Skip to content

Rawls and public reason X

December 2, 2016

Certainly, the idea of public reason presupposes that there exists a nonpublic reason from which it is to be set apart. What enables Rawls to distinguish public from nonpublic reasons? Such will prove his principal concern in the lecture’s third section. In response thereto, the author lays a definition out before proceeding to more developed illustrations. He writes:

First of all, there are many nonpublic reasons and but one public reason. Among the nonpublic reasons are those of associations of all kinds: churches and universities, scientific societies and professional groups. As we have said, to act reasonably and responsibly, corporate bodies, as well as individuals, need a way of reasoning about what is to be done. This way of reasoning is public with respect to their members, but nonpublic with respect to political society and to citizens generally. Nonpublic reasons comprise the many reasons of civil society and belong to what I have called the “background culture,” in contrast with the public political culture. These reasons are social, and certainly not private (220).

Certainly, there is much to commend in this passage. Rawls provides considerations to the effect that public reason is at once unitary and less monolithic than one might believe. It is unitary in the sense that public reason addresses itself to all persons qua citizens without exception. With regards to political society, i.e. the association of all citizens, there can be only one public reason, the same for each. Yet public reason is not monolithic in that the criteria and ends which organize justification within nonpublic associations, i.e. civil society or the association of persons as individuals, are effectively public with regards to a given association’s membership. More simply, within an association, nonpublic reason takes on a public quality in that it equally concerns all members therein and constrains their discourse.

In this way, the meaning of public shifts as the person moves from one audience to another. What counts as public in political society, i.e. for the person qua citizen, does not count as public in civil society, i.e. for the person qua individual. Moreover, Rawls takes care to discredit views on which nonpublic reasons are equivalent with the merely private. So long as an association’s justification and discourse are constrained by certain criteria and ends and lead the association’s member to a relative consensus, then one concurs with Rawls in judging their reasons “social” in origin rather than stemming from a single person and hence being “private”.

In a footnote, the author expands on this last remark:

The public vs. nonpublic distinction is not the distinction between public and private. This latter I ignore: there is no such thing as private reason. There is social reason—the many reasons of associations in society which make up the background culture; there is also, let us say domestic reason— the reason of families a small groups in society—and this contrasts both with public and social reason. As citizens, we participate in all these kinds of reason and have the rights of equal citizens when we do so (note to 220).

On the matter of private reason, one can recognize with Rawls that social and domestic reason better get at the interpersonal conditions in which various instantiations of reason necessarily arrive. In a strict sense, as with Wittgenstein, private reason is an incoherent notion. On the other hand, Rawls introduces a certain measure of confusion in his use of the term citizen, a point to which it is important to call attention. It is not as citizen but as person that the person participates in all these kinds of reason insofar as the conception of person as citizen and the citizen standpoint are peculiar to public reason. Put differently, it is not as citizen that the mother addresses the child or the pastor a congregation member but as individual within an association and from that standpoint. The relevant conception of person and standpoint does not seem the citizen as such but a conception of person to which Rawls alludes without ever systematizing: individual.

Certainly, Rawls would draw attention to the way in which rights of citizens apply across all groups and associations, independently of their nonpublic reason, be it social or domestic. And the author could conceivably add that this provides a connection between different spheres of human activity. Yet it remains to be seen whether a one-direction connection or set of formal rights constitutes a true point of articulation between those spheres. After all, Rawls’ view of justification, which the idea of public reason girds, goes to considerable lengths to isolate those spheres from one another. What further value(s) might bring them together?

Otherwise, if the distinction between political and civil society respectively helps to generate the citizen and individual standpoints, one may nonetheless detect a certain rigidity in these terms. After all, Rawls admits that a relation of public reason can obtain in civil society between persons in an association who have set criteria and ends for justification. One can imagine that a similar relation could obtain in political society between persons in the public forum. Either a person could address a subset of the public forum which accept certain set criteria and ends for justification which are not those of public reason or the same person could ask others momentarily to grant certain set criteria and ends for justification while later granting them the same concessions.

