Constructivism, representation, and stability: path-dependence in public reason theories of justice

Abstract

Public reason theories are characterized by three conditions: constructivism, representation, and stability. Constructivism holds that justification does not rely on any antecedent moral or political values outside of the procedure of agreement. Representation holds that the reasons for the choice in the model must be rationally explicable to real agents outside the model. Stability holds that the principles chosen in the procedure should be stable upon reflection, especially in the face of diversity in a pluralistic society. Choice procedures that involve at least two-stages with different information, as Rawls’s theory does, will be path-dependent and not meet the condition of representation since it will not be globally coherent. Attempts to solve this problem without eliminating the segmentation of choice in the procedure will run afoul of constructivism or stability. This problem is instructive because it highlights how public reason theories must evolve in the face of increased concerns about diversity.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Throughout, I use “public reason” theories to also refer to many forms of contractualist, contractarian, and constructivist theories generally. It should be clear from the arguments below what theories these criticisms will apply to.

  2. 2.

    I thank an anonymous reviewer for pushing me on this point.

  3. 3.

    In this context, rationalizability means that the choice set can be understood as a maximal set of a binary ordering of the underlying set of options. This is a basic concept in the theory of rational choice, see: (Bossert et al. 2006).

  4. 4.

    What Sen sometimes calls “property \(\upalpha \)” that \(\forall x \in A \subset B \rightarrow [x \in C(B)\rightarrow x \in C(A)]\) (1970, 1993, 1997). I will refer to this property as “contraction consistency.”

  5. 5.

    What Sen sometimes calls “property \(\upbeta \),” that \( [\forall x,y \in C(A) \& A \subset B] \rightarrow [x \in C(B)\rightarrow y \in C(A)]\) (1970, pp. 7–10). I will refer to this property as “expansion consistency.”

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Alexei Procyshyn, Hun Chung, Justin Bruner, Keith Hankins, Leif Wenar, Jerry Gaus, Brian Kogelmann, Chad van Schoelandt, Danny Shahar, and audiences at the University of New South Wales, the University of Canterbury, Seoul National University, The University of Utah, and the University of Arizona for helpful comments on earlier version of this paper and for discussion on the topic.

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Thrasher, J. Constructivism, representation, and stability: path-dependence in public reason theories of justice. Synthese 196, 429–450 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-017-1488-7

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Keywords

  • Public reason
  • Stability
  • Path-dependence
  • Social contract
  • Constructivism