Monday, 23 January 2012

Rawls on Natural Duty and Fairness

My last posting on Rawls looked at the concluding part of Chapter V of A Theory of Justice. In this posting I am going to begin reading Chapter VI of Theory, a chapter that is focused on the twin topics of duty and obligation. The first two sections of this chapter return to a topic that was previously raised in sections 18 and 19 of Chapter I, namely the question of principles for individuals, a topic that I treated in relation to the earlier discussion in Chapter I, here.

The opening section of Chapter VI immediately refers back to Rawls' earlier discussion in Chapter I where principles of fairness and natural duty were outlined but differentiates the treatment now being offered by stating that the purpose of the present discussion is to show the basis of the claim that these principles would be chosen by individuals in the original position. Rawls begins with the question of natural duty (reversing the order of exposition adopted in Chapter I). The key "natural duty" from the standpoint of the theory of justice is supporting and furthering just institutions. There are two parts to this duty. The first part is showing that we comply with and do our share "within" just institutions assuming they exist and have reference to us. The second part is to establish such institutions where they do not exist though Rawls adds the rider "at least when this can be done with little cost to ourselves" which appears to be a kind of prudential limitation on the second part of the duty, one that Rawls does not assume requires justification.

The alternative to this principle of natural duty that Rawls considers is the principle of utility but adoption of this by individuals after the basic structure has been regulated by the two principles of justice is assumed by him to lead to an "incoherent" conception of right. The actions that would be mandated by the principle of utility would not cohere with that demanded by the two principles of justice and should there be an accidental convergence it would lack stability. Hence given that the two principles of justice are regulative of the basic structure it appears that principles for individuals should be congruent with them. This is the reason why Rawls describes natural duty in the way he does. There is still the question of whether the natural duty could not be sensibly qualified by individuals in accord with some general idea of costs and benefits but Rawls rules this out on the basis that the full complement of equal liberties have been guaranteed by the two principles so that there could be nothing further for individuals to bargain for.

In the previous chapter Rawls stressed the importance of public knowledge that an effective sense of justice applied across a well-ordered society. Such a public knowledge produces greater stability and undermines the temptation of free-riding. At this point Rawls differentiates between two kinds of threats to the stability of a system of justice. On the one hand there are self-interested reasons for free-riding that accrue from taking the share of general social goods to be available without requisite effort being needed for all agents. However, in addition to the self-interested way in which free-riding can be articulated, there is also a second type of threat to the stability of systems of justice. This second threat is what arises when people have reason to believe that others will not do their part in relation to the obligations that the system generates. This second kind of instability has a particular urgency when there appear dangers with complying with the demands of institutions. It is a general problem of assurance and is analytically distinct from the tendencies of self-interest as it can create problems even for those committed to principles of a just sort.

How does the assurance problem get responded to in a just system thus enabling it to substantially generate stability of the second sort? There has to be something voluntary about adherence to the institutions in question and this is best achieved by the propagation of natural duty as the key principle for individuals. One of the advantages of such a principle, by comparison with the principle of utility, is that it is simple and clear. However natural duty is not exhausted by the general commitment to just institutions as there are other natural duties in addition. For example, there is the duty to show a person the respect which is due to them as moral beings. In developing this natural duty we need to understand the aims and interests of others in relation to the standpoint of these others and, separately but related, we need to develop a general willingness of persons to do each other small favours and courtesies. The development of mutual respect has mutually beneficial consequences though Rawls neglects here an obvious chance to develop a more extensive account of respect such as appears in Kant due to this discussion (a discussion that really belongs to his theory of "rightness as fairness") being only of a very general character.

Other natural duties include the duty of beneficence that Kant, again, develops a more extended account of and which Rawls does here refer to. What is built in to Rawls' discussion of beneficence, however, is the general public quality of it as a natural duty that is required of us in terms of the assurance it gives us of the character of our fellow citizens. This reference to publicity is part of the general case Rawls makes that whilst the natural duties are not taken by him to be individual cases of a general principle that they are nonetheless all adopted for similar reasons.

