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Rawls and public reason I

November 14, 2016

We shall be undertaking here a close commentary of Lecture 6, “The Idea of Public Reason”, from Rawls’ Political Liberalism. Above all else, this lecture concerns the ethics of public discourse and political justification, i.e. those discursive and deliberative means which a person may use to lay out, defend or modify her view on a matter before the public forum. Importantly, the fact of being given to a public audience does not, for Rawls, suffice to make a reason public. In the introduction to “The Idea of Public Reason”, he notes:

Not all reasons are public reasons, as there are the nonpublic reasons of churches and universities and of many other associations in civil society […] Public reason is characteristic of a democratic people: it is the reason of its citizens, of those sharing the status of equal citizenship. 

If public reason is characteristic of a democratic people and a person can lay out, defend or modify any manner of view in a democratic public forum, then it still remains to be seen in just what sense Rawls intends “public”. Cognizant of this need, he clarifies:

Public reason, then, is public in three ways: as the reason of citizens as such, it is the reason of the public; its subject is the good of the public and matters of fundamental justice; and its nature and content is public, being given by the ideals and principles expressed by society’s conception of political justice, and conducted open to view on that basis.

In other words, “public” qualifies three elements: the conceptual economy employed by the person qua citizen, i.e. as the equal bearer of fundamental rights within society; the kinds of questions before the public forum which it concerns, namely the make-up of society’s basic institutions and citizens’ rights; the values’ given in public discourse correspondence to the content of justice as fairness and their reliance thereon. More simply, all three aspects show a narrow, technical sense, confined to the framework which Rawls lays out through the rest of Political Liberalism. Accepting a certain definition of justice, person and society, we come to a view on which, in order to ensure cooperation between people professing different religious, moral and philosophical values (comprehensive doctrines), the party to public discourse and political justification must frame her reasons in terms agreed upon and accepted by all, independently of their comprehensive doctrines.

Certainly, it would be possible to provide alternate definitions of Rawls’ three senses of “public”, but such an effort cannot merely contest these definitions and leave the rest standing. For their sense follows, on Rawls’ view, from the framework in which they have been set. Accordingly, one would have to start with the framework in order to show that the definitions do not follow as Rawls lays them out and show at precisely which moment Rawls goes wrong. Anything less will fail to address Rawls’ thought qua system. It will, however, be shown later how one might go about using Rawls’ own criteria to propose a better account of his own system in light of his own motivations.

The author continues with his exposition by emphasizing the limits which a public reason account must set itself with regards to the public forum:

To begin: in a democratic society public reason is the reason of equal citizens who as a collective body, exercise final political and coercive power over one another in enacting laws and in amending their constitution. The first point is that the limits imposed by public reason do not apply to all political questions but only to those involving what we may call “constitutional essentials” and questions of basic justice […] This means that political values alone are to settle such fundamental questions as: who has the right to vote, or what religions are to be tolerated, or who is to be assured fair equality of opportunity, or to hold property. These and similar questions are the special subject of public reason.

The would-be critic would do well to take this self-imposed limit seriously. For this self-limitation of public reason follows from Rawls’ broader account of political liberalism. Political considerations, under the aegis of public reason and in accordance with the representational device of the original position, can only decide the most basic, general constitutional questions in society. Once at the legislative level, contingent or contextual considerations will come into play, i.e. the historical, cultural, economic, etc., factors at work in the society in question. At that time, public reason allows and must allow such contingent considerations to work alongside more general or abstract procedures in order to facilitate efficacious decisionmaking.

Rawls continues:

Many if not most political questions do not concern those fundamental matters, for example, much tax legislation and many laws regulating property; statutes protecting the environment and controlling pollution; establishing national parks and preserving wilderness and animal and plant species; and laying aside funds for museums and the arts. Of course, sometimes these do involve fundamental matters. A full account of public reason would take up these other questions and explain in more detail than can here how they differ from constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice and why the restrictions imposed by public reason may not apply to them; or if they do, not in the same way, or so strictly.

Insofar as many matters of public concern do not bear on the make-up of basic institutions, e.g. the executive, legislative or judicial, nor on the basic rights of the democratic subject, the ideal of public reason does not dictate what kinds of reasons are to be offered when laying out, defending or modifying a given position before the public forum. Like Rawls, one can imagine circumstances in which institutional or rights aspects come up with such topics, as in whether the need to combat climate change can entail considerable alterations to goods, public and private, to which the subject’s rights would ordinarily entitle her. In such a case, both public and nonpublic reasons could be introduced therein.

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