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Rawls and subject 22

April 7, 2017

Still, it may remain unclear for the reader in what way precisely the above definitions, procedure and conception come together to constrain political discourse and deliberation. Indeed, more needs be said not merely on the content of public reason but, relatedly, on its scope. The author sketches out the latter in writing:

To begin: in a democratic society public reason is the reason of equal citizens who as a collective body, exercise final political and coercive power over one another in enacting laws and in amending their constitution. The first point is that the limits imposed by public reason do not apply to all political questions but only to those involving what we may call “constitutional essentials” and questions of basic justice […] This means that political values alone are to settle such fundamental questions as: who has the right to vote, or what religions are to be tolerated, or who is to be assured fair equality of opportunity, or to hold property. These and similar questions are the special subject of public reason[1].

These self-imposed limits to public reason’s scope must be taken seriously if we are not to mischaracterize Rawls’ position. Political considerations, delimited under the aegis of public reason and in accordance with the representational device of the original position, can only decide the most basic questions in society: those regarding constitutional rights and institutions of distributive justice. If the author insists on these limits, it stems from the concern to properly delimit what public reason, and, by extension, pro tanto justification, can and cannot hope to achieve. For not all political questions come under the purview of public reason. Consider that:

Many if not most political questions do not concern those fundamental matters, for example, much tax legislation and many laws regulating property; statutes protecting the environment and controlling pollution; establishing national parks and preserving wilderness and animal and plant species; and laying aside funds for museums and the arts. Of course, sometimes these do involve fundamental matters. A full account of public reason would take up these other questions and explain in more detail than I can here how they differ from constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice and why the restrictions imposed by public reason may not apply to them; or if they do, not in the same way, or so strictly[2].

Insofar as many matters of public concern do not bear on the make-up of basic institutions, e.g. the executive, legislative or judicial, nor on the basic rights of the democratic subject and the mechanisms for distributive justice, public reason does not dictate what kinds of reasons are to be offered when laying out, defending or modifying a given position on matters of this kind[3]. At this stage, it may prove useful to coin a distinction between properly political questions, to which public reason applies, and merely public questions which may arise both in political, public and nonpublic forums and to which public reason need not apply[4].

From there, one may naturally conclude, as Rawls does, to the situations which call for public reason and, by extension, pro tanto justification. Importantly, one should also note that public reason constrains government officials and citizens in different ways. For the former, Rawls deems the constraints particularly stringent as public reason:

[…] applies in official forums and so to legislators when they speak on the floor of parliament, and to the executive in its public acts and pronouncements. It applies also in a special way to the judiciary and above all to a supreme court in a constitutional democracy with judicial review. This is because the justices have to explain and justify their decisions as based on their understanding of the constitution and relevant statues and precedents[5].

[1] PL, p. 214.

[2] PL, pp. 214-5.

[3] As Rawls seems to allow, one can imagine circumstances in which institutional or rights aspects come up with such topics, e.g. whether the need to combat climate change can entail considerable alterations to goods, public and private, to which the subject’s rights would ordinarily entitle her. In such a case, both public and nonpublic reasons might be introduced therein depending on the particulars of the case.

[4] It should be noted that Rawls makes an analogous distinction with regards to forum or audience, i.e. between “public forum” and “background society” (see PL, pp. ____ ). That said, the distinction could be made clearer regarding the difference between political (between government officials), public (between the former, politically engaged citizens and the broader public) and nonpublic (between both of the former and nonpublic associations). This multiplication of kinds of questions and kinds of public may allow for greater clarity by providing question-audience couplings, e.g. political-political, political-public, political-nonpublic, etc., when the time comes to reaffirm what public reason can or cannot do. One could further refine this by specifying the speaker as well.

[5] PL, pp. 215-6.

Rawls and subject 21

April 6, 2017
  • Pro tanto justification, public reason and citizen

The passage on pro tanto justification is short enough that we will here quote in full:

Consider pro tanto justification. In public reason the justification of the political conception takes into account only political values, and I assume that a political conception properly laid out is complete […]. That is, the political values specified by it can be suitably ordered, or balanced, so that those values alone give a reasonable answer by public reason to all or nearly all questions concerning constitutional essentials and basic justice. This is the meaning of pro tanto justification. By examining a wide range of political questions to see whether a political conception can always provide a reasonable answer we can check to see if it seems to be complete. But since political justification is pro tanto, it may be overridden by citizens’ comprehensive doctrines once all values are tallied up[1].

