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Rawls and subject 42

May 29, 2017

As shown in Chapter 1, reflective equilibrium is not an absolute notion, and the person cannot be expected to take stock of all possible considerations for or against. Rather, reaching reflective equilibrium admits of degrees. Insofar as a judgment, principle or set thereof may accord more or less at all level of generalities, the former may also prove more or less reasonable. For his part, Rawls envisages the most reasonable reflective equilibrium which the person may hope to attain in the following way:

By addressing this audience of citizens in civil society, as any democratic doctrine must, justice as fairness spells out various fundamental political conceptions – those of society as a fair system of cooperation, of citizens as free and equal, and of a well-ordered society – and then hopes to combine them into a reasonable and complete political conception of justice for the basic structure of a constitutional democracy. That is its primary aim: to be presented to and understood by the audience in civil society for its citizens to consider. The overall criterion of the reasonable is general and wide reflective equilibrium […] (PL, p. 384)[1].

In sum, the political conception of justice, with its attendant notions of society and person, can only count as reasonable on the condition that it is accepted by as many persons as feasible upon due consideration of their convictions[2]. How do the qualifiers “general” and “wide” modify this condition?

In a footnote to the above passage, Rawls expands on these notions. Consider first his elaboration of the qualifier “wide”:

I add here two remarks about wide and general reflective equilibrium. Wide reflective equilibrium (in the case of one citizen) is the reflective equilibrium reached when that citizen has carefully considered alternative conceptions of justice and the force of various arguments for them. More specifically, the citizen has considered the leading conceptions of political justice found in our philosophical tradition (including views critical of the concept of justice itself) and has weighed the force of the different philosophical and other reasons for them. We suppose this citizen’s general convictions, first principles, and particular judgments are at last in line. The reflective equilibrium is wide, given the wide-ranging reflection and possibly many changes of view that have preceded it. Wide and not narrow reflective equilibrium (in which we take note of only our own judgments) is plainly the important philosophical concept (PL, n. 16, p. 384).

Certainly, this discussion reprises a great deal from TJ, pp. 43-4, which received treatment at pp. 8-9 above. That said, it takes on renewed importance in light of the three phases of justification. After all, if the aim of full justification is a reasonable overlapping consensus and the means consist in nonpublic reasoning at the individual, associational, etc., level, what that reasoning seeks at this level is reflective equilibrium between the principles, concepts and values of the political conception of justice and the considered convictions embodied in the person’s comprehensive doctrine. More simply, full justification sets itself the goal of reaching wide reflective equilibrium by putting persons qua individual in a position to weigh the political conception of justice against their comprehensive doctrine and alternative conceptions of justice. Only when the political conception of justice has gained the assent of persons qua individual at all levels of generality (e.g., “general convictions, first principles, and particular judgments”) can it claim to have reached wide reflective equilibrium.

[1] As “civil society” includes both public political culture and background culture, what Rawls here terms “citizen” does not correspond one-to-one to our more careful delineation of citizen and citizen standpoint. Presumably, the author’s usage here conflates both “citizen” and “individual” as the political conception of justice will address itself to persons as both, albeit at different times and phases of justification.

[2] Rawls would append to this condition the term “reasonable”: accepted by as many reasonable persons as possible. Whether the criterion of reasonable’s being identified with what reasonable persons would choose falls prey to circularity lies, for the time being, beyond the scope of our study. On this question, see Mulhall and Swift, _____

Rawls and subject 41

May 26, 2017
  • On what grounds does Rawls deem public justification a justification in the same vein as the others if it calls on no new arguments or reasons?

The short answer to this question reads as follows: public justification consists in indirect rather than direct justification. To make sense of this distinction, more attention must be paid to the passage introducing public justification. Recall that “[p]ublic justification happens when all the reasonable members of political society carry out a justification of the shared political conception by embedding it in their shared reasonable comprehensive views” (PL, p. 387). Read another way, this claim would imply that public justification happens when full justification happens. Yet the structure of Rawls’ exposition suggests that they are distinct. How can we best make sense of this seeming equivocation?

The best way of understanding this claim lies in asking oneself whether a justification can justify another or, perhaps less ambiguously, whether the successful justification of a justificatory instance can itself count as a justification at a second-order level. Put still differently, can one transfer the justificatory work carried out in the phase of full justification to a new end in the phase of public justification? For Rawls, the answer is manifestly “yes” in that the fact of each person’s successful full justification of the political conception may be considered as a further reason supporting the political conception’s more or less final justification.

