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Fr. 723

June 25, 2016

A Theory of Justice‘s third and final part finds Rawls in what we might otherwise consider unfamiliar territory. More specifically, the thinker lays out the importance for the individual of the virtues and excellence, of bonds and fellowship, of groups and practices. For an author best known for his work on the original position as a means to justice at the level of the basic structure of society, it may come as a surprise to find a view of democracy rather closer to that advanced by Stout.

This resemblance flows from two main sources: individual choice of life plans and an Aristotelian conception of the good. If, according of the former, the choice between equally rationally life plans must necessarily be left to the individual in order best to fit her particular good, for the latter, the individual will seek to bring her performance of the roles and skills necessary thereto to the highest expression possible, within the limits of natural ability, time and other resources, and find quintessentially human pleasure therein. Additionally, individuals take pleasure in others’ skilled performance of goods, practices and excellences. The norms guiding such activity find their own expression in what Rawls dubs the second stage or development of the sense of justice, the morality of association.

While this talk of goods, practices and excellences echoes major themes from Stout’s own work, particularly in the notion of a civic friendship, any attempt to bring the two nearer one another meets with two considerable obstacles. The first owes to Rawls’ insistence that the norms contained in the morality of association are superseded by the morality of principles, the sense of justice’s third stage or development, insofar as the morality of principles explicates the norms for association. In other words, the morality of association provides a natural path towards that of principles in that it contains the same basic elements, but these only find their place within a coherent system within the third stage in a rather Kantian move.

The second might be traced to Rawls’ “systematism”. By this, we mean that the thinker envisions the bounds for individual choice of life plans and an Aristotelian conception of the good as being set by the principles of justice, as chosen in the original position. In a word, the field, though nominally wide open, is subject to some a priori restriction of possible ways of life. So do the principles of justice, priorly agreed upon, thus reveal themselves as the enabling condition of the good but also as its end, for the good derives from the right and serves as explication thereof.

In this way, Rawls’ civic friendship first sets itself within the bounds of the principles of justice and then allows itself to bloom into the morality of association whereas Stout envisages no such bounding principles and is content to leave civic friendship to develop piecemeal between individuals in virtue of mutual respect for one another’s goods.

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