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Fr. 804

May 28, 2018

Stout is far from the first to object to Rawls’s account of the “reasonable” as being “loaded”. Indeed, it is just as likely that he is not the first to consider the “reasonable” to be unreasonable as formulated. While Stout goes on to spell out why he thinks this is so, namely, that it is not unreasonable to view as dim the prospects for the project of a common justificatory basis defined ex ante, it seems that his account could be strengthened by making Rawls’s twofold definition of the reasonable do his work for him. Recall that Rawls defines the “reasonable” thusly:

For the purposes of a political conception of justice, I give the reasonable a more restricted sense and associate it, first, with the willingness to propose and honor fair terms of cooperation, and second, with the willingness to recognize the burdens of judgment and to accept their consequences. (PL 49, n. 1; cf. PL 54).

Stout’s qualms lie with the first sense rather than the second of these senses. In truth, it would seem that he is likely to give Rawls reason on the second insofar as he also thinks that human beings’ cognitive context and conceptual economy are such that many people will have justified (if not justifiable) beliefs on a number of positions. Were we similarly situated, we would likely believe the same.

Yet Stout does not inquire whether the burdens of judgment, as formulated by Rawls, provide motivation for rejecting the first sense of “reasonable”. These burdens are factors which prevent human beings as presently constituted from exercising their reason without risk of error. More precisely, these burdens may be summarized as follows:

a. Complexity of evidence
b. Relative weight of different reasons
c. Conceptual indeterminacy and hard cases
d. Disparate life experiences
e. Conflicting normative considerations
f. Limited social space

On our reading, it would seem that burdens c., d. and e. may motivate a reading on which it is difficult, if not untenable, both to seek a common justificatory basis and to recognize the burdens in question. More specifically on c., conceptual indeterminacy and hard cases may make it such that judgment and interpretation are required in determining whether a person fulfils the duty of civility and hence upholds political legitimacy in justice as fairness. The place of religious reasons in political deliberation may be seen as one such hard case.

Similar cases can be made for d. and e. Of d., we can say that our cognitive context and conceptual economy make it such that some, if not many, deem the quest for an ex ante common basis a search with no object. This may be the case for religious as well as secular comprehensive doctrines. More pointedly, it is good and well to maintain that an overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines on the political consensus is possible, but, if one limits oneself to favorable cases to show that possibility, it is unclear how much work the sample cases actually do (e.g. Kymlicka’s discussion of the Ottoman “millet” system).

As regards e.), it is at least plausible that different normative considerations might weight on whether one deems the search for a common basis to be plausible, particularly depending on how much weight one accords the moral ideas underlying justice as fairness: persons as free and equal, with two moral powers, citizenship as obligatory and overriding (c.f. Kymlicka). Even for people who nominally accept these values as well-grounded, their priority ranking relative to one another may be very much up in the air.

In short, the two senses of reasonableness may, at least on this cursory reading, seem inconsistent with one another (or so Stout could have argued with more force and precision). As befits the method of reflective equilibrium, should such an inconsistency present itself, this gives reason to review the facts of the case and consider whether it is better to maintain, amend or discard the inconsistent position in light of our broader, firmer commitments, theoretical inputs and overall coherence. Were the first sense of reasonableness, the willingness to give fair reciprocal terms, to be excised from justice as fairness, what other kinds of changes would one then need to introduce therein? And what parts of the theory already lend themselves to such an interpretation?


Fr. 803

May 24, 2018

After reading Rawls’s Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, it occurs to me that Rawls’s political conception of justice as fairness might best be read as a contemporary analytic, post-metaphysical, “de-rhetoricized”, English-language version of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Second Discourse and Social Contract.

