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Rawls and subject 40

May 25, 2017
  • Public justification, stability for the right reasons and reasonable citizen

The articulation between pro tanto justification and full justification will take the form of public justification, the third and last phase of justification, described by Rawls as follows:

Third and last is public justification by political society. This is a basic idea of political liberalism and works in tandem with the other three ideas: those of a reasonable overlapping consensus, stability for the right reasons, and legitimacy. Public justification happens when all the reasonable members of political society carry out a justification of the shared political conception by embedding it in their shared reasonable comprehensive views. In this case, reasonable citizens take one another into account as having reasonable comprehensive doctrines that endorse that political conception, and this mutual accounting shapes the moral quality of the public culture of political society. A crucial point here is that while the public justification of the political conception for political society depends on reasonable comprehensive doctrines, this justification does so only in an indirect way. That is, the express contents of these doctrines have no normative role in public justification; citizens do not look into the content of others’ doctrines, and so remain within the bounds of the political. Rather, they take into account and give some weight to only the fact – the existence – of the reasonable overlapping consensus itself (PL, p. 387).

Bound up with this description are a number of key terms from the foregoing sections. In §1, we identified, with Rawls, the liberal principle of legitimacy as follows: “our exercise of political power is proper and hence justifiable only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse in the light of principles and ideals acceptable to them as reasonable and rational” (PL, p. 217). In §2, a reasonable overlapping consensus was held to consist in an agreement wherein “the reasonable doctrines endorse the political conception, each from its own point of view” and “[s]ocial unity is based on a consensus on the political conception” (PL, p. 134). Notably, the combination of these terms leads to a situation in which public political deliberation between persons qua citizens generates legitimacy for the basic structure and nonpublic political deliberation between persons qua individuals yields an overlapping consensus thereon.

Yet this combination is not thoroughgoing. By which we simply mean that, in contrast to the public availability of legitimacy, overlapping consensus’ necessarily nonpublic forum hides the results from all other persons. In such a case, persons may worry that, while all persons qua citizens agree to the political conception of justice, (reasonable) persons qua individuals might find that their nonpublic values override public values and thereby sap that conception. Such that the conception would prove unstable. If the combination of legitimacy and overlapping consensus is to yield a stable political conception, a further step is required to demonstrate that all (reasonable) persons qua individuals assent thereto. Wherefore the need to make the nonpublic decisions of persons qua individuals at least formally public.

Indeed, this publicizing of nonpublic decisions will take shape in public justification. It is precisely this publicizing character which lends public justification its unusual character, as compared with the preceding phases. For this justification is only indirect; it does not resemble a justification in important respects. Given the above explanation, it consists merely in each person’s publicly holding that full justification allows her to embed the political conception in her reasonable comprehensive doctrine and thereby affirm it at a second-order level. In such a way, public justification adds no further first-order arguments or reasons to weigh in the justificatory balance. In which case, three pressing questions make themselves felt.

Firstly, on what grounds does Rawls deem public justification a justification in the same vein as the others if it calls on no new arguments or reasons? Secondly, why does public justification preclude persons from looking into one another’s comprehensive doctrines? Thirdly, why is public justification bound up with stability for the right reasons? In the end, the answers to these questions will prove closer in content that one might expect.

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