Throughout his career, but perhaps most noticeably from the mid-1970s onwards, Rawls developed modes of moral and political inquiry distinct from normative moral and political philosophy as it has traditionally been understood…Rawls’ short-lived project in what he called “moral theory” — a project that lasted from approximately the mid-1970s to the early to mid-1980s.
Consequently, many who take themselves to be Rawls’ protagonists — for example by advancing certain views of the nature of justice or moral truth — are addressing different questions, employing different modes of inquiry, and so are not offering contradictory theories. And many of those who take themselves to be defending Rawls are actually reinterpreting his work in a way that makes him a much more traditional — and in my view a far less important — philosopher.--Jerry Gaus (2013) "On the Appropriate Mode of Justifying a Public Moral Constitution." [HT Fabian Wendt]
If Gaus is right about the reception of Rawls (I can't really judge that fully) this involved a kind of dumbing-down: Rawls was assimilated by critics and defenders alike to familiar debates that are, in some respects, less interesting than the project Rawls was, in fact, engaged in for a while. In my opinion this kind of thing happens more regularly in the history of philosophy. (For example, as Howard Stein noted the quality of discussions on relativity declined in the generations after Newton and Huygens.)
Gaus does not pause to reflect on the odd ways in which Rawls himself seems to have facilitated his own reception in the ways he taught the history of philosophy (here) and the way, for example, Theory of Justice is written (recall). In the analytical tradition, Rawls is unusual in that he makes himself appear less interesting and less original than he really is--our tradition has generally suffered from bullies pretending to be more original than they are. "How did they get away with it?" Through intimidation and effacing historical traces.
Anyway, this post is about a peculiar feature of Rawls' paper, "The Independence of Moral Theory." In his comments on this paper, Gaus is primarily interested in one feature of Rawls' "moral theory:" that is "to uncover or construct a public framework for moral life," or a "moral constitution." This is is an important topic: it points to the role of morality in a civil religion suitable for a liberal order (undoubtedly familiar to Rawls through his study of Rousseau's Social Contract). This is one of my favorite topics, but here I call attention to another theme in Rawls' method. I quote the relevant passage before I comment:
I suggest that for the time being we put aside the idea of constructing a correct theory of right and wrong, that is, a systematic account of what we regard as objective moral truths. Since the history of moral philosophy shows that the notion of moral truth is problematical, we can suspend consideration of it until we have a deeper understanding of moral conceptions. But one thing is certain: people profess and appear to be influenced by moral conceptions. These conceptions themselves can be made a focus of study; so provisionally we may bracket the problem of moral truth and turn to moral theory: we investigate the substantive moral conceptions that people hold, or would hold, under suitably defined conditions. In order to do this, one tries to find a scheme of principles that match people's considered judgments and general convictions in reflective equilibrium. This scheme of principles represents their moral conception and characterizes their moral sensibility. One thinks of the moral theorist as an observer, so to speak, who seeks to set out the structure of other people's moral conceptions and attitudes. Because it seems likely that people hold different conceptions, and the structure of these conceptions is in any case hard to delineate, we can best proceed by studying the main conceptions found in the tradition of moral philosophy and in leading representative writers, including their discussions of particular moral and social issues....
The comparative study of the well-ordered societies is, I believe, the central theoretical endeavor of moral theory: it presupposes a grasp of the various moral structures and their relation to our moral sensibility and natural inclinations. This endeavor bears some resemblance to the theory of general economic equilibrium. In both cases one is concerned with the workings of a theoretically defined social system, or part thereof, and trying to survey how its main elements fit together into an ongoing scheme. One does not expect to obtain detailed conclusions that cover particular situations and practical cases; one looks for an overall view of how the larger structure operates and maintains itself. It is in the comparative study of well-ordered societies that the connections between moral theory and psychological and social theory are most evident.--John Rawls (1974-5) "The Independence of Moral Theory."
Some other time, I explore Rawls' "neutral position" (his words, while adapting an insight from Sidgwick) from which he wishes to develop moral theory. I quote the final lines above for two reasons: first, to call attention to Rawls's explicit insistence that empirical "psychological and social theory" are highly relevant to his project of "moral theory." (It is often said informally that Rawls has little room for empirical social science.) Second, in order to note the oddity that Rawls, who, as I often remark, is extremely well informed of the state of economics -- and he certainly knew his Arrow --, compares his own project of "comparative study of well-ordered societies" to the "theory of general economic equilibrium" [hereafter GE]. For the analogy to GE brings out only two important feature of Rawls's project: it brings out (i) the systemic nature of a particular given "moral structure" that one explores in detail and (ii) this systematicity is purchased at the expense of local specificity.
But there is a third, more important, feature of Rawls's project: (iii) the "comparative study" of distinct fully worked out "moral structures." This feature is very important; that's why "objective moral truth" is left aside for the sake of exploring "moral theory." Thus, (iii) is not well represented by way of analogy with general equilibrium theory. For in the 1970s GE is not well suited for comparative, institutional analysis (in part because GE in the early 197s0 is just not very useful on institutions). In fact, in economics, GE was intended, in part, to displace such comparative study (associated, for example, with Stigler's 1964 AEA address [recall] and, in a different guise, by comparative institutional economics).
The two reasons are connected. For, it turns out, that that the history of philosophy is part of the empirical enterprise that goes into the comparative study the theorist does in moral theory. If Rawls were a historicist this would make eminent sense: then the "main conceptions" as articulated by "leading representative writers" could be taken to stand in for a historical epoch. But I am unfamiliar with any evidence that Rawls is a historicist in this sense. Rather, he seems to think that "the main conceptions found in the tradition of moral philosophy" provide an adequate first pass at the main alternatives worth considering. This would make sense if the tradition could be understood as an unconstrained, as it were, trial-and-error search of moral conceptions in (conceptual) possibility space (in the way spontaneous order theorists tend to imagine the exploration of orders from the bottom up). But it's not obvious why the particular philosophical tradition we have inherited -- and the ranking of 'leading writers' in it -- could, despite its longevity, serve this function given the many ways the tradition has suffered from censorship and other noxious political (religious/sexist, etc.) influences.
The previous paragraph may sound ungrateful to Rawls for his efforts in getting clear on the history of philosophy (as a contribution to such comparative study). But we can recognize that Rawls' contributions to the study of the history of philosophy and, thereby, for reanimating elements of the tradition were, perhaps, designed for a different purpose than the ones they are subsequently used for. History is cunning, after all.