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February 23, 2018

The world is winter, the snows have come on, and the sandshoveler makes his annual appearance. Typically no earlier than late morning and no later than earlier afternoon, he shuffles out from his unseen hiding place and sets about his work on a stretch of sidewalk. The sections on which he works today are to be found before an impressive building in yellow limestone, quarried, stacked and set at some point in the 1920’s, but its story is not today’s nor is it that of the sandshoveler.

His work is unforgiving, by its nature slow, so he sometimes spends entire days on a single concrete section. In the night, a truck and its attendant have kindly deposited a pile of brown sand. At the start, the pile comes to the sandshoveler’s waist; by mid-afternoon, he hopes to have trimmed it down to knee-level. So does the shoveler pass the day, sometimes two, rearranging his coarse brown mound.

He begins the process by eyeing the mound for flaws: too much sand here, an uneven mount there, drops from the icicles marring its surface with small craters, other things of this order. At this point, the shoveler brings down the spade in a few select places, evening as he sees fit, before the shoveling begins tentatively. The tip of the spade breaks the crust in a few places and brings away a poor shovelful, hardly more sand than he might have gathered with his hands. These first few grains are upended on the side nearest the curb; the content of each shovelful will be upended closer to the original pile with each successive movement.

Having lightly dusted the sidewalk, he works the spade in a little deeper and comes back with slightly larger amounts, perhaps two handfuls at most. He will repeat the process several times more, but it is now time for his first breather of the day, and so he leans the shovel into a nook in the facade and pulls a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He gives the end of the pack a good thud and, cigarette in hand, he steps back to assess the work that has been done so far. The cigarette moves from waist to mouth, mouth to waist, is occasionally caught at a height between the two. The shoveler’s lips pull a final time on the cigarette and his lungs on the smoke, and the butt is cast aside and comes to rest in a nearby grate, lodged between the bars. A horrified shopowner will contemplate this butt that very evening and wonder whether she should post a sign.

Third, fourth, fifth layers go down. It is only with the sixth that he leans his shoulder into the shovel and comes away spade full. The excess sand runs over; the shoveler leaves behind him twin furrows, thin but noticeable. Sand deposited at the curb, he turns and walks back and leans in and turns and walks back. Within a minute, only the areas directly about the pile remain to be covered with this, the sixth layer, and so he need only pivot in order to cast about the collected grains. The sixth layer is the last of the preparatory work. The shovel is again set aside as he paces about the section, eyeing the work that he has done so far.

He looks for the sun through the clouds to gauge the time, determines that the majority of the work remains and flicks the butt from between his fingers. Shovel in hand, he begins the second phase. This consists in what might outwardly seem an indiscriminate tossing and spreading. The spade bites at the brown sand. His body turns about on itself. The shovel comes to an abrupt stop three-quarters of the way through the turn. The sand flies from the shovel. The brown wave breaks on the pavement.

The pile now stands at a reasonable level, just below the knees, so the shoveler is ready for the third and longest phase, but, first, the lighter springs to fitful life in his hands and he enjoys another cigarette. After some minutes, he discards the butt and returns to the layers of sand before him; in it he contemplates the myriad would-be worlds to be seen there, whether from boredom or, instead, some sense of purpose, even as he sets about reshaping them.

At times, he flattens and smooths. At others, he furrows and folds. Yet, with every movement of the dull metal, new landscapes open up before him, the brown relief suggesting hills, valleys, rivers, stone outcrops, even cities. In one place, he draws the point of the spade towards himself and opens up a rift between a number of hills in the middle of which rises a building. A temple. Perhaps even a Greek temple which simply is. A thrust hand and flicked wrist and the temple on the rocky ground founders in an Alpine lake, hiding unseen depths and munitions. Dragging shovel towards himself, the munitions remain but now repose on a muddy river bottom, flush with city runoff and pollution. A spadeful of sand will erase river but raise a city street, lined with stately private residences.

But what does the sandshoveler see therein? The point of the exercise is just this, that we may never know. In the end, his right hand will rest on the shovel’s end, the left at his waist, he will admire his work of several weeks, and sandshoveler will depart for another sidewalk, another sandpile. And that will be that.



