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Rawls and public reason X

December 2, 2016

Certainly, the idea of public reason presupposes that there exists a nonpublic reason from which it is to be set apart. What enables Rawls to distinguish public from nonpublic reasons? Such will prove his principal concern in the lecture’s third section. In response thereto, the author lays a definition out before proceeding to more developed illustrations. He writes:

First of all, there are many nonpublic reasons and but one public reason. Among the nonpublic reasons are those of associations of all kinds: churches and universities, scientific societies and professional groups. As we have said, to act reasonably and responsibly, corporate bodies, as well as individuals, need a way of reasoning about what is to be done. This way of reasoning is public with respect to their members, but nonpublic with respect to political society and to citizens generally. Nonpublic reasons comprise the many reasons of civil society and belong to what I have called the “background culture,” in contrast with the public political culture. These reasons are social, and certainly not private (220).

Certainly, there is much to commend in this passage. Rawls provides considerations to the effect that public reason is at once unitary and less monolithic than one might believe. It is unitary in the sense that public reason addresses itself to all persons qua citizens without exception. With regards to political society, i.e. the association of all citizens, there can be only one public reason, the same for each. Yet public reason is not monolithic in that the criteria and ends which organize justification within nonpublic associations, i.e. civil society or the association of persons as individuals, are effectively public with regards to a given association’s membership. More simply, within an association, nonpublic reason takes on a public quality in that it equally concerns all members therein and constrains their discourse.

In this way, the meaning of public shifts as the person moves from one audience to another. What counts as public in political society, i.e. for the person qua citizen, does not count as public in civil society, i.e. for the person qua individual. Moreover, Rawls takes care to discredit views on which nonpublic reasons are equivalent with the merely private. So long as an association’s justification and discourse are constrained by certain criteria and ends and lead the association’s member to a relative consensus, then one concurs with Rawls in judging their reasons “social” in origin rather than stemming from a single person and hence being “private”.

In a footnote, the author expands on this last remark:

The public vs. nonpublic distinction is not the distinction between public and private. This latter I ignore: there is no such thing as private reason. There is social reason—the many reasons of associations in society which make up the background culture; there is also, let us say domestic reason— the reason of families a small groups in society—and this contrasts both with public and social reason. As citizens, we participate in all these kinds of reason and have the rights of equal citizens when we do so (note to 220).

On the matter of private reason, one can recognize with Rawls that social and domestic reason better get at the interpersonal conditions in which various instantiations of reason necessarily arrive. In a strict sense, as with Wittgenstein, private reason is an incoherent notion. On the other hand, Rawls introduces a certain measure of confusion in his use of the term citizen, a point to which it is important to call attention. It is not as citizen but as person that the person participates in all these kinds of reason insofar as the conception of person as citizen and the citizen standpoint are peculiar to public reason. Put differently, it is not as citizen that the mother addresses the child or the pastor a congregation member but as individual within an association and from that standpoint. The relevant conception of person and standpoint does not seem the citizen as such but a conception of person to which Rawls alludes without ever systematizing: individual.

Certainly, Rawls would draw attention to the way in which rights of citizens apply across all groups and associations, independently of their nonpublic reason, be it social or domestic. And the author could conceivably add that this provides a connection between different spheres of human activity. Yet it remains to be seen whether a one-direction connection or set of formal rights constitutes a true point of articulation between those spheres. After all, Rawls’ view of justification, which the idea of public reason girds, goes to considerable lengths to isolate those spheres from one another. What further value(s) might bring them together?

Otherwise, if the distinction between political and civil society respectively helps to generate the citizen and individual standpoints, one may nonetheless detect a certain rigidity in these terms. After all, Rawls admits that a relation of public reason can obtain in civil society between persons in an association who have set criteria and ends for justification. One can imagine that a similar relation could obtain in political society between persons in the public forum. Either a person could address a subset of the public forum which accept certain set criteria and ends for justification which are not those of public reason or the same person could ask others momentarily to grant certain set criteria and ends for justification while later granting them the same concessions.

Most likely, Rawls would say of the first that it is not public in that the person does not address the same reasons to all and of the second that the person demonstrates a lack of other-regarding behavior in proposing a narrow-minded view which is not others’.  That said, the first could perhaps be considered public in the sense that the person may come over the course of addressing each person or group to addressing all persons or groups; conceivably, this person may also begin by addressing a public reason to all persons or groups and then proceeding to address mini-publics or subsets of the public forum. As to the second, while narrow-minded, this approach would nonetheless meet one important formal characteristic of public reason, namely that of addressing the same reasons to the whole of the public forum. In sum, there seems reason to think that the terms public and nonpublic shift and can shift further than Rawls explicitly allows in the text, a consideration to which such critics as Jeffrey Stout have drawn no little attention.

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