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Rawls and subject 10

March 17, 2017

In what do said constraints consist? The most important feature proves to be the “veil of ignorance”, by which the author means “that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, […] [his] conceptions of the good or [his] special psychological propensities”[1]. As a result, persons are in a position to choose neither principles of justice nor outcomes favoring their particular situation in the resultant political conception. Beyond considerations of simplicity, the veil of ignorance also increases chances of unanimity in choice of principles by abstracting from contingency and knowledge related thereto[2]. All of this ensures that the person’s access to the representational device of the original position is impersonal or, more precisely, depersonalized in such a way that its principles and later outcomes are objective between persons, i.e. fair, non-arbitrary, and, hence, in conformity with our considered judgments.

Indeed, this depersonalized aspect reveals itself as one key sense of objectivity and fairness at the level of the original position while also laying the groundwork for a second: symmetry of the relation between persons. Insofar as each person’s relation to the other is depersonalized and evinces the same relevant characteristics for moral consideration, those relations are perfectly symmetrical between themselves, rendering “this initial situation […] fair between individuals as moral persons”[3]. Moreover, the combination of depersonalization and symmetry issues in a determinate and, in theory, uncontentious conception of person as moral person.

The term “moral person” is of central importance to the four-stage sequence in that the former defines the aspect under which the person is to regard other persons within the political conception which it is to be worked out under the decisionmaking and justificatory procedure. More simply, the constraints imposed in the original position and, to a lesser extent, the following three stages lead the person to view others as “moral persons”. Naturally, the next question is to determine by which traits one distinguishes a moral person from person tout court.

Although Rawls does not provide a strict definition per se, he will characterize the moral person by means of a cluster of similar terms: “as having two moral powers [a sense of justice and a conception of the good] and as having higher-order interests in developing and exercising those powers”; “as rational beings with their own ends and capable […] of a sense of justice”; “persons who regard themselves as ends”[4]. From the person conceived as “moral person”, he is able to add a second important characterization of person as “citizen” whereby the author intends the person as free and equal members of society having basic inviolable rights and liberties[5]. If we speak of a derivation, this owes to the basis of equality between human beings lying in their similarity as “creatures having a conception of their good and capable of a sense of justice”[6].

So does the characterization of constraints at the level of the original position lead to objectivity understood as depersonalization and symmetry between persons considered as moral persons and citizens. These elements in place, the person assumes the standpoint of a party to the original position and takes up the process of deciding fair terms of cooperation in society by choosing “the first principles of a conception of justice which is to regulate all subsequent criticism and reform of institutions”[7]. Given the form of the original position and the constraints imposed therein, Rawls expresses confidence that the party will select “two rather different principles: the first requires equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties, while the second holds that social and economic inequalities, for example inequalities of wealth and authority, are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society”[8]. In sum, the process ends in the selection of the liberty principle and the difference principle.

We will spend no further time on the two principles of justice, other than to link their selection with the constraints on deliberation and the conception of person given above. Rawls contends that objectivity qua depersonalization and symmetry “prevents the use of the accidents of natural endowment and the contingencies of social circumstance as counters in a quest for political and economic advantage” and naturally leads the party to the original position to affirm principles consistent with the conceptions of person as moral person and citizen[9].

[1] Idem.

[2] TJ, p. 122.

[3] TJ, p. 11.

[4] TJ, pp. xii, 11, 157, respectively.

[5] TJ, pp. xii-xiii, 3, 4. Political Liberalism puts forward a related though distinct, expanded notion of “citizen” which will only take on full importance in section 4 below. If the language seems Kantian in places, see also LH, pp. ___ .

[6] TJ, p. 17.

[7] TJ, p. 12. Rawls also speaks of a “trustee” (PL, p. 381). For simplicity, we retain the term “party”.

[8] TJ, p. 13.

[9] TJ, p. 14.

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