On getting into position

OK, I finally got my hands on a copy of Theory of Justice. Sorry for the delay.

Our previous discussion of Rawls has been fascinating and has gone in a lot of different directions. I have a better sense now of the rational/reasonable distinction that Rawls is employing, and I now recognize that Rawls doesn’t see himself as rationally deriving his principles of justice. That said, I do want to stand my ground on a related issue, concerning who the theory is aimed at (and who it is binding on). I’m still resistant to the ideas that: (a) Rawls is only talking to fellow Democratic theorists (such as Utilitarians); and (b) that his theory therefore isn’t binding on, say, religious fundamentalists and the like.

To get to this point, I want to follow Josh’s suggestion by looking at Rawls’s views on justification at the end of the book. This is partly to get clear on this material myself, as I found it surprisingly confusing. (I have to say, I’ve come to realize that Rawls is not a very clear writer–maybe this is an area where Kant’s influence is coming through!) So, feel free to correct me on what follows.

In general, I found this stuff on justification very interesting. Some of it reminded me of Aristotle’s philosophical method: when confronted with a philosophical problem, don’t begin from scratch, but instead begin by considering the existing proposed solutions. As Rawls puts it:

In light of these remarks, justice as fairness can be understood as saying that the two principles previously mentioned would be chosen in the original position in preference to other traditional conceptions of justice, for example, those of utility and perfection; and that these principles give a better match with our considered judgments on reflection than these recognized alternatives. Thus justice as fairness moves us closer to the philosophical ideal; it does not, of course, achieve it. (§9, p. 43)

Now this could leave the impression that Rawls is only addressing the holders of these views, but I’m pretty sure that’s not right. Consider this passage:

Even if the argument I have offered is sound, it only shows that a finally adequate theory (if such exists) will look more like the contract view than any of the other doctrines we discussed. And even this conclusion is not proved in any strict sense. [PP] Nevertheless, in comparing justice as fairness with these conceptions, the list used is not simply ad hoc: it includes representative theories from the tradition of moral philosophy which comprises the historical consensus about what so far seem to be the more reasonable and practicable moral conceptions. With time further possibilities will be worked out, thereby providing a more convincing basis for justification as the leading conception is subjected to a more severe test. But these things we can only anticipate. For the present it is appropriate to try to reformulate the contract doctrine and to compare it with a few familiar alternatives. This procedure is not arbitrary; we can advance in no other way. (§87, p. 509)

So, the idea of starting by considering traditional conceptions of justice is not meant to restrict the target audience of the theory to the holders of these traditional conceptions. It’s just the way justification works, which means that anyone interested in justifying their conception of justice has an obligation to consider the received views and advance the argument.

Nonetheless, it does mean that the theory is derived from a set of shared beliefs. Rawls again: “It is perfectly proper, then, that the argument for the principles of justice should proceed from some consensus. This is the nature of justification.” (§87, pp. 508-9). So, the question becomes: what are these shared beliefs that constitute the starting point of Rawls’ theorizing? And how widely are these premises held?

I think this is a useful way of reformulating our earlier dispute. Lime, if I’m understanding him correctly–and perhaps David as well–believes that many societies and peoples do not share these initial beliefs and thus will not find the results of Rawls’s theorizing binding on them. As Lime put it in an earlier post, “Justice as Fairness is a theory of justice for democratic peoples, that is, those broadly committed to free and equal citizenship. Those not committed to democratic citizenship (very broadly conceived) are simply not Rawls’ audience, and will most likely not be convinced by his arguments from TJ.” By contrast, I (and Josh too, I think) believe that these initial premises are more widely held (and perhaps even form a consensus across all human societies). If we’re right, then Rawls’s theory will be binding even on non-democratic peoples. Which would be nice.

OK, so what exactly do we need to get the theory going? First, rationality. No problem with universality there. But as David and Lime have repeatedly pointed out to me, we need more than that. This has been described in our previous discussions in a variety of ways: reasonableness, reciprocity. But it seems to me that the phrase Rawls uses most often is “a sense of justice”. Here’s one of many examples: “[…] this initial situation is fair between individuals as moral persons, that is, as rational beings with their own ends and capable, I shall assume, of a sense of justice. The original position is, one might say, the appropriate initial status quo, and thus the fundamental agreements reached in it are fair.” (§3, p. 11)

This leads us to what I think is the crucial question: who has this sense of justice? Rawls’s answer is perfectly clear: everyone. As he puts it:

It should be stressed that the sufficient condition for equal justice, the capacity for moral personality, is not at all stringent. When someone lacks the requisite potentiality either from birth or accident, this is regarded as a defect or deprivation. There is no race or recognized group of human beings that lack this attribute. Only scattered individuals are without this capacity […] (§77, p. 443).