February 22, 2018

They (this him and this her) took in the strange sunset, a feeble yellow filtering through clouds heavy with rain, and commented for a time on the diffuse rainbow over the damp hills. Particles of its seven-colored band were cast to every corner of the valley, hanging at different elevations, each particle waiting to be condensed into that intended band to stretch from one corner of the air to another only to be scattered anew. Yet this band was absent or, at least, only distantly present or somehow present and absent at once, and their narrow rainbow never materialized. She spoke to him at length of the eye, of the ways in which it could be understood as a broken prism, through the dispersed fragments of which color passes and dispels itself. In the end, she fell silent, and they joined hands to walk back to their apartment through the general prismatic gloom.

Laden’s “The House That Jack Built” VI

February 21, 2018

Second, Laden points to the early forms of Rawls’s arguments for justice as fairness and their incorporation of a similar view of justification. 1958’s “general position” “imagines people within an already existing society reflecting about how to justify rules designed to adjudicate disputes to all of their fellow citizens” with no mention made of informational constraints like those under the veil of ignorance (idem.). 1951’s “Outline” unfolds along similar lines. This gives the author reason to underscore Rawls’s affinities with Kant on two counts: i.) the idea that the agreement of free and equal citizens coincides with reason’s findings; ii.) justice involves respect fellow citizens as ends by offering them intrinsically acceptable reasons and agreeing to be “governed by their reasonable response to those justifications” (idem.). While we do not contest the Kantian outlines of this picture, it is worth asking whether there are not other ways to be both (more) reasonable and respectful, which is largely Stout’s tack.

Before moving to the fourth and last element of the alternative blueprint, the author points out that the notion of public justification in PL is too narrow as it supposes that all citizens will converge on one and the same public political conception of justice. To his credit, Rawls qualifies this point in “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” when he allows that “our fellow reasonable citizens will endorse one of a family of reasonable political conceptions, of which one will be justice as fairness” (388). This further reinforces the idea that there lingers the question of the two principles’ application and what other conceptions of justice they might issue in. Regardless, the takeaway is simply “that the search for something like the basis for public justification spans Rawls’s career, and the supposedly monologic, difference-insensitive argument from the original position looks less like the core of his argument and more like one among many means for making clear what reasons we can offer others in good faith for our political positions” (idem.). This is a point which the author has made convincingly enough even if it has not been pushed as far as it could be. The fact also remains that the (four-stage sequence of) the original position is still the basis for making the two principles applicable.

The fourth element of the alternative blueprint consists in the claim that “the central idea and high point of his achievement is the idea of public reason and its accompanying picture of political deliberation, and the importance of the original position argument is that it is one possible route by which to justify principles of justice publicly” (379). Indeed, the natural progression from the preceding steps is to home in on that basis, which brings with it two effects. On one hand, what proves vital about the two principles of justice is not the specific arguments deployed to justify them but the mere fact that they, unlike other conceptions of justice, can be “publicly justified” (388). (Presumably, from the idea of public reason and pro tanto justification rather than public justification proper. Moreover, Laden specifies in a footnote that “This is as true of the argument in Theory as in Political Liberalism. The difference between them lies in what Rawls takes to be necessary to achieve such justification in the two books. In Theory, he thought that a public justification could appeal to a fully drawn moral psychology. In Political Liberalism, he tries to do without it.” (388, n. 56)) This may give us reason to come back on our claim that the other standpoints in Rawls’s approach are in fact derivative of the party standpoint.

It also results a view on which reciprocity and stability “matter more in their justification than their potential derivation from minimal rational choice-type premises” (388), i.e. they are important not for being integral to an situation modelling incontrovertible rational conditions but for being the sorts of reasonable conditions which one might reasonably convince others to accept as fair limits on a decisionmaking process. Or as the author puts it, “both turn on whether we, as citizens, can offer satisfactory reasons to support the two principles of justice to our fellow citizens”, of which the original position is then just an especially effective rendering (389). (Indeed, Rawls makes similar remarks to this effect.)

