Skip to content

Rawls and subject 26

May 5, 2017

If the norms of reasonable, rational and civility have now come more clearly into view and allow us to envision the shape of public reason, 1.) contains within itself a further question as to the latter’s content. Therein, Rawls speaks of the “political values of public reason” in light of which political discourse is to proceed. Yet we have not yet answered the question of what values remain for civility to put forward following the reasonable’s operative selection of goods expressed by the rational. Short of this, the political conception being justified at this first phase of pro tanto justification will remain incomplete. Thus, Rawls deems that “[t]o find a complete political conception we need to identify a class of fundamental questions for which the conception’s political values yield reasonable answers” in addition to the scope of public reason already defined[1]. Fortunately, Rawls expands on both values and questions in, respectively, the fourth and fifth sections of Lecture VI.

The fourth section presents the content of public reason in the form of a “political conception of justice” which is “broadly liberal in character”[2]. The author goes on to specify “liberal” and “political” as follows. A conception of justice is liberal insofar as it a.) “specifies certain basic rights, liberties, and opportunities”, b.) “assigns a special priority” thereto and c.) “affirms measures assuring all citizens adequate all-purpose means to make effective use” thereof[3]. As regards the “political” quality of a conception of justice, this follows from its being 1.) “framed to apply solely to the basic structure of society, its main political, social, and economic institutions as a unified scheme of social cooperation”, 2.) “presented independently of any wider comprehensive religious or philosophical doctrine”, 3.) “elaborated in terms of fundamental political ideas viewed as implicit in the public political culture of a democratic society”[4]. Such are the characteristics of those values left standing after the selection operated by the reasonable on the rational: the primacy of and access to familiar rights, liberties and opportunities central to political society independently of their place in any broader doctrine and implicit therein.

Although the qualities of “liberal” and “political” characterize those values, a further step is required to arrive at the values themselves. Certainly, following the four-stage sequence, the person is in possession of a political conception of justice, along with its attendant principles. That said, applying those principles further requires “guidelines of inquiry that specify ways of reasoning and criteria for the kinds of information relevant for political questions”[5]. The combined requirement of principles and guidelines suffices for a twofold set of liberal political values. First, the values of political justice “fall under the principles of justice for the basic structure” and comprise: “the values of equal political and civil liberty; equality of opportunity; the values of social equality and economic reciprocity; and […] values of the common good as well as the various necessary conditions for all these values”[6]. Second, the values of public reason “fall under the guidelines for public inquiry, which make that inquiry free and public” through “such political virtues as reasonableness and a readiness to honor the (moral) duty of civility, which as virtues of citizens help to make possible reasoned public discussion of political questions”[7].

Certainly, the elements comprising these values are latent in the preceding presentation. The values of political justice reprises elements from the original position, the two principles of justice as fairness, and the four-stage sequence through which they are elaborated. As to the values of public reason, these recall the criterion of the reasonable and the duty of civility formulated, at least in part, as a response to the legitimacy problem above. That these elements derive from earlier stages of Rawls’ presentation should, however, come as no surprise, given his method on which each new element builds either from conceptions which we may expect all to accept or from elements previously laid out in the progression[8]. Thus, the author proceeds immanently, and the values of a liberal political conception of justice prove to be specifications or reworkings of elements already adduced without the need for the introduction of extraneous elements. Accordingly, the elements introduced at the level of public reason’s scope and criteria reappear as its content.


[1] PL, p. 227.

[2] PL, p. 223.

[3] Idem. This leaves open the possibility, suggested above, that a family of similar political conceptions may meet the criteria set out by the original position, issue from the four-stage sequence and, hence, be the object of justification. See also PL, p. 226 where Rawls elaborates on the permissible variance in liberal conceptions.

[4] PL, p. 223. Along with the wider goal of reflective equilibrium, 3.) suggests that Rawls’ project is broadly expressivist, i.e. to raise to the level of consciousness those values which are already implicitly expressed in a society.

[5] Idem.

[6] PL, p. 224.

[7] Idem.

[8] This follows from Rawls’ constructivism. See PL, ____, as well as O’Neill ____ and LH, ____ for more considerable discussion and historical origins.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: