Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Book reviews that make you say "huh?"

David Enoch published a review of my book Rawls's Political Liberalism co-edited with Martha Nussbaum in the online Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Our book brings together new essays by Nussbaum, Onora O'Neill, Paul Weithman, Jeremy Waldron, Frank Michelman and myself.

In his review, Enoch says:

"Brooks, in "The Capabilities Approach and Political Liberalism", makes two main points. The first is a response to some criticisms of Rawls: once the problem of stability has been fully recognized, the objection runs, the solution -- in terms of an overlapping consensus -- will not work. His response is that while the overlapping consensus is indeed intended to play a major role in the response to the stability problem, it's not as if it's supposed to do the work all by itself. There are more resources Rawls can -- and does -- help himself to, and perhaps the most important among them is the social minimum, that can help achieve stability. Conjoined with these other resources, Rawls's appeal to an overlapping consensus succeeds. The second main point is a suggestion for an improvement -- Brooks sides with Amartya Sen (162) suggesting that Rawls would have been better off endorsing the capability approach, rejecting Rawls's reasons for not doing so. The two points connect -- the social minimum can help in securing stability especially well if it's understood along the lines of the capability approach.

Brooks's discussion is, as we just saw, critical of Rawls at points. But Brooks accepts the general framework, and tries to make progress by improving on the details and responding to objections. This is legitimate, of course, but one is tempted to go more external. Why is it, after all, that stability is so important, perhaps more important, perhaps even lexically so, than anything else? Brooks doesn't discuss this question. More troubling is the fact that Brooks is not clear on what he means by "stability". Rawlsians typically emphasize (in this volume too) the importance of stability for the right reasons, and at times Brooks too pays tribute to this phrase. But most of the time he seems to be talking simply of stability, engaging in entirely instrumental discussions of how best to achieve it. It's just that with stability thus understood, first, it's not clear that Brooks's is a defense of Rawls; second, it becomes even more implausible to think that stability is more important than any other political desiderata; and third, the discussion is methodologically problematic: after all, if we're really interested in finding out what the effects on stability are of social bonds (150) and of reasoned public deliberation (152) we should presumably do empirical sociology, not reflect on this from the armchair."

Enoch's summary is only that - a summary - and omits key points. I argue that there are "more resources Rawls can -- and does -- help himself to" such as the social minimum (noted by Enoch), but also our shared commitment to two principles of justice (which he does not) among others. My point is that scholars like Brian Barry are correct to identify such connections exist, but wrong to argue an overlapping consensus is therefore unnecessary. I also claim that other scholars like Leif Wenar are correct to highlight the fragility of an overlapping consensus securing stability for the right reasons over time. Both sides are right and I offer a way forward.

But here Enoch gets my account badly wrong. He claims I side with Sen and that "Rawls would have been better off endorsing the capability approach, rejecting Rawls's reasons for not doing so". This is not true. Nor do I argue stability can be achieved "along the lines of the capability approach".

Someone so sensitive to philosophical distinctions should be expected to know that Sen's "capability" approach is different in substantive respects from Nussbaum's "capabilities" approach - as I note in my paper. Sen argues that Rawls should include his capability approach in his theory of justice by revising his account of the social minimum - I claim that Sen is right to argue that the social minimum should be reformed, but in line with NUSSBAUM'S multidimensional "capabilities" approach and not Sen's "capability" approach. This is because I argue Rawls was correct to raise objections about SEN'S capability approach as a kind of comprehensive doctrine. But Rawls's objections can be overcome by using NUSSBAUM'S capabilities approach instead. Her approach - with its idea of a threshold to be satisfied across all capabilities without trade-offs - is more consistent with Rawls's social minimum and overcomes most of the concerns he raises about Sen.

Careful readers will see that my acceptance of NUSSBAUM'S approach is different from her own take on how she sees her approach coming together with Rawls's political liberalism. In Frontiers of Justice, Nussbaum claims her approach fits best with Rawls's theory of justice as a kind of overlapping consensus. I disagree with this because there are points where she specifies the content of her capabilities list that seem to run into the objections Rawls makes of Sen's capability approach. My conclusion is that Sen gets right where to amend Rawls's theory of justice, but only Nussbaum gets right which view of capability (namely, her different "capabilities" approach) that should be used. This is not where she argued it should be incorporated - she is concerned with overcoming concerns with social contract theories - and I argue bring political liberalism together with capabilities has a different benefit, namely, of improving Rawls's ability to secure political stability for the "right reasons".

So what Enoch claims and what I argue are actually very different.

The comments in his next paragraph are easier to dissect. He says that I accept Rawls's "general framework" and "tries to make progress by improving on the details and responding to objections. This is legitimate, of course." And, of course, it is. My 14,000 word chapter tries to address a debate among Rawls scholars to show how Rawls's own theory might be acceptably reformed in his own eyes to meet serious criticisms made - by friends and foes - of political liberalism. I am looking to convince Rawls scholars and not a general public or philosophers that reject the background framework of Rawls's theory of justice.

Enoch seems less interested than this project in Rawlsian scholarship than "external" issues, but even here he is mistaken again. After noting that I emphasize "the importance of stability for the right reasons" (but somehow not emphasizing it in ways Enoch enjoys) and falsely claiming that I believe political stability trumps all other such "desiderata" (I didn't and don't), he says 'if we're really interested in finding out what the effects on stability are of social bonds (150) and of reasoned public deliberation (152) we should presumably do empirical sociology, not reflect on this from the armchair'. Yes - and if he read my piece he would know that my defence of NUSSBAUM'S capabilities approach is such an exercise. It is not about reflecting from armchairs independently of the world - (does Enoch not know my work on Hegel and rejection of Kant's philosophy?) - but instead on what individuals have the capability to do or be that counts. The content of our capabilities is not dependent on philosophers, but our lived experiences to secure and exercise our fundamental freedoms. If you don't get this, you don't get capability or capabilities approaches. But there you are.

Enoch seems disappointed as much by Rawls's philosophy as he is by books about it. But in my view this review is even more disappointing than that. It is one thing to be unpersuaded, but another to voice objections based on inaccuracies and mistakes that would be unsatisfactory in what Enoch calls the "old-school advantage of the journal system, namely, its somewhat stricter review process".

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