Rawlsian Constructivism in Moral Theory

  • David O. Brink


Since his article, ‘Outline for a Decision Procedure in Ethics’, John Rawls has advocated a coherentist moral epistemology according to which moral and political theories are justified on the basis of their coherence with our other beliefs, both moral and nonmoral (1951: 56, 61).l A moral theory which is maximally coherent with our other beliefs is in a state which Rawls calls ‘reflective equilibrium’ (1971: 29). In A Theory of Justice Rawls advanced two principles of justice and claimed that they are in reflective equilibrium. He defended this claim by appeal to a hypothetical contract; he argued that parties in a position satisfying certain informational and motivational criteria, which he called ‘the original position’, would choose the following two principles of justice to govern the basic structure of their society.


Theory Choice Moral Theory Moral Belief Moral Realism Moral Fact 
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  1. 1.
    Cf. 1971: 19–21, 46–51, 579–81; 1974: 7; 1980: 534. References to Rawls’ writings are by year of publication and page. My discussion will draw on ‘Outline for a Decision Procedure in Ethics’, Philosophical Review 60 (1951): 177–97 reprinted in J. Thomson and G. Dworkin (eds), Ethics (New York: Harper and Row 1968);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  8. 2.
    Cf. Norman Daniels, ‘Wide Reflective Equilibrium and Theory Acceptance in Ethics’ Journal of Philosophy 76 (1979): 256–82 and my Moral Realism and the Foundations of Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press forthcoming), Chs 5 and 6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    After this paper was accepted for publication, Rawls published ‘Justice as Fairness:: Political not Metaphysical’ Philosophy & Public Affairs 14 (1985): 223–51. In this paper, Rawls claims to eschew controversial philosophical and metaphysical claims and to defend his conception of justice as no more than a reasonable basis of agreement among members of a constitutional democracy. This claim (which itself seems to make controversial philosophical assumptions) runs counter to my metaphysical interpretation of Kantian constructivism and accords more closely with what I call the methodological interpretation. However, I don’t think this need affect the merits or interest of my interpretation of the Dewey Lectures. First, Rawls concedes that his new paper may not be entirely consistent with his previous writings (1985: 224). Second, the ‘political’ interpretation which he offers there (like what I call the methodological interpretation of 1980), cannot, I think, adequately support his defence of justice as fairness or explain his contrast between Kantian constructivism and intuitionism. Finally whether or not Rawls intends the metaphysical interpretation of Kantian constructivism, his writings suggest it and others have so understood them. Indeed, as I will now explain, his writings suggest an argument for constructivist anti-realism. For these reasons, it is worth exploring the metaphysical interpretation.Google Scholar
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    See John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. P. H. Nidditch (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975) II, xxvii.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Norman Daniels, ‘Moral Theory and the Plasticity of Persons’, The Monist 62 (1979): 274.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Someone might resist the claim that Rawls assigns a uniquely important role in moral theory to ideals of the person by appeal to the public conception of justice in the justification of Rawls’ two principles of justice. ‘The model-conception of the well-ordered society’, as well as ‘the model-conception of the moral person’, helps to determine the selection of the two principles of justice (1980: 517, 537–8, 555). However, even if, contrary to fact, the model-conception of the well-ordered society were independent of the model-conception of the moral person, Rawls’ texts make clear the greater importance of the model-conception of the moral person (1971: 584; 1979: 6, 20; 1980: 516–17, 518, 520, 535–6, 547–52, 554, 559–60, 571; 1982: 172f.) Cf. Allen Buchanan, ‘Revisability and Rational Choice’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy 5 (1975): 395–408,Google Scholar
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    See e.g., W. V. O. Quine, Word and Object (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960),Google Scholar
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    Parfit, Reasons and Persons (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), Ch. 15, Cf. Daniels, ‘Moral Theory and the Plasticity of Persons’, 267–9.Google Scholar
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    See, e.g., R. M. Hare, ‘Rawls’ Theory of Justice’ reprinted in Daniels (ed.), Reading Rawls and Moral Thinking (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981) pp. 12, 40;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Cf. Lawrence Bonjour, ‘The Coherence Theory of Empirical Knowledge’, Philosophical Studies 30 (1976): 281–312CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Michael Williams, ‘Coherence, Justification, and Truth’, Review of Metaphysics 34 (1980): 243–72.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1991

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  • David O. Brink

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