The Public Interest

Is liberalism just?

Ernest Van Den Haag

Fall 1993

BY PUBLISHING A Theory of Justice in 1971, John Rawls, nearly single-handedly, put political philosophy back on the intellectual map. Although disagreeing with most of his views, I thought Rawls’ performance admirable. His arguments were careful, original, knowledgeable, and relevant to important social issues. Unfortunately, Political Liberalism,† the current sequel, seems to make political philosophy recondite once more. Rawls explicates, amplifies, corrects and, here and there, adds to his theory; but it remains basically unchanged. The style, always ponderous, has become almost intolerably so, and the writing is now surprisingly careless. Infelicitous phrases abound: “hard decisions seem to have no clear answer.” Too many sentences are simply ungrammatical. “Both ... pursue ... at the expense of the other”; or, “Does anyone doubt [for “believe”] ... that the principle of toleration may be mistaken, or that it is wrong to have abolished slavery”; or “so that all may ... improve on what everyone can do on their own.” The solecisms are not confined to Rawls’ native English. He writes: “Extra ecclesia [sic] nullam [sic] sallus, when meaning to quote Cyprians “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus (which, incidentally, the Church has repudiated). 

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