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Rawls and subject 30

May 11, 2017
  • Full justification, overlapping consensus and individual

As the other half to pro tanto justification, full justification does what the former cannot: engage nonpublic reason(s) on the behalf of a complete liberal political conception of justice[1]. To get more clearly at this complementarity, first consider Rawls’ description thereof:

Second, full justification is carried out by an individual citizen as a member of civil society. (We assume that each citizen affirms both a political conception and a comprehensive doctrine.) In this case, the citizen accepts a political conception and fills out its justification by embedding it in some way into the citizen’s comprehensive doctrine as either true or reasonable, depending on what that doctrine allows. Some may consider the political conception fully justified even though it is not accepted by other people. Whether our view is endorsed by them is not given sufficient weight to suspend its full justification in our own eyes. Thus it is left to each citizen, individually or in association with others, to say how the claims of political justice are to be ordered, or weighed, against nonpolitical values. The political conception gives no guidance in such questions, since it does not say how nonpolitical values are to be counted. This guidance belongs to citizens’ comprehensive doctrines. Recall that a political conception of justice is not dependent on any particular comprehensive doctrine, including even agnostic ones. But even though a political conception of justice is freestanding, that does not mean that it cannot be embedded in various ways – or mapped, or inserted as a module – into the different doctrines citizens affirm[2].

As is clear from the above, understanding full justification requires understanding several terms of art. To begin, the agent of justification is a single person conceived as a “free and equal”, “normal and fully cooperating member of society over a complete life”[3]. The relevant notion of society proves that of civil society. While this designates the whole of society and thus includes both the public political culture and the background culture, full justification will proceed within the background culture whereas pro tanto justification proceeds within the public political culture. More concretely, full justification concerns comprehensive doctrines and unfolds within the background culture, i.e. “the culture of the social, not of the political […] of daily life, of its many associations: churches and universities, learned and scientific societies, and clubs and teams, to mention a few”[4]. In contrast, pro tanto justification concerns the public political culture which “comprises the political institutions of a constitutional regime and the public traditions of their interpretation (including those of the judiciary), as well as historic texts and documents that are common knowledge”[5]. The combination thereof represents “a tradition of democratic thought, the content of which is at least familiar and intelligible to the educated common sense of citizens generally”, such that “society’s main institutions, and their accepted forms of interpretation, are seen as a fund of implicitly shared ideas and principles”[6].

Having specified the relevant notions of citizen and civil society, we should note Rawls’ stipulation that each citizen affirms both a political conception and a comprehensive doctrine. Certainly, the notion of political conception is familiar from the preceding section: its subject is “political, social, and economic institutions” (PL, p. 11), its mode of presentation takes the form of a “freestanding view” (PL, p. 12), and its expression is found in “certain fundamental ideas seen as implicit in the public political culture of a democratic society” (PL, p. 13). Yet no systematic presentation of “comprehensive doctrine” came with the former. In a word, what sets a political conception apart from a comprehensive doctrine, religious, philosophical or moral, is a matter of scope:

A moral conception is general if it applies to a wide range of subjects, and in the limit to all subjects universally. It is comprehensive when it includes conceptions of what is of value in human life, and ideals of personal character, as well as ideals of friendship and of familial and associational relationships, and much else that is to inform our conduct, and in the limit to our life as a whole. A conception is fully comprehensive if it covers all recognized values and virtues within one rather precisely articulated system; whereas a conception is only partially comprehensive when it comprises a number of, but by no means all, nonpolitical values and virtues and is rather loosely articulated. Many religious and philosophical doctrines aspire to be both general and comprehensive (PL, p. 13).

While a political conception is a moral conception in that “its content is given by certain ideals, principles and standards” and “these norms articulate certain values”, its application range is limited to constitutional essentials and basic justice as seen above (PL, p. 11). In addition, it leaves to the person the determination of her good. Thus, it possesses neither general nor comprehensive scope.


[1] This use of “full justification” should not be confused with another use of the term at PL, pp. 67, 70. There, Rawls identifies the third level of publicity as “full justification of the public conception of justice as it would be presented in its own terms” (PL, p. 67). He also links this justification to the “you and I” point of view described above. Notably, this justification “is present in the public culture, reflected in its system of law and political institutions, and in the main historical traditions of their interpretation” (idem.). The relevant point of view, that “point of view of the full justification of justice as fairness in its own terms” is notably modeled “by our description of the thought and judgment of fully autonomous citizens in the well-ordered society of justice as fairness” (PL, p. 70). As will become clear, the full justification at issue in this section neither forms part of the public political culture nor includes a point of view or standpoint justifying justice as fairness in its own terms.

[2] PL, pp. 386-7.

[3] PL, p. 19 and p. 18 respectively.

[4] PL, p. 14.

[5] PL, pp. 13-4.

[6] PL, p. 14.

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