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Rawls and subject 17

March 28, 2017

While the first change mentioned is prima facie plausible, upon acceptance of Rawls’ principles of justice, the second change seems less clear-cut in that the author did not set a specific threshold for distinguishing different kinds of general information. In other words, if the range of information available to the person occupying the delegate standpoint is limited but otherwise undefined, it proves difficult to isolate the kinds of information which only become available at the time when the person takes up the legislator standpoint.

Certainly, to implement effective social and economic policy, it will be necessary to have access to social and economic facts, e.g. distinctions, hierarchies and functions for cooperation, but it is unclear whether the delegate standpoint does not also have access thereto. After all, the delegate standpoint includes such knowledge as geographical situation, technological advancement, and political strategy prevalent in society, as well as some knowledge of the background culture in the form of common beliefs and interests in society. The question remains what elements set these standpoints apart[1].

This apparent difficulty may resolve itself in one of two ways, the first of our own invention, the second perhaps more in line with the text. On one hand, we may distinguish between the breadth and the depth of general knowledge. Whereas breadth of general knowledge would allow for the most basic facts in each field, e.g. overall population, culture, resources, etc., depth of general knowledge would ensure access to more precise facts, e.g. demographic analysis, stratification of or interaction between cultures, access to and ownership of resources, etc. This distinction would allow the person occupying the legislator standpoint to take into consideration new facts both unavailable to and irrelevant for the delegate standpoint.

This first solution may be further supplemented or supplanted by a second showing cyclicality between the constitutional and legislative stages, the delegate and legislator standpoints. The author posits this cyclicality earlier when writing:

Statutes must satisfy not only the principles of justice but whatever limits are laid down in the constitution. By moving back and forth between the stages of the constitutional convention and the legislature, the best constitution is found[2].

One can highlight this cyclicality as a more local instance of reflective equilibrium. In such a way, one could determine whether the liberties and rights issuing from the delegate standpoint are suitable for deciding on and justifying laws and policies capable of guaranteeing equality of opportunity, etc. Yet Rawls sees a further complementarity between the delegate and legislator standpoints in that each is regulated by one of the two principles of justice. This consideration leads him to posit a “division of labor between stages in which each deals with different questions of social justice”: if the constitutional stage has primacy over the legislative, this primacy is provisional rather than unconditional and the legislative outcome can influence the conception of the constitution[3].

To apply this movement to the question of a general information threshold, this cyclicality may necessitate a provisional restriction of general information at the constitutional stage which is then removed at the legislative, after which the person may reprise the delegate standpoint to bring the legislative outcome, reflecting the full range of general information, to bear on the renewed constitutional stage. In this way, the division of information would merely set the initial terms for the person coming out of the constitutional stage and entering the legislative.

Accordingly, the division of information allows Rawls to extend the legislator standpoint without altering the basic components of the party standpoint. So long as particular information does not allow the person in the legislator standpoint to distinguish individual persons, then the criteria of objectivity and autonomy hold for the legislator standpoint much as they do for the delegate.

[1] It should be noted that Rawls’ motivations for distinguishing the levels of information are plausible: “Now the question whether legislation is just or unjust, especially in connection with economic and social policies, is commonly subject to reasonable differences of opinion. In these cases judgment frequently depends upon speculative political and economic doctrines and upon social theory generally. Often the best that we can say of a law or policy is that it is at least not clearly unjust. The application of the difference principle in a precise way normally requires more information than we can expect to have and, in any case, more than the application of the first principle. It is often perfectly plain and evident when the equal liberties are violated. These violations are not only unjust but can be clearly seen to be unjust: the injustice is manifest in the public structure of institutions. But this state of affairs is comparatively rare with social and economic policies regulated by the difference principle” (TJ, p. 174). It is rather a question how practicable such a distinction is for the person assuming the standpoint.

 

[2] TJ, p. 174.

[3] Idem.

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