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Fr. 765

February 22, 2017

Chapter 5:

With Chapter 5, Weber arrives at the heart of the matter by sketching out how Rawls’ intermediate position between constructivism and representationalism undermines his mechanisms for moral and political justification. Namely, that intermediate position would leave Rawls unable to explain how such mechanisms arrive at singular and objective results. To reach that point, Weber passes through four stages of inquiry: digging into Rawls’ Euthyphro problem; reiterating complications with social contract theory and the philosopher’s fallacy; setting out reflective equilibrium’s shortcomings; suggesting an alternative, thoroughly constructivist approach to objectivity.

Weber attributes Rawls’ so-called Euthyphro problem to a work by Russ Shafer-Landau on moral realism. This work attempts to find a place for Rawls’ moral theory in a schema divided between cognitivist and noncognitivist moral theories. Whereas as the former denotes moral theories on which judgments may count as beliefs capable of vindication as true or false, the latter (one supposes) is characterized by the absence of such a role for judgments. The former is further divided between subjectivist and objectivist strands, one related to relativist moral positions, the latter to moral conceptions grounded in impartiality, categorical demands and plausible moral error views. The key question is whether a moral theory can be at once objectivist, cognitivist and constructivist.

In response to this question, Shafer-Landau answers “no”. For theories which proceed on the basis of idealized deliberation, comprising idealized agents and circumstances, it remains to be seen why actual persons must subscribe to the beliefs issuing from such deliberation. Weber summarizes the dilemma which the author sets Rawls as follows:

“Rawls’s original position either picks out the right principles of justice because the principles are right independently of the original position, or because idealized persons in the original position picked them as the principles. Following the former route, we have a theory that is sympathetic (if not synonymous) with moral realism. Following the latter route, we encounter Plato’s Euthyphro problem since we must answer why we ought to follow the principles of the given authority. If an answer cannot be given, the authority appears arbitrary. If answers are given, then clearly the reason we must accept the idealized agents’ principles can be seen as independent of the agents themselves” (pp. 94-5).

In either scenario, Rawls would posit either independent entities or criteria, which prove difficult to reconcile with his approach or constructivism. Though Weber is sympathetic to Shafer-Landau’s challenge, he affirms that it may not constitute a knockdown argument. On Weber’s view, Rawls would better resist Shafer-Landau’s claims, were he to argue for a more thoroughly constructivist sense of impartiality, to limit the scope of categorical demands, and to refer moral error to historical practices and processes (p. 94). Additionally, Rawls could point out, as Weber does on his behalf, three problems with the challenge as Shafer-Landau lays it out.

First, there is no reason to suppose that the principles of deliberation stand as ever nearer approximations of independent truth. Indeed, one could maintain that historical practices and processes have refined persons’ capacities for inquiry without ascribing this refinement towards convergence towards any determinate point. This would seem to leave objectivity intact. In contrast, Weber’s second counterpoint finds fault with the author’s choice of terminology for parsing moral theories, which seems to assume representationalism with its talk of accuracy and representation of facts. Third, Shafer-Landau overlooks a third category of cognitivism, the transactional, to the profit of subjectivist and objectivist types. According to a transactional cognitivism (or robust constructivism), one might hold to subjectivism and objectivism in different contexts of concept formation, i.e. as either of two valid ways of approaching constructions as per the circumstances.

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