CRITICAL REMARKS ON RAWLS THEORY OF THE PERSON
IMMO OMNES NIHIL ALIUD QUAM VOLUNTARES SUNT
KONSTANTINOS GEORMAS, 1994
In this paper I will try to outline the theory of the person underlying Rawls theory of justice. Following Sandel, I will try to show that a) the plurality of the persons is saved only on the expense of the annihilation of the person. Thus, in a peculiar way the deontological justice ends up with a rather totalitarian perspective of the person. b) Secondly, I would like to show that his theory implies a completely western approach of the person based on the person’s power capacity and not in his shareness. c) And thirdly I want to discuss the notion of freedom and autonomy in the same context.
JUSTICE OF THE ANCIENTS
In the next chapter I will follow Papaioannou’s analysis of the ancient Greek perception of justice, in order to show the similarities and at the same time the huge distance that distinguishes this with Rawls account.
We can say that the ancient Greeks had a kind of “original position”. Justice was positioned in the center of cosmos as the power which managed it and toward which everything had to be submitted, with the same way that the polis had to subordinate itself under the law. It is justice which as guard of the eternal laws put limits even to the sun itself. Its work is divine. It is only within its limits that every act, nature, every existence finds its Logos, its logic, the meaning of its existence. Beyond its limits disaster is lurking. The knowledge of these limits was a painful and tantalizing process. It is through this tantalizing process, though, that human beings could reach wisdom. It is the knowledge of the limits that make persons free, for in this way they can harmonize with the eternal laws of cosmos.
The ancient Greeks had a knowledge for the capacities of the human. They knew that inside them lives the deinon (a rather rough translation would be a combination of supernatural, prodigious, fearful, dreadful dignified, impressive). This deinon is capable of overriding any limit.
For Sophocles, as well as for the Aschylus, man remains deinos because of the hyperbole of his will, og the hubris, which leads him to put in danger the whole of the relations which comprise the cosmos which belongs to him.
For Greeks, the ultimate fear was to see this cosmos, which is the presupposition of every being and reality, endangered from the arbitrariness and hyperbole of the will, which substantiated, can afflict on everybody indiscriminately. [Oedipus was such a case] (Papaioannou, 1992,44)
By the time that cosmos looses this sense of stability and meaning becomes an amorphous, meaningless, and without laws whole, where everything can change from one day to another, the only base for the human beings is anxiety and mobility in order to cure anxiety.
Pleonexia, namely greediness, acquisitiveness, was what the ancient Greeks were afraid most.
Rawls lives in a society where these attributes are the dominant ones. Moreover, these are the attributes that put the pace in the life of the persons, what makes their life meaningful. In full contrast with the ancient society, it is a society that hates to put limits –as any perverse society. It is a society in which “These attractions, these evasions, these circular incitements have traced around bodies and sexes, not boundaries not to be crossed, but perpetual spirals of power and pleasure”. (Foucault, 1980, bold mine, italics Foucault) It is a society that deifies history and reifies nature –and, consequently, human beings as nature.
What Rawls has to do with all these? Let me, before I will attempt to explain what I found problematic in a theory that I have to admit that I couldn’t grasp satisfactorily, express my feelings towards this theory:
No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there would be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For the last stage of this cultural development, it might well be truly said: Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” (Weber, 1958, 181)
I have to admit that I perceive Rawls as a pat of this civilization.
A PLURALITY OF IDENTICAL BEINGS
It can be argued that Rawls account bears many similarities with the Greek perception of justice. For him, too, justice is not a virtue among the others but, as Sandel puts it, “the means by which values are weighed and assessed.” (Sandel, 1982,16) We could say, that in a sense, for him it is justice that constitutes society, which provides the means for this society to exist and to fulfill the aims and desires of its members. Besides that, it is justice that constitutes persons per se.
Yet, the differences with the ancient perception of justice are evident. First of all the issue of limits Rawls points out that “The principles of justice, put limits on which satisfactions have value, they impose restrictions on what are reasonable conceptions of one’s good… We can express this by saying that in justice as in fairness the concept of right is prior to that of the good…” (Rawls, 1971, 31) we see here that Rawls sounds quite similar with the ancient notion of justice. Yet the similarity is superficial. For, if in the case of the ancients we have justice as something that tenders the universe meaningful, Rawls, as Sandel claims, is quite quick to state that justice is “rather the means by which values are weighed and assessed.” (Sandel, 1982,16) A discussion of meaning is completely out of Rawls area of interest. And this is so, because the persons that he has in mind are not persons that seek meaning in their lives, but rational choice actors, namely persons who choose from a pregiven repertoire of goods and aims, and use their rationality in order to construct the plans of their life. Justice is just a means which helps them with the minimum level of cooperation that is needed in order for them to achieve these goals. Of course this idea is not new. Hegel pointed out that “one of the fundamental characteristics of the American society consists in that in it dominant is “an individual man oriented towards the achievement of his individual interest who doesn't pay attention to the general affairs, except to the degree that they satisfy its individual interest…” (Quoted by Papaioannou, 1990, 154) Here also lies on of the tensions of Rawls theory.
