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Rawls and subject 25

May 4, 2017

With this, the author comes to the heart of the matter:

Granted all this, we ask: when may citizens by their vote properly exercise their coercive political power over one another when fundamental questions are at stake? Or in the light of what principles and ideals must we exercise that power if our doing so is to be justifiable to others as free and equal?[1]

Put somewhat differently, if the person allows that others are likewise affected by the basic structure’s institutions and the exercise of collective power therein and that her power contributes to that exercised by those institutions, the question arises how and in light of what criteria she might justify her power over others or they over her. Insofar as she takes seriously their freedom and equality with regards to those institutions, her justification must leave room for that freedom and equality and be liable of gaining their assent:

To this question political liberalism replies: our exercise of political power is proper and hence justifiable only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse in the light of principles and ideals acceptable to them as reasonable and rational. This is the liberal principle of legitimacy. And since the exercise of political power itself must be legitimate, the ideal of citizenship imposes a moral, not a legal, duty— the duty of civility […][2].

Public reason qua justificatory device, and, by extension, pro tanto justification, corresponds to this liberal principle of legitimacy and, consequently, advances in view of the criteria laid out above: practical reason’s norms of “reasonable” and “rational”, as well as the resultant charge of “the duty of civility”. The author defines “reasonable” and “rational” as norms of practical reason as early as Lecture I wherein he identifies reasonableness with a certain idea of reciprocity. More specifically, the person is reasonable insofar as she: 1.) proposes terms for cooperation; 2.) considers others’ proposed terms; and 3.) stands by the terms accepted[3]. Indeed, the “reasonable” criterion captures in what way coercive terms for cooperation, in order to be acceptable to all, must be capable of a justification reaching all. As Rawls sees it, both the terms and the reasons for those terms then must be identical or, at the very least, sufficiently similar for all. Hence, reciprocity for Rawls proves a form of symmetry: all offer the same terms for the same reasons[4].

It remains to be seen how the “rational” slots into the scheme above. In short, the person is rational insofar as she: 1.) adopts and affirms ends and interests; 2.) prioritizes certain ends and interests over others; and 3.) arranges her actions in light of that ordering. It should be added that “rationality” so conceived surpasses mere means-based reasoning in that it operates from the perspective of furthering a good, whatever the person’s good may be. How then does the rational relate to the reasonable? In truth, the rational and the reasonable occupy distinct roles within practical reason and the deliberative economy. Whereas the former furnishes the choice of means, ends and institutions for the basic structure, the latter furnishes the criteria constraining the choice of means, ends and institutions for that structure. More simply, the rational provides the material on which justification will work while the reasonable shapes the course of justification.

So does the reasonable shape what is rational for a person into a form acceptable to other persons, as the author suggests in the following passage:

As reasonable and rational, and knowing that [citizens] affirm a diversity of reasonable religious and philosophical doctrines, they should be ready to explain the basis of their actions to one another in terms each could reasonably expect that others might endorse as consistent with their freedom and equality. Trying to meet this condition is one of the tasks that this ideal of democratic politics asks of us. Understanding how to conduct oneself as a democratic citizen includes understanding an ideal of public reason[5].

It is precisely this question of justificatory and other conduct, of the reasonable constraining the rational, which leads Rawls to posit a duty of civility. The author above elaborated this duty as: 1.) “[being] able to explain to one another on those fundamental questions how the principles and policies they advocate and vote for can be supported by the political values of public reason”; 2.) “a willingness to listen to others and a fairmindedness in deciding when accommodations to their views should reasonably be made”[6]. Clearly, 1.) follows from the reasonable’s constraining the rational and represents an obligation, justificatory and otherwise, on the person. 2.) presents a strong contrast in that it invokes not an obligation, strictly speaking, but virtues of character. This recalls that political liberalism, on Rawls’ view, bundles a number of virtues indispensable to its realization and its stability[7].


[1] PL, p. 217. Presumably, this extends to the influence which advocacy may have on that vote.

[2] Idem.

[3] PL, pp. 49-50. In truth, these notions figure prominently in TJ. See also TJ ______

[4] Unsurprisingly, this recalls the discussion of symmetry as one of the five criteria grounding the party standpoint in the original position and underlying the subsequent standpoints in the four-stage sequence. Given the prominence of the “reasonable”, one might go so far as to maintain that fairness models the reasonable and the reasonable the justifiable, to such an extent that Rawls’ project in Political Liberalism is as much justification as fairness as justice as fairness, a point to which this commentary shall return.

[5] PL, p. 218.

[6] PL, p. 217.

[7] See PL, pp. _______, as well as TJ, pp. _______

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