Fr. 802

May 23, 2018


In “Reply to Habermas”, Rawls outlines three kinds of justification which might lend support to an overlapping consensus on a reasonable political conception of justice. While the first two of these, pro tanto justification and full justification, are relatively straightforward in the exposition, the third, public justification, presents rather more of a puzzling case. Whereas pro tanto justification appeals to public reasons to justify the political conception and full justification to nonpublic reasons drawn from reasonable comprehensive doctrines, public justifications involves a “mutual accounting” wherein each person makes known that her comprehensive doctrine supports the political conception. If it is already a puzzle whether consensus (in this instance, overlapping consensus) should count towards the justification of a given position, the puzzle is all the greater when maintaining that “mutual accounting” constitutes a distinct kind of justification in its own right.

In a recent interview at 3AM, Fabienne Peter (Warwick) digs further into the question of whether consensus, agreement or mutual endorsement carries or should carry any justificatory weight. She begins with a survey of contemporary epistemology’s take on the relevance of consensus for justified belief:

The issue is this: what is the right theory of justification in the political context and how can we explain the significance of some form of agreement – of mutual endorsement – for political justification? There is a puzzle here. There are many contexts in which we might want to say that endorsement is less important than getting it right. Many moral philosophers, for example, maintain that the moral justification of actions does not vary with what we believe or take to be justified. If an action is, in fact, the morally right thing to do, that is all the justification that is required. Some epistemologists hold a similar view about the justification of belief. But while the dominant view in epistemology today rejects factualism about epistemic reasons, it still holds that what drives the justification of belief is the evidence that you have or the reliability of your belief formation process, not merely the consistency with your other beliefs. So even on that view, getting it right is normatively more important than your endorsement of a belief.

Clearly, the question of consensus cuts not just at the overlapping consensus on a reasonable political conception of justice but also at the broader coherentist method behind reflective equilibrium. Coherence between a person’s or persons’ beliefs counts for less than the accuracy of beliefs or the reliability of the processes whereby they are formed. Yet Rawlsian political philosophy is predicated on the important of just such coherence, consensus and agreement, as Peter remarks.

Rawlsian political philosophy starts from the premise that some form of mutual endorsement of political decisions (and of principles of justice, of course) is normatively more important than getting it right. As it happens, I regard Rawls’ theory of political justification as among the key contributions that his work has made and my prediction is that this contribution outweighs the substantive theory of justice that he has offered and for which he is best known. But because Rawls’ theory is premised on the normative significance of mutual endorsement, it doesn’t help us much with the question of why mutual endorsement is normatively more important than getting it right in the political context. So the puzzle is, in what contexts and why does endorsement become normatively significant?

Certainly, Rawls’s reasons for pivoting from accuracy to coherence follow from his broader attitude of epistemic abstinence. Some passages even lend themselves to a reading on which Rawls doubts that we can overcome the burdens of judgments to get at a fact of the matter, whether in ethics of elsewhere. Regardless, this abstinence leads Peter to move away from a purely Rawlsian view of justification and to embrace a greater measure of accuracy in political justification and legitimacy:

My starting-point is that getting it right matters for political legitimacy. Political decisions that involve atrocities cannot legitimately be made when sufficiently robust knowledge is available that they are atrocities. The problem is, however, that most political decisions have to be made in circumstances where we lack sufficiently robust knowledge of what the right decision is. If such knowledge is unavailable, disagreements are not only likely, but also normatively significant if the disagreements are compatible with all parties to the disagreement responding rationally to the limited evidence that is available. Normatively significant disagreements will undermine the legitimacy of a political decision that is subject to such a disagreement. And if getting to the right decision is epistemically out of reach, only political decisions which are supported by some form of agreement or mutual endorsement can be legitimate. Legitimacy, in those epistemic circumstances, can be secured in two main ways: either the political decision itself is supported by some form of agreement or mutual endorsement or a decision-making procedure which is suitable to resolve normatively significant disagreements is supported in this way.

So, if at all possible, justified or legitimate political decisions are those made in lockstep with accurate beliefs which decisively resolve the question. Should decisive accurate beliefs be unavailable for whatever reason, then consensus can pick up some, though not all, of the slack either through agreement on a specific political decision itself or on a decision-making procedure through which a political decision is then reached. In short, in the best of worlds, political decisions are also accurate decisions, a point emphasized by Peter in her closing remarks on the question.

