Thursday, 28 June 2012

Constructivism and Common Sense

I've been reading and thinking about constructivism today mainly as a response of some sort to it will have to feature in work I am currently pursuing. Whilst doing so, however, a question arose for me in relation to how constructivism is understood by Onora O'Neill in her criticism of Rawls. This question concerned the priority she gives, in her criticism of Rawls, to the notion of "reflective equilibrium".

The essay of O'Neill's I'm referring to is one that appears in Samuel Freeman's edited collection on Rawls. In this piece O'Neill concentrates on the way in which the constructive procedure in Rawls works looking at the range of what can be constructed according to Rawls, the justification he offers of the constructive procedure and, most importantly for her critique, the address of Rawls' construction. The view offered by her of these topics ranges across Rawls' work, moving from Theory to Political Liberalism

In O'Neill's picture of Theory the key notion is "reflective equilibrium" which is taken to provide a coherentist test of "our considered judgments" and to rely on a conception of the reasonable that is explicitly discussed in Rawls' later notion of "Kantian constructivism". O'Neill subsequently refers to this notion of "reflective equilibrium" when she draws out that "Kantian constructivism" appeals to an idealised Kantian view of the person and rests its appeal to this notion on reference to "our moral experience". Part of what enables this appeal for O'Neill is Rawls' reliance upon a coherentist justification of practical reason in his view of "Kantian constructivism". Her view of Rawls' later "political" turn is that what happens is that the conception of practical reason as rested on a generic coherence is replaced by a closed appeal to "public reason" where the resources of public reason are simply derived from the common conceptions of a democratic culture much as the earlier appeal was to "our moral experience".

In contrast to Rawls' later political turn O'Neill sets out a view of Kantian reason as something that cannot be anchored in a given public culture but accessible in principle to anyone including "outsiders" to the culture of the West that produced Kant's own philosophy. So O'Neill's first move is to depict the appeal to "public reason" Rawls makes as a fatal concession to relativism. The point in doing so is to widen the view of what is to count as public reason suggesting that reasoning is not "completely" public when it rests on appeals to particular properties and beliefs which can appear merely arbitrary to anyone outside the original community that rests on them. In contrast to this view O'Neill states that we need justifications of claims that can be satisfied only in terms of what can be followed in principle by anyone. This is part of what motivates O'Neill's general view that the categorical imperative is not merely the supreme principle of morality but also the supreme principle of reason.

An implication of O'Neill's argument is that reason is "cosmopolitan" for Kant and does not rest on "bounded societies" as political institutions are incapable of conferring justification. This is why O'Neill argues that Kant's view of the construction of ethical principles is more demanding than the "Kantian constructivism" described by Rawls as Kant requires justification to be capable of "aiming to reach all others without restriction". This is why practical reason itself is something that O'Neill argues is capable of construction by Kant as it was not by Rawls.

Having rehearsed O'Neill's critique of Rawls I now want to suggest that there is a central problem with her view that does not apply to Rawls' constructivism and suggests a reason for thinking that Rawls' appeal to "reflective equilibrium" and to "our moral experience" may be less alien to Kant than O'Neill's arguments would lead one to suppose. The first problem that can be posed with O'Neill's view is that it is unclear from her general picture of reason how the process of public reason is to be carried out. She argues that public reason is incomplete if it involves appeal to particular beliefs held by some and thereby appears to take the reference to universal law to require abandonment of commitment to any given prior beliefs and to provide us with a  de novo conception of justification. It is partly due to following a view like this however that the procedure of trying to justify the Kantian appeal to universal laws off the ground gets involved in terrible tangles. The notoriously involved difficulties in providing justifications of universalised maxims that are morally permissible arises from thinking that we need to provide an account for maxims that no one normally takes to need justification at all. Necessarily any and every type of maxim has to be looked at in terms of its permissibility if the point of appeal to universal law is to provide us with a means of assessing morality without bringing in previously agreed moral data.

