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Rawls and subject 35

May 18, 2017

Having laid out these general points, the author can turn to the first of four objections which the critical reader might address him. Specifically, the latter might reproach him by noting that an overlapping consensus amount to a mere modus vivendi. This poses a danger in that the latter consists in a “social consensus founded on self- or group interests, or on the outcome of political bargaining” such that “social unity is only apparent, as its stability is contingent on circumstances remaining such as not to upset the fortunate convergence of interests” (PL, p. 147). Put differently, the critic might identify overlapping consensus as a modus vivendi insofar as persons coming out to consensus set out from self- or group points of view and that consensus is, by extension, contingent on the circumstances surrounding the convergence of those points of view.

Yet Rawls is swift to call attention to the ways in which this reading rings false. For the critic confuses parts and functions. In order to maintain a hard and fast distinction between the two, it will be necessary, for the author, to dig further into the structure of overlapping consensus. Notably, the latter possesses three main features, of the first two of which Rawls writes:

[N]ote two aspects: first, the object of consensus, the political conception of justice, is itself a moral conception. And second, it is affirmed on moral grounds, that is, it includes conceptions of society and of citizens as persons, as well as principles of justice, and an account of the political virtues through which those principles are embodied in human character and expressed in public life. An overlapping consensus, therefore, is not merely a consensus on accepting certain authorities, or on complying with certain institutional arrangements, founded on a convergence of self- or group interests. All those who affirm the political conception start from within their own comprehensive view and draw on the religious, philosophical, and moral grounds it provides. The fact that people affirm the same political conception on those grounds does not make their affirming it any less religious, philosophical, or moral, as the case may be, since the grounds sincerely held determine the nature of their affirmation (PL, pp. 147-8).

In sum, an overlapping consensus evinces a moral quality which a mere modus vivendi lacks. More precisely, the former calls on persons to adhere to its prescriptions and to conform their behavior thereto regardless of the circumstances. Thus, an overlapping consensus is universally binding in a way which a modus vivendi is not. Hence the author’s speaking of a moral object.

The question remains for what reason Rawls speaks of moral grounds. In a word, we may contend that the reasons supporting the political conception of justice carry a normative charge lacking in the case of mere modus vivendi. While, in a modus vivendi, persons make claims on one another in view of their interests, in an overlapping consensus, persons make claims on one another in view of moral reasons. Indeed, those moral reasons or grounds intervene at two levels. On one hand, the moral object, i.e. the political conception of justice, carries with it moral reasons in the form of persuasive conceptions of society, citizen, justice and (political) virtue. At the same time, persons in full justification add their own moral reasons thereto in the form of the religious, philosophical and moral grounds which their comprehensive doctrines afford them. Notably, the political nature of the moral object so affirmed does not take away from the religious, philosophical or moral character of reasons or affirmation. In short, nonpublic moral grounds back a public moral object.

To the first two features will be joined a third, namely, stability:

This means that those who affirm the various views supporting the political conception will not withdraw their support of it should the relative strength of their view in society increase and eventually become dominant. So long as the three views are affirmed and not revised, the political conception still be supported regardless of shifts in the distribution of political power. Each view supports the political conception for its own sake, or on its own merits. The test for this is whether the consensus is stable with respect to changes in the distribution of power among views. This feature of stability highlights a basic contrast between an overlapping consensus and a modus vivendi, the stability of which does depend on happenstance and a balance of relative forces (PL, p. 148).

Whereas any change in the self- or group interests of those committed to a modus vivendi will thereby alter the authority, institutions and behavior which they recognize, any change in the self- or group interests (including their points of view) of those committed to an overlapping consensus will not fundamentally alter the political conception of justice nor authority, institutions and behavior thereof which they recognize. More simply, the political conception of justice qua moral is binding on persons in a way that a modus vivendi is not; the terms of agreement are not altered with changes to circumstances[1]. This quality allows us to speak of a moral stability or, as the author puts it in the paperback edition, “stability for the right reasons”[2].


[1] Rawls calls attention to a similar distinction at PL, p. 389, contrasting an overlapping consensus with political consensus understood as bringing together different existing interests.

[2] See PL, pp. xlii, 388-392, as well as the following section.

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