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Fr. 716

May 26, 2016

How do we justify the (basic) structure of society? This question follows from the conjunction of two distinct problems: the problem of society and that of justification, broadly considered. These problems loom large for Rawls and Stout alike. If, perhaps in virtue of the shared subject matter, their approaches run along the same lines, they break off from those lines at several points which allow us to bring out their fundamental differences more clearly.

Of the two problems, that of society arises first in the reasoning. Indeed, before we can go about justifying a particular structure of society, we must first set that structure, i.e. justice, out. In choosing a basic structure or justice, Rawls holds that we must set out from our considered judgments about justice. Taken as a starting point, these can, with reflection, give way to clear principles of justice, much in the same way that our considered judgments about grammatically correct language can, with reflection, yield clear grammatical principles regulating our speech. More simply, we can find therein principles which, more strongly, underlie or, more weakly, explain our considered judgments. Principles in place, we can then move, with Rawls, to the evaluation and selection of a conception of justice which embodies those principles.

As to the starting point, Stout is ready to concede much of the above. When setting out principles to be used in deliberating on and choosing a conception of justice, Stout opines that we must set out from our considered judgments about justice and extract principles therefrom, which we might then use as premises in the deliberation on the conceptions of justice in play. If the thinkers are in agreement on the need to extract or derive principles from our considered judgments, they diverge, however, on the quality, feasible or indefeasible, of the principles thereby obtained. Whereas Rawls maintains that, once extracted or derived, these principles are set and lead to a definitive solution, Stout leaves open the possibility that, once extracted or derived, these principles could be brought back to the particular cases at issue in our considered judgments about justice so as to issue in new  or, at least, modified principles to instantiate in a conception of justice.

In other words, Stout maintains that we find principles which explain and modify our judgments and allow these modified judgments to bear modified principles within the framework of an open-ended project. So does Stout think to approximate a different though related aspect of natural languages on which the descriptive grammatical study of usage can issue in normative principles for the grammatical usage, which understanding leaves itself open for descriptive study to push back at normative principles. Accordingly, the latter thinker introduces a virtuous circularity in the formulation of principles and reflection on considered judgments with an eye to reflective equilibrium at a level where Rawls does not. Were they to arrive from the same principles of justice from examination of the same considered judgments about justice, their motivations leading them to that derivation would differ, as well as the future role of those principles as either closed- or open-ended.

In this way, we arrive at one important divergence between these two philosophers. We shall next turn to the manner in which they confront the shared problem of choosing one conception of justice from any number of which may be thought to embody the principles singled out by examination of our considered judgments about justice.

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