University of David
Rawls sees political philosophy as fulfilling at least four roles in a society’s public life. The first role is practical: political philosophy can discover bases for reasoned agreement in a society where sharp divisions threaten to lead to conflict. Rawls cites Hobbes’s Leviathan as an attempt to solve the problem of order during the English civil war, and the Federalist Papers as emerging from the debate over the US Constitution. A second role of political philosophy is to help citizens to orient themselves within their own social world. Philosophy can describe what it is to be a member of a society with a certain political status, and suggest how the nature and history of that society can be understood from a broader perspective. A third role is to probe the limits of practicable political possibility. Political philosophy must describe workable political arrangements that can gain support from real people. Yet within these limits philosophy can be utopian: it can depict a social order that is the best that one can hope for. Given men as they are, as Rousseau said, philosophy imagines how laws might be. A fourth role of political philosophy is reconciliation: “to calm our frustration and rage against our society and its history by showing us the way in which its institutions… are rational, and developed over time as they did to attain their present, rational form” (JF, 3). Philosophy can show that human life is not simply domination and cruelty, prejudice, folly and corruption; but that at least in some ways it is better that it has become as it is.