Tag Archives: Stanley Benn

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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