So, in answer to your question, yes, it is a problem for political legitimacy if political decisions are made that are in conflict with what we know would be the right thing to do. But sometimes we only have this knowledge in hindsight or in a form that is not easily shared and not sufficiently robust as a basis for political decision-making. Democratic decisions that are made on the basis of all participants responding rationally to the limited evidence that is available, are not illegitimate even if, in hindsight, we learn that they were the wrong.

Fr. 801

May 22, 2018

Rawls is quick to preach the importance of the fair value of the political liberties and to decry the “curse of money”. Rawls even maligns the fact that:

Historically one of the main defects of constitutional government has been the failure to insure the fair value of political liberty. The necessary corrective steps have not been taken, indeed, they never seem to have been seriously entertained. Disparities in the distribution of property and wealth that far exceed what is compatible with political equality have generally been tolerated by the legal system. Public resources have not been devoted to maintaining the institutions required for the fair value of political liberty. (TJ 198-199)

Given this habitual failure, it would seem warranted to seek any and all remedies possible. Indeed, one ready solution might appear in forms of deliberative democracy delegating decision- or deliberation-making power to citizens in randomly selected minipublics in addition to or even in place of public officials. On more radical versions, randomly selected citizens might entirely replace, either in a sortition assembly or a collection of single-issue minipublics, traditional legislative decisionmaking procedures. Considering that Rawls is a self-described deliberative democrat, what, if anything, is to stop the author from including such deliberative bodies within the institutional specifications of the four-stage sequence of the original position, for example, at the constitutional stage?

As the author does not expressly address the question of sortition-style bodies, it may be difficult to give a direct answer thereto. That said, his views on his principle of (equal) participation and whether political participation can be compelled may hold an answer:

Finally, to avoid misunderstanding, it should be kept in mind that the principle of participation applies to institutions. It does not define an ideal of citizenship; nor does it lay down a duty requiring all to take an active part in political affairs. (TJ 200, cf. PL 330-31)

Because political liberalism does not stipulate political participation as a human good nor define in advance what citizenship must like look, it cannot compel citizens to participate actively in political affairs on the model of sortition-style bodies. That said, this response seems unsatisfactory on two counts. First, sortition-style bodies are set up such that participation is always voluntary: following random selection, potential participants are then screened and given several opportunities to withdraw from the body. (Whether this poses a self-selection problem is another issue.) Second, if political liberalism, be it as justice as fairness or another reasonable liberal political conception, is as committed as it is to the fair value of the political liberties, perhaps it should, in contrast with other regimes which have never seriously considered how to secure such, advocate drastic (if not compulsory) steps to guarantee that value.

Fr. 800

May 21, 2018
Dear Prof. G****,
I asked a question during the Q&A on whether you felt that proponents of epistemic democracy could show that the Principle of Democratic Reasoning (PDR) is not in conflict with what the purely epistemic point of view requires, be it in terms of optimal outputs or track record. All while supporting democracy or democratic deliberation, you maintained that the circumstances which allow epistemic democrats (like Landemore) to maintain that inclusion of diverse viewpoints outweighs individual competence are true of deliberation under suitably idealised or circumscribed conditions, but not of that among the general public. This means that PDR still poses a threat to epistemic performance, a subject about which you would likely have more to say in future work.
After having had some more time to think on the question, I am still of two minds about the subject. Undoubtedly, you are right to point out that participants had undergone specialised training to prepare them ahead of deliberation (part of which includes exposure to experts). That said, it also occurs to me that, to show that PDR poses a threat even for epistemic democrats, you need not show that they are substantively wrong but only mistaken on the precise nature of what makes for the collective intelligence of democratic decision making. Though not from Landemore, the following example may be suggestive of such an approach:
Epistemically, delegation to experts can promote citizen ignorance, with highly negative consequences for the deliberative system as a whole. In addition, experts themselves can be biased. The world in which they communicate can be deeply self-referential. Policy experts may orient themselves primarily towards their professional discipline, following technically attractive models that once put into practice produce detrimental results for the polity. Subtle or crass self-interest, whether in the academic or private sector, can affect their conceptions of or policy recommendations for the public good. Their own experience may be far narrower than they realize. Experts are particularly likely to ignore the experience of marginalized groups. In 1955, Cook County Hospital had to decide whether to expand its central facility or build a second facility in another area. The hospital’s deliberative process involved experts on issues that ranged from park- ing to the costs and benefits of gathering advanced medical equipment in one place versus siting in proximity to underserved populations through a second branch. Based on extensive expert deliberation, the hospital decided to build a second branch. That decision, however, met with sig- nificant opposition from spokespeople for the Chicago African American community, because creating a second branch of the racially integrated public hospital in the chosen area would undermine a proposed campaign to force private hospitals in that area to integrate. The experts had never even considered this issue (Banfield 1961). (Mansbridge et al. 2012: 14, my emphasis)

