Political Liberalism and the Possibility of Egalitarianism

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This dissertation is a study of political liberalism, both as that doctrine was developed by John Rawls and as it has come to be understood and modified by others. It is agreed that the search for moral common ground was at the heart of Rawls's project, but the details of his preferred response to the "fact of reasonable pluralism" are widely disputed. I argue that the currently dominant views of these details are mistaken, and I offer new interpretations of Rawls's political liberalism and of his reasons for developing it. I claim that Rawls's theory is, contrary to most accounts, more concerned with justice than with legitimacy and less concerned with securing agreement between actually existing citizens than his most well-known formulations might suggest. But this resulting theory incorporates two fundamental yet conflicting strands, and the only way to render it consistent and plausible is to formulate an "orthodox political liberalism" that ends up looking much like the view painted by the (still) mistaken rival interpretations. This orthodox political liberalism derives its plausibility from the resemblance of its moral rationale to the rationale for the traditional liberal stance in favor of state neutrality on religion. It is next argued that orthodox political liberalism has difficultly sustaining the arguments needed to defend a sufficiently determinate egalitarian criterion of distributive justice. We therefore confront a tension between liberal egalitarianism and the moral underpinnings of liberal neutrality on religion. After setting out reasons for thinking that we should in fact question the traditional liberal stance on religion in political life, I attempt to develop a framework of political justification that would reassert the traditional constraints on religious considerations, this time for more pragmatic reasons. Unfortunately, this initially attractive framework?which I call pragmatic contextualism?is in the final analysis unsatisfactory. I conclude that since the constraint on publicly acceptable reasons that is the hallmark of political liberalism and the bane of economic egalitarianism is not in fact a demand of justice, we should reject political liberalism and explore further the possibility of strongly egalitarian criteria of economic justice.

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