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Fr. 349

June 20, 2013

It is thus that a new question arises: what resources can the Rawlsian account bring to bear on the notions of community and discourse in the work of Stout? More specifically, in taking cues from Stout’s criticisms and expressivist position, would it be possible to nuance or inflect Rawls’ common basis and civic friendship through the transformation of norms without thereby disregarding or undermining the identity of participants in the discourse and the sense of self-worth which this identity affords them? Such an attempt will hinge on one fundamental question: how are the “participant” in discourse and his or her identity to be understood?


Elsewhere in A Theory of Justice, Rawls maintains that “[t]he acceptance of the principles of right and justice forges the bonds of civic friendship and establishes the basis of comity amidst the disparities that persist” (p. 454)1. In short, civic friendship is the end result of a social process that begins with universal assent to a common justificatory basis and the notion of justice as fairness, which follows from the original position. That which secures respect, recognition and sociability between parties in civic friendship is twofold: prior, universal assent to reasons valid for each party in the discussion and the universal rights due to each party qua subject and subjectivity. The distinction between subjectivity and individuality is here essential to making sense of Rawls’ and Stout’s differences. Of this distinction, Alain Renaut and Lukas Sosoe write:

“[L]a dignité de sujet (de droit), que les concitoyens se reconnaissent réciproquement […] résiste tous les changements moralement ou juridiquement contingents pouvant intervenir dans la vie de l’individu. Ainsi faut-il parler d’une immunité du sujet de droit contre tout changement de son état civil, de religion, de profession et de sexe, contre son adhésion à tel ou tel parti, telle ou telle opinion politique, telle ou telle religion. L’individu peut changer plusieurs fois de projets de vie sans que ce changement affecte en rien son identité comme sujet, dans la mesure où les convictions et les engagements multiples de l’individu ne font pas partie de son identité publique1“.

To summarize briefly, according to Renaut and Sosoe, Rawls holds that, qua subject, the party to political discussion possesses an equal right to freedom of speech, thought, religion, and so on, as does any other party to that same discussion, insofar as contingent factors such as the nature of his or her beliefs, convictions and personal identity do not affect this right in the least. The importance of this statement for our present question is this: Rawlsian subjectivity grounds civic friendship from which then follows the development of the party’s identity qua individual. More simply, whereas subjectivity is the principle of the process, individuality is reduced to secondary importance as an effect of this same process.

The order of reasons is, however, reversed on Stout’s position, for, as we saw above, parties to a political discussion refuse universal assent to a common justificatory basis all the while the fact of their candidly giving and sharing reasons secures a respect for one another’s reasons, beliefs and convictions. In other words, as each party frames its reason-giving and immanent criticism in terms of its audience, one individual necessarily addresses another individual without invoking abstract, universal reasons that would unconditionally apply to each party qua subject. In sum, the public presentation of one’s contingently formed, personal identity sets the stage for Stout’s own “civic friendship” and the equal rights due to each party qua subject follow from having responsibly held a specific discursive position and giving reasons for this position.

In the end, where Rawls saw fit to subordinate individuality to subjectivity in civic friendship, Stout instead makes subjectivity follow from individuality. Although the two thinkers prove to be close in their characterization of “civic friendship”, the way in which one comes to this social state is the inverse of the other. Accordingly, if Stout’s position is to accrue the advantages of the Rawlsian position as concerns policy-making and Rawls’ position the flexibility of Stout’s, then the means of doing so consists in individualizing the Rawlsian subject and subjectivizing the Stoutian individual. Such an effort would result in a mixed model, a sort of minimal subjectivity, that would demonstrate the interplay of different, contingent influences with the free will of the subject in the dynamic and ongoing formation of selfhood, where the party to political discussion is both the agent (through the will) and element (through various influences) of his or her knowledge and practical reasoning. This individualized or individualizing subjectivity would in turn promote and underscore the need for a liberal system, fitted to the make-up of a reasonably pluralist self.

Yet, if we are to bring Rawls and Stout closer together by inflecting Rawls’ account of subjectivity, the only way to do so is by identifying the characteristics and processes at work in the Stoutian individual, a presentation that is unfortunately lacking in Stout’s own work. Certainly, Stout gestures towards such a model when he speaks of the insufficiencies of the communitarian model “to do justice to the kinds of individuality” (Democracy and Tradition, p. 75) seen in democratic society, of the “I-thou model” (p. 281), and of the need for a “principle of individuality” (p. 282). Despite these hints, Stout fails to develop this account of individuality. It is precisely this lack that our study aims to fulfill in answering, first, “what would a Stoutian model of individuality look like?”, secondly, “how can this model be mapped onto Rawlsian subjectivity in a new, combined civic friendship?”, and, finally, “why does a liberal democratic society best fit this deeper understanding of ourselves as subject and individual?”. In drawing on theories of individuality both in politics (John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, as well as texts on dissent in radical democracy) and sociology (George Herbert Mead and Niklas Luhmann, for instance), we intend to mark out the middle path between Rawls’ contractarianism and Stout’s expressivism, a path that preserves both discussion and liberalism, tradition and society. On a final note, although we started out from the theoretical uses of this model, we have shown that it bears a practical application as well in that this new model would permit a novel approach to the political and ethical realm. This practical reach itself suggests a third and final applicability in the field of aesthetics, for the understanding of individual as agent and element implies similar nuances to be made in the arbitration of claims to the beautiful. So does this minimal subjectivity reprise in novel ways three classic philosophical ends: truth, good and beauty.

—————–

1 Cf. p. 5, “Among individuals with disparate aims and purposes a shared conception of justice establishes the bonds of civic friendship; the general desire for justice limits the pursuit of other ends”; p. 417, “without a common or overlapping sense of justice civic friendship cannot exist”.

1“La ‘Théorie de la justice’ et le sujet du droit” in Philosophie du droit, Ed. A. Renaut and L. Sosoe, Presses Universitaires de France, Coll. Recherches politiques, Paris, 1991, pp. 468-469.

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