Reconstructing Rawls III: From constructivism to constructivism+

From constructivism to constructivism+ (continuing a series of posts)

A convenient route for me to begin to develop a constructivist+ perspective and its implications is opened up by the distinction between natural and constructivist theories of justice (see Dworkin [1973], 1989, p.28 ff).  Taking the conventional scientific method as a model, natural accounts seek a firm foundation in the observed world, where the observations consist of intuitions about widely accepted moral standards.  Principles underlying those intuitions are proposed, their consequences deduced, and, if discrepancies or contradictions between those consequences and subsequent “observations” emerge, deeper principles need to be discovered to restore coherence — just as Einstein proposed relativity to resolve problems in the accounts of classical physics.

Constructivist theories, on the other hand, seek coherence without postulating the existence of moral bedrock.  Moral observations or intuitions are not sufficient, by themselves, to justify the theory proposed.  Instead, any new interpretation of justice, developed, say, in response to new circumstances or challenges, is constructed from principles underlying previous theories, analogous to the use of precedents in law.  (Notice that two different senses of the word construction are implicated here, namely, building and interpretation.)  Moreover, the modifications and extensions must be made in a way that can be justified to the community of concern.  Attention to this context of reception,  together with coherence, characterize constructivism.

At one level the natural/constructivist distinction is not significant; the difference in practice is negligible and the formulations can be readily inter-translated.  For example, if the community of concern is seen as the community of other moral philosophers, then both schools seek to articulate a set of fundamental principles and reasoning that support the rules making up the theory of justice being proposed.  Appeals to intuitions about widely accepted moral standards are made in both cases; for the natural theorist and constructivist alike the “wide acceptance” implies a community that shares their concerns.

At another level, however, the distinction is significant.  Natural theory directs our attention inwards to the foundational moral observations, while the constructivist perspective opens our view outwards.  The constructivist emphasis on justifying a theory to a community readily leads us to admit that the descriptions of moral observations or fundamental principles are not innocent.  Instead, descriptions are formulated or reconstrued with a view to justifying by deduction or derivation the theory of justice already in mind, at least in broad outline.  The context of reception also enters in the imperative to build on precedents.  The practice of building on precedents is not a natural route to coherence, but relies on acknowledging that the community to be convinced has already a sense of reliable knowledge, familiar categories, and plausible beliefs.  To carry that community along to a new consensus it is a matter of practicality, not a logical or natural necessity, that modifications should build upon the existing structure.  (That is not, of course, to deny that some dismantling and reconstruction of that structure may also be required–questioning what’s plausible, undermining what’s reliable, and reshaping distinctions.)

At this point, the constructivist perspective can be readily extended.  Once we acknowledge philosophers’ active role in shaping arguments in order to move some community, why not analyze the rhetorical strategies employed?  For example, consider the natural theorists’ rhetoric.  Moral intuitions, they claim, form observations upon which an objective theory can be built.  These theorists know that their argument depends on some community accepting those intuitions, but they can push this conditionality out of view by inventing the idea that the fundamental principles of their theory are universal or given by nature.  Rhetorical analysis, once begun, requires us to distrust the literal version of an argument and to include in addition how the selection of relevant considerations relates to the context of the philosopher-rhetoricians and their audiences.  Of course, for an audience of philosophers the context seems to be dominated by the contemporary analytical problems and debates in terms given by the history of the field.  Yet — and this is the case even for an audience of philosophers — there is a background of unspoken or unexamined factors against which any audience experiences arguments and evaluates them as valid, clear, interesting, and so on.  Coherence for some audience derives not only from the structure of the argument, but also from the background they share with the philosopher.

The warrant to examine the situated construction of philosophical rhetoric does not, however, indicate how we might go about doing this, nor how it helps us to make sense of Rawls.  Let me postpone these questions one paragraph longer, while I extend the constructivist perspective yet further.

By opening up our interpretations, at least in principle, to incorporate implicit and taken-for-granted considerations, we have rendered problematic the conventional boundaries of moral philosophical discourse.  Following the constructivist line leads us to note that, when philosophers are constructing their arguments with the community they strive to convince in mind (consciously or otherwise), they are also rhetorically constructing that very community.  Moral philosophers give the appearance of addressing other philosophers — to whom else would the obtuse technical terms, e.g., “The Difference Principle,” and detailed exegeses of arguments be intelligible?  Yet there are, of course, much broader communities, consisting of people on whose behalf the moral philosophers undertake their work of reasoning, people who, in turn, the philosophers hope to influence with tightly justified rules of justice.  What renders arguments, or, more importantly, conclusions plausible to members of those extended communities?  What background elements of the wider society are thus implicated in the philosophers’ building of arguments?

These questions take us into the realm of social constructivisms.  The plural is important because, at least in the interpretation of science, construction is construed in several ways (Sismondo 1993).  The relativist position that representations of reality are mere social constructions is only one variant.  In fact, hoping to avoid any automatic association of my arguments with relativism, I will use here the term constructivism+.  What I draw from social constructivism is the sociological perspective that representations of the nature of things are bound together with interventions in “social worlds” (Clarke 1991), arenas of discourse and action encompassing the particular work situation, the relevant scholarly communities, and the different arenas of sponsorship and reception.  The coherence of ideas making up some theory cannot be disentangled from the feasibility or desirability of actions that follow from and, in turn, reinforce those ideas (Taylor 1992, 1995).

(Next post)


Clarke, A. (1991). “Social worlds/arenas theory as organizational theory,” pp 119-158 in D. R. Maines (ed.), Social organization and social process: Essays in honor of Anselm Strauss. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Dworkin, R. (1989).  “The Original Position,” pp. 16-52 in N. Daniels (ed.) Reading Rawls:  Critical Studies on Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press.

Sismondo, S. (1993). “Some social constructions.” Social studies of science 23: 515-553.

Taylor, P. (1992).  “Re/constructing socio-ecologies:  System dynamics modeling of nomadic pastoralists in sub-Saharan Africa,” in A. Clarke and J. Fujimura (eds.) The Right Tool for the Job:  At work in twentieth century life sciences.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press.

Taylor, P. (1995). “Building on construction: An exploration of heterogeneous constructionism, using an analogy from psychology and a sketch from socio-economic modeling.” Perspectives on Science 3: 66-98.


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