The first suggestion I ever read that John Rawls was a relativist was in the book Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air, by Francis Beckwith and Greg Koukl. It was a fairly brief comment, and at the time I had never read anything by John Rawls, so I never thought about it for a while.
Now I’ve read quite a lot of what John Rawls has written. Is he a relativist? Well, here’s what I observed. John Rawls was a political philosopher famous as a proponent of a kind of political liberalism (a kind that could never be mistaken for classical liberalism). Rawls is famous for talking about the hypothetical state of affairs he called “the original position.” This is the place that we must put ourselves in when deciding what constitutional principles (and I think by extension, what kind of laws) a society should have. In the original position, we are kept ignorant of how those principles will affect us in the real world, because we must hypothesise that we do not know what place in society we will have, how wealthy we will be, and also, incidentally, what religious beliefs we will have.
What we would do in the original poisition, says Rawls, is to support only those principles that another persona could reasonably accept as rational. And there are some fundamental moral truths and rights that nobody could reasonably reject as rational. Those principles are the ones we will end up with in our constitutional principles. To start out then, there is a kind of relativism going on, since we have to regard many of our important beliefs, along with the important beliefs of other people, as non-essential and not relevant to fundamental principles of justice – even our beliefs about justice.
There are times when Rawls was anything but a relativist, as we’ll see from his comments about same sex marriage and slavery. Other times however, he drops himself right in it.
Let’s start with this observation: Rawls said that sometimes on deeply seated moral disagreements, the solution is to vote, and the vote settles the issue.
“[D]isputed questions, such as that of abortion, may lead to a stand-off between different political conceptions, and citizens must simply vote on the question… the outcome of the vote is to be seen as reasonable, provided all citizens of a reasonably just constitutional regime sincerely vote in accordance with the idea of public reason.”
(Rawls, Political Liberalism, lv-lvi)
So when it comes to deeply seated moral disagreement, the solution is a vote, with the larger numbers winning.
But Rawls does not apply this method of conflict resolution in anything like a consistent manner. Elsewhere, Rawls reveals that he would never appeal to a method like this on issues where he thinks that most liberals of his ilk (namely Rawlsian liberals) would agree with him on the moral issue in question. On a Rawlsian view expressed elsewhere, this is a very strange way to settle issues so closely tied to the question of rights as serious as the right to life. See how elsewhere he contrasted his own views with a utilitarian outlook:
The utilitarian, on the other hand, must concede the theoretical possibility that configurations of preferences allowed by this indeterminacy may lead to injustice as ordinarily understood. For example, assume that the larger part of society has an abhorrence for certain religious or sexual practices, and regards them as an abomination. This feeling is so intense that it is not enough that these practices be kept from the public view; the very thought that these things are going on is enough to arouse the majority to anger and hatred. Even when these attitudes are unsupportable on moral grounds, there appears to be no sure way to exclude them as irrational. Seeking the greatest satisfaction of desire may, then, justify harsh repressive measures against actions that cause no social injury. To defend individual liberty in this case the utilitarian has to show that given the circumstances the real balance of advantages in the long run still lies on the side of freedom; and this argument may or may not be successful.
In justice as fairness, however, this problem simply never arises. The intense convictions of the majority, if they are indeed mere preferences without any foundation in the principles of justice antecedently established, have no weight to begin with. The satisfaction of these feelings has no value: that can be put in the scales against the claims of equal liberty. To have a complaint against the conduct and belief of others we must show that their actions injure us, or that the institutions that authorize what they do treat us unjustly. And this means that we must appeal to the principles that we would acknowledge in the original position. Against these principles neither the intensity of feeling nor its being shared by the majority counts for anything.
(Rawls, Political Liberalism, 395.)
