The Empty Circles of Liberal Justification
American liberal thinkers are fascinated with the justification of the liberal state. It is this question of justification that inspires and organizes the work of such leading liberal thinkers as John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin, Frank Michelman, and Bruce Ackerman. The manifest import and prevalence of the question of justification among liberal thinkers makes it possible to speak here of a certain “practice of liberal justification.” This practice displays a certain order and certain recursive characteristics. It is composed of a common ontology and a common narrative. It poses for itself a series of recursive intellectual problems answered with a stock set of rhetorical moves, aimed at achieving certain key political objectives. Here I wish to explore the character and identity of this practice of liberal justification. What sort of world does it offer us? And how does it do its work? The inquiry is thus twofold. In one aspect, the aim is to reveal the practice of liberal justification – to reveal its organizing character, its pathways, and its problems. In another aspect, the effort here is to try to understand this practice – to appreciate why and how it comes to have the distinctive identity and character it does.