Reversing Rawls: Criteriology, contractualism and the primacy of the practical

Philosophy and Social Criticism 28 (3):251-296 (2002)
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In this paper, I offer an immanent critique of John Rawls’s theory of justice which seeks to show that Rawls’s understanding of his theory of justice as criteriological and contractarian is ultimately incompatible with his claim that the theory is grounded on the primacy of the practical. I agree with Michael Sandel’s observation that the Rawlsian theory of justice rests on substantive metaphysical and epistemological claims, in spite of Rawls’s assurances to the contrary. But while Sandel argues for even more substantive metaphysical and epistemological commitments, I argue in the opposite direction. Following J. G. Fichte, I argue for a normative theory of society, not based on some particular notion of the good or on some contentious account of what all reasonable persons would agree to, but based only on the radical primacy of the practical, that is, based only on the seemingly empty premise that free beings - precisely because they are free - cannot be imagined in advance as all agreeing to any particular thing at all
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