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Fr. 720

June 9, 2016

As with most comparisons of philosophers, there are multiple points of entry to the comparison. Moreover, each point of entry colors our understanding of their differences in that privileging one point over another can lend to the philosophers’ work a cast which they would not otherwise receive. In other words, changing the point of entry allows us to view the philosopher and her work from another angle and can reveal theretofore un(der)emphasized features.

So might we approach the issues separating Rawls and Stout from that of their ethical perspectives. Behind Rawls’ theory of justice and the basic structure of society lies a contractarian perspective with a strong deontological backbone. More concretely, the terms upheld in the original position’s ideal deliberation lead to a structure on which certain rights are inviolable and certain duties unconditionally binding. Insofar as the terms of the original position fix these rights and duties once and for all, the latter are subject to little change barring cases in which it proves temporarily necessary to curtail rights and duties in order to secure them more fully at a later date. Otherwise, outside of these rights and duties, the person enjoys a more or less complete liberty to pursue the good that she sets herself.

Strikingly, what separates Stout from Rawls is not so much a gulf, uniformly wide throughout, as a series of fissures opening here and there but running discontinuously. For Stout is more than ready to concede certain deontological rights and obligations: slavery is horrible; all should have an equal right to the vote; and so on. But these rights follow not from some prior agreement which sets obligations in advance but rather an open-ended, historically informed process in which the exchange of reasons between persons add deontological truths of this kind to an infinitely long list of moral truths.

Elsewhere, as concerns the good, Stout seems closer to Rawls in that the person is free to pursue the good, as embodied in social practices, as she sees fit. Yet Stout injects this freedom with a perfectionist measure of an Emersonian expressionist variety: namely, the person should pursue the goods embodied in her social practices to the best of her ability and, for those more capable, push the boundaries of those practices and goods and realize newer, more excellent forms thereof. So does Stout manage to incorporate a more traditional, perfectionist ethic into a deontological frame which Rawls must necessarily repudiate perfectionism.

In that Rawls’ contractarian and Stout’s perfectionist elements provide two divergent ways of tracking how we measure the goods we look for in society, we might consider them complementary elements. If it is not unreasonable to maintain that certain persons require more of the socioeconomic goods set out by Rawls (e.g. economic opportunity, fairness of employment, redistributive shares), others may require rather those practice-based goods (e.g. excellence, expression, novel performances) which neither violate nor fall strictly within the tenets of the original position. There seems little reason to prefer one to the perfect exclusion of the other, and their respective works provide ample cases in which one’s view can be seen to complete the other.

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