Justice and the Crooked Wood of Human Nature

In Alexander Kaufman (ed.), Distributive Justice and Access to Advantage: G. A. Cohen's Egalitarianism. Cambridge University Press: pp. 79-94 (2014)
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G.A. Cohen accuses Rawls of illicitly tailoring basic principles of justice to the ‘crooked wood’ of human nature. We are naturally self-interested, for example, so justice must entice us to conform to requirements that cannot be too demanding, whereas Cohen thinks we should distinguish more clearly between pure justice and its pragmatic implementation. My suggestion is that, strictly speaking, Rawls does not rely on facts of any kind to define his constructive procedure or to argue that his principles of justice would be its result – facts only come in to determine whether actual people satisfy the moral conceptions he defines and to determine whether his principles of justice can be stable for the right reasons. A distinguishing feature of normative constructivism, I claim, is that it begins with stipulated models that can include normative and descriptive elements; we then proceed to engage in a priori reflection about what these models presuppose and how they relate to one another. Rawls appeals to commonsense morality to partially define a citizen as someone who is engaged in social cooperation with others and a society as a fair system of cooperation; he then draws from these organizing ideas to characterize the original position for choosing principles of social regulation for societies and citizens so defined. Whether or not there are any actual people or societies that match Rawls’ models is a different matter, and irrelevant to the internal structure of his theory, but if the models do apply to people and societies in the real world then Rawls has given a powerful argument that his principles of justice are the most reasonable for them. Rather than watering down principles of justice to suit human nature, Rawls argues for principles of justice on a priori grounds and hopes that we can live up to the moral self-conceptions that underlie them.



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Adam Cureton
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

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