Monday, 23 April 2012

Rawls and the Good for Persons

In my last posting on Rawls I addressed the first half of Chapter VII of A Theory of Justice which focused on the kind of view of practical reason that emerged from it. In this posting, by contrast, I want to look at the second half of Chapter VII where, essentially, Rawls addresses topics concerned with the good for persons, a topic that emerges out of the previous discussion of practical reason.

In section 66, Rawls directly discusses the definition of the good for persons, prior to going on to focus on some excellencies and deficiencies of valuation later and concludes the chapter with some summary differences about the role of the notion of the "good" compared to that of the right. So the unity of the second half of the chapter is clearly focused on filling in the "thin" theory of the good and arriving at a "full" theory of it. At the beginning of section 66 Rawls summarises what has been achieved by the previous half of the chapter as indicating that a person's good involves the successful execution of a rational plan of life. Having arrived at this notion it is now possible to introduce, as Rawls puts it, "further definitions".

The primary goods that have been referred to throughout Theory are now described as goods that it would be rational to want whatever else is wanted and to be presupposed within the original position. They are explained essentially by the "thin" theory of the good and include liberty, opportunity, income, wealth, and self-respect, the latter of which has a special place here. The general theory of goodness as rationality is taken to account for these primary goods as arising from the account of practical reason previously given. However, Rawls now points out that the conception of reason that has guided his account is one that is regarded with some suspicion by some philosophers, particularly on the grounds that it provides only an instrumental conception of value and thus does not suffice to account for the notion of "moral worth", the very notion that Kant is particularly concerned with in Groundwork I.

Rawls' view is that if we apply the thin theory directly to the account of moral worth then we will indeed arrive at only an instrumental conception of goodness but that the thin theory is only meant to provide "part" of the description of the original position. We have, that is, to develop our account of the good in order to arrive at an account of moral worth, moving from the "thin" theory to the "full" theory. The first way of making this move that Rawls identifies is concentration on basic roles and positions, taking the example of the notion of the "citizen". If we identity key elements of what is involved in the notion of the citizen this would be one route to a view of the good person since the good person would be someone who particularly exemplified the role in question. This could be seen by thinking of the reasons other citizens would have to see the good person in this way. Having begun on this track the second logical move is to see the "good person" as representing a general or average assessment so that the idea of a good person can be extended beyond the specific starting point. Finally, there can be seen to be properties that a person occupying particular social roles would be desired to possess generally and then to assess these broad properties as ones that it would be rational to endorseas dispositively to be encouraged.

These three different accounts of how we could arrive at a conception of the good person are considered by Rawls and the third, which Rawls indicates he derived to an extent from Thomas Scanlon, is specifically taken to be valuable. But Rawls confesses that there would be difficulties in filling in this idea of a "good person", so considered. Firstly the point of view from which the properties in question are selected has to be identified. It surely includes, Rawls thinks, a sense of the virtues as classically considered. Representative people in a society will want a fair demonstration of virtuous action as underpinning the right institutions in the right way. However there are also, as Kant would say, "talents" that it is a good idea to encourage the development of although such talents still need to be regulated by a sense of justice in those who possess them. 'Talents' broadly considered are natural assets and have to be distinguished from virtues properly so called.

The "good person" then has moral worth due to possessing, in a higher degree than is normal, features of moral character that it would be rational for all to want to be manifested in action. This provides us with a generic sense of moral worth to be placed alongside the theory of justice and the thin theory of the good. However getting this sense of moral worth is not equivalent to a full theory of the good. Rather such a full theory requires as well a clearer sense of what the good generically consists in and its sub-parts. So Rawls defines "good action" in the general sense as an act "performed for the sake of the other person's good". This account of goodness thus presupposes the general sense of the good as being benevolence perhaps because such guided action is thought of as the most natural way that we leave behind the specific sphere of pursuing our own rational ends and relating to others. Such a conception also has the attraction of making clearer than many others in what supererogation consists, namely, an act "which a person does for the sake of another's good even though the proviso that nullifies the natural duty is satisfied". In other words, a kind of good act that is undertaken at potential cost to our own interests.

A complete sense of "rightness as fairness", the notion that is implicitly supposed here, would require, as Rawls confesses, some view of "reasonable self-interest" as defined from the original position and work outwards from there but this is not here provided. What does arise from the brief generic view of the good that has been given is a set of distinctions that provide a rudimentary theory of vice. So Rawls distinguishes between unjust, bad and evil persons taking the first two to relate themselves to aims that are in themselves legitimate but to use them in an excessive way. Hence the "unjust" person, on this conception, seeks dominion for the sake of wealth and security when wealth and security are, in themselves,  legitimate ends. Similarly, the "bad" person is one who wishes for arbitrary power as they have an excessive desire for ends that again are fine in themselves such as the esteem of others and a sense of self-command. So the "unjust" and "bad" persons on this picture are seen in an essentially Aristotelian way as over-stepping the mean in relation to ends. By contrast, the "evil" person delights in the humiliation of others for its own sake, an end that could never be legitimate thus leaving behind real intercourse with others.

