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Fr. 347

June 18, 2013

Between Rawls and Stout: Towards a minimal subjectivity in pluralist societies

In the political sphere, when it is a question of deciding on which laws and policies to enact in a given society, two questions come to the fore. First, by which theoretical means does a society select its laws and policies? Secondly, in light of which conceptual resources do the individuals comprising this society evaluate the latter?

In contemporary political philosophy, the two questions receive similar responses, for a contemporary democratic society, considered as a pluralist collection of individuals, makes use of the same means both to select legal measures and to assess the validity of those same measures. Yet the theoretical framework underlying these means reveals itself to be largely disputed in that it tends towards two opposed poles: universal liberalism and relative communitarianism. What is at stake in these conceptions of political and practical reason and in their visions of a democratic, pluralist society, both for that society and for the subject, the “who” of society?

In the position that we have cast as “universal liberalism”, the “who” or subject is held to be an eminently reasonable agent capable of rising above the contingencies of his or her circumstances with the aim of determining his or her actions in a thoroughly rational manner, i.e. through the appeal to universally held norms. By contrast, the “who” or subject of “relative communitarianism” consists in the individual considered not simply as a product of his or her community, but, rather, as the culmination and embodiment of the practical rationality in which that community trades. In short, if political philosophy largely agrees on the mechanisms by which a society both enacts and assesses its measures, the manner in which these mechanisms are to be characterized proves controversial and leaves underdetermined the question: what kind of subject does a reasonably pluralist society itself suppose?

In order to draw out more clearly the distinction between these positions, we will identity an emblematic thinker with each of them. In the first, the influence of John Rawls, the 20th century American political philosopher, can be seen insofar as A Theory of Justice makes use of a thought experiment, that of the original position and the veil of ignorance, in order to show that reasonable individuals could come to a consensus on the fundamental principles of justice, were knowledge of the material and social circumstances of their future lives in society withheld from them and their contingently held conceptions of the good temporarily set aside. In the end, Rawls deems that justice as fairness, with the attendant principles of equality and difference, can be the object of unconditional, universal assent. As to the second position, the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, the contemporary Scottish theorist of virtue ethics, best approximates that which we have here called “relative communitarianism”. For MacIntyre, practical reasoning follows from the tradition and community of which the individual is a part, for the affirmation of truth, laws and maxims can only be understood within the framework of a concrete tradition, comprising a particular language, authority, mode of interpretation and set of virtues. Given the diversity in a pluralist society, different discursive communities confront one another over their rival standards for the rationality of knowledge, speech and action. More importantly, contrary to Rawls, MacIntyre’s traditionalism holds that there can be no appeal to neutral criteria by which to judge of the rightness of knowledge or justice, speech or action, laws or policies. For these reasons, we have held that Rawls and MacIntyre are emblematic of an opposition over the nature of the subject’s practical reasoning. Yet might there not be some way of nuancing these positions so as to bring them closer to one another?

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