From Rawlsian Autonomy to Sufficient Opportunity

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From Rawlsian Autonomy to Sufficient Opportunity

Liam Shields

The final, definitive version of this paper has been published in Politics, Philosophy & Economics, Vol 14 Issue 1, 2015 by SAGE Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. © Liam Shields.

0. Introduction

Equality of Opportunity is widely thought of as the ideal most relevant to the design of educational institutions. The intuitive foundation of this ideal is that it is unjust for some to have greater advantages than others in virtue of at least some arbitrary factors, such as race, gender or social class. Since we have reasons to distribute advantageous positions, such as jobs, to the most talented, educational institutions, which develop talent, can help or hinder the realization of equality of opportunity. Therefore, equality of opportunity can offer guidance and assessment of the design of educational institutions.

One plausible and widely discussed interpretation of Equality of Opportunity is John Rawls’s principle of Fair Equality of Opportunity, which states that those with the same level of native talent and ambition should have similar prospects for success in the pursuit of advantageous positions, such as jobs.1 In this paper, I argue that theories of justice, like Rawls’, that give priority to a capacity for autonomy, are committed to a principle of sufficient opportunity in education. Thus, our primary focus when designing educational institutions should be on sufficiency and not equality, though equality may play a secondary role.2 I also show that this commitment has at least three benefits. First, it enables defenders of Fair Equality of Opportunity to overcome some powerful objections.3 Second, it suggests a revised version of the principle of Fair Equality of Opportunity that is more plausible than the original. Third, it has attractive implications for the design of educational institutions.

The structure of this paper is as follows. In Section One, I argue that Rawlsian autonomy requires some measure of self-knowledge, and in particular knowledge of one’s talents. This will usually require the development of those talents to a certain extent, which I term sufficient self-realization. In Section Two, I engage with Richard Arneson’s critique of Fair Equality of Opportunity, which states that Rawls’ justification of the principle, by appeal to self-realization, is perfectionist. I argue that this critique misses its mark because Rawls’ commitment to self-realization can be grounded in one of the two moral powers rather than controversial perfectionist claims about well-being. In Section Three, I argue that the requirement of sufficient self-realization suggests a revised version of Fair Equality of Opportunity that is more plausible than the original. In Section Four, I discuss the practical implications of prioritising sufficient self-realization in educational provision. In Section Five, I conclude that sufficient self-realization should play an important role in guiding and assessing the design of educational institutions.

1. From Autonomy to Self-Realization

In many of the most plausible liberal theories of justice, including Rawls’, individual rights and liberties are justified by appeal to individual autonomy.4 Broadly speaking, individual autonomy is the ideal that one’s life should be lived in accordance with one’s own authentic conviction, free from external manipulation and coercion.5 In this section I argue that a commitment to autonomy entails a commitment to sufficient self-realization, at least in societies like ours. Though my focus in this paper will be on Rawlsian liberalism, and Rawlsian autonomy, the claims that I make are by no means limited to that strand of liberalism. The argument of this section will apply to any liberal theory of justice that gives a certain kind of autonomy a certain priority.6 However, I do not wish to defend the priority ordering of principles in Rawls’ theory in this paper. I assume that a satisfactory defence of the priority of Rawlsian autonomy is available.7

Rawls’s theory, Justice as Fairness, proceeds from the thought that sound principles of justice are those that would be the subject of fair agreement between free and equal moral persons. This agreement is modelled in what Rawls terms the original position. In the original position, persons are free and equal in that they possess two moral powers and an interest in securing the social conditions under which these powers can be developed and exercised. The capacity for a conception of the good, or as I will call it Rawlsian autonomy, is one of the moral powers, a capacity for a sense of justice, which I will not discuss, is the other.8 In Rawls’s words, the capacity for a conception of the good is,
“the capacity to have, to revise, and rationally to pursue a conception of the good. Such a conception is an ordered family of final ends and aims which specifies a person’s conception of what is of value in human life or, alternatively, of what is regarded as a fully worthwhile life.”9
I will now explain why parties primarily moved to secure the social conditions in which they can develop and exercise this capacity would be moved to secure sufficient self-realization, at least in societies like our own.

The capacity to revise and rationally pursue a conception of the good requires that one is capable of determining what ends are worth pursuing. We may think that one can determine what ends are worth pursuing by reflection alone, without knowledge of our particular personality and our native talents. However, in order to be capable of rationally pursuing our conception of the good we must also be able to select appropriate means for the achievement of those ends. To do so, we must be able to make judgements about the concrete roles, of those available, that best instantiate our values.

