Reconstructing Rawls VIII: The burdens of moral justification

The burdens of moral justification

My reconstruction+ of Rawls’ TJ has led us to a place where questions can be raised that challenge moral theory more generally.  The inferred justification for foundationalist rhetoric given before the interlude, namely, the power of traditional expectations of the discipline of philosophy is not so powerful or satisfying to someone outside the discipline, not socialized in its tradition.  A political activist, for example, might justify redistribution and equalizing opportunity quite directly, without constructing an argument from moral foundations:  “I have decided to ally myself with the most disadvantaged people,” the activist could say, “supporting their struggle against those exploiting them, and their aim of ending this exploitation and ensuring that it is not reconstituted.”  An obvious moral philosophical response to the political partisan’s stated sympathies is that they are not a justification.  The activist’s synthetic statement must be broken down into basic principles so that it is clear what “exploitation” and “alliance” mean, and what forms of “struggle” are acceptable.  How, moral philosophers would conclude, can one oppose injustice without a justifiable account of justice?

Let me agree for now that a definition of justice is needed to oppose injustice.  Indeed, making any argument without recourse to foundationalist rhetoric is, in general, quite difficult.  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.  In identifying these burdens or limitations my aim is to build a check-list of alternative requirements for an account of in/justice that departs from two-step moral theory.

1)  Individualism vs. socio-economic analysis.  One reason given for unpacking synthetic statements about injustice and for justifying rules of justice in terms of fundamental moral principles is that, when these principles are clarified, people are able to base their actions and design their institutions upon those principles.  This reasoning implies a belief that action originates in individuals, that people’s actions are internally driven rather than shaped by the structures of social life.  In contrast to this individualist assumption, we might develop analyses of how economic and social arrangements, including those related to gender, structure possibilities for effective action, and of how those structures are reproduced (always imperfectly) through the actions people take (Sewell 1992).

The significance of the contrast between individual and social based analysis can be illustrated by criticizing a thought experiment that seems typical of moral philosophy.  Feinberg ([1975], 1989, p. 113) claims that we would decline the devil’s offer to live in utopia if the offer were conditioned on accepting the eternal torture, even if out-of-sight, of just one individual.  However, every day we consume the fruits of labor carried out in political circumstances that involve coercion, repression, and at times torture.  In the devil’s bargain the consequences are clear and we can imagine being that one tortured individual.  However, contrary to Feinberg’s thought experiment, when our view of the suffering individuals is obscured or refracted through complex socio-economic pathways, our moral principles do not seem to be translatable into clear courses of action.

2)  Human nature vs. moral situatedness.  The focus on individuals as the source of action also tends to lead to an emphasis on the fundamental nature of people.  We find elaborate discussions of whether justice or, more generally, social co-operation can be based on self-interest, or instead require some moral motivation irreducible to self-interest (Barry 1989).  In accounts where some moral motivation is needed, anxiety about the vulnerability of justice to disruption by egoistic free-riders can be detected.  Barry (1989), for example, bolsters his use of a moral motivation by claiming that the dependency which every baby and child experience makes it natural.  From a different angle, communitarian and feminist moral theorists argue that self-interest does not exist prior to and independently of the community one lives in (Held 1987).  Thus, self-interest is not human nature; interdependency is fundamental and so morality and cooperation are possible if the community creates the right circumstances.

The argument against equating human nature with self-interest can be extended, however, in a way that shifts the emphasis away from human nature.  Suppose we admit that societies are morally ambiguous, that self-interestedness and self-sacrifice are both observable and we will not be able to find one original, later distorted, moral essence.  This requires us to examine the circumstances in which people act.  For example, instead of explaining Mother Theresa’s charitable activities in terms of her saintliness, we might examine the institutions of the Catholic Church in India that make a life of service to others possible.  We might analyze the forces pushing peasants from rural villages to urban slums that create the need for such charity.  Similarly, consider Lech Walesa, the trade unionist who risked his freedom and maybe his life in the heyday of Solidarity, and compare him with Lech Walesa, who, as President of Poland became increasingly autocratic.  If we assumed that a fundamental change in personality accounts for the shift we would miss the opportunity to make sense of the enormous charges in the situation in which Walesa has been acting.  Of course, some people are generally more egoistic than others, or seek out situations in which their self-interestedness predominates.  Nevertheless, speculating about some ahistorical, asocial human nature steers us away from an interesting challenge, namely, to explain the existence and persistence of situations that inhibit or facilitate moral actions.

