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Rawls and subject 20

March 31, 2017
  • 3. Public reason

1.) Three-part justification

In what way do the three phases of justification complement the four-stage sequence? In truth, they arise from the need to work between the different political conceptions issuing therefrom. Contrary to Rawls’ argumentation in the third part of A Theory of Justice, wherein the author attempts to show that a society accepting a liberal, constitutional conception of the two principles of justice would be stable and self-sustaining, not all persons will come to such a conception at the issue of the four-stage sequence and so the argumentation hinges on a contentious premise. Thus, it will be necessary to show what shape life in society will take between persons arriving, through the four-stage sequence, either at different political conceptions or at the same political conception but for different reasons. In other words, we find ourselves asking, as Rawls does: “How is it possible that deeply opposed though reasonable comprehensive doctrines may live together and all affirm the political conception of a constitutional regime?”[1]. Put still differently, given the fact of reasonable pluralism in contemporary society, by what means do the persons professing those reasonable comprehensive doctrines come to affirm a political conception of a constitutional regime in line with the family of conceptions issuing from the four-stage sequence and justify that conception to others?

Rawls’ answer consists in delineating three distinct phases of justification: “first, pro tanto justification of the political conception; second, full justification of that conception by an individual person in society; and finally, public justification of the political conception by political society”[2]. Each of these phases introduces a proper forum, relevant criteria and an appropriate standpoint to adopt when justifying the selection of a political conception. In addition, each phase operates in accord with notions developed elsewhere in Rawls’ work: pro tanto justification with public reason and legitimacy; full justification with comprehensive doctrines and overlapping consensus; public justification with stability for the right reasons[3]. Thus, a review of the three phases will not only lend clarity to what becomes of a political conception following the decisionmaking procedure but will also allow us to isolate the precise moment at which the aforementioned notions intervene in the justificatory process.
[1] PL, p. xviii. For discussion of reasonable comprehensive doctrines and reasonable pluralism, see _____.

[2] PL, p. 386. It should be noted that one could reasonably object that we here misrepresent Rawls’ approach in that the presentation of three-part justification comes not as a response to the question of reasonable pluralism but to questions put Rawls by Habermas on, one, the relation between overlapping consensus and political conceptions and, two, the meaning of the term “reasonable”. To answer the objection, we think it enough to point out the extent to which both lines of questioning share the same concerns, worded in different ways. In short, both deal with the relation between a political conception and comprehensive doctrines and the terms on which that relation is established and maintained, in such a way that there is little worry of misrepresentation, except at the level of text.

[3] PL, pp. 386-7.

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