On the other hand, this calls for reassessment of Rawls’s place in the democratic theory literature: “if the centerpiece of Rawls’s work is a model of political deliberation in a pluralist democracy, then we need to think of him as not primarily a liberal or an egalitarian but, first and foremost, a democrat” and not a rational choice theorist (idem.). In a word, we would do well to juxtapose his work with that of others working in deliberative democracy and civil republicanism, to understand just how he deploys “the fuller range of justifications for the two principles of justice” (idem.). All in all, Laden’s essay represents not just an important contribution to the Rawls secondary literature but a call to pivot from the standard blueprint to the alternative. It may now be time to ask whether a further pivot, to an alternative alternative blueprint is not needed.

Laden’s “The House That Jack Built” V

February 20, 2018

Though understandable, it is also somewhat lamentable that Laden does not at least evoke Rawls’s purported solution to the question of applicability, the four-stage sequence of the original position, which defines a procedure and related standpoints for making the two principles applicable. On a final note, it bears mentioning that there exist other methods for engaging in democratic politics “reasonably and reflectively” without Rawls. If Rawls’s aim is truly to produce a view showing why a constitutional democratic regime merits faith, it would be worth taking up other such views to assess their (in)adequacy.

To the author’s mind, this reappraisal of Rawls’s purpose and outcomes leaves us more ready and willing “to see him as adopting the position of a citizen of a democratic regime addressing his fellow citizens” (384-5). While persuasively argued, this may likewise strain Laden’s point in important ways. Even if the “you and me” standpoint is technically that of everyday people with their ordinary considered judgments, the standpoint remains highly philosophical and the machinery surrounding it quite elaborate.

This might be straining it to some extent. The machinery is quite elaborate…even if the “you and me” standpoint is technically that of everyday people. That standpoint is highly philosophical. To claim that Rawls writes “as one citizen among others” is not without style, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, which, in this case, takes the form of citizens’ actually being able to employ that standpoint and machinery to arrive at reasonable political judgments on the basic structure.

On the subject of standpoints, Laden is right to draw attention to Rawls’s quite though frequent insistence on “the position to and from which certain reasons are offered” (385), a point on which we have also fixed. According to the author, this insistence “follows from his conviction that justification is always justification to a particular other and often results in a kind of division of justificatory labor”, the upshot of which is that, if “justifications are directed to people in different positions, we realize that they need not have the same form” (idem.). That said, the author does not seem to pursue this thought far enough, for it must be asked whether Rawls himself a.) pays enough attention to the different justificatory positions even within his own work and b.) covers the most prominent alternative justificatory positions either from the literature or which his approach leaves aside. Of the latter, how might we identify them?

Such questions form parts and parcel of our own efforts to draw an “alternative” alternative blueprint. We hold that Laden’s own review of the three positions in TJ, namely “you and me”, well-ordered citizens and party, does not cast a wide enough net. Given that “we likely to mischaracterize his arguments if we fail to attend to the position from which they are offered” (386), it is all the more important to scrutinize the work to see whether there are not justificatory positions which pass unannounced therein.

Regardless, this yields on the author’s reading a new outlook on Rawls’s work. First, it means that “we should pay greater heed to his remarks about the nature of justification and what sorts of justification we can hope to achieve in a pluralist society”, particularly those about the search for a public basis of justification regarding the basic structure (386). This outlook is integral to the third element of the alternative blueprint, to wit, that Rawls’s “arguments are meant to serve as public justifications rather than as deductions from premises about human nature or rationality” (379). Wherefore Laden’s interest in the idea of “public justification by political society” (PL 387), which he reads in an entirely different fashion than ourselves. He presents this phase of justification thusly:

Doing so involves thinking about whether the arguments presented for justice as fairness can be offered in good faith to all our fellow reasonable citizens, taken not as stripped-down rational choosers but in all their diversity and complexity. It is this exercise, then, rather than the argument from the original position that should be understood as Rawls’s version of the social contract. (386)

