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Fr. 850

December 28, 2018

To my knowledge, though many have asked (Stemplowska and Swift 2014, 125-6; Quong 2014, 270; Muldoon 2017, 122), no one has yet provided a satisfactory demonstration of how Rawlsian argumentation proceeds from a.) the initial disposition to be able to justify a view to others to b.) the political need to formulate directives for individual or collective political action. Although Rawls suggests that his ideal theory is to inform our actions under nonideal conditions, he provides no demonstrations of specific applications of his ideal theory under nonideal conditions. This suggests either that he felt there to be no need for specific demonstration (perhaps because it should be easily reconstructible from his writings or because he simply never found the time to take the matter up) or that a different set of principles or prescriptions were necessary, a set which he was unable to provide. Given that Rawls considers the regulative ideal of a well-ordered society to be a sufficient and necessary guide to political action under nonideal conditions (cf. his early essay “Distributive Justice” in Rawls 1999b, 150) and his exchange with Amartya Sen), he must have thought not just that there was such a guide but that he had also provided some guidance.

Put differently, it must still be asked what the full sequence of the argument from political liberalism looks like and what view of the theory-practice connection Rawls is ultimately committed to. I hope to fill that lacuna with reference by sketching a particular argument which starts from the aforementioned disposition and issues in a political directive for prison reform.

In order to do so, I proceed in three parts. I begin by answering some preliminary questions regarding the function and executor, character and conditions of Rawls’s argumentation, including: is the argument a criterion or a decision theory?; is the argument carried out by theorists, lay-people or both?; must the argument be completely or explicitly worked through or may it be done so incompletely, implicitly or even retrospectively?; does the argument only hold for ideally just societies?; and so on. I then sketch the precise sequence of the argumentation from the individual disposition to the selection and application of a justificatory and theory construction method, the specification of principles for institutional arrangements and social policy, and the justification of a preferred set of arrangements and policy, ending finally at norms for individual or collective action.

Finally, having worked through one application of the argument, I draw some general lessons for not just the kinds of prescriptions which theory may give practice but also how theory goes about generating those prescriptions for practice. More precisely, I suggest that Rawlsian argumentation serves as a cautionary tale in showing, first, that there are important upper bounds of complexity and publicity which must be set on citizens’ epistemic burden as concerns (democratic) argumentation and, second, that normative argumentative prescriptions must be more sensitive to the kinds of arguments which citizens in democratic societies in fact make.

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