This is Part 4 of a four (or five) part series based on a conference-length version of a longer paper I’m currently preparing for submission to academic journals. Part 1 and Part 2 forcus on the idea of ‘circumstances of justice’ in Rawls and Hume, and each generated some deep and wide ranging discussions of the of the nature of justice and the treatment of justice in the history of philosophy. Part 3 added some brief critical analysis to the exegetical points of the first two parts.
In this section, I finally stick my neck out and offer my own account of the circumstances of justice – an account which I argue explains what is right about Rawls’s view by shedding his unsuitable Humean foundation. I believe this account addresses many of the concerns and objections raised in the comments on earlier sections, but I look forward to hearing the fresh, new objections it generates.
My plan for Part 5, which is not yet included in the full paper, is to say something more about why all this matters for our understanding of justice, independent of the interpretive puzzles focused on in the first three sections.
IV. A Revised Account of the Circumstances of Justice
In order to resolve these difficulties, we must first reject Rawls’s distinction between “objective” and “subjective” circumstances. As Rawls himself acknowledges in other contexts, what counts as a resource (and thus what counts as “scarcity”) is in part a product of the psychological and motivational features of the subjects of cooperation. For example, Rawls explicitly includes “the social bases of self-respect” among the “primary goods” which a society must justly distribute. And these same social goods will figure into the ways in which our plans – particularly those dependent upon these goods – are subject to being blocked by others.
While Rawls is wrong to think that the two lists of circumstances are divided along an objective/subjective line, however, he is right to group them together in the way he does. Both Hume and Rawls use moderate scarcity as the paradigm circumstance on the ‘objective’ list. But once we emphasize the aim-dependence of both what counts as a resource and what counts as scarcity, it becomes clear that it is the mutual vulnerability of our plans that explains what holds the other members of the ‘objective’ list together. Rough equality, when combined with geographical proximity, make cooperation necessary by making us mutually vulnerable to attack. Scarcity makes us vulnerable to one another because my appropriation of some resource can thereby thwart any of your plans that depend on that resource. Moreover, the need for cooperation is heightened when these two forms of vulnerability are combined. In such cases one’s vulnerability to assault may incentivize resource hoarding, while insecurity in access to resources can serve as an incentive for exploiting others’ vulnerability to assault.
But we can also see that mutual vulnerability alone is not sufficient to require appeals to justice. If all of us were always motivated to achieve precisely the same states of affairs in precisely the same ways, there would be no conflicting claims for justice to resolve. With all wanting the same outcome in every situation, we would have no occasion to exploit (or to fear the exploitation of) our mutual vulnerability. To be clear, this is not the condition in which we want ‘the same thing’ in the way that all participants in a race want the same thing – namely, to win. This is rather it is the condition of wanting ‘the same thing’ in the way that a particular racer’s parents want the same thing – namely, for that child to win.
This further condition is what unifies the ‘subjective’ list. The diversity of life plans, diversity of philosophical/religious views, and further disagreements resulting from the burdens of judgment all serve to preclude such a unity of aims. But we must be clear that under the term ‘aims’ we include both final ends and proximate goals that may be pursued only as instruments for some further aim. Thus, even where a parent and child share the same final end (e.g. the child’s well-being), their differing judgments about how to pursue that end (e.g. eating candy or eating a healthy snack) may lead them to adopt divergent patterns of aims. And we must also add the condition of divergence in interests, in order to acknowledge the injustice of successful oppressive regimes.
Of course the circumstances of justice are supposed to make cooperation both necessary and possible, so we need to add the flip side of mutual vulnerability – our ability to act in concert with one another on shared terms. And, in the case of aims and interests, there must be some degree of partial congruence, or else we would be unable to find the common ground upon which to rest our appeals to justice. So the resulting proposal is:
Circumstances of Justice: The circumstances of justice are those circumstances characterized by (1) the mutual vulnerability of (2) a plurality of potentially interacting agents with (3) partially divergent aims and interests.
This account is able to explain what holds Rawls’s original list of circumstances together while avoiding the confusion caused by his failure to adequately distinguish his account from Hume’s. More importantly, I think it provides an illuminating picture of the basic subject matter of justice. Justice, on this account is fundamentally about finding mutually acceptable terms of cooperation that can allow us to live together in ways that tame our mutual vulnerability, even in the faces of divergent aims and interests that might otherwise temp us to neglect or exploit the vulnerability of others.
 Rawls 1999, p. 386
Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.