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Rawls and subject 28

May 9, 2017

With provisional answers to these sets of questions in place, a liberal political conception of justice is, for present purposes, complete. Should that conception have little to offer in the way of answers to pressing economic and social issues before the legislative, the fact that the conception has secured the bases is “already of enormous importance”[1]. Moreover, we could hardly expect that conception to answer all such questions for which it is “often more reasonable to go beyond the political conception and the values its principles express, and to invoke non-political values that such a view does not include”[2]. In short, it suffices that general terms for political and social cooperation are already in place.

In the preceding paragraphs, we have suggested that a complete liberal political conception comprises five elements: scope, norms, values, criterion and questions. Yet there lacks one last element: the standpoint which the person occupies when justifying that conception in terms of public reason and pro tanto justification. For, as Rawls remarks, it is always important to bear in mind “where we are and whence we speak” at a given time[3]. It might be objected that, if the author himself does not include a standpoint as an integral element of a complete liberal political conception of justice, it is misleading to posit and seek such a standpoint out.

Nevertheless, we can offer, in the way of response, two significant considerations. First, Rawls takes care to specify the relevant standpoint for each stage of the four-stage sequence in that such a device allows us better to grasp the kinds of information and, hence, deliberation available to the person at each stage. Likewise, pro tanto justification evinces similar considerations: under the aegis of public reason, the limits on the kinds of acceptable reasons shape deliberation and a point of view in connection with which those reasons are offered. On this count, then, there is little reason to think that Rawls would object to attaching a standpoint if this helps to clarify the person’s mindset at the time of deliberation.

Second, and more importantly, Rawls has already introduced a conception of person throughout Lecture VI to which the exercise of public reason is bound: that of citizen. If public reason is “the reason of citizens as such”, this is not for nothing[4]. After all, public reason concerns the public existence of the person as regards political life. Thus, it plausibly fits the text to posit this conception of person as providing the relevant standpoint for pro tanto justification. Although the precise formulation of this standpoint is not worked out in full in Lecture VI by the author, the materials necessary for the immanent construction of such a standpoint are near to hand. Insofar as the original position provides the criteria or test for a complete liberal political conception of justice, we may suppose that the citizen standpoint resembles the party standpoint in important ways, i.e. a depersonalized person in symmetrical relations with others autonomously proposing reasonable principles in publicly available modes.

Certainly, some of these terms will have to be amended. The original position and public reason neither set out from the same problem, nor do they operate within the same sphere. As such, we will have more reason to speak of the citizen as a political person in free and equal relations with others autonomously proposing, in accordance with public reason, reasonable principles in publicly available modes for principles of political justice. The reasons for these changes owe to the changes in context. On one hand, the person in the party standpoint lacks contingent information about herself and her place in society whereas the person in the citizen standpoint, in principle, possesses such information but, given the public political setting, does not base her reasons for principles of political justice thereon. On the other, persons in the party standpoint stand in symmetrical relation to one another while the relations of those in the citizen standpoint are characterized by their freedom and equality. Finally, the combination of these factors alters the characterization of autonomy relevant to the citizen standpoint: rather than “rational autonomy”, it is a question of “full autonomy” as informational constraints are lifted[5]. Public reason does not supplant the original position but enfolds it.

[1] PL, p. 230.

[2] Idem.

[3] PL, p. 382. See also his similar remark at PL, p. xix: “We must keep track of where we are”.

[4] PL, p. 213.

[5] PL, p. 28.

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