Indeed, such is Rawls’ intention when he speaks of mutual accounting: “reasonable citizens take one another into account as having reasonable comprehensive doctrines that endorse that political conception” (idem.). In other words, the fact that others endorse the political conception provides, in and of itself, further justification for the political conception.

At this point, two subordinate questions suggest themselves. Why should the fact that others endorse the political conception count as a further justification in the person’s eyes? Put differently, the fact that others hold a certain view may lend credibility to that view but do not justify it. Otherwise, one would remain beholden to a thoroughgoing majoritarian, conservative logic. On the other hand, does counting full justification as a justification mean that the political conception of justice ultimately relies on comprehensive doctrines for its more or less final justification? In other words, can the political conception of justice stand free of religious, philosophical or moral doctrines in the way that Rawls has so far claimed?

As the second of these questions leads into the second question posed above, we shall remain with the first. Again, why should one person’s holding the political conception as justified count as a reason for another’s doing the same? Rawls responds thereto in highlighting the link between full justification, public justification and reflective equilibrium:

This basic case of public justification is one in which the shared political conception is the common ground and all reasonable citizens taken collectively (but not acting as a corporate body) are held in general and wide reflective equilibrium in affirming the political conception on the basis of their several reasonable comprehensive doctrines. Only when there is a reasonable overlapping consensus can political society’s political conception of justice be publicly – though never finally – justified. Granting that we should give weight to the considered convictions of other reasonable citizens, this is because general and wide reflective equilibrium with respect to a public justification gives the best justification of the political conception that we can have at any given time. There is, then, no public justification for political society without a reasonable overlapping consensus […] (PL, p. 388)

If full justification secures overlapping consensus and each instance of overlapping consensus reaches general and wide reflective equilibrium, then public justification’s seconding individual instances of full justification as themselves justificatory stands or falls with the notion of general and wide reflective equilibrium. What grounds does this notion give us to count the fact of a person’s full justification of the political conception as a further justifying instance?

To this end, it may be useful to recall the basic features of reflective equilibrium before proceeding to explain in what way one may dub certain instances “general” or “wide”[1]. The author defines reflective equilibrium as when a judgment, principle or set thereof “accord[s] with our considered convictions, at all levels of generality, on due reflection”, with no level of generality being “viewed as foundational” (PL, p. 8). So conceived, reflective equilibrium is reached when the person a.) has taken stock of the various considerations either for or against those considered convictions from which she sets out and b.) has kept, mended or discarded them accordingly.

[1] For more on general and wide reflective equilibrium and its embryonic treatment in TJ, see supra., pp. 8-9.

Rawls and subject 40

May 25, 2017
  • Public justification, stability for the right reasons and reasonable citizen

The articulation between pro tanto justification and full justification will take the form of public justification, the third and last phase of justification, described by Rawls as follows:

Third and last is public justification by political society. This is a basic idea of political liberalism and works in tandem with the other three ideas: those of a reasonable overlapping consensus, stability for the right reasons, and legitimacy. Public justification happens when all the reasonable members of political society carry out a justification of the shared political conception by embedding it in their shared reasonable comprehensive views. In this case, reasonable citizens take one another into account as having reasonable comprehensive doctrines that endorse that political conception, and this mutual accounting shapes the moral quality of the public culture of political society. A crucial point here is that while the public justification of the political conception for political society depends on reasonable comprehensive doctrines, this justification does so only in an indirect way. That is, the express contents of these doctrines have no normative role in public justification; citizens do not look into the content of others’ doctrines, and so remain within the bounds of the political. Rather, they take into account and give some weight to only the fact – the existence – of the reasonable overlapping consensus itself (PL, p. 387).

Bound up with this description are a number of key terms from the foregoing sections. In §1, we identified, with Rawls, the liberal principle of legitimacy as follows: “our exercise of political power is proper and hence justifiable only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse in the light of principles and ideals acceptable to them as reasonable and rational” (PL, p. 217). In §2, a reasonable overlapping consensus was held to consist in an agreement wherein “the reasonable doctrines endorse the political conception, each from its own point of view” and “[s]ocial unity is based on a consensus on the political conception” (PL, p. 134). Notably, the combination of these terms leads to a situation in which public political deliberation between persons qua citizens generates legitimacy for the basic structure and nonpublic political deliberation between persons qua individuals yields an overlapping consensus thereon.

