Poli 471 Midterm Study Guide
Rawls, Nozick, Cohen, Berlin, Taylor, Walzer, Hayek, Habermas, Okin
Four Roles of Political Philosophy
Rawls sees political philosophy as fulfilling at least four roles in a society's public life. The first
role is practical: political philosophy can discover bases for reasoned agreement in a society
where sharp divisions threaten to lead to conflict. Rawls cites Hobbes's
as an attempt
to solve the problem of order during the English civil war, and the
from the debate over the US Constitution.
A second role of political philosophy is to help citizens to orient themselves within their own
social world. Philosophy can describe what it is to be a member of a society with a certain
political status, and suggest how the nature and history of that society can be understood from a
A third role is to probe the limits of practicable political possibility. Political philosophy must
describe workable political arrangements that can gain support from real people. Yet within these
limits philosophy can be utopian: it can depict a social order that is the best that one can hope for.
Given men as they are, as Rousseau said, philosophy imagines how laws might be.
A fourth role of political philosophy is reconciliation: “to calm our frustration and rage against
our society and its history by showing us the way in which its institutions… are rational, and
developed over time as they did to attain their present, rational form.” (
, 3) Philosophy can
show that human life is not simply domination and cruelty, prejudice, folly and corruption; but
that in some ways at least it is better that it has become the way that it is.
Rawls viewed his own work as a practical contribution toward settling the long-standing conflict
in democratic thought between liberty and equality, and toward describing the limits of civic and
of international toleration. He offers the members of his own society a way of understanding
themselves as free and equal citizens within a fair democratic polity, and describes a hopeful but
limited vision of a stably just constitutional democracy doing its part within a peaceful
international community. To individuals who are frustrated that their fellow citizens and fellow
humans do not see the whole truth as they do, Rawls offers the reconciling thought that this
diversity of worldviews results from, and can support, a social order with greater freedom for all.
The Sequence of Theories
In contrast to the utilitarian, for Rawls political philosophy is not simply applied moral
philosophy. The utilitarian holds to one universal moral principle (“maximize utility”), which he
applies to individual actions, political constitutions, international relations, and all other subjects
as required. Rawls has no universal principle: “The correct regulative principle for anything,” he
says, “depends on the nature of that thing.” (
, 29) Rawls confines his theorizing to the political