Having made these remarks about natural duty, however, Rawls returns to what, following the remarks of section 8 of Chapter I, we can term the "priority problem" with regard to the relationship between distinct principles of natural duty. Rawls shows no evident path through this problem referring only to "certain procedures of aggregation" that are meant to enable us to take a larger view but only illustrating this (and not in this section) by reference to the problems of civil disobedience and conscientious refusal to which I will return in a later posting.

The remaining parts of section 51 are concerned with the relationship between a duty other things being equal (taken by  Rawls to be equivalent to W.D. Ross' notion of prima facie duties) and a duty all things considered. A principle does not express a universal statement which always suffices to establish how we should act on Rawls' account but, rather, singles out relevant features of moral situations such that these features lend support to a certain ethical judgment. By contrast, when prima facie duties are invoked, we are, according to Rawls, deliberately restricting our range to only a certain part of a larger scheme of reasons. These general remarks are, to say the least, hardly helpful in resolving the questions raised by Ross and whilst Rawls concludes section 51 with an agreement with Ross that the Kantian distinction between perfect and imperfect duties is inadequate, this agreement on Rawls' part is not based on any kind of careful assessment of the Kantian distinction and nor is it obviously related to the overall question of the connection between prima facie duties and duties all things considered. This concluding part of section 51 is a disappointing discussion, particularly after the general account of natural duties.

Section 52 turns to an examination of the principle of fairness and Rawls opens the section with the bold claim that "all obligations arise" from this principle. Fairness is what mandates that cooperative ventures should involve similar acquiescences with regard to restrictions on conduct. Hence obligations arise only given that the right background conditions are secured. By contrast, unjust arrangements are a form of extortion so that consent to them is not of a form that can be said to really be binding on conduct.

However, it might be argued that assuming that the natural duties hold then it follows that there is no requirement for an additional principle of fairness. Whilst this has some merit with regard to the basic structure, however, it has none in regard to voluntary conduct of citizens in relation to each other. Rawls also distinguishes between obligations and duties on the grounds that they arise in different ways. So the better-placed members of societies are more likely to emerge as its rulers and this binds them more tightly than others to the scheme of justice. This form of being bound is what we can view as the imposition of "obligations" upon these citizens whilst "duties" refer to the more general and varied considerations that were adduced in section 51. Viewed this way it is in relation to the general principle of fairness that obligations are best understood as generated and regulated whilst duties are preferably understood as governed by the reference to natural duty.

Rawls fills out this distinction by describing promising as a form of conduct that is governed by the principle of fairness. Promising expresses a general intent to perform an action as an obligation voluntarily undertaken on the basis that when others give one promises there is a similar expectation that they will be fulfilled. This assumes certain general conditions of "normal" promising are met. When the practice of promising is just it assumes voluntary and stable conditions apply and these conditions are what make the practice a just one. But the rule of promising is not itself expressive of a commitment to fidelity since it simply, on Rawls' view, states a convention whereas the moral principle in question is that of fidelity, a principle that is based upon the principle of fairness.

Promising is, however, something that is done with a public intention of incurring an obligation and this is integral to it being governed by the principle of fidelity. We both want the practice that expresses such an obligation to exist and we expect others to be aware of our willingness to be governed by the obligation in question. So the practice requires mutual confidence to make sense. Such confidence and trust allow for mutually advantageous schemes of cooperation to develop. This is why the principle of fairness can be seen to be one that would be agreed to in the original position.

However it is interesting to bring out that it is an important consequence of Rawls' view of fairness that institutions do not, in themselves, mandate moral requirements. We have seen this in the case of promising as the rules of it are not equivalent for Rawls to the principle of fidelity. It is only by assumption of the principle of fairness that the latter arises, it cannot be assumed simply on the basis of the rules of promises alone but is rather what regulates these rules and gives them moral sense. So moral reasons are those which enable a judgment to be made that refers us to generic principles as governing our practices.

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