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Social Theory and Practice


published on January 3, 2020

Brian Kogelmann

Kant, Rawls, and the Possibility of Autonomy

One feature of John Rawls’s well-ordered society in both A Theory of Justice (TJ) and Political Liberalism (PL) is that citizens in the well-ordered society, when adhering to the principles of justice governing that society, realize their full autonomy. This notion of full autonomy is explicitly Kantian. This constancy, I shall argue, raises problems. Though the model of the well-ordered society presented in TJ is arguably consistent with Kant’s notion of autonomy, the model of the well-ordered society presented in PL is not. The problem is that in the well-ordered society of PL people’s reasons for complying with the principles of justice are overdetermined in a problematic way. This raises the interesting question of acting from overdetermined motives in Kant’s system of ethics. In this paper I argue that regardless of which plausible interpretation of acting from overdetermined motives we adopt, the prospect of citizens realizing their full autonomy in Rawls’s PL are small. This is a serious defect of the theory.

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