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Rawls and subject 4

March 9, 2017
  • Coherence between judgments and principles

At last, the author is ready to qualify the optimal relation between judgments and principles in terms of coherence. To this end, he introduces two further terms of art: “rational judgment” and “justifiable principle”. Of the first, he briefly notes that such a judgment “is capable of being explicated by a justifiable principle (or set of principles)”[1]. Naturally, as this term’s meaning derives from that of “justifiable principle”, he devotes greater space to the latter and lists those reasons which the person may have for accepting a principle as justifiable: 1.) moral insight is better modeled by principles successfully explicated than by any one person’s judgments; 2.) a principle’s capacity to gain acceptance by competent moral judges upon due consideration and reflection; 3.) a principle’s successful application or applicability to both present and future cases; 4.) a principle’s capacity to stand over and against (incorrect) considered judgments and eventually alter them[2]. The combination of these four tests for justifiability approximates Rawls’ mature notion of reflective equilibrium, particularly 2.) – 4.), as will be shown below. Furthermore, a principle’s being shown to be justifiable on counts 1.) – 4.) is tantamount, in this early work, to being “evidenced to be reasonable”, wherein one can posit, in a weak sense at the least, the synonymy of the terms “justifiable” and “reasonable”[3].

All that said, one will wonder precisely what in the four tests gives us reason to speak of “coherence”. Certainly, Rawls has established the relevant classes for comparison as well as the terms for comparison. But at no point does the author employ the term coherence in 4.2 through 4.4. After all, 1.) largely recapitulates Rawls’ treatment of considered judgments: if principles explicate considered judgments and considered judgments are reached under the best of conditions, then there seems good reason to privilege the principle tested over any one person’s judgment. Nor does 2.) in that this test merely requires that competent moral judges compare the principle with their own considered judgments and be ready to assent thereto, should it prove convincing. As for 3.), this test seeks to isolate a principle’s explanatory power, that is, whether it operates well enough in cases new and old to generate a result which, following critical examination, proves acceptable to competent moral judges. From the above, what gives us license to speak of coherence?

In truth, the notion of coherence underlies the talk of comparison in 2.) and 3.) and comes out explicitly in 4.). In both 2.) and 3.), the competent moral judge is expected to carry out a comparison of, on one hand, a principle with considered judgments and, on the other, the result of a principle’s application with considered judgments to see whether the principle or result proves acceptable to judges. In short, a principle or result proves acceptable inasmuch as it fits or coheres with judges’ considered judgments.

As suggested, 4.) makes this relation between principles and judgments explicit, at least in part because it occupies a special role within the four-part test for reasonableness. Namely, it sets out the terms of adjustment between principles and judgments.

To the extent that principles exhibit this capacity to alter what we think to be our considered judgments in cases of conflict, they satisfy the fourth test […] The rationale behind this fourth test is that while the considered judgments of competent judges are the most likely repository of the working out of men’s sense of right and wrong, a more likely one, for example, than that of any particular individual’s judgments alone, they may, nevertheless contain certain deviations, or confusions, which are best discovered by comparing the considered judgments with principles which pass the first three tests and seeing which of the two tends to be felt to be incorrect in the light of reflection[4].

Thus, the fourth test acts as a check on principles having already passed the first three tests in that it determines whether either considered judgments need to be adjusted in light of principles or principles in light of considered judgments. In this way, 4.) explicitly seeks the best fit or coherence between principles and considered judgments in a way that 1.)-3.) do not. Naturally, this method of justification by check for coherence does not and cannot justify the total configuration of principles and considered judgments at any one time. Insofar as the relation sought between principles and considered judgments is not that of derivation but of coherence, “ethics must […] works its way piece by piece” and “expect satisfactory explications but of delimited areas of the considered judgments”[5].

From the foregoing, the author deems that so long as “an explication exists satisfying the tests in 4.3, moral actions can be justified in a manner analogous to the way in which decisions to believe a proposition, or theory, are justified”[6]. This observation concludes Rawls’ early exposition of the justificatory device of equilibrium. Certainly, the author has more to add in the form of a problem of justice, as well as principles for solving that problem (as captured in d.)-f.) above), but we shall leave this aside as these do not directly concern justification. Instead, we shall turn to the modifications which the author brings to the device of reflective equilibrium in A Theory of Justice.

[1] CP, p. 10. Clearly, this does not correspond to the notion of “rational” which Rawls employs in TJ and PL; there, this term designates one of the two fundamental moral powers of the person conceived as moral person or citizen (see Scanlon, op. cit., p. 141)

[2] CP, pp. 10-12

[3] Indeed, TJ, on our view, continues in just this sense, i.e. reasonable constraints on the decisionmaking procedure are precisely those which are justifiable to others. This synonymy shall prove particularly important in sections 3.) and 4.), as well as Chapter 3.


[4] CP, pp. 11-12.

[5] CP, p. 12.

[6] CP, p. 18.

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