Most likely, Rawls would say of the first that it is not public in that the person does not address the same reasons to all and of the second that the person demonstrates a lack of other-regarding behavior in proposing a narrow-minded view which is not others’.  That said, the first could perhaps be considered public in the sense that the person may come over the course of addressing each person or group to addressing all persons or groups; conceivably, this person may also begin by addressing a public reason to all persons or groups and then proceeding to address mini-publics or subsets of the public forum. As to the second, while narrow-minded, this approach would nonetheless meet one important formal characteristic of public reason, namely that of addressing the same reasons to the whole of the public forum. In sum, there seems reason to think that the terms public and nonpublic shift and can shift further than Rawls explicitly allows in the text, a consideration to which such critics as Jeffrey Stout have drawn no little attention.

Rawls and public reason IX

December 1, 2016

What accounts for the moral quality of that consensus and wherefore the ethical value of public reason?

That Rawls is sensitive to these questions comes out in passages like the one below wherein political liberalism, with the corresponding duty of public reason, is seen to promote both rights and values:

What has to be shown is either that honoring the limits of public reason by citizens generally is required by certain basic rights and liberties and their corresponding duties, or else that it advances certain great values, or both. Political liberalism relies on the conjecture that the basic rights and duties and values in question have sufficient weight so that the limits of public reason are justified by the overall assessments of reasonable comprehensive doctrines once those doctrines have adapted to the conception of justice itself (219). 

Put differently, if liberal rights and democratic values have any ethical currency with a group of people and the idea of public reason helps both to preserve and to promote such rights and values, then, from at least one perspective, people have the moral duty to promote idea of public reason along with the political liberalism which provides its frame. Rawls considers that, should people holding reasonable comprehensive doctrines both recognize the political conception and the way in which that conception promotes morally worthy ends, those people will adjust their reasonable comprehensive doctrines to reflect those same ends. Thus, political liberalism and the idea of public reason can be seen to carry a moral charge worthy of the person’s assent and engagement.

By extension, if the idea of public reason applies to that which carries such a charge and the basic structure concerns rights and values of this kind, then applying the idea of public reason to all topics in relation with the basic structure presents itself as a moral demand on the person. So does the democratic practice of voting come under such moral demands. Because voting on matters of the basic structure concerns the rights of others and their ability to instantiate political values, voting represents a behavior in which the person can demonstrate her moral worth to herself and others. For Rawls, voting with regards to constitutional essentials is fundamentally public and moral:

On fundamental political questions the idea of public reason rejects common views of voting as a private and even personal matter. One view is that people may properly vote their preferences and interests, social and economic, not to mention their dislikes and hatreds. Democracy is said to be majority rule and a majority can do as it wishes. Another view, offhand quite different, is that people may vote what they see as right and true as their comprehensive convictions direct without taking into account public reasons.

In short, some vote on the basis of their personal inclinations while others vote on that of personal conviction. One may think that the former are more reprehensible than the latter in that they subject others to mere inclination rather than considered judgment. Yet, for the author, both come up short precisely in that neither engages the problem of cooperation nor recognizes the interpersonal or societal consequences of their voting. Despite their outer differences, voters of both kinds prove alike are insufficiently other-regarding:

[B]oth views are similar in that neither recognizes the duty of civility and neither respects the limits of public reason in voting on matters of constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice. The first view is guided by our preferences and interests, the second view by what we see as the whole truth.

Certainly, this discrediting of such views follows from what one may deem a recognizably Kantian position: the first gives little heed to the preferences of others, being self-interested, the second to the convictions of others, being narrow-minded, neither one nor the other thus being universalizable in that they fail to integrate an other-position in their reasoning. For these reasons, both views of voting tend to promote behavior which fails to consider others’ rights and moral worth and thus proves immoral.

That said, this condemnation is not without its failings. On one hand, this commentary has earlier pointed to situations which persons may be find themselves obligated to voice their stance on both basic and non-basic issues through a single vote, as when they vote for a candidate to office with power to alter both the basic structure and tertiary institutions. On the other, persons may attempt to respect the idea of public reason but nonetheless fail due to a lack of moral competence in the form of intelligence, traits or values necessary thereto. In such cases, it does not seem unthinkable that their voting could better respect rights and values through reference to their comprehensive doctrines which may, despite everything, prove sufficiently other-regarding in the right ways. In the end, it bears considering whether the idea of public reason genuinely lessens the cognitive burden on persons while promoting other-regarding tendencies in their reasoning or instead promotes an overly rigid view of political autonomy and heteronomy out of touch with persons’ moral everyday.

