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Rawls and subject 21

April 6, 2017
  • Pro tanto justification, public reason and citizen

The passage on pro tanto justification is short enough that we will here quote in full:

Consider pro tanto justification. In public reason the justification of the political conception takes into account only political values, and I assume that a political conception properly laid out is complete […]. That is, the political values specified by it can be suitably ordered, or balanced, so that those values alone give a reasonable answer by public reason to all or nearly all questions concerning constitutional essentials and basic justice. This is the meaning of pro tanto justification. By examining a wide range of political questions to see whether a political conception can always provide a reasonable answer we can check to see if it seems to be complete. But since political justification is pro tanto, it may be overridden by citizens’ comprehensive doctrines once all values are tallied up[1].

If Rawls has relatively little to say on pro tanto justification, this is because he has already devoted considerable attention to this phase of justification in the form of public reason in Lecture VI. Ordinarily, a political conception issuing from the four-stage sequence posits a number of values; appeal to these values, as guided by public reason, is sufficient to arbitrate between rival claims in case of conflict over constitutional essentials and basic justice. As the term pro tanto suggests, those values take us as far as we can go with respect to determining the validity of a claim. In other words, pro tanto justification cannot be understood independently of Rawls’ exposition of public reason, such that, before we can go forwards, we must go backwards to that earlier treatment as well as the conceptions of society and citizen which frame it. We will return to the above passage in closing.

First of all, it will be helpful to recall that, like the original position, the idea of public reason responds to a specific theoretico-practical concern and, accordingly, describes a procedure to meet that need. Certainly, both concern and procedure differ in this case: the concern, as stated above, stems from legitimizing political judgments on constitutional essentials and basic justice in a situation of reasonable pluralism; the procedure consists not in a representational device but in a set of constraints on political discourse between differently situated persons. It may also prove useful to recall what makes public reason both “public” and “reason”. We may define, with Rawls, “reason” both as “a way of formulating its plans, of putting its ends in an order of priority and of making decisions accordingly” and as the “ability to do these things”, i.e. “an intellectual and moral power”[2]. In short, reason consists in those discursive and deliberative means which a person or group of persons may use to lay out, defend or modify her view on a matter.

In what way is this reason then “public”? One might suppose that a use of reason becomes public in virtue of taking place before a public forum. Yet the fact of discussing and deliberating before a public audience does not suffice to make the use of reason therein “public”. Indeed, the term requires further qualification, which the author undertakes in Lecture VI’s introduction:

Not all reasons are public reasons, as there are the nonpublic reasons of churches and universities and of many other associations in civil society […] Public reason is characteristic of a democratic people: it is the reason of its citizens, of those sharing the status of equal citizenship[3].

So, there exist both public and nonpublic reason(s), public reason being characteristic of democratic institutions and nonpublic of associations. All the same, it is conceivable that a person can lay out, defend or modify any manner of view in a democratic public forum, such that it remains to be seen in just what sense Rawls intends “public”. Cognizant of this need, he clarifies:

Public reason, then, is public in three ways: as the reason of citizens as such, it is the reason of the public; its subject is the good of the public and matters of fundamental justice; and its nature and content is public, being given by the ideals and principles expressed by society’s conception of political justice, and conducted open to view on that basis[4] (idem.).

In other words, “public” qualifies three elements: the conceptual economy employed by the person qua citizen, i.e. as the equal bearer of fundamental rights within society; the kinds of questions before the public forum which it concerns, namely the make-up of society’s basic institutions, citizens’ rights and distributive justice; the values given in public discourse’s correspondence to the content of justice as fairness (or another reasonable political conception) and their reliance thereon. More simply, all three aspects show a narrow, technical sense, confined to the framework which Rawls lays out through the rest of Political Liberalism. On the condition that we accept the provided definitions of “public” and “reason”, along with a given decisionmaking procedure and certain conceptions of person and society, we come to a view on which, in order to ensure cooperation between people professing different religious, moral and philosophical values, i.e. comprehensive doctrines, the person engaging in public discourse and political justification must frame her reasons in terms agreed upon and accepted by all, independently of their comprehensive doctrines[5].

[1] PL, p. 386.

[2] PL, pp. 212-213.

[3] PL, p. 213.

[4] Idem.

[5] Certainly, it would be possible to provide alternate definitions of Rawls’ three senses of “public”, but such an effort cannot merely contest these definitions and leave the rest standing. For their sense follows, on Rawls’ view, from the framework in which they have been set. Accordingly, one would have to start with the framework in order to show that the definitions do not follow as Rawls lays them out and show at precisely which moment Rawls goes wrong. Anything less will fail to address Rawls’ thought qua system in reflective equilibrium. It will, however, be shown in Chapter 3 below how one might go about using Rawls’ own criteria to propose a better account of his system in light of his own motivations.

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