Having given this generic account of virtue and vice in section 66 Rawls turns, in section 67, to an analysis of some specific elements of the full theory of the good. The first concentration here is on the primary good of self-respect, a good already referred to as having a specific status that is higher than other primary goods. The conception of goodness as rationality is intended to show why self-respect has such a high status. Two reasons are essentially picked out for this status existing. On the one hand, self-respect underpins any sense of a rational plan of life as worth pursuing. On the other hand, it implies confidence in the ability to carry out such a plan. Hence if rational plans of life are to be nourished at all the primary good of self-respect has to be encouraged and taken, within the original position, as a central value that the basic structure should underpin.

The first of the two parts of self-respect, the sense of plans worth pursuing, is developed by means of ensuring that such plans relate to the Aristotelian Principle and that our person and deeds are confirmed by others and that association with others is grounded in shared esteem. One of the ways the relation of such shared esteem is emphasised in practice is through the development of talents that require intricate appreciation. Anyone who can display talents that do this is more likely thereby to appreciate the achievements of others. As Rawls puts this point: 

the conditions for persons respecting themselves and one another would seem to require that their common plans be both rational and complementary: they call upon their educated endowments and arouse in each a sense of mastery, and they fit together into one scheme of activity that all can appreciate and enjoy.

The general problem that could be raised with this would be that such development cannot be one realised across the society. However Rawls understands the condition given here to be met if there are associations within which such appreciations can be developed and which therefore will be supportive of separate types of talents.

There is no general principle of perfection that is taken to be endorsed within the basic structure. Rather such a principle has earlier been rejected as unfitting for such a role and hence the diversity of talents is, by contrast, essential to the way that the plurality of goods is assumed within the society. Having laid out the general sense of self-respect and how it is to be understood Rawls next turns to the relationship between it and both "excellencies" and shame.

Shame is introduced at this point as it is understood by Rawls as the feeling of injury to self-respect. It implies, on this view, a particularly intimate connection to our person and to those who are especially close to us. However this definition of shame is not where Rawls leaves its discussion as he turns to giving an account of the reasons why shame is so understood. In order to do so Rawls develops his account of "excellencies" as shame will subsequently be related to this. Rawls thus distinguishes between goods that are primarily good for the one possessing them on the one hand and goods that are good for others as well as the one possessing them on the other. Exclusive goods that are owned only by certain persons are mainly understood to be belong in the former class whilst "natural assets and abilities" including such things as beauty and intelligence are in the latter class. People join together in appreciation of the latter class of goods and they are what Rawls terms the "excellencies". For the one possessing them they enable a sense of mastery in relation to activities to develop but they are also appreciated and valued by others and are thus, as Rawls puts it, "a condition of human flourishing".

Having outlined this account of the "excellencies" Rawls now returns to his account of shame and describes "natural" shame as arising from failure to exercise or display the excellencies. On these grounds one type of shame is manifested with regard to appearing to others to be lacking in grace or slow in understanding. Even should these qualities not be voluntary they affect self-respect and this is the basis for them producing shame. Rawls thus describes what he calls "natural" shame as based on perceived "blemishes" in the person experiencing it. Such shame relates either to generally valued qualities which we seem deficient in or, more especially, to failures with regard to our adopted rational plans.

However, interesting as Rawls' view of "natural" shame is, it is but a prolegomenon to his description of "moral" shame. This arises from combining the previous account of the "good person" with the account of "natural" shame. Someone is liable to "moral" shame inasmuch as the excellencies they particularly value are moral ones. So actions that betray the absence of the moral attributes so valued produce moral shame and a sense of a diminished self. There are a couple of grounds for this. The first is that the Kantian interpretation of the original position leads us to the view that the desire to do what is right and just is the main way for persons to express their nature and, similarly, from the Aristotelian Principle, it follows that this expression of their nature is a fundamental part of their sense of the good. 

Rawls subsequently spends some time distinguishing between shame and guilt but the essential difference for him is that guilt is appropriately felt when someone acts contrary to their sense of right whilst shame indicates a failure of self-command. It is the inability to carry out aims that seem to us worthwhile that is productive of moral shame. 

In the final section of Chapter VII Rawls turns to a series of contrasts between the right and the good, contrasts that illuminate the distinct places of these notions within his conception. The first difference is that the principles of the right are what would be chosen in the original position whilst the principles of deliberative rationality that are central to pursuit of the good would not be chosen. There is no necessity for an agreement on the principles of rational choice as each person is free to plan their life as they please assuming that their plans are consistent with the principles of justice. The general desire for the primary goods is assumed and that of self-respect taken to be essential to all but there is no need to assume agreement  on all the standards of choice with regard to the good. Secondly, pluralism with regard to the good is taken to be a good thing whilst this is not a good thing with regard to the right. There is no need for a publicly accepted judgment of the good of individuals in the way that there is such a need with regard to the right. Thirdly, applications of the principles of justice are restricted by the veil of ignorance whilst evaluations of the good require full reference to facts. The latter is so as the good relates to talents and talents are developed by individuals in distinct ways that cannot be specified in advance.

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