The lecture’s second section ends on this note. The third turns to the distinction between public and nonpublic reasons.

Fr. 744

November 30, 2016

Nevertheless, to be efficacious in the public forum and in the public sphere, the agent will, at some point, have to translate her findings from within the original position qua representational device to a group of persons working together in actual institutions within actual society. At that time, each person will be called upon to explain the reasoning which led her to espouse a particular political conception, even if each such conception falls within a family of political conceptions similar to Rawls’ justice as fairness. It is not inconceivable that, in the course of such explanation, differences between their conceptions will emerge, such that mediation of some kind will be undertaken in order to assure convergence between their distinct conceptions.

Although mediation could likewise make use of public reasons, it bears mentioning that their deliberation up to that point had, hypothetically, depended solely on the use of public reasons and had yet led to differing political conceptions (within an acceptable range). Thus, further appeal to public reasons may be of little help in ensuring convergence between their views, to the point that other reasons may need to be sought. Indeed, nonpublic reasons could, with appeal to the person’s doctrine, help each more forcefully to articulate her point and, in time, come to convergence with others. Apart from considerations of heteronomy and symmetry, this suggestion would seem to pose little problem in a small enough group seeking concerted political action.

Still, this aspect brings out the fact that, at some point, the original position qua representational device and decision procedure will require plural agents if it is to rise to the level of concerted political action. Though hypothetically sufficient for the representational device, a singular agent, whether individual or corporate person, cannot act alone when the time comes to translate the resulting political conception to public engagement. Additionally, for reasons just suggested, the exchange between persons may come too late for them to converge in their views through appeal to public reasons alone. This would seem reason to incorporate exchange between persons earlier into the original position, in any of the four stages, so long as convergence is reached between concerned parties before the need for nonpublic reasons arises.

If so, one may wonder whether the original position is best suited to the exercise of a single agent and must not take on certain characteristics, i.e. a group of persons exchanging reasons, which would call into question three aspects of the device as Rawls describes it. First, one can ask whether, in order to achieve concerted political action, the original position must include two or more agents from the beginning, thus casting doubt on Rawls’ claim that the conditions for the original position are neither actual nor to be reified. Secondly, one could also ask whether his position retains as much simplicity and leaves the agents similarly unburdened once two or more agents interact within the representational device, no longer representational at that point.

Thirdly, this point raises concerns that the original position proves workable at all qua representational device for a single position to work through. After all, this device entails no fewer than four separate stages, each with a differing standpoint and distinct kinds of information and reasons available to the agent each stage. This is without counting the three steps of justification which follow, with their own distinct constraints and standpoints. It may seem that, with seven phases, standpoints and associated constraints, the original position may simply prove too unwieldy for the layperson sans guidance from, say, a political philosopher.

One can imagine the author turning the first two concerns aside with reference to two points. On one hand, Rawls could easily maintain that his account seeks to answer how it is possible that people espousing different comprehensive doctrines might come to accept a common political conception. Thus, there would be no need to shift from the merely possible to the actual. On the other hand, one can imagine Rawls making reference to his earliest publication, “Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics” wherein he downplays the need to make said decision procedure psychologically viable:

It should be noted that we are concerned here only with the existence of a reasonable method, and not with the problem of how to make it psychologically effective in the settling of disputes. How much allegiance the method is able to gain is irrelevant for our present purposes. (CP, 1).

So, allowing for the parallel, Rawls could, in a similar vein, note that he has shown the representational device to exist even if the particulars of its operation do not allow for its realization in the reflective life of laypeople. Yet this seems to run counter to that which Rawls maintained at the outset, i.e. that the original position did not stand as a merely theoretical process. Hence, the original position must be realizable at some level and by certain agents if the author’s broader points are to obtain. Anything short of realizability leaves this representational device too far in the merely theoretical, the political philosopher’s camp.

In sum, this account has shown that, while the original position acquits itself rather well with most criticisms, Rawls’ insistence on its role as a representational device neither actual nor theoretical leaves it in a dilemma. If not actual, the original position depends on a single person for both its execution and the translation of the political conception to the public forum and political action. If not theoretical, the original position must be realizable by the layperson and capable of effecting change within the public forum and political action. Yet, when neither actual nor theoretical, the original position seems to call for a plurality of agents, which Rawls’ stated position expressly forbids in order to retain the original position’s usefulness as a merely representational device for the decision procedure. In the end, the original position seems to vacillate between actual and theoretical, singular and plural, while belonging to neither entirely, and consequently finds itself in an impracticable situation with no issue.


