Check your Progressive Privilege: John Rawls vs Moral Relativism

In 1971, liberal political philosopher John Rawls proposed in his influential book A Theory of Justice what is perhaps the most famous and compelling progressive thought experiment ever considered. He called it the “original position,” and it can be summarized as follows:

“Imagine you are designing the world and all of its social and cultural landscapes. You are doing so from an original position of assumed equality (‘all men/persons are created equal’), giving the thought experiment its name. In this world, according to your designs, some people may be advantaged while others will be relatively disadvantaged, or they will not be. That’s up to you. You can make the world however you would like, but there’s a catch: before you enter this world, you will be given no foreknowledge of who you will be within it. Rawls called this assumption a veil of ignorance and posited that it is a worthy method of determining the morality of social and political issues. So, if you design a world rife with injustices, you have no way to guarantee that you’ll be on the better side of those. Given these constraints, who would design a world that is profoundly unjust? The answer is surely no one who understands the constraints of the thought experiment.”

The point of Rawls’ thought experiment is straightforward. No one would knowingly design a world in which they could, by mere accident of birth, come out on the short end of the privilege stick. While those who understand human psychology and the operations of society may design a world containing inequalities, it’s unlikely many would design a world that generates those inequalities for fundamentally arbitrary reasons, such as racial or mere sexual or gender identity. That is, Rawls put forth an extremely compelling way to think about systemic inequalities and injustices in society and why there is a bedrock imperative to minimize and ultimately eradicate arbitrary social inequalities like those that arise from racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry. This is, in essence, the heart of gold at the center of social and cultural progressivism (upon which economic progressivism partially rests): progressivism is in essence the noble ambition to minimize or eradicate arbitrary unfairness of opportunity, including discrimination, bigotry, disenfranchisement, and all forms that stack the deck in the favor of some and against others over mere accidents of birth.

Progressive thinkers and activists are often familiar with Rawls’ “original position” thought experiment and readily embrace it and its obvious point.

It is perhaps ironic, then, that many of these thinkers are also moral and cultural relativists who believe that no one culture possesses the kind of moral perspective needed to judge others and evaluate them ethically. Though there are many examples available to draw upon, by far the most egregious and pressing arises from Western progressives who, on the basis of claims about Western interference throughout the rest of the world, defend profoundly illiberal and regressive societies with values rooted in Islam. These include, for example, Western feminists who ascribe a myriad of evils to some ill-defined concept called “Patriarchy,” which requires much tortuous analysis and paranoid motivated reasoning to discover throughout the West, and yet defend the literal, explicit, and measurable patriarchy that truly dominates and oppresses women in Islamist societies. What is the reasoning behind this inexcusable inconsistency? It is the idea that we can’t criticize those cultures, their beliefs, or their practices, because this is to assert our cultural values over theirs, which is yet another form of oppressive colonialism and imperialism being foisted upon a (presumed racial) culture we have historically oppressed.

By focusing upon such very specific ideas of privilege and caricatures of oppression above essentially all else (a lesson they could easily draw from Rawls’ thought experiment), these progressives miss a broader and more pressing point that’s also being conveyed. Indeed, this little irony taps into the central paradox of the progressive left’s moral architecture — that blindly championing “the oppressed” in general can protect and perpetuate oppression in specific — and gives birth to others. It is therefore fundamentally shocking that progressives would be moral and cultural relativists at all. Certainly, not wanting to judge other cultures or to demean them as “backwards” is consistent with the progressive ethos, but equally certainly, sometimes cultures are backwards in ways directly at odds with progressivism. How, except by profound moral self-deception, can a truly progressive ideology protect regressive, oppressive, domineering, patriarchal, racist, backwards, and objectively worse cultures — like those who consider hurling homosexuals from rooftops an inexorable commandment from their perfect deity — from Enlightened criticism? Would any progressive (or anyone at all) design a world from Rawls’ original position in which they, themselves, could find themselves victims both of oppression and of well-intended but ham-fisted moral relativism that protects their oppressors from justified criticism? I have to think not.

In that sense, that many on the progressive left miss the irony of taking up Rawls’ thought experiment to defend their progressive values is surprising, but it isn’t more surprising than that the progressive left is selectively culturally and morally relativistic in the first place. Surely it is clear that with only the smallest modification, Rawls’ famous thought experiment bulldozes not only the landscape that props up arbitrary societal privilege but also moral and cultural relativism besides? Take a look.

Imagine you are designing the world and all of its social and cultural landscapes. In this world, according to your designs, some people will subscribe to this culture or that, and their values will flow from whatever cultural precepts bind them as moral communities. These may be scriptural, doctrinal, contemporary Enlightenment liberal, or whatever else. They can take various political, governing, and economic systems as their bases. They can depend upon whatever means of adjudicating upon disputes and executing upon those judgments. You can design the cultural landscape of the world however you would like, but there’s a catch: before you enter this world, you will be given no foreknowledge of which culture you’ll be a part of within it or who you will be in that culture. And aren’t the points obvious now?

