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Fr. 750

January 9, 2017

What principles of human practical reason, if any, are susceptible of justification if “there is no independent order of reason which lays down a common plan or procedure that constitutes the principles(s) of practical reasoning”? Such is the question by which Onora O’Neill opens the fourth section of her essay “Constructivism in Kant and Rawls” in The Cambridge Companion to Rawls (p. 357). Understanding her response thereto will prove vital not merely for understanding Kant and Rawls but also for Stout’s challenge to these thinkers.

The question’s urgency arises from the supposition that, without some requirements for reason, there can be no means of determining what constitutes a good, binding or authoritative reason among a plurality of uncoordinated agents. Yet, on O’Neill’s reading, Kant sees in this “uncoordination”, for lack of a better term, the beginnings of certain requirements for practical reason:

[T]he very predicament of a plurality of uncoordinated agents is all we can presuppose in trying to identify principles of practical reason: it is because reason’s authority is not given that it must be instituted or constituted – constructed – by human agents. Consider the predicament of human agents more closely. They cannot take any particular faith or belief, tradition or norm, claim or proposition, in short any arbitrary measure, as having the sort of unrestricted authority which would entitle them to view it as a principle of reason. Yet they need, if they are to organise their thinking and doing together, to find – to construct – some common authority. If they cannot, they will not be in the business of giving and receiving, exchanging and evaluating each other’s claims about knowledge and action (p. 358).

This passage is dense in both content and logical connections, so it will prove useful to break down the individual steps in reasoning which lead Kant and O’Neill to their shared conclusion:

1.) A particular faith, belief, tradition, norm, claim, or proposition is an arbitrary measure.
2.) Arbitrary measures do not have unrestricted authority (or universal scope among all rational agents).
3.) A particular faith, belief, tradition, norm, claim, or proposition does not have unrestricted authority (or universal scope among all rational agents).

4.) Uncoordinated agents need to organise their thinking and doing together, i.e. give, receive, exchange and evaluate each others’s claims about knowledge and action.
5.) Organising thinking and doing together requires a common (or shared) authority.
6.) Uncoordinated agents need a common (or shared) authority.

7.) A particular faith, belief, tradition, norm, claim, or proposition does not have unrestricted authority (or universal scope among all rational agents).
8.) Uncoordinated agents need a common (or shared) authority.
9.) A particular faith, belief, tradition, norm, claim, or proposition does not or cannot constitute a common (or shared) authority for uncoordinated agents.

It should be noted that the three deductions appear valid in their form. Indeed, the first two follow straightforwardly in both form and content. In the third, the attempt to synthesise the first two conclusions may, however, give one pause at the level of the content. For O’Neill implies that unrestricted authority and common authority are one and the same. At first glance, this enjoys a certain plausibility. If something is unrestricted, it knows no bounds and is open to all. Likewise, if something is common, it is shared and available to all.

That being said, one may wonder whether there are not things which are, on one hand, common but restricted and, on the other, unrestricted but “uncommon”. More precisely, a piece of information may be unrestricted to all without it thereby being common to all in actuality. One may nonetheless be able to contend that it remains potentially common, i.e. accessible given the right kinds of circumstances. Yet this may reintroduce a measure of restriction therein. For the moment, we will leave our line of questioning there.

Notably, concluding to 9.) does nothing to remove the uncoordinated agents from a situation of uncoordination, so it is necessary to pursue the question, as Kant and O’Neill do, at the practical level of what agents may do from there. O’Neill continues from the above:

How are they to do this? Since all that they have in common is their lack of a given ‘plan of reason’, all that they can do is to refuse to treat any of the various faiths and beliefs, traditions and norms, claims and propositions they variously adhere to as having an unrestricted authority for organising thinking and doing. However, those who do not regard any specific faith or beliefs, tradition or norms, claims or propositions as having an unrestricted authority for organising thinking and doing in effect adopt the overarching principle of thinking and acting only on principles which they regard as open to, and followable by, all (idem.).

Again, it will be helpful to break down the reasoning into distinct steps:

1.) Uncoordinated agents have and adhere to their own plans of reason, e.g. a particular faith, belief, tradition, norm, claim, or proposition or collection thereof.
2.) A particular faith, belief, tradition, norm, claim, or proposition or collection thereof does not or cannot constitute a common (or shared) authority for uncoordinated agents.
3.) Uncoordinated agents cannot adhere to their own plans of reason to constitute a common (or shared) authority.

4.) Uncoordinated agents cannot adhere to their own plans of reason to constitute a common (or shared) authority.
5.) Uncoordinated agents must adhere to some plan of reason to constitute a common (or shared) authority.
6.) Uncoordinated agents must adhere to some plan of reason distinct from their own plans of reason in order to constitute a common (or shared) authority.

7.) Uncoordinated agents must adhere to some plan of reason distinct from their own plans of reason in order to constitute a common (or shared) authority.
8.) A plan of reason distinct from particular plans of reason allows only principles open to and followable by others.
9.) Uncoordinated agents must adhere to some plan of reason which allows only principles open to and followable by others.

As above, the premises and conclusions seem to interlock rather straightforwardly. Upon closer inspection, one may nonetheless detect something on the order of a missing premise: a plan of reason is either particular or common, and there is no movement between these categories. Put somewhat differently, a plan of reason is or is not unrestricted, is or is not common, but does not become unrestricted,  does not become common. It is worth asking why the authority of a plan of reason is taken as singular and unchanging, monolithic and immutable. So seen, authority may aspire to a level of certainty which one would do well to question further (as does Stout with the criterion of scientia or certainty) by asking whether Kant and O’Neill do not pose a false alternative.

 

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