Fr. 743

November 29, 2016

First, whether the agent be an individual or a corporate person, it may seem unclear in what way the original position qua decision procedure ensures that all agents come to affirm the same principles of justice in the end. This question proves all the more worthwhile in that Rawls allows that conceptions of justice are subject to change over time, as evidenced by both philosophical and constitutional history. Certainly, the author explains time and again that the positions up for consideration in the original position are drawn from a predetermined list of conceptions from moral philosophy and, moreover, that the precise political conception issuing from the four-stage sequence is likely to vary within a family of similarly reasonable conceptions. Indeed, justice as fairness allows for just possibilities.

That said, it remains to be seen how the agent, having completed the original position qua representational device, would then know whether others had arrived at the same result. In other words, for the resulting political conception to carry political value with a plurality of people, an element of deliberation between people must come into play at some point, be this during the four-stage sequence or following the elaboration of its political conception. Otherwise, the original position leads to neither dialogue nor action.

If we suppose that the agent takes care to simulate difference of opinions within the original position, perhaps by imagining herself from a variety of positions, that deliberative, discursive element might come into play. Yet it bears mentioning that, for Rawls, there can be no variety of positions therein, for the relevant standpoint proves identical for each party to deliberation in the original position qua representational device. Nor, on his view, would agent qua rational person come to favor any conception of justice other than justice as fairness and its two principles of justice, for the reasons exposed in A Theory of Justice. This would effectively undercut the worry that different people might arrive at different conclusions from the constraints.

Rawls’ efforts to clarify above have the further advantage of showing in what way the original position qua representational device is more dialogical than other authors have allowed in the past. The author draws special attention to this when he remarks:

[J]ustice as fairness apparently supposes that citizens’ conception of justice can be fixed once and for all.. This overlooks the crucial point that we are in civil society and that the political conception of justice, like any other conception, is always subject to being checked by our reflective considered judgments. Using the idea of perpetuity here is a way of saying that when we imagine rational (not reasonable) parties to select principles, it is a reasonable condition to require them to do so assuming their selection is to hold in perpetuity (PL, 399).

In truth, this would seem to undercut the frequent criticism that the original position requires one to determine a political conception once and for all, such that the basic conditions are in place for the machine to continue functioning well into the future. Against such a reading, Rawls recalls that the agents running through the original position nonetheless remain within history upon exiting the representational device.

Accordingly, the political conception resulting from the four-stage sequence would then serve as a measure against which inherited institutions might be checked for overall justice. On the other hand, those same critics might, much like Habermas, still worry that the fact of imposing constraints on discourse ahead of time prevents the dialogue from being fully dialogical. To this, the author would only need respond that the constraints are, again, reasonable: each would want for herself the protections offered by liberal rights and democratic institutions, were other facts of her future social existence withheld. More simply, those same critics could themselves be charged with presupposing such rights and institutions all the while being unable to show how they intend to secure those given conditions of unconstrained dialogue.


This does not preclude critics from voicing other concerns. Supposing that the individual is engaged in the original position, one may ask whether it remains reasonable to exclude her real reasons from deliberation if these are nonpublic in the relevant sense. Rawls would likely maintain that it remains fair insofar as, were she to allow her own nonpublic reasons into the deliberation, she would then be required to represent others’ nonpublic opinions in order to ensure the proceedings’ fairness. Yet careful recreation of the latter might require conceptual resources or argumentative sophistication of which she is ordinarily incapable due to limits on human cognitive and rational capacities.

In other words, the individual cannot be everything to everyone nor even to herself. This accounts for a practical motivation underlying the setup of the original position qua representational device in which a single agent, be it individual or corporate person, works through the proceedings. Namely, the reasonable constraints imposed reduce in one way the cognitive burden placed on the agent throughout the decision procedure. There is only so much which she both needs to know and to take into account in order to reach a fair result.


