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Rawls and subject 32

May 15, 2017

In response, the author would likely point to the fact that comprehensive doctrines bear on and trade in nonpolitical values. By definition, nonpolitical values are not shared by all persons in society. As a result, the nonpolitical values professed by one person or association would, at first blush, have little currency with another person or association. Again, one may see here an illicit premise on the author’s part, but his reasoning seems sound on at least one level[1].

In the end, it is just such reasoning which leaves Rawls well-positioned to maintain that “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” (idem.). This affirmation also goes to show that the person qua individual may undertake the process of full justification either individually or within an association, i.e. a group of persons subscribing to the same comprehensive doctrine. This mention of association helps to clarify what Rawls means precisely by nonpolitical values: values conceived of and explicated in terms of nonpublic reasons.

The latter notion receives its fullest explanation in Lecture VI, Section 3, at the beginning of which Rawls attempts, in broad strokes, to set nonpublic reasons apart from public reason:

First of all, there are many nonpublic reasons and but one public reason. Among the nonpublic reasons are those of associations of all kinds: churches and universities, scientific societies and professional groups. As we have said, to act reasonably and responsibly, corporate bodies, as well as individuals, need a way of reasoning about what is to be done. This way of reasoning is public with respect to their members, but nonpublic with respect to political society and to citizens generally. Nonpublic reasons comprise the many reasons of civil society and belong to what I have called the “background culture,” in contrast with the public political culture. These reasons are social, and certainly not private (PL, p. 220).

Strikingly, Rawls provides considerations to the effect that public reason is at once unitary and less monolithic than the previous passage suggests. Indeed, it is unitary in the sense that public reason addresses itself to all persons qua citizens without exception. Moreover, with regards to the public political culture, i.e. the association of all citizens, there can be only one public reason, the same for each. Yet public reason is not monolithic in that the criteria and ends which organize justification within civil society’s nonpublic associations, i.e. the background culture or the association of persons qua individuals, are effectively public with regards to a given association’s membership. More simply, within an association, nonpublic reason takes on a public quality in that it equally concerns all members, i.e. persons qua individuals, therein and meaningfully constrains their discourse.

In this way, the meaning of public shifts as the person moves from one audience to another. What counts as public in political society, i.e. for the person qua citizen, does not count as public in the background culture, i.e. for the person qua individual. Moreover, Rawls takes care to discredit views on which nonpublic reasons are equivalent with the merely private. So long as an association’s justification and discourse are constrained by certain criteria and ends and lead the association’s member to a relative consensus, then one concurs with Rawls in judging their reasons “social” in origin rather than stemming from a single person and hence being “private”.


[1] Jeffrey Stout, the subject of Part II, will call attention to precisely such a premise when criticizing the lack of interaction between comprehensive doctrines envisioned in Rawls’ version of public discourse and political justification. See Chapter 5 below.

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