At first sight, Rawls theory of justice seems very radical. If we look at the two principles of justice, especially in the second principle we cannot but wonder how he came up with it. I would like to argue that he is capable of doing it only in the expense of annihilating the person, strip it from attributes that constitute it as a person. The person that is implied in his theory is an individual void of attributes, who the only capacity that he occupies is his rational-choice programmed mind. It is precisely this theory of the person that helps Rawls to solve the tension between a theory of justice as constitutive of a society and as a means of weighing. His persons are free and rational only on the expense that they are identical, and thus the only freedom that they want is to augment their interest, for it is only their interest that distinguishes them. Thus, Rawls becomes an apologist of the US capitalist society. My claim is that Rawls’ individual is an individual oriented towards power. For he needs power for the achievement of his plans, as co-operation is always a precarious base for it.
As Sandel points out, the problematic conception of the individual in Rawls theory stem from his original position as well as from the principles of justice. More generally, “the primacy of justice is the more general notion of the priority of the right over the good.” (Sandel, 1982, 17). Persons in the original position, as Rawls claims, are covered with a ‘veil of ignorance’. Now, the veil prevents them of knowing “any information that would distinguish any one of them from any other as the particular human beings they are.” (ibid,24) How, then, are the parties involved in the original position able to choose the principles of justice? It seems that his first response is that they share, implicitly, these principles, as participants of their particular society:
But how we are to decide what is the more favored interpretation? I assume, for one thing, that there is a broad measure of agreement that principles of justice should be chosen under certain conditions. To justify a particular description of the initial situation one shows that it incorporates these commonly shared presumptions…
In searching for the most favored description of this situation we work from both ends. We begin by describing it so that it represents generally shared and preferably weak conditions… (Rawls, 1971, 19-20, italics mine)
Thus, we see that in both cases something that Rawls wants to present is an outcome –the original position- is actually a given societal norm shared by the participants. What Rawls seems to say here is that what he does not distinguishes individuals is that which they share as common. A strong sociological argument indeed, and one that explains why Rawls perceives “rights and liberties, opportunities and powers, income and wealth” (Sandel, 1972,25) as primary goods. But, even for the American society of his day, is rather difficult to find an unanimity. This unanimity is indispensable for Rawls for these principles to be effective as well as for the notion of the free and equal individuals. These values most of the times are opposing each other. (Opportunities for some segments of the individuals population oppose powers of some other segments, to mention just one example).
Sandel suggests an other interpretation: “the two assumptions [list of primary goods and specific desires] assure that the parties act only on those interests that are common interests, that is, common to all rational persons, the foremost of which turns out to be an interest in establishing terms of social co-operation such that each will have the fullest liberty to realize his aims and purposes compatible with an equal liberty for others.” (ibid) Of course neither this version can establishes unanimity that Rawls is seeking. For how we are to persuade the persons that are against the social co-operation? As Pizzorno pointed out there is no space for persuasion in Rawls account. Thus, we end up of not having place for delinquents and their contribution in the original position. The only thing that is left is to claim that they are irrational… Totalitarianism is sometimes the result of “global’ approaches…
In contrast with what Rawls claims, his presuppositions for the individuals that participate in the original position is their identical way of thinking and concomitantly their identical aims in life. That these individuals are identical is evident in that the only things that they share is a common rationality, and common longing for certain primary goods –which, accidentally, are the essence of the American dream. What I would like now to lay out is that out of such a perception of the individual we can’t ensure neither freedom nor autonomy.
FREE FROM WHAT? AUTONOMOUS FROM WHAT?
In this chapter I would attempt to show that Rawls’ individuals are neither free nor autonomous. They are rather egoists. An interesting aspect of this perception of the person is that it prevents knowledge of the other and of the self. What the individual gains as freedom loses as knowledge. And what he gains as power he loses as autonomy.
Sandel claims that for Rawls, the first feature of any creature capable of justice is that it be plural in number. The word contract suggests this plurality. Yet, this numerical plurality can mean just that 2 is two ones.
To be true, I couldn't grasp what plurality means for Rawls. In the original position, it is hard to me to see how we can distinguish the one individual from the other when we have that all of them posses the same attributes! Even if we accept that a person’s individuality is an empirical matter doesn't make things easier. For by this Rawls means that if one individual has 60% of the end “parenthood” is distinguished from the other who has 10% of it.
As Sandel shows eloquently, Rawls individuals are possessive beings.
