Author Archives: Blain Neufeld

Vallier Reading Group: Chapter 4

Summary of chapter 4

The goal of chapters 3 and 4 is to explain that the “Public Justification Principle” (PJP) does not entail the ‘principle of restraint.’ This involves showing that there is no necessary relation between the PJP and an ‘accessibility’ or ‘shareability’ requirement on justificatory reasons. Chapter 3 identifies two desiderata for evaluating different conceptions of justificatory reasons: (1) respect for personal integrity, and (2) respect for the fact of reasonable pluralism. Chapter 4 argues that the convergence account of public reason, which does not include the principle of restraint, fulfills these desiderata more successfully than rival consensus accounts.


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OPR VI.17. Arguments from Abtraction and the Claims of Agency

Summary of OPR.VI.17

Chapter VI begins by reminding us of an important conclusion from the previous chapter, namely, that the Members of the Public (MoP) will be confronted with a large set of rules of social morality, and that with respect to these rules, the MoP (as a group) is indifferent (they prefer any member of the set to no rule at all, but do not converge on any particular member of that set).

The goal of this chapter is to advance to two partial solutions to this ‘problem of indeterminacy.’  They both concern individual rights, specifically, those rights commonly known (from Benjamin Constant’s famous essay) as the ‘liberty of the moderns.’  These solutions are only ‘partial’ because they serve only to narrow somewhat the set of eligible rules of social morality, but do not pick out any particular rules.

Section 17 presents the first of these two partial solutions.  In this section, drawing on the work of Benn, Gewirth, and Rawls, Gaus employs an ‘argument from abstraction’ to show that all reasonable Members of the Public would be committed to endorsing, at least in an abstract form, certain fundamental individual rights (the ‘liberty of the moderns’), as such rights are essential for effective agency.

Gaus begins the section by reminding us of the ‘Kantian-Rawlsian two-step procedure’ for arriving at justified principles under circumstances of reasonable pluralism (diversity of ends and values among the reasonable MoP). Roughly, this procedure involves ‘bracketing’ our disagreements, adopting a shared perspective, and reasoning on the basis of this shared perspective (the perspective of pure practical reason for Kant, the perspective of the original position for Rawls).

Gaus advances his own ‘argument from abstraction’ in this section in order to show that the MoP would support certain individual rights for all persons.  However, specific interpretations of individual rights, that is, specific rules, acceptable to all MoP in accordance with the ‘deliberative model,’ will need to be formulated at a later stage.  Nonetheless, showing that all reasonable MoP endorse such rights can serve to narrow the set of eligible rules of social morality (rules that deny such rights to some persons or deny them altogether are ruled out).

Gaus claims that the success of any argument from abstraction (whether Rawls’s original position argument, or the argument that Gaus advances in this section) depends on three claims:(a) the successful identification of a shared perspective (the original position for Rawls; the perspective of abstract agency for Gaus); () the importance or weightiness of the evaluative standards identified by the shared perspective (why the conclusions of the shared perspective should be taken seriously by the MoP for the purposes of evaluating rules of social morality); and (c) the ability of the conclusions generated via the shared perspective to survive the return of the Members of the Public to their ‘full set of evaluative standards’ (i.e., the ability of the conclusions of ‘pro tanto justification’ to survive ‘full justification’).

Gaus asserts that it was a concern with (c), the compatibility of the conclusions of the shared perspective (the conception of ‘justice as fairness’ endorsed by the parties in the original position) with reasonable persons’ various ‘comprehensive doctrines,’ that prompted Rawls’s move to political liberalism.  Rawls’s commitment to the original position device as the appropriate perspective for ascertaining principles of political justice remains constant from A Theory of Justice to Political Liberalism (p. 336).  As we’ll see, Gaus thinks that while the first principle of justice as fairness (the basic liberties principle), or some version of it, survives (c), the difference principle cannot.

The “second abstraction characteristic of Rawls’s original position,” Gaus explains, is that it focuses on the justification of abstract principles rather than rules.  Gaus restates his claim (from 14.3) that “principles are too vague and too subjective to interpretive controversy to provide an effective framework for cooperation” (p. 337).  Nonetheless, identifying principles shared by the MoP can be useful, since such stably shared principles would at least eliminate many proposed rules for social morality.

