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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Rawls and the Violence of the State

Given the rise of the security state, one developing critique Rawls work faces is that he did not give enough due attention to the problems of war and the violent capacity of the state. As an example, Paul Kahn in Political Theology (2011) charges that “Rawls and his followers never took seriously the violence of the state,” because the threat of “mutual assured destruction never appears within liberal political theory.” Further “the defence policies of the United States are always seen as somehow exceptional—more transitional arrangements than expressions of national identity.” In other words, violence is not considered a salient feature of American foreign policy. The charge is used as proxy to indict the ideal of justice as fairness; for if justice relies upon the State for implementation, and but that social institution at its very core is violent and corrupt, then how can any system of justice implement in its name be just?

Kahn, as well as other critics of liberalism, fall into the trap of sentimentalism, believing incorrectly at the absence of a particular kind of demonstrated concern for a particular topic indicates its absence altogether. It is the emphasis of empathy while neglecting the merits of sympathy. While Rawls did shy away from public engagement, this does not mean that he had few political opinions, nor any positions on war or violence in general.

For Rawl, instances of war were the very items that turned him away from religious belief (although not religious temperament) to political philosophy. In his reflective essay On My Religion, he writes about some of his military experience in the general infantry in the Pacific theater, and his horror at the use of the atomic bombs, the discovery of the concentration camps, and the contingent death of a close friend. Rawls knew war.

Moreover Rawls took an early public stance against the Vietnam War because it was an unjust war. In 1969 Rawls choose to teach a class on the Problems of War because of its timely nature. Issues covered includes ius as bellum and ius in bello, conscientious objections to serving in an unjust war, and civil disobedience. These ideas would find themselves articulated in Political Liberalism.

There is also his 1969 paper “The Justification of Civil Disobedience” which established justified citizens as dissenters in publically and non-violently disobeying the law, within limits to the fidelity to the law. Such work provided philosophical support to the ideas of dissent of the civil rights movement. And in 1995 on the Fiftith anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, he published a paper condemning the actions, writing that they “were great wrongs.”

Kahn’s argument fails. In general he neglects that liberals have often been at the forefront of reforming indiscriminate state violence. The French and English Civil Wars provided the hard lesson that unchecked power would create a world, to use Hobbes description, has "continual fear, and the danger of violent death." Such a condition is intolerable to Liberals and their deep reverence for life. Hence why liberal social contact theorists of morality demand that 'might cannot be right,' and instead seek to base political decisions on reason.


[1] Kahn’s position is one where state violence derives less from conflict about political identity and affiliation, and more in the deeper realm of the apparent lawful order wherein“political violence has been and remains a form of sacrifice.” The disadvantage of the majority of liberal political theory is that it cannot make that identification for “not reason but decision describes that most characteristic of all political acts: killing and being killed for the state (emphasis added).” The extent to which Kahn is correct could be turn on an assessment of the degree to which the US incarceration is form of sacrifice made for political order. Kahn is probably correct on this account.