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Moral Independence and the Original Position Author(s): Samuel Scheffler Source: Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for

Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol. 35, No. 4 (May, 1979), pp. 397-403 Published by: Springer Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4319301 . Accessed: 19/09/2013 22:50
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SAMUEL

SCHEFFLER

MORAL INDEPENDENCE AND THE ORIGINAL POSITION

(Received 27 February, 1978)

In the first section of this paper I maintain that there is a serious conflict between John Rawls' account of the relation between personalidentity and moral theory in 'The Independenceof MoralTheory', and his own argument against utilitarianismin A Theory of Justice. In the second section I explore two ways of trying to resolve the conflict, and examine the implications of each of these possible resolutionsfor Rawls'work as a whole.

In 'Later Selves and MoralPrinciples',DerekParfitsuggeststhat the plausibility of different moral theories may depend to some extent on the natureof personal identity. Parfit identifies a 'Simple View' and a 'ComplexView' of personalidentity. On the ComplexView, such identity just consists in certain bodily and psychological continuities and connections (e.g., relations of memory, intention, and character),' which continuities and connections can themselveshold to varyingdegrees. On the Simple View, personalidentity is a further, independent fact beyond the holding of the relevantcontinuities. Parfit maintainsthat if we adopt a Complex View, we acquiretwo beliefs as corollaries.He says we come to believe that the identity of a personis in its nature a less deep fact than the Simple View takes it to be, and that it can sometimes hold to reduced degrees. And he goes on to arguethat, in view of the corollariesof the ComplexView, moralprinciplesthat rely heavily on the separatenessof persons will seem less weighty or important on the Complex View than they do on the Simple View (he also suggeststhat they may be thought to have a different scope). For example, distributiveprinciplesthat place constraints on maximizationin the name of fairnesswill be seen as less important than the Simple View takes them to be, and utilitarianprinciples favoringmaximizationwill be regardedas more plausiblethan they would be if a Simple View were correct.
Studies 35 (1979) 397-403. 0031-8116/79/0354-0397$00.70 Philosophical

Copyright ? 1979 by D. Reidel Publishing Co., Dordrecht, Holland, and Boston, U.S.A.

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398

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Thus Parfit's argument, described very generally, is that utilitarianism seems more plausible on a ComplexView of personalidentity than it does on a Simple View, and that what may loosely be called 'Kantian'normative theories seem more plausible on a Simple View than they do on a Complex View. As Parfit himself recognizes,however, this argument,if correct, in no way foreclosesthe possibilitythat Kantiantheoriesmay still be more plausible than utilitariantheories,even on a ComplexView. Nevertheless, his argument raises the interesting question of whether Kantiannormativetheories are in fact compatiblewith a ComplexView of personalidentity.2 In the course of a general attempt to show "the independenceof moral theory", John Rawls comments on Parfit'spaper.3 Rawls wishes to defend the view that "the conclusions of the philosophy of mind regardingthe question of personalidentity do not providegroundsfor acceptingone of the 4 He begins by identifying leading moral conceptions rather than another". the ways in which Kantiantheories and utilitariantheories must each make use of some criterion of personal identity. And he concedes that although both types of theory observe certain shared constraints on any adequate criterion of personal identity (which constraints include an agreementthat "any criterion of personalidentity is based ultimately on empiricalregularities and connections"5), nevertheless within those constraints "the utilitarianconception has less need for a criterionof identity than a Kantianview; or perhapsbetter, it can get by with a weakercriterionof identity". 6 In contrast, "a Kantianview is more dependenton personalidentities;it relies,so to speak, on a stronger criterion". ' Kantians "must conceive of identities as stretchingover much longer intervals".' Rawls then interprets Parfit as maintainingthat the "shiftingand sometimes short-termcharacter of mental connections" 9 gives support to utilitarianism,with its 'weaker' criterion of identity. In response, Rawls argues that "no degree of connectedness... is natural or fixed", 10 and that the actual continuities that bind the lives of persons depend on what moral conceptions have been realizedin the societies in which they live. Thus,he maintains, if a society that fosters strong intrapersonal identificationsis feasible, it is no count against Kantianism that such identifications might not be present in a society ordered by a different moral conception. Since facts about the connections that hold within lives are always "relativeto the social1 then so long as a moralconception can be ly achievedmoral conception",l realizedin society, there is no way that facts about the connectednessof lives

