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Rawls and public reason XII

December 6, 2016

This peculiar vision of the person comes out in another passage to follow and suggests additional, interpretive difficulties for the author, for which radical steps will be required in his later works.

Chief among these is a passage on governmental authority and legitimacy wherein the subtext differs considerably from the topic under discussion. Rawls writes:

By contrast, the government’s authority cannot be evaded except by leaving the territory over which it governs, and not always then. That its authority is guided by public reason does not change this. For normally leaving one’s country is a grave step: it involves leaving the society and culture in which we have been raised, the society and culture whose language we use in speech and thought to express and understand ourselves, our aims, goals, and values; the society and culture whose history, customs, and conventions we depend on to find our place in the social world. In large part we affirm our society and culture, and have an intimate and inexpressible knowledge of it, even though much of it we may question, if not reject (222).

One may concede certain important claims without further ado. Undoubtedly, governmental authority applies to the totality of its territory and even beyond its borders. Moreover, the reason(s) by which the government operates will likely differ from that by which residents of its territory organize their lives, if only because different kinds of associations are involved. For example, no one would maintain that the government need take on the criteria and function of the family, nor the family the structures and qualities of the government. Associations naturally differ in terms of scope and ends.

On the other hand, Rawls lays out the various reasons for which the person qua individual would be hardpressed to leave her country behind, were she to object to public reason’s usage in government and political society and threaten emigration. Among these one counts the various aspects identified elsewhere with cognitive context and conceptual economy: for the former, society, culture, customs and conventions; for the latter, language and resources for self-understanding, self-expression and orientation. To threaten emigration from one’s country over public reason comes to much the same as to threaten emigration from one’s self. The very notion carries a certain implausibility, if not coherence.

Insofar as the government and country, person, context and economy are strongly bound up with one another, the person will, in the end, find it more tenable to affirm government and country while still reserving herself the right to call certain aspects into question, even perhaps the idea of public reason itself. All in all, the goods of accepting that authority, even provisionally, outweigh the ills of radically breaking with it.

That being said, the subtext of this passage reveals something of an ethical faultline in Rawls’ conception of the person. If the person qua individual is so attached to a society and culture, with its various associations and sub-cultures, to the point that she cannot envisage leaving it even when mounting considerable objections, the reader may understandably wonder why the author finds it plausible that the person can radically break with that same societal configuration, and its underlying cognitive context and conceptual economy, in applying public reason in political justification. More simply, it bears considering whether asking others to abide mainly by public reason in public justification differs in important respects from asking that person to leave her country. For the question now asks itself to what extent that person can express herself and justify her perspective independently of that same social world, even with regards to the basic structure and constitutional essentials.

From this reading of the passage’s subtext, one arrives at a notion of individual on which Rawls’ work proves ambivalent. If, at times, Rawls gives descriptions like that above and contends that political liberalism best allows for the individual’s flourishing in a society marked by reasonable pluralism, at others, he seems ill-prepared to take seriously the claims to individuality across forums and spheres to which his descriptions would seem to foster. In such a way does Rawls vacillate between strong and weak senses of individual, even when “individual” approaches the status of a term of art in his work.

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