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Rawls and subject 34

May 17, 2017

With that in mind, it will prove useful to recall the basic features of an overlapping consensus. In fact, Rawls devotes Lecture IV to this notion and begins the lecture as follows:

In such a consensus, the reasonable doctrines endorse the political conception, each from its own point of view. Social unity is based on a consensus on the political conception; and stability is possible when the doctrines making up the consensus are affirmed by society’s politically active citizens and the requirements of justice are not too much in conflict with citizens’ essential interests as formed and encouraged by their social arrangements (PL, p. 134).

Indeed, the conceptual linkage between full justification and overlapping consensus is evident even though the term “overlapping consensus” does not appear by name in the passage from “Reply to Habermas”. Both notions bear on the same object, a political conception of justice, by the same means, a given comprehensive doctrine, in order to obtain a same result, a consensus of a kind still to be defined[1]. What differs is how they fit into this scheme: full justification as the means, overlapping consensus as the result.

This linkage or continuity with full justification will come out more strongly when Rawls reiterates two central claims about overlapping consensus before sketching four ways in which critics may object to such consensus:

Before beginning, I recall two main points about the idea of an overlapping consensus. The first is that we look for a consensus of reasonable (as opposed to unreasonable or irrational) comprehensive doctrines. The crucial fact is not the fact of pluralism as such, but of reasonable pluralism […] In framing a political conception of justice so it can gain an overlapping consensus, we are not bending it to existing unreason, but to the fact of reasonable pluralism, itself the outcome of the free exercise of free human reason under conditions of liberty. For the second point […], recall that […] in a constitutional democracy the public conception of justice should be, so far as possible, presented as independent of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines. This means that justice is to be understood at the first stage of its exposition as a freestanding view that expresses a political conception of justice. It does not provide a specific religious, metaphysical, or epistemological doctrine beyond what is implied by the political conception itself […] [T]he political conception is a module, an essential constituent part, that in different ways fits into and can be supported by various reasonable comprehensive doctrines that endure in the society regulated by it (PL, pp. 144-5).

On the first point, it will be observed that, while we have above defined a comprehensive doctrine as “conceptions of which the 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”, we have not seen how the term “reasonable” modifies this notion. Thereon, Rawls notes that a reasonable comprehensive doctrine “does not reject the essentials of a democratic regime” (PL, p. xvi) and may be “religious and nonreligious, liberal and nonliberal” (PL, p. xxxix). He further adds that such a doctrine has three main features as seen in the way it: “covers the major religious, philosophical, and moral aspects of human life in a more or less consistent and coherent manner” (theoretical reason); “organizes and characterizes recognized values so that they are compatible with one another and express an intelligible view of the world” (practical reason); “normally belongs to, or draws upon, a tradition of thought and doctrine” (PL, p. 59).

Though Rawls allows that critics might find this presentation of reasonable comprehensive doctrines overly vague, he deems a “deliberately loose” account necessary if one is not arbitrarily to exclude doctrines merely on the basis of one’s being incapable of considering them as serious comprehensive doctrines for oneself (PL, pp. 59-60). In this way, political liberalism retains room for and counts as reasonable “many familiar and traditional doctrines” (PL, p. 59). Given the way in which human thought develops under free institutions and the uncertainties limiting the validity, if not the scope, of one’s judgments, one may affirm a reasonable comprehensive doctrine without thereby declaring, from the perspective of political liberalism, all others unreasonable[2]. If the author does not formulate it as such, one way to test for reasonability might consist in seeing whether a person “will think it unreasonable to use political power, should [she] possess it, to repress comprehensive views that are not unreasonable, though different from [her] own” (PL, p. 60)[3].

As concerns the second point in the passage above, we may note that it reprises key terms from our earlier presentation of full justification, such as “freestanding” and “module” but also adds thereto one important remark: justice as fairness “does not provide a specific religious, metaphysical, or epistemological doctrine beyond what is implied by the political conception itself” (PL, p. 144). This is not to say that justice as fairness, or any freestanding political conception of justice for that matter, can be elaborated independently of any metaphysical or epistemological doctrine. On the contrary, as an instance of theoretical and practical reason, it will entail such doctrines at one level or another. The question is, rather, to what extent that metaphysical or epistemological doctrine draws on an already established doctrine which is not nor implied by the political conception itself[4].


[1] Certainly, the passage also introduces the notion of “stability”, but we shall leave this aside until we take it up further and in conjunction with “public justification” in section 3 below.

[2] Nevertheless, Rawls suggests that, within the background culture and from within a reasonable comprehensive doctrine, “we may regard many doctrines as plainly unreasonable, or untrue, that we may think it to correct to count as reasonable by the criterion in the text” which provides only “rather minimal conditions for the aim of political liberalism” (note 13 to PL, p. 60)

[3] For more on reasonable comprehensive doctrines, see PL, pp. xvi-xviii, 58-66.

[4] See PL, pp. ______

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