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Rawls and subject 1

March 6, 2017

Rawls and the subject standpoint:

  • 1. Setting the stage

John Rawls’ work is expansive, to the point that highlighting any one particular throughline will necessarily neglect other important aspects and contributions from the primary and secondary literature alike. Nonetheless, it seems possible to situate that work vis-à-vis one overarching theoretico-practical concern: laying out a procedure for decision and justification capable of generating objective, determinate results in ethics, justice and politics. To illustrate how this concern frames Rawls’ work, it will be necessary to examine the primary devices by which he outlines such a procedure and the works in which he sets them out.

To this end, we will consider each of Rawls’ three primary justificatory devices in turn: 1.) the notion of reflective equilibrium; 2.) the representational device of the original position and the four-stage sequence; 3.) the idea of public reason and its attendant three-part justification. In this, we generally follow T.M. Scanlon’s threefold division in “Rawls on Justification”[1]. That said, Scanlon’s comprehensive account will be supplemented by a walkthrough of the multistage justificatory procedure as Rawls envisions it, articulated most clearly in “Reply to Habermas” in Political Liberalism[2].

Accordingly, the first section will carefully examine the notion of reflective equilibrium, as this takes shape in Rawls’ early writings in the Collected Papers and receives further development in A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism[3]. More specifically, this examination shall bring to the fore the need for a decision procedure which finds the balancing point between a person’s considered judgments and the principles which would explicate said judgments. Notably, we follow Scanlon’s reading on which reflective equilibrium can and does act as a check on other justificatory devices such as the original position and the idea of public reason. Certainly, this fact nuances what would otherwise seem a straight derivation in the following two sections.

Indeed, the second section tasks itself with an exposition of a further theoretico-practical specter, namely “how do we ensure fair terms of cooperation in society?” and the conception of the original position, which purports to bring a determinate answer to this inquiry. It should be noted that this account will place emphasis on the original position’s role as a representational device and will thus take seriously Rawls’ insistence that it does not represent an actual or historical situation. Given this emphasis, we shall leave aside, for the time being, various objections made to Rawls on his conception of the original position, be it in the form of supposed metaphysical or epistemological presuppositions, misunderstandings of the person or disputes over the kind of information available to persons therein[4]. Most importantly, this section shall work its way through the four-stage sequence, i.e. the series comprising the original position, the constitutional convention, the legislature and the judiciary, all while the exposing the conception of the person relevant to each stage, a conception which we shall term, for better or worse, a standpoint[5].

The third and final section will recall how Rawls’ effort to secure justice as fairness as a stable conception of justice (see TJ, Part 3) fails to account for reasonable pluralism as a consequence of a free society, leading Rawls to address this failure in the form of the third theoretico-practical specter to which we will call attention: how do we come to embrace a political conception from across the divides of reasonable pluralism? The answer turns in large part on the idea of public reason, as well as that of the overlapping consensus; the former secures the latter through a three-part justification. Again, we shall leave aside for the moment objections made to Rawls’ idea of public reason in order to make clearer the way in which the three-part justification follows and completes the four-stage sequence of the original position. As for the four-stage sequence, scrutinizing this threefold justification will leave us better positioned to extract the standpoint implicit in each part. From the foregoing shall emerge, in the conclusion, a notion of subject or a general standpoint as corollary to justification in Rawls’ work.

[1] Cambridge Companion, p. 139.

[2] (hereafter PL)

[3] (hereafter CP), (hereafter TJ)

[4] For such accounts, see like Walzer, Sandel and Stout.

[5] It will be objected that this choice of terminology is, at best, unfortunate and, at worst, deliberately misleading given the term’s association with Marxist and feminist standpoint epistemology and Rawls’ own vision of objectivity as impersonal. That said, and for reasons which will become clear in Chapter 3, it is important to underscore an important component of Rawls’ procedural stages and, from the beginning, to draw attention to our idiosyncratic usage of this term.

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