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Does Rawl's account of the original position imply any theory of the person, or of personal identity?

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  1. The Original Position
  2. The communitarian critique
  3. Answers to communitarians

Rawls account of the 'original position' is subject to many criticisms from communitarian philosophers. While this account constitutes the very basis from which he derives his theory of justice, it is regarded as being flawed and thus compromises the validity of his whole theory. The criticism focuses on the fact that the concept of the original position implies a theory of person, which is, according to the communitarians, a wrong account of human experience. According to them, it namely neglects the extent to which self is constituted by the social world in which one lives and from which one derives its conception of the good, and of how to live in society. This criticism can be a powerful one, since it is able to undermine Rawls's entire theory. Thus, the claim that the original position entails a theory of person is to be examined closely. This debate is moreover crucial within political philosophy, as it constitutes the central focus of the communitarian critics on Rawls's Theory of Justice. So the question of whether the original position described by Rawls implies a theory of person, takes us to a larger debate which opposes liberal and communitarian views on how one should think about an individual's relation to his society. The main questions which arise from this debate are: does Rawls's account of the 'original position' include a theory of the person or of personal identity, that is, does it have any metaphysical claim about self? We should start by examining in detail Rawls account of the 'original position' to understand how an individual in this position is viewed, and see what role the 'original position' plays in Rawls theory.

[...] We will then see that the implications of this Rawlsian original position is considered by communitarians as implying a theory of person which greatly differs from the way they consider the individual is constituted. In this part it will also be important to understand how this critics of the theory of the person becomes the central feature of communitarian critics of Rawls' theory of justice, namely in Sandel's work. Finally, we will study the extent to which this communitarian attack does in fact undermine Rawls' theory of justice. [...]


[...] The view of the self embodied in Rawls' account of the original position does not reflect a theory of the person, but a way to understand the citizen within a liberal state. To conclude, we have seen that the self in the original position has some particular features, and that the original position is at the core of the theory of justice. We saw that communitarians consider this view as entailing a theory of person, which is wrong and undermines the theory as a whole. [...]


[...] This view of the self can however be justified as relevant when thinking about justice, it can be seen as a device to ensure fairness of the agreement. But the communitarian critique goes further. Sandel feels that Rawls' account of the original position does entail metaphysical claims about the self. That is, according to Sandel, the way Rawls describes the self in not only linked to this device of the veil of ignorance. Sandel refers to the way in which the self in the original position views society and its relations to it, and to the other members of this society. [...]

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