Thursday, 3 January 2013

Rawls on Autonomy

In 1980, almost a decade after publishing A Theory of Justice,  Rawls delivered three lectures on the topic of "Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory" which were subsequently published in The Journal of Philosophy (from which page numbers are given). Over a series of postings I intend to present an exegesis of these lectures beginning here with the first which concerns the distinction between what Rawls terms "rational" and "full" autonomy. 

In opening the first lecture Rawls refers to the need to consider aspects of justice as fairness that he has not previously emphasised and to "set out more clearly the Kantian roots of that conception". This rationale for the lecture is set alongside a separate one of simply aiming to make the notion of Kantian constructivism more familiar. However the first rationale will be the more important given that what is being made familiar is integrally related to the further working out of the normative implications of A Theory of Justice.

The first part of the first lecture begins with a description of Kantian constructivism as specifying a conception of the person in a reasonable procedure of construction. Otherwise put the constructivist view being advanced sets up a procedure of construction that answers to certain requirements and the latter are understood to have their force in their reasonableness. Essentially the idea is to buttress the apparatus of Theory by showing how there is a connection between the person, as understood in a certain way, and the first principles of justice. The connection is by means of "a procedure of construction". 

Having begun by stating this point about the relation between the sense of the person and the first principles of justice Rawls goes on to argue that the conditions for justifying the latter require a public culture that is capable of sustaining them. In the absence of a sufficient basis for agreement amongst citizens the task of specifying a principle of justice becomes one of showing what is most reasonable to accept given a conception of the person. Within "democratic culture" as Rawls understands it here, which understanding is very broad, it is a sense that persons have moral capacities of a sort that is key. These moral capacities are what permit us to sustain the idea of treating persons as free and equal. If there is dispute at present over the way in which justice is centrally understood democratically then the Kantian procedure has to be one of demonstrating which principles of freedom and equality most reasonably meet the conditions of potential agreement.

Phrasing the beginning of his inquiry in terms of democratic culture ensures that Rawls conceives of his inquiry in a restricted way. It is not trans-historical but rather an inquiry concerned with modern conditions and it is not trans-cultural as it assumes the basic shape of democratic society. Further there is a form of hermeneutic at work in the inquiry being undertaken that expresses the view that there is at least a desire for agreement on the basic principles of justice. This desire for agreement is traced back here to the notion of "common sense" with Rawls assuming that it is either the case that we need to articulate the notions inherent within it or to propose to it instead conceptions and principles that are congenial to its "essential" form. As he further puts this:

The real task is to discover and formulate the deeper bases of agreement which one hopes are embedded in common sense, or even to originate and fashion starting points for common understanding by expressing in a new form the convictions found in the historical tradition by connecting them with a wide range of people's considered convictions: those which stand up to critical reflection. (518)

The way the process of disinterring from common sense the resolution of the problem modern democratic culture is apparently faced with is by means of articulation, in the first instance, of a conception of the person that is affirmed within this culture or that will be acceptable to those formed by it once critical reflection on it has taken place.

So Rawls is concerned with a "public conception" of justice that can be affirmed by all who regard their person in a certain way. This idea is part of the way that Rawls now understands the notion of "congruence" as what has to be provided is a conception of justice that fits our "deeper understanding of ourselves and our aspirations". This entails then that it fits the way that moral psychology resonates with us. This is reinforced by the view that the history and traditions embedded in this public life are resonant with the reasonable doctrine that is so uncovered. This does have a radical implication: "Apart from the procedure of constructing the principles of justice, there are no moral facts" (519).

After introducing the topic like this Rawls next specifies the way in which the conflict within democratic culture is understood by him although the ways he characterises this conflict is not singular. It is between two different traditions and one of them is associated with Locke, the other with Rousseau. However Rawls also refers to the difference Benjamin Constant spoke of between the liberties of the moderns and the liberties of the ancients with Locke associated with the moderns (and thus Rousseau with the ancients). The modern Lockean conception is concerned with civil liberties especially liberties of thought and conscience and also property rights and rights of association. The other ancient Rousseauist conception begins instead from equal political liberties and views civil liberties as subordinate. This appears to imply, in Kant's own terms, that Locke essentially provides the rudiments of a doctrine of private right whilst Rousseau provides one of public right and the task is bringing them together (as Kant sought to do in the Doctrine of Right).

Now in working out a way of specifying notions of freedom and equality that bring together these traditions Rawls introduces the idea of "model-conceptions" as embedded in his notion of justice as fairness. The two key notions in question are those of the "well-ordered society" and a "moral person". The "original position" is now presented as a third model-conception that mediates between the other two (and hence provides us with the means of understanding the process of construction). The means by which the "original position" works is by showing ways in which the citizens of a well-ordered society would have, using the capacities of moral persons, selected the principles that created their own society.

