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Fr. 764

February 21, 2017

Of the essay’s conception of personhood, Weber recalls that Rawls specifies it as a “model-conception” as an improvement on the foggy conceptions which we typically hold thereof. This follows from its ability to help us identify a characterization of free and equal moral personality. For Weber, this characterization, which he also dubs “autonomy”, represents a median phase in Rawlsian conception of personhood. Although it prefigures PL’s “greater dependence on the Kantian ideal of free and rational agents”, it also pays less attention to “the life plans of people in moral consideration”, an account more concordant with constructivism’s phenomenological side” (p. 83). More precisely, this model-conception advances the view that persons are the sources of normative claims and obligations which do not issue from society-dependent roles. Nonetheless, Weber remains circumspect as regards this view, noting that it displaces the locus of political concern from person to claim and, hence, remains overly atomist.

PL takes a different tack and provides his clearest account of what elements of personhood are and are not to be allowed in political deliberation and public discourse. The political conception of justice as fairness, as well as other members of the political liberal family, see persons as free and equal citizens; the ideal of public reason sees the reason proper to such persons as that which can enjoy the support of an overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines. Weber is quick to point out that this does not exclude other elements of personhood across all domains:

“In Rawls’s defense, he is not claiming that what a person is can be summed up by a political conception. On the contrary, persons are more than what the political conception encompasses, clearly. The decisive feature of his view about personality, however, is that elements of persons’ comprehensive doctrines that do not factor into his account of the realm of overlapping consensus are illegitimate politically as sources of reasons for others.” (p. 84)

Still, the author finds this claim unsettling for those who do not accept liberalism as a comprehensive doctrine and evokes familiar arguments to this effect. More interestingly, he attempts to tether the problem of justifying that exclusion to an underlying problem in Rawls’ constructivism, namely whether we are bound by the constructions of idealized agents. In again evoking this problem, Weber does not mean to exclude thought experiments or ideal constructions as important philosophical tools and, for his part, imagines what purposes the perfect circle serves practically. Rawls’ usage thereof with regards to persons is to be avoided in that “the pragmatic force and real value of ideas in the phenomenal world are all the view requires” (p. 86). This claim may stand or fall with one’s acceptance of the pragmatist criterion.

Additionally, Weber sees in PL’s conception of personhood an attempt to find an Archimedean point for justice. Yet such efforts often fall prey to what is commonly termed the Euthyphro problem: “either such theories must hold to a realist conception in ethics and hence a representationalist epistemology or they must explain why and how the ideal observer’s condition renders the statements that would be made from his or her ideal position true” (pp. 86-7). Again, this turns on which conception of person does the relevant constructing. In the end, the author judges that Rawls’ efforts to identify such a point lead him to hew too closely to Kantian personhood and, thus, “on the notion of freedom and autonomy, be it moral or political, and ignores the more fundamental implication of constructivism’s phenomenal conception of personhood” (p. 87).

Indeed, this allows us to make sense of Rawls’ need to turn to a hypothetical construction, so Weber maintains. Were persons subjected to inclination and habit from the phenomenal world, this would distort the results at which free and equal persons might arrive from the noumenal realm. Moreover, the need to approximate error-free judgment, as in our considered judgments, and to arrange constructions of meaning or conceptions in ethics and politics in view of their eventual correctness implies an independent realm of truth to which those constructions apply. All of which leaves Rawls ill-positioned to escape representationalism’s reality-appearance dichotomy, familiar from Kant.

Weber concludes by singling out four points on which Rawls’ constructivism flirts with representationalism:

  • Rawls’ constructions are derived from a conception of persons and do not represent a theory about how ideas are constructed.
  • For Rawls, the value and validity of his idealized constructions do not follow from any external application but derive solely from the procedure itself.
  • His search for reasonableness stands at odds with his talk of correctness.
  • Rawls maintains the subject-object dichotomy, which trades on underlying representationalist intuitions.
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