Fr. 742

November 28, 2016

Rawls tasks the ninth and final lecture in Political Liberalism, “Reply to Habermas”, with making explicit a number of points in justice as fairness to which the German philosopher had drawn attention as either unclear or incomplete. Section 3 therein deals, in large part, with the charge that Rawls’ original position deprives democratic citizens’ of opportunities both to shape the political conception’s content through will-formation and to exercise their political autonomy by determining important features of political conception prior to citizen involvement by way of the original position (396-7).

Rawls’ reply thereto comes in two parts, of which some elements prove more familiar and others less. He begins by recalling that his readers should avoid reifying the original position.

First, the fourstage sequence describes neither an actual political process, nor a purely theoretical one. Rather, it is part of justice as fairness and constitutes part of a framework of thought that citizens in civil society who accept justice as fairness are to use in applying its concepts and principles. It sketches what kinds of norms and information are to guide our political judgments of justice, depending on their subject and context (397).

Notably, this applies to the original position qua both decision procedure and first of four stages in the sequence embodying that procedure, namely, original position, constitutional convention, legislature, judiciary. Moreover, to each of these corresponds a distinct epistemic standpoint which regulates how much information and what kind of reasons become available within that stage to the person occupying the standpoint in question. Rawls lays this out as follows:

We begin in the original position where the parties select principles of justice; next, we move to a constitutional convention where—seeing ourselves as delegates—we are to draw up the principles and rules of a constitution in the light of the principles of justice already on hand. After this we become, as it were, legislators enacting laws as the constitution allows and as the principles of justice require and permit; and finally, we assume the role of judges interpreting the constitution and laws as members of the judiciary, Different levels and kinds of information are available at each stage and in each case designed to enable us to apply the (two) principles intelligently, making rational but not partial decisions favoring our own interests or the interests of those to whom we are attached, such as our friends or religion, our social position or political party (397-8).

In a word, the four-stage sequence aids the person in finding a middle ground between pure history and pure theory. Rawls expects neither that this decision procedure be embodied solely in the founding of new political bodies nor that a requisite group of people be assembled to similar ends. Furthermore, the fact of breaking the sequence down into identifiable stages helps familiarize and simplify the task at hand, moving the decision procedure from the realm of armchair philosophy to ordinary life.

The second part of Rawls’ response to the above charge reprises this last point:

The second point, related to the preceding ore, is that when citizens in political offices or civil society use this framework, the institutions they find themselves under are not the work of a political philosopher who has institutionalized them in theory beyond citizens’ control. Rather, those institutions are the work of past generations who pass them on to us as we grow up under them. We assess them when we come of age and act accordingly. All this seems obvious once the purpose and use of the four- stage sequence is made clear (399).

This makes clearer in what way the original position would then act as an individual’s means of check, in four stages, the “health” of current institutions, which would move this representational device from the realm of the politically prehistoric or merely hypothetical to the everyday.

Yet questions remain over the the original position and the four-stage sequence which, somewhat ironically, the author’s attempts at explication here have only served to muddy further. This stems in large part from his vacillation over the precise characterization over the agent working through the four-stage sequence. Recall that the original position, both as procedure and stage, is typified by the reasonable and the rational, the former of which provides formal constraints on the procedure and the latter of which works through the content therein. The author remarks of the person working through that procedure:

The rational […] applies to a single, unified agent (either an individual or corporate person) with the powers of judgment and deliberation in seeking ends and interests peculiarly its own (PL, 50).

Two clear meanings suggest themselves here. Either the agent of the procedure is a person working her own interests out subject to constraints imposed by the reasonable or the agent is a person working out the interests of a group of persons which she represents within that procedure. (In addition, a third more tenuous reading might take the form of a group of individuals working their shared interests out without recourse to representative party, a possibility which Rawls likely discounts when he remarks that the original position is not an actual event, but to which we shall return nonetheless to see whether it might better withstand concerns to follow.)

Taking each of these cases into account, we shall now try to work through more concretely how the agent goes about this procedure and the four-stage sequence.

Rawls and public reason VIII

November 25, 2016

To the reasons above, one could conceivably add a further consideration along epistemological lines: namely, one may doubt whether the reasonable, so conceived, allows one to bracket outside considerations which one may otherwise consider necessary for justification, be it descriptive or normative. As opposed to the criticisms above, this line of questioning meets with more considerable obstacles in that Rawls espouses no particular epistemological doctrine. That said, the broad outlines of such a position can be traced, but this will come at a later time.