While the author is likely right to view public justification as Rawls’s take on the social contract rather than the initial situation, a close reading of the text suggests that what he here presents as public justification is not what Rawls denotes by that phase at all. The argument for justice as fairness is made by members of non-public associations to other members of their association, as Rawls makes clear in his description of the justificatory phase of full justification. Contrary to a natural reading of the quoted passage above, there is no one person offering reasons therefor in a way that cuts across those associations or, at least, there need not be. Indeed, Rawls states that we need not look into others’ comprehensive doctrines to carry out public justification, which, if we have understood it correctly, does not offer arguments so much as act as a kind of roll call of the reasonable comprehensive doctrines in society. (Questioner: “Have you embedded the political conception in your reasonable comprehensive doctrine?” All: “Yes!”. Questioner: “Then we have reached overlapping consensus and a public basis for political justification.”)

At this point in the essay, Laden pivots to account for the apparent divergences between TJ and PL. He attributes this perceived divergence to a shift in Rawls’s approach, albeit “not one of aim or method but of clarity in expressing the aim and in seeing what would be necessary to achieve it” (idem.). More specifically, the author adduces two arguments in his favour. First, Rawls maintains in TJ that the argument from the original position is not complete until such a time as it has been ascertained whether a society ordered by those principles would be stable, for which one must first determine “whether real flesh and blood citizens in all their particularity could affirm the two principles of justice and their justification” (387). This last point is only shown in PL with its new argument for stability, independent of the formulation in Part 3 of TJ. In a word, what has changed between TJ and PL “is not the aim of finding principles of justice that could be publicly justified but the understanding of what such justification would require” (idem.). Leaving aside whether Rawls has advanced the best understanding, we wholeheartedly second this reassessment: he is eminently concerned with making the principles applicable and understanding the conditions under which their justification might be secured.

Laden’s “The House That Jack Built” IV

February 19, 2018

If the first element changes the problem-context from which Rawls’s thought emerges, the second elaborates a more concrete account of just what he is doing and how he tries to do it. This account the author dubs “philosophy as defense” after Rawls’s remark that the public political conception of justice “understands itself as the defense of the possibility of a just constitutional regime” (PL 101, quoted by Laden at 383). As further motivation therefor, Laden gestures at Rawls’s broadly Kantian remark to the effect that “until that thought and practice [of ordinary sound human reason] appears to be at odds with itself, it needs no defense” (idem.). This yields a more modest goal for Rawls’s understanding: making the case “that despite appearances, the thought and practice of democratic societies are not necessarily incoherent” (383). The least that can be said of this account is that it is largely reasonable.

As always, the broad outlines can be contested. From a general standpoint, one may object to the idea of “philosophy as defense” from the idea that, in order to arrive at a just constitutional regime, one may also need some offense. To be action-guiding, ideal theory must come with some teeth. On a reading like Stout’s, two problems come to the fore. First, it may be that democratic society needs somewhat less defense than Rawls thinks, that it is less fraught than communitarians maintain. Second, in his attempt to impose ex ante requirements to discourse, Rawls overcorrects no less than the communitarians and makes of himself something like a functional(ist) communitarian. Still, Stout would likely second these impulses.

Regardless, the author points out four aspects of this account of “philosophy as defense”: a.) its philosophical chops (in attempting “to establish a conceptual possibility” (idem.); b.) its limited scope (in replying to the challenge posed to democracy’s coherence by the problem of reasonable pluralism); c.) its therapeutic results (in bringing to awareness the structure of our convictions and reinforcing our confidence therein); d.) its intended beneficiaries (in that those who make the most of such reflection are ordinary citizens rather than philosophers). Each of these points would benefit from lengthier treatment, but we will restrict ourselves to some initial observations. Of a.), this naturally depends on one’s conception of philosophy as philosophy may (or should) not be interested in conceptual possibilities, particularly when those possibilities are already existent (as “is” implies “can”). Regarding b.), one plausible reading of Rawls has him arguing that the threat posed by reasonable pluralism is both bane and boon. The diversity of rational life-plans is that which foregrounds the “social union of social unions”:

