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Rawls and subject 6

March 13, 2017

On the contrary, the person going through the decisionmaking procedure is confronted with different conceptions, i.e. sets of principles, against which her judgments are then checked for reflective equilibrium:

From the standpoint of moral theory, the best account of a person’s sense of justice is not the one which fits his judgments prior to his examining any conception of justice, but rather the one which matches his judgments in reflective equilibrium. As we have seen, this state is one reached after a person has weighed various proposed conceptions and he has either revised his judgments to accord with one of them or held fast to his initial convictions (and the corresponding conception)[1].

In short, reflective equilibrium cannot be attained independently of the person’s examination of rival conceptions and assent to one of them. That said, the range of possibilities represented by the rival conceptions may vary greatly, a point of which Rawls is aware:

There are, however, several interpretations of reflective equilibrium. For the notion varies depending upon whether one is to be presented with only those descriptions which more or less match one’s existing judgments except for minor discrepancies, or whether one is to be presented with all possible descriptions to which one might plausibly conform one’s judgments together with all relevant philosophical arguments for them. In the first case we would be describing a person’s sense of justice more or less as it is although allowing for the smoothing out of certain irregularities; in the second case a person’s sense of justice may or may not undergo a radical shift[2].

Should the person need only confront those positions wherein judgments similar to her own, naturally, the capacity for radical examination and revision will prove limited in important respects. On the other hand, should the person find herself confronted by those positions wherein judgments are incommensurate with her own, the capacity for radical examination and revision will, logically, prove greater in the resultant reflective equilibrium. Nonetheless, theoretical and practical factors combine to limit how far-reaching radical examination and revision can prove:

Clearly it is the second kind of reflective equilibrium that one is concerned with in moral philosophy. To be sure, it is doubtful whether one can ever reach this state. For even if the idea of all possible descriptions and of all philosophically relevant arguments is well-defined (which is questionable), we cannot examine each of them. The most we can do is to study the conceptions of justice known to us through the tradition of moral philosophy and any further ones that occur to us, and then to consider these[3].

With regards to the practical, time and opportunity act as important constraints on radical revision leading to reflective equilibrium: the person may lack the time necessary to work through all possible positions or may not have sufficient opportunity to discover incommensurate positions. Theoretically speaking, a person might be unable to grasp the considered judgments or principles of incommensurate positions in such a way as to preclude radical examination and revision from the beginning. Despite that, Rawls envisions the second version of reflective equilibrium as a regulative ideal which guides the decisionmaking procedure and which the person may approximate over time.

Certainly, positing distinct versions of reflective equilibrium does not settle all questions on the kinds of revision which a person’s considered judgments might undergo. On the contrary, the author deems it necessary to call attention to a number of such concerns before setting them aside:

For example, does a reflective equilibrium (in the sense of the philosophical ideal) exist? If so, is it unique? Even if it is unique, can it be reached? Perhaps the judgments from which we begin, or the course of reflection itself (or both), affect the resting point, if any, that we eventually achieve. It would be useless, however, to speculate about these matters here. They are far beyond our reach. I shall not even ask whether the principles that characterize one person’s considered judgments are the same as those that characterize another’s. I shall take for granted that these principles are either approximately the same for persons whose judgments are in reflective equilibrium, or if not, that their judgments divide along a few main lines represented by the family of traditional doctrines that I shall discuss. (Indeed, one person may find himself torn between opposing conceptions at the same time.) If men’s conceptions of justice finally turn out to differ, the ways in which they do so is a matter of first importance. Of course we cannot know how these conceptions vary, or even whether they do, until we have a better account of their structure. And this we now lack, even in the case of one man, or homogeneous group of men. If we can characterize one (educated) person’s sense of justice, we might have a good beginning toward a theory of justice[4].

The questions raised by this passage center on whether the second, broad version of reflective equilibrium admits of variety at the level of principles or the equilibrium itself. Perhaps, starkly different principles are required to explicate similar considered judgments; perhaps a divergence in starting points, i.e. considered judgments, between persons may preclude them from realizing reflective equilibrium between themselves; perhaps a set of principles may prove unable to explicate the considered judgments of a single person due to her holding opposing conceptions. Yet such questions, while thought-provoking, surpass the scope of inquiry which Rawls sets himself. Wherefore the importance of limiting himself to one plausible sense of justice, one plausible theory of justice, one plausible decisionmaking procedure.

[1] TJ, p. 43.

[2] Idem. Although Rawls does not employ the terms “wide” or “narrow” to qualify these two cases, they seem to map onto the distinction introduced in PL ___ all the same. See also Scanlon, ___.

[3] Idem.

[4] TJ, pp. 43-44. Questions also taken up by Scanlon, pp. 152-153.

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