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Rawls on the Human Condition

As a lecturer of the Philosophy of the Human person, I cannot help but recall the basic topics I cover in class as I read though Chapter 3 of A Theory of Justice, particularly in section 22, where Rawls presents “The Circumstances of Justice.” In the said section, Rawls lays out his basic assumptions on what kinds of subjects make-up a society where cooperation among them is possible and necessary, or in other words, he gives us a brief account of the human condition. This section is important for Rawls because this is where he lays in a Kantian fashion the groundwork of any possible conception of justice; and since the justice aimed for is human justice, Rawls first has to describe, be it in outline, the “background conditions” of this being which seeks and needs justice—that is, the human being. And that makes sense: if a human society aims to have cooperation among its members in order to achieve justice, we have to first inquire about the nature of these members before we ask about the nature of the justice they pursue. In a word, we first have to ask, as in a Heideggerean “step-back”, what is a human being?
            Rawls generalizes into two sets some aspects of the human condition in which questions of cooperation and justice can arise (pp. 109-10). Broadly speaking, there are objective circumstances and subjective circumstances. First, objective circumstances generally pertain to the inevitability of being born into a certain place and time, where I find myself not only alone but in relation to fellow human beings as well. I am therefore thrown into a world which came before me, a place and time not of my choosing, and receive familial relations I did not contract to. This is what we call facticity: I become aware of certain facts of my life that I did not choose. Thus my life has to be played out in stage which is already set. I am rooted in a world, that is, I am in a human situation, a context, and this is of prime significance because we fail to understand the human being when we look at him in isolation—like the lonely, abstracted Cartesian ego. As Merleau-Ponty will insist: to be human is to already acknowledge that he is in relation with others, and rooted in a particular world. These facts which come with human embodiment lead to the questions Rawls is interested in: because I belong to a world with other individuals with similar powers and aims, I have to cooperate with them, especially with regard to how we are to play out our lives and pursue our possibilities in a common milieu.
            The necessity for cooperation with human beings then leads to the second set of conditions that we also first have to consider, the subjective circumstances of these different persons. Of importance to the philosophy of the human person is the assumption of how different human beings have different plans for their own lives. As Rawls says, “Thus while the parties have roughly similar needs and interests . . . they nevertheless have their own plans of life” (p. 110). In contrast to the facticity of being born into certain place, time, and the assumption of human relations, there is also the possibility of transcendence. Transcendence means that while certain facts may limit my possibilities and constrain my decisions, I am still able to surpass them by the sheer fact of my freedom. I am free to make something of my own life once I have emerged from nothingness and have been thrown into existence. In his celebrated manifesto of existentialism, Sartre famously declared that “existence precedes essence,” which means for him that when man begins to exist, he is first a “nothing,” without a prescribed essence or prefigured fate. “Only afterward will he be something,” Sartre adds, “and he himself will have made what he will be.” Sartre then concludes that “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself.”[1]
            Rawls clearly takes human freedom and agency into account in acknowledging the conditions of justice. It is a fundamental liberty he supposes that each man can pursue his own ends freely, and to constrain such freedom would be unjust and unfair. However, Rawls sheds light on what Sartre or other existentialists (Heidegger, Camus, etc.) rather tend to forget: that the liberty to pursue one’s ends and aims would necessarily lead to conflict with other free human beings. Thus arises the need for justice and fairness, which would then set a second limitation on our plans of life that we are able to make beyond the objective limitations we received upon birth. In other words, while I will be what I will myself to be, I still have to consider that I am not alone; like me, the other is also free and wishes to make something of himself.
            No matter how sometimes personal or individualistic our plans of life may be (own ambitions, personal goals, desires, tastes, etc.), we realize again that these possibilities must be accommodated within a wider horizon of the possibilities that others also have a right to wish for themselves. We share in a present, and we shall still share in a future. It becomes necessary then to cooperate with others, to prepare the best possible conditions for shared possibilities, in order to achieve justice—which in a futural sense will be the fair organization of not only each man’s possibilities but also their “compossiblities” in order to create what Leibniz (clearly in a different context) called “the best of all possible worlds.”
            The objective and subjective circumstances that Rawls outlines briefly set the stage for the original position where free human beings—who are mindful of their own plans and interests as they make something of themselves, yet cognizant of the necessity of justice and cooperation—are to come to an agreement regarding the basic principles of justice which are to guide their actions. The aforementioned aspects of the human condition are important to consider before any conception of justice is made. Yet in doing so, because he necessarily has to give his assumptions about the make-up of the human being—his needs and interests, his goals and pursuits, his possibilities and limitations—Rawls is also sharing with us his philosophy of the human person. And while his outlines of the human condition in a society will have to be general, his descriptions on what a human being is, nurtured by generations of reflections on the essence of man, can only prove helpful to any student and teacher of the philosophy of the human person today.

[1] This and previous quotations from Jean-Paul Sartre, “The Humanism of Existentialism,” in Jean-Paul Sartre: Essays in Existentialism, ed. and with a foreword by Wade Baskin (New York: Citadel, 1988), pp. 35-36.


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