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Rawls and subject 31

May 12, 2017

In contrast, the conceptions on which full justification shall draw are general and comprehensive in the sense given in the passage. Their ideals, principles and standards apply to some, most or all areas of life and set out a detailed vision of values and virtues for human life. The articulation thereof may vary in its systematicity: either the doctrine may specify all relevant values and virtues and set them within a highly interconnected conceptual network; or the doctrine may specify some values and virtues between which there may be no strict connection. Rawls qualifies the former as “fully comprehensive” and the latter as “partially comprehensive”[1]. As a final note, these doctrines espouse nonpolitical values and virtues, i.e. nonpublic norms.

This leaves us in a situation in which the person attempts, from within the background culture, to justify her political conception in terms acceptable to her comprehensive doctrine and nonpublic values and virtues. This justification will take the form of an “embedding” by which the author intends that the political conception is in some way mapped onto the cognitive and conceptual landscape of the comprehensive doctrine in question. More simply, the political conception is made to fit the comprehensive doctrine in order to secure full justification on the person’s behalf.

That which enables the political conception to fit different comprehensive doctrines is its freestanding character:

While we want a political conception to have a justification by reference to one or more comprehensive doctrines, it is neither presented as, nor as derived from, such a doctrine applied to the basic structure of society, as if this structure were simply another subject to which that doctrine applied (PL, p. 12).

Insofar as the political conception derives from no comprehensive doctrine, it nominally contradicts none of them. Consequently, there is no aspect of the political conception which directly contradicts the cognitive and conceptual landscape of a given comprehensive doctrine. For this reason, the political conception can be incorporated as “a module, an essential constituent part, that fits into and can be supported by various reasonable comprehensive doctrines that endure in the society regulated by it” (idem.). That said, nor does the political conception confirm a given comprehensive doctrine’s cognitive and conceptual landscape. Wherefore the emphasis on fit in this passage.

From the above, we can thus conclude, with the author, that the political conception stands neither for nor against comprehensive doctrines[2]. Instead, the latter merely fall outside its purview. Accordingly, it makes sense to exclude therefrom the person’s judgments qua citizen as the conceptual resources offered by pro tanto justification and the associated political conception are of the wrong kind to engage the person’s judgments qua individual (still to be defined). Yet Rawls’ seeks to take the exclusion a step further. For full justification precludes one person offering her judgments qua individual on those of another person qua individual. Recall that:

Whether our view is endorsed by [other people] 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 (PL, p. 386).

While it proves simple enough to follow the author’s reasoning herein, it is unclear whether this follows strictly from the nature of conceptual resources available in full justification. Again, if the first phase of justification and the political conception abstain from judgment on a given comprehensive doctrine and instance of full justification, this owes to the inherent lack of fit between the two kinds of conceptual resources. Simply, they do not map onto one another. Despite Rawls’ assertion to the contrary, there is no prima facie reason to maintain that persons or associations subscribing to different comprehensive doctrines cannot interact at the time of full justification. In other words, it is one thing to claim that different comprehensive doctrines do not straightforwardly map onto one another; it is another to affirm that they cannot find any purchase whatsoever upon one another. Although the content of their doctrines may vary, they nominally share, as per Rawls’ own argument, similar scope. Hence, the difference is one of degree rather than kind.


[1] One may have reservations over Rawls’ positing the existence of fully comprehensive views for a number of reasons. On one hand, one may wonder whether there exist fully comprehensive views as described by the author: does there exist a doctrine which truly covers all recognized values and virtues? For instance, one might ask whether evangelical Christianity prescribes values for other associational relations, such as sports. On the other hand, one may question whether the doctrine to which the person subscribes is singular or plural. There is no prima facie reason, other than conceptual neatness, for thinking that a person would hold to only one such doctrine; a person might well endorse several partially comprehensive doctrines in accord with the different areas of her life. Though trivial in appearance, these questions will pose considerable interpretative difficulty for important aspects of Rawls’ understanding of political sociology, full justification and overlapping consensus. Lastly, it should be noted that Rawls does anticipate these concerns to a degree: see PL, pp. 159-60. See also PL, p. 168 where he suppose that most doctrines are not fully comprehensive. Elsewhere, he allows that certain persons “might not have a comprehensive doctrine, except possibly a null doctrine, such as agnosticism or scepticism” though he makes no mention of a plurality of such doctrines (PL n. 18, 386).

[2] For this reason, “the political conception can be seen as part of a comprehensive doctrine but it is not a consequence of that doctrine’s nonpolitical values” (PL, p. 155).

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