believing in the truth of a doctrine.) However, just as he emphasises the diversity of opinion and belief, Obama plays down the latter; for example, when he refers to ‘cynics that tell us that politics is nothing more than a contest of egos or the domain of special interests’. This resembles the way in which Rawls singles out the diversity of doctrines rather than, say, interests, for special treatment. This may or may not be idiosyncratic, but it is certainly one of the features which renders Rawls’s philosophy distinctive. (Of course, I do realise that, towards the end of his speech, Obama refers to many other forms of diversity – of skin colour, age, sexual orientation, and so on- but I don’t think that affects the point I’m making here.)
- Obama argues that, although the USA is ‘the most diverse nation on earth’ it is greater than the sum of its parts. He says: ‘We are not as cynical as the pundits believe . We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than collection of red states and blue states’, You could put the point another way by saying that – according to Obama – the USA is no ‘mere modus vivendi’ but ‘true political unity’, which is precisely the claim Rawls makes for the ‘well-ordered democratic society’ he describes in his book.
Now, I take it that, in fact, there may be good reasons for finding a pragmatic modus vivendi a perfectly acceptable arrangement. As I see it, a lot would depend upon the acceptability of the terms upon which the modus vivendi is established. I could be wrong of course, but that’s not the point here. The point is that neither Obama nor Rawls would agree, – or so it appears – at least, not in the case of the USA (Obama) or the ‘well-founded democratic society’ (Rawls).
I could continue but I think I’ve said enough to make my point here. Of course, I could be imagining all this, but, if the influence I’m claiming to detect exists, it’s not difficult to imagine the mechanism by means of which it has been brought to bear. Thus; it would be surprising if Obama didn’t rely upon think-tanks and speech writers, and equally surprising if many of the individuals involved were not Harvard educated and heavily imbued with Rawlsian ways of thinking.
Still, even if I’m wrong, congratulations to Barak in any case. If I’m right – and if you’re up there somewhere looking down at us John – thanks a million!