[…] the simplicity of the contract view of the basis of equality is worth emphasizing. The minimum capacity for the sense of justice insures that everyone has equal rights. The claims of all are to be adjudicated by the principles of justice. Equality is supported by the general facts of nature and not merely by a procedural rule without substantive force. (§77, p. 446)

And, again, in the Collected Papers, we find him appealing to this sesne of justice to distinguish humans from other animals:

[…] 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, p. 114).

The normally-functioning members of every human society have both rationality and a sense of justice, and this means that the original position thought experiment and Rawls’s subsequent theorizing are binding on all of them.

Sure enough, we find many examples of Rawls asserting the broad binding power of his principles. We see this, for example, in his list of political doctrines that are eliminated by his theory, which includes non-democratic views such as dictatorships and anarchism–under the general heading of Egoism (see §21, p. 107 and §23, p. 117). It comes out even more clearly when Rawls identifies his target audience–in very general terms. Here are a few examples.

They [the principles of justice] are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association. (§3, p. 10)

The merit of the contract terminology is that it conveys the idea that principles of justice may be conceived as principles that would be chosen by rational persons, and that in this way conceptions of justice may be explained and justified. (§3, pp. 14-15)

There is no suggestion that Rawls is engaging only with Western democrats. And this is as we should expect, given that he believes rationality and a sense of justice are held by virtually everyone. In fact, Rawls ends the book (fittingly, in my view) on precisely this not of universality:

Thus to see our place in society from the perspective of this [original] position is to see it sub specie aeternitatis: it is to regard the human situation not only from all social but also from all temporal points of view. The perspective of eternity is not a perspective from a certain place beyond the world, nor the point of view of a transcendent being; rather it is a certain form of thought and feeling that rational persons can adopt within the world. And having done so, they can, whatever their generation, bring together into one scheme all individual perspectives and arrive together at regulative principles that can be affirmed by everyone as he lives by them, each from his own standpoint. (§87, p. 514)

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10 Responses to On getting into position

  1. David says:

    Great stuff, Nathan. I plan on giving a more thoughtful response later, but here’s an initial response.

    You state the crux of your position when you write: “The normally-functioning [adult] members of every human society have both rationality and a sense of justice, and this means that the original position thought experiment and Rawls’s subsequent theorizing are binding on all of them.”

    I don’t find this nearly as dispositive as you suggest. What does it mean to say that the normally-functioning [adult] members of every human society have a ‘sense of justice’? It means, I think, something like this: the normally-functioning adult members of every human society have a ‘moral personality.’ They have more or less developed beliefs about moral right and wrong, justice and injustice. They are prone to distinctively moral feelings like ‘indignation’ and ‘resentment.’ Construed in this way, the claim seems undeniably true. Adult human beings who lack a sense of justice in this sense are called ‘sociopaths’–they are deficient or defective human beings.

    But having a ‘sense of justice’ in this sense is consistent with an incredibly wide variety of moral beliefs, values, and commitments. It is certainly not true, for example, that having a sense of justice in this generic sense of having a ‘moral personality’ entails a commitment to Rawls’s principles of justice, or even, so far as I can tell, a commitment to moral values like ‘freedom’ and ‘equality.’ So the question is really this: suppose we are dealing with people who have a sense of justice but not the same sense of justice that we 21st-century Western liberal democrats have. They want to know why they are RATIONALLY bound by Rawls’s principles of justice. What say you?

    Or better: what is Rawls’s answer to this question?

  2. Nates says:

    I don’t yet feel qualified to assess the success of Rawl’s argument. Right now I’m focusing on a more preliminary issue: I’m trying to figure out who his target audience is. (Or, to put it another way, I’m trying to figure out how ambitious his program is.) To do this, I’m looking at the premises he starts his argument from–in Rawls’s terms, the consensus from which the process of justification begins.

    As I see it, there are two possible readings. If he starts his argument from nothing more than rationality and our natural sense of justice, then his principles of justice will be binding on everyone (assuming the argument is successful, of course). This is my preferred interpretation. I see Rawls as proceeding from this thin (and generally accepted) sense of justice and then trying to show that more robust principles follow from them.

