John Rawls was an American political philosopher in the liberal tradition. He developed on the liberalism doctrine along with his theory of justice as fairness, describing a society of free citizens holding equal basic rights and cooperating within a fair economic system. This can be seen in a hypothetical example where a person has a birthday cake, he/she should slice the pieces equally and be the last one to take his/her slice, as a psychological enforcement where subconsciously the slices are cut in an equal manner, following perfect procedural justice. His theory of political liberalism delineates the legitimate use of political power in a democracy and how regardless of the diversity in society’s perspectives, civic unit is essential. In addition, Rawls’s writings on “the law of peoples” extend on the idea of a liberal foreign policy that aims to create unprejudiced international order in addition to a permanently peaceful legal and moral sense. Now, the important question is, is liberalism a comprehensive doctrine?
To answer this question, I would firstly like to say that I think every question regarding a doctrine or any type of belief, is per se, subjective. Liberalism is a philosophical position that supports values that lead to liberal political principles, in which clear exemplars of this ideology are Kant and Mill, as stated by Rawls. I would like to note that in my opinion, liberal principles are immersed within deeper theories that make claims of their validation and are therefore thought to be true and other beliefs considered false. Liberalism represents cohesive worldviews and perspectives that cover interpersonal ethics along with other issues that go beyond the extent of Rawls’s theory, which is mostly focused on the principles of the structure of society and political institutions.
In addition, according to Rawls, Kant’s and Mill’s comprehensive liberalism are made up of two fundamental constituents. Firstly, Mill bases greater importance on rights and liberties on the concept that individualism is prominent. Consequently, Kant establishes greater importance on the notion that the value of autonomy is essential. These values emphasize the importance of having the freedom to choose such ideas and implementing them in behalf of what every individual wants, emphasizing once more the existence of reasonably desirable goods that correspond to different ways of life depending on the person. Liberalism rejects Classical and Christian doctrines, where political order is secured through acceptance of a more unitary conception of life and consequently supports principles of neutrality and toleration in regard to different comprehensive doctrines.
In conclusion, as Rawls work evolved, he insisted that his liberalism was not regarded as a “comprehensive” doctrine, one which includes a theory of ethics, value, knowledge or a controversial metaphysics of the society and the person. This leads to the idea that modern societies are already full of such doctrines and the aim of political liberalism is not to add another factional doctrine, but instead provide a political structure that is neutral and provide a balance between comprehensive and controversial doctrines.
However, I like to explore more than one alternative and mind-set and I like to question everything from different approaches, and having read Rawls’s commentaries, I still question them. I do not necessarily disagree with his statement, as it is obviously his theory, but yet from my perspective, even though liberalism is a political theory, I think it can be connected to theories of ethics, moral principles and the society as a whole, which sets beliefs about personal virtues, as well as political beliefs about the way a society should behave. Therefore, even if a political view is freestanding, I stand by the idea that even if it does not affirm or deny any particular doctrine, it still derives from comprehensive doctrines and as such could be argued whether or not it lies in the category of a comprehensive doctrine. Nonetheless, I’d like to comment that I genuinely admire how Rawls is able to separate inclusive doctrines from freestanding political values, allowing him to situate a balance in society’s behavior in harmony with political values, whilst allowing a wide variety of comprehensive doctrines.