John Rawls to the Rescue?

In the extraordinary aftermath of the American presidential election, as Donald Trump set about de-legitimising the country’s democratic process in order to stay in power, a timely investigation was published in a New York-based cultural magazine.

The piece examined the angry internal battles that broke out at the New York Times as the paper grappled with how to cover the upheaval that accompanied Trump’s uniquely divisive presidency. Confronted with a leader who delights in flouting democratic norms and attacking minorities, was it the duty of this bastion of American liberalism to remain above the fray and give house-room to a wide range of views? Or should it play a partisan role in defence of the values under attack?


As journalists and staff argued online, a prominent columnist, the investigation reported “uploaded a PDF of John Rawls’s treatise on public reason, in an attempt to elevate the discussion”. Rawls, who died in 2002, remains the most celebrated philosopher of the basic principles of Anglo-American liberalism. These were laid out in his seminal text, A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. The columnist, Elizabeth Bruenig, suggested to colleagues: “What we’re having is really a philosophical conversation and it concerns the unfinished business of liberalism. I think all human beings are born philosophers, that is, that we all have an innate desire to understand what our world means and what we owe to one another and how to live good lives.” One respondent wrote back witheringly: “Philosophy schmosiphy. We’re at a barricades moment in our history. You decide: which side are you on?”

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