In the original position we begin, however, with a more restricted sense of the persons within it as being only rationally autonomous whereas the citizens of the well-ordered society would be fully autonomous. Rationally autonomous agents are those who possess the powers of formulation of hypothetical imperatives. Before proceeding further with a discussion of rational autonomy, however, Rawls first proceeds to describe the well-ordered society. Such a society would be regulated by a public conception of justice in the sense formulated by his account of institutions in the first section of Theory. This conception would be one understood to be accepted by all and known to be so shared. Further the basic structure of the society would be taken to actualize the conception of justice so understood and would be founded on reasonable beliefs. Within this arrangement the members of the society would treat each other as free and equal moral persons.

Moral persons would all possess the capacity to have a sense of justice and would have an equal right to determine the first principles of justice on which their society was governed. The freedom of these persons would consist in their ability to make claims on the design of institutions in the name of their fundamental aims and higher-order interests. The view of the well-ordered society is used to provide constraints on the way the original position should be set up as the idea that persons are free and equal has to be given place within the original position. In so beginning it operates fairly between persons and thus we have the idea that the procedure in question will settle the principles of justice fairly, an idea that is captured in the notion of justice as fairness.

Rawls' means of picturing the original condition is augmented, as in Theory, by the use of the device of the veil of ignorance. It is intended that the introduction of this device will ensure fairness between persons and thereby provide what Rawls terms "pure procedural justice". The principles of justice are to be constructed by a process of deliberation in which no antecedently given principles are given any particular weight. It is clear though that if a principle weighs heavily against rational assessment of interests it would be rejected. If the citizens of a well-ordered society are such as would regard themselves as moral persons then the parties to the original position must be such as to enable this self-conception to arise.

Having stated this much Rawls describes the capacities he takes to be essential to having moral powers. These are the capacity for an effective sense of justice on the one hand and the capacity to form and revise a rational conception of the good on the other. Persons have higher-order interests to realize and exercise these powers. These interests are then the ones that supremely have to be regulative of how the operation of the original condition is defined. We take the parties also to be "developed" morally in the sense that they aim at particular conceptions of the good. There is also a higher-order interest that each has of being able to prosecute this but this interest is not highest-order like that of realizing and exercising moral powers.

For the veil of ignorance not to prevent recognition of the powers so described we have to specify a means by which rational agreement can plausibly be reached. This is by means of an account of primary goods which will provide a yard-stick by means of which the parties to the original position can evaluate conceptions of justice. The primary goods are described here as including basic liberties (of Lockean sort), freedom of movement, powers and prerogatives of offices, incomes and wealth as all-purpose means and the social bases of self-respect. Primary goods are in general singled out as those generally necessary all-purpose means to enable us to realize and exercise our moral powers. The specified highest-order interests of persons thus select what is to count as a primary good.

So when we state that conceptions that would fail to recognise the interests of the parties to the agreement would fall, we are referring not to material interests, but rather to the interest they all have in enabling each other to develop and protect their moral powers. In the original position, therefore, the parties to the agreement are autonomous in not being bound beforehand by any given conception of justice but also in being moved solely by their highest order interests. This is what Rawls understands as the "rational autonomy" of the parties.

Full autonomy, by contrast, requires a further specification of social cooperation. Rawls argues that the notion of social cooperation contains two elements. The first is a sense of the fair terms of cooperation and these include conditions of reciprocity and mutuality. This element of cooperation is what Rawls now terms the Reasonable. The other element of cooperation, by contrast, is what he calls the Rational. The rational element of social cooperation concerns what each party to the cooperation in question is hoping to achieve by means of this cooperation. In the original position we have determined the rational by means of higher-order interests and acting rationally in relation to these interests includes adopting principles of instrumental reason. The Reasonable, by contrast, is incorporated into the background setup of the original position including in the sense that this position has to meet conditions of publicity.

The original position is set up to represent the minimum adequate notions of moral personality and when to this is added the sense equals in all relevant respects are to be treated equally this idea is meant to ensure that the original position is described in a way that is fair to all members of the agreement. The first subject of justice is also to be the basic structure of society or its main social institutions. 

The summation of the remarks Rawls presents here about the Reasonable and the Rational are to the effect that the Reasonable presupposes and subordinates the Rational. The Reasonable defines the fair terms of cooperation but it presupposes the Rational as without a sense that there are distinct conceptions of the good there is no real point to such cooperation. It restates essentially the argument made in Theory for the priority of the right over the good.

Full autonomy is a moral ideal that is part of the comprehensive ideal of the well-ordered society. Rational autonomy, by contrast, is the device by means of which the conception of the person is related to the procedure of arriving at definite principles of justice. 

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