Rawls’s Defense of the Priority of Liberty: A Kantian Reconstruction

Philosophy and Public Affairs 31 (3):246–271 (2003)
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Abstract
Rawls offers three arguments for the priority of liberty in Theory, two of which share a common error: the belief that once we have shown the instrumental value of the basic liberties for some essential purpose (e.g., securing self-respect), we have automatically shown the reason for their lexical priority. The third argument, however, does not share this error and can be reconstructed along Kantian lines: beginning with the Kantian conception of autonomy endorsed by Rawls in section 40 of Theory, we can explain our highest-order interest in rationality, justify the lexical priority of all basic liberties, and reinterpret Rawls’ threshold condition for the application of the priority of liberty. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this Kantian reconstruction will not work within the radically different framework of Political Liberalism.
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