    Alternately, one might think that Rawls starts his theorizing from a more substantial set of premises. In this case, many non-democratic peoples will not accept his initial premises and thus will not feel bound by the resulting theory. To put it another way, they simply won’t feel any obligation to engage with the original position thought experiment, because they’ll see it as already smuggling in certain beliefs that they don’t accept. This latter interpretation is Josh’s (if I’m understanding him correctly). The passages I cite above are meant to provide support for my reading of the text, by showing that Rawls is, in fact, starting his argument from a fairly thin and widely held conception of justice.

  3. Josh says:

    I’m guessing confused about who “Josh” is and who “Lime” is but I’ll try to comment:

    I think Rawls says some things in later texts, ones you don’t cite here, that seem to draw back from some of the sub specie aeternitatis talk. In Political Liberalism some of the material and historical conditions that might give rise to the sort of “sense of justice” which, in A Theory of Justice, is just presented as a relatively universal notion. These sections have been taken as bearing on Rawls’s account of justification, even though he explicitly labels it as a problem with the issue of stability.

    My claim is that there is no good way to decide beforehand which societies do or do not have enough of a “sense of justice” to mean that the conclusions of justice as fairness would apply to them. As such, I’m really saying there’s nothing in Political Liberalism that renders the sub specie aeternitatis thing problematic.

    My argument is a sort of reductio – If a sense of justice is such a determinate thing, then no (or very few) societies are in Rawls’s audience, because the existence of unjust laws in a given society should, at some level, demonstrate that that society does not buy into some of the premises characterized as the circumstances of justice. The fact that, for example, the United States has massive wealth inequality and would therefore seem not to care all that much about the difference principle in its major institutions means that on one view, the “sense of justice” does not apply here.

    But this is an unacceptable conclusion – since no society (except perhaps Sweden or Canada) seems to have reacted to the circumstances of justice in the right way, then the theory applies to nobody.

    This leaves me with a more incremental position – every society has a sense of justice, to some extent. The quotations Nates has provided above seem helpful here. Sure – Saudi Arabia has less of that sense of justice than Sweden, but it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. And it’s not impossible to talk to Saudi Arabians about justice, it’s just harder, though perhaps not as hard as the Rawls of Political Liberalism seems to think.

  4. Nates says:

    I’m definitely sympathetic to your reductio argument, Josh. I’d add that the presence of widespread injustice in a society can easily be explained without holding that its members lack a sense of justice. It seems much more likely that they are simply mistaken about what justice specifically demands of them.

  5. Lime says:

    Just read the post. Very good stuff, Nathan! For my purposes, this makes me more sympathetic toward the critics of Rawls’ theory that I chastised in previous posts.

    As Josh notes, Rawls says a good deal about justification in Political Liberalism, as well as Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, that undermines your interpretation. He claims to be clarifying and elaborating (rather than changing) his original theory. Hopefully David continues his thoughtful commentaries, so that we can consider the following question: Did Rawls radically change his conception of his own theory, or is the cohesive or holistic interpretation that I have been pushing reasonable (ha ha!).

    For now, a question. On your interpretation, Nathan, what is the content of the veil of ignorance? Which things do parties in the original position not know? Obviously, it can’t be everything, or there would be nothing to hang the principles of justice on. Can having a capacity for a sense of justice provide the answer?

  6. Josh says:

    I don’t mean to quibble, but I think Lime mischaracterizes what I said… In fact, Rawls doesn’t say a “good deal about justification” in Political Liberalism. Or, even if he does, *I* never said that he did. Here’s what I said:

    “These sections have been taken as bearing on Rawls’s account of justification, even though he explicitly labels it as a problem with the issue of stability.”

    This distinction is important. My reading of the “overlapping consensus” idea, and the historical narratives Rawls supplies to accompany it, are NOT statements of justification, and also are not attempts to relativize the scope of A Theory of Justice’s arguments. In other words, Rawls never says either a) that people need to believe such-and-such about justice for his account of justice to be a justified one, or b) that people who don’t believe such-and-such are simply not in his audience or are not bound by its conclusions.

    The idea of overlapping consensus and the related cluster of concpets are attempts at answering what Rawls says they are: questions of stability. Rawls is concerned to show what sort of conditions allow “justice as fairness” to be the stable basis of democratic governance.

    This is NOT the same question as the justification question. The principles of justice would still valid or invalid, whether or not an overlapping consensus has a good chance of developing around them in a particular society. The question of whether principles of justice are justified in the broader sense is not something Political Liberalism considers all that much.