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can give any reason to accept or reject that conception. Thusin responseto the question whether Kantianism is compatible with a Complex View of personal identity, Rawls suggests that it is, providedit is possible to foster strongempiricalconnections within lives. Although I have reservationsabout the adequacy of Rawls'argumentas a responseto Parfit, I wish to focus here on a different featureof that argument. If no one degree of connectednessis natural,and if a 'Kantiansociety' and a 'utilitariansociety' 12 are equally feasible, then Rawls'own argumentagainst utilitarianismin A Theory of Justice 13 appearsto be undermined.Therehe does not take seriouslythe distinctionbetween maintainsthat "utilitarianism persons".14 That it does not is alleged to be important in choosing principles of justice that will regulatesocial institutions (and through them, the conduct of individuals), because "the correct regulative principle for any thing depends on the nature of that thing". 15 Hence, he says, if we assume that "the plurality of distinct persons with separate systems of ends is an essentialfeatureof humansocieties,we shouldnot expect the principlesof social choice to be utilitarian".16 And indeed, he argues,utilitarianismwould not be chosen by the parties in the originalposition, for they know that each of them has some rational plan of life, plus a long-terminterest in strivingto carry out that plan and in maintainingself-respect.And they are persuaded these interests. does not sufficiently safeguard that utilitarianism in 'The Independenceof MoralTheory'is correct, But if Rawls' argument it does not seem that people in the originalposition can know that they have long-term life plans and interests, which they must know if this argument againstutilitarianismis to succeed. For, ex hypothesi, people in the original 17 of their own society". circumstances position "do not know the particular And so, if Rawls' argumentin response to Parfit is correct, they presumably don't know if their society has fostered strong, Kantian identifications in 8 They don't know if they are them, or only weak, utilitarianidentifications.1 Kantian persons or utilitarianpersons;they might be either. Moreover,they do know that they might be either, if that argumentis correct. For the argumentis based on the purported general principle of social psychology that societies ordered by different moral conceptions will create different kinds of continuities and interests within persons.19 And since people in the original position know the general laws of human psychology,20 they presumably know this law too. They know that "no degree of connectedness... is natural or fixed". They know that they may or may not have long-term

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of a rational life plan. In A Theoryof Justice, interestsin the fulfillment that utilitarian Rawlsargues principles ignorethe distinctions amongpeople in the fulfillment of a rational interests with long-term planof life (Kantian of Moral he concedes thatthere people).But in 'TheIndependence Theory', for a personnot to be a can be other kindsof people. It is not unnatural interest in the fulKantian person.One can just as easilylack a long-term So if peoplein the fillmentof a rational planof life as havesuchaninterest. to regulatehumanconductin originalposition are to choose principles for anythingdepends on the society,andif "thecorrectregulative principle of thatthing", andif peoplehaveno unique how cana rational nature nature, 21 choiceof principles in the original positioneverbe made?
II

I see two ways in whichRawlsmighttry to resolve the conflictto whichI have calledattention(theremay be otherways).The firstinvolves resisting of livesis altogether the ideathatthe connectedness andthus socially relative, to retainthe argument whilesurrendering the striving againstutilitarianism for moralindependence in its presentform. Thesecondinvolves argument the relativity of intrapersonal generally conceding connections, andconsiderclaimsaboutwhatthe argument utilitarianism is supablymodifying against posedto show. The firstattemptat resolution mightproceedalongthe following lines.It of does the that the connectedto be case certainly appear degree empirical ness withinindividual lives can vary from society to society, depending at in the sociallydominant least in part on variations institutions, traditions, ideologies,mores,and so on. It wouldbe hardto denythat the degreeto with planning whichpeople are concerned theirown individual futuresand on theirown personal It wouldbe idle reflecting pastsis culture-dependent. in thisconnection, to pretendthat therewas no difference, between growing andgrowing up in Scarsdale up in Shanghai. it also appears Nevertheless, to be the casethat in everysocietywe knowof, certain kindsof empirical con- of memory, nectedness andthe like - holdto at least intention,character, within most somegreater individual lives thanthey do amongdifferent degree lives. This suggeststhat certainkinds of distinctive empirical continuities withinlives are resistant to the types of socialvariation with whichwe are mostfamiliar.

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to be withinlivesappear So long as some factsaboutthe connectedness that one mighttry to argue variations, cultural of these familiar independent to reintended to the choiceof a moralconception these facts are relevant gulatethe conductof people in the wide rangeof societieswherethe facts to show that these facts supportthe hold. Rawlsmight try in particular positionover the of justicein the original adoptionof his two principles he wouldhaveto saysomeTo do this,however, adoptionof utilitarianism. thing about the relationbetweenthe facts in questionandthe supposition positioneachknowthattheyhavesomeratioin the original that the parties he wouldhaveto showthat thesefactsrender nal planof life. In particular, andit is not thanmerelyquestion-begging, rather plausible that supposition thatwhile mightargue clearhow easy it wouldbe to showthis.Forsomeone livesmakeit plausible withinindividual connections empirical the distinctive betweenthe of societiesdistinguish in a wide range to supposethat persons that whether it an remains question open certain contexts, in self and others the endsthey pursueandthe role in determining distinction plays a central thatit is Indeed,one mightargue waysin whichthey allocatetheirenergies. in 'The to Rawls variations alluded social that the by this at point precisely thenit might If thatis right, becomecrucial. of Moral Theory' Independence connections empirical that, despitethe distinctive plausiblybe maintained of inin A Theory of Justice,with its assumption withinlives,the argument people, life plans,showsnothingmore decisivethan that Kantian dividual of principles society, would chooseKantian to live in a Kantian preferring justice. if it provedimposwouldbe appropriate resolution The secondimagined withinlives are substantially sible to resist the idea that the connections and for moral independence, Rawlsmightthen retainthe argument variable. as positionmustbe conceived concedeboth that the partiesin the original people),and plans(that they areKantian that they havelong-term knowing of intrapersonal connections, that this knowledge is, in viewof the variability of choice principles. of the parties' eventual andprejudicial highlysubstantive utilitarianism against he wouldthen haveto concedethatan argument While wouldchooseKantianism thatKantian persons thattakesthe formof showing he mightnonetheless argue is philosophically indecisive, over utilitarianism someinterest. thatit retains wouldbe interestof the original But the remaining positionconstruction of anideal andpresuppositions as a modelhighlighting certainbasicfeatures

