Rawls and Rationality

A propos of a recent thread on whether it is irrational to reject Rawls’s two principles of justice, I thought I would offer my decidedly uninformed take on the issue.  From my summer Rawls reading, I’m inclined (thus far) to conclude that Rawls did not think that one must accept his two principles of justice on pain of irrationality.  What commands our assent to the two principles of justice is not reason, according to Rawls, but rather our ‘sense of justice,’ a topic broached in an earlier post.  How could it be otherwise, when one considers:

1.  Rawls ‘derives’ his two principles of justice from his ‘analytical construction,’ the Original Position.  These are the principles rational individuals would select behind the ‘veil of ignorance.’

2.  But of course we are not, in fact, behind a veil of ignorance, and it would be silly to suggest that a rational individual, in deciding what he ought or ought not to do, or the policies he ought or ought not to support, should ignore actual facts concerning his actual circumstances and privilege hypothetical facts concerning hypothetical circumstances.  (Keep in mind Rawls is deliberately assuming a narrow conception of rationality, basically calculative reasoning in view of promoting one’s self interest.)

3.  In short, the fact that, qua rational individual, I would select the principles of justice when behind a veil of ignorance, tells me nothing about which principles I should (rationally) support when not behind the veil of ignorance.

4.  So should we just ignore the OP and the principles of justice that fall out of it?  Here’s the point: this isn’t a live option for those of us with a healthy ‘sense of justice,’ or those of us who genuinely value fairness. So it’s this sense of justice that ties us to the two principles, that invests these principles with their normative weight and bindingness.  It is not REASON–at least narrowly construed, as Rawls is construing it for purposes of the OP.

So that’s my take on the rationality issue–according to Rawls, it is not necessarily irrational to reject the principles of justice.  If I am mistaken about this, let’s hear why.  My reading of Rawls also goes to the issue of ‘universality’–on this reading, the principles of justice will only apply (where ‘apply’ = ‘be de facto binding’) on those who share our ‘sense of justice’ or something close to it.  Presumably, not everyone does–the “outlaw societies” from Law of Peoples, perhaps?

Thoughts?

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17 Responses to Rawls and Rationality

  1. Nate says:

    Very interesting, David. I’ll have to look again at Rawls’s reasons for thinking we should adopt the standpoint of the original position. But since I haven’t yet had a chance to do so, let me speculate wildly for the time being. My initial reaction is that it seems wrong to construe rationality so narrowly, as “calculative reasoning in view of promoting one’s self interest.” Yes, Rawls does say this is how we should think of ourselves as functioning within the original position, but I don’t recall him restricting rationality in the same way to individuals considering whether they should engage in this thought experiment in the first place. Again, I’ll have to check. But, in the meantime, I’ll note that it strikes me as odd to think of fairness as something distinct from rationality. Part of Kant’s point in the Groundwork is that reason involves determining one’s will from a universal perspective rather than arbitrarily favoring oneself–in other words, being fair. My impression is that this was an important lesson Rawls drew from Kant.

    • David says:

      Thanks for the response, Nathan.

      The question I’m pressing is this: why should rational, self-interested individuals, who are not in anything like the Original Position, conform their behavior to principles that would be decided upon by rational, self-interested individuals who are in the Original Position? The answer: Because they have a ‘sense of justice,’ and value fairness, liberty, and equality. This answer strikes me as importantly different from this answer: Because it would be irrational for them not to. It is different in at least this respect: it grounds the authority of the principles of justice in values and attitudes, and not in bare reason.

      I take Rawls to be saying something like this: If you purport to care about things like fairness, equality, and liberty, which a great many of us do, then you are rationally compelled to accept the two principles of justice. This is why Rawls’s work is a direct challenge to Libertarians, Utilitarians, Communitarians, and the like. But Rawls (it seems to me) does not rule out the possibility that there may be peoples who do not value fairness, equality, and liberty. For such people, there will be no rational requirement to accept the principles of justice. We can criticize such people, of course, but I doubt whether we can criticize them for their irrationality. We criticize them on moral grounds, for not caring about the right things.

      I suppose you interpret Rawls (perhaps correctly, and perhaps along with Lime, I don’t know) as engaged in a more ambitious project–viz., to show that ‘rationality’ requires that we care about fairness, liberty, and equality. But surely the Original Position does not show this. These concerns and aims are treated as givens in the OP. So here’s a question that might help crystallize our disagreement: on your interpretation, what is the function of the OP? On my interpretation, the function of the OP is to show what people who value fairness, liberty, and equality are in fact committed to. What say you?