If Rawls has relatively little to say on pro tanto justification, this is because he has already devoted considerable attention to this phase of justification in the form of public reason in Lecture VI. Ordinarily, a political conception issuing from the four-stage sequence posits a number of values; appeal to these values, as guided by public reason, is sufficient to arbitrate between rival claims in case of conflict over constitutional essentials and basic justice. As the term pro tanto suggests, those values take us as far as we can go with respect to determining the validity of a claim. In other words, pro tanto justification cannot be understood independently of Rawls’ exposition of public reason, such that, before we can go forwards, we must go backwards to that earlier treatment as well as the conceptions of society and citizen which frame it. We will return to the above passage in closing.

First of all, it will be helpful to recall that, like the original position, the idea of public reason responds to a specific theoretico-practical concern and, accordingly, describes a procedure to meet that need. Certainly, both concern and procedure differ in this case: the concern, as stated above, stems from legitimizing political judgments on constitutional essentials and basic justice in a situation of reasonable pluralism; the procedure consists not in a representational device but in a set of constraints on political discourse between differently situated persons. It may also prove useful to recall what makes public reason both “public” and “reason”. We may define, with Rawls, “reason” both as “a way of formulating its plans, of putting its ends in an order of priority and of making decisions accordingly” and as the “ability to do these things”, i.e. “an intellectual and moral power”[2]. In short, reason consists in those discursive and deliberative means which a person or group of persons may use to lay out, defend or modify her view on a matter.

In what way is this reason then “public”? One might suppose that a use of reason becomes public in virtue of taking place before a public forum. Yet the fact of discussing and deliberating before a public audience does not suffice to make the use of reason therein “public”. Indeed, the term requires further qualification, which the author undertakes in Lecture VI’s introduction:

Not all reasons are public reasons, as there are the nonpublic reasons of churches and universities and of many other associations in civil society […] Public reason is characteristic of a democratic people: it is the reason of its citizens, of those sharing the status of equal citizenship[3].

So, there exist both public and nonpublic reason(s), public reason being characteristic of democratic institutions and nonpublic of associations. All the same, it is conceivable that a person can lay out, defend or modify any manner of view in a democratic public forum, such that it remains to be seen in just what sense Rawls intends “public”. Cognizant of this need, he clarifies:

Public reason, then, is public in three ways: as the reason of citizens as such, it is the reason of the public; its subject is the good of the public and matters of fundamental justice; and its nature and content is public, being given by the ideals and principles expressed by society’s conception of political justice, and conducted open to view on that basis[4] (idem.).

In other words, “public” qualifies three elements: the conceptual economy employed by the person qua citizen, i.e. as the equal bearer of fundamental rights within society; the kinds of questions before the public forum which it concerns, namely the make-up of society’s basic institutions, citizens’ rights and distributive justice; the values given in public discourse’s correspondence to the content of justice as fairness (or another reasonable political conception) and their reliance thereon. More simply, all three aspects show a narrow, technical sense, confined to the framework which Rawls lays out through the rest of Political Liberalism. On the condition that we accept the provided definitions of “public” and “reason”, along with a given decisionmaking procedure and certain conceptions of person and society, we come to a view on which, in order to ensure cooperation between people professing different religious, moral and philosophical values, i.e. comprehensive doctrines, the person engaging in public discourse and political justification must frame her reasons in terms agreed upon and accepted by all, independently of their comprehensive doctrines[5].

[1] PL, p. 386.

[2] PL, pp. 212-213.

[3] PL, p. 213.

[4] Idem.

[5] Certainly, it would be possible to provide alternate definitions of Rawls’ three senses of “public”, but such an effort cannot merely contest these definitions and leave the rest standing. For their sense follows, on Rawls’ view, from the framework in which they have been set. Accordingly, one would have to start with the framework in order to show that the definitions do not follow as Rawls lays them out and show at precisely which moment Rawls goes wrong. Anything less will fail to address Rawls’ thought qua system in reflective equilibrium. It will, however, be shown in Chapter 3 below how one might go about using Rawls’ own criteria to propose a better account of his system in light of his own motivations.

