Metaphysical, Not Political

One of the best–known works of John Rawls, a Harvard scholar known for his prolific political writings, especially in the field of criminal justice, is entitled: Justice as Fairness: Political, not Metaphysical. In this work, Rawls presents a famous analogy which he refers to as the “veil of ignorance.”He argues that, in juridical procedure—such as the trial of a criminal—one must deliberately put aside all circumstances that do not immediately relate to the situation at hand. He holds that we must ignore conditions such as gender, ethnicity, social status, and most importantly, one’s conception of good (which I believe can be read as implying one’s religious views). These ideas, or for Rawls, biases, will make one prejudiced and will a priori lead to a skewed and unfair judgment of others.

While many have discussed the merits and weaknesses of the “veil of ignorance” theory, which the philosophia perennis would perhaps consider a confusion of the functions of commutative and distributive justice (that is, a confusion between a kind of justice that is arithmetic, or one-for-one, with that which is geometric, or proportional), I do not wish to focus on Rawls’ intriguing thought experiment. His title alone provides enough for us to chew on. 

The subtitle of Rawls’ essay concerns me in particular. If one considers Metaphysics the branch of knowledge which deals with the most basic and fundamental questions of human existence, then a “Political not Metaphysical” position has massive implications. Dismissing these questions from public discourse for the sake of pragmatism may perhaps lead to a temporary resolution of some difficult problems, but ultimately it will strip society of the profound concepts and values that ultimately lead to the health of a society. Complex problems merit sophisticated solutions. But a society divested of deep thought will only be able to provide simple solutions—and simple solutions to complex problems are dangerous.

To illustrate my point, I refer to some comments made by the philosopher Dario Sztajnszrajber, regarding Rawls’ work:

“The second part of the title was always interesting to me. What does the expression ‘Political, not Metaphysical’ mean? And what does it mean in relation to the justice of a society? It means that for certain questions that pertain to social and common life (and above all the lack of equity or inequalities of the social order), it is not useful to argue metaphysical positions given that we will never be able to agree.

“What is a ‘metaphysical’ position? It is a word that comes from Greek and means ‘that which is beyond the physical’, that is, beyond nature. Metaphysics is a conception of reality that transcends all possibility of final proof, and because of this, ends up justifying itself. Because of this, there can never be agreement between metaphysical positions. For example, there can never be agreement between a believer and an atheist on topics such as the existence of God or the existence of the soul, or the origin of the universe.”

This interpretation of Rawls, which I hope to effectively refute, argues thus: Metaphysics is that which is believed but cannot be proved. A rational political society needs principles that can be discussed and proven to function. Ergo, Metaphysics cannot be the foundation of political society. 

“Metaphysics” was a term coined by a first century librarian who was classifying and categorizing Aristotle’s manuscripts. And while we could understand “metaphysics” as meaning “that which is beyond physics”, there is also a good chance that it simply meant “that which comes behind the physics” referring to the fact that the manuscript came immediately after the work of Aristotle entitled, “the Physics.”

In fact, the word “metaphysics” does not appear once in the entire Aristotelian corpus. Aristotle referred to this branch of knowledge as “the science of first principles,” or the “first philosophy.” It was, for him, the knowledge that makes knowledge possible: the science that provided justification for all the rest. Only the First Philosophy can answer the question, “What is the good?”

Conversations about such abstract principles often strike us as tedious or pedantic. But whether or not we tire of the conversation, however, the realities remain. And true understanding of reality is not trivial. 

By temperament, we Americans take action as our first consideration. Our one major contribution to the history of philosophy (with the possible exceptions of gender theory and the linguistics of Noam Chomsky) is the Pragmatism of John Dewey. The thought of the American founders drew from English philosophers who, unlike their Continental counterparts, were characterized by a distinct common-sense practicality and underdeveloped first principles. 

In some ways this nearly-exclusive focus on the here and now has its advantages. In England, it provided a grounds for pursuing common life without the need to refer to strong and defined religious principles. (The French felt they could only justify their revolution by creating a religion to justify it; they instituted a “natural religion,” raising the prostitute goddess of Reason to the altars of Notre Dame. But Enlightenment thought in the colonies experienced no need for justification, simply because it worked.)

Christopher Dawson has observed that if the Middle Ages could be called an age of Faith built on Reason, the Enlightenment could be called an age of Reason built on Faith. The equality of man, a firm belief in a natural moral law, and an acute sensitivity to progress–all assumed as truths that were self-evident–were in reality modest (and modified) borrowings from Europe’s Christian heritage.

But these truths are not self-evident. They need justification in a deeper vision of reality, either from a faith which supernaturally supplies the soul with these principles (a top-down approach), or a First Philosophy, which comes to these conclusions after long and careful reflection on the world accessible by reason. 

In the colonies, Enlightenment thought was married to the American Protestant consensus. The Enlightenment supplied Protestantism with a common ground by which individuals could coordinate the beliefs of individual consciences with the solidarity and order of the polity, while Protestantism provided Enlightenment thought with a unified moral sense, and more importantly, the collectively-assumed (or, better put, believed) first principles necessary for a functional society.

But the marriage did not prove to be a happy one. Ideas have consequences, as the adage goes. Unlike new developments in technology and practical sciences where success or failure is often immediately perceived, social, political, and religious ideas will frequently take generations for their results to become perceptible.

Whenever tensions arose between secular Enlightenment ideals and the Christian vision of man and society, secular ideals—which have always presided in the structure of our polity—won almost every time. But these secular ideals contain the seed of their own destruction; without a simple Faith in Reason, Reason turns upon itself. The equality of man has tended toward egalitarianism, progress became a rush to cast off all vestiges of the past, and natural law was seen to be a relic of faith rather than a reality which is immediately perceivable to all sensible men.

Ignoring first principles will ultimately lead to arbitrary governance. Nature hates a vacuum, and if we cannot use soundness of mind to provide the stability and order necessary for common society, we will resort to the strength of the will. The alternative to reason is force; the substitute for Truth is power.

Power without Truth is tyranny. Our society is passing through a crisis of solidarity. Attempts to find practical solutions that please everyone crumble. This is the failure of the “Political not Metaphysical” mentality. Until we once again discover the truths that make civil and common society possible, we will continue to unravel and fragment. If our divided house seems to no longer stand, we must repair its foundation.

Colton Duncan is a sophomore studying international business.

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