A reader recently emailed me the following submission:
As a “new” reader of your blog...I’d like to suggest some material for your Underappreciated philosophy project (which seems itself underappreciated). As I am currently working on the opposition to equality, I’ve been at pain to find serious literature on this subject. Actually, it seems that the bulk of the debate is between various egalitarian theses; when it comes to the opposition to equality, most of what I find is either blatantly question-begging or addressed to a straw man (e.g. Rothbard’s “Egalitarianism: a revolt against nature”). Whatever the explanation of this turns out to be (perhaps conservative-minded brilliant people choose careers other than philosophy, perhaps they fail to get published, I don’t know), it has led to a lack of attention to (serious) conservative arguments. Thus I was quite happy to find some in Kekes’s work, most notably his Against Liberalism (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997) and The Illusions of Egalitarianism (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003), as I believe that, as philosophers, we should generally be happy to disagree strongly with serious theses, rather than with straw-man-objections and gross misunderstandings.
In this respect, even though I do strongly disagree with Kekes, it cannot be said that he uses abusive rhetoric and pays insufficient attention to the actual theses he objects to. He does use such rhetoric at times, but, so to speak, he generally does not attack windmills. Thus it seems to me that anyone interested in political philosophy (even more if one is interested in egalitarianism, as I am) should dive into Kekes’s work and take his objections into account, and rely on these when examining actual conservative objections to his/her own theses.
I haven't read Kekes' work in detail, and so perhaps am not the best person to judge whether his philosophy -- and specifically, his arguments against liberalism -- are underappreciated. For what it is worth, I do think there are good questions to raise about liberalism's overwhelming focus on autonomy (something that Kekes evidently criticizes; though he is by no means the only one to do this; communitarians have been objecting to liberalism on some such grounds for years). The only thing I can say about Kekes is this: I have read this short piece by him in City Journal, and I think it is awful.
Although I'm no big fan of Ronald Dworkin -- I broadly agree with Kekes' assessment of Dworkin's Sovereign Virtue, especially Dworkin's infamous "envy test" -- Kekes' discussion of Rawls is, by my lights, profoundly unfair, and really quite irresponsible as a public presentation of philosophical ideas.
Look, Rawls has his problems. Many political liberals, myself included, have taken Rawls to task for focusing on "ideal theory" (something Kekes savages Rawls for in his City Journal piece). But to presend that Rawls' focus on ideal theory is somehow an irreparable problem -- a refutation of liberalism -- is just silly. Yes, liberals have a bad history of focusing on ideal theory, to the detriment of nonideal theory -- and this is a big oversight. But it is also an oversight that we are working on. Furthermore, if people like me are right -- see e.g. my "First Steps Toward a Nonideal Theory of Justice" -- Rawls' ideal theory may well be correct as a theory of a just society, as well as extendable to nonideal conditions in a way that makes sense of the value of things other than autonomy.
Furthermore, Kekes' criticisms of Rawls' original position are quite silly. Kekes objects that the parties to the original position aren't flesh and blood human beings, but rather "puppets." This is absolutely incorrect. The original position models flesh and blood human beings deliberating from a position of fairness about principles they would want to govern society, and would be satisfied with once the veil of ignorance is raised and they find themselves in society, with real communal attachments, religion, personal views, etc.
Kekes also argues that Rawls' two principles of justice are incompatible, as Rawls' first principle requires equal basic liberties and the second principle "economic equality." One problem with this gloss, of course, is that Rawls' second principle doesn't require economic equality. It merely requires society's economic rules to be set up to the maximum advantage of the least well off. A second problem is that once this is understood, there is no conflict between the two principles. One can give people equal basic liberties and yet also make economic rules constrain the manner in which people can utilize their equal liberties.
Furthermore, Kekes contends that Rawls cannot distinguish between a poor but responsible single mother and a petty criminal -- that is, that Rawls' theory would have us treat both people exactly the same. This is also irresponsible. Rawls' priniciples of justice require that a society's economic scheme be to the maximum advantage of the worst off -- but this is perfectly consistent with holding petty criminals responsible for their actions. All Rawls' principles require is that society be set up so that the worst off have the best economic situation possible. If some people in society (e.g. the petty criminal) don't make the best of that situation, so much the worse for them. Furthermore -- although Kekes doesn't seem to realize this -- isn't there a problem with a society that gives rise to petty criminals? Rawls' theory of justice is explicitly designed to promote the self-respect of all, such that people have incentive to work. Apparently, Kekes didn't bother to actually read A Theory of Justice all the way through. If he had, he would know this.
Finally, Kekes -- again, wrongly -- takes Rawls to be irreparably committed to modern welfare state redistributionism (i.e. taking from the rich to give to the poor). Except that Rawls explicitly argued that the welfare state is bad, and unjust, because it doesn't give the poor the best economic situation they can have. Rawls instead defended something he called "property-owning democracy", which is essentially a scheme that doesn't take from the rich so much as it imposes rules on economic transactions at the outset that work to the maximum advantage of the poor.
To be clear, Rawls' theory of justice is not without its problems. But people like Kekes do no one any favors -- not the least themselves -- by setting up liberals like Rawls as straw men. Rawls was not a dummy. He should not be treated like one.