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Rawls and subject 15

March 24, 2017

In short, the person occupying the delegate standpoint knows nothing more about her individual circumstances than the person occupying the party standpoint. Yet her share of general, impersonal knowledge has considerably increased. If she knows no more about others, she does now know more about the circumstances in which they find themselves: geography, economy, political culture, perhaps even aspects of the background culture[1]. Moreover, what does newly available information mean for the delegate standpoint in comparison with the party standpoint?

Insofar as the information remains general, i.e. no information is available on particular persons, the delegate remains depersonalized and in symmetrical relations with others. Similarly, the new information remains public in the sense that its content and presentation are both available to others and something to which they could assent upon seeing that others do. Put differently, the presence of a certain resource within that society does not commit in and of itself commit the person qua delegate to a belief or reason that others would be unlikely to share.

Likewise, the reasons which the delegate offers representative persons for a given position are to be framed in terms of that general information. If publically available in the right sense, that information also seems likely to frame acceptable or justifiable reasons and, hence, proves reasonable. That leaves only the count of autonomy. So long as the person occupying the delegate standpoint keep that standpoint free from morally irrelevant considerations, like those alluded in footnote 80, there seems little reason to worry that such considerations are the basis of her deliberation and justification in the constitutional convention. We shall return to this question below.

At this stage, Rawls takes a closer look at that in which a constitution consists. If “a just constitution would be a just procedure arranged to insure a just outcome”, then “[t]he procedure would be the political process governed by the constitution, the outcome the body of enacted legislation”[2]. In particular, that just procedure qua constitution must embody liberties concordant with the liberty principle from justice as fairness and would include, under one form or another, standard constitutional democratic protections, such as “liberty of conscience and freedom of thought, liberty of the person, and equal political rights”[3]. As the delegate standpoint implicitly accepts the two principles of justice, it is expected that the person qua delegate would choose to incorporate a scheme of such protections into the procedure and check that the procedure, as well as the outcomes which it is likely to engender, fit with the principles of justice.

As for the outcome, there exists no guarantee that all legislation will be just, for which reason the delegate is expected to choose among different such schemes the “procedural arrangements that are both just and feasible those which are most likely to lead to a just and effective legal order”[4]. In order to choose between schemes, the delegate must formulate the procedural rules with an eye to “the beliefs and interests that men in the system are liable to have and of the political tactics that they will find it rational to use given their circumstances”[5]. Herein, Rawls provides a more thorough response to the question posed above in footnote 80: where does one set the threshold for the right kinds of general knowledge?

With regards to political and economic beliefs and interests, the restrictions seem somewhat weaker than suggested above. Note that delegates “are assumed, then, to know these things”, which knowledge does not alter the original position as captured in the party standpoint provided that “they have no information about particular individuals including themselves”[6]. Granted, from general information about the make-up of political or background culture, the person occupying the delegate standpoint may include information eventually pertaining to her own position or that of representative persons in society. Nevertheless, so Rawls seems to suggest, if the delegate applies that information to representative persons alone rather than particular persons, then the objectivity of the original position and the autonomy of the party standpoint obtain. In this way, while the restrictions on information are weaker than suggested, the conclusion nonetheless accords with that given above: objectivity and autonomy are not compromised through general knowledge of existing circumstances.

[1] If we hesitate on this last, this owes to the ambiguity between general and particular knowledge and the lack of further exposition on Rawls’ party. If the third stage allows for the “full range of general economic and social facts” and the fourth removes all limits on information (TJ, p. 175), it seems unclear as to the composition of a partial range of general economic and social facts. To put the problem another way, what kinds of general economic and social facts are necessary to exclude personal considerations or particular information weighing in the delegates’ deliberation? From the level of the economy’s advancement, it seems possible to have an idea of the kinds of careers available to persons in that society. Likewise, the presence of a certain resource as opposed to another might similarly clue one in to the dominant industry in a society. Finally, knowledge of the political culture might include incomplete references to religion or background culture, from which it would be possible to reconstruct these in part. In sum, general knowledge of these kinds leaves the person occupying the delegate standpoint in a better position to anticipate the various representative persons or starting places in society, which considerations may or may not prove important for elaborating a system of institutions or liberties. All in all, Rawls must find a threshold for knowledge which at once allows the person occupying the delegate standpoint to adapt institutions and liberties to the surrounding society and prevents that person from deliberating on the bases of morally irrelevant considerations thereby avoiding heteronomy.

[2] TJ, p. 173.

[3] Idem.

[4] Idem.

[5] TJ, p. 174.

[6] Idem.

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