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Rawls and subject 23

May 2, 2017

Leaving aside the court’s special role, it is enough for the moment to point out how constitutional essentials, as part of public reason’s field of application, inherently structure the function of such officials. It should come as no wonder that public reason should be both sufficient and necessary in their case. As to the latter, citizens, public reason likewise proves both sufficient and necessary, albeit for different reasons, to guide political discourse:

[…] when [citizens] engage in political advocacy in the public forum, and thus for members of political parties and for candidates in their campaigns and for other groups who support them. It holds equally for how citizens are to vote in elections when constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice are at stake. Thus, the ideal of public reason not only governs the public discourse of elections insofar as the issues involve those fundamental questions, but also how citizens are to cast their vote on these questions […] Otherwise, public discourse runs the risks of being hypocritical: citizens talk before one another one way and vote another[1].

There is much to unpack herein, but it is perhaps first most useful to derive of a list of situations in which the citizen is likely to find herself bound by public reason, at least on Rawls’ view. These situations seem four in number: 1.) the citizen’s advocacy in the public forum; 2.) the citizen as public office candidate’s advocacy in the public campaign; 3.) the citizen as member of an outside group’s advocacy for a public office candidate; 4.) the citizen’s election vote on questions of constitutional essentials. Accordingly, the citizen’s discourse in both the advocacy and voting phases proceeds under the aegis of public reason.

Second, Rawls’ choice of terms bears further notice: citizen. By this term, Rawls means something close to “the person as concerned with basic institutions, constitutional matters and fundamental rights”[2]. So, for the person qua citizen, public reason must always be operative, in a way that it is not for the person qua individual or as unconcerned with basic institutions, constitutional matters and fundamental rights. Though this notion of person as citizen will receive more considerable treatment in Chapter 3, it has an important role to play in showing both why public reason is limited in general and why public reason is limited to constitutional essentials and basic justice in particular.

In truth, it is worth insisting on this point further, for one may be unsatisfied with a limited public reason for either of two reasons. Should one be persuaded that Rawls is right to introduce public reason, one may still have reservations over limiting its scope from the outset. Conversely, should one harbor doubts over the constraints imposed by public reason, one will ask whether it serves a purpose when most governmental business will be conducted with regards to matters outside constitutional essentials and basic justice. In short, what grounds does Rawls have to limit public reason in general and to constitutional essentials and basic justice in particular?

In reality, two reasons motivate Rawls to set out from the lesser claim that public reason does not constrain all political discourse. The first follows from what we might term a theoretical humility. The author demonstrates such humility when he explains that, if the lesser claim does not hold, then there is no reason to suppose that the greater claim will. This comes out more strongly when he grants that, while appealing to public reason may be “highly desirable” for all instances of political discourse, “this may not always be so”[3].

In contrast, the second issues from the differences between the kinds of questions at issue. More specifically, what we have termed political questions, i.e. those over constitutional essentials and basic justice, invoke the citizens’ collective political and coercive power in a different way than what we have termed public questions[4]. Insofar as persons are conceived as free and equal citizens, the coercive use of power must be justified in such a way that persons consider a given use neither as unacceptably infringing on their freedom to organize their lives as individuals nor as unacceptably undermining their equality as subjects bearing certain rights. This way of formulating the requirement leaves it unclear whether the distinction between political and public questions is qualitative or quantitative in nature.

[1] PL, p. 215. This closing remark on hypocrisy is of great importance but, ultimately, one to which we shall not return before Chapter 3. For the time being, we will content ourselves with suggesting that it captures an important aspect of how “democratic citizenship” (PL, p. 216) evolves from the party standpoint of the original position, i.e. a depersonalized person in symmetrical relations with others autonomously proposing reasonable principles in publicly available modes. Talking one way and voting another would seemingly violate the symmetrical and public requirements contained therein.

[2] PL, pp. _____ .

[3] PL, p. 215.

[4] Indeed, Rawls references such power in the preceding pages. See previously cited passages at PL, pp. 214-5.

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