    What I’m saying is that people have construed the book as addressing one question – moral justification across cultures – even though Rawls explicitly says it’s addressing another – potential stability across cultures.

  7. Nates says:

    Lime, I agree that there’s an issue about how my reading of ToJ lines up with later Rawls. I’m hoping things turn out to be as Josh describes them, but I’m not yet in a position to judge.

    As far as how we conceive ourselves within the original position, I suppose we see ourselves as rational goal-oriented agents with a basic or natural sense of justice. Presumably we also have a fairly robust understanding of how things (and people) work in the world–so that we can realistically imagine how our decisions will play themselves out. As far as I can tell, all we really need to leave behind are the particularities of our own situation (status, beliefs, goals, etc.) And we do so because we see that giving undue weight to our own individual situations would violate our sense of justice. I think that’s it. Do we need anything more to get the ball rolling?

  8. Lime says:

    Nates, what does it mean “to conceive of rational goal-oriented agents” who are unaware of their goals? What counts as a particularity of our situation? If beliefs and goals are aspects of our situation, then what is an aspect of our self? Again, the persons in the original position don’t seem enough like persons to have an opinion about justice.

    I think a better and more plausible understanding of the original position thought experiment, at least for those of us commited to the idea that Rawls avoids oft-cited communitarian and feminist criticisms, is to think of it as a way of putting yourselves in the position of particular others within society. Would I be able to affirm this as a woman? As a person with poor parents? That is, not as a disembodied self, but as a series of more concrete individuals within society, to consider if others could also affirm what we are inclined to believe about justice. Through this process an individual has greater reason to believe that her principles could be the source of general agreement.

    Agreement among reasonable people, that is. Josh, I hope to be able to blog on this issue soon (and with the texts in front of me). Before doing so, I think a couple of clarifications might be helpful. Rawls is clearly neither a cultural relativist nor a skeptic about moral truth (though he is a pluralist, or at least purposefully agnostic, about the truth of various comprehensive doctrines). When I say that a theory of justice is a theory of justice for democratic peoples, I don’t mean: there are democratic peoples, they have a theory of justice which is true for them. Then there are non-democratic peoples, who have different theories of justice that are true for them. Also, I am not comfortable with Rawls’ division of the world into different peoples in Law of Peoples, though it makes a bit more sense in the context of debates in political theory and international relations. In any event, people of all nations have a capacity for a sense of justice, according to Rawlsian terminology, and so they are all his audience in that sense.

    Instead, it is to once again note the limits of rationality. The distinction between rationality and reasonableness is essential here. There is nothing irrational about rejecting justice as fairness (it is not a theory of justice as mutual advantage). A theory of justice is a theory of justice for democratic peoples because, by supposition, such peoples are reasonable. Reasonableness for Rawls is a highly involved (and contested) idea, but includes a commitment to a particular understanding of free and equal citizenship as well a notion of reciprocity. There are no nations of people who are by definition unreasonable. There is little reason to expect those who lack the moral commitments of reasonable persons, however, to find a theory of justice compelling – that is, to motivate them to revise their beliefs. Their beliefs, while unreasonable, are not irrational.

    Of course, a Kantian might be inclined to argue that such a commitment to reciprocity is part and parcel to moral reasoning (or to the practice of moral reason-giving). In truth, I am at times compelled by this idea.

  9. Josh says:

    I think the sort of reasonableness Rawls describes is necessary in a group of people if justice as fairness is to serve as a stable basis of democratic government. I just want to point out again that is a different claim than “reasonableness is a set of assumptions that, if you buy into, justice as fairness is justified, an if you don’t, it isn’t.” “Reasonableness” is just not raised in the context of the question of truth/justification. Perhaps for someone like Scanlon, it is, but I just always took Rawls not to be all that interested in the question of justification in the way that you’re describing it.

  10. Lime says:

    Justification yes, but not “metaphysical, rational truth” or some such notion. Rawls believes that there is a kind of pro tanto justification for seeking and articulating a political conception of justice (which does not rely on a particular comprehensive doctrine). Public justification of justice as fairness, however, is only possible when citizens are reasonable, sharing a reasonable overlapping consensus on a political conception of justice. If citizens are reasonable, then they seek an overlapping consensus on a political conception of justice. Fortunately, Rawls writes in a reply to Habermas, this consensus is a basic fact about the political sociology of a democratic regime. A democratic society, with the existence and public knowledge of a reasonable overlapping consensus, can be both legitimate and stable for the right reasons.

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