      • Lime says:

        David, I don’t mean to interrupt your debate with Nates, but isn’t it pretty clear at this point that Rawls does not think that rationality requires that we care about fairness, liberty, and equality? A more interesting might be whether and to what extent Rawls is correct to distintinguish rationality and reasonableness as he does, that is, whether he should argue something closer to what Nates agrues.

        • David says:

          Lime writes: “David, I don’t mean to interrupt your debate with Nate, but isn’t it pretty clear at this point that Rawls does not think that rationality requires that we care about fairness, liberty, and equality?”

          Well, no, it’s not clear, at least not to Nate and myself–it’s precisely what seems to be at issue between us.

          And: “A more interesting [question] might be whether and to what extent Rawls is correct to distintinguish rationality and reasonableness as he does, that is, whether he should argue something closer to what Nate argues[?]”

          In my readings I haven’t yet come to this distinction between rationality and reasonableness. Could you spell it out for me? And what do you take Nate to be arguing?

          • Lime says:

            Perhaps we should simply let you get to the distinction in your readings first.

            As to my previous comment, I understand that one of the purposes of this series is to encourage discussion between people with varying degrees of expertise with respect to the literature on Rawls, which is why I have tried to take care to point to most relevant parts in the Rawls corpus to further the discussion. I certainly don’t want to “short-circuit” this discussion before it gets started.

            At this point, however, the position that Rawls thinks rationality requires that we care about fairness, liberty, and equality seems pretty untenable without simply ignoring my posts (including reference to statements by Rawls that directly contradict it). No one likes to feel ignored.

  2. Lime says:

    David, your analysis is basically accurate, though I would quibble with a few points here and there. For example, Nate correctly reasons that Rawls considers rationality in a more expansive (and Kantian) way, linking it with autonomy and the capacity for a conception of the good. Rationality for Rawls is not limited to means/end reasoning. You are right, however, to note the centrality of a sense of justice. Rawls brings this idea forward to TJ (it’s in the section that, in the previous thread, I suggested Nate read).

    Nate writes, “It strikes me as odd to think of fairness as something distinct from rationality.” I guess it depends on what you mean by distinct. Fairness (or justice as fairness) relies upon a generally rational population, but fairness does not “follow” from rationality. For Rawls, rationality and reasonableness are complementary though clearly distinct qualities. As Rawls writes, “what [merely] rational agents lack is the particular form of moral sensibility that underlies the desire to engage in fair cooperation as such, and to do so on terms that others might be reasonably be expected to endorse” (1993, p. 51). He continues, “there is no thought of deriving the reasonable from the rational.” David is quite right that merely rational agents, for Rawls, lack a sense of justice.

    Nate writes, “reason involves determining one’s will from a universal perspective rather than arbitrarily favoring oneself.” I must say that I find your ability to use the term “universal perspective” without qualification, and seemingly without a hint of irony, kind of amazing.

    • David says:

      Thanks for the response, Lime. You write:

      “…Nate correctly reasons that Rawls considers rationality in a more expansive (and Kantian) way, linking it with autonomy and the capacity for a conception of the good. Rationality for Rawls is not limited to means/end reasoning.”

      I’m inclined to say the following. Debates about the nature of “rationality” are themselves moral debates insofar as they implicate our conceptions of the good. In deciding on the principles that will govern a liberal society, we should appeal to the thinnest possible conception of rationality, ideally one on which maximal agreement is possible. Here’s a promising candidate: an agent is “rational” insofar as he reasons correctly about how to achieve his ends/realize his values. Now agents (in this sense) who value fairness, liberty, and equality, and want to live in a just society, are rationally compelled to accept the principles of justice, since doing so is a necessary condition for achieving a just society.

      In a word: the imperative to accept Rawls’s principles of justice is hypothetical, not categorical.

      • Lime says:

        Your promising candidate is almost precisely how Rawls understands rationality, if by “realize his values” you mean something like “balance final ends by their significance for their plan of life as a whole, and by how well this ends cohere with and complement one another” (1993 p. 50-51). Rawls does seem to believe that rational person conducts her life with a kind of integrity of belief.

    • Nates says:

      Well, I’m amazed at your amazement. There’s much that’s mysterious in Kantian ethics, but I didn’t think universality was particularly problematic. When we play a game, we recognize rules that are universally binding on everyone who’s playing. That’s what it means for the game to have rules–you don’t get rules (or games) without being able to adopt this standpoint. The rules of a game are universal within their domain. Likewise, ethical rules are universal within their domain. When we engage in the practice of ethics, we consider a broader perspective than our own self-interest. For example, we conceive of the rule “Don’t steal” as applying universally to any rational being in a stealing situation. If you don’t like that example, pick your own. But if you grant that there’s a degree of objectivity to ethics, then you’ll grant that there’s also some universality, since they’re basically the same thing.

