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Rawls and public reason XIII

December 7, 2016

As the point which Rawls draws from this line of reasoning on government authority and the individual’s bonds leave aside the question of the conception of the individual, further interrogation of this matter will be left for another time. To return to the matter at hand, consider Rawls’ elaboration on the relation between government authority and personal freedom:

The government’s authority cannot, then, be freely accepted in the sense that the bonds of society and culture, of history and social place of origin, begin so early to shape our life and are not so strong that the right of emigration (suitably qualified) does not suffice to make accepting its authority free, politically speaking, in the way that liberty of conscience suffices to make accepting ecclesiastical authority free, politically speaking. Nevertheless, we may over the course of life come freely to accept, as the outcome of reflective thought and reasoned judgment, the ideals, principles, and standards that specify our basic rights and liberties, and effectively guide and moderate the political power to which we are subject. This is the outer limit of our freedom (222).

In effect, this amounts to a return to that which this commentary has above termed the “voluntarist” question: can the person exercise or withhold her will in accepting a certain authority or does that authority impose itself regardless of the will’s configuration, exercise or withholding? Rawls makes reference to a pair of cases by which one can see, from the political perspective, the way in which the person is not at liberty to withhold acceptance for public institutions’ authority in the same way as she is with regards to nonpublic associations. In other words, Rawls’ line of thinking suggests that, given public institutions’ role as an enabling condition for both society and the person’s exercise of will therein, the person cannot withhold or reject that authority as she would in the case of a nonpublic association which does not occupy the role of enable condition for both society and her exercise of will therein.

This does not, however, mean that the person is unfree with regards to the role of public institutions. At a certain level, she may come to examine the intuitions and guiding principles at work in those institutions’ set-up and workings. Following reflection, such examination may then leave her in a position freely to accept those intuitions and principles, even to embody them in her own life in both political and civil society. At worst, one might speak of a provisional freedom which due consideration would later supersede. Wherefore Rawls’ talk of the outer limit of freedom.

Two questions arise from the foregoing, namely, Rawls’ stance on personal (de)compartmentalization and the form which the person’s due consideration will take. As to the first, the author attempts to find a middle ground between the two. His view appears, at first blush, less strongly compartmentalist than Kant, a question not without importance in Stout’s work. Does the person subdivide into a variety of spheres of action with distinct principles and ends guiding their conduct and between which there seems little (need for) coordination? Indeed, Rawls seems to take the opposite tack in that the person must confront the authority of government and public institutions and, as it were, make her own case for their acceptance. In this way, her nonpublic life would not float freely of the public.

Yet the reader will also recall that the author elsewhere remarks that political liberalism does not look into the content of comprehensive doctrines and, by extension, at the time of public justification, citizens’ do not look into each other’s individual standpoints. In this way, a secondary compartmentalization seems to run through the set-up of institutions, basic structure and public reason on Rawls’ view. If not from herself, the person’s life remains in an important sense isolated from others’.

Moving on, the second question will prove the more important of the two: what form do the process and the outcome of reflective thought and considered acceptance take? Put differently, what considerations are relevant to the individual’s coming to accept government authority? At this point, it is important to note that the person in the process of reflection on government authority will likely have already completed the four-stage sequence necessary to arrive at a political conception on Rawls’ view. That reflection can then take one of several forms, depending on her purpose: relating her political conception to the present political conception and institutions or justifying the latter conception and institutions to herself or others (as a way of making peace with them, as it were).

Focusing on the latter, one can further distinguish two domains of justification with regards to which this process of reflection must reckon: pro tanto justification and full justification, as per their definition elsewhere. In the first, the person would use strictly political arguments in order to come to accept government authority and as far as strictly political arguments could take her. Given that she may not accept public reason or feels constrained to accept government authority and institutions’ set-up as is, it may more likely be a question of full justification in this case, i.e. in justifying to herself why her comprehensive doctrine or individual standpoint connects with the citizen standpoint or the political conception operative in government. This reading seems to accord with the overall tone of the passage.

In this case, the person would have then access to reasons deriving from her comprehensive doctrine in the course of reflection and in arriving at due consideration for accepting government authority. All the same, one may still question whether the person may be considered free, regardless of the kinds of reasons which she is allowed to muster, if she is obligated to accept that authority in the end as a fact of life. How does Rawls thinks to answer this question? Will that answer have further implications for his vision of freedom and autonomy?

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