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)