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Fr. 448

November 29, 2013

John Rawls’ account of public reason has been the target of much criticism over the way in which it seeks to exclude from political discussion what it labels “comprehensive doctrines”, i.e. those religious or philosophical convictions of the individual incapable of simple or straightforward resolution when confronted and brought into conflict with the religious or philosophical convictions of other individuals . These “philosophical” positions are to be opposed to the “merely political”.

Such is the central conceit of Rawls’ public reason: if the latter concerns essential constitutional matter and these matters alone, then such matters can be resolved, it would seem, without reference to the former. On Rawls’ view, it is thus possible to advance a political discussion without calling on extra-political commitments. Certainly, the individual is not required to divest him or herself of these same commitments entirely. Indeed, Rawls views the diversity implied therein as an essential part of a classically pluralist society; a diversity of views helps enrich society, rather than taking away from it.

For this reason, the claim concerns more precisely argumentation and reason-giving, for, in reasoning about common affairs, it is helpful to start the justification and legitimation of a given matter from an understanding that is common to all participants. Accordingly, appeal to “philosophical” commitments can play at best a secondary role in the justification of one’s reasons in the “political” and, these “philosophical” justifications are, hence, in need of later justification from strictly “political” perspectives and reasons.

Numerous are the critics who have called into question this neat divide of philosophical and political positions. As per the most frequent criticism, Rawls’ “political” position is itself fundamentally philosophical in that it advances positive claims about the ideal configuration of society, all of which lies beyond the scope of mere constitutional matters. Yet one might wonder if there is not some other sense in which the distinction between political and philosophical on Rawls’ picture proves deceptively neat, a sense where the emphasis is less on Rawls’ overreaching than on his basic classification.

A strong example of this is to be found in Jeffrey Stout’s “Rorty on Religion and Politics”. Therein, Stout attempts to make clear to what extent a religious formulation does not necessarily detract from the justice, fairness or political suitability of reasons being offered for a given position, e.g. the appeal to Psalm 72 for broader health insurance coverage or wealth redistribution. Stout writes:

“If the difference between the civil rights activist’s appeal to Psalm 72 and the televangelist’s appeal to Leviticus 18:22 is that the former is motivated by a love of justice, while the latter is motivated by cruelty, what does the issue have to do with religion? A person’s love of justice can be expressed in his or her political acts, sexual relationships, selection of friends, works of art, behavior as a sports fan, interpretation of scripture, or vision of the eschaton” (“Rorty on Religion and Politics”, pp. 15-16).

It goes without saying that this manner of redrawing the lines between religion and political justice sets itself apart from most other takes on the issue. Where it proves particularly important is in its possible application to Rawls’ political/philosophical distinction. For, if, as is shown here, comprehensive doctrines such as religion can motivate claims to justice and fairness of the kind endorsed by Rawls, then there is no need for claims to justice and fairness to pass through the common channels of the “political”, as required by Rawls. Certainly, this might be desirable to a certain extent in order to reach a broad audience. This leaves intact, however, the possibility for comprehensive doctrines, religious, associational, sexual, social, artistic, athletic, exegetic or otherwise, to have something to offer in the elaboration of standards of justice and fairness.

If, as is the case on the Rawlsian picture, one is to remove religion from the sphere of political discussion in virtue of its comprehensive character, there is no readily apparent reason to spare the other “channels” mentioned above by Stout (i.e. “his or her political acts, sexual relationships, selection of friends, works of art, behavior as a sports fan, interpretation of scripture, or vision of the eschaton”) the same fate. As such, these other ways of voicing views on justice and fairness would likewise be consigned to merely private discussion, and much in the way of “expression” would henceforth be excluded from consideration in the political realm. Yet it is clear that at least a number of these considerations do make their way into the political realm as is presently constituted and would perhaps continue to do so even on a Rawlsian picture (political association, for instance). In short, it is not clear that all the “expressions” above qualify as “comprehensive doctrines” for Rawls.

Faced with an obvious reductio ad absurdum, it seems preferable to leave the “political” role of these “philosophical” or “comprehensive” positions intact, lest all forms of expression be excluded as ways of conveying such political values as justice and fairness. For this reason, it becomes necessary, with Stout, to recast the meaning of reasonable and unreasonable on variants of public reason accounts where, of course, the meaning of public has changed as well, as that which is to be shaped by all.

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