Thursday, 22 March 2012

Rawls' "Thin" Theory of the Good

My last posting on Rawls closed the second part of A Theory of Justice. In this posting I begin to look at the third and final part of Theory, dedicated to the discussion of what Rawls terms "ends". The first chapter of this part is the seventh chapter of the whole book and is concerned with the topic of "goodness as rationality". In this posting I will, after a brief preliminary account of the rationale Rawls gives of the final part of the book, focus on the first three parts of Chapter VII, where he sets out the need for a theory of the good and the need, within this theory, to distinguish between two senses of "the good".

Rawls opens Chapter VII with a general description of what is occurring in the final part of Theory. Here he indicates that he will be looking at the theory of the good and arguing for a more comprehensive view of it than has been presented thus far in the book. This includes a discussion of moral psychology and it is generally this topic that will be at the forefront, so he tells us, of Chapter VII. On the basis of the general account of the good in Chapter VII Rawls subsequently aims to provide a fuller account of the reasons for taking justice as fairness to be a "stable" conception, an argument that culminates in the discussion in Chapter IX of the "congruence" between justice and goodness. Included in the final part is also a description of the social values and of how justice relates to the good of community. However, Rawls warns that the structure of the final part is likely to appear less evident than was the case in the previous two parts and transitions to appear more abrupt. Nonetheless, as with the previous parts of the book, I will endeavour, in commentating, to indicate the joints between the sections and to bring out the basis of a coherent reading of the whole.

The first section of Chapter VII turns immediately to the topic of the concept of goodness. It was previously used in the general account of primary goods and Rawls here makes clear that this notion of "primary goods" was specifically formulated in ways that enabled the sense of such goods to conform to the public recognition of principles of right. Now Rawls turns to an explicit distinction within the theory of the good that was neglected until this point. This is between what he terms the "thin" theory of the good and the "full" theory of it. Given that justice as fairness affirms the priority of the right over the good it was necessary for its construction that primary goods related closely to the principles of right. However these principles of right had themselves to be motivated within the original position. So there was required an implicit conception of the good in the original position that made plausible the principles of right selected even though the primary goods allowed within it were also essentially modelled to fit the principles of right. For this procedure not to be simply circular a theory of the good that was allowed within the original position has to be specified and this is what Rawls now terms "the thin theory".

Having specified the need for an account of the good within the original position that assists reflection within it without endangering the priority of the right that is integral to justice as fairness Rawls next reminds us of the role played by the theory of the good within the original position. One of the roles the thin theory plays within the original position is identification of the "least favoured" members of society. Some sense of who they are and what merits applying this designation to them is essential to the arrival at the principles of justice (particularly the second principle). This is not to determine the degree of disadvantage this group suffers, since whatever degree of suffering it faces, it still has to be addressed by the theory of justice. Rather, it is to determine what characteristics are possessed by those who are understood to fit the role of being "least advantaged".

This is done by the notion of "primary goods" since the least advantaged are such in terms of their more limited possession of them. Included amongst such "primary goods" are wide ranges of liberty and opportunity and greater rather than lesser wealth and income. This indicates that the least advantaged are those with narrower opportunities, lesser wealth and income and correspondingly to these material inequalities a formal weakening of liberty for members of this group. Alongside these points Rawls also lists self-respect as a "primary" good, suggesting again that the "least advantaged" are least likely to possess this characteristic. 

If one part of the "thin theory" of the good is to determine a way of characterising the "least advantaged", another reason for calling upon it is to determine the basis upon which justice as fairness can respond to suggestions that the original position is too thin a basis for rational decision. If the original position is one that enables some clarity for decision it must do this through recognition of goods that are not basically the subject of general disagreement. The thin theory of the good gives the parties entering into the discussion a basis for assuming that their conceptions of the good do have a structure and this leads to the sense that the decision made within the original position is itself a rational one.

If the thin theory of the good thus provides the basis of both a view of the good that has sufficient neutrality to serve within the original position whilst preventing the original position from being cast as too thin for rational decision making it is still the case that this thin theory requires supplementation eventually by a more comprehensive theory of the good. One of the reasons mentioned by Rawls for claiming this is that without a fuller theory of the good there would be little point in general ethical discussion, including, for example, an account of supererogatory acts. However, the primary reason for a fuller theory of the good is not to incorporate the possibility of wider ethical discussion. It is rather to allow for a fuller sense to emerge than has been possible up to this point in Theory of "the moral worth of persons". A result of the account Rawls aims to provide of this good is the eventual congruence of justice and goodness.

The distinction made between the thin theory and the full theory of the good requires that, from now on, it be made clear which sense of the good is being appealed to when something is determined as good. So "final ends" are generally part of the comprehensive or full theory and in so being are distinct from primary goods. Similarly a real sense of social values draws not on the thin theory but on the full theory. But the notion of social values requires that there be a "sense of justice" developed that maintains them and whether this sense is itself good can only be determined by reference to the thin theory.

Having begun with a description of the need for a theory of the good and the division within this theory Rawls turns next to the discussion of rationality with regard to planning decisions. This is determined through things being related to by the decision-makers as "good" for them. As Rawls puts this: "once we establish that an object has the properties that it is rational for someone with a rational plan of life to want, then we have shown that it is good for him". Put this way, the theory of rationality appears to specify something like properties of instrumental rationality in relation to the selection of ends. However, Rawls points out that some things satisfy these conditions for everyone or that this is at least potentially true. Anything that could meet this standard would thus be determined as a "human good". Liberty and opportunity, which provide the basis of the two principles of right, are goods that are meant to emerge from the original position as fitting this role.

After making these remarks Rawls looks at certain kinds of categories which are generally related to as possessed of something that is "good" and which includes artifacts, functional parts of systems, occupations and roles. Things that are good in relation to these categories have general set characteristics that can be enumerated. These characteristics can also vary depending on the use to which the things in question are intended for. There is always, as Rawls puts it, "a point of view" in the background when something belonging to these categories is assessed as good. The definition of goodness in general is not one that is determinately sufficient to show the way that something will be accepted as "good". With some things the fact that it is a good of the sort that it is can be far from a commendation of it (a point that repeats Kant's discussion of the problems with relative forms of good in Groundwork I). So in a general sense when applied to these categories the term "good" lacks any moral substance. Rationality alone, taken in a generically instrumental way, is far from being able to give the notion of "good" a serious moral sense. For some other roles, by contrast, to be able to determine what it is to be good in relation to them, requires a comprehensive sense of the good (think here about what it means, for example, to be a "good" friend).

Rawls subsequently expands on these semantic dissertations on "goodness" by looking at the meaning of judgments of value. Such judgments are taken by all who dispute about them to include at least the characteristics of giving advice and counsel on the one hand and in varying with regard to different things. However, once this point has been recognised there remain disputes about these judgments between those who wish to give them an entirely descriptive sense and those who, by contrast, think they can only be determined prescriptively.

Rawls indicates that the elements of a descriptive view have to include the sense that the term "good" has something constant about it despite the variety of cases it is applied to. The other point is that this constant core meaning is part of what is appealed to when counsel and advice is given. The rational sense of "good" provided in the instrumental conception given already recognises a core component to "goodness" as is required for the first sense of "descriptive". The second sense is met by indicating that the counsels give appeal to the purposes in question. So the sense of goodness given thus purely descriptively fits the generic notion of instrumentality that we saw was insufficient to provide the basis for a substantive view of the good. In the next posting I'll look at how Rawls expands upon this initial sense of the "good" in order to build up a fuller sense of rationality.

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