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Rawls and subject 11

March 20, 2017

Yet there remain certain ambiguities concerning the standpoint occupied by the person at this first stage of the sequence, namely that of the party to the original position. In what way do the features of this standpoint lead the person to adopt the two principles of justice as Rawls maintains? Although Chapter III provides most exposition of this standpoint, the author gives important indications as early as §3:

One feature of justice as fairness is to think of the parties in the initial situation as rational and mutually disinterested. This does not mean that the parties are egoists, that is, individuals with only certain kinds of interests, say in wealth, prestige, and domination. But they are conceived as not taking an interest in one another’s interests. They are to presume that even their spiritual aims may be opposed, in the way that the aims of those of different religions may be opposed. Moreover, the concept of rationality must be interpreted as far as possible in the narrow sense, standard in economic theory, of taking the most effective means to given ends[1].

This stipulation proves decisive in understanding how the party to the original position gets from a situation of uncertainty to the two principles of justice. Insofar as the party is rational, she seeks those principles capable of guaranteeing her the best outcome possible for any position in the resultant society which she may come to occupy. The best outcome concerns not merely a distribution of opportunities and social values, goods and wealth assuring maximal access for the least advantaged but, more importantly, the widest extension of her liberties commensurate with those of others[2].

Yet these rational requirements and the constraints on deliberation necessarily qualify the statement above. In truth, the party is not concerned with the outcome for determinate persons or individuals but rather with “representative persons” whereby Rawls intends:

[W]hen principles mention persons, or require that everyone gain from an inequality, the reference is to representative persons holding the various social positions, or offices established by the basic structure. Thus in applying the second principle I assume that it is possible to assign an expectation of well-being to representative individuals holding these positions. This expectation indicates their life prospects as viewed from their social station. In general, the expectations of representative persons depend upon the distribution of rights and duties throughout the basic structure […] [N]either principle applies to distributions of particular goods to particular individuals who may be identified by their proper names[3].

Indeed, this restriction, in the original position, to considerations of representative persons transforms ordinary deliberation over individual persons into that over “starting places”, i.e. the different general positions that a person may occupy in society once constituted[4]. This restriction applies as well to the person occupying the standpoint of party to the original position. As the author makes clearer in his discussion of the original position in Political Liberalism, the perspective of the person occupying the standpoint of the party and the standpoint of the party itself are distinct, and the party represents not the person’s interests but all relevant parties’.

That the parties are symmetrically situated is required if they are to be seen as representatives of free and equal citizens who are to reach an agreement under conditions that are fair. To model this conviction in the original position, the parties are not allowed to know the social position of those they represent, or the particular comprehensive doctrine of the person each represents[5].

Naturally, this requirement extends to the person’s own perspective: in representing all starting places, her own perspective is included therein. This clarification has the virtue of recalling that that the original position is neither actual nor theoretical. On the contrary, it is “simply a device of representation” which “describes the parties, each of whom is responsible for the essential interests of a free and equal citizen, as fairly situated and as reaching an agreement subject to conditions that appropriately limit what they can put forward as good reasons”[6]. The person must wholly abstract from her own perspective in taking up the standpoint of the party representing the representative persons or social starting places and in choosing the conception of justice which best advances those persons or places.

[1] TJ, p. 12

[2] TJ, pp. 53-55.

[3] TJ, p. 56.

[4] TJ, p. 82. Each starting place is subject to a further twofold division in that the person so represented occupies two distinct positions relevant to deliberation: the position concerning the arrangement of rights and liberties and the position concerning the distribution of wealth and goods. Thus, the representative person can be further specified under these two positions as the “representative citizen” and the “representatives of those with different expectations for unequally distributed primary goods” (idem.).

[5] PL, p. 24.

[6] PL, p. 25.

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