To see the relevance of self-knowledge for the capacity for a conception of the good consider the following story. If, for me, at least part of what makes a human life worthwhile is promoting the well-being of others I must ask myself whether becoming a priest or a medical research scientist best realizes this commitment. I must also ask myself whether these roles will best realize my conception of the good when I inhabit them. It may be true that a medical research scientist, on average, makes a greater contribution to the well-being of others than a priest. As such, without particular knowledge of my talents and dispositions it may be rational for me to choose such a career. However, in reality I may not have the requisite natural talents to become a research scientist. I may have a certain disposition that makes it difficult for me to master complex scientific theories or I may not work well in teams, as such scientists must. However, I am a good listener and I am told that I give good advice and consolation. Since I like my own company and draw great strength and joy from reading the Bible I should probably elect to join the priesthood. My own pleasure and enjoyment of the role is also a factor in determining what more concrete goals to pursue. If I am likely to be a frustrated and miserable research scientist but a happy and fulfilled priest then this rationally weighs against my opting to pursue the scientific career. I can revise or more rationally pursue my conception of the good on grounds pertaining to my native talent and dispositions and so, when I am denied knowledge of these grounds, my capacity to revise and rationally pursue my conception of the good is impaired.

In this case, my failure to choose the priesthood, in itself, is not a failure of autonomy, in the Rawlsian sense. Rawlsian autonomy does not require that I choose the most rational plan of action. Rawlsian autonomy only requires the room to exercise and adequately develop the capacity to revise and rationally pursue plans. This capacity is impaired and can be frustrated by a lack of self-knowledge that would enable me to revise and rationally pursue my conception of the good. Therefore, some level of self-knowledge, including knowledge of our innate talents, is required for Rawlsian autonomy and the social conditions for its exercise and development.

It is almost always through the development and exercise of native talents that we become aware of the extent and type of talents we have, as well as the enjoyment of exercising them. Because of this, achievement of self-knowledge will often require that our native talents are developed to a sufficient extent, sufficient for Rawlsian autonomy. Thus, free and equal moral persons, in the original position, would give special protection to opportunities for sufficient self-realization because such opportunities are central to the social conditions required for the development and exercise of one of the moral powers.

However, once we have enough self-realization for Rawlsian autonomy, our reasons to become more and more self-realized are not equally weighty. For example, professional athletes develop their native talent beyond any level that could reasonably be considered sufficient for the purposes of Rawlsian autonomy. They do so having acknowledged, at some lesser level of development, that they have a very significant underlying talent that is worth their while developing to its limit. What this tells us is that at some point along the developmental continuum there is a change in the nature of our reasons, a point beyond which an individual cannot claim for more assistance on the grounds of Rawlsian autonomy.10 We may have additional reasons to develop talent beyond that level that may be linked to our particular ambitions and preferences, such as those concerning athletics. However, the reasons we have to develop talent beyond that level are of a different sort, with a different weight, and therefore can more easily outweighed by counter-veiling considerations. Moreover, such reasons may not be reasons of justice if they are not acceptable in the original position. We do well to notice this change in our reasons as it specifies a limit to what we can demand of one another as a matter of justice.

We should note that the move from self-knowledge to sufficient self-realization as a demand of justice requires an assumption that self-knowledge is only or best available through the development of talents. There are two ways that the requirement of sufficient self-realization is a fact sensitive demand of justice.11 If we could know the extent and kind of our native talents without their development, perhaps because some technology capable of profiling such talents were available, then we would have less reason to have them developed for Rawlsian autonomy because our ability to plan and revise our conception of the good is linked to self-knowledge rather than the development of talent itself. Also, if we could have access to the pleasure we would derive from exercising these talents without their being developed and exercised, again through some advance in technology, then we would not require sufficient self-realization for the social conditions required for Rawlsian autonomy. It is important to note that sufficient self-realization is contingently linked to Rawlsian Autonomy in these ways. However, since we currently lack these technologies, we require sufficient self-realization as an instrument to that level of self-knowledge that is necessary for the adequate development and exercise of the capacity to revise and rationally pursue our conceptions of the good.12

In the following three sections I will draw out the implications that sufficient self-realization has for certain criticisms of Rawls’ justification of Fair Equality of Opportunity; for his the content of that principle; and for practical debates about the design of educational institutions.

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