The reasonable and the rational having been treated, that leaves the term of civility mentioned above, and on which Rawls has more to say in the following passage:

Beyond this, the political values realized by a well-ordered constitutional regime are very great values and not easily overridden and the ideals they express are not to be lightly abandoned. Thus, when the political conception is supported by an overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines, the paradox of public reason disappears. The union of the duty of civility with the great values of the political yields the ideal of citizens governing themselves in ways that each thinks the others might reasonably be expected to accept; and this ideal in turn is supported by the comprehensive doctrines reasonable persons affirm. Citizens affirm the ideal of public reason, not as a result of political compromise, as in a modus vivendi, but from within their own reasonable doctrines (218).

The duty of civility seems here intimately bound up with a further basic idea of Rawls’, that of overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines, as well as with the three stages of justification, to which we have already alluded. It may be helpful at this time to recall the basic features of overlapping consensus as well as the three stages which complete it:

In such a consensus, the reasonable doctrines endorse the political conception, each from its own point of view. Social unity is based on a consensus on the political conception; and stability is possible when the doctrines making up the consensus are affirmed by society’s politically active citizens and the requirements of justice are not too much in conflict with citizens’ essential interests as formed and encouraged by their social arrangements (134).

In a word, people deliberating in accord with the original position will arrive at a certain political conception, which will 1.) be subjected to deliberation by the person from the citizen standpoint and, hence, on the basis of public reasons alone. Then, 2.) the person shall further deliberate thereon but this time from the individual standpoint and on the basis of her doctrine’s nonpublic reasons, i.e. from its own cognitive context and with its own conceptual economy. If she assents to the political conception on the basis of her nonpublic doctrine, the political conception is both publically and nonpublically justified for that person, wherefore the first of two overlaps in the consensus. The second of these overlaps comes when 3.) each person makes known to all others that she assents to the political conception for reasons both public and nonpublic, without specifying the content of those nonpublic reasons. These three stages represent the three stages of justification, each with its proper economy and standpoint (see 386-7).

It can now be made clear in just what way these ideas intersect with the duty of civility. Recall that the author describes this duty as follows:

[T]he duty of civility — to be able to explain to one another on those fundamental questions how the principles and policies they advocate and vote for can be supported by the political values of public reason. This duty also involves a willingness to listen to others and a fairmindedness in deciding when accommodations to their views should reasonably be made.

So conceived, civility concerns stages 1.) and 3.). In 1.), the person should give political reasons for the political questions which arise from the political conception and the basic structure under deliberation because others can engage those reasons and questions without disadvantage. Providing them such reasons shows respect or civility. So do the willingness to hear them out and the fairmindedness to make concessions with regards to their own political reasons and questions, presumably in both 1.) and 3.) That said, it remains unclear whether stage 3.) introduces any new reasons into the process of justification for which the person would have to make further allowances of civility.

Regardless, Rawls finds that the idea of overlapping consensus, with the three stages of justification, joined with the duty of civility allows one to dissolve the apparent paradox plaguing the idea of public reason and this on two counts. On one hand, the persons making up society agree on a conception of justice as much for nonpublic reasons as public reasons, thereby removing objections of artificial constraint. On the other, the duty of civility works to establish a public culture of reasongiving in which both public and nonpublic reasons have their place, thereby sidestepping claims of isolated political enclaves. Their combination enables Rawls to maintain that the idea of public reason can be the subject of a genuine moral consensus and hence avoids charges as to its status as mere modus vivendi.

Further attention will soon be paid to the moral quality of this consensus, as well as the value of public reason.

Rawls and public reason VII

November 24, 2016

Rawls reprises the first terms “reasonable” and “rational” in a passage on the following page:

As reasonable and rational, and knowing that [citizens] affirm a diversity of reasonable religious and philosophical doctrines, they should be ready to explain the basis of their actions to one another in terms each could reasonably expect that others might endorse as consistent with their freedom and equality. Trying to meet this condition is one of the tasks that this ideal of democratic politics asks of us. Understanding how to conduct oneself as a democratic citizen includes understanding an ideal of public reason (218).