Fr. 774

April 5, 2017

What makes for the best explanatory strategy? Should one favour conceptual simplicity and theoretical parsimony? Must one privilege instead explanatory power and predictive capacity? Additionally, supposing that one prioritizes the latter over the former, must one then further distinguish between strategies which maintain either explanatory monism or explanatory pluralism?

Explanatory monism:

  • “For explananda A-F, one explanans covers equally well in all areas.”

Explanatory pluralism:

  • Spinozist attributes: “For explananda A-F, all explanantia cover equally well in all areas.”
  • Insulated parallels: “For explananda A-F, each explanans covers better in separate areas.”
  • Overlapping cross-cuts: “For explananda A-F, all explanantia cover equally well in some areas but worse in others.”
  • Mixed regimes: “For explananda A-F, some explanantia cover better in separate areas while other explanantia cover equally well in some areas but worse in others.”

Notably, this leaves us with such important questions as the following:

  • If the trousers are held up by belt, buckles and suspenders all at once, are all doing equally worthy work?
  • Who determines which explains what? From what broader theoretical perspective might the explanatory task be divvied up?

Fr. 773

April 4, 2017

Grim facts and justified misgivings: New configurations of power and authority in Stout’s broad-based organizing

Contemporary democratic theory diverges on how far public discourse should be constrained by discursive ethics, ranging from normalized approaches (e.g. public reason) to anormal (e.g. reason-giving). Among the latter figures Jeffrey Stout’s deliberative democracy as Emersonian perfectionism, pragmatist expressivism and democratic individuality (Stout 2004) and their application in a case-study on broad-based citizens’ organizing (Stout 2010). Stout sees political freedom as “non-domination” (Pettit 1997) or absence of “power-over” (domination), only achieved by exercising “power-to” (empowerment) through free expression and association in broad-based organizations. Therein, persons voice deeply held concerns and reasons in one-on-one and house meetings from which emerge a mandate and an issue around which the organization mobilises: identifying allies and opponents public and private through power-analysis, holding opponents accountable through public hearings, talks and votes, before beginning meetings and legitimizing anew.

Insofar as such organizations set out from expression of difference and dissent, they provide associational tools vital to building voices across social divides into bottom-up democratic coalitions acting as counterweights to public and private discretionary power. Moreover, it becomes clear how such expression may, paradoxically, deepen rather than undermine legitimacy and move beyond normalized discourse approaches centring on consensus. Nonetheless, Stout’s take on broad-based organizing faces its own normative and institutional challenges. Normatively, can one square deep difference with Stout’s perfectionism as “an ethics of virtue or self-cultivation that is always in the process of projecting a higher conception of self to be achieved and leaving one’s achieved self […] behind” (Stout 2004, 29)? Similarly, can an issue emerge from anormal discourse without normalized consensus-building?

Institutionally, one must ask whether broad-based citizens’ organizations admit of horizontal or vertical extension without sacrificing power-to to power-over. If their horizontal extension across communities may prove both egalitarian and exclusive of certain socioeconomic, ethnic or religious groups, their vertical extension to national, international and transnational levels may see them harden into new centres of normalizing hierarchy and power. Undoubtedly, answers to such questions must be found before Stout’s deliberative democracy, embedded in broad-based organizations, proves a viable practice for checking “power-over” by achieving “power-to” in contemporary democratic society.


Works cited:

Pettit (1997). Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Stout (2004). Democracy and Tradition, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.

Stout (2010). Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.

Fr. 772

April 3, 2017

Perfectionism without essentialism, hierarchy without elitism: Stout and civic republicanism

If the civic republican expects citizens to be independent in carrying out their civic duties, the former must face up to two open questions. Must the civic republican advance an elitist tradition at the expense of broader citizen participation in a multicultural society? And what organizational vehicles might the civic republican put forward as appropriate to the latter? Our contribution seeks an answer thereto in Jeffrey Stout’s account of civic virtue as “pragmatic expressivism” (Stout 2004) and involvement in broad-based citizens’ organizing (Stout 2010). Certainly, we must take care to situate properly Stout’s work with respect to the civic republican canon. While Stout endorses a view of political freedom as “non-domination” (Pettit 1997) or absence of “uncontrolled” interference (Pettit 2012), he also advances a strand of “Emersonian perfectionism” apparently at odds with a central civic republican contention that neither is political freedom an intrinsic good nor is civic virtue constitutive of political freedom. More precisely, how can one square civic republican commitments with Stout’s talk of “an ethics of virtue or self-cultivation that is always in the process of projecting a higher conception of self to be achieved and leaving one’s achieved self (but not its accumulated responsibilities) behind” (Stout 2004, 29)?

