Monday, 9 April 2012

Rawls and Practical Reason

In my last posting on Rawls I looked at the account of the "thin" theory of the good with which Chapter VII of A Theory of Justice opens. In this posting, by contrast, I'm going to set out to provide a summary of the work in sections 63-5 of Theory where, effectively, Rawls provides a general description of practical reason. By saying this is a general description of practical reason I don't mean to suggest that it is any more, though, than a structure of deliberation that fits something like the overall task of indicating how end-oriented rationality is to be seen. Thus it is far from equivalent to a Kantian picture of pure practical reason, providing something more like a prolegomena of ground that would have been covered if Kant had described in sufficient detail how hypothetical imperatives work.

Rawls opens section 63 by stating that he has, up to this point in the chapter, only discussed the first stages of the definition of good in which no questions were asked as yet about the rationality of the ends taken as given. However we do often inquire into the rationality of ends (equated here with 'desires') and this is necessary if the account of the good is to be fit for the theory of justice. In making these claims Rawls draws explicitly on the American Idealist thinker Josiah Royce and his view of a person. Royce is said by Rawls to treat persons as human lives ordered according to a plan. When the plan is a "good" one then the person's conception of his good is rational. 

Two conditions for this conception of a rational plan of life are next added, to the effect that such a plan has to be consistent with the principles of rational choice applied to the relevant features of the person's situation and their plan has to be chosen with "full deliberative rationality", a notion left vague in section 63 but the subject-matter of section 64. Finally, a person's interests and aims are rational "if and only if" they are to encouraged and provided for by the plan rational to that person. Before discussing the principles of rational choice Rawls first expands upon the conception of a rational plan. Plans vary for individuals in relation to endowments and circumstances, involve provision over time and include a notion of postponement as one of the elements of rational choice. In a general sense a plan is something like a "hierarchy" of sub-plans involving often implicit commitments in terms of prioritisation. A plan incorporates some sense of the primary goods and a sense of scheduling. 

After setting out this generic picture of a "plan" Rawls turns next to principles of rational choice (though, with the notion of postponement, he has already stated one). The first principle is that of "effective means" which holds that we are to adopt the alternative, assuming there are alternatives available for realising a given end, which realises it in the "best" way. Otherwise put, with the "least expenditure of means". The second principle is that one plan is to be preferred to another if its execution would achieve all of the desired aims of the other plan and one or more aims in addition. This is a principle Rawls terms that of "inclusiveness". The third principle is that of the "greater likelihood" which favours a plan that makes it probable that ends will be realised whilst other aims are not less likely to be attained. These first three principles apply most obviously to short-term plans.

Rawls now moves on to long-term plans including the longest term plan of all, what one should do with one's life. The principle of inclusiveness has application also with regard to this as do the others already listed. The discussion of the principle of inclusiveness with regard to long-term plans is, however, more complex than that of the others since future desires and orientations are not evident to us now. This is why Rawls mentions here for the first time the notion of the Aristotelian Principle to which he devotes the whole of section 65 but which here is simply specified as saying that we have a higher-order desire to follow the principle of inclusiveness. A more comprehensive plan involves more complex combination of abilities and the Aristotelian Principle is that "other things being equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realised capacities", an enjoyment that increases the more the capacity is realised. This shows why we enjoy an activity the more proficient we become at it.

The three principles first given are what Rawls terms "counting principles" and alone they are insufficient, he adds, to order plans. This is one reason why there is appeal often made to principles of maximisation as a way of definitely solving such a problem of ordering. In contrast to such an appeal Rawls next follows Henry Sidgwick in developing an idea of deliberative rationality. On this view: "An individual's good is the hypothetical composition of impulsive forces that results from deliberative reflection meeting certain conditions". So a rational plan is one that would be picked out following principles of rational deliberation when the agent reviewed what it would be like to realise these plans. 

The situation in which this conception is laid out is, however, highly idealised since it assumes that the best plan for an individual would be one adopted in the light of full information, something which is never given. So the agent has to make do with the information that is given and is fallible. The process of such deliberation is governed also by the formal rule that specifies its range of operation when Rawls adds that reflection should continue up to the point that benefits from improving the plan come to be out-weighed by the costs of further deliberation. Further Rawls builds in a "realistic" assumption to the effect that different individuals will value the process of deliberation in different degrees.

One of the points involved in such deliberation is consideration of the genesis of wants since this often teaches us which desires are most strongly felt. The principle of postponement also counsels us to leave our options open in cases where this is possible. A further principle that affects deliberation is that of continuity in the sense that the plan is one we take to have a unity over time. Similarly we are to assume the advantages of rising expectations with regard to the plan as time advances. This latter point assumes that a characteristic of a rational plan is that it is not discarded subsequently. This leads Rawls to the view that: "the guiding principle [is] that a rational individual is always to act so that he need never blame himself no matter how his plans finally work out". This is described later as a principle of responsibility to self.The principle of responsibility to self is subsequently described by Rawls as resembling a principle of right. It applies in the original position so that the parties involved in it would not accept a conception of justice that would surely later lead to self-reproach. 

Section 65 concerns the "Aristotelian Principle" but Rawls opens this section with a discussion of what he terms some "general facts". These include the broad features of desires and needs as affected by physiological and other circumstances, such as maturation, growth and social interdependency. Goods include such things as friendship and meaningful work and they involve social interdependency as achieving them often requires contributions from others.

The Aristotelian Principle is added to these points as indicative of a sense of enjoyment that is involved in exercising our faculties and that, of two activities we do equally well, the one that draws on a larger repertoire of activities is preferred. The Aristotelian Principle thus includes a form of the principle of inclusiveness but it is also an important principle of motivation. It also includes recognition of the shift that occurs over time as increasing complexity is favoured in objects of attention. Learning, for example, which is often difficult, is nonetheless accompanied by satisfaction as tasks are met. There is an upper limit of difficulty and an equilibrium state is one where the effort and the satisfaction balance one another.

Rawls describes the Aristotelian Principle as a "natural fact" and concludes from this that it is rational to realise and train mature capacities. It states, however, only a tendency and not an invariable principle of choice but place has to be left in the design of social institutions for its operation. It is indeterminate in terms of the specific activities any one may prefer but shows that people, as they concentrate on an activity tend to become more proficient with regard to it and take pleasure in this increasing proficiency. But it is not the case that all activities are related to in similar ways which is why routine is favoured for simpler activities.

Rawls also terms the Aristotelian Principle a "deep psychological fact" that is part of the background that regulates considered judgments of value. It is also a principle that Rawls assumes connects to the primary good of self-respect.

No comments: