E. John Rawls: Justification and Objectivity

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This entry discusses Rawls’s general understanding of the justification and objectivity of justice as fairness, or any other candidate theory of justice. It then discusses the main steps in Rawls’s justification of justice as fairness.

I. Reflective Equilibrium

Justice as fairness is Rawls’s answer to the basic question democratic citizens face regarding the organization of their polity as a fair system of social cooperation. Why should we think it is an objectively justified answer? Rawls argues that judgments of justice are objectively justified if they are properly grounded in a conception of justice that is consistent and coherent, in reflective equilibrium, with the stable and considered judgments of rational and reasonable persons over time. It does not follow from the fact that a judgment is objectively justified that it is also true in any robust philosophical sense (though the former may count as compelling evidence for the latter). Certainly Rawls never claims that consistency and coherence constitute truth. On the philosophical nature of truth he is silent. The core idea expressed by Rawls’s notion of reflective equilibrium is that if our judgments of justice follow from (generally accepted common-sense premises and) a conception of justice that is consistent and coherent with the considered judgments of rational and reasonable persons over time, then they are as objectively justified as they can be.

Rawls distinguishes between narrow, wide, general, and full reflective equilibrium. Any conception of justice that fits my current considered judgments of justice satisfies the narrow reflective equilibrium standard. The conception that fits and justifies those judgments better than does any alternative satisfies the wide reflective equilibrium standard. Narrow and wide reflective equilibrium refer to the relation between a conception of justice and a particular individual’s considered judgments of justice. While it might be supposed that two persons with identical judgments of justice must necessarily converge as a matter of narrow or wide reflective equilibrium on the same conception of justice, this is not necessarily the case. Furthermore, it does not follow from the fact that my conception of justice satisfies the demands of narrow or wide reflective equilibrium that it is justified. For as Rawls puts it, justification is always addressed to the other and proceeds from shared premises. Mere proof – the display of logical relations between one’s conception of justice and one’s considered judgments of justice – is not justification.

General and full reflective equilibrium refer to the relationship between a conception of justice and the considered judgments of citizens generally. General reflective equilibrium is realized when citizens publicly converge on one and same conception of justice as satisfying for them each as individuals the demands of wide reflective equilibrium (that is, both fitting and justifying the judgments of justice they make as individuals). Full reflective equilibrium is realized when a conception in general reflective equilibrium is also consistent and coherent with all the considered judgments citizens generally make (across various domains of life) as individuals and is thus normally effective in moving them voluntarily to act as it, as justice, demands. The public conception of justice in a well-ordered society satisfies the full reflective equilibrium standard.

Full reflective equilibrium is a regulative ideal. With respect to it, the judgments of justice tracked and expressed by our favored conception of justice have no special status. Justice may be the first virtue of social institutions, but our judgments of justice have no special gravitational weight relative to each and every one of our judgments overall. Thus, when we find our conception of justice and the judgments it underwrites at odds with our considered judgments in some other area unrelated to issues of justice (say, religious beliefs concerning the salvation of our soul), we can resolve the conflict by revising the former, the latter, or both. Whatever we do, however, we do with the aim of bringing our exercise of judgment into reflective equilibrium with itself and with the exercise of judgment by others so that it is objectively justified.

It is tempting to think that there can be no more than one conception of justice in full reflective equilibrium with our considered judgments. But this is not necessarily the case.

II. The Justification of Justice as Fairness

While aiming always at full reflective equilibrium, Rawls justifies justice as fairness in stages or steps. He first sets out to show that the principles of justice as fairness would be favored over rival alternatives by agents behind an appropriate veil of ignorance and in an appropriate original position. Here what renders the veil and original position appropriate is, first, that each expresses provisionally fixed points of our moral self-understanding, and second, that the principles of justice as fairness support and extend our considered judgments regarding institutional justice. This second condition takes Rawls to the second stage or step in his justification of justice as fairness: identifying the institutional implications of the principles of justice as fairness and demonstrating their ability to support and, where needed, extend or revise in plausible ways our considered convictions regarding institutional justice. As already noted, the completion of this second stage plays a role in the final completion of the first stage. That is, one of the things that renders Rawls’s set up of the original position and description of the veil of ignorance is that it favors the selection of principles of justice the institutional implications of which we can affirm upon reflection.

The third step or stage of Rawls’s justification of justice as fairness concerns the stability of a social world faithful to its principles. Here Rawls’s idea is that no conception of justice is fully justified unless it can order a social world within which citizens acquire, without indoctrination (noble lies) or false consciousness, a (second) nature and self-understanding (including character, dispositions, desires and so forth) motivationally sufficient in most cases to lead them to do as justice requires. If the social world ordered by a conception of justice leaves citizens having to choose regularly between doing justice and realizing their own good, it will prove unstable (in the absence of indoctrination, excessive policing, and so on). And so Rawls endeavors to show that a social world ordered by justice as fairness is one within which citizens will find doing justice largely congruent with advancing their own good.

At each of the three main stages of his justification of justice as fairness, Rawls endeavors to show that the argument rests on no assumptions and yields no conclusions not in reflective equilibrium with our considered convictions. His justification of justice as fairness is nonfoundationalist. The question is whether at each stage and across all the stages of justification “everything hangs together” in reflective equilibrium.

It is worth noting briefly here that Rawls rejects both foundationalist and what he calls naturalist modes of justification. Justice as fairness is not justified by deductive reasoning from some set of necessary or self-evident first principles. Nor is it justified by empirical reasoning or scientific inference from some set of contingent descriptive truths (about human psychology, biology, and so forth, for example).

Finally, it is worth noting that the hypothetical consent of OP agents to the principles of justices as fairness does not justificatory work as such. The hypothetical consent of OP agents determines the content of the principles of justice. The justification of those principles is given by the ideal of reflective equilibrium as applied to the three stages, both individually and collectively, of justification just surveyed.

Following section: F. John Rawls: Political Liberalism

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