If you design a world that contains a culture that hurls homosexuals from rooftops in accordance with the alleged will of God and considers this justice, you may very well find yourself a homosexual in that culture (or a concerned ally watching it from afar). If you design a world that favors and protects witch doctors or other forms of primitive medicine alongside others in which modern Western medicine exists, you may tragically come into this world a patient of a treatable cancer condemned to suffer and die unnecessarily from it despite all the magic your people believe in. If you design a world in which brutal dictators cannot be judged to be doing wrongly (so long as they’re not acting imperialistically), you may find yourself one of their subjects — which is to say one of their prisoners. If you design a world in which moral relativism is an ethical imperative, you may find yourself desperate to escape oppression while your freer brothers and sisters in more Enlightened regions argue that your oppression cannot be criticized because it is cultural thus beyond external reproach.

As with Rawls’ original formulation of the thought experiment, the crux lies in recognizing that one cannot know which end of the cultural experience you will be born into. The thought experiment asks us to step outside of our presumptions about how we think society is best ordered and to consider that it is imminently possible to find oneself in a truly bad situation by mere accident of birth in circumstances that permit it. If we’re talking about Western progressives who champion cultural relativity, would even the most committed to this mindset design a world in which some cultures hurl homosexuals from rooftops or force women to live in cloth sacks for “modesty” if they knew they could find themselves a homosexual or a woman in that culture? It beggars the imagination to believe that they would — or even that they’d condemn others to that possibility. It therefore beggars the imagination that they do so now in the world we have found ourselves in, privileged as they are by the accidents of their birth.

Of course, perhaps some would in pronounced fealty to cultural relativism, under an exaggerated horror of bigotry, and in service to the core value of the social progressive, an assumed intrinsic nobility of the oppressed. Maybe it is true that some die-hard progressives would want underdogs to fight for more than they would want those people not to need fighting on their behalf. Ultimately, however, most people don’t want to suffer and die of preventable and curable diseases, to be tortured, to be oppressed or murdered, to go hungry or be deprived under a megalomaniacal dictator — and this is the whole point of progressivism. If progress in the social, cultural, and moral sphere means anything (and I’d argue it does), it must mean this: increased rights, freedom, and safety for people paired with decreased oppression and disenfranchisement of the most marginalized in society. The lesson of Rawls’ thought experiment reaches beyond a mere call for social justice, and it is utterly straightforward: cultural relativism is a fraudulent doctrine. Some moral systems are objectively better than others, if the word “better” means anything at all.

To drive this point home, consider yet another adaptation of Rawls’ thought experiment. Imagine that the world is as it is today. There are cultures who throw homosexuals from rooftops for the least justifiable of reasons (as if any are justifiable), cultures ruled by brutal dictators, cultures reliant upon witch doctors and objectively inferior medicine, and all the rest. Imagine yourself staring at this world with the opportunity to choose which culture you will enter but not who you will be within that culture. Who is choosing witch doctors? Who is choosing a dictator? Who is choosing brutal, patriarchal theocracy? Who is choosing a failed state ravaged by attempting to force socialism? Surely, almost no one, and more certainly, no Western progressive. Now wonder, where would “progressive” views like moral relativism fit in our world given the obviousness of this choice? Nowhere.

If you will, pause to appreciate for a moment how little of Rawls’ original thought experiment had to change in order to completely level moral and cultural relativism. None of the construction itself is different. The only difference is taking the focus off privilege and putting it upon the simple fact that different approaches to culture and morality create societies that few, if any, would want to live in, if they were given the outsider’s choice beforehand. Rawls’ original position thought experiment is ultimately about checking privilege, of course, and it should therefore teach moral and cultural relativists who value it most to check theirs.

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  1. Honest question…I am from the progressive left. I have subscribed to a multitude of progressive left publications and authors for decades. I am yet to come across an actual progressive publication/author/thinker that has defended or rationalized the societies committing the types of human rights abuses described in this article. Other than random people on twitter, can you cite and list the progressive (e.g. The Nation, Mother Jones, The Intercept, The Young Turks, Democracy Now, Secular Talk with Kyle Kulinsky, The David Pakman Show) publications/authors with a mass sphere of influence who have defended or rationalized these types of atrocities? Please also refrain from grouping corporate neocon and neoliberal publications under the progressive umbrella (e.g. CNN, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, NYTimes, Fox News, NPR, WAPO, Vox, The Hill, Politico, Variety, Forbes, WSJ).

