[hist-analytic] Rawls and Kantian Constructionism

Baynesr at comcast.net Baynesr at comcast.net
Thu Jun 2 16:00:06 EDT 2011


I've been asked to complete my book on the philosophical underpinnings of a theory of justice which is an alternative to Rawls and others. It depends on the notion of "harmony." This, of course, on the face of it is no more perspicuous than 'fairness' at least to begin with. We'll see where it goes. Again, these are notes for future editing; perhaps a review of Rawls on Kant with special attention to the theory of justice. Some of yuz guys might want to take a look at some of Putnam's remarks in The Many Faces of Realism. There are a few pertinent remarks, but mainly this will be about Rawls and Kant. 

Rawls identifies two “model-conceptions” employed in his version of Kantian constructionism (Rawls (1980) p.308). They are a well ordered society and the concept of a moral person. These conceptions are evaluative. They each depend on the possibility of an ordering of better and worse moral persons and less and more well ordered societies. We are told that there is a third mediating conception: the original position. How it is, then, that the concept of morality and the wellness of the “well ordered society” become coordinated or reach equilibrium is a matter to be determined by the original position. Rawls does not discuss the matter of the difference between a society and a political organization, a distinction that survives even if it should turn out that a society is by definition political – any such definition appears quite arbitrary, however. 

We have, then, two unresolved questions: how do we justify calling our concept “the concept of a moral person“ without making a moral commitment, keeping in mind the possibility of one person being in any such sense “more moral” or better than another? To be sure, Rawls takes great care to use “moral person” in a deliberately ambiguous way; that is, he requires of a moral person not that that person be moral, only that he have concept of morality and believes others, as well, possess such a concept. But is this sufficient? Rawls, as one would expect, doesn’t care to commit his theory to a theory of morality, because his theory of justice is political not moral at its base. Nevertheless, which concept is selected is circumscribed by the very model that is supposed to “mediate” the moral person and the well ordered society. In this sense, the operant concept of good and evil in a society will be determined to one degree or another by the larger principles lying outside the purview of legislation in Rawls’s just “society.” As it turns out, the original position determines the principles of justice. This poses a significant danger. 

The danger is that if we infer a great deal of what can and what cannot be legislated in a “fair” society under certain conditions of well orderedness and moral content then an authoritarian aspect to the proposal will in all likelihood be inexpugnable. But this is what we see happening over the course of the development of Rawls’s theory of justice. By the time of Political Liberalism the requirements inferred for the appropriate coordination of the first two models are onerous for any form of government responsive to extreme circumstance, nor are such circumstances infrequent. There is one other matter of immediate concern. Once we have accepted a distinction Rawls does not entertain, viz. that between a society and a political organization, his requirement that that the society under his conception of justice be one “which everyone accepts” (Rawls [1980] p. 309) becomes become a requirement of considerable importance. The distinction between faction and pluralism is imprecise to say the least particularly when dealing with matters related to the distribution of powers and privileges. 

Formulating the “bases” of political cooperation consistent with a common sense understanding of what is involved is central to Kantian constructionism. The implication appears to be that what common sense actually is in this instance is at least in part determined by “historical traditions” within democratic societies in particular. (Rawls [1980] p. 306). The alleged relationship between common sense, however, and a Kantian theory of justice receives little justification. There is danger of oversimplification: the notion of common sense belongs to the same category of things as the “ordinary man” and, like so many philosophical discussions which depend on the notion of such a man, related discussions assuming an explored “common sense” which itself is a construction, must somehow be justified in order that any concept of fairness, in Rawl’s sense, can be justified. If there are no moral facts, as he strongly maintains, then by what principles of “construction” is the “ordinary man” and, therefore, common sense to be conceived? If these principles precede the inquiry into a suitably “fair” statement of initial conditions in a social contract and lack a basis in moral fact, then what is there basis excepting the fact that Rawls favors the “historical traditions? 

Steve Bayne 
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