Yet this combination is not thoroughgoing. By which we simply mean that, in contrast to the public availability of legitimacy, overlapping consensus’ necessarily nonpublic forum hides the results from all other persons. In such a case, persons may worry that, while all persons qua citizens agree to the political conception of justice, (reasonable) persons qua individuals might find that their nonpublic values override public values and thereby sap that conception. Such that the conception would prove unstable. If the combination of legitimacy and overlapping consensus is to yield a stable political conception, a further step is required to demonstrate that all (reasonable) persons qua individuals assent thereto. Wherefore the need to make the nonpublic decisions of persons qua individuals at least formally public.

Indeed, this publicizing of nonpublic decisions will take shape in public justification. It is precisely this publicizing character which lends public justification its unusual character, as compared with the preceding phases. For this justification is only indirect; it does not resemble a justification in important respects. Given the above explanation, it consists merely in each person’s publicly holding that full justification allows her to embed the political conception in her reasonable comprehensive doctrine and thereby affirm it at a second-order level. In such a way, public justification adds no further first-order arguments or reasons to weigh in the justificatory balance. In which case, three pressing questions make themselves felt.

Firstly, on what grounds does Rawls deem public justification a justification in the same vein as the others if it calls on no new arguments or reasons? Secondly, why does public justification preclude persons from looking into one another’s comprehensive doctrines? Thirdly, why is public justification bound up with stability for the right reasons? In the end, the answers to these questions will prove closer in content that one might expect.

Rawls and subject 39

May 24, 2017

The fact remains that the ideal case typifies a particular standpoint or mindset which the person is to adopt vis-à-vis the political conception and her comprehensive doctrine. For full justification to proceed as envisioned, certain constraints must be respected as with an instance pro tanto justification. In much the same way, a particular form of reason sets limits on the kinds of acceptable reasons available in discourse and deliberation. That said, two relevant differences present themselves immediately: first, the person does not proceed from a view of public reason but from a personal or associational nonpublic reason; secondly, the person is not to conceive of herself as citizen but as individual in such a case. Naturally, these differences are interconnected in that the person operates as citizen within the public political culture, under the aegis of public reason, but as individual within the background culture, under the aegis of nonpublic reasons on the basis of group membership. Still, the complementarity between these situations allows us to define the individual standpoint as the complement to the citizen standpoint.

Recall that the latter enfolded and extended the original position and the representative party standpoint: rather than a depersonalized person in symmetrical relations with others autonomously proposing reasonable principles in publicly available modes, the person considers herself as a political person in free and equal relations with others autonomously proposing, in accordance with public reason, reasonable principles in publicly available modes for principles of political justice. For the author, these differences proved more than cosmetic: 1.) the person excludes appeal to rather than lacks knowledge of contingency and happenstance; 2.) the person stands as free and equal with regards to other, instead of merely symmetrical due to the original position’s uncertainty conditions; 3.) the person operates under conditions of full autonomy as opposed to rational autonomy.

These characteristics laid out, how then is the person engaging in full justification to consider herself? In a word, she considers herself to be an individual, i.e. a nonpolitical person in free and equal relations with others proposing, in accordance with nonpublic reason and within a given association, nonpublicly available reasons for principles of political justice. Though the object remains the same between the two phases of justification, the liberal principle of legitimacy gives way to concern for obtaining the widest consensus possible on the political conception of justice. This shift moves justification from the public political culture, wherein reasons are strictly limited in light of the principle of legitimacy, to the background culture, wherein reasons are limited rather by what a person or an association may justify to itself. In this way, the contingent information which the party standpoint lacks and the citizen standpoint does not heed is hitched to the political conception which these two formulate and is made to work for that conception. This thereby permit the political conception of justice to obtain greater reach in society and better grounded commitment on the part of persons therein.

This point concludes our exposition of full justification, overlapping consensus and the individual standpoint. If we push no further on the individual standpoint for the moment, this owes to its subordinate role in the pro tanto and full justification pairing. For, as suggested above, full justification may only complement pro tanto; it cannot supplant it. The person aiming to justify the political conception through full justification will have already had to just that conception through pro tanto justification and may conceivably do without full justification. That said, such a scenario fails to secure stability throughout society in the way envisaged by Rawls. In order to secure stability, it will instead be necessary to show publicly the articulation between pro tanto justification and full justification. This articulation will take shape in what Rawls terms public justification.

Rawls and subject 38

May 23, 2017

Leaving the question of public justification for the following section, we can remark that the passage stands in stark contrast with the pluralist comprehensive doctrine above. If such doctrines exist and persons may as often have a pluralist as a unitary comprehensive doctrine, then it does not seem possible to group persons strictly on the basis of their comprehensive doctrines. Nor is it clear in what way there would then be fewer comprehensive doctrines. For, if a pluralist doctrine allows for numerous combinations of subgroups, balances and moral make-up, as it were, these combinations may exist in greater numbers than the persons affirming them.

