For Rawls, the organization of the basic structure, i.e. the network of institutions, the rights and roles therein, and essential constitutional matters, is to be conducted under the aegis of public reason. Public reason operates under the constraint of reciprocity, namely, that interlocutors should justify their beliefs or actions in terms of reasons that their audience could accept. In particular, interlocutors should avoid giving reasons which draw on the cognitive context and conceptual economy of their own comprehensive doctrines. More concretely, this principle precludes appeal to one’s moral, philosophical or religious beliefs when discussing the basic structure in the public sphere.
This follows from two considerations which Rawls elaborates at different points. On one hand, public reason follows from an understanding of what it is to be reasonable with regards to other human agents, i.e. to offer fair terms to secure an agreement. On the other, public reason draws on a certain view of autonomy: the person should both give and accept reasons which are not contingent on the particular make-up of his or her cognitive context and conceptual economy. To do otherwise would be to act heteronomously. Of those whose comprehensive doctrines are ready to engage with others on such terms, Rawls holds that they are reasonable. Of those whose beliefs are not so ready, Rawls deems them unreasonable.
How do Rawls and public reason fare with regards to theonomy? Initially, it would seem that they do quite poorly and for several reasons. As Spode depicts the fundamentalist, this person would reject Rawls’ view of public reason on both counts. As to the first, fairness would seem to imply an equality between the parties. Yet, given their epistemological view of theonomy, there can be from the outset no equality between parties unless the interlocutor and audience both accept the premises of theonomy. Notably, such a case precludes the need for dialogue on the basic structure in the first place.
Regarding the second, the fundamentalist sees no reason to accept the notion of autonomy. It is merely human pride to maintain that humanity is capable of giving itself a law and acceding to knowledge and reason. In fact, the law must come from without, and from the divine will then follow knowledge and reason in human agents. In short, Rawls’ vision of autonomy proceeds from a false alternative, between equally unacceptable possibilities. For theonomy, there can be no talk of contingency, so, again, the question of heteronomy does not even pose itself.
Naturally, the fundamentalist fares no better on Rawls’ view, as the comprehensive doctrine is question is both full and unreasonable, unwilling to countenance the existence of other such doctrines. For Rawls, such unreasonable doctrines cannot exist with a democratic framework and are so fated to extinction. Yet the fundamentalist movement is in no immediate danger of dying off. On the contrary, it seems to be growing in depth and breadth. So, by what means does Rawls envision forcing such a doctrine out of democratic society? For it is clear that its proponents will not engage on the terms which Rawls sets out, nor does Rawls envision more flexible terms by which to bring them to the table.
In the end, this leaves us with something of an answer to one of Spode’s closing queries:
There is nothing at all wrong with questioning core assumptions of the Western intellectual tradition. My concern is that the philosophical views presented by van Til, Rushdoony, North, Swanson, Schaeffer, and others, although profoundly influential, are going unremarked and unchallenged by the allegedly “liberal” (in the historical sense) academy. Or, to put it another way, these batshit crazy ideas are getting a free pass, and the question is: Why?
In answer, we might respond that Rawls’ position of public reason is constitutively unable to make sense of such a position, given its presuppositions, and occludes the existence of such comprehensive doctrines in society. In a word, these doctrines are democratically inconceivable for Rawls, who naturally offers no answers thereto.
Does Stout fare any better?