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Rawls and subject 7

March 14, 2017

Indeed, this last notion recalls that reflective equilibrium is not sufficient unto itself for arriving at determinate solutions to problems of justice, for reflective equilibrium is a mere justificatory notion. More simply, reflective equilibrium is not itself part of the decisionmaking procedure but, instead, acts a check thereon. To that end, Rawls lays out just such a procedure: namely, the representational device of the original position as a means for arriving at first-order decisions for problems of justice, decisions which would then be put to the test of reflective equilibrium.

That being said, the justificatory test of reflective equilibrium does not apply alone to the first-order decisions reached through the decisionmaking procedure; it applies to our second-order conception of the decisionmaking procedure in such a way that our considered judgments about what constitutes a justified procedure or justified principles for constructing such a procedure can likewise be submitted to the test of reflective equilibrium. As Scanlon and Daniels both make clear, the test of reflective equilibrium can be applied equally at all levels of generality: between judgments and principles, between judgments and conceptions, but also between judgments and procedures[1].

That reflective equilibrium has second-order application to the first-order decisionmaking procedure of the original position is made clear by Rawls himself at several points. For examples, when writing of the conditions constraining reasons and justification in the original position, e.g. equality, impartiality, etc., Rawls treats these restrictions with much the same language as that regarding the coherence considered judgments:

There is, however, another side to justifying a particular description of the original position. This is to see if the principles which would be chosen match our considered convictions of justice or extend them in an acceptable way. We can note whether applying these principles would lead us to make the same judgments about the basic structure of society which we now make intuitively and in which we have the greatest confidence; or whether, in cases where our present judgments are in doubt and given with hesitation, these principles offer a resolution which we can affirm on reflection[2].

In a word, the convictions and principles ordering the original position qua decisionmaking procedure come under the same test as those judgments and principles at work within the decisionmaking procedures. Rawls makes this position all the more explicit when he maintains shortly thereafter:

Still, we may think of the interpretation of the original position that I shall present as the result of such a hypothetical course of reflection. It represents the attempt to accommodate within one scheme both reasonable philosophical conditions on principles as well as our considered judgments of justice. In arriving at the favored interpretation of the initial situation there is no point at which an appeal is made to self-evidence in the traditional sense either of general conceptions or particular convictions. I do not claim for the principles of justice proposed that they are necessary truths or derivable from such truths. A conception of justice cannot be deduced from self-evident premises or conditions on principles; instead, its justification is a matter of the mutual support of many considerations, of everything fitting together into one coherent view[3].

If Rawls himself does not walk the reader through the deliberation by which he arrives at the precise formulation of the original position presented in A Theory of Justice, he may nonetheless reassure the reader that its formulation is arrived at through just such a method and not through foundationalist appeals to self-evidence or derivation therefrom. Given widely held considered judgments about justice, principles capable of explicating, and interaction between both particular judgments and general principles, Rawls deems his presentation of the original position qua decisionmaking procedure both an eminently plausible one and a presentation on which one could come back for revision later as befits the justificatory test of reflective equilibrium. Though we will call further attention to such revision later in section 4, it is now time to turn to the content of that decisionmaking procedure, i.e. the representational device of the original position, in section 3.

[1] Daniels ____ , Scanlon, pp. 153-154.

[2] TJ, p. 17.

[3] TJ, pp. 18-19. See also TJ, p. 507, where Rawls qualifies the important of first principles both for the original position and moral theory: “[First principles] are central elements and devices of theory, but justification rests upon the entire conception and how it fits in with and organizes our considered judgments in reflective equilibrium. As we have noted before, justification is a matter of the mutual support of many considerations, of everything fitting together into one coherent view.”

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