Yet the good attained from the common culture far exceeds our work in the sense that we cease to be mere fragments: that part of ourselves that we directly realize is joined to a wider and just arrangement the aims of which we affirm. The division of labor is over- come not by each becoming complete in himself, but by willing and meaningful work within a just social union of social unions in which all can freely participate as they so incline. (TJ 464, cf. §79)

Moving on to c.), this observation allows us to reaffirm, with Kymlicka, that those considered judgments or convictions, rather than the original position, provide the preponderant argument for justice as fairness. Finally, d.) may call for some scepticism on whether Rawls is best situated to set up and reward our faith in democratic society. The author makes this case out in the following way:

[F]aith in the possibility of a just democratic constitutional regime is something we manifest (or not) in our ordinary dealings as citizens, in the way that we approach political matters of the day and the justifications that we offer to one another for our positions. Political philosophers engaging in political theorizing are not so clearly interested in such faith. They are trying to establish once and for all the superiority of a particular system of political organization, perhaps motivated by the thought that the right political theory will dispense with the need for political faith. (384)

This point comes across as highly contentious in several ways. On one hand, Rawls does not exhaust the range of manners in which one might approach justifications to be offered for one or another position. On the other, it is not clear that so-called “political theorizing” is as inimical to political faith as the author claims. One thinks notably of an author like Robert Talisse who is at once committed to providing a justification for democracy as the best (epistemological) model for social organization and to showing how citizens might bolster their faith through reflection on the nature of their mutual justifications. As further proof in this direction, we need only gesture towards Rawls’s own conviction that justice as fairness is better, on balance, than other conceptions of justice, though perhaps all possible conceptions.

Stating the outcomes of Rawls’s work in this way also exposes it to challenges from applicability. If, as the author maintains, this outcome might be transposed into “terms of politics rather than faith” showing that “the alternative blueprint suggests that Rawls aims to help us, as citizens, engage in democratic politics reasonably and reflectively” (384, n. 41), this means that Rawls must be able to show precisely where the ideal “rubber” meets the non-ideal “road”. Put differently, the outcomes must be action-guiding and applicable cannot content themselves with merely demonstrating a concept’s possibility or non-contradiction. Shifting the emphasis from the original position to the idea of public reason and the method of reflective equilibrium is good and well, but it must be shown how one employs the two principles of justice, as the lone principles which may be justified in terms of public reason, both to frame and to back reasonable political judgments on the basic structure (or elsewhere) which merit other citizens’ assent.

Laden’s “The House That Jack Built” III

February 16, 2018

Of the above, it must be said that Laden’s take is more than fair and his insistence on finding an approach wherein the original position is not so central, levelheaded. (We largely second that initiative although we disagree on certain of the details and contend that there may be still other ways of putting Rawls’s priorities in the spotlight.) To that end, he sketches an alternative blueprint which may be found in certain commentaries within the secondary literature. He breaks this position down as follows:

(1) Rawls’s projects are focused and narrower than is generally thought; (2) he is engaged in philosophy as defense rather than philosophical theorizing; (3) his arguments are meant to serve as public justifications rather than as deductions from premises about human nature or rationality; and (4) the central idea and high point of his achievement is the idea of public reason and its accompanying picture of political deliberation, and the importance of the original position argument is that it is one possible route by which to justify principles of justice publicly. (379)

Roughly, Laden’s proposal consists in inverting the order of explanation between the original position and public reason, between the representative party standpoint and the citizen standpoint. Instead of the original position having (logical and explanatory) priority over the idea of public reason, the latter precedes the former in these respects. Furthermore, the author’s manner of arriving at this conclusion is more straightforward than one might otherwise suspect as he aims merely to take Rawls at his word, rather than infer from the scope and sources of his work.