In short, it must be shown just how self-cultivation through political freedom, notably of expression and of association, fits into a broader view of human flourishing and whether that perfectionism commits Stout’s work to more civic humanist currents. Likewise, the author’s questioning in Stout (2010) of whether to extend broad-based citizens’ organizing horizontally across communities and vertically to national, international and transnational levels turns on political activism and civic virtue within those organizations. Given their hierarchical structure, these would seem to entail goods akin to “positional goods”, unequal distributions of power, honor and recognition between members thereof. Accordingly, the civic republican will reasonably wonder whether Stout’s nominally perfectionist account can sustain both positional goods and inclusiveness all while skirting elitism. Can Stout advocate hierarchy without thereby generating dependence and arbitrary power in democratic guise?

In response to the above concerns, we shall endeavor to show how Stout’s pragmatic expressivism and Emersonian perfectionism put forward a substantive, non-instrumental vision of the good life and civic virtue capable of instantiation in different ways of life. Just as importantly, that approach suggests how civic republicanism might pivot from institutional design towards non-institutional forms to check uncontrolled uses of discretionary power. In order to check “power-over” (domination) and condition “power-to” (empowerment), it will be necessary to open up new avenues of influencing institutions, laws and norms through broad-based organizing. So does Stout frame non-domination in deliberative, inclusive and contestatory terms in order to elicit more widespread support from society. Therein is sketched a way forward for civic republicanism which neither collapses it into mere liberalism nor condemns it as a variant of civic humanism. In the bounds which Stout sets civic republicanism, we might better know its possible futures.


Works cited:

Pettit (1997). Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Pettit (2012). On the People’s Terms: A Republican Theory and Model of Democracy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stout (2004). Democracy and Tradition, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Stout (2010). Blessed are the Organized: Grassroots Democracy in America, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Rawls and subject 20

March 31, 2017
  • 3. Public reason

1.) Three-part justification

In what way do the three phases of justification complement the four-stage sequence? In truth, they arise from the need to work between the different political conceptions issuing therefrom. Contrary to Rawls’ argumentation in the third part of A Theory of Justice, wherein the author attempts to show that a society accepting a liberal, constitutional conception of the two principles of justice would be stable and self-sustaining, not all persons will come to such a conception at the issue of the four-stage sequence and so the argumentation hinges on a contentious premise. Thus, it will be necessary to show what shape life in society will take between persons arriving, through the four-stage sequence, either at different political conceptions or at the same political conception but for different reasons. In other words, we find ourselves asking, as Rawls does: “How is it possible that deeply opposed though reasonable comprehensive doctrines may live together and all affirm the political conception of a constitutional regime?”[1]. Put still differently, given the fact of reasonable pluralism in contemporary society, by what means do the persons professing those reasonable comprehensive doctrines come to affirm a political conception of a constitutional regime in line with the family of conceptions issuing from the four-stage sequence and justify that conception to others?

Rawls’ answer consists in delineating three distinct phases of justification: “first, pro tanto justification of the political conception; second, full justification of that conception by an individual person in society; and finally, public justification of the political conception by political society”[2]. Each of these phases introduces a proper forum, relevant criteria and an appropriate standpoint to adopt when justifying the selection of a political conception. In addition, each phase operates in accord with notions developed elsewhere in Rawls’ work: pro tanto justification with public reason and legitimacy; full justification with comprehensive doctrines and overlapping consensus; public justification with stability for the right reasons[3]. Thus, a review of the three phases will not only lend clarity to what becomes of a political conception following the decisionmaking procedure but will also allow us to isolate the precise moment at which the aforementioned notions intervene in the justificatory process.
[1] PL, p. xviii. For discussion of reasonable comprehensive doctrines and reasonable pluralism, see _____.

