Friday, 25 May 2012

Rawls on Autonomy and Social Union

The final chapter of A Theory of Justice is concerned with the congruence of the right and the good in a well-ordered society. Another way of expressing the same point is to say that Rawls here attempts to show the relationship between the notion of goodness as rationality and justice as fairness. The overall point is thus to arrive at the view that an effective sense of justice as recognised within the governing of institutions is part of the good that would be rationally endorsed by each one of us.

The first two sections of Chapter IX are concerned with autonomy on the one hand and the idea of social union on the other. In starting with an account of autonomy Rawls wishes to begin by responding to suspicion of the psychological roots of the sense of justice. The basic suspicion he considers is motivated by a kind of psychological reductionism which views the origin of the sense of justice in the morality of authority by which young children are directed as casting suspicion upon the subsequent development of a morality of principles. In response Rawls points out that in the well-ordered society the basic rudiments of education have been governed by application of the principles of justice to the situation of the child. So none of the ideals upheld in the educational process are based on exploiting particular weaknesses or on devaluing the specific potentials of the child in question. 

The Kantian interpretation of justice as fairness requires that action on the principles of justice be understood as autonomous action which means that the principles in question express conditions that are defined by the nature of free and rational beings. So the basic guideline for educational practices has to be training for autonomy. Rawls wishes as well to show that autonomy is compatible with objectivity and does this by recourse to the device of the original position. Autonomous principles are chosen there as such principles involve recognition of the contracting parties as free and equal rational beings. The "objectivity" of the principles is stated in the generality of their application which include a sense of them that means they are stated without partiality. So the principles that are chosen in the original position are objective in not including deference to any given persons or treating any particular principle as based only on alleged special considerations.

Part of the point of such an objective mode of appraisal of principles is precisely to remove the barriers to agreement that are attached to specific positions in ordinary non-ideal intercourse. Acceptance of the principles of right and justice enables relations to others to be defined in terms that are civic rather than merely personal. So the idea of the original position is meant to give sense to both the ideas of autonomy and objectivity. This is a specific kind of view of these values and one that has to defended against other views. So autonomy is not to be understood, as it is often is, simply as respect for the particular conscience of any given individual. Rawls' earlier treatment of civil disobedience already demonstrated this feature of his view, a feature that prevents simple dependence on "subjective" views of principles. A conscience can be well or poorly guided and it is poorly guided if it fails to manifest respect for the principles of justice which is why justified civil disobedience was justified precisely by its reference to such principles and not simply by appeal to conscience alone. It is not conscience that is thus respected in the valuation of autonomy, it is rather the personality of the person, their attribute, that is, of being a person that is respected. 

So the earlier account of civil disobedience spelled out in Chapter VI of Theory is to be evaluated as specifying in terms of partial compliance theory the ideal conception of autonomy that Rawls is laying out at the beginning of Chapter IX. This is important as it indicates that autonomy is not to be viewed, in terms of justice as fairness, as a mere reference to either conscience or, with this, to reliance upon the virtue of integrity. Appeal to integrity has, as Rawls puts it here, great appeal in times of moral uncertainty where it appears to define a bed-rock value. Whilst Rawls indicates that such virtues are part of the excellence of free persons they are far from socially sufficient precisely due to the way they define virtues without reference to a contentful sense of life. It is only by reference to a kind of conception of what life one should live that the virtues of integrity define anything but it is then the case that this conception gives the value rather than the integrity of commitment taken alone.

Rawls arrives next at the point that the two principles of justice define what he terms "an Archimedean point" for appraising institutions as well as the desires and aspirations that institutions generate. Because we can refer to these principles we do not need to define an ideal of society by reference to principles of organic unity or by some sense of a pre-lapsarian past. However the objections to the general theory that Rawls presents have tended to insist on a sense of communitarian value that it is argued the allegedly "individualistic" bias of his theory does not allow recognition of. In response, in section 79, Rawls turns to elaborating a conception of social union that is meant to show that the congruence of the right and the good can define a well-ordered society in such a way that this society would recognise the achievement of the good of community.

In setting out a conception of social union that is meant to capture this sense of the good of community Rawls begins by reminding us of the conditions of the original position. A central aspect of the original position was that the parties know that they are subject to the circumstances of justice. Amongst such circumstances are the plurality of conceptions of the good amongst participants in the original position. This ensures that there is a potential conflict amongst participants as well as a unity of interest. Having reminded us of this plurality of conceptions as part of the circumstances of justice Rawls goes on to discuss how the relation between this fact and the conflicting one of the unity of interest of members of the agreement can be recognised in distinct ways by different positions. In making this point Rawls thus intends to draw an important contrast between the conception of justice as fairness and a key competing position.

