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Rawls and public reason VI

November 23, 2016

Before answering what form political justification between citizens takes, Rawls briefly considers why citizens might want to impose limits thereon in the first place. After all, it seems plausible to question, with Rawls:

How can it be either reasonable or rational, when basic matters are at stake, for citizens to appeal only to a public conception of justice and not to the whole truth as they see it? Surely, the most fundamental questions should be settled by appealing to the most important truths, yet these may far transcend public reason! (216)

If the basic structure of society figures among the most important matters to which a person can turn her attention, it seems to follow that the most important considerations therefor from her argumentative battery would be worthy of the public’s attention. That said, her considerations for one and the same position may not prove the same as those of another, nor those of another her own. Yet it may happen, in the end, that both her position and, perhaps by extension, her reasons prove binding on the other’s conduct. What then arises for the other is a legitimacy problem:

I begin by trying to dissolve this paradox and invoke a principle of liberal legitimacy […] Recall that this principle is connected with two special features of the political relationship among democratic citizens: First, it is a relationship of persons within the basic structure of the society into which they are born and in which they normally lead a complete life. Second, in a democracy political power, which is always coercive power, is the power of the public, that is, of free and equal citizens as a collective body.

Rawls’ way of meeting this legitimacy problem lies in dissociating both the kinds of forums in which matters of public and nonpublic interest are discussed and the kinds of reasons capable of gaining assent therein. Underlying this dissociation is a further dissociation: that between the person’s roles in different kinds of forums and in offering different kinds of reasons. Of immediate interest for the problem of legitimacy are the forum and reasons most pertinent to the person’s existence within society’s basic structure, i.e. essential constitutional, economic and social institutions, i.e. the person’s existence as a citizen.

Authors from other philosophical strands might find themselves inclined to challenge this partition of the person into (public) citizen and “(nonpublic) individual” (though the term is not Rawls’). This might follow from such different views as the indissociability of personality or citizenship as an all-encompassing human good. Certainly, Rawls’ definition of citizen is contentious in the light of such considerations, but he does not pretend to engage those positions nor the problems which give rise thereto. If Rawls defines citizen in such a way as closely to fit the framework of the basic structure and justice as fairness, this owes to the need for a specific conceptual role within his system, for which such considerations are extraneous. More simply, one can challenge Rawls’ definition of citizen, but, in order to do so effectively, that challenge will need to take issue either with an inconsistent application of the term or the inability of the notion to fulfill the function which the author assigns it. Otherwise, one must abstract from his position entirely.

Regardless, for Rawls, all citizens are equally affected by the basic structure’s institutions, and the power exercised by those institutions over citizens is in fact their own. This will prove at once the complication and the solution to the legitimacy problem: if the basic structure’s institutions exercise power over citizens, that power derives from the latter, thus it is within citizens’ power to legitimize that power over themselves and others. In other words, the only illegitimate use of power, in principle, would be that which the citizen is incapable of justifying to another. Wherefore the central throughline of the sixth lecture: justification, in public and nonpublic forms.

With this, the author comes to the heart of the matter:

Granted all this, we ask: when may citizens by their vote properly exercise their coercive political power over one another when fundamental questions are at stake? Or in the light of what principles and ideals must we exercise that power if our doing so is to be justifiable to others as free and equal? (217)

Put somewhat differently, if the person allows that others are likewise affected by the basic structure’s institutions and associated power and that her power contributes to that exercised by those institutions, the question arises how and in light of what criteria she might justify her power over the others or they over her. Insofar as she takes seriously their freedom and equality with regards to those institutions, her justification must be liable of gaining their assent:

To this question political liberalism replies: our exercise of political power is proper and hence justifiable only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse in the light of principles and ideals acceptable to them as reasonable and rational. This is the liberal principle of legitimacy. And since the exercise of political power itself must be legitimate, the ideal of citizenship imposes a moral, not a legal, duty— the duty of civility — to be able to explain to one another on those fundamental questions how the principles and policies they advocate and vote for can be supported by the political values of public reason. This duty also involves a willingness to listen to others and a fairmindedness in deciding when accommodations to their views should reasonably be made.

A number of important terms come to the fore in this passage, not least among them “reasonable”, “rational” and “civility”. Undoubtedly, alternate readings of these terms could be given to meet other considerations and goals, which Rawls’ view seems ill-equipped to handle. Alternate readings of this kind meet, however, with the same methodological difficulties as stated above, and so one shall for the moment limit considerations to those given by the author, i.e. “do the author’s conceptions of x and y meet the stated functions for x and y?”. With this, one can begin to unpack certain of Rawls’ terms of art.

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