[2] PL, p. 386. It should be noted that one could reasonably object that we here misrepresent Rawls’ approach in that the presentation of three-part justification comes not as a response to the question of reasonable pluralism but to questions put Rawls by Habermas on, one, the relation between overlapping consensus and political conceptions and, two, the meaning of the term “reasonable”. To answer the objection, we think it enough to point out the extent to which both lines of questioning share the same concerns, worded in different ways. In short, both deal with the relation between a political conception and comprehensive doctrines and the terms on which that relation is established and maintained, in such a way that there is little worry of misrepresentation, except at the level of text.

[3] PL, pp. 386-7.

Rawls and subject 19

March 30, 2017

Put differently, this explains our insistence on distinguishing between the person occupying a standpoint and the standpoint itself. The person occupying the standpoint accepts the standpoint’s constraints and deliberates and justifies in accordance therewith. To which we must add that the person can abstract at any point from the standpoint to come back on the sequence as a whole without taking the standpoint’s constraints with her. Certainly, the judge standpoint has fewer constraints on information and knowledge available to deliberation and justification, but it still accepts, at least in part, the results of the preceding stages, all of which the person, you or me, outside of that standpoint are free to reject.

This point recalls that which we made at the outset of the exposition of the four-stage sequence, namely that the four-stage sequence is a device of representation or an abstraction. For our benefit, Rawls reminds the reader of just this when he closes §31 in remarking:

It is essential to keep in mind that the four-stage sequence is a device for applying the principles of justice. This scheme is part of the theory of justice as fairness and not an account of how constitutional conventions and legislatures actually proceed. It sets out a series of points of view from which the different problems of justice are to be settled, each point of view inheriting the constraints adopted at the preceding stages. Thus a just constitution is one that rational delegates subject to the restrictions of the second stage would adopt for their society. And similarly just laws and policies are those that would be enacted at the legislative stage[1].

In other words, the four-stage sequence consists in a manner of rendering the principles of justice arrived at in the original position more concrete and readily applicable to the kinds of deliberation and justification which the person is likely to encounter outside of the decisionmaking procedure. In this way, the procedure issues in a relatively determinate political conception with which the person may then confront the society in which she finds herself and remain assured that her basis for doing so remains objective and autonomous.

This answer anticipates one question that the reader might put Rawls: what is the person to do with the political conception which she has formulated with the aid of the four-stage sequence? As suggested, she would make use of such in her deliberation and justification of different positions with regard to the society in which she lives. One may further suppose that her deliberation and justification will confront that of others who have similarly arrived at a political conception through the four-stage sequence. Yet nothing suggests that the other persons will have arrived at the same political conception, even in following the same decisionmaking procedure, i.e. the four-stage sequence. The author allows for just such a possibility, all the while turning it to his advantage.

Of course, this test is often indeterminate: it is not always clear which of several constitutions, or economic and social arrangements, would be chosen. But when this is so, justice is to that extent likewise indeterminate. Institutions within the permitted range are equally just, meaning that they could be chosen; they are compatible with all the constraints of the theory. Thus on many questions of social and economic policy we must fall back upon a notion of quasi-pure procedural justice: laws and policies are just provided that they lie within the allowed range, and the legislature, in ways authorized by a just constitution, has in fact enacted them. This indeterminacy in the theory of justice is not in itself a defect. It is what we should expect. Justice as fairness will prove a worthwhile theory if it defines the range of justice more in accordance with our considered judgments than do existing theories, and if it singles out with greater sharpness the graver wrongs a society should avoid[2].

On that count, the question resembles that which we asked of reflective equilibrium above and to which we answered, with Rawls, that a range of variation is admissible so long as the points on that range meet certain conditions and approximate our considered judgments. Yet, when applied to the political domain, specific decisions must be made on processes, statutes and cases. Thus, the fact remains that it may prove necessary for the person to adjudicate between rival political conceptions, for which further specification is needed concerning the forum, the varieties of deliberation, justification and reasons admissible therein, and the kind of agreement sought between conceptions. It is just such specification which Rawls seeks to provide with the three phases of justification proceeding in view of public reason and overlapping consensus.

[1] TJ, p. 176.

[2] Idem.