Hobbes, Rawls and Egypt

Nov 28

A few days ago, I tweeted that Egypt was in a Hobbesian moment, not a Rawlsian one, and that Egypt’s draft constitution ought to be evaluated in light of that fact.  What does that mean, to say that Egypt is in a Hobbesian moment and not a Rawlsian one?  Well, it is a nod to the Hobbesian notion, also accepted by Rawls, that a condition for any system of justice is that it is effective, meaning that citizens can rely on the ability of the state to abide by its own rules as well as enforce its rules, in a neutral and disinterested fashion.  Egypt is not in a Rawlsian moment, however, because there is no reasonable possibility for a constitutional consensus to arise, as anyone who has spent any time observing Egypt’s post-revolutionary train wreck knows.  Nevertheless, Rawls has some useful thoughts on “Hobbesian” moments, and how they can evolve into a “Rawlsian” moment.  A Hobbesian moment corresponds to a constitution that guarantees formal democracy, with protection of basic political rights and guarantees of political competition and peaceful change of political power.  Rawls refers to such a constitution as reflecting a modus vivendi, a cease fire, so to speak, among otherwise deeply divided civil forces who, if they could, would like to exclude others from the political process.

Rawls speculates that, once people accept this minimalist constitution, over time, the modus vivendi begins to evolve in a direction that reflects a deeper and broader moral and political consensus that eventually allows for the existence of a moral overlapping consensus around the principles of justice.  But this is a process that takes time, and societies cannot paper over their deep divisions simply by having a formal constitution that fully reflects Rawlsian principles of justice.  Why not, one might ask? The reason is that in such a regime, the citizenry would not be motivated by these principles, and their effective sense of justice would not be consistent with the norms of the constitution. In short, the constitution would be dead on arrival.

But there are other reasons why Egypt is in a Hobbesian moment and not a Rawlsian one: even assuming that Egyptians reflected the political virtues of the Rawlsian reasonable and rational citizen, the Egyptian state lacks the institutional capacity to carry out the tasks required of a well-ordered society.  Part of the function of the Hobbesian constitution is to build effective institutions that can carry out the collective will.  What does the Egyptian state need to do to become an effective Hobbesian state? Well, it needs to be able to raise revenue effectively; it needs to be able to supervise and discipline its police effectively; it needs to be able to establish an effective public education system, etc., etc.  In short, the Egyptian state could be described as a failed state along nearly every point in the spectrum of what people expect modern states to deliver.

Creation of effective public institutions of this sort, however, requires the kind of social cooperation that develops the civic trust that enables the well-ordered Rawlsian society to come into existence.  Rights alone do not do it.  The well-ordered society is a combination of rights and solidarity as manifested in effective public institutions that come into existence through a complex system of social cooperation.  In a country like Egypt, the rights discourse is thoroughly disconnected from a discourse of solidarity, and this is reflected in — at least as it appears to me — the utter indifference many Egyptians have in building the kind of cooperative social institutions that are both the product and the requirement of liberal principles of justice.

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  1. Islawmix | Authoritative Information on Islamic Law - [...] considerable insight at Shanfaraa, on topics ranging from human rights in Egypt and Egypt’s “Hobbesian moment,” to explorations of the Egyptian [...]

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