      And I stand by my earlier remark that this idea of adopting a universal standpoint in terms of our relations to other people is a reasonable (so to speak) gloss on fairness.

      • Lime says:

        Nates writes, “For example, we conceive of the rule “Don’t steal” as applying universally to any rational being in a stealing situation.” Who does this? I’m sympathetic to the humanity formulation of the categorical imperative, including so-called dialogical formulations a la Habermas. But do many contemporary moral philosophers really conceive of morality as a set of universal rules prohibiting specific actions like stealing, lying, etc.

        Why would objectivity have to be the same thing as universality? The former is perfectly compatible with internal criticism. If you affirm x, y, and z then it is inconsistent to believe a and b. Some understandings of universality make far more ambitious claims.

        Perhaps I simply misunderstand what you mean by a universal perspective. If by universal standpoint in this case you mean something like “I should consider whether I could affirm this principle of justice if I were a different gender, race, etc.” then by all means the universal standpoint is helpful for thinking about justice. You SEEMED to be using universal standpoint in a way that uncharitable* critics of Rawls interpreted the original position: that justice is how an agent disembodied from all of (neuter) particularity would want to live with others. In that case, the universal standpoint is incoherent. How could such an agent want anything?

        *Note: By uncharitable I don’t mean that there is no textual evidence to support this criticism. Critics simply ignored Rawls sections on justification, among other things.

  3. Juan says:

    David,if you are right and we can’t ignore our actual situation (we can’t be in the original position), then how does Rawls know what a person in the original position would say,since Rawls himself can’t place himself in that position?
    If the idea is that it is not necessary to actually be in the original position to reason about what one in that position would say,then all of us can do that (perhaps by reading Rawls).But then it’s just as if we were in the original position,in the sense that if we are already reasoning about what someone in the OP would say,we are de jure in the OP ourselves.But if that’s true,then we don’t need the detour through the sense of justice.We have to accept Rawls’ principles of justice directly (if Rawls’ argumentation is correct).
    does this make sense,or am i just writing meaningless stuff?

    • David says:

      Thanks for the response, Juan.

      My point is not that we “can’t” ignore our actual situation. Of course we can ignore our actual situation, otherwise hypothetical reasoning wouldn’t be possible at all. But for us to be moved by the conclusions of hypothetical reasoning about what policies we would support if we were in the OP–for us to treat these conclusions as binding on us in our actual situation–requires that we possess a sense of justice/fairness. It’s our sense of justice/fairness that precludes us from happily capitalizing on the arbitrary advantages we in fact find ourselves with. Someone lacking the sense of justice would, I imagine, simply say: “Yes, if I were trying to maximize my self-interest behind a veil of ignorance I would adopt your principles of justice, but in actual fact I am behind no such veil.”

      Have I missed your point, Juan?

      • Juan says:

        I see what you’re saying.I must have misinterpreted what you meant on point 3.Very good clarification,thanks.

  4. Lime says:

    I look forward to your response to Jaun, David. Also, keep up the Rawls posts.

  5. David says:

    Lime writes: “At this point, however, the position that Rawls thinks rationality requires that we care about fairness, liberty, and equality seems pretty untenable without simply ignoring my posts (including reference to statements by Rawls that directly contradict it). No one likes to feel ignored.”

    Fair enough, Lime. Do you think that this is a point on which Rawls differs from Kant, a point of difference motivated, perhaps, by Rawls’ emphasis on political rather than moral argument?

    • Nates says:

      Lime, I definitely don’t mean to be ignoring your text references, but I left my copy of Rawls in Chicago, which makes things a little more difficult. I was also out of town last week, but now that I’m back I plan to check out the Google books version.

  6. Chad says:

    I had thought Rawls articulates this distinction in TJ, but what Lime is getting at is what we need: the distinction between the “rational” (understood as means-end rationality) and the “reasonable” (understood as a sense of fairness or justice — as David noted as he began this thread). Rawls is pretty clear, and says in several places, that you can’t derive the reasonable from the rational. I think he at one points aligns this with Kant’s idea of having a moral personality in the *Religion*.

    The original position is a choice situation under certain constraints — wealth doesn’t count, nor does race or sex. How do we know those things shouldn’t count? We just do — we already accept them, as Rawls says somewhere. This is why the OP isn’t just a mechanism for rational choice. We’re not getting the principles of justice from the ground up. We’re generating them in a process that’s already circumscribed by moral norms.

    I always thought that the OP was a good thought experiment, not a decision procedure.

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