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Rawls and public reason XI

December 5, 2016

Certainly, Rawls is willing to concede some similarity between public and nonpublic reason, not without relation to the preceding. Consider that:

Now all ways of reasoning—whether individual, associational, or political—must acknowledge certain common elements: the concept of judgment, principles of inference, and rules of evidence, and much else, otherwise they would not be ways of reasoning but perhaps rhetoric or means of persuasion. We are concerned with reason, not simply with discourse. A way of reasoning, then, must incorporate the fundamental concepts and principles of reason, and include standards of correctness and criteria of justification. A capacity to master these ideas is part of common human reason. However, different procedures and methods are appropriate to different conceptions of themselves held by individuals and corporate bodies, given the different conditions under which their reasoning is carried out, as well as the different constraints to which their reasoning is subject. These constraints may arise from the necessity to protect certain rights or to achieve certain values (220-1).

The author makes clear that there can be no confusion between reason and mere discourse. Reason demonstrates structural elements beyond the purview of unstructured discourse. Nevertheless, reason can be considered plural in that different instantiations may show similar structures and thus prove homologous. Often, these different instantiations are peculiar to a certain setting. For just this reason, the validity of different kinds of reason should reach no further than the setting and the end prescribed by their very conception. Outside its setting and end, a kind of reason has no relevant say in a given matter.

Again, one may find the view of different kinds of reason to be somewhat inflexible. Consider that different kinds of reason appeal to different settings and ends, but neither of these is set in stone. Settings and ends, standards and criteria are open both to evolution both within an association and to learning and subsequent application and adaptation by persons outside that association. In short, these rival conceptions of reason reveal themselves to be less hermetic than Rawls would seem to suggest. This fact is further suggested by the author’s admission elsewhere that, far from being fully comprehensive and prescribing values for all domains, most doctrines are only partially comprehensive and hence open to a variety of influences.

The foregoing sketches a picture on which public and nonpublic, inside and outside appear less clear-cut than the author imagines, a predicament which Rawls’ clarifications do little to alleviate:

The criteria and methods of these nonpublic reasons depend in part on how the nature (the aim and point) of each association is understood and the conditions under which it pursues its ends (221).

Structural explanations of this help to make clear in what ways nonpublic reason(s) cannot be seen as monolithic and vary from association to association, yet they fail to nuance further Rawls’ public-nonpublic distinction. In fact, the compartmentalization and one-sided relation comes out all the more strongly when the author takes up the subject of the relation between comprehensive doctrines and “political competence”. He writes:

Whatever comprehensive religious, philosophical, or moral views we hold are also freely accepted, politically speaking; for given liberty of conscience and freedom of thought, we impose any such doctrine on ourselves. By this I do not mean that we do this by an act of free choice, as it were, apart from all prior loyalties and commitments, attachments, and affections. I mean that, as free and equal citizens, whether we affirm these views is regarded as within our political competence specified by basic constitutional rights and liberties (221-2).

The passage above accentuates Rawls’ peculiar understanding of the person. Taken from a strictly political perspective, it must indeed seem that comprehensive doctrines and the associations from which they derive are voluntarist in some sense, i.e. that the person decides to take part in them and that the cognitive context and conceptual economy associated therewith can be set aside as the person wills.

Although Rawls takes care to qualify that strictly political perspective by stating that comprehensive doctrines are not subject to voluntarism so narrowly conceived, he envisages a certain separation or disjunction between the person and her comprehensive doctrine: at the political level, which is conceptually prior, the decision to hold a certain comprehensive doctrine follows from certain political freedoms. Indeed, it seems unclear whether the person can occupy that political perspective as prior, conceptually or otherwise, to her comprehensive doctrines and the associations involved therein. One can conceive of this relation between person and doctrine as, at least partly, freely willed, but, also partly, an accumulation of habits, such that it proves difficult to extricate the person, conceptually or otherwise, from the perspective thereof.

This peculiar vision of the person comes out in another passage to follow and creates further potential difficulties for the author, for which radical steps will later be required.

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