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November 12, 2018

it is the time when the trees come down
the wind catching in spirals around
the trunks and stripping leaves and bark
reds and golds giving way to grey year end
to usher us through times darkling


Fr. 813

October 8, 2018

Where humanist approaches to political and social theory see the human individual as a (potential) change agent, posthumanist approaches thereto replace change agents with change processes. Amongst the latter figures prominent systems theory as familiar from Luhmann’s work. A question which I frequently find myself asking of systems theory runs as follows: “if there are no change agents, but only change processes, how does one effect change?”. It is my understanding that systems theorists see that question as misguided, too steeped in the humanist idiom to be able to extricate itself from reductive, outdated ways of thinking. Yet I cannot help but think that, if humans are to harness change processes and guide them and the agential perspective is necessarily that from which humans set out, then change agency (if not agents) and change processes must be reconciled to one another in some sense. Or, to come down (closer) on the side of the systems theorists, there must be some room for change agents in change processes. In thinking this through for the umpteenth time, it occurs to me that it somewhat mirrors the debate over free will and determinism, suggesting that, contrary to what I sometimes maintain, I have a greater stake in that debate’s outcome than I am inclined to think.


October 5, 2018

to rise before the dawn
through speckled window
watch orange war with blue
as the mists pull back
from hill and dale to bole
witch weather in tatters

Fr. 812

October 4, 2018

With reference to the original position, Hinton (2014) suggests that Rawls’s early and middle works are marked by a Socratic overtone in the expectation that each person will work out what justice is whereas the later works are decidedly non-Socratic with their more sociological regard on society. I want to suggest that the later Rawls cannot entirely give up on that Socratic project.

In order to show that a stable democracy is possible and reasonable faith warranted and that the argument behind democracy’s possibility is accessible, it is necessary to lay that argument out. If Rawls’s political constructivism is to meet the second of the three criteria to qualify as constructivism, the conception must be “practical” (Taylor 2012: 5-6) or action-guiding. While a reasonable faith in the possibility of democracy may affect our disposition, it is difficult to see how that faith by itself guides action on specific counts. After all, the person must be able to arrive at directives guiding her action towards institutions, statutes and policies regardless of what changes are taking place in the socio-historical background as reasonable comprehensive doctrines are bent towards the political conception. Doctrines do not bend themselves, but persons do in engaging in reasoning to see how they should alter their action.

Accordingly, I propose the following plan of action. As there is prima facie reason to maintain the need for a Socratic reading of Rawls’s project, I lay out that reading as best fits with Rawls’s corpus. Irrespective of that reading’s success, important results will emerge therefrom, for it will both show what such a reading would look like and what reasoning would be available to the person working through the process and, also, will shed light on those places where the Socratic reading must fail. If Rawls had need of a Socratic reading but fails to provide it, this would count as a serious black mark against his project. If on the other hand he had no need of a Socratic reading in the mature works but needed such to maintain the project’s practicality, then this would also count as a black mark.

Identity and Rawlsian points of view 13

October 3, 2018

Three further remarks are in order at this time. First, while it seems not inappropriate to speak of the former as standpoints, the sense in which this term is being used must be properly qualified, particularly as regards the question of social location, the most delicate of the transpositions here. Second, the above may not exhaust the Rawlsian standpoints as more conventional standpoints might also be integrated when the time comes to turn to non-ideal theory, which, according to certain commentators, may come as early as the constitutional or legislative stages of the four-stage sequence. Lastly, Rawls’s critical vocation, particular with regards to welfare state capitalism, should not be neglected when comparing Rawls’s standpoints with those in standpoint epistemology, which Anderson (2015) links to “critical theory” and “empower[ing] the oppressed to improve their situation”. In parallel, one might contend that Rawls seeks to empower the least well-off to secure a favorable, “guaranteeable” position in the social system of cooperation. The four-stage sequence is notably framed in terms of their interest, which helps to understand their problems and is supposed to provide guidance as to how they might improve their situation (notably through the pursuit and implementation of property-owning democracy). Finally, Rawls likewise imposes pragmatic constraints on his account of justice: if it does not issue in a workable or applicable set of guidelines, then it is of no use and one is to start the constructive procedure over. All in all, while Rawls is not a classical standpoint epistemologist, his failure to carry out the theoretical reduction suggests that the standpoint and, perhaps, social identity is ineliminable. Perhaps, he is not so different after all.

5. Conclusion

I therefore conclude that there is an uneven resemblance between Marxist or feminist standpoints and Rawls’s and that, of the three, the “citizen in a well-ordered society” standpoint comes closest to meriting talk of a strong case of similarity yet still falls short on important counts.
All in all, the uneven abstract or idealized character of Rawls’s standpoints speaks in favor of the weak case. This both yields a view whereon Rawls builds up justice as fairness by leveraging different standpoints against one another and offers a fresh look at Rawls’s reported “conviction that justification is always justification to a particular other” (Laden, 2003: 385) Additionally, this mild conclusion leaves a number of questions unanswered. Regarding its value-added, I should ask whether it in fact makes Rawls’s philosophy more tractable or merely unwieldy and whether the distinctions canvassed here simply track other faultlines in Rawls’s work which might be more fruitfully isolated. I also leave unanswered whether this means that social identity has been wholly displaced from political theory, whether this fragmentation of political justification is liberating or paralyzing for political liberalism’s theoretical basis, whether its institutional implications leave representative bodies intact or necessitate their break-up into single-issue deliberative bodies or issue publics. Although these are so many questions for another time, I think it safe to conclude, for the time being, that the theoretical pressures on social identity, while considerable, do not yet preclude its meaningfulness as a political question.

