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Rawls and subject 24

May 3, 2017

In other words, is the relevant difference one of kind or degree? More simply, do political questions involve instances where coercion is of a different nature or do they merely concern instances where coercion is or is felt to be greater or more direct? For the author, the answer seems in fact something of both. The configuration of constitutional essentials and basic justice in a society will exercise considerable influence on the shape of a person’s life, in ways that the issues raised in public questions perhaps do not[1]. That influence is visible in society to such an extent that whether this necessity of applying public reason in one case but not the other flows from a difference in kind or degree may prove of little importance in the end. Suffice it to say that public questions do not influence forms of life at the same level as the political.

To return to the question at hand, a specific coercive use of power must be justified or acceptable to those who are opposed to the coercive use of power in question. Certainly, one may contend that, if constitutional essentials and basic justice figure among the most important matters to which a person can turn her attention, it seems to follow that the most important considerations therefor from her argumentative battery would be worthy of the public’s attention. That said, her considerations for one and the same position may not prove the same as those of another, nor those of another her own. Yet it may happen, in the end, that both her position and, perhaps by extension, her reasons prove binding on the other’s conduct. What then arises for the other is a legitimacy problem to which public reason is meant to supply an answer:

I begin by trying to dissolve this paradox [limiting reasons to public considerations of justice rather than the whole truth] and invoke a principle of liberal legitimacy […] Recall that this principle is connected with two special features of the political relationship among democratic citizens: First, it is a relationship of persons within the basic structure of the society into which they are born and in which they normally lead a complete life. Second, in a democracy political power, which is always coercive power, is the power of the public, that is, of free and equal citizens as a collective body[2].

Rawls’ way of meeting this legitimacy problem lies in dissociating both the kinds of forums in which political and public questions are discussed and the kinds of reasons capable of gaining assent therein. Underlying this dissociation is still another: that between the person’s roles in different kinds of forums and in offering different kinds of reasons. Of immediate interest for the problem of legitimacy are the forum and reasons most pertinent to the person’s existence within society’s basic structure of essential constitutional, economic and social institutions, in other words, the person’s existence as a citizen[3] (for basic structure’s ubiquity, 67-68).

For the author, all citizens are equally affected by the basic structure’s institutions, and the power exercised by those institutions over citizens is in fact their own. This will prove at once the complication and the solution to the legitimacy problem: if the basic structure’s institutions exercise power over citizens, that power derives from the latter, thus it is within citizens’ power to legitimize that power over themselves and others. In other words, the only illegitimate use of power, in principle, would be that which the citizen is incapable of justifying to another.

[1] See PL, pp. _____, as well as TJ, pp. _____ and its talk of starting places in society. Others may counter that political and public questions alike entail considerations of permissibility and so show no relevant distinction.

[2] PL, p. 216.

[3] Authors from other philosophical strands might find themselves inclined to challenge this partition of the person into (public) citizen and “(nonpublic) individual” (though the term is not Rawls’). This might follow from such different views as the indissociability of personality or citizenship as an all-encompassing human good. Certainly, Rawls’ definition of citizen is contentious in the light of such considerations, but he does not pretend to engage those positions nor the problems which give rise thereto. If Rawls defines citizen in such a way as closely to fit the framework of the basic structure and justice as fairness, this owes to the need for a specific conceptual role within his system, for which such considerations are extraneous. More simply, one can challenge Rawls’ definition of citizen, but, in order to do so effectively, that challenge will need to take issue either with an inconsistent application of the term or the inability of the notion to fulfill the function which the author assigns it. Otherwise, one must abstract from his position entirely. For similar considerations, see Mulhall and Swift, pp. _____.

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