Indeed, Rawls has defined these terms as early as the first lecture as the two aspects of moral personality relevant to the person’s standpoint as citizen. Behind reasonableness lies the key idea of reciprocity:

Persons are reasonable in one basic aspect when, among equals say, they are ready to propose principles and standards as fair terms of cooperation and to abide by them willingly, given the assurance that others will likewise do so. Those norms they view as reasonable for everyone to accept and therefore as justifiable to them; and they are ready to discuss the fair terms that others propose. The reasonable is an element of the idea of society as a system of fair cooperation and that its fair terms be reasonable for all to accept is part of its idea of reciprocity. As I have said (1:3.2) the idea of reciprocity lies between the idea of impartiality, which is altruistic (as moved by the general good), and the idea of mutual advantage understood as everyone’s being advantaged with respect to one’s present or expected situation as things are (49-50).

In short, the person is reasonable insofar as she: 1.) proposes terms for cooperation; 2.) considers others’ proposed terms; and 3.) stands by the terms accepted. Coercive terms for cooperation acceptable to all must likewise be justifiable to all (as per the legitimacy problem above), hence both the terms and the reasons for those terms must be identical or, at the very least, similar for all. In this way, reciprocity for Rawls also proves a form of symmetry: all offer the same terms for the same reasons. Wherefore two further criteria or functions which the idea of public reason must fulfill.

Consequently, one can maintain that the fairness models the reasonable and the reasonable the justifiable, in such a way that Rawls’ project in Political Liberalism is as much justification as fairness as justice as fairness, a point to which this commentary shall return. For the moment, it remains to be seen how the rational slots into the scheme above:

The rational is, however, a distinct idea from the reasonable and applies to a single, unified agent (either an individual or corporate person) with the powers of judgment and deliberation in seeking ends and interests peculiarly its own. The rational applies to how these ends and interests are adopted and affirmed, as well as to how they are given priority. It also applies to the choice of means, in which case it is guided by such familiar principles as: to adopt the most effective means to ends, or to select the more probable alternative, other things equal (50).

In sum, the person is rational insofar as she: 1.) adopts and affirms ends and interests; 2.) prioritizes certain ends and interests over others; and 3.) arranges her actions in light of that ordering. (It should be added that “rationality” so conceived surpasses mere means-based reasoning in that it operates from the perspective of furthering a good, whatever the person’s good may be.)

How then does the rational relate to the reasonable? In truth, the rational and the reasonable occupy distinct roles within the deliberative and justificatory economy. Whereas the former furnishes the choice of means, ends and institutions for the basic structure, the latter lays out the criteria constraining the choice of means, ends and institutions for that structure. More simply, the rational provides the material on which justification will work while the reasonable shapes the course of justification. So does the rational work at the level of content but the reasonable at the level of form.

On Rawls’ view, the idea of public reason then would consist simply in a reasonable form of public justification, in the narrow sense here. If Rawls criticism has largely left the rational aside, the reasonable has come under fire for a number of reasons. Rather than enumerate them, this commentary will briefly ask which criticisms best approximate the ideal of immanent critique. As suggested above, such criticisms would proceed from criteria or functions which Rawls sets himself but fails to fulfill, adequately or otherwise, but would neither precipitously change the root problem nor impose outside considerations.

Accordingly, this leaves the critic with two possible avenues for proceeding: either a.) turning the criteria of reciprocity and symmetry or b.) claiming that public reason does not (adequately) achieve its ends of consensus or equilibrium.  As to a.), one may object that worry over symmetry between equal citizens leads Rawls to require identity between terms and reasons offered; after all, the most perfect symmetry would be one of identity. That said, one can conceive of a reciprocity independent of symmetry: for example, one can speak of mutual or reciprocal admiration without that admiration holding in esteem the same qualities nor taking hold for the same reasons. Admiration is no less reciprocal for it. (This helps to bring out certain underlying intuitions of Stout’s similar critique.)

Concerning b.), one could contend for various reasons that Rawls’ idea of public reason fails to achieve or could better achieve consensus, at least in one phase of justification. Perhaps the original position and the idea of public reason prove too unwieldy as framing devices or the parties to discussion feel unconvinced or otherwise unmoved by the reasons given therein. So might this phase of justification be superseded by one of the latter in which broader reasons could be given. (This likewise anticipates Stout’s critique while suggesting additional ways forward.)