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Rawls and subject 36

May 19, 2017

If the combination of moral object, moral grounds and moral stability suffice to mark an overlapping consensus as distinct from a modus vivendi, it will nonetheless be instructive to examine more closely the interaction between political conception and comprehensive doctrine at the time of embedding and within the framework of an overlapping consensus. Rawls sketches such an interaction in terms of depth, breadth and specificity:

[H]ow deep does the consensus go into citizens’ comprehensive doctrines? How broad are the institutions to which it applies? And how specific is the conception agreed to? The preceding account says that the consensus goes down to the fundamental ideas within which justice as fairness is worked out. It supposes agreement deep enough to reach such ideas as those of society as a fair system of cooperation and of citizens as reasonable and rational, and free and equal. As for its breadth, it covers the principles and values of a political conception (in this case those of justice as fairness) and it applies to the basic structure as a whole. This degree of depth and breadth and specificity helps to fix ideas and keeps before us the main question: consistent with plausibly realistic assumptions, what is the deepest and widest feasible conception of political justice? (149)

Above all, the reader may notice a lack of precision as to the answers. This owes to the fact that the political conception is not to prescribe how and for what reasons comprehensive doctrines embed that conception:

[I]t 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 (PL, pp. 386-7)[1].

In light of the above, we better understand why Rawls’ answer may seem incomplete. For, here as elsewhere, his account is self-limiting, and the political conception does not predicate a particular kind of fit between itself and comprehensive doctrines. Given this self-limitation, the author can only gesture at the depth, breadth and the specificity of consensus. We may develop these criteria as follows: a consensus’ depth concerns whether comprehensive doctrines affirm the basic ideas underlying the political conception; a consensus’ breadth concerns whether comprehensive doctrines affirm a complete political conception (as outlined above and as opposed to a merely constitutional conception[2]); a consensus’ specificity, presumably, concerns the point to which the conception’s principles are worked out in precise terms and so admits of degrees of instantiation. Put differently, these three criteria respectively pose the question whether the comprehensive doctrine has the conceptual resources to affirm the basic ideas grounding the political conception, to affirm the full scope of the political conception, and to affirm the detailed principles of the political conception.

Before defining the essentials of the individual standpoint as a corollary to full justification, it will be helpful to consider an example of overlapping consensus. Rawls provides an example:

To fix ideas I shall use a model case of an overlapping consensus to indicate what is meant […] It contains three views: one affirms the political conception because its religious doctrine and account of free faith lead to a principle of toleration and underwrite the fundamental liberties of a constitutional regime; while the second view affirms the political conception on the basis of a comprehensive liberal moral doctrine such as those of Kant or Mill. The third, however, is not systematically unified: besides the political values formulated by a freestanding political conception of justice, it includes a large family of nonpolitical values. It is a pluralist view, let us say, since each subpart of this family has its own account based on ideas drawn from within it, leaving all values to be balanced against one another, either in groups or singly, in particular kinds of cases. In this model case the religious doctrine and the liberalisms of Kant and Mill are taken to be general and comprehensive. The third view is only partially comprehensive but holds, with political liberalism, that under reasonably favorable conditions that make democracy possible, political values normally outweigh whatever nonpolitical values conflict with them. The previous views agree with the last in this respect and so all views lead to roughly the same political judgments and thus overlap on the political conception (PL, pp. 145-6).

The above passage is undoubtedly rich in implications for Rawls’ political sociology, but we shall first attempt to focus on those elements most important for understanding the standpoint from which the person approaches the phase of discourse and deliberation known as full justification.


[1] In a similar vein, see PL, pp. 153-4.

[2] See Rawls’ discussion of consensus on merely constitutional principles at PL, pp. 148-9, 158-68.

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