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Stout on Rawls 24

September 3, 2018


Chapter 5 concerns itself first and foremost with Alasdair MacIntrye but reserves a few choice words for Rawls. Most memorable is the remark that After Virtue “exerts its persuasive power through an intricate interweaving of argumentation and historical narrative unlike anything else in twentieth-century moral philosophy”, making it “hard to imagine a book less like Rawls’s Theory of Justice in form or content than this one”. Effectively, this amounts to a short reminder of Rawls’s lack of historiographical knack (see FA) or reflexive ethnography (see EB).


Chapter 6 shifts to Stanley Hauerwas. As a way of showing that the new traditionalists by and large accept the descriptive component of Rawls’s political liberalism and use that acceptance as warrant for the rejection of the normative component, Stout highlights just how “Hauerwas appeals to arguments from MacIntyre as warrant for criticisms of Rawls” (DT 149). Hauerwas fails to question at any length whether that then makes “the liberal conception of justice […] a bad idea, whereas working for justice for sound biblical reasons is a good idea” (idem.). Stout pursues a variant of this question, the idea of political religion, in his 2017 Gifford Lecture Series.

Stout makes a similar remark on Hauerwas’s reading habits. He writes:

The issue of interpretive charity, then, is whether he takes appropriate care to get his opponents right, to listen to what they are saying and observe what they are doing, before bagging them as argumentative quarry. And the opponents are not merely fellow intellectuals like Rawls, Niebuhr, and Albrecht, but his fellow citizens, who, by accepting his portrayal of them, may come to view the social world outside of the church as merely “pernicious” and forget how to trust and identify with one another. (DT 157)

In the endnotes to these pages, Stout laments the fact that Hauerwas’s critical efforts would be better directed against Wolterstorff, a religious but radical opponent, rather than against Rawls, a less appropriate interlocutor. With a few suitable alterations, this remark might cross-apply to Rawls’s reading of democratic cultures.


Stout opens Chapter 8 with a recapitulation of the argument heretofore as well as some programmatic remarks for the book’s final part. Part of the recapitulation emphasizes both the problem for which Rawls is trying to solve as well as the historical embeddedness thereof. In recalling that his goal to set out an alternative, pragmatic expressivist view of democratic culture to the contractarian and the new traditionalist alike, Stout writes:

There are, however, some hopeful signs that suggest a path beyond the current impasse. We have seen that Rawls, in an attempt to solve problems in a social-contract theory inspired by Locke, Rousseau, and Kant has in- troduced concepts derived from the pragmatic expressivism of Hegel and Dewey. The conception of conversation that Rorty develops in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature—but then forgets about when discussing the role of religion in political culture—is also a product of pragmatic expressivism. It is this pragmatic expressivism that Maclntyre has in mind when he ac- knowledges that Rawls and Rorty have recently recognized that liberalism must be understood as a tradition [cf. DT 129]. And Benhabib’s critical theory is also indebted in various ways to the Hegelian strand of expressivism. (DT 183)

In this way, Stout thinks to be able to deliver on a promise which Rawls made but was unable to fulfill: showing how the person can be both a democratic citizen and a person of faith in contemporary constitutional liberal democracy. That promise can only be kept, in Stout’s estimation, by privileging his alternative above the contractarian or new traditionalist proposals. That alternative allows us “to see both sides as converging on a form of pragmatic expressivism that takes enduring democratic social practices as a tradition with which we have good reasons to identify” (DT 184). This third way may help us “to explain the strengths of liberalism and traditionalism, as well as their weaknesses” (idem.). With that, Stout lays out his proposal in bullet points, whereof the first three bear on Rawls to a greater or lesser extent.

The first:

• resolving the internal tensions in Rawls’s political liberalism by discarding his notion of a freestanding conception of justice and his loaded account of reasonableness, while retaining the idea that we owe reasons to one another when we take stands on important political questions; (idem.)

We have pressed Stout above on the exact nature of these internal tensions. Some candidates are the following: a.) the tension between freedom of religious expression and contractarian restraint; b.) that between a freestanding conception and comprehensive doctrines; c.) that between the right and the good (this might be grouped with b.)); d.) that between opposed senses of reasonableness and “permissiveness” (the latter is Stout’s term). To our mind, the tensions in b.) and c.) may be reduced to that in d.) in that reasonableness about conflicting conceptions of the good is presupposed by the distinction in b.) and by the priority of the right in c.). As to a.), this tension is considerably lessened by the time of Rawls’s later writings, at least in practical effect if not in justificatory and epistemological import. All this means that the tension which most concerns Stout is that in d.), for which the latter thinks to have found a way out. Yet the internal tension to which Stout alludes in d.) is not internal. On the contrary, as we have explained above, that tension in fact external insofar as Stout introduces the sense of reasonableness (i.e. epistemic entitlement and responsibility) which he then finds Rawlsian reasonableness to be in tension with. To pinpoint an internal tension, he would have to proceed in much the same way as we do in this chapter’s closing section.

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