Taking Politics Seriously

How do we deal with politics? By Charles Blattberg Professor of Political Philosophy Université de Montréal.

Washington Monument, Washington DC


John Rawls’ gamification of justice leads him – along with many other monist political philosophers, not least Ronald Dworkin – to fail to take politics seriously enough. I begin with why we consider games frivolous and then show how Rawls’ theory of justice is not merely analogous to a game, as he himself seems to claim, but is in fact a kind of game. As such, it is harmful to political practice in two ways: one as regards the citizens who participate directly in it, and the other as regards those who do no more than follow it.

Keywords: Political Philosophy, Ethics, Meta-Ethics, Political Theory, Play, Dialogue, Negotiation, Democracy, John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Conversation, Monism, Games.


To Isaiah Berlin, the idea “that all good things must be compatible…and perhaps even entail one another in a systematic fashion [is] perhaps one of the least plausible beliefs ever entertained by profound and influential thinkers.”(2) So says pluralism of monism. The claim is meant to apply as much to personal as to political life, and it has led pluralists to argue that monists overlook the inescapably tragic dimension of both. If, when values conflict, we cannot turn to a systematic theory for guidance, then it seems we have no choice but to compromise and, by compromising, diminish what we believe to be good. That, at least, is what comes from negotiation, which is what pluralists recommend as the chief alternative to the application of monist theories of morality or justice. And they do so even though – or rather because – it means embracing a world that is inherently unsystematic, sometimes tragically so. (3)

One might push this point even further. Monists do not merely fail to give the tragedy of morals or politics its due; some can even be accused of treating them frivolously, as if they were like games. Consider John Rawls’ vision of the “well-ordered society.” To Rawls: “In much the same way that players have the shared end to execute a good and fair play of the game, so the members of a well-ordered society have the common aim of cooperating together to realize their own and another’s nature in ways allowed by the principles of justice.”(4) The principles in question are those of Rawls’ theory of justice and, just like the rules of a formal game, they are supposed to be systematically unified. This comes from meeting three requirements. First, the principles have a lexical priority, which means that they are not to be weighed against each other. 5 Second, when the various liberties asserted by the first principle are to be balanced, we may only do so by assessing them as a whole, “as one system.” This means that, much as with utility in utilitarianism, there is no sense in which liberty should be sacrificed to the needs of another value; on the contrary, it may be compromised “only for the sake of liberty itself.”(6) Finally, the second principle is said to be the product of a lexically ordered and therefore systematic combination of two others: fair equality of opportunity, and a “difference principle” by which inequalities are permitted only when they benefit the people in society who are the worst off.(7) All this means that, just like a sports referee or umpire, no one charged with applying Rawls’ theory should ever be troubled by having to make tragic compromises. For the systematic ordering of its principles will, ostensibly, allow them to keep their hands clean. (8)

Yet are we right to define Rawls’ approach as monistic? After all, as he himself came to see, it is relevant to politics alone, and then only in a very specific, “reasonable” sense. Part of what Rawls means by this derives from his famous distinction between “comprehensive” and strictly “political” conceptions. The former is a view of life that, whether monist, pluralist, or something else, tends to be believed as metaphysically true, while the latter is a view of justice that “neither asserts nor denies” the truth of its principles and judgments. Given this agnosticism, political conceptions are understood to be compatible with many different comprehensive views. To which it is often added that since, after all this time, we have yet to achieve any sort of consensus on a comprehensive view, such metaphysical disagreements may very well be insoluble. But while we are unable to reconcile over comprehensive truth, we can still be reasonable and thereby share and uphold a political conception. (9)

That said, Rawls recognizes that not all comprehensive views will be compatible with a given political conception. (10) Political homes can nevertheless be made for the reasonable ones, which is why he sees his approach as embracing a “reasonable pluralism – as opposed to [the metaphysical doctrine of] pluralism as such.” (11) And yet, as we have seen, those holding comprehensive views are not supposed to inhabit the political as a mere collection of disparate people – on the contrary, they are to be governed by a single, unified system. They may still disagree over how to articulate and apply its principles (Rawls admits that not everyone may accept his own way of doing so, which he calls “justice as fairness”), but the point is that such disagreements will be far less divisive than those over, say, morality and, for this reason, they will not threaten well-orderedness.(12)

So it is this, the fact that the principles are supposed to fit together in a fully coherent way, constituting a oneness, that makes me feel justified in referring to Rawls’ approach as monistic. True, it’s only a partial monism, since it is limited to the political, but it’s not as if there is no precedent for this sort of thing. Think of Hume, who was downright sceptical about the prospects of formulating a unified moral theory while simultaneously being quite ambitious in his political theory. Or, stepping back, we can note that while Berlin is a pluralist about the practical he is very probably, like Bernard Williams, a monist as regards the natural, for he seems willing to accept that it makes sense for scientists to strive for a unified “absolute conception” of nature. (13)

The question of philosophical labels aside, it is clear that Rawls believes that a people can be united politically while remaining fundamentally divided otherwise, much as the players of a game can be said to unite when they agree to conform to the systematically interlocked rules of its rulebook. Now while I also happen to oppose pluralism (to me, the right way lies in between it and monism), I find it astounding that Rawls would compare just politics to the playing of a game. Even more astounding is that, though Rawls appears to be using “game” merely for analogy, the reality, as I will argue, is that justice as he conceives of it is a game.

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Suggested Citation:

Blattberg, Charles, Taking Politics Seriously (May 12, 2019). Philosophy 94, no. 2 (April 2019): 271–94. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3387005

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