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Rawls and subject 38

May 23, 2017

Leaving the question of public justification for the following section, we can remark that the passage stands in stark contrast with the pluralist comprehensive doctrine above. If such doctrines exist and persons may as often have a pluralist as a unitary comprehensive doctrine, then it does not seem possible to group persons strictly on the basis of their comprehensive doctrines. Nor is it clear in what way there would then be fewer comprehensive doctrines. For, if a pluralist doctrine allows for numerous combinations of subgroups, balances and moral make-up, as it were, these combinations may exist in greater numbers than the persons affirming them.

Although this line of questioning may appear dismissive of Rawls’ understanding of the relation between person and comprehensive doctrine, it would be more accurate to cast as the need for the author to qualify his political sociology in important ways. This qualification might take one of two forms. On one hand, he could argue that it is unimportant to be able to set criteria such that we might delimit one comprehensive doctrine from another. After all, it would prove difficult to set hard and fast limits of the kind needed to individuate comprehensive doctrines in an overarching taxonomy thereof. At best, one might speak of similarity in terms of family likeness. Moreover, whether the doctrine be fully comprehensive, partially comprehensive in the narrow sense or partially comprehensive in the broad sense, i.e. pluralist, the person will in the end appeal to nonpublic reasons of one kind or another. Hence, from a functional justificatory point of view, little would change on one interpretation or the other[1].

On the other hand, Rawls could appeal to the need to maintain a “theoretical looseness” when speaking of comprehensive doctrines. This looseness both seems to extend the preceding point and to open up a new direction. For the point shifts from that which we can reasonably expect when attempting to delineate the species of comprehensive doctrines to the extent to which we can reasonably expect a person to engage in full justification from any comprehensive doctrine:

At this point, a certain looseness in our comprehensive views, as well as their not being fully comprehensive, may be particularly significant […] One way in which [our model case] may be atypical is that two of the three doctrines were described as fully general and comprehensive: a religious doctrine of free faith and the comprehensive liberalism of Kant or Mill. In these cases the acceptance of the political conception was said to be derived from and to depend solely on the comprehensive doctrine. But how far in practice does the allegiance to a principle of political justice actually depend on the knowledge of or the belief in its derivation from a comprehensive view rather than on seeming reasonable in itself or as being viewed as part of a pluralist view, which is the third doctrine in our model case (PL, pp. 159-60)?

That is to say, it may be necessary to temper our expectations of what full justification resembles both at the level of the make-up of comprehensive doctrine and at the level of the person’s derivation with regards thereto. To that end, Rawls imagines a series of cases designed to bring these differences out:

Distinguish three cases: in the first the political principles are derived from a comprehensive doctrine; in the second they are not derived from a comprehensive doctrine; and in the third, they are incompatible with it. In everyday life we have not usually decided, or even thought much about, which of these cases hold. To decide among them would raise highly complicated questions; and it is not clear that we need to decide among them. Most people’s religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines are not seen by them as fully general and comprehensive, and these aspects admit of variations of degree. There is lots of slippage, so to speak, many ways for liberal principles of justice to cohere loosely with those (partially) comprehensive views, and many ways within the limits of political principles of justice to allow for the pursuit of different (partially) comprehensive doctrines. This suggests that many if not most citizens come to affirm the principles of justice incorporated into their constitution and political practice without seeing any particular connection, one way or the other, between those principles and their other views (PL, p. 160)[2].

To frame the cases somewhat differently, the first case demonstrates an instance of nonpublic justification, the second either pro tanto justification or some unspecified justification and the third an unreasonable comprehensive doctrine. Collectively, these cases suggest that full justification, i.e. the embedding of a freestanding political conception within the conceptual resources of a comprehensive doctrine so as to reach an overlapping consensus, stands as an ideal or limiting case which persons may approximate to a greater or lesser degree. Insofar as there may exist no clear relation between the person’s affirmed political conception and affirmed comprehensive doctrine, we cannot consider that the characteristics of full justification apply to each and every person.


[1] Admittedly, from a personal justificatory standpoint, as seen in Part II, this might make much more difference.

[2] The author ends the passage on an optimistic tone by noting that persons may well accept the principles on the basis of the goods which those principles accrue them, without consideration for full justification or, presumably, pro tanto justification. Persons in such a case may prefer to revise their doctrines rather than the principles.

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