The Lust of Agreement: On How to [Dis]agree

Perhaps the most influential political philosopher of the latter half of the twentieth century is the late Harvard professor, John Rawls. In his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, he famously outlines a thought experiment with which he intends to emphasis the plausibility of his conception of justice. This thought experiment is called “the veil of ignorance” (hereafter, VOI).

Following a long tradition of modern political theorists such as Thomas  Hobbes and John Locke (among others), the VOI is a sort of speculation about the “state of nature”–namely, the conditions within which human beings would find themselves without any pre-established social order. By identifying these “original” circumstances, so the argument goes, it is possible also to justify certain policy principles on “natural” grounds. Broadly, the VOI experiment attempts to answer questions like this: 1. What are human beings, really? 2. How can we create the best possible political circumstances  in light of our answer(s)?

So how does the VOI argument actually proceed? First, Rawls asks us to imagine a state of nature in which no one knows any of their contingent life circumstances (future wealth, race, gender, etc.). Now, if this “veil” were really implemented, what kind of regime would be needed to ensure justice for all citizens who are interested in their own welfare? The answer, according to Rawls, is a regime that encourages an equal distribution of resources to all citizens.  This is because–behind the veil–individual citizens would not yet know whether they would be at the top or bottom of any sort of social hierarchy. So, to “play it safe,” people behind the veil ought to call for an equal distribution of resources as a necessary condition for a just regime.

The VOI has generated a lot of controversy in political theory, but one issue in particular seems to rear its head more often than others: namely, does Rawls really think human nature is something that is essentially unaffected by contingent circumstances? This seems to be the case. If it were not, then it would be impossible to get  “behind the veil,” so to speak. Whatever human nature is, it seems for Rawls, it is definitely not composed even in part by contingent social circumstances.

Not so fast, he argues:

[This] political conception is practical, and not metaphysical or epistemological. That is, it presents itself not as a conception of justice that is true, but one that can serve as a basis of informed and willing political agreement between citizens viewed as free and equal persons. [my emphasis]

What we have here, then, is not a view of human nature that is supposed reveal a core metaphysical truth; rather, it is a view that has merit only insofar as it can be agreed upon by a rational democratic electorate.  Agreement is the highest value–not truth.

Now, the classic response to this position arises in the form of a relativism charge: i.e. “But is it not possible that we could all agree that some heinous regime is just? What then of your ‘willing political agreement’?” While I am somewhat sympathetic to this response in an ultimate sense, I do not think it is the only critique–or even the best critique–of Rawls’ position. Instead of demanding that Rawls overcome his apparently allergic relationship to metaphysical commitments outright, I suggest that we instead make a case for the relevance of metaphysics itself. 

I submit that it is disagreement (along with agreement, of course) that is a necessary condition for a conception of justice that is sensitive to the realities of democratic engagement. But what do I mean by this? Do we not have enough disagreement in our political discourse? However counter-intuitive it might sound, I believe that the answer is: no, we do not.

Without being self-critical about our own and others’ conceptions of deeply metaphysical issues such as human nature, it is actually impossible to disagree. It is possible to quarrel and fight, of course, but only in the sense that non-reflective things clash with other non-reflective things (do we believe that two dogs fighting over a bone are having a disagreement?).

The ironic thing about Rawls’ aversion to metaphysical speculation is that it might succumb to a sort of anti-democratic tyranny. Indeed, if “agreement” is the only standard by which we can judge different theories about human beings and the social orders within which they find themselves, to disagree is to be “false,” in a sense. If this is true, it might even be the case that Rawls’ notion of “agreement” is not even what it claims to be–that is, if we think that the possibility of disagreement is a necessary condition for agreement.

Thorough argumentation of metaphysical matters is important for political discourse because it allows for good, respectable disagreement. Indeed, it even allows for the possibility of genuine agreement, the ultimate prize of liberal democracy. Simply justifying arguments on “merely political” grounds is a sort of intellectual lust. It wants the fruit of rational discussion without the argumentative effort. So, while I admire the creativity of Rawls’ VOI, it is a concern of liberal democracy that he “stand by it” on metaphysical grounds. After all, the prize of democracy is the ability to [dis]agree!




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