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Rawls and subject 5

March 10, 2017


In speaking of the conditions constraining justification in the original position, Rawls suggests, in language recalling the “Outline”, that these best model our convictions held under ideal circumstances. He writes:

We think that we have examined these [ethical questions] with care and have reached what we believe is an impartial judgment not likely to be distorted by an excessive attention to our own interests. These convictions are provisional fixed points which we presume any conception of justice must fit[1].

These convictions about justice, as embodied in the conditions of the original position, would then play the roles held by considered judgments as laid out in the “Outline”. The same remark applies to the principles contained in a conception of justice as regards the explicated principles. Insofar as we need a place to start with the justification of a given conception of justice, such convictions offer an orientation by which we may guide initial phases of the inquiry and on which we may freely come back in the later phases thereof. Rawls insists more heavily on this latter aspect than in the “Outline” when he affirms that:


We can either modify the account of the initial situation or we can revise our existing judgments, for even the judgments we take provisionally as fixed points are liable to revision. By going back and forth, sometimes altering the conditions of the contractual circumstances, at others withdrawing our judgments and conforming them to principle, I assume that eventually we shall find a description of the initial situation that both expresses reasonable conditions and yields principles which match our considered judgments duly pruned and adjusted. This state of affairs I refer to as reflective equilibrium[2].

If this passage is remarkable for no other reason than for introducing the term “reflective equilibrium”, it has the further merit of showing to what extent the interplay between principles and judgments allows us to call into question any one principle, judgment or set thereof at a given time. In other words, all is potentially subject to radical examination in the due course of reflection. While explaining his choice of terms, the author takes care to emphasize this last point:

It is an equilibrium because at last our principles and judgments coincide; and it is reflective since we know to what principles our judgments conform and the premises of their derivation. At the moment everything is in order. But this equilibrium is not necessarily stable. It is liable to be upset by further examination of the conditions which should be imposed on the contractual situation and by particular cases which may lead us to revise our judgments[3].

It should be noted that stability can be read in one of two ways. If the resulting equilibrium is stable in that the sense that it allows the persons deliberating to arrive at a determinate course of action, it is not stable in the sense that its configuration of principles and judgments is fixed once and for all, nor that it wholly coincides with a person’s judgments prior to the test for reflective equilibrium. The author takes up just such a question with reference to moral theory writ large:

According to the provisional aim of moral philosophy, one might say that justice as fairness is the hypothesis that the principles which would be chosen in the original position are identical with those that match our considered judgments and so these principles describe our sense of justice. But this interpretation is clearly oversimplified. In describing our sense of justice an allowance must be made for the likelihood that considered judgments are no doubt subject to certain irregularities and distortions despite the fact that they are rendered under favorable circumstances. When a person is presented with an intuitively appealing account of his sense of justice (one, say, which embodies various reasonable and natural presumptions), he may well revise his judgments to conform to its principles even though the theory does not fit his existing judgments exactly. He is especially likely to do this if he can find an explanation for the deviations which undermines his confidence in his original judgments and if the conception presented yields a judgment which he finds he can now accept[4].

So does Rawls allow for the possibility that considered judgments may suffer from distortion, which, when brought to the level of reflection, the person may be persuaded to adjust. To exclude this possibility would amount to justifying just those judgments which the person harbors prior to the decisionmaking procedure and the checks provided by reflective equilibrium. This captures why Rawls takes such care to undercut the second sense of stability above. It is precisely because this second sense props up existing judgments and leads to stagnant conservatism[5].

[1] TJ, pp. 17-18.

[2] TJ, p. 18.

[3] Idem.

[4] TJ, pp. 42-43.

[5] For objections to reflective equilibrium as being overly conservative, see ____. For response thereto, see Scanlon, pp. 150-151. Daniels and ____

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