Tag Archives: The Order of Public Reason

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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OPR IV.13 The Reasons One Has (Part 2)

As we saw on Monday, Gaus believes that the externalist view of having a reason carries with it serious problems.  Furthermore, the attempt to decrease the diversity of reasons that one has through idealization is beset by the twin problems of indeterminacy and path-dependence. Even with radical idealization of our cognitive faculties, we would still not necessarily, or even likely, end up sharing all of our reasons.  This leads Gaus to give up on the idea of full rationality as a possibility.

Once we give up on the idea of full rationality, we are led, Gaus argues, to theorize from the point of view of what John Pollock called real rationality.  Pollock distinguishes, helpfully, between justified and warranted choices.  Justified choices are the products of epistemically valid procedures of reasoning; warranted choices are the product of all possible relevant reasoning.  Gaus argues “in a world of less than perfect information and cognitive capacities, we need some concept to indicate when a person’s reasoning about the world is up to acceptable standards and when it is not.” (247)

This conception of justification cannot be equated with truth, however.  The fact that there is a reason does not necessarily mean that anyone actual person will necessarily be justified in acting on that reason.  One can be justified in having a reason, but what ultimately matters in terms of interpersonal justification is whether or not that reason is warranted.  One can be reasonably said to have a reason, however, if they do not have any defeaters that are accessible to them.  This standard is importantly not that there are no defeaters, there may be, but they are not accessible to a person that has done a reasonable amount of reflection and investigation.  Gaus argues that “the reasons you have must be accessible to you, and as a real rational agent in a world in which cognitive activity has significant costs, rationality does not demand one keep on with the quest to discover less and less accessible reasons.”  (253)

What counts as a respectable amount of deliberation is often vague and will vary with context.  Gaus compares what counts as a respectable amount of deliberation in a physics seminar to what counts for a baseball umpire.  Baseball umpires need to make calls quickly and, hence, deliberation must be very quick, understanding that there will be a certain amount of error.  Not so in a physics seminar.

Morality, after all, is not meant to be the esoteric doctrine of the epistemic elite.  We expect normal adults to be able to grasp and follow the rules of social morality.  Gaus claims that “normal moral agents have accessible undefeated reasons to affirm” the rules of social morality. (255) The idea that normal adults should be able to recognize their moral reasons sets a maximum limit on the epistemic demands of normal moral reasoning. But, we must be careful not to set the bar too low.  People do wrong and we often think it is because they did not take sufficient care or deliberation before they acted.  The thing to do is not always glaringly obvious.  After all, our conceptions of social morality are not static, we genuinely learn both from our own actions and from what others tell us.  The possibility of moral change, both progressive and regressive, occurs because finding out what reasons we have is often a social and collaborative venture.

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