Rawls [1]: “Outline of a Decision Procedure in Ethics” (1951)

Most generally, this essay is about how to show that a given moral principle is ‘objectively valid’ and that actions in accordance with that principle are ‘objectively right.’  The central claim, so far as I can tell, is that a moral principle is objectively valid if it explains, better than any alternative principle, the “considered judgments of competent judges” on particular moral issues (these terms are elaborately defined in the essay).  So let’s say we’ve identified the group of competent judges, and that they all judge that a wide variety of actions are moral and a wide variety of actions immoral, and that the best explanation of this shared judgment is that they accept a principle like “Act always so as to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number.”  This would amount to showing that the principle, “Act always so as to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number,” is objectively valid.

The basic idea is that if we can agree about what constitutes ‘reasonable moral inquiry,’ then we can define ‘morally valid principles/rules’ as those principles/rules which best explain the outputs of reasonable moral inquiry.  This clearly prefigures the argument in A Theory of Justice.

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3 Responses to Rawls [1]: “Outline of a Decision Procedure in Ethics” (1951)

  1. Nate says:

    First of all, this is a welcome break from end-of-year grading, so thanks.

    Second, the procedural focus sounds kind of Kantian, which makes sense given Rawls’ background and interests. A principle or maxim is justified by its being a product (or instance?) of correct moral reasoning. I’m curious to hear if Kant comes up in these early papers.

  2. Lime says:

    This would be a great idea for an OP reading group, though I’m not sure that I can keep up this summer unless we went slower than you would want.

  3. David says:

    I like the idea of an OP reading group–whether on Rawls’s essays, or something else. I don’t need to get through an essay each day–God knows I have other things to do.

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