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Political Constructivism and Justice in Caregiving

John Rawls explores how it could be possible for citizens of a constitutional democracy characterized by a plurality of comprehensive moral doctrines to have, nonetheless, a shared normative basis on which to justify to one another their “shared institutions and basic arrangements” (Rawls 1980, 305). The explanation Rawls proposes is this. It would be possible for there to be such a shared basis if we could present a conception of justice as “freestanding,” that is, as applying only to the basic structure of society, and not relying on a particular comprehensive moral doctrine; if such a political conception of justice could become subject of an overlapping consensus of the reasonable comprehensive doctrines citizens hold (2005, 140); and if it could gain the “reasoned allegiance” of those who grow up and live under it (142). Rawls proposes we think of a freestanding conception as one that would be chosen in a suitably designed initial choice situation - his “procedure of construction” (90) - “worked up,” as he puts it, from normative conceptions of society and the person implicit in the public political culture of a constitutional democracy (2001, 19). He presents his two principles of justice as the content of a conception constructed in this way. And he speculates that an overlapping consensus on his principles might be possible, and that his conception might gain the relevant allegiance.

In this chapter, I accept a great deal of this framework. I accept the task as Rawls understands it, namely to find a shared normative basis. I accept the basic solution Rawls suggests, namely that a shared basis can be had if we can present a freestanding political conception of justice on which overlapping consensus of reasonable doctrines develops and which generates its own support over time. I accept also the idea that a freestanding conception may be understood as one chosen in a suitably designed initial choice situation worked up from ideas in the public political culture of a constitutional democracy. I part company with Rawls here, however, in that I draw on additional ideas from the public political culture. Thus I “work up” a somewhat different initial choice situation and propose a somewhat different political conception of justice.

I begin by sketching Rawls’s presentation of his political conception of justice. I then describe Rawls’s failure sufficiently to appreciate the fact of human dependency. I proceed to “work up” a different initial choice situation - a different “procedure of construction” - from normative ideas concerning dependency implicit in the public political culture. In this initial situation parties are aware of two facts Rawls fails to include: the fact of human dependency and the fact of past group-based injustice. I then show that parties in this situation would choose a political conception of justice that includes justice in caregiving and is alive to the fact of past injustice, and I suggest institutional arrangements such a conception might underwrite. Finally, I show that it is reasonable to hope that the political conception of justice presented here could become subject of an overlapping consensus of reasonable doctrines and offer a reason for thinking it may fare better than Rawls’s on this score.2

The point of the chapter is not to defend Rawls’s framework; it is rather to show what we can do with it. As Rawls explains, political philosophy has no special authority, but it “may contribute to how a people think of their political and social institutions as a whole, and their basic aims and purposes as a society with a history” (2001, 2), by presenting to them a “well-articulated conception of a just and reasonable society” derived from ideas in their public political culture (3). I do that here, drawing attention to how human dependency figures in our political and social institutions, and in our understanding of their aims and purposes.

There is a growing literature exploring how a basically Rawlsian framework might help us to combine thinking about gender justice with thinking about justice in caregiving. ’ While this literature shares basic Rawlsian commitments, it includes a variety of distinctive approaches - it does not, by any means, speak with one voice. I owe a great deal to the insights and strategies in this literature. While I lack space for a comprehensive discussion of how my approach relates to the many others in the literature, I endeavor to indicate a few important debts and to highlight a few ways in which my approach differs from others.

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