This gives rise to the first element of the alternative blueprint: a far narrower focus for Rawls’s philosophical understanding. Upon rereading, the author opines that TJ and PL set themselves slightly different tasks. PL tackles two interrelated questions on this reading. First, it treats the possibility of a stable liberal democratic regime, including the reasons that might back such a regime should we wish to give reasons therefor. Second, it explores whether a citizen of faith can buy in to such a regime. It falls out of this reading that Rawls does not attempt to give an argument for the superiority of democracy nor even to explain why democracy is better grounded than other possible regimes, be it metaphysically, epistemologically, or ethically. (One thinks, for example, of Talisse’s epistemic argument for democracy.) This appears rather plausible, at least at first blush. Though one might quibble over the details and the solutions’ soundness, these seems solid starting points.

Amongst others, does Rawls truly represent the most cogent effort “to solve a problem that arises out of the fact of reasonable pluralism and that he regards as a direct descendant of the problems surrounding religious toleration that arose out of the Reformation and the Wars of Religion in Europe” (380)? Charitable readers of Rawls and friendly critics may easily argue otherwise. Stout’s efforts to show that Rawls does not so much solve the problem of reasonable pluralism as sweep it under the rug come to mind. Not unrelatedly might one call into question “the assumption that a conception of justice worked up by focusing on a few long-standing classical problems should be correct, or at least provide guidelines for addressing further questions” (380-1). After all, one would still need to see those guidelines “in action” to determine whether they are in fact capable of guiding action in the way that most would clamor for in a conception of justice. Whether the four-stage sequence qualifies as such guidelines remains to be seen. In any case, the author correctly notes that these guidelines will not merely take the form of applying the two principles or the theory of justice as fairness to problems not previously covered within its framework but, instead, require considerable reworking and fitting, though he does not expand on this point.

For the author, if Rawls writes so much, this owes less to the scope of his ambitions than to “the depth of his perception” (381). He elaborates:

He devotes nearly four hundred pages in Political Liberalism to showing that it would be possible for reasonable citizens of faith to support a just democratic regime because he is much more keenly aware than most defenders of liberal democracy that it might very well turn out that they cannot. Readers who think that Rawls is begging his own question by limiting himself to finding common ground among reasonable citizens fail to see just how hard it is to even do that. (idem.)

We might push back on this résumé of the situation on two points. On one hand, Rawls may still not be aware enough of the risks of citizens of faith not buying in to a constitutional democratic regime. To name but two thinkers, Kymlicka and Stout argue that he overestimates the capacity of a public political conception of justice to secure the assent of such citizens. Second, it is possible to question Rawls decision to limit himself to reasonable citizens alone not because it presupposes what falls out of the argument but because it may prove neither reasonable nor respectful to so limit the field from the outset. (Here we are thinking notably of Stout in DT.)

To return to the question of Rawls’s goals, TJ proves somewhat more ambiguous. In general, the author holds that TJ sets its sights on the problem of articulating an systematic alternative to utilitarianism as a conception of justice for which there is no need either to generate an all-encompassing moral theory or to set out from incontrovertible premises but rather to “bring out the structural features of an alternative views so that certain of its strengths, in particular its capacity to account for our considered judgments about justice in a democratic society, can be made clear” (382). Hence, TJ is likewise narrow in focus (though still broader than PL), and its in-depth exploration of associated problems flows “Rawls’s appreciation of just how difficult it is to say where utilitarianism goes wrong, and his appreciation of its strengths” (383).

Laden’s “The House That Jack Built” II

February 15, 2018

From there, Laden calls attention to how the blueprint’s second element shapes reaction to Rawls’s “political turn”. More specifically, he notes:

A theory in political philosophy moves from well-grounded premises that serve as its foundation to political conclusions. Reading A Theory of Justice as a theory involves reading it as arguing from a conception of human nature or human rationality to the validity of the two principles of justice… (373)

Reading TJ in this way constitutes the blueprint’s third element and casts Rawls’s “political turn” in PL in one of two ways: either Rawls has renounced a grand philosophical project in favour of a “contextual defense” of modern constitutional democratic regimes (idem.) or he has attempted to recast his uncontestable premises as still more uncontestable through appeal to a freestanding conception of justice, the groundedness and soundness of which then grant the theory’s outcome “a kind of rational authority over us” (374). Importantly, this second reading would result in a view on which PL is: “designed to argue that only appeals to the two principles of justice and their surrounding machinery can be made legitimately in political deliberation within a constitutional democracy, and to argue for this conclusion in a way that is itself not subject to legitimate political challenge.” (idem.) In other words, Rawls would be seen as advancing a view which both demonstrates in convincing fashion its superiority over others and provides a rousing justification of the constitutional democratic regime itself as the only viable form of association.

