Rawls [5], “The Sense of Justice,” (1963)

In this essay Rawls addresses two questions, one raised specifically by his theory of justice and the other a general and much discussed meta-ethical question.  The specific question is, “To whom do the principles of justice apply?” or “To whom is justice owed?”  The general meta-ethical question is, “What motivates us to act morally–i.e., to conform our behavior to the principles of justice?”  His essay’s title provides the answer to both questions: the principles of justice apply to those (and only to those) in possession of the sense of justice, or the capacity for the sense of justice, and the sense of justice can (albeit may not always) effectively motivate its possessors to act morally.

Much of the essay is devoted, understandably enough, to giving content to the notion of a ‘sense of justice.’  It turns out to be a rather complex ‘moral feeling,’ a concept which itself receives several pages of analysis, and I won’t go into it here other than to note that Rawls apparently means to locate some sort of middle ground between those who claim that reason can motivate and those that claim that reason cannot motivate without the original input of desire.  Motivation by the sense of justice is neither reason-based nor desire-based, but includes elements of both, or may perhaps be a sort of sui generis motivational state.  Anyway, I’m more interested in Rawls’s answer to the specific question about who falls under the umbrella of justice, and in particular with what Rawls says in the following passage:

…[I]t does not follow from a person’s not being owed the duty of justice that he may be treated in any way that one pleases.  We do not normally think of ourselves as owing the duty of justice to animals, but it is certainly wrong to be cruel to them.  Their capacity for feeling pleasure and pain, for some form of happiness, is enough to establish this.  To deny that this capacity is sufficient [for being owed the duty of justice] is not, then, to license everything.  Other faults will still be possible, since the principles of humanity and liberality are more extensive in their application.  On the other hand, something must account for animals not being owed the duty of justice, and a plausible explanation is their lack of the capacity for a sense of justice and the other capacities which this sense presupposes (Collected Papers, 114).

As I understand the argument in the essay from which this passage is taken, to say that a person is ‘owed the duty of justice’ means (roughly) that he is among the ‘everyone’ as that term figures in Rawls’s formulations of the two principles of justice (everyone has a right to equal liberty, and inequalities of wealth are justified only if they are to the advantage of everyone and attach to offices and position open to everyone).  Rawls evidently wants to say that in the principles of justice ‘everyone’ denotes a group somewhat smaller than the group of existing human beings, and certainly smaller than the group of existing sentient animals.  He’s of course aware that this raises the question: How will such individuals, human and non-human alike, be treated in the just society?  Are there any principled moral constraints on our treatment of these individuals?  And he suggests yes, since these individuals, although not protected by the umbrella of justice, are protected by the more expansive umbrella of “humanity” and “liberality.”  Now this is the first and last time Rawls mentions these ‘principles’ (humanity and liberality) in this essay, and so brings me to my two questions:

(i) What is the content of these principles?

(ii) Where do these principles come from?  In other words, are they derivable, like the principles of justice, from the “analytic construction” (OP)? Are they derivable in some other way?

Clarification much appreciated!

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One Response to Rawls [5], “The Sense of Justice,” (1963)

  1. Lime says:

    Very interesting David. I’ve never read this article, but hope too soon. Rawls’ account of “moral education” from TJ is often ignored by political philosophers (with some notable exceptions).

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