Reconstructing Rawls and exposing the implicit social embeddedness of theories of justice

Moral philosophy has traditionally positioned itself at some distance from the problem of counteracting actually experienced injustice.  (At least so it seemed to me in the mid-1990s when I wrote the unpublished essay from which these posts is drawn).  “Compliance” is often defined to be outside the ambit of ideal moral theory.  There are, of course, counter-currents, such as feminist analyses of real life ethical issues (e.g., Holmes and Purdy 1992), which highlight practical relevance and support struggle aimed at limiting the powerful in their making and breaking of social rules.  In these posts I also prod moral philosophy towards more explicit attention to the political constructions of injustice, but by a less direct path than appealing to practical or political relevance.  I advance a particular kind of constructivist interpretation of moral argumentation, which leads me through three levels of argument to challenge a position that may seem obviously true, namely, that in order to oppose injustice, one must first articulate and justify a coherent conception of justice.

Let me refer to what I question as “two-step” moral theory.  Whenever a set of fundamental principles is formulated from which justice can be derived and justified, a second step is implied, namely, that of theorizing the social, constitutional, legal, or cultural arrangements through which such justice could be implemented.  Although one could challenge moral philosophy’s emphasis of the first step over the second, my first level of argument will contest the very separability of these steps.  I develop my argument by considering a dominant figure in moral theory, John Rawls.  I demonstrate that views of social action are embedded in, not merely derivable from, his well-known formulations in A Theory of Justice (TJ) (Rawls 1971).  Rawls in TJ — and two-step moral theory in general — should not be taken just literally.  Instead, we should extend our interpretive horizons to include the implicit views of social action, broadly construed — from the macro- to the micro-social, and from the past to the present and the possible — built into philosophical arguments.  I call this interpretive position “constructivism+” (constructivism plus).  A “reconstructed” Rawls is more coherent than most moral philosophers have considered him to be.

As we shall see, however, my reconstructed Rawls is not fully coherent, and this provides an entry point into the second level of argument.  Suppose, as Rawls himself began to do in the years since TJ, moral philosophers acknowledged that social background cannot be excluded from moral argumentation.  In other words, an attempt would be made to render the implicit embeddedness explicit.  Nevertheless, giving priority to moral justification while leaving the social context in the background, scarcely analyzed, burdens our thinking about in/justice in several ways, which leads me to a discussion of more general problems stemming from the two-step structure of moral theory.  A third and fourth level of argument emerge: 3. In order to oppose injustice, it is not the case that one must first articulate and justify a coherent conception of justice.   4.  Complete constructivist+ account of how to counteract actually experienced injustice—Not undertaken in these posts, but I hope to indicate the necessity for reconfiguring the project of moral philosophy.

(Next post)


Holmes, H. and L. Purdy (eds.) (1992).  Feminist Perspectives in Medical Ethics.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Rawls, J. (1971).  A Theory of Justice.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


One thought on “Reconstructing Rawls and exposing the implicit social embeddedness of theories of justice

  1. Pingback: Reconstructing Rawls III: From constructivism to constructivism+ « Intersecting Processes

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