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Rawls and subject 9

March 16, 2017
  • Original position and party

Though the main treatment of the four-stage sequence comes in A Theory of Justice, Rawls capitalizes on Habermas’ critical discussion to provide an additional summary in Political Liberalism. He outlines this sequence as follows:

We begin in the original position where the parties select principles of justice; next, we move to a constitutional convention where—seeing ourselves as delegates—we are to draw up the principles and rules of a constitution in the light of the principles of justice already on hand. After this we become, as it were, legislators enacting laws as the constitution allows and as the principles of justice require and permit; and finally, we assume the role of judges interpreting the constitution and laws as members of the judiciary[1].

Why is there a need to engage in such an elaborate simulation, imagining oneself in turn as a party or delegate, legislator or judge? Put differently, what does the four-stage sequence provide the person working through the decisionmaking procedure? In reality, the sequence works as a device of representation which allows the person deliberating to approximate the perspective of a morally competent judge to whom appropriate information is available in accordance with a given context. The author writes:

Different levels and kinds of information are available at each stage and in each case designed to enable us to apply the (two) principles intelligently, making rational but not partial decisions favoring our own interests or the interests of those to whom we are attached, such as our friends or religion, our social position or political party. This framework extends the idea of the original position, adapting it to different settings as the application of principles requires. In judging a constitution, say, we are to follow the principles of justice as well as general information about our society, the kind framers of a constitution would want to know— which is then permitted us, but not particular information about ourselves and our attachments, as indicated above. This kind of relevant information, assuming sufficient intelligence and powers of reason, is thought to ensure that our judgment is impartial and reasonable, and following the principles of justice, is to guide us in framing a just constitution and similarly for the other stages […][2].

By tailoring the kinds of information available to the person at each stage, the four-stage sequence enables the person to assume the moral objectivity characteristic of a morally competent judge and, by extension, to justify, with greater success, her judgments of justice and her political conception to a broader audience. With these preliminaries in order, we can begin with the first stage in the sequence, the original position.

Whereas the following three stages appear for the first time in §31 of A Theory of Justice, the first stage, the original position, appears as early as §3 and receives a full section in §4. While the whole of Chapter III, §20-§30, is dedicated to its further development, we shall limit our treatment to the essential account provided by §3 and §4 and supplement ideas as needed with the original position’s presentation in Political Liberalism’s first Lecture. For this reason, it will also be necessary to bracket a great deal of discussion in the secondary literature but to which we shall allude in the footnotes at the appropriate moment.

At the most basic level, what considerations lead Rawls to speak in terms of both “original” and “position”? The notion derives from the moral tradition of social contract theory in which from a state of nature, i.e. a hypothetical presocietal situation, a group of persons come to a collective decision on the rules to govern future society[3]. More particularly, Rawls’ variation on this hypothetical initial situation consists in characterizing this situation’s features and constraints on deliberation in such a way that deliberation issues in a certain conception of justice, namely, justice as fairness[4]. If this appears a way of constraining deliberation in order to favor that particular conception, then the vindication for such constraints comes in the form of those constraints most closely fitting our considered judgments about what would constitute just or fair arrangements in those circumstances. In this way, the original position’s content is subject to the test of reflective equilibrium, in just the way suggested by Scanlon above.

[1] PL, pp. 397-398.

[2] PL, p. 398.

[3] TJ, p. 11.

[4] Idem.

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