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Fr. 731

October 17, 2016

John Rawls’ Political Liberalism opens by clarifying its basic ideas, chief among them the notion of a freestanding view. Rawls introduces and expands on this notion:

Political liberalism, then, aims for a political conception of justice as a freestanding view. It offers no specific metaphysical or epistemological doctrine beyond what is implied by the political conception itself. As an account of political values, a freestanding political conception does not deny there being other values that apply, say, to the personal, the familial, and the associational; nor does it say that political values are separate from, or discontinuous with, other values, One aim, as I have said, is to specify the political domain and its conception of justice in such a way that its institutions can gain the support of an overlapping consensus. In this case, citizens themselves, within the exercise of their liberty of thought and conscience, and looking to their comprehensive doctrines, view the political conception as derived from, of congruent with, or at least not in conflict with, their other values (pp. 10-11).

There are two key notions to extract from this passage. The first concerns a freestanding view’s lack of specified metaphysical or epistemological doctrine, beyond that implied by the view’s merely political status. Given this status, what epistemology is implied belongs to an uncontentious, minimal sort. Second, it falls to citizens, through exercise of their own reason, to draw on the cognitive context of their comprehensive doctrine and then to extend approbation to the political conception of justice as a freestanding view on the basis of arguments therefrom.

Yet the passage no sooner lays out these key claims than problems arise for the reading given. On one hand, the epistemology so implied proves more contentious than Rawls envisions. In general, the author advocates a line of political justification on which the person must abstract from the cognitive context of her comprehensive doctrine and which follows from the idea that contingency admits of no justification or, rather, cannot enter into justification qua unreasoned, not freely chosen, etc.. Thus does Rawls accede to a transcendent, universalist justificatory method of generally foundationalist form.

Nonetheless, this position has its detractors, notable among them Jeffrey Stout, who takes pains to show the impossibility of said position. Instead, he advocates a historicist, contextualist justificatory method of generally coherentist form on which the contingent forms part and parcel of the justification as that which frames it, at the level of cognitive context and conceptual economy. In other words, justification includes much which is neither reasoned nor freely chosen. In truth, the sticking point seems that Rawls envisions a position like the former while providing insufficient answer to the latter, particularly in more recent secondary literature. Such that, in the end, the freestanding view is very much in need of a specified epistemology to extract it from the difficulties with which it has surrounded itself.

On the other hand, Rawls’ account proffers a somewhat unrealistic view of how the person, qua citizen or individual, goes about achieving overlapping consensus between conceptual resources available to the freestanding view and those available to her comprehensive doctrine. To Rawls’ mind, it will fall to the person concerned to do so, perhaps in that she best knows the argumentative battery available to the comprehensive doctrine or perhaps out of a Kantian notion like that of rational autonomy. But the question remains what motivation the person has to do so and in what circumstances.

When confronted with rival opinions in political discourse, the person, on Rawls’ view and qua citizen, should begin by offering reasons which the interlocutor is liable to accept, as per the criterion of reciprocity. To buttress those reasons, the person may offer reasons drawn from her comprehensive doctrine on the condition that further reasons, again subject to the criterion of reciprocity, later bear those same contentions out. Presumably, this leads to Rawls’ positing the person’s role and responsibility in laying out congruence and continuity between the freestanding view and the comprehensive doctrine.

That said, it is unclear whether the person qua citizen indeed occupies the leading role. There is reason to think that, as per immanent critique, the person’s interlocutor may do as much to show on what counts her comprehensive doctrine either lines up with or falls short of the freestanding view.  More importantly, it remains an open question just how the person qua citizen interlocks with the person qua individual. For the citizen is bound by the constraints of public reason and, by definition, does not move within a background cognitive context, as opposed to the individual whose reasoning is couched in just such a context. Accordingly, any work towards congruence or continuity would come from the position of the individual rather than Rawls’ citizen in such a way that the overall scheme of political liberalism contains an individual-position for which it is at pains to account.

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