3)  Universality vs. partisanship in conflicts.  Another reason for philosophical justification of a conception of justice is to give it greater weight than one’s mere personal opinion.  If rules of justice can be shown to be based on widely held moral principles then it would seem easier to gain support for the implementation of justice.  Indeed, the successes of organizations such as Amnesty International and of campaigns for human rights lend credibility to the strategy of non-partisan, universalist appeals to justice.

Universality is, however, a more complex issue.  The search for universality often yields abstract and quite unspecific principles.  These have little power of implementation and provide little insight about how to face the conflict of interests that characterize social life (see, in contrast, Young 1990).  Moral theory is weak on justification for taking sides and on examining whose interests are spared from dispute by intellectuals attempting to stand apart from partisanship.  From a constructivist+ viewpoint, it would be interesting to examine the recent historical record to discern the extent to which appeals to universal values gain significance only when direct challenges to dominant interests are untenable, having been suppressed or persistently ignored.  In those circumstances, but not more generally, non-partisanship, universality, individualism, and lack of socio-economic analysis might be an appropriate political tactic, albeit representing a substantial accommodation to power.

4)  Possessions vs. activities and relationships as the source of satisfaction.  A further accommodation, in this case to the prevailing patterns of ownership, production, and consumption, is evident in moral theory’s emphasis on distribution of social goods.  Rawls and most of his critics are aware of the non-material sources of satisfaction and self-respect, yet the model emerging from most moral theory is one of quantifiable, possessable and thus distributable goods.  Satisfactions embedded in activities and relationships, such as making collective decisions, developing skills, and living healthily, are not well-addressed within the “distributive paradigm” (Young 1990).  Yet activities and relationships help generate the conditions in which individuals can be said to have rights, to be given opportunities, and to be able to exercise capacities.  The static, ahistorical notion of possession of rights, opportunities, capacities, when combined with the reduction of social and economic complexity to transactions among individuals (or analogous units), provides little guidance about how to analyze on-going social processes.  The unitary materialist metric (embodied, for example, in the Difference Principle) privileges self-interested choice, so that it can appear to be a fundamental consideration in defining justice, even in accounts where self-interest is conceived of as an obstacle to justice.  Rawls’ TJ framework, even after my reconstruction, reflects the dominance of the model of possessable goods and economically “rational” individuals.  (See Roberts (1979), Marginson (1988), Watt (1988) and Young (1990) for more detailed critiques.)

5)  Ideal speech situations vs. the blocking of inquiry.  There is an affinity between moral philosophers expounding fundamental moral principles to which all reasonable people could agree, and Habermasians building social theory around an ideal of a power-free speech situation (Habermas 1990; see also Ackerman 1980).  The participants in the ideal speech situation are free to bring any underlying commitments to the surface, into the dialogue; the participants in Rawls’ Original Position would have their particular interests blanked out by the Veil of Ignorance.  In both cases we are asked to imagine what it would be like if power were removed from negotiations or transactions between people.  The burden of this orientation is that our attention is drawn away from the ways that people use their power to block inquiries into their particular interests.  Instead of developing an analysis of the intricacies of power-infused interactions, such interactions become seen merely as a departure from the desired ideal situation, which remains the focus of the moral/social philosophizing.

(next post)


Ackerman, B. A. (1980). Social justice in the liberal state.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

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

Feinberg, Joel (1989).  “Rawls and Intuitionism,” pp. 108-123 in N. Daniels (ed).  Reading Rawls:  Critical Studies on Rawls’ A Theory of Justice.  Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Habermas, J. (1990).  Moral consciousness and communicative action.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Held, V. (1987).  “Feminism and Moral Theory,” pp. 111-128 in E. Kittay and D. Meyers (eds.) Women and Moral Theory.  Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.

Marginson, S. (1988).  “The economically rational individual.”  Arena 84: 105-114.

Roberts, A. (1979).  The Self-Managing Environment.  London: Allison & Busby.

Sewell, W. (1992). “A theory of structure: Duality, agency and transformation,” American Journal of Sociology 98: 1-29.

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

Young, I.M. (1990).  Justice and the politics of difference.  Princeton: Princeton University Press.


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