Moreover, the point of appeal to public reason on O'Neill's view appears to be to arrive at a standard for what can be shown to be acceptable so that the procedure of public reason is itself the arbiter of what we agree can be done. This makes the arrival at universal agreement the ground for permissibility rather than the possibility of convergence being shown to be based upon salient factors that allow the agreement to hold. This seems to put the burden of justification in the wrong place. A second but related point concerns how the standards of public reason on a neutrally determined view of universal reason are to be set out. This point concerns not the kind of consideration that Rawls was interested in with reference to "pluralism" but rather deep problems with reasoning with some who appear to be committed to principles that are deeply antithetical to universality. Racist views for example are directly in contradiction to appeal to universality and would have to be dealt with as providing non-public reason in some sense but if this is not to be stipulative through moral content (as clearly is impossible on O'Neill's view) this has to require a structural notion of formal public reasoning to rule out certain types of reasoning from the start. 

In order to rule out appeal to certain kinds of reasons as non-public there have to be ways of showing to those who adopt these reasons a basis for agreement on their behalf to a standard of reasoning that rules out appeals to their favoured principles. The means that O'Neill appears to favour is by reference to a view of agency that requires us to see the agency of others as intertwined with our own in an important way. So she refers in Towards Justice and Virtue to activity as inclusive of plurality, connection and finitude. What is meant by these notions is that we have to relate to others as independent sources of activity (plurality) who there is a real possibility we will affect by acting (connection) and that these others are limited enough to be vulnerable to our actions (finitude). Conversely we are reciprocally related to them in the same way. So rules of action should generally take these characteristics into account. It is likely that the point of these descriptors is to give a basic notion of moral standing to O'Neill but the problem is that the notion has itself to be constructed in terms of "public reasons" and there are problems with doing so. The basic sense that we would expect from her general view is that the reasons in question would have a neutral status and not require any one to adopt specific beliefs in the sense that she criticises Rawls for requiring. If that is right, however, then the notion of plurality only points to a constraint on my action if I independently have reasons to regard others as having standing as it does not itself provide them with such standing. The fact that I am connected to others and vulnerable to them provides some general prudential constraints on action but, again, is insufficient to give others serious moral standing. The only one of these three criteria that really has the significance that it would provide a reason for morally taking others seriously is the criteria of vulnerability but if I interpret it from a first-person perspective it only grounds a prudential one and requiring as a matter of reason that I see it more broadly is not to follow the basic constructivist rule.

If O'Neill's view of public reason is one that just draws on generic criteria like these it is not going to get off the ground and it requires some additional elements to be taken seriously as a guide for a normative conception of public reason. Such further elements are available if we make the appeal to common sense that Rawls makes with his notion of "reflective equilibrium" and for which O'Neill criticises him. The ability to appeal to "common sense" as a means of understanding conditions of action is part of what is at work in Rawls' discussion of such things as the "circumstances of justice" and the "strains of commitment", both of which build into practical reason the basis for the coherence requirements that O'Neill dislikes. Without them, however, she has to fall back on a generic conception of public reason that is either too thin to build anything from or to implicitly rely on normative commitments that she has not constructively justified. Either way it seems less obvious than O'Neill may think that cosmopolitan conceptions of reason can get by without appeal to some views of pre-conceived moral standards.

Not only is this so but Kant's own procedure seems not to mirror the generic requirements of practical reason that O'Neill presents. Not only does the first part of Kant's Groundwork proceed from data of common human reason but the examples of how to test maxims that are supplied by Kant in this work presuppose the normative existence of practices. This is evident in the way Kant discusses promises, suicide, the cultivation of talents and benevolence. In each case Kant proceeds from a pre-existent conception of moral views and provides a means for understanding, by reference to them, reasons for thinking certain types of maxims are impermissible. The maxims in question do not arise as de novo tests but as ones that have pertinence against the background of a set of practices which give them the sense that they have. Perhaps thus Rawls' reference to "reflective equilibrium" is rather more Kantian than O'Neill's allegedly "cosmopolitan" view of reason.

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