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Fr. 744

November 30, 2016

Nevertheless, to be efficacious in the public forum and in the public sphere, the agent will, at some point, have to translate her findings from within the original position qua representational device to a group of persons working together in actual institutions within actual society. At that time, each person will be called upon to explain the reasoning which led her to espouse a particular political conception, even if each such conception falls within a family of political conceptions similar to Rawls’ justice as fairness. It is not inconceivable that, in the course of such explanation, differences between their conceptions will emerge, such that mediation of some kind will be undertaken in order to assure convergence between their distinct conceptions.

Although mediation could likewise make use of public reasons, it bears mentioning that their deliberation up to that point had, hypothetically, depended solely on the use of public reasons and had yet led to differing political conceptions (within an acceptable range). Thus, further appeal to public reasons may be of little help in ensuring convergence between their views, to the point that other reasons may need to be sought. Indeed, nonpublic reasons could, with appeal to the person’s doctrine, help each more forcefully to articulate her point and, in time, come to convergence with others. Apart from considerations of heteronomy and symmetry, this suggestion would seem to pose little problem in a small enough group seeking concerted political action.

Still, this aspect brings out the fact that, at some point, the original position qua representational device and decision procedure will require plural agents if it is to rise to the level of concerted political action. Though hypothetically sufficient for the representational device, a singular agent, whether individual or corporate person, cannot act alone when the time comes to translate the resulting political conception to public engagement. Additionally, for reasons just suggested, the exchange between persons may come too late for them to converge in their views through appeal to public reasons alone. This would seem reason to incorporate exchange between persons earlier into the original position, in any of the four stages, so long as convergence is reached between concerned parties before the need for nonpublic reasons arises.

If so, one may wonder whether the original position is best suited to the exercise of a single agent and must not take on certain characteristics, i.e. a group of persons exchanging reasons, which would call into question three aspects of the device as Rawls describes it. First, one can ask whether, in order to achieve concerted political action, the original position must include two or more agents from the beginning, thus casting doubt on Rawls’ claim that the conditions for the original position are neither actual nor to be reified. Secondly, one could also ask whether his position retains as much simplicity and leaves the agents similarly unburdened once two or more agents interact within the representational device, no longer representational at that point.

Thirdly, this point raises concerns that the original position proves workable at all qua representational device for a single position to work through. After all, this device entails no fewer than four separate stages, each with a differing standpoint and distinct kinds of information and reasons available to the agent each stage. This is without counting the three steps of justification which follow, with their own distinct constraints and standpoints. It may seem that, with seven phases, standpoints and associated constraints, the original position may simply prove too unwieldy for the layperson sans guidance from, say, a political philosopher.

One can imagine the author turning the first two concerns aside with reference to two points. On one hand, Rawls could easily maintain that his account seeks to answer how it is possible that people espousing different comprehensive doctrines might come to accept a common political conception. Thus, there would be no need to shift from the merely possible to the actual. On the other hand, one can imagine Rawls making reference to his earliest publication, “Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics” wherein he downplays the need to make said decision procedure psychologically viable:

It should be noted that we are concerned here only with the existence of a reasonable method, and not with the problem of how to make it psychologically effective in the settling of disputes. How much allegiance the method is able to gain is irrelevant for our present purposes. (CP, 1).

So, allowing for the parallel, Rawls could, in a similar vein, note that he has shown the representational device to exist even if the particulars of its operation do not allow for its realization in the reflective life of laypeople. Yet this seems to run counter to that which Rawls maintained at the outset, i.e. that the original position did not stand as a merely theoretical process. Hence, the original position must be realizable at some level and by certain agents if the author’s broader points are to obtain. Anything short of realizability leaves this representational device too far in the merely theoretical, the political philosopher’s camp.

In sum, this account has shown that, while the original position acquits itself rather well with most criticisms, Rawls’ insistence on its role as a representational device neither actual nor theoretical leaves it in a dilemma. If not actual, the original position depends on a single person for both its execution and the translation of the political conception to the public forum and political action. If not theoretical, the original position must be realizable by the layperson and capable of effecting change within the public forum and political action. Yet, when neither actual nor theoretical, the original position seems to call for a plurality of agents, which Rawls’ stated position expressly forbids in order to retain the original position’s usefulness as a merely representational device for the decision procedure. In the end, the original position seems to vacillate between actual and theoretical, singular and plural, while belonging to neither entirely, and consequently finds itself in an impracticable situation with no issue.


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