Personal Continuity and Instrumental Rationality in Rawls’ Theory of Justice

Social Theory and Practice 13 (1):49-76 (1987)
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I want to examine the implications of a metaphysical thesis which is presupposed in various objections to Rawls' theory of justice.Although their criticisms differ in many respects, they concur in employing what I shall refer to as the continuity thesis. This consists of the following claims conjointly: (1) The parties in the original position (henceforth the OP) are, and know themselves to be, fully mature persons who will be among the members of the well-ordered society (henceforth the WOS) which is generated by their choice of principles of justice. (2) The OP is a conscious event among others, integrated (compatibly with the constraints on knowledge and motivation imposed on the parties) into the regular continuity of experience that comprises each of their ongoing constitutes lives. (3) The parties in the OP thus are, and regard themselves as, psychologically continuing persons, partially determined in personality and interests by prior experiences, capable of recollection and regret concerning the past, anticipation and apprehensiveness regarding the future, and so on. Although the continuity thesis as stated above is not at odds with any of the conditions that define the OP, its exegetical validity is a matter for discussion. I shall be concerned to argue that if it is indeed contained in or a consequence of Rawls' theory, then it casts into doubt the capacity of the OP to generate or justify any principles of justice at all. On the other hand, if the continuity thesis is viewed as dispensable and unnecessary to the Rawlsian enterprise, then Rawls is correct in maintaining the irrelevance of the question of personal identity to the construction of his moral theory. In this case, the contract-theoretic, instrumentalist justification for the two principles of justice (henceforth the 2PJ) needs to be supplanted by a modified conception of wide reflective equilibrium. The considerations that form the bulk of this discussion then may be understood as providing a rationale for Rawls' recent revisions in the model of justification on which his theory of justice rests, and for his increasing emphasis on us as moral mediators between the OP and the WOS. Now I want to consider the question of whether or not, given the textual evidence, anything like the continuity thesis is stated or implied by Rawls, and what problems for his theory, if any, turn on a positive or negative answer to this question.

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Adrian M. S. Piper
APRA Foundation, Berlin


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