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Rawls and public reason XIV

December 8, 2016

What then is Rawls to make of the fact that the person’s free use of reason is obligated to accept government authority? His reply will turn in large part on whether a given use of reason can be at once free and constrained. He takes up this question in a footnote to the passage above:

Here I accept the Kantian (not Kant’s) view that what we affirm on the basis of free and informed reason and reflection is affirmed freely; and that insofar as our conduct expresses what we affirm freely, our conduct is free to the extent it can be. Freedom at the deepest level calls upon the freedom of reason, both theoretical and practical, as expressed in what we say and do. Limits on freedom are at bottom limits on our reason: on its development and education, its knowledge and information, and on the scope of the actions in which it can be expressed, and therefore our freedom depends on the nature of of the surrounding institutional and social context (note to 222).

In this way, Rawls proposes, like a certain reading of Kant, to situate reason and, hence, freedom in a context which will understandably restrict the shape which it will take as well as the kinds of reasons to which it can give voice. In other words, a given person’s reason not conceiving of a possibility of action or lifestyle of which it would, in principle, be able to conceive does not show that person’s reason to be unfree. Rather, it suggests the way in which a person’s cognitive context and conceptual economy act as limits on kinds of reasons to which she may conceive and give voice. Any limit on the person’s freedom stems from a limit on the form which her reason may take due to that context and economy.

Indeed, it would have made little sense for Rawls to call for disembodied reason and freedom as opposed to situated or embedded reason and freedom. For then that which the person would have been capable of justifying as pure rational agent would have been out of keeping with that which she found herself justifying in her concrete situation, i.e. government authority and political conception as constituted. And, in order for the person to exercise reason and so be free, she would then have needed to demonstrate precisely those disembodied capacities of the pure rationality before any justification of political authority and political conception could take place. In any case, that disconnect, between being capable of conceiving and justifying and actually conceiving and justifying, would have rendered reason and freedom impossible. More simply, she would be incapable of reasonably and freely affirming that into which she had been born; the conditions therefor would simply be set too high.

In this way does Rawls think to preserve the person’s freedom and, by extension, autonomy when accepting government authority. So long as the person freely affirms those laws which government authority and political conception envisage, then she can be said to have affirmed those laws for and given them to herself. It remains to be seen whether this situated autonomy does not have further implications for the author’s vision of justification. For one could easily ask, at this juncture, just why the person, be it in the four-stage sequence or during the three-part justification, shows herself to be heteronomous when she does not set aside the comprehensive doctrine in which her reason is quite naturally embedded.

Put otherwise, can Rawls maintain both that the person upholds her autonomy through appeal to situated reason when justifying government authority and political conception and that that same person does not uphold her autonomy through appeal to comprehensive doctrine when justifying a political conception at whatever stage? This question would seem to hinge on whether situated reason and comprehensive doctrine may be read as glosses for one another. If careful examination would say no, in that human reason broadly construed and comprehensive doctrines, while both embedded, work at different levels of generality, one senses that the question can be made more precise following rewording.

This rewording might read as follows: what considerations prove relevant in distinguishing the case in which the person exercises her situated reason autonomously with regards to government authority from the case in which the person exercises her situated heteronomously with regards to a political conception? The answer perhaps lies in the makeup of the audience. After all, in the first case, the person needs only justify government authority to herself, an audience of one. By contrast, in the second, she may need to justify the political conception either to herself or to others, an audience holding various comprehensive doctrines. Supposing the latter, her reasons are not the same as those held by the audience whereas, in the first case, her reasons are identical to the audience’s reasons by dint of the situation’s trivial structure. At some point in Rawls’ reasoning, it seems that autonomy has become other-regarding: the exercise of one’s autonomy must not impinge on the other’s.

In spite of this qualification, two further worries remain. First, this kind of other-regarding behavior seems purely negative in character: the person must not exercise her autonomy in such a way as to encroach on the other’s. Second, were the person to give her freely affirmed reasons (on the basis of her situated reason) at the time of full justification but reasons that she does not similarly affirm at the time of pro tanto justification, it is unclear how one might nonetheless consider the latter set of reasons autonomous. Given the constraints of public reason, the person may be brought to elaborate a set of reasons which she does not fully, freely affirm on the basis of situated reason. Although Rawls could respond to the latter that the situation resembles, in certain respects, that of the person with regards to affirming government authority, the cases differ in another: the idea of public reason does not possess the same status of inevitable fact as the government authority over the country into which the person is born. This, combined with the above considerations, suggests that the idea of public reason necessitates an imprecise idea of autonomy on which autonomy varies on the basis of the level of generality, the audience and the object of affirmation.

This concludes the third section of “The Idea of Public Reason”, one with consequences for any who would promote a transcendent, non-historicist vision of autonomy or an overly embedded reason, a warning for liberals and conservatives, feminists and traditionalists alike.

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