Earlier today, Trunk discussed Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a book that was all the rage during his college days. In 1971, when Rocket Man and I were the pride of Dartmouth’s philosophy department, a very different book was causing a stir. It was John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Rawls died on Sunday, and the eminent University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein filed this appreciation with National Review Online. As I recall, the leading members of the Dartmouth philosophy department had reservations about Rawls’ book, but those who knew the man had the greatest respect for him. This is about where Epstein comes down too. But he finds much more merit in the book than one would expect a conservative like Epstein to discern in a work that defends the welfare state and supports the redistribution of income. Epstein argues that Rawls’ theoretical construct (the notion of impartiality, whereby the political philosopher must view matters as a disembodied spirit who has equal care and concern for the welfare of all individuals) actually supplies a strong intellectual foundation for a classical liberalism (as opposed to the modern welfare state version), with strong property rights and limited government. I’m not qualified to opine with much authority on Epstein’s thesis. But it does strike me that what Epstein says of Rawls is true of much of modern philsophy. Often, the leading lights adopt, develop, or refine a particular approach (pragmatism, utiltarianism, or whatever) and develop a plausible construct for propounding theories of justice, morality, knowledge, etc. They then seem to pour their political prejudices into their construct and end up with some sort of trendy liberal/radical prescription. One thinks especially of the leading modern pragmatist, Richard Rorty. Am I being too cynical in thinking that the philosophy usually ends up being window dressing for the politics?
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