Although this line of questioning may appear dismissive of Rawls’ understanding of the relation between person and comprehensive doctrine, it would be more accurate to cast as the need for the author to qualify his political sociology in important ways. This qualification might take one of two forms. On one hand, he could argue that it is unimportant to be able to set criteria such that we might delimit one comprehensive doctrine from another. After all, it would prove difficult to set hard and fast limits of the kind needed to individuate comprehensive doctrines in an overarching taxonomy thereof. At best, one might speak of similarity in terms of family likeness. Moreover, whether the doctrine be fully comprehensive, partially comprehensive in the narrow sense or partially comprehensive in the broad sense, i.e. pluralist, the person will in the end appeal to nonpublic reasons of one kind or another. Hence, from a functional justificatory point of view, little would change on one interpretation or the other[1].

On the other hand, Rawls could appeal to the need to maintain a “theoretical looseness” when speaking of comprehensive doctrines. This looseness both seems to extend the preceding point and to open up a new direction. For the point shifts from that which we can reasonably expect when attempting to delineate the species of comprehensive doctrines to the extent to which we can reasonably expect a person to engage in full justification from any comprehensive doctrine:

At this point, a certain looseness in our comprehensive views, as well as their not being fully comprehensive, may be particularly significant […] One way in which [our model case] may be atypical is that two of the three doctrines were described as fully general and comprehensive: a religious doctrine of free faith and the comprehensive liberalism of Kant or Mill. In these cases the acceptance of the political conception was said to be derived from and to depend solely on the comprehensive doctrine. But how far in practice does the allegiance to a principle of political justice actually depend on the knowledge of or the belief in its derivation from a comprehensive view rather than on seeming reasonable in itself or as being viewed as part of a pluralist view, which is the third doctrine in our model case (PL, pp. 159-60)?

That is to say, it may be necessary to temper our expectations of what full justification resembles both at the level of the make-up of comprehensive doctrine and at the level of the person’s derivation with regards thereto. To that end, Rawls imagines a series of cases designed to bring these differences out:

Distinguish three cases: in the first the political principles are derived from a comprehensive doctrine; in the second they are not derived from a comprehensive doctrine; and in the third, they are incompatible with it. In everyday life we have not usually decided, or even thought much about, which of these cases hold. To decide among them would raise highly complicated questions; and it is not clear that we need to decide among them. Most people’s religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines are not seen by them as fully general and comprehensive, and these aspects admit of variations of degree. There is lots of slippage, so to speak, many ways for liberal principles of justice to cohere loosely with those (partially) comprehensive views, and many ways within the limits of political principles of justice to allow for the pursuit of different (partially) comprehensive doctrines. This suggests that many if not most citizens come to affirm the principles of justice incorporated into their constitution and political practice without seeing any particular connection, one way or the other, between those principles and their other views (PL, p. 160)[2].

To frame the cases somewhat differently, the first case demonstrates an instance of nonpublic justification, the second either pro tanto justification or some unspecified justification and the third an unreasonable comprehensive doctrine. Collectively, these cases suggest that full justification, i.e. the embedding of a freestanding political conception within the conceptual resources of a comprehensive doctrine so as to reach an overlapping consensus, stands as an ideal or limiting case which persons may approximate to a greater or lesser degree. Insofar as there may exist no clear relation between the person’s affirmed political conception and affirmed comprehensive doctrine, we cannot consider that the characteristics of full justification apply to each and every person.


[1] Admittedly, from a personal justificatory standpoint, as seen in Part II, this might make much more difference.

[2] The author ends the passage on an optimistic tone by noting that persons may well accept the principles on the basis of the goods which those principles accrue them, without consideration for full justification or, presumably, pro tanto justification. Persons in such a case may prefer to revise their doctrines rather than the principles.

Rawls and subject 37

May 22, 2017

For a person affirming the religious comprehensive doctrine above, that doctrine’s conceptual resources can make sense of and affirm at least the first principle of justice, establishing equal liberty. Whether those resources extend to the affirmation of the second principle of justice, establishing equal opportunity, remains to be seen. As to the political conception’s basic ideas, we can imagine a religious doctrine affirming a conception of the free and equal moral person as well as that of society as a joint venture. All in all, it seems that a person affirming this religious doctrine could find the necessary resources to meet the criteria of depth and specificity, if not breadth[1].

