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Rawls and public reason IX

December 1, 2016

What accounts for the moral quality of that consensus and wherefore the ethical value of public reason?

That Rawls is sensitive to these questions comes out in passages like the one below wherein political liberalism, with the corresponding duty of public reason, is seen to promote both rights and values:

What has to be shown is either that honoring the limits of public reason by citizens generally is required by certain basic rights and liberties and their corresponding duties, or else that it advances certain great values, or both. Political liberalism relies on the conjecture that the basic rights and duties and values in question have sufficient weight so that the limits of public reason are justified by the overall assessments of reasonable comprehensive doctrines once those doctrines have adapted to the conception of justice itself (219). 

Put differently, if liberal rights and democratic values have any ethical currency with a group of people and the idea of public reason helps both to preserve and to promote such rights and values, then, from at least one perspective, people have the moral duty to promote idea of public reason along with the political liberalism which provides its frame. Rawls considers that, should people holding reasonable comprehensive doctrines both recognize the political conception and the way in which that conception promotes morally worthy ends, those people will adjust their reasonable comprehensive doctrines to reflect those same ends. Thus, political liberalism and the idea of public reason can be seen to carry a moral charge worthy of the person’s assent and engagement.

By extension, if the idea of public reason applies to that which carries such a charge and the basic structure concerns rights and values of this kind, then applying the idea of public reason to all topics in relation with the basic structure presents itself as a moral demand on the person. So does the democratic practice of voting come under such moral demands. Because voting on matters of the basic structure concerns the rights of others and their ability to instantiate political values, voting represents a behavior in which the person can demonstrate her moral worth to herself and others. For Rawls, voting with regards to constitutional essentials is fundamentally public and moral:

On fundamental political questions the idea of public reason rejects common views of voting as a private and even personal matter. One view is that people may properly vote their preferences and interests, social and economic, not to mention their dislikes and hatreds. Democracy is said to be majority rule and a majority can do as it wishes. Another view, offhand quite different, is that people may vote what they see as right and true as their comprehensive convictions direct without taking into account public reasons.

In short, some vote on the basis of their personal inclinations while others vote on that of personal conviction. One may think that the former are more reprehensible than the latter in that they subject others to mere inclination rather than considered judgment. Yet, for the author, both come up short precisely in that neither engages the problem of cooperation nor recognizes the interpersonal or societal consequences of their voting. Despite their outer differences, voters of both kinds prove alike are insufficiently other-regarding:

[B]oth views are similar in that neither recognizes the duty of civility and neither respects the limits of public reason in voting on matters of constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice. The first view is guided by our preferences and interests, the second view by what we see as the whole truth.

Certainly, this discrediting of such views follows from what one may deem a recognizably Kantian position: the first gives little heed to the preferences of others, being self-interested, the second to the convictions of others, being narrow-minded, neither one nor the other thus being universalizable in that they fail to integrate an other-position in their reasoning. For these reasons, both views of voting tend to promote behavior which fails to consider others’ rights and moral worth and thus proves immoral.

That said, this condemnation is not without its failings. On one hand, this commentary has earlier pointed to situations which persons may be find themselves obligated to voice their stance on both basic and non-basic issues through a single vote, as when they vote for a candidate to office with power to alter both the basic structure and tertiary institutions. On the other, persons may attempt to respect the idea of public reason but nonetheless fail due to a lack of moral competence in the form of intelligence, traits or values necessary thereto. In such cases, it does not seem unthinkable that their voting could better respect rights and values through reference to their comprehensive doctrines which may, despite everything, prove sufficiently other-regarding in the right ways. In the end, it bears considering whether the idea of public reason genuinely lessens the cognitive burden on persons while promoting other-regarding tendencies in their reasoning or instead promotes an overly rigid view of political autonomy and heteronomy out of touch with persons’ moral everyday.

The lecture’s second section ends on this note. The third turns to the distinction between public and nonpublic reasons.

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