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Sen Reading Group Schedule Note

Dear Public Reasoners,

As some of you may have noticed already, the comment for chapter 8 has not been posted yet.  I regret that I did not notice this myself until today (I have been preoccupied with some unexpected difficulties over the past month, which have made my visits to this blog rather sporadic).

In addition, the commentator for chapter 12 has had to withdraw from the group.  Please contact me if you are interested in stepping in and commenting on chapter 12 (which is scheduled to be posted on May 17).

My own view is that we should continue on schedule despite these developments.  Consequently, if possible, the comment on chapter 9 should be posted on Monday (April  26).  If the comment on chapter 8 is posted later, that should be fine.


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Sen’s ‘The Idea of Justice’ (Chapter 2, ‘Rawls and Beyond’)

As its title suggests, this chapter is a critical discussion of Rawls’s political philosophy.  However, the chapter is not Sen’s only critical treatment of Rawls’s ideas in the book: some criticisms noted in the ‘Introduction’ are not developed here but elsewhere, and some criticisms mentioned here are developed further later in the book.  Moreover, the chapter is not entirely critical: Sen begins by recounting his long friendship with Rawls, and about halfway through the chapter Sen identifies seven ‘positive lessons’ from Rawls’s political philosophy.  Nonetheless, the bulk of the chapter is critical of Rawls’s views.

The following three criticisms especially struck me as I was reading the chapter:

  1. Sen’s claim that if Rawls acknowledges that unanimity on a conception of justice cannot be achieved, then it follows that Rawls’s entire theory of justice is ‘devastated.’
  2. Sen’s claim that Rawls simply assumes that citizens will “spontaneously do what they agreed to do in the original position” (61).
  3. Sen’s worry that ‘parochial beliefs’ might adversely affect the selection of principles of justice by the parties within the original position.

I found all three criticisms unconvincing.


Sen restates his pluralism with respect to conceptions of justice: “There are genuinely plural, and sometimes conflicting, general concerns that bear on our understanding of justice” (56-7).  Consequently, he does not think that rational agents invariably will converge on a unique set of principles of justice within the original position.  Sen goes on to note that Rawls, in his later writings, acknowledges that alternative conceptions of justice might be selected by the parties in the original position.

(The picture is actually more complicated than Sen presents.  Not only does Rawls acknowledge that the original position device does not necessitate the selection of the two principles of justice as fairness, given the many different considerations to which the parties might appeal in their deliberations [JF, 133-4], he also claims that the original position device itself is only one way to satisfy the ‘criterion of reciprocity,’ and that other liberal theories might employ different justificatory strategies for arriving at principles of justice that satisfy the criterion of reciprocity [PL, xlviii-xlix].)

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Sen’s ‘The Idea of Justice’ (Chapter 1, ‘Reason and Objectivity’)

The main point of this chapter is to defend a conception of objectivity in our normative thinking about justice.  Against critics of the ‘Enlightenment tradition,’ Sen defends the idea that we should understand reason as the “ultimate arbitrator of ethical beliefs.”  This is not because “reasoned scrutiny” can provide us with “any sure-fire way of getting things exactly right,” but rather because ethical thinking requires us to be “as objective as we reasonably can,” and reason is our only reliable way of doing this (p. 39).  This role for reason is compatible, Sen points out, with recognizing the dangers of ‘overselling reason,’ or in being overconfident in the conclusions of our own reasoning.  Sen also makes the point that our emotions pose no threat to, and should not be understood as hostile towards, our capacity for reason, despite the fact that historically many Enlightenment thinkers may have ignored or downplayed the cognitive role of the emotions (here Sen mentions, unsurprisingly, Smith and Hume as important exceptions).  Nonetheless, “the need for reasoned scrutiny of psychological attitudes does not disappear even after the power of emotions is recognized” (p. 50).  These general claims all strike me as correct and not especially controversial.


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Schedule for Sen, “The Idea of Justice”, Reading Group

Dear Public Reason Contributors and Readers,

Below is the schedule for our international online reading group on Amartya Sen’s recent book, The Idea of Justice.  Of course, modifications to the schedule may have to be made as we go along, but hopefully we will be able to maintain, for the most part, a weekly schedule.

I envision this group as operating in a similar fashion to the previous reading groups conducted on this blog (viz., the ones on Estlund and Brettschneider).  Participants may want to look at those discussions in order to get a sense of what is involved.  (Links to both can be found on the left hand side of this webpage.)


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