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SCHEFFLER

of the personand of justicewhichhas greatintuitiveappealand coheres withmanyof ourdeepestconvictions. Andthe remaining (notinconsiderable) interestof the argument against utilitarianism in the original positionwould be as an explanation of why a commitment to those basicfeatures andpresuppositions is incompatible with utilitarianism. The original positionconstruction, on thisview,wouldno longer be claimed to haveindependent justificatoryforce.In otherwords,Rawls couldretain thatconstruction, but only by conceding whatmanyof his critics haveurged on othergrounds: "thatthe presumptions of the contract methodRawlsemploysarerather strong,and that the original positiontherefore offerslessindependent support to his con22 This concession clusions thanat firstappears". will seemless damaging if one believesthat "overthe long term this book will achieve its permanent placein the literature of politicaltheorybecause of the substantive doctrine thatit develops so eloquently 23 andpersuasively". I do not of courseknowwhether eitherof the two kindsof resolution I have imaginedwould be acceptable to Rawls,but I think that there is a genuine problem posedby the conflictbetweenhis two arguments, andthat some resolution is required.
Universityof California, Berkeley

NOTES Parfit'sarticleis containedin: Philosophyand Personal Relations,ed. by AlanMontefiore (RoutledgeandKeganPaul,London, 1973), pp. 137- 169. For Parfit's precisedefinitions of 'continuity'and 'connectedness', see pp. 139-140. 2 I am gratefulto Derek Parfitfor correctingsome of my earliermisinterpretations of his viewson these topics. 3 In 'The independenceof moral theory', Proceedings and Addressesof the American PhilosophicalAssociation XLVIII (1975), pp. 5-22. Referred to hereafter as IMT. IMT,p. 15. 5 IMT,p. 19. 6 IMT,p. 19.
IMT, p. 19.

IMT,p. 19. 9 IMT,p. 19.


8 10 2 13

IMT,p.20. IMT, p. 20.

IMT,p. 20. Harvard University Press,Cambridge, 1971. Referredto hereafteras TJ.

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403

TJ,p. 27.
TJ,p. 29.

TJ,p. 29. TI, p. 137. 18 Simply givingthe partiesthis bit of informationwould of courseappearto prejudice their choice of principlesof justice. Towardthe end of the paper, I discussthe implication of givingthem this informationeven so. 19 In IMT, Rawls imaginesa 'utilitarian society' as one in which the people are 'hedonistic and individualistic'. (p. 20) This is a bit odd, sinceit is Rawlshimselfwho tells us is not individualistic, at least in TJ that, despite what is usually thought, "utilitarianism when arrivedat by the more naturalcourse of reflection, in that, by conflatingall systems of desires,it appliesto society the principleof choice for one man".(p. 29) If utiliis not individualistic, was tarianism why would people in a society where utilitarianism the sociallyachievedmoralconceptionbe individualistic? 20 TJ, p. 137. 21 Rawlshimself uses this kind of argumentto rebut the claim that it is inappropriate for principlesof justice to be at all contingenton the kindsof generalfacts about society that the partiesin the originalposition are said to know. Denyingthem this knowledge, he says, "amountsto supposingthat the personsin the originalpositionknow nothingat all about themselvesor their world. How, then, can they possiblymakea decision?"(TJ, p. 159) This is preciselythe kind of problemI am callingattentionto in connectionwith connectionsvary from society to society, and if the personalidentity. If intrapersonal partiesin the originalposition don't know what sort of people they are, how can they make any decision about principlesof justice? But, on the otherhand,how can they be (The secondhalf of their choice of principles? given this knowledgewithout prejudicing this dilemmasupposedlydoes not arisein the case of the generalknowledgeof society that the partiesare said to have, for that knowledgeis allegedto be "trueand suitably general".[TJ,p. 1601) 22 T. Nagel, 'Rawlson justice',in: ReadingRawls,ed. by N. Daniels(BasicBooks, New York), p. 15. 23 Ibid, p. 15.
16 17

's

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