Reconstructing Rawls IV: Phase 1

A reconstruction+ of Rawls, phase 1 (continuing a series of posts)

To apply a constructivist+ perspective to Rawls in A Theory of Justice (TJ) requires reinterpretation of his work so as to include reference to its social background.  Moreover, given that I want to engage an audience interested in moral philosophy, this interpretation should provide greater coherence than previous constructions of TJ undertaken within moral philosophy.  My reconstruction is separated into two steps.  First, I focus on Rawls’ general framework in TJ (including his rules of justice).  Once I have made plausible the idea that Rawls’ framework builds on implicit references to unstated background social considerations,[1] I can then more easily interpret the more complex and difficult derivation and moral underpinnings of his framework.

I should emphasize that my interpretation is quite provisional, subject to reworking after further research into Rawls’ social location over the period in which he developed the framework in TJ.  But for this essay I do not have to claim that my interpretation of TJ is the unique, correct and complete one.  My argument is that there is no a priori reason to read TJ (and moral theory more generally) literally; all I need to do to establish that is to render plausible one potential social constructivist interpretation of TJ.  The onus is then on those who want to interpret moral philosophical arguments without reference to unstated background social elements; they have to establish that this and any other constructivist+ accounts can be replaced by one that is more coherent and still purely internal.

Let me begin my first phase by reinterpreting Rawls’ stated method of achieving a coherent conception of justice.  Rawls advocates that we move back and forward between our considered convictions about justice and fundamental principles that yield rules of justice, revising the convictions and the principles until the convictions and the rules coincide, a state he calls reflective equilibrium (TJ, pp. 19 ff).  Undoubtedly Rawls uses some method of reflection and modification but, I propose, his convictions and principles are not so tightly circumscribed.

As I have depicted in figure 1, the process of reflection and modification can be reconstrued as extending well into the social realm (region A).  In fact, Rawls’ reflection and modification appears to be grounded in a central observation, namely, that the existing system is characterized by large inequalities of wealth (or, more generally, possession and access to resources) that allow the wealthy (resource-rich) to perpetuate inequality (point A1).  An obvious way for rules of justice to have a role in transforming this system is for the rules to endorse some redistribution of historically generated inequalities.  This specification for a theory of justice follows from the observation that in past and present societies the wealthy have been able to exert disproportionate influence on social decisions and, in general, privilege themselves and their heirs in social transactions.  From the same observation it also follows for Rawls that large inequalities cannot be allowed to re-accumulate after any redistribution.  This necessitates some equalizing action to compensate for any future inherited inequalities.  These two specifications constitute point B, which in turn constrain the moral philosophical framework Rawls develops (point C).  Other aspects of the social background also give shape to his framework, as shall emerge shortly.

In the tradition of two-step moral theory, however, a framework must be built in which the desired rules appear to be derived from more fundamental principles.  In other words, the direction of construction in my interpretation (A->B->C or A->C) is inverted in moral theoretical rhetoric so that point C appears based on some point D.  Rawls’ TJ presents one version of his framework and its derivation from “fixed points” (i.e., principles that Rawls claims are widely accepted) and other “considered convictions.”  In other versions of Rawls’ work, however, his framework and its derivation differ significantly (see Barry 1989, p. 320ff), but the rules of justice remain relatively unchanged.  One could interpret this discrepancy internally to moral philosophy, claiming merely that Rawls changes his analysis to answer better the objections of critics.  Nevertheless, the fact that Rawls’ derivation can vary while his rules remain invariant confers some plausibility on the direction of derivation I proposed above (A->B->C).

At the same time, however, the variability of Rawls’ frameworks among different versions means we need additional reasons to account for the particular framework advanced in TJ.  The framework in TJ may be summarized as the Original Position with the Veil of Ignorance, plus a concern not to generate intolerable Strains of Commitment, and rules of justice consisting of the Priority of Liberty, Equality of Opportunity and the Difference Principle.  I want to be charitable to Rawls, that is, to assume that his account has an underlying coherence.[2] In this spirit of seeking coherence, we can interpret each element of Rawls’ framework by paying attention to existing social arrangements and processes (i.e., the path from A->C).[3]

(Next post)

Barry, B.  (1989).  A Treatise on Social Justice, Volume I:  Theories of Justice.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

[1] I need to review subsequent Rawls to see whether he became more explicit.

[2] Charity does not, however, extend to restricting my interpretations to what Rawls literally says; this would constitute an interpretive positivism.  Issues and terms, therefore, given to Rawls by the history of moral philosophy and its contemporary debates, are relevant to our interpretation, but should not exclude other themes.

[3] Note that, at the same time the philosophical requirement of a logical structure of argumentation remains in play.


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