    Thank you for your thoughts. I honestly think there is a misunderstanding of what western progressives believe. It’s actually quite simple. The western progressive ethos is essentially “How can we use science to progress toward a more innovative world, progress toward a world with less suffering for all people, progress toward a world with more justice, progress toward a world with more fun, progress toward a world with genuine freedom”.

    A “progressive” turning a bling eye to human rights abuses is not progressive at all. Beliefs are meant to be questioned and tested as required by the scientific method.

    I look forward to your list and citations. Thanks, again.

  2. There are rather large problems this article. The first is the assumption that all people would create the world equally. Highly intelligent people can have very different views of what a free world looks like.

    One can think that capitalism represents true freedom while others living in a capitalistic society can view their lack of merit and needing to work for others as oppression. Those who believe in idealistic socialism believe it is socialism that can give humans the most freedom. A socialist and a capitalist would design two very different worlds which the other side would find to be oppressive.

    The whole premise of the article objectively is a bit absurd. If moral relativism doesn’t actually exist, then we wouldn’t actually have all the problems we have in the world.

    1. I feel as though the point of this article isn’t clear to you. In your first two paragraphs you make a case for moral relativism using societal structures, but neither capitalism, nor socialism, are objectively true moral systems. A highly intelligent person designing a truely moral society may use parts of some, or none of both. The author isn’t proclaiming western capitalism a moral god.

      What is important, is that an unquestionable, culture independent, objectively true moral standard, all humans can live by, exists.

      I’m a little confused by your last paragraph. This is where I think your understanding, and the point of the article diverge. The author doesn’t claim that moral relativism doesn’t exist. He’s saying that the fact that it does exist, and that it causes so much suffering, is the reason we need to look past it as a reasonable excuse to accept morally questionable, but culturally acceptable things.

    2. You need to read this article again. It is not talking about wrong or right. It is talking about “Progressive” and “Activist” claiming one thing and then protecting an other. 1+1=2 for “us” 1+1=3 for “them” “we shouldn’t let them know that it’s 2 because they could be correct in their reality. Its not correct. We are doing fellow humans a injustice to not let them know its 2.

      “Moral relativism” is real. Again this article does not talk about it not existing. Its talking about if you can say that your morals are better then another persons morals.

      I hope your not thinking that you can’t have that conversation? I hope that’s not true because it would prevent you from tell a man beating his child that that was wrong.

  3. I think you make a good point about the hypocrisy of some progressive activists. Rawlsian thought has never provided intellectual support for moral relativism, and anyone who uses Rawls in such a manner is simply misinterpreting his position (whether due to ignorance or intellectual dishonesty).

    However, the original position/ veil of ignorance within Rawlsian liberalism does support moral pluralism in the private sphere, insofar as the law must respect the equal freedom of individuals. So, while you are correct where you state “some moral systems are objectively better than others,” it is also true that “some moral systems are objectively equal to one another” as long as they do not violate his two principles of justice. For example, people should be equally free to worship any God they like or identify as any gender they like, and we should recognize those rights, as long as they recognize the equal freedom of others to choose differently.

  4. This article was very thought provoking. I want to agree with it, but something is bothering me.

    It seems self-evident that any rational person should prefer more egalitarian societies. This should be especially true if you’re a woman, homosexual, etc. But empirically, we can observe that this is sometimes untrue. In Muslim societies, many women fight against the hijab. But others participate in World Hijab Day. Many women flee Syria as refugees, but other Western women find ISIS alluring and seek them out:

    Maybe these are just outliers. But maybe there is something else going on here. Religion and tribalism have always been strong organizing forces of society. And one of the strongest tribal instincts is to reject outside influence. If we were born into regressive societies, can we really be so sure that we would embrace the criticism of outsiders who call us backward? Would we really support their judgment of us, or would we defiantly stand up for our right to self-determination?

    I have a pet theory that the leftist ideology we’re seeing from the humanities is driven by a similarly defiant impulse. The sciences have the authority when it comes to questions of reality. Physics, Biology, Chemistry, these disciplines describe what we know about the objective world. The humanities by contrast are concerned with the subjective experiences of humankind. If you’re in the humanities and you are tired of being “corrected” by these arrogant STEM people, one solution would be to derive theories of knowledge that de-thrones the sciences as ultimate arbiters of reality. I see it as a highly intellectualized version of the child’s impulse to say “you’re not the boss of me!”

    And perhaps this is why this strain of progressivism finds such a natural ally with regressive societies that find themselves constantly judged by the West. They share the experience of being told they are wrong by outsiders. They can be allies in saying “you don’t get to tell me what to believe.”

  5. Indeed, it’s essentially the empathy test. It’s also data we could gather, so could be the base of a scientific ethics system.

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