Mansbridge, J., Bohman, J., Chambers, S., Christiano, T., Fung, A., Parkinson, J., Thompson, D. and Warren, M.E. (2012). A Systemic Approach to Deliberative Democracy. In J. Parkinson & J. Mansbridge (Eds.), Deliberative Systems: Deliberative Democracy at the Large Scale (1-27). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

To my mind, your tack would be to show that such examples prove that the preemption view (PV) contributes to the deliberation’s being epistemically optimal because the lay participants focused on domain-independent reasons (i.e. bias) for challenging the epistemic authorities in this instance rather than on how plausible they found their (own) views. Generalised, the tack would allow you to co-opt epistemic democrat’s findings for PV: if inclusiveness outweighs epistemic competence in tracking truth, this is because inclusiveness increases or privileges domain-independent inputs for democratic decision making. As always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, for which it would be necessary to undertake a fine-grained analysis of the empirical cases which epistemic democrats marshal to motivate their claims about collective intelligence. Perhaps their evidence in fact points to collective intelligence’s basis in lay participants’ asking themselves how plausible they find their (own) views. Yet, were the empirical evidence telling in favour of (or even not decisively against) PV, then you could make a broader claim and would have, on my view, a tidy answer to epistemic democrats.

Fr. 799

May 17, 2018

Dealing with unconstructive criticism: Weber’s constructivist objections to Rawls’s Kantian conception of the person

Asked for an overview of the secondary literature on Rawlsian constructivism, one might reply that Rawlsian constructivism is stranded between either of two irreconcilable positions: a.) not being Kantian enough to envisage unrestricted scope for ethical principles or justification (O’Neill 1990, 2003) and b.) being too Kantian to avoid reproducing Kant’s own epistemological tension between constructivism and representationalism (Weber 2010). Yet both positions strikingly concur on the broad outlines of a further problem for Rawlsian constructivism, one familiar from “communitarian” critiques of justice as fairness and political liberalism (e.g. Sandel 1998). To wit, Rawls endorses a Kantian, abstract conception of person as shown, for Weber (2010), by his deployment of an unconstructed conception of person and his tacit acceptance of the subject/object divide and the reality/appearance distinction.

Weber’s (2010) argument may be broken down as follows: If (1) the agents of construction are portrayed as atomic persons exercising noumenal freedom and rigid concept-formation rather than as being socially constructed and (2) in seeking a correct conception of justice via error-reducing procedure and idealizations, those agents appeal to an independent realm of truth, then the agents of construction reflect a Kantian, abstract conception of person. Rawls’s explicit methodology and implicit acceptance of such ideas in his writings suggest that he endorses (1) and (2). Therefrom, we conclude that Rawls’s conception of the person is Kantian. That said, the Kantian conception of the person is, at least partly, representationalist and, therefore, an unvindicated, unconstructed element in a constructivist procedure. Finally, this has the further consequence that the Rawlsian conception of the person, being Kantian and hence representationalist, precludes the procedure’s own justification.

