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Rawls and public reason II

November 15, 2016

Still, one may wonder whether it serves a purpose to introduce the distinction in the first place, if most governmental business will be conducted with regards to matters not strictly regulated by the ideal of public reason. Indeed, Rawls is not insensitive to such thinking and takes it up in turn:

Some will ask: why not say that all questions in regard to which citizens exercise their final and coercive political power over one another are subiect to public reason? Why would it ever be admissible to go outside its range of political values? To answer: my aim is to consider first the strongest case where the political questions concern the most fundamental matters, if we should not honor the limits of public reason here, it would seem we need not honor them anywhere. Should they hold here, we can then proceed to other cases. Still, l grant that it is usually highly desirable to settle questions by invoking the values of public reason. Yet this may not always be so. (215)

So does Rawls take an inverted route to his goal. Before making the stronger case that the ideal of public reason applies across all cases, it proves necessary to establish whether this ideal applies across some cases. Only from there can the question of its greater or lesser extension be addressed. Should this ideal prove unnecessary for even those basic matters, then would introducing the distinction between public and nonpublic reasons prove unnecessary.

In what cases then would the ideal of public reason be of limited application? Rawls provides a short reply thereto in writing:

Another feature of public reason is that its limits do not apply to our personal deliberations and reflections about political questions, or to the reasoning about them by members of associations such as churches and universities, all of which is a vital part of the background culture. Plainly, religious, philosophical, and moral considerations of many kinds may here properly play a role. (idem.)

As regards our own thinking on political matters, basic or otherwise, public reason does not constrain the kinds of reasons which we may entertain. Similarly, for nonpublic associations does public reason provide little direction as their discourse is already regimented by particularist ends. Within such properly delimited nonpublic spheres, nonpublic reasons naturally play an important role in determining the shape of nonpublic opinion.

Accordingly, space is left for nonpublic reasons outside the public forum. All the same, one could allow for this provisional division and yet hold that the ideal of public reason cannot entirely cover basic political matters. Put somewhat differently, even though regulating political discourse in a public forum in accordance with the ideal of public reason would indeed prove ideal, even desirable, promoting that ideal alone may prove impracticable. More simply still, one may find that the ideal of public reason cannot stand alone in basic constitutional matters.

Certainly, Rawls senses the complications posed by such challenges but deems them surmountable as long as one observes a strict division. Thus, he enumerates those cases in which the ideal of public reason is both sufficient and necessary to guide public discourse:

But the ideal of public reason does hold for citizens when they engage in political advocacy in the public forum, and thus for members of political parties and for candidates in their campaigns and for other groups who support them. It holds equally for how citizens are to vote in elections when constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice are at stake. Thus, the ideal of public reason not only governs the public discourse of elections insofar as the issues involve those fundamental questions, but also how citizens are to cast their vote on these questions […] Otherwise, public discourse runs the risks of being hypocritical: citizens talk before one another one way and vote another. (idem.)

There is much to unpack in this development, perhaps beginning with the idea of person operative here: citizen. By this term, Rawls means something close to “the person as concerned with basic institutions, constitutional matters and fundamental rights”. So, for the person qua citizen, the ideal of public reason must always be operative, in a way that it is not for the person qua individual or nonpublic person.

Next, attention should be drawn to the particular situations in which citizens are likely to be involved and, qua citizen, find themselves bound by the ideal of public reason, at least on Rawls’ view. These situations seem four in number: 1.) the citizen’s advocacy in the public forum; 2.) the public office candidate’s advocacy in the public campaign; 3.) the outside group’s advocacy for a public office candidate; 4.) the citizen’s election vote on questions of constitutional essentials. In this way, both the advocacy and voting phase proceed under the aegis of public reason.

Unsurprisingly, we will need more time with each item to see how the ideal of public reason proposes to constrain political discourse in the public forum.

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