The central idea that governs the way the original position is viewed by justice as fairness is that we begin from "the weakest possible" assumptions. The conditions are defined in ways that are "simple and reasonable" but the collision between interests is assumed to be great initially with the result that the way to resolve the conflict requires a comprehensive theory. Having specified the conditions of the original position in this way Rawls now contrasts the conception of it that is embodied in justice as fairness with a key rival view. The rival view is one that takes the basic structure of society as defined by the conditions that are fed only in to the original position by justice as fairness. On this conception we arrive at a notion that Rawls terms that of a "private society". Key to such a notion of society is that the entities that comprise it (whether individual persons or social groups) are assumed to have ends that are either competing or independent but not, in any event, complementary. A second element of the notion of "private society" is that institutions are taken to have no special value in themselves so that engaging with institutions is really a burden only undertaken for the realisation of private ends. The good of others is never taken as a prime datum for any actor.

On the conception of "private society" it follows that division of advantages is simply a function of power and strategic positioning. It is not impossible that a fair outcome might arise within such a set-up though it would be fortunate if it does so. Public goods will be valued largely instrumentally and relations judged in terms of the prices put upon them as in a market mechanism. The stability of such a society will rest primarily on effective use of sanctions. Once the idea of such a society is specified it becomes apparent that the alleged "individualism" of justice as fairness is not of the sort that endorses private social arrangements. And this is shown in the commitment of justice as fairness to the conception of goodness as rationality. 

On the view of goodness as rationality it follows that there are shared final ends that are possessed by persons and that common institutions express these ends. One of the reasons why this view flows from the idea of goodness as rationality is that individual potentialities are always greater than can be expressed so that each of us has, of necessity, to limit themselves in terms of what talents we choose to exercise. It is only through social union that we can participate in the total sum of the realised natural assets of others. This occurs both over time and within each generation. There are many forms of social union from families and friendships up to organisations that prosecute particular aims of scientific and artistic relations. However Rawls uses the example of a game to draw out the basic characteristics of social unions. With a game there are four sorts of ends: there is the end of the aim of the game as defined by its rules; the end of the motives of the particular participants including desire for exercise, etc. motives which can vary in weight and intensity for each participant; the social purposes of the game which may be little attended to by participants but evident to a third-party observer; and the shared end of all involved that this should be a "good" game. The last point is one that can only be reached by general compliance with the rules (the aim of the game) and by the players all playing their best. So the game is, in the broad sense, a collective achievement.

The notion of the shared end with which Rawls concludes his analysis of a game does not imply that in social unions all wish for the same thing (any more than they do in a game since most games are competitive!). It is rather meant to define an agreed scheme of conduct so that each can relate to the others  by means of it. Games are a simple illustration of a general point about social unions and a well-ordered society is not merely one social union amongst others but is rather the type of the social union of social unions. This is because it includes two characteristic features that are central to it. On the one hand it is a shared final end of all members of society and on the other its institutional forms are taken to have intrinsic value. So it defines the two central forms of goodness: it is both finally good and intrinsically good.

The well-ordered society is finally good in defining a shared end of mutual cooperation which arises from every member of the society having an effective sense of justice. This sense of justice defines a regulative condition for all and thus defines finality in a moral sense. The intrinsic good of the institutions involved is a more complicated matter. Firstly, the Kantian interpretation of justice as fairness requires us to say that upholding just institutions is a good for each member of the society. But, further, the Aristotelian Principle holds also for institutional forms and shows that a just constitutional order provides a framework for all smaller and more closely defined social unions. Each person understands the first principles that govern the whole scheme and the plan of each is given a wider vista than it would otherwise possess. The regulative public intention is that the constitutional order should realise the principles of justice. The collective activity thus engaged in defines a form of Aristotelian Principle.

The next point is that the moral virtues, excellences of persons, would be displayed in the public life of a well-ordered society. This shows, as Rawls puts it, that "the collective activity of justice is the preeminent form of human flourishing". So the public realisation of justice would define the value of community, the point that, at the beginning of section 79, Rawls wished to show. This does not mean, as Rawls concludes the section by demonstrating, that the ideal social union would abolish the division of labour. One of the reasons why it would not is that the ideal social order would express our dependence on others not try to overcome this. Similarly it is not going to be possible that any individual become an exemplar of all virtues or talents. It is rather the collective activity of society that is to become the overall good of each of its members. So the just social union of social unions would define not an abolition of separation of labour but rather a way in which the activities of each can come to manifest themselves in ways that enrich all.

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