While the “communitarian” objections to Kantian or Rawlsian conceptions of the person have been adeptly answered (c.f. Mulhall and Swift 2003; Campbell 2014), constructivist objections like Weber’s have so far met with less decisive response. Accordingly, we aim in this paper to rebut this constructivist charge. To do so, we will proceed in four steps. First, we shall sketch a Kantian, abstract conception of the person in drawing on the account of the intellectual and the empirical characters from Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (Kant 1793/1999) and Rawls’s own treatment thereof in the ninth lesson of Lectures on the History of Philosophy (Rawls 1999a). Second, we shall briefly restate Weber’s objection and explicitly draw links between the Kantian conception of the person, Rawls’s agents of construction and Weber’s portrayal thereof. From there we shall undercut in two ways Weber’s claim that Rawls endorses (1) and (2) above. In the paper’s third section, we shall show that Rawls does not subscribe to a Kantian, abstract conception of the person insofar as the putative “intellectual character” of the agents of construction makes important concessions to their “empirical character” and may avoid the charges of appeal to truth as opposed to the reasonable. In the paper’s fourth section, we shall contend that there is not a single, overarching conception of person in Rawls’s work. To motivate this claim, we recall that, if the shape of Rawlsian justification determines the conception of the person but that justification takes different shapes in different forums (i.e. the four-stage sequence and the three kinds of justification (Rawls 1999b, 2005)), there is reason to doubt whether we can reduce the Rawlsian conception of the person to one conception alone. From the above will follow the conclusion that Weber’s critique fails to meet its target on two essential points: one, that the Rawlsian conception of the person is the Kantian, abstract conception; two, that there is a unifying Rawlsian conception of person which could be Kantian. If Rawlsian constructivism is self-undermining, it must be so on some other count.

Fr. 798

May 16, 2018

An interesting question which Rawls and his commentators may seem to take for granted is just how public reason structures interactions within the four-stage sequence. To see why this question poses at least an apparent difficulty, consider more closely the sequencing of the two parts of Rawls’s arguments. The first half, the four-stage sequence of the original position, serves to elaborate a political conception of justice, its principles, a constitution, institutional and policy directives. The second half, the well-ordered society seeking an overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines on the political conception of justice, works out a restricted class of arguments, values and reasons (grouped under the heading “public reason”) which then defines at least one kind of justification (out of three) of the political conception. Wherefore the question: if public reason only comes to be defined in the second half of the argument, how can it structure or constrain the interaction of “representative parties” within the first half thereof? Relatedly, if public reason’s content and values are defined in terms of the principles of the conception as well as its constitutional framing within a given society, how could public reason frame the justification of the very principles from which it later emerges? It is just such a faulty sequencing that Rawls and commentators take for granted each time they remark that justification in the original position proceeds apace with public reason.

Two possible answers seem open to Rawls. The first is simply that the veil of ignorance, present throughout the four-stage sequence and its first iteration, approximates public reason through its strong informational constraints on what may be reasons offered as justification for choosing one set of principles over another. After all, public reason proceeds independently of any reference to a conception of the good, and persons in the original position ignore their own conception of the good. Still, exegetically speaking, were the veil of ignorance and public reason one and the same, structurally identical, Rawls would not have felt the need to adapt them as separate ideas for separate parts of his argumentative strategy. Moreover, tied as public reason is to a constitution, there cannot be public reason without a constitution in place.

The second tactic which Rawls might attempt is an appeal to iterativeness. That is, as with the relation between the constitutional and legislative stages of the four-stage sequence, one might first work out the principles and constitutional content of the four-stage sequence wherefrom the content and values of public reason can be worked out before then going back to run through the four-stage sequence with public reason constraints and the veil of ignorance to see whether this alters the outcome of the sequence. While this comes across as more structurally plausible, it seems no less exegetically ungrounded than the first possible tactic, for an explicit fit for this interpretation does not appear in the text nor is an overt argument presented therefor. It also seems to violate one plausible reading of Rawls’s work (Daniels 1996) whereon the perspective which establishes the principles and directives and that which achieves the stability of justice as fairness are disjoint. What then is to be made of all this?