Returning to the third element, i.e. the reading of Rawls’s work as providing a theory with premises, this necessitates some premises or other from which that work then follows. Following this blueprint, most thinkers have, according to Laden, to take those premises as relating to human nature and human rationality. (Though Laden does not make this point, this would, in the first case, constitute speculative or specious metaphysical reasoning which Rawls openly disavows in different places.) For that reason, many commentators home in on Rawls’s statements about human rationality and psychology, perhaps most pointedly in communitarian critiques of Rawls individualist or unencumbered conception of the person. To that end, the author asks why these commentators privilege his presentation of artificial persons in the original position to his lengthier treatment of moral psychology in TJ‘s third part. Laden puts the point somewhat bluntly:

To start, it helps to note two features of both the remarks about the parties and those in part 3. The first is what Rawls himself says about them, and the second is their level of detail. Rawls regularly insists that the parties in the original position are not real people and that we should not take their characterization to count as anything like a theory of human nature. The remarks in part 3, in contrast, claim to describe actual people. They are meant to show that in a real society, the principles of justice would help to generate their own endorsement. So it should strike us as odd that someone attempting to uncover the conception of the self which purportedly lies at the heart of Rawls’s theory would focus on the account of rationality in the set up of the original position and ignore or discount the much more social account of moral psychology developed later in the book. (375) (cf. JF 47-72, esp. 56, and TJ 104)

He continues by noting that Rawls’s description of persons in the original position (or the representative party standpoint) and their rationality and motivation resemble Hobbesian premises: “schematic and simplified and serve as premises in a quasi-deductive argument” (376). Part 3’s lengthier treatment of persons and moral psychology look much less like premises but rather “social-psychological descriptions”. The fact that the latter lend themselves less to incontrovertible premises (or the appearance thereof) may help explain why commentators tend to focus on the former, which appear readymade for such use. Moreover, given the proximity between Rawls’s depiction of persons in Part 3 as part of a community bound by a shared comprehensive doctrine, there is even an argument to be made that Rawls was more communitarian than liberal “at least on the question of whether he conceives of the self as atomistic or essentially social” (idem.).

The combination of these three elements leads the author into the fourth element which construes the original position, qua argument from rational choice theory, as the preeminent tool whereby Rawls demonstrates the rationality of justice, perhaps even the irrefutability thereof. Viewing this original position as being central in this way also makes it “the part which bears the main justificatory weight of the theory” (377). (Attentive readers may notice that the justificatory weight of the theory is in fact shared between several parts of which the original position is but one. One could also point to the idea of reflective equilibrium as the overarching justificatory device and the idea of public reason as the language in which individual justifications are framed. It bears recalling that the original position, as formulated, does not even issue in principles capable of immediate application and action-guidingness.)

All in all, the natural progression of the four elements sets the reader up with certain expectations notably, that the original position “will derive the two principles of justice from minimal (often read as nonmoral or morally neutral) premises”, a view which has come under fire in the literature (idem.). Bound up with this expectation is the thought that, that if the original position argument does not work as a rational choice argument from nonmoral premises, then the whole edifice of Rawls’s work comes crumbling down” (378). Therefrom results the sense that Rawls’s central argument, grounded on contestable premises and peddling ideas from rational choice theory, either supports the whole when admitted or brings it down with it when refuted. Whether through creative rereading of Rawls’s not infrequent metaphilosophical remarks or blatant disregard for scattered methodological warnings, this way of understanding the original position’s centrality is driven largely by “a sense of what Rawls must be doing given all those pages, and given all the discussion that his work has inspired” (idem.). This effect is reinforced when undue weight is lent to the role of maximin reasoning therein.