Rawls’s Justification Model for Ethics: What Exactly Justifies the Model?
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This is a defense of Rawls against recent criticism, ironically my own, though it is also a critique insofar as it addresses a problem that Rawls never does. As a defense, it is not a retraction of the original charges. As a critique, it is not more of the same opposition. In either capacity, it is not an afterthought. The charges were conceived from the outset with a specific solution in mind, which would have been too distracting to pursue in the same article. This is that solution. It also highlights the problem. The original charges were that Rawls’s decision procedure for ethics does not justify his own moral principles, namely his principles of justice, and that the underlying problem may well keep the decision procedure from justifying any moral principles whatsoever, or at least any normatively useful ones. The underlying problem was, and still is, the model’s inherent universalism, which is built into the decision procedure through design specifications precluding relativism, yet only at the cost of limiting the relevant moral principles to generalities that are already widely accepted, thereby rendering the procedure at best redundant and very likely vacuous as an ethical justification model. These difficulties are manifested in the work of Rawls as the dogmatism of championing a distinctive conception of justice, a liberal one as he himself calls it, through a justification model that is too universalistic to permit such a bias and possibly also too universalistic to permit any substantive conclusions at all. The solution contemplated here is to position the decision procedure as a dynamic justification model responsive to moral progress, as opposed to a static one indifferent to such progress and equally open to all moral input, thus removing the inconsistency between the universalistic design and any distinctive or controversial principles, including the ones Rawls himself recommends, so long as they are consistent with moral progress.
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