Rawls, John (1921–2002)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S091-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

3. Stability

The argument from the original position aims to show that justice as fairness best coheres with our considered judgments of justice (in ‘reflective equilibrium’). But why should we care about justice enough to allow its requirements to outweigh our other aims? Stability addresses this issue of motivation. A conception of justice is ‘stable’ whenever departures from it call into play forces within a just system that tend to restore the arrangement. Unstable conceptions are utopian, not realistic possibilities. Hobbes argued that stability required a nearly absolute sovereign. This is incompatible with Rawls’ democratic aim. To argue that justice as fairness is stable, Rawls appeals to principles of moral psychology to show how citizens in a ‘well-ordered society’ can acquire a settled disposition to act on and from the principles of justice. He then argues that justice as fairness is compatible with human nature, and is even ‘congruent’ with citizens’ good in a society well-ordered by justice as fairness.

A person’s good is the plan of life they would rationally choose based on their considered interests from an informed position of ‘deliberative rationality’. Rawls’ congruence argument contends that it is rational, part of a person’s good, to be just and reasonable for their own sake in a well-ordered society. Assuming citizens there have a sense of justice, it is instrumentally rational for them to cultivate this capacity by doing justice, in order to achieve the benefits of social cooperation. On the Kantian interpretation of justice as fairness, the capacity for justice is among the powers that define our nature as rational agents; by developing and exercising this power for its own sake, citizens realize their nature and achieve moral autonomy. The Aristotelian principle is a psychological law which implies that it is rational to want to develop the higher capacities implicit in one’s nature. Since the circumstances of a well-ordered society describe optimal conditions for exercising one’s sense of justice, it is rational to want to cultivate the virtue of justice for its own sake and achieve moral autonomy. Justice and moral autonomy are then intrinsic and supreme goods in a well-ordered society, so the Right and the Good are ‘congruent’. If so, it is not rational to depart from justice, and a well-ordered society manifests inherent stability.

Hegel argued that Rousseau’s social contract, like Hobbes’, was individualistic and incompatible with the values of community. Contemporary communitarians (for example, Sandel 1982) re-state Hegel’s criticism, contending that Rawls’ original position presupposes abstract individualism, with a metaphysical conception of persons as essentially devoid of the final ends and commitments that constitute their identity (see Community and communitarianism). In Political Liberalism (1993) Rawls contends that this is mistaken. In A Theory of Justice he presupposes, not a metaphysical conception of persons, but a practical account of the conditions of political agency, as grounded in the moral powers. Given congruence, maintaining justice and just institutions is the shared good that underwrites the values of community (or ‘social union’) among free and equal moral persons.

Rawls’ Kantian congruence argument addresses the classical aim of showing how justice can be compatible with the human good. It is one of Rawls’ most original contributions to moral philosophy. It also bears implications that led Rawls subsequently to revise his view.

Citing this article:
Freeman, Samuel. Stability. Rawls, John (1921–2002), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S091-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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