Rawls and the "Aristotelian" Principle

Justice is for the sake of Life according to a Rational Plan

"There are two variants [of the principle of perfectionism in politics]: in the first it is the sole principle of a teleological theory directing society to arrange institutions and to define the duties and obligations of individuals so as to maximize the achievement of human excellence in art, science, and culture" (John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Revised Edition. Harvard University Press, 1999), 285).

"Perfectionism is denied as a political principle" (A Theory of Justice, 289). "[T]he principles of justice do not permit subsidizing universities and institutes, or opera and the theater, on the grounds that these institutions are intrinsically valuable, and that those who engage in them are to be supported even at some significant expense to others who do not receive compensating benefits. Taxation for these purposes can be justified only as promoting directly or indirectly the social conditions that secure the equal liberties and as advancing in an appropriate way the long-term interests of the least advantaged" (A Theory of Justice, 291-292).
Plato and Aristotle have a "perfectionist" conception of the good life. (In this Aristotle follows Plato.) According to perfectionist understanding of the good life, one life is better than another to the extent that it is a more perfect realization of certain of the properties that constitute human nature. Plato and Aristotle develop this view against the background of their conception of what a human being is. Further, Plato embeds this perfectionism in his theory of justice.

The contemporary political philosopher John Rawls rejects perfectionism as a principle of justice and rejects the ancient conception of what a human being is, but he develops his theory of justice in terms of what he calls the "Aristotelian Principle." For Rawls, the good for a human being is understood formally. It is a rational plan of life informed by certain general facts about human beings and their place in the world. One of these facts is the Aristotelian Principle.

The Good is a Rational Plan of Life

"[T]he concept of right is prior to that of the good. In contrast with teleological theories, something is good only if it fits into ways of life consistent with the principles of right already on hand. But to establish these principles it is necessary to rely on some notion of goodness, for we need assumptions about the parties’ motives.... Since these assumptions must not jeopardize the prior place of the concept of right, the theory of the good used in arguing for the principles of justice is restricted to the bare essentials. This account of the good I call the thin theory..." (John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Revised Edition. Harvard University Press, 1999), 347-348).

"What rationality means in the case of plans has yet to be determined and will be discussed later on. But according to the definition, once we establish that an object has the properties that it is rational for someone with a rational plan of life to want, then we have shown that it is good for him. And if certain sorts of things satisfy this condition for persons generally, then these things are human goods" (A Theory of Justice, 351). "The definition of the good is purely formal. It simply states that a person’s good is determined by the rational plan of life that he would choose with deliberative rationality from the maximal class of plans. Although the notion of deliberative rationality and the principles of rational choice rely upon concepts of considerable complexity, we still cannot derive from the definition of rational plans alone what sorts of ends these plans are likely to encourage. In order to draw conclusions about these ends, it is necessary to take note of certain general facts" (A Theory of Justice, 372).

A General Fact about Human Beings

"There are several points to keep in mind in order to prevent misunderstandings of this [the Aristotelian] principle. For one thing, it formulates a tendency and not an invariable pattern of choice.... A further consideration is that the principle does not assert that any particular kind of activity will be preferred. It says only that we prefer, other things equal, activities that depend upon a larger repertoire of realized capacities and that are more complex" (A Theory of Justice, 376-377).

"Even if this conception should not be true of some persons, the idea of a rational long-term plan still applies. We can work out what is good for them in much the same way as before. Thus imagine someone whose only pleasure is to count blades of grass in various geometrically shaped areas such as park squares and well-trimmed lawns. He is otherwise intelligent and actually possesses unusual skills, since he manages to survive by solving difficult mathematical problems for a fee. The definition of the good forces us to admit that the good for this man is indeed counting blades of grass, or more accurately, his good is determined by a plan that gives an especially prominent place to this activity. Naturally we would be surprised that such a person should exist. Faced with his case, we would try out other hypotheses. Perhaps he is peculiarly neurotic and in early life acquired an aversion to human fellowship, and so he counts blades of grass to avoid having to deal with other people. But if we allow that his nature is to enjoy this activity and not to enjoy any other, and that there is no feasible way to alter his condition, then surely a rational plan for him will center around this activity. It will be for him the end that regulates the schedule of his actions, and this establishes that it is good for him. I mention this fanciful case only to show that the correctness of the definition of a person’s good in terms of the rational plan for him does not require the truth of the Aristotelian Principle" (A Theory of Justice, 379-380).
I shall postulate a basic principle of motivation which I shall refer to as the Aristotelian Principle" (A Theory of Justice, 373). "[T]he Aristotelian Principle runs as follows: other things equal, human beings enjoy the exercise of their realized capacities (their innate or trained abilities), and this enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized, or the greater its complexity. The intuitive idea here is that human beings take more pleasure in doing something as they become more proficient at it, and of two activities they do equally well, they prefer the one calling on a larger repertoire of more intricate and subtle discriminations. For example, chess is a more complicated and subtle game than checkers, and algebra is more intricate than elementary arithmetic. Thus the principle says that someone who can do both generally prefers playing chess to playing checkers, and that he would rather study algebra than arithmetic" (A Theory of Justice, 374).

"The Aristotelian Principle is a principle of motivation. ... [I]t expresses a psychological law governing changes in the pattern of our desires. Thus the principle implies that as a person’s capacities increase over time (brought about by physiological and biological maturation, for example, the development of the nervous system in a young child), and as he trains these capacities and learns how to exercise them, he will in due course come to prefer the more complex activities that he can now engage in which call upon his newly realized abilities. The simpler things he enjoyed before are no longer sufficiently interesting or attractive" (A Theory of Justice, 375).

Justice and the Aristotelian Principle

"Now accepting the Aristotelian Principle as a natural fact, it will generally be rational, in view of the other assumptions, to realize and train mature capacities. Maximal or satisfactory plans are almost certainly plans that provide for doing this in significant measure" (A Theory of Justice, 376).

"The role of the Aristotelian Principle in the theory of the good is that it states a deep psychological fact which, in conjunction with other general facts and the conception of a rational plan, accounts for our considered judgments of value. The things that are commonly thought of as human goods should turn out to be the ends and activities that have a major place in rational plans. The principle is part of the background that regulates these judgments (A Theory of Justice, 379).

"[I]n a well-ordered society anyway, there are a variety of communities and associations, and the members of each have their own ideals appropriately matched to their aspirations and talents. Judged by the doctrine of perfectionism, the activities of many groups may not display a high degree of excellence. But no matter. What counts is that the internal life of these associations is suitably adjusted to the abilities and wants of those belonging to them, and provides a secure basis for the sense of worth of their members. The absolute level of achievement, even if it could be defined, is irrelevant. But in any case, as citizens we are to reject the standard of perfection as a political principle, and for the purposes of justice avoid any assessment of the relative value of one another’s way of life.... Thus what is necessary is that there should be for each person at least one community of shared interests to which he belongs and where he finds his endeavors confirmed by his associates. And for the most part this assurance is sufficient whenever in public life citizens respect one another’s ends and adjudicate their political claims in ways that also support their self-esteem. It is precisely this background condition that is maintained by the principles of justice [given the rejection of] the principle of perfection, for rejecting this criterion prepares the way to recognize the good of all activities that fulfill the Aristotelian Principle (and are compatible with the principles of justice). This democracy in judging each other’s aims is the foundation of self-respect in a well-ordered society" (A Theory of Justice, 387-388).




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