But Rawls knew full well when he wrote this that arguments over things like same-sex marriage (which is clearly something within the scope of the kinds of examples he suggests) turn on claims that each side does regard as having moral premises, and not merely on preferences. Rawls might not think terribly much of the arguments used against the practice, but that cannot possibly be relevant, as the issue is whether or not the people who use the arguments hold to them sincerely and deeply, and whether they consider that they offer good reasons for holding the view. Using a personal disagreement with those arguments to write them off as merely “feelings” or “preferences” is just to take a side in this particular dispute. This is a question of rights, and Rawls appears here to put forward the familiar classical liberal view that the state must uphold rights, and they should not be subject to the whim of the majority. But isn’t the question about legal abortion also a question of rights, or at least capable of being expressed as one? Familiar phrases like “right to life” at very least confirm that this is how players in the debate very often see the issue.
Here’s a third hypothetical example for the sake of seeing that Rawls’ talk about just stacking up votes to decide intractable moral issues has such serious weak points. Some people in history have thought, and whether or not they do now, it is conceivable that some people might now think, that blacks are inferior and that there is nothing at all wrong with keeping a house nigger. Let us suppose that they are deeply committed to this view, and that people who own blacks as slaves consider that any suggestion that they should give up ownership of those slaves is an infringement upon their autonomy and property rights. They do not consider black folk to be people with the same rights as us. Let us further suppose that there is another group in society that is sincerely and deeply opposed to the practice of keeping black people as slaves. It is a standoff, with each side disagreeing at a fundamental level about factors that affect just which rights exist to be weighed in the first place. Is the liberal solution really to simply do a head count (not including black people of course), and the greater number wins? Rawls himself rejects any such proposal when it comes to issues of race.
Finally, if the parties [in the original position] are conceived as themselves making proposals, they have no incentive to suggest pointless or arbitrary principles. For example, none would urge that special privileges be given to those exactly six feet tall or born on a sunny day. Nor would anyone put forward the principle that basic rights should depend on the color of one’s skin or the texture of one’s hair. No one can tell whether such principles would be to his advantage. Furthermore, each such principle is a limitation of one’s liberty of action, and such restrictions are not to be accepted without a reason. Certainly we might imagine peculiar circumstances in which these characteristics are relevant. Those born on a sunny day might he blessed with a happy temperament, and for some positions of authority this might be a qualifying attribute. But such distinctions would never be proposed in first principles, for these must have some rational connection with the advancement of human interests broadly defined. The rationality of the parties and their situation in the original position guarantees that ethical principles and conceptions of justice have this general content. Inevitably, then, racial and sexual discrimination presupposes that some hold a favored place in the social system which they are willing to exploit to their advantage. From the standpoint of persons similarly situated in an initial situation which is fair, the principles of explicit racist doctrines are not only unjust. They are irrational. For this reason we could say that they are not moral conceptions at all, but simply means of suppression. They have no place on a reasonable list of traditional conceptions of justice.
(Rawls, Political Liberalism, 129-130.)
Rawls would reject a mere consensus to the issue of race slavery, because racist policies are “arbitrary,” and they are “irrational,” since from behind the veil of ignorance, a person does not know how such policies might affect himself adversely or otherwise. But to deny that this is also the case in the abortion issue is in the first place questionable and in my view just false, and secondly it reveals that the debate is so deeply grounded on each side and the issues it touches on are at a level of the most basic presuppositions to the point where Rawls cannot make this judgement without also clearly taking a side in the abortion debate itself. This is true for exactly the same reason that his comments on racism cited above are not impartial, they involve taking a stance on the personhood and status of black people.
Whether Rawls intended it or not, the approach his political liberalism advocates is moral relativism. If reasonable people disagree, then as citizens in the original position we may not suppose that either is correct. That knowledge, apparently, is stripped from us in the original position as an arbitrary fact of our position in society. However Rawls applies this relativism selectively. On moral issues like slavery or any racist position to which the modern liberally minded Rawls is deeply opposed, it is clearly irrational and unreasonable (according to Rawls, so it seems) to hold the view so it cannot be held in the original position (in spite of real world disagreement). This is not a relativist stance, but on issues where Rawls does not want restrictions put in place because he apparently agrees that the practice is morally tolerable, the practice – even though some call it murder – is one on which reasonable people may differ and we must just respect that and not have a law that imposes either side’s view as true. This is a relativist stance.
So was Rawls a relativist? The answer: When it suited him to be one, he became one.