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Fr. 371

August 16, 2013

If John Rawls and Jeffrey Stout can find some common ground in the notion of “civic friendship”, this might owe in part to the vision of (political) society that they entertain. In short, what kind of society do Rawls and Stout presuppose?

It can be first ascertained that any conception of society put forth on their part is a minimal one.  The authors in question find further agreement in that they do not (ostensibly) prescribe a particular comprehensive doctrine, complete with a theory of the good, which would then come to order both the society and the lives of the individuals comprising it. For Rawls, such comprehensive doctrines must be set aside in order to find a common consensus and procedural framework by which to manage the society in question. Moreover, should the comprehensive doctrine of the individual enter the scene, this can only be after the settling of the framework on essential constitutional matters for which, at best, that doctrine can only gesture to possible answers, having no warrant or truth-value in that domain. Such is the minimal character of Rawlsian society: formal, public reason for essential constitutional matters in a society that the various doctrines serve to color.

For Stout’s part, the minimal conception of society is of a different order entirely, for Stout finds the public reason and common basis of the Rawlsian procedure too demanding of the individual in regards to his or her comprehensive doctrine. Stout reasons that, were the individual to be stripped of the particular vision and reasons that this doctrine affords, he or she would lack for materials, elements and motivation in the reasoning to follow, i.e. that to be provided at the time of the appeal to public reason in the adjudication of essential constitutional matters. It is for this reason that Stout deems that all responsibly held comprehensive doctrines and their attendant conceptions of life, good and virtue are to be party to societal discussion. That said, the thinker does not agitate (again ostensibly) for a particular doctrine. Instead, the societal configuration must be of a minimally democratic nature so as to assure equal time and representation to all of the doctrines present therein at the time of reason-giving. Wherefore the minimal character of Stout’s societal conceptions: basic protections, minimal prescriptions, maximal openness.

Despite their differences, Rawls’ society of public reason and Stout’s society of reason-giving and discursive maximization do suppose a number of common elements in that both visions of society are minimally democratic and liberal. Both thinkers suppose a society in which there are a diversity of perspectives, traditions and peoples interacting and coming together in public institutions and actions. Indeed, it is precisely this diversity of content that accounts for the formal aspect of the structures that are at work in the ordering and cohesion of their respective societies, so as to best avoid intractable disputes owing to differences in virtue of mere circumstance. Finally, each conceives that society should be such that all members are party to the discussion and deciding of its fundamental structures, procedures and institutions.

In that Rawls and Stout share certain notions of a baseline democratic community, one can wonder whether these commitments do not themselves constitute adherence to a comprehensive doctrine, even a weak one. One might further ask: how do these systems for deciding societal and political structures hold up in societies that do not meet these baseline requirements?

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