John Rawls and the justice of civil war. by Gerardo Muñoz

Nowhere in his published work does John Rawls treats the concept of civil war explicitly or by that matter in relation of his concept of political liberalism, although it is central to genesis. In a Spring semester of 1969 lecture at Harvard University, which remains for the most part unknown and only alluded by specialists of his (although never subject to substantive treatment), “Moral Problems: Nations and War”, Rawls takes up the problem on its merits [1]. This is a lecture that took place in the wake of the Vietnam war, the post-1968 context, and during the years of the definite settling of “global civil war” intensifying in every corner of the world. There is little that Rawls when treating the problem of war within the tradition of liberalism, was also aware of the factical nature of war of his present; that is, the transformation of war as a legitimate declaration between nations (at that point outlawed by the international Kellogg-Briand Pact) to a predominately a war within nations, that is, a permanent civil war. In this lecture – which one does not need to summarize given its broad historical strokes and technical determinations – Rawls crafts an typology wars in international law, as construed by the ius gentium, a theme that will later be the subject of his late book in international relations principles Laws of the People (1993). What is surprising is that in this typology, Rawls defines civil war as a thorough conflict aiming at “social justice” to transform the state. A civil war, then, is no longer what precedes the foundation of ‘legitimate authority’ proper to sovereignty, but it is rather the means by which something like “justice” becomes the mediation of the “Social”.

From this it follows, that for Rawls civil wars either neither wars of aggression or wars of sessions, two forms that would be exclusionary to his definition grounded on ‘Justice’. Hence, the “justification” of civil war could only be a just war insofar as its aim grounded in social justice as the effective realization of the well-being of all the inhabitants of the polity. For Rawls this was the ‘active’ continuation of the ideal of the French Revolution of 1789. Indeed, one could claim that for Rawls civil war is the continuation of revolution after the principle of universal recognition was achieved through rights. The ideal of Justice, then, was never the well-ordered natural law theory of revolutionary change (endorsed by many Jacobins, such as Saint-Just), but rather an intra-level recognition of social rules within the plural system of value differences. Coinciding with the development of positive law as grounded in social facts and guided by a ‘rule of recognition’ (in H.L.A Hart’s well-known elaboration), Rawls’ theory of civil war was the mechanism for a social fact-based conception of justice that was predicated in the optimization of risks, regulations, and re-distrubution of post-recognition equity of the activist state. Indeed, social justice insofar it was no longer merely sovereign authority, took the function of social facts through the administration of a permanent social civil war.

Neither an event nor an exception, civil war for Rawls is a free-standing metapolitical paradigm of the new “transformative” conception of the Social ordered purposely around the principle of Justice. Paradoxically, the conditions of promoting “social justice” (whose echoes we still hear today from the political class as well as from the jargon of academic political ideology) is not limited to the “veil of ignorance” or the “originary position” for social action, but rather in the actualization of a latent stasiological paradigm. This esoteric unity is neither an exception nor a deviation from Rawls’ mature political thinking around social justice; but as all true political paradigms, an invariant mode of his thinking. This is why he points in the 1969 lecture the Spanish civil war as paradigm of stasis as social justice, and in his essay “My religion”, the American Civil War led by the exceptional executive authority of Abraham Lincoln as necessary to the “original sin” of human slavery [2]. And as Eric Nelson has convincingly argued, the anti-pelagian conception of sin in Rawls’ thought amounts to a secularized theodicy of social force: a regulatory physics in the aftermath of the crisis of the sovereign state. Although ignored by Nelson, the full picture of Rawlsian conception of the “Social” is not complete if one does not take into account the stasiological paradigm that legitimizes the aims of social justice. And if the internal conflict is latent within the Trinitarian ontology (as Political Theology II suggests) there is little doubt that the transformative model of Liberalism rather than moving the conditions of politics forward, ends up descending to the terrain of Christian political theology that it never abandoned.

But is it even ‘transformative’ within the conditions of the Christian model that it allegedly secularized? Is the primacy on social justice on civil war truly a political theology, or rather the consequential triumph of theology over the institutionality to restrain the ballistic aspiration of social hegemony? Both questions collapse if tested on the grounds offered by Carl Schmitt regarding both political theology and the critique of moral neutralization of values as direct application of the principle of Justice, which would turn social relations into pure subjection, a form of Homo homini Radbruch (Rabruch referring to the Radbruch formula of an unjust of law as non-law, thus requiring principles) [3]. What is “just” to a hegemonic stance indicates a clear crisis of institutional deficiency in the face of what values determine the scope and content of the “Just”.

Similarly, the transformative conception of Rawlsian “activist liberalism” is closer to the realism of latent civil war than what the Christian idea required on a thing and minimalist basis; which, according to Ladner implied retreat form the social as well as from liturgical participation. On the contrary, rather than moral unity, reform entailed a separation, solus ad solum, in order to transform the habits and costumes without direct enforcement [4]. Contrary to the Christian monastic ius reformandi, Rawls’ renovation of political liberalism, vis-à-vis the civil war paradigm, accepted the hellish reality of the social by affirming “social justice” as the only real means for subjective social cohesion. And if the just war principle stood largely under the guidance of positive sovereign rules and commands; the deployment of justice of civil war will be based on the exertion of principles and higher content without end. The true efficacy of civil war alien to the concept of the political, made possible a regime of socialization on the mere basis of values stratification and moral abstraction.



1. John Rawls. “Moral Problems: Nations and War”, Spring 1969, Harvard University. Harvard U Library Archives. 

2. John Rawls. “On my religion”, in A brief inquiry into the meaning of sin and faith (Harvard U Press, 2009), 263.

3. Carl Schmitt. “Un jurista frente a sí mismo: entrevista de Fulco Lanchester a Carl Schmitt”, Carl-Schmitt-Studien, 1. Jg. 2017, 212.

4. Gerhart B. Ladner. The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action (Harper Torchbooks, 1969), 322.

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