Identity and Rawlsian points of view 12

October 2, 2018

4. Making the call: strong, middling or weak

Inventory complete, I now put my thesis to the test. Recall that a case for Rawls as standpoint theorist is strong when all of the definition’s structural features have a strong and/or middling resemblance to those of Rawls’s standpoints. On the contrary, should those features have only a middling and/or weak resemblance with Rawls’s, then there is grounds to speak only of a weak case.
For the sake of convenience, I have collected my findings in two tables below. Table 1 recapitulates my assessment of each standpoint along the seven features from the definition above whereas Table 2 glosses that assessment as either a strong, middling or weak resemblance.

Table 1: Structural features of Rawlsian standpoints
LOCATION Artificial or null Idealized and imagined but concrete Actual and in “our” situation
ASPECT Information constraints and prudential reasoning Psychological and political possibility Considered convictions and consistency
KIND Expressive Modal Fundamental (or methodological)
GROUNDS Reliability Idealization Coherence
ACCESS Subjective and voluntary Subjective and voluntary Subjective and voluntary, objective and situated
SCOPE Principles for the basic structure Stability Global
OTHERS Four-stage sequence and other initial situations Nonideal standpoints on stability All other internal standpoints
Table 2: Resemblance of Rawlsian standpoints with conventional standpoints
LOCATION Weak Middling Strong
ASPECT Weak Middling Strong
KIND Middling Middling Middling
GROUNDS Middling Middling Middling
ACCESS Strong Strong Strong
SCOPE Middling Middling Weak
OTHERS Middling Middling Weak
Case: Weak Strong Weak

Table 2, rough though it is, suggests that Rawlsian standpoints most often fall short of the qualities characteristic of standpoint epistemology. The “you and me” standpoint more or less leaves location, aspect and access intact in that it concerns our standpoint “here and now”, as “actual persons”, but philosophically committed to articulating and adjusting our considered convictions. Nonetheless, its scope becomes a murky, broad affair, given the variety of inputs, and its priority over all other standpoints is unfamiliar in the standpoint literature.
The other two main standpoints similarly instantiate those features in peculiar ways. The “representative party” and its “sub-standpoints” are an exercise in modelling by the overarching “you and me” standpoint. The latter carries out a hypothetical deliberation between simulated persons or starting positions wherein self-imposed informational constraints put those persons or positions at a greater or lesser remove from the richly informative social locations which furnish conventional standpoints their distinctive aspect, kind and grounds their epistemic privilege within a field. That said, its scope is carefully delimited at each step as is its priority over other standpoints. Its means of access is likewise clear-cut.
Despite also being modelled by the “you and me” standpoint, the “citizen in a well-ordered society” standpoint concerns an idealized society wherein justice as fairness has been fully, effectively and publicly institutionalized. Being located within a society demographically like ours and in possession of full information and a conception of the good, this standpoint relates to particular social locations and its sub-standpoints break down into kinds, each with its own access, scope and priority relations. Yet the fact of being keyed to artificial, unfamiliar social locations distances the “citizen in a well-ordered society” standpoint from quotidian, actual standpoints, which distance also impacts its aspect and grounds for epistemic privilege.

Identity and Rawlsian points of view 11

October 1, 2018

g.) the other standpoints over which it has privilege

There are two ways of identifying those other standpoints which stand in contradistinction to the Rawlsian: those internal to Rawls’s approach but opposed to other internal standpoints and those external to Rawls’s method but present in the broader literature. With regards to the latter, I cannot hope to be complete, but I can give some general indications in this direction.

1.) “representative party”: This standpoint has privilege over the sub-standpoints within the four-sequence sequence as it is the first stage thereof. It sets the terms and conditions for that which follows. It also claims privilege over rival initial situations both from the social contract theory and other moral theories in capturing the “moral point of view” wherefrom we define a conception of justice (in line with fairness) for regulating the basic structure.

2.) “citizen in a well-ordered society”: This standpoint has privilege over non-ideal standpoints for assessing the stability of a given conception of justice.

3.) “you and me”: This standpoint nominally has privilege over all other Rawlsian standpoints regarding final form of the constructivist procedure. In accordance with its considered convictions, it may choose to alter the form of 1.) and 2.) in order to generate more suitable outcomes. That said, if the other standpoints issue in strong, forceful judgments counting against the standpoint’s considered convictions, the latter must be adjusted such that the measure or criteria for the “you and me” standpoint is altered with regards to its application to the other standpoints. Ordinarily, this standpoint also has privilege over those standpoints which include other judgments or intuitions than the considered convictions which serve as a check on the theory.

In this regard, Rawlsian standpoints have much in common formally with their conventional cousins. In general, the outcome shows that that the Rawlsian standpoints interrelate and have either unidirectional or bidirectional priority relations, depending on the circumstances and the soundness of outcomes. In general, Rawls will argue that standpoints 1.), 2.) and 3.) will have privilege over utilitarian or intuitionist moral standpoints with regards to fair conditions of cooperation in political society and that 2.)’s sub-standpoints have privilege over, for example, libertarian or communitarian modes of justification on matters of basic justice.