The notion of a subject of possession, individuated in advance and given prior to its ends, seems just the conception required to redeem the deontological ethic without lapsing into transcendence. In this way, the self is distinguished from its ends –it stands beyond them, at a distance, with a certain priority –but is also related to its ends, as willing subject to the objects of choice. (ibid, 59)
Now here we have some notions that I cannot put together. If the notion of the individual is an empirical matter, then this contradicts with the notion that “It is not our aims that primarily reveal our nature.” (Rawls, 1971, 560) But, if it is our capacity to choose our aims that matters most then either we have to accept that all of us have the same capacity, and that it is difficult to distinguish the one person from the other –as all persons bear the same capacities, and –n the social level- to account for inequalities –namely how out of the same position we have different positions in the society. Rawls possessive self creates more problems than it solves. Yet reveals many aspects of this “free”, “equal”, “rational” being.
Sandel claims that “On Rawls conception of the person, my ends are benevolent or communitarian when they take as their object the good of another, or of a group of others with whom I may be associated, and indeed there is nothing in this view to rule out communitarian ends in this sense.” (Sandel, 1982, 61) Of course of love is a communitarian end then this perception does not apply. Communitarian for Rawls is the happy coincidence of two goods and not as Sandel shows of two selves. Thus, according to Rawls, we can imagine two individuals having as common good “John Rawls.” Now how these individuals happened to have this very same good is somehow inexplicable. For, what Sandel doesn’t show is how these damned goods are created. Is it God that just left there one happy day? It is convenient to perceive them as “already there” and the clever rational beings to select them, but unfortunately their origin poses some problems.
NATURE, FREEDOM AND AUTONOMY
I would like to conclude this clumsy paper with three remarks. The first concerns the psychological underpinnings of Rawls account. The second the notion of freedom and the third the notion of autonomy.
Sandel shows very well the egoistic perception of Rawls’ self. A self which is not only bounded against any experience, but constructed in this way as not to be able to reflect on itself. In fact, reflection of itself is catastrophic for the entire theory, as it destroys the base for the veil of ignorance. The notion of self rejects any intersubjective interaction. What is natural in these persons is that they are “free and equal rational beings.” And of course freedom is defined as the ability to choose the preferable way of life. This is the self which is based on fear. Only such selves need to entrench themselves. Only such selves are afraid to deliberate on themselves, and it is known that deliberation without sharing is impossible, except if we confuse deliberation with calculation. This self is alienated even from itself. For its purpose is not the self per se but its ability to choose. The self per se does not have any meaning. That is why it is afraid to look inwards. That is why the only relation that is able to have with another human being is only through a good. Now, if we want to put it in Marxian terms we have here the completely reified human beings. The human beings that do not “exchange’ meanings but things, and they find commonalities in things.
Now, this self is not free. Actually is enslaved, in an eternal calculation of its plans. Gripped into the Protestant fear of predestination, it is forced to affirm everyday that it is the chosen.
Having no meaning to find in life, as the meaning of his life is to “choose plans”, and freely to implement them, defines freedom, as freedom of planning and not as freedom of creating meanings, and meaningful selves. These are given. Now, all these chatter amounts to the very simple remark: Rawls theory is a theory which tries to figure out how to divide equally and democratically the pie. What is the pie, why we have unequal shares of this pie, if the pie is lethal, is not of his interest.
I would like to conclude with some remarks from Castoriadis concerning the meaning of autonomy.
It is because autonomy is not the pure and simple elimination of the discourse of the other but the elaboration of this discourse, in which the other is not an indifferent material but counts for the content of what is said, that an intersubjective action is actually possible and that it is not condemned to remain useless or to violate by its very existence what it posits as its principle…
The fact that the problem of autonomy immediately refers to, is even identified with, the problem of the relation of one subject to another –or to others; the fact that the others or others do not appear as external obstacles or as a malediction to be suffered… but instead as constituting the subject, the subject’s problem and its possible solution; this fact recalls what, after all, was certain from the start for anyone who is not mystified by the ideology of a certain philosophy, namely that human existence is an existence with others and whatever is said neglecting this presupposition is sheer nonsense…(Castoriadis, 1987, 108)
Sheer nonsense, or as Marx would have put it, a being determined by its consciousness…
Castoriadis, Cornelious. The Imaginary Institution of Society, 1987, MIT.
Papaioannou, Kostas. La Consecration de l’ Histoire, Champ Livre
Papaioannou, Kostas. State and Philosophy, 1990, Alternative Press, Athens.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, 1980, Vintage Books.
Weber. Max. The Protestant Ethic & The Spirit of Capitalis, 1985, Scribner’s Sons.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice, 1971, Harvard University Press.
Sandel, Michael. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 1982, Cambridge University Press.