Saturday, 9 June 2012

Rawls' Grounds for the Priority of Liberty

The argument concerning the priority of liberty in A Theory of Justice is presented in a few places. In section 39 it was "defined" and in section 46 it was related to other cases of priority. In presenting the reasons for the principles of justice in section 26 the account of liberty that was presented was also one in which the swopping of lesser for greater liberty was shown not to be a reasonable outcome for the acceptance of contracting parties within the original position. In section 82 as Rawls moves towards the conclusion of the whole book he brings together and summarises the arguments for the priority of liberty in a well-ordered society as seen from the point of view of the original position. In this posting I am going to concentrate on how the arguments given in the latter do more than just demonstrate the grounds for the priority of liberty. The arguments also show that the suggestion made by Parfit that Rawls' account of the deliberative rationality that Rawls is articulating is desire-based and shows, to the contrary, that the recognition of interests by Rawls is one that is intrinsically normatively grounded.

The argument of section 82 opens by referring to the way the conception of the well-ordered society is a notion that requires regulation by a public conception of justice. If there is a well-ordered society then the members of it all view each other as free and equal moral persons. Now, in describing what is meant in determining each other as free and equal moral persons, Rawls refers to "the fundamental aims and interests" in the name of which each of them thinks it possible to make legitimate claims on each other. The way to understand these "aims and interests" is central to replying to the suggestion of Parfit that Rawls' moral psychology is essentially desire-based and to show in detail why this is not the case. One of the ways it becomes obvious that the account of "aims and interests" Rawls is drawing on here is not a desire-based moral psychology is that he explicitly and openly says that a right to equal respect and consideration is central to determining the principles by which the basic structure of their society is to be governed. Alongside this point about a right to equal respect is the sense of justice that would normally govern the conduct of all the members of the well-ordered society.

The original position itself is specified as governed by the constraints of right as these constraints determine the form an acceptable set of principles can take. Amongst the constraints of right that would thereby define the form of a well-ordered society is that the conception of justice that governed it should be a publicly justifiable one. It is within the constraint of such publicity that we comprehend the notion of the members of it as free and equal moral persons as this way of viewing the person (what we can generally term a "Kantian" conception of persons) are ones to whom principles of justice are publicly accessible and justifiable. The original position embodied principles of reciprocity and equality as further elements of the constraints of right and it is in the context of recognition of these principles that Rawls indicates that a basic rationale for the priority of liberty is that fundamental aims and interests of all persons are protected by it. So a first sense given to the understanding of these "aims and interests" is in terms of equal reciprocal relations between persons.

Now the way that these "aims and interests" are recognised tells one a great deal about how they are understood. The first "interest" Rawls here mentions is that which people have in religion. Religious interests are recognised in terms of equal liberty of conscience for all contracting parties. The general nature of the religious interest is recognised only since no one would be aware, under the veil of ignorance, of possessing any particular religious belief. An "aim" of persons is clearly to defend any given religious belief that they may possess since they, as particular persons, will hold to some definite religion. The "strains of commitment" of the original position will be such that contracting parties will see the point of giving precedence to liberty. 

Having given first a "religious" interest and specifying the concomitant "aim" that goes with it Rawls secondly looks at how "higher-order interests" in general shape and regulate the social institutions that will themselves shape other "interests". The recognition of the contracting parties as "free" persons is reflected in the understanding that they each have of an "interest" in having the ability to adopt, revise and alter, their conceptions of the good. This is another basis for recognition of the priority of liberty. The basic structure thus should be governed by the account of autonomy and objectivity that Rawls earlier provided.

The arrival at the principles of justice as a result of deliberation within the original position occurs by means not just of the constraints of right that govern the position but also by means of the way that persons within this position are moved by a "certain hierarchy of interests". The highest-order interests and fundamental aims of the parties are reflected in the priority given to liberty and the means that enable them to "advance their other desires and ends" is explicitly stated to have a subordinate place. Not only is this so, but, as we shall see, in the sense meant by desire-based theories of reasons, Rawls does not recognise "desires" here as having any real role at all. There are, for example, "interests" in liberty which have a real objective in terms of establishing basic liberties but this is not the kind of "interest" that is invoked by desire-based theories of deliberative rationality. The kind of "interest" involved in liberty is, as Rawls puts it, a "higher-order" one as it regulates all the ways that "interests" can be expressed within a well-ordered society.

This point is supplemented by the argument concerning the kinds of attitudes and feelings that would be generated within a well-ordered society, the argument that included the previous account of envy. The point of the account of envy was to respond to the kind of objection to the well-ordered society that suggests that within it there could be a form of competitive/comparative relation between persons that would be socially destructive. In other words, a more equal society might make people more obsessed with their relative share of social wealth. Against this view Rawls wishes to show that the well-ordered society would lead, rather, to people taking less interest in relative positions. The presence of envy would have less sway, at least in a destructive sense. This is not due to a lack of concern with status since recognition of self-respect as a basic primary good ensures instead that relating to others as worthy of respect is something central within the society. But the basis for self-respect is grounded not on relative share of income but instead on the public recognition of the equality of rights. Since there is such equality of rights there is no incentive to politically seek other ways of having status understood as central to worth that is non-public in form. 

One of the reasons why this argument is thought to hold by Rawls is due to the symmetrical reason why no one would wish to be publicly inferior as that would be damaging to self-esteem. Similarly attempting to reach a non-public form of self-esteem has the difficulty that it indicates a view of others as inferior to oneself, a conception that has no public endorsement and would rather lead to a general aversion to the one wishing to find expression for their view. Public attitudes of mutual respect have an essential place in maintaining a political balance between persons and in assuring everyone of their own worth and the acceptance of equal liberties is a central way in which this is expressed.

The distribution of material means in the well-ordered society is taken care of by principles of pure procedural justice and the good of social union is maintained by supporting the primary good of self-respect. The application of the difference principle allows for what was previously determined as excusable envy and this helps to show the grounds for the priority of liberty. The public knowledge of the facts about each other reflected in the general recognition of the Kantian conception of the person is both based in the culture of the well-ordered society and furthered by its institutional arrangements. The reasoning that led to the principles of justice and that can support it is of a form that is publicly available.

Notable in the whole argument of section 82 is that the interests that are recognised as decisive in it are not ones that are reflective of "desires" in the sense indicated in "desire-based" views of reasons. So, for example, they are not desires simply taken as given or as reflective of mere natural facts. They are rather civilly understood desires and desires that fundamentally reflect interests in recognition of aspects of personhood that are enshrined in the Kantian conception of the person. So not only does section 82 summarise and complete the arguments for the priority of liberty but it confirms that Rawls' general moral psychology is not a desire-based one.

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