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Rawls and subject 27

May 8, 2017

In reality, the values of public reason have important consequences for the shape of political discourse. If the values of public reason constrain how the person goes about justifying the values of political justice, then the latter’s justification must not only be acceptable to all but be so in that it “appeal[s] only to presently accepted general beliefs and forms of reasoning found in common sense, and the methods and conclusions of science when these are not controversial”[1]. This precludes reference both to comprehensive religious, moral or philosophical doctrines and to disputed theories from the natural or social sciences. In general, the values of public reason, as derived from the liberal principle of legitimacy, require that the person provide reasons on the basis of “the plain truths now widely accepted, or available, to citizens generally”[2]. Otherwise, some persons might have occasion to exercise coercive power over others in light of beliefs, reasoning or doctrines that those others have little or no reason to accept, hence violating the liberal principle of legitimacy.

In this way, scope, norms and values come together and provide three of the five elements necessary for a complete political conception capable of guiding public reason and pro tanto justification. If the fifth element, namely, the questions on which that conception bears, is the subject of the lecture’s fifth section, the closing passages of the fourth section will fill out in what way the complete political conception must be understood as a framework from within which a person engages in political discourse and deliberates. In regards to this framework, Rawls judges that “each of us must have, and be ready to explain, a criterion of what principles and guidelines we think other citizens […] may reasonable be expected to endorse along with us”[3]. For the author, this criterion or test takes the form of “the values expressed by the principles and guidelines that would be agreed to in the original position”. Indeed, the liberal political conception of justice, with its attendant values of political justice and of public reason “have essentially the same grounds” in that both sets of values derive from the criterion or test of the original position[4].

Again, this shows the logical continuity between, on one hand, reflective equilibrium, the original position and public reason and, on the other, the four-stage sequence and pro tanto justification. The latter serve to reinscribe the former within an overtly political context: public reason is itself a political specification of the decisionmaking procedure captured in the original procedure and the four-stage sequence. Additionally, it bears remarking, for Rawls, that whether others accept the representational device of original position as the most appropriate criterion or test is ultimately of little importance. More important proves the way in which a criterion or test of this kind “already imposes very considerable discipline on public discussion”[5]. Indeed, comparison not just of conceptions but of such criteria or tests ensures “an orderly contest between them over time […] to find which one, if any, is most reasonable”[6]. Such that, should the representational device of original position and the decisionmaking procedure of the four-stage sequence fall short in some way, another likewise reasonable criterion or test can step in to fill the same function and maintain similar scope, norms and values for a liberal political conception of justice.

At last, we come to the questions on which a complete liberal political conception of justice must bear, which the author specifies as “constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice” already alluded to above[7]. Constitutional essentials come in two kinds for Rawls: “fundamental principles that specify the general structure of government and the political process” and “equal basic rights and liberties of citizenship that legislative majorities are to respect”[8]. As to the questions of basic justice, these come in two shapes, much as Rawls’ two principles of justice would lead one to expect: questions regarding “the principles of justice specifying the equal basic rights” and questions regarding “the principles regulating basic matters of distributive justice”[9].

The author goes on to note that, while the first set of questions is effectively covered by the second kind of constitutional essentials, the second set of questions as a whole surpasses the scope of constitutional essentials, in particular, the fair equality of opportunity and the guarantee of a social minimum envisaged by the difference principle. Although both are equally political, the second set concerns not political procedures but background institutions and realizes itself in ways “far more difficult to ascertain”[10]. Indeed, the second set, i.e. questions regarding basic matters of distributive justice, do not submit to the same, more or less self-evident verification as the first, i.e. questions regarding the equal basic rights, insofar as the former “rest on complicated inferences and intuitive judgments that require us to assess complex social and economic information about topics poorly understood”[11]. Accordingly, the first set is more likely to elicit a consensus from differently situated persons.


[1] PL, p. 224. Similarly, see PL, p. 157.

[2] PL, p. 225.

[3] PL, p. 226.

[4] Idem.

[5] PL, p. 227.

[6] Idem.

[7] Idem.

[8] Idem. Notably, the former are more variable, within limits, than the latter, according to the author.

[9] PL, p. 228.

[10] PL, p. 229.

[11] Idem.

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