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Rawls and public reason VII

November 24, 2016

Rawls reprises the first terms “reasonable” and “rational” in a passage on the following page:

As reasonable and rational, and knowing that [citizens] affirm a diversity of reasonable religious and philosophical doctrines, they should be ready to explain the basis of their actions to one another in terms each could reasonably expect that others might endorse as consistent with their freedom and equality. Trying to meet this condition is one of the tasks that this ideal of democratic politics asks of us. Understanding how to conduct oneself as a democratic citizen includes understanding an ideal of public reason (218).

Indeed, Rawls has defined these terms as early as the first lecture as the two aspects of moral personality relevant to the person’s standpoint as citizen. Behind reasonableness lies the key idea of reciprocity:

Persons are reasonable in one basic aspect when, among equals say, they are ready to propose principles and standards as fair terms of cooperation and to abide by them willingly, given the assurance that others will likewise do so. Those norms they view as reasonable for everyone to accept and therefore as justifiable to them; and they are ready to discuss the fair terms that others propose. The reasonable is an element of the idea of society as a system of fair cooperation and that its fair terms be reasonable for all to accept is part of its idea of reciprocity. As I have said (1:3.2) the idea of reciprocity lies between the idea of impartiality, which is altruistic (as moved by the general good), and the idea of mutual advantage understood as everyone’s being advantaged with respect to one’s present or expected situation as things are (49-50).

In short, the person is reasonable insofar as she: 1.) proposes terms for cooperation; 2.) considers others’ proposed terms; and 3.) stands by the terms accepted. Coercive terms for cooperation acceptable to all must likewise be justifiable to all (as per the legitimacy problem above), hence both the terms and the reasons for those terms must be identical or, at the very least, similar for all. In this way, reciprocity for Rawls also proves a form of symmetry: all offer the same terms for the same reasons. Wherefore two further criteria or functions which the idea of public reason must fulfill.

Consequently, one can maintain that the fairness models the reasonable and the reasonable the justifiable, in such a way that Rawls’ project in Political Liberalism is as much justification as fairness as justice as fairness, a point to which this commentary shall return. For the moment, it remains to be seen how the rational slots into the scheme above:

The rational is, however, a distinct idea from the reasonable and applies to a single, unified agent (either an individual or corporate person) with the powers of judgment and deliberation in seeking ends and interests peculiarly its own. The rational applies to how these ends and interests are adopted and affirmed, as well as to how they are given priority. It also applies to the choice of means, in which case it is guided by such familiar principles as: to adopt the most effective means to ends, or to select the more probable alternative, other things equal (50).

In sum, the person is rational insofar as she: 1.) adopts and affirms ends and interests; 2.) prioritizes certain ends and interests over others; and 3.) arranges her actions in light of that ordering. (It should be added that “rationality” so conceived surpasses mere means-based reasoning in that it operates from the perspective of furthering a good, whatever the person’s good may be.)

How then does the rational relate to the reasonable? In truth, the rational and the reasonable occupy distinct roles within the deliberative and justificatory economy. Whereas the former furnishes the choice of means, ends and institutions for the basic structure, the latter lays out the criteria constraining the choice of means, ends and institutions for that structure. More simply, the rational provides the material on which justification will work while the reasonable shapes the course of justification. So does the rational work at the level of content but the reasonable at the level of form.

On Rawls’ view, the idea of public reason then would consist simply in a reasonable form of public justification, in the narrow sense here. If Rawls criticism has largely left the rational aside, the reasonable has come under fire for a number of reasons. Rather than enumerate them, this commentary will briefly ask which criticisms best approximate the ideal of immanent critique. As suggested above, such criticisms would proceed from criteria or functions which Rawls sets himself but fails to fulfill, adequately or otherwise, but would neither precipitously change the root problem nor impose outside considerations.

Accordingly, this leaves the critic with two possible avenues for proceeding: either a.) turning the criteria of reciprocity and symmetry or b.) claiming that public reason does not (adequately) achieve its ends of consensus or equilibrium.  As to a.), one may object that worry over symmetry between equal citizens leads Rawls to require identity between terms and reasons offered; after all, the most perfect symmetry would be one of identity. That said, one can conceive of a reciprocity independent of symmetry: for example, one can speak of mutual or reciprocal admiration without that admiration holding in esteem the same qualities nor taking hold for the same reasons. Admiration is no less reciprocal for it. (This helps to bring out certain underlying intuitions of Stout’s similar critique.)

Concerning b.), one could contend for various reasons that Rawls’ idea of public reason fails to achieve or could better achieve consensus, at least in one phase of justification. Perhaps the original position and the idea of public reason prove too unwieldy as framing devices or the parties to discussion feel unconvinced or otherwise unmoved by the reasons given therein. So might this phase of justification be superseded by one of the latter in which broader reasons could be given. (This likewise anticipates Stout’s critique while suggesting additional ways forward.)

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