Reconstructing Rawls VI: Phase 2

a constructivist+ perspective will lead to a much less generous assessment of Rawls’ coherence (continuing a series of posts)

Rawls’ reconstruction+, phase 2

Two central components of Rawls’ derivation of his framework will concern me here, one explicit and the other less so:  1) Self-interested participants in the Original Position would, Rawls argues in TJ, if sheltered behind a Veil of Ignorance, choose Equal Liberty, Equality of Opportunity, and the Difference Principle as their rules of justice, and give Priority to Liberty; 2) In order to use the Original Position with the Veil of Ignorance as a means of deriving rules of justice, the (hypothetical) participants must give equal concern and respect to the other participants (Dworkin [1973], 1989, p. 46ff).

The second component constitutes a deep premise of equality (point E in figure 2).  From this premise it follows that advantages obtained prior to making agreements in the Original Position cannot be assumed, whether these are historically given advantages or derive from “inborn” (pre-social) talents.  This denial of “natural merit” (i.e., of claims to benefits not pre-agreed to) forms one of Rawls’ considered convictions (point D).  Equality becomes the benchmark; the only acceptable inequalities are those that benefit everyone’s long term prospects (the Difference Principle).

Both these components — self-interested individuals in the Original Position and equal concern and respect are necessary for Rawls to derive his framework.  In important respects, however, they work at cross purposes.  We need to make sense of their coexistence in Rawls’ theory.  Coherence can be given to these two components, but, in doing so, progressively more serious incoherencies will be exposed.

The first component constitutes an argument of so-called rational choice, wherein reasons must be couched in terms of self-interest.  Rawls does not want his rules of justice to be based on assuming widespread altruism (TJ, p. 188ff) because they would be vulnerable to the possibility of some people free-riding on the altruism of others.  The second component, on the other hand, constitutes a strong assumption of moral motivation, that is, “the desire to be able to justify one’s actions to others on grounds which they could not reasonably reject” (Scanlon 1982, p. 116).  The second component is a morality that cannot be equated with self-interest; in fact, equal respect is readily seen as a check on the motive of self-interest.  By implicitly including a moral motive at the base of his derivation, Rawls undermines the assumption that self-interest would govern the hypothetical contractual position, the Original Position.  But once this assumption is loosened, the Veil of Ignorance need no longer be so strict and Rawls’ derivation unravels.  He cannot overcome the problem by dispensing with the moral component of his theory, because self-interest alone is insufficient to establish Rawls’ framework of justice (Barry 1989).

This is an uneasy combination for Rawls to have as the foundation for his theory.  In fact, our difficulties in reconstructing Rawls are now even greater.  As Rawls hints towards the end of TJ, equal respect for others is not so much an assumption as a “natural completion” (TJ, p. 509) of his theory, an ethic that would develop among people working according to his rules of justice.  Why, we might ask, does Rawls not admit openly this ethic-building motive, instead of smuggling equal respect in at the “foundation” of his theory?  Furthermore, once he acknowledged that he wanted to build a ethic that is new, or at least one that is not currently central to our dominant social institutions, why not set his sights higher?  Why not work towards an ethic of responsibility, in which people view talents as giving them the responsibility to employ them productively, without the need for material incentives?  In fact, why does he even need to accept inequalities that benefit everyone’s long term prospects (his Difference Principle)?  Why not derive egalitarian rules of justice from a deep premise of equality?

Some coherence can be restored to Rawls’ two part foundation for his theory if we turn our attention again to the social background.  The wealthy have power to perpetuate inequalities in wealth (point A1).  They can promote institutions that they do not have to justify on grounds that the less well off “could not reasonably reject.”  If morality is to be a resource for transforming this situation and checking the power and wealth of the wealthy, a powerful morality must be built.  Equal respect and concern is the morality Rawls chooses for the job.  Similarly, the denial of claims to benefits from historically given advantages or “inborn” talents, which follows from the deep premise of equality, makes some sense in the light of the same transformative project.  Points D and E are thus connected to the central aspect I have identified in the social background, point A1.

This transformative project is a difficult one, potentially opposed by the wealthy.  In my constructivist+ interpretation this leads Rawls to invoke considerations of Strains of Commitment, and it also enables us to understand why Rawls derives the Difference Principle and not egalitarianism from his deep premise of equality.  Rawls believes, as do the vast majority of his society, that material incentives are necessary and of prime importance for ensuring that we put our talents to productive use.  The plausibility of the Difference Principle is enhanced if we “see life’s values primarily in terms of ownership and consumption” (Watt 1988, p. 6).  The weight given in economics and popular social theory to material incentives also leads Rawls, the moral philosopher, to highlight the rational choice/self-interest component of his derivation over the deep moral foundation.

Some coherence has been restored to Rawls’ theory by referring to more of its implicit social background, but a deeper incoherence has now opened up.  If Rawls’ project is transformative, and building a new ethic of equal respect is central to this project, then why proceed as if a theory of justice can be built upwards from fundamental, widely accepted moral principles?  If social background is connected into moral philosophical theorizing, perhaps even grounding it, why construct arguments as if questions of justice can be posed and answered in reference to a foundation of “some extra contextual, ahistorical, non-situational reality, or rule, or law, or value” (Fish 1989, p. 344)?  Why not dispense with two-step rhetoric and instead tackle the difficult theoretical and methodological challenge of analyzing the web of social and moral cross-connections that I have just begun to draw attention to in this section (see figure 2)?

Again, ironically, a contribution to explaining the two-step structure can be made by referring to the social background of Rawls’ work, in this case the more direct context of the immediate audience Rawls’ writes for, namely, Anglo-American philosophers.  This is an audience with a long tradition of appealing to the common experience of like minded people, usually men of the same station in life.[1] The complex interconnections making up social and economic arrangements are filtered out in favor of abstract and unspecific propositions.  Analyses of philosophical arguments of previous centuries are considered more important than examination of historical changes in meaning (Williams 1983).[2] Given the discipline’s adherence to this tradition of universal, timeless issues it makes pragmatic sense for a professional philosopher to employ two-step tropes, whether in natural or constructivist guise, when constructing an argument about justice.

(next post)


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

Dear, P. (1991).  “Narratives, Anecdotes, and Experiments: Turning Experience into Science in the Seventeenth Century,” pp. 135-163 in P. Dear (ed.), The Literary Structure of Scientific Argument:  Historical Studies.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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.

Fish, S. (1989).  “Anti-Foundationalism, Theory Hope, and the Teaching of Composition,” pp. 343-355 in S. Fish, Doing What Comes Naturally:  Change, Rhetoric, and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies.  Durham and London: Duke University Press.

MacIntyre, A. (1984).  After virtue : a study in moral theory.  Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press.

Scanlon, T. (1982). “Contractualism and utilitarianism,” pp. 103-128 in A. Sen and B. Williams (eds.) Utilitarianism and beyond.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Watt, J. (1988).  “John Rawls and Human Welfare.”  Radical Philosophy 49: 3-9.

Williams, R. (1983).  Keywords:  A vocabulary of culture and society.  New York: Oxford University Press.

[1] See Dear (1991) for an illuminating discussion of the difficulty in seventeenth century natural philosophy of departing from this tradition and establishing experiments, which are constructions that few men actually witness, as a reliable basis for knowledge.

[2] Some exceptions relevant to this essay are Hacking (1975), who analyzes change in the very meaning of meaning, and MacIntyre (1984), whose argument centers on historical changes in what it means to do philosophy.


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