Political Constructivism

Let us return to Rawls’s instruction that, when principles of justice derived from initial situation reasoning fail to accommodate our considered convictions, we must either revise the convictions or modify the initial situation (Rawls 1999, 18). Earlier, we saw what revising the set considered convictions of political justice gathered from women’s and disability movements looks like. We also explored modifying the initial situation. How are we to proceed?

Rawls provides instruction. He explains that the ultimate test of a political conception of justice is public justification. “Public justification happens when all the reasonable members of a political society carry out a justification of [a] shared political conception by embedding it in their several reasonable comprehensive views” (1995, 387).34 By “reasonable members,” Rawls means members committed to living on a shared normative basis together with others who hold different comprehensive moral doctrines. When this is accomplished, there is what Rawls calls “overlapping consensus” (2001, 29, 193, also 192-195).55 When generations of people who grow up under a political conception of justice justified in this way develop allegiance to it, there is a “mutually acceptable point of view,” a “shared basis for citizens to justify to one another their political judgments” (2001, 27, see also 192-195).

Rawls explains that public justification is ultimately a practical matter (1985, 394). We will know that a political conception of justice - Rawls’s conception, the conception presented in this chapter, or some other - is publicly justified when it is. There is no guarantee that any political conception of justice could achieve reasonable overlapping consensus in our, or any other, constitutional democracy. One obstacle would be if citizens fail to be or become reasonable in sufficient numbers. Another obstacle to overlapping consensus would be if there were no freestanding political conceptions of justice on offer in civil society for the people to consider. There is work here for political philosophy. A philosopher can lay out a freestanding political conception of justice in a more or less complete way, including its normative grounds in the public political culture, and present it to “civil society for its citizens to consider” (1995, 384, see also 390). This is what Rawls understood himself to be doing. That has been my aim here as well.

Political philosophy has a second - call it a critical - role, which is to provide “educated conjecture” about the likelihood of this or that political conception of justice achieving public justification (2005, 15, see also 2007, 10-11). A philosopher can inquire, for example, into whether this or that proposed political conception of justice is genuinely freestanding. In the introduction I said that by free-standing Rawls means applying only to the basic structure of society and not relying on a particular comprehensive moral doctrine. But there is an additional, deeper, sense of freestandingness at work in Rawls’s political philosophy. Rawls explains that a political conception of justice must stand free of particular social positions.36 But, as I have argued, Rawls’s political conception of justice fails to be freestanding in this deeper sense because it reflects a particular social position, namely that of heads of household.

To appreciate the force of this argument, we need to invoke a third - also critical - role for political philosophy, which Rawls discusses only briefly. He writes that “from time to time, we must ask whether justice as fairness, or any other view, is ideological... in Marx’s sense,” that is, whether it is a “defense of an unjust and unworthy status quo” (2001, 4 n. 4).37 Is Rawls’s political conception of justice a defense of an unjust and unworthy status quo - a defense of the current institutional and associational caregiving arrangements that disadvantage caregivers, leave many unable to provide sufficient caregiving, leave many with insufficient caregiving, track past injustice, and are insufficiently voluntary? I argued earlier that we should not understand Rawls to be justifying these arrangements; I argued that we should say that on Rawls’s view political justice simply has nothing to say about them. And I floated the possibility that Rawls’s view is that we should reconcile ourselves to these institutional and associational arrangements. Then I explained that Rawls intends that recommendation for those whose frustration and rage derives from wanting the basic structure to satisfy the requirements of their own comprehensive doctrine, and that is not the source of the rage behind the dependency critique. In any case, Rawls’s political conception of justice expresses a sort of fairness for persons inhabiting a particular social position, namely that of heads of household. In so doing, it fails to illuminate a great deal of caregiving injustice. It hides it from our view. As a result, Rawls’s political conception of justice throws us off the trail of caregiving injustice. This seems sufficient ground for calling Rawls’s political conception of justice ideological.58

How might we correct for the ideology? The proposal here has been to include the point of view of individuals who are immersed in, and understand themselves as charged with, attending to caregiving needs. So we begin with a set of considered convictions of political justice that arise from this point of view, and with political conceptions of society and the person informed by it. The initial choice situation worked up from these political conceptions has been purged of the point of view of heads of household. In this way, it more faithfully realizes the promise of the veil of ignorance.

When we include this point of view, light is shed on the full array of institutions and associational arrangements through which society’s caregiving needs are satisfied - we appreciate them as part of society’s basic structure. This broader account of the basic structure is a companion idea to our political conceptions of society and the person. As I argued earlier, before the influence of feminism in political philosophy, the failure to include aspects of the basic institutions and associational arrangements through which society’s caregiving needs are satisfied was coupled with the idea that caregiving is women’s work. Rawls explicitly rejected this idea, to his credit. But he retained the limitation of the basic structure, arguably to worse effect. Now rather than saying that the well-ordered society has women tending to society’s caregiving needs, and husbands and fathers supporting wives and daughters, Rawls’s view seems to be that a society can be well-ordered even if significant portions of its caregiving needs are not satisfied or even if they are satisfied only because there are droves of volunteers who do it to their disadvantage.

At this point we need to inquire about the prospects of the political conception of justice that includes justice in caregiving becoming subject of a reasonable overlapping consensus and generating its own support over time. Unfortunately, space is lacking for anything like an adequate response to either question. I will have to leave the second question entirely unaddressed, deferring its consideration to future work. To the first question I suggest this. There is no such overlapping consensus now. Achieving it might seem unlikely any time soon “given the actual comprehensive views existing in society” (Rawls 2001, 37, see also 136). But, as Rawls explains, we should think of overlapping consensus as developing - if at all - over time (2001, 193) and involving the adjustment of doctrines in light of an attractive political conception of justice (2005, 246, 193). To be sure, overlapping consensus on the political conception of justice presented in this chapter is not possible unless it is out there in civil society for people to consider. So there is a role for political philosophy. But political philosophers take a backseat to activists and the many people who have suffered caregiving-related injustice. Their struggle has produced, and their sense of justice is reflected in, the considered convictions at the root of this inquiry. Their point of view informs the political conceptions of the person and society with which philosophers concerned with justice in caregiving, like this writer, must begin. Their struggle will put justice in caregiving on the political agenda and slowly bend extant comprehensive doctrines toward it. That, at least, is what we may hope.

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