For a person affirming the liberal moral doctrine above, that doctrine’s conceptual resources will more easily facilitate the person’s making sense and affirmation of the political conception. Both agree on the need for a liberty principle like Rawls’, and the liberal moral doctrine could conceivably make room for a difference principle. In this second case, it thus seems that the person affirming the liberal moral doctrine could find the necessary resources to meet the criteria of depth, breadth and specificity.

As to the third case, for a person affirming a pluralist doctrine, that doctrine’s heterogenous conceptual resources render the full justification at once easier and harder. By that, we mean that, if it proves difficult to maintain with any certainty whether the person holding an indeterminate make-up and balance of reasons will affirm the political conception’s basic ideas, full scope or details on the basis thereof, that very indeterminateness may more readily dispose the person to embrace tolerance and, at least, affirm the liberty principle and the primary goods of the difference principle. In such a way, the person affirming the pluralist doctrine may dispose either of an inherent disposition towards tolerance or the conceptual resources necessary to meet the criteria of depth, breadth and specificity.

In reality, this last case proves all the more striking for the way in which it brings to the fore the fundamental tension surrounding Rawls’ political sociology and his presentation of persons and comprehensive doctrines therein. To return to the question of political sociology, recall that Rawls contends that each person affirms one comprehensive doctrine all while allowing that this doctrine may only be partially comprehensive, in the sense that the religious, philosophical doctrine may not cover all possible values. Certainly, the third example is partially comprehensive in this sense, but, moreover, it takes on a pluralist character, beyond what “partially comprehensive” otherwise suggests. More precisely, this partially comprehensive doctrine would seem to allow for a situation in which it includes elements from different comprehensive doctrines: “each subpart of this family has its own account based on ideas drawn from within it” (PL, p. 145).

If we draw attention to this point, it follows from the need to set our ideas straight on how we are to understand the standpoint which the person assumes in full justification. And such a need follows from passages such as following wherein Rawls appears to discount just such a pluralist comprehensive doctrine:

Consider the political sociology of a reasonable overlapping consensus: since there are far less doctrines than citizens, the latter may be grouped according to the doctrine they hold. More important than the simplification allowed by this numerical fact is that citizens are members of various associations into which, in many cases, they are born, and from which they usually, though not always, acquire their comprehensive doctrines (IV:6). The doctrines that different associations hold and propagate—as examples, think of religious associations of all kinds—play a basic social role in making public justification possible. This is how citizens may acquire their comprehensive doctrines. Moreover, these doctrines have their own life and history apart from their current members and endure from one generation to the next. The consensus of these doctrines is importantly rooted in the character of various associations and this is a basic fact about the political sociology of a democratic regime – crucial in providing a deep and enduring basis for its social unity (PL, 389-90).


[1] One might bemoan the little time which Rawls gives over to fleshing out his account of the interaction between the political conception and religious comprehensive doctrines in full justification in view of an overlapping consensus. He does invoke a religious example in this Lecture (cf. PL, pp. 148-9), but the example is historical and only bears on a prior modus vivendi. For a more thorough treatment of religion and full justification, closer attention should be paid to “Public Reason Revisited” in CP, pp. ___

Fr. 781

May 21, 2017

There are perhaps further question about Stout’s retrieval of Emersonian democratic individuality. Certainly, we can envision individuality as being neither atomistic nor conformist in that individuality necessarily has models but does not limit itself to imitation thereof. Instead, it both has examples and makes itself an example and thereby takes upon itself the pains of thinking for itself. In short, democratic individuality would exist with a multidimensional web of self-responsible loci of authority, bound up with influence and acculturation, models and examples, emulating and standing for. Wherefore a “value-laden, social perspectival theory of ethical religious and political conduct”.

The above speaks volumes for Emerson’s continued importance today, but I would like, if possible, to get clearer on what Stout’s retrieval of Emerson democratic individuality, as a form of sociality against the herd, entails more specifically. So, I would put forward two questions:

1.) From the standpoint of democratic individuality, one is called out of conformity. But what precisely is one called out of conformity with? Are these communities, groups, sub-groups? Social types or roles writ large? Imitated models or acculturated practices? Or, still else, one’s attained self or how the former are integrated therein? It seems to me that, in order no longer to conform, one must have some idea of the object of that conformity.

2.) From the standpoint of democratic individuality, one brings the repression of unauthorized thoughts (and the potentiality thereof) to consciousness. But where do these unauthorized thoughts follow from? The disruptive power of “an impersonal power responsible for all finite excellence”? The calling of another? The (un)attained self? In a word, in what way do those thoughts stand free of the authorized? If one understand the individual as the bearer of a concrete, personal history and resident of an epoch, culture and community, those thoughts must stand in some specifiable relation to one’s cognitive context.