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Rawls and subject 41

May 26, 2017
  • 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?

The short answer to this question reads as follows: public justification consists in indirect rather than direct justification. To make sense of this distinction, more attention must be paid to the passage introducing public justification. Recall that “[p]ublic 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” (PL, p. 387). Read another way, this claim would imply that public justification happens when full justification happens. Yet the structure of Rawls’ exposition suggests that they are distinct. How can we best make sense of this seeming equivocation?

The best way of understanding this claim lies in asking oneself whether a justification can justify another or, perhaps less ambiguously, whether the successful justification of a justificatory instance can itself count as a justification at a second-order level. Put still differently, can one transfer the justificatory work carried out in the phase of full justification to a new end in the phase of public justification? For Rawls, the answer is manifestly “yes” in that the fact of each person’s successful full justification of the political conception may be considered as a further reason supporting the political conception’s more or less final justification.

Indeed, such is Rawls’ intention when he speaks of mutual accounting: “reasonable citizens take one another into account as having reasonable comprehensive doctrines that endorse that political conception” (idem.). In other words, the fact that others endorse the political conception provides, in and of itself, further justification for the political conception.

At this point, two subordinate questions suggest themselves. Why should the fact that others endorse the political conception count as a further justification in the person’s eyes? Put differently, the fact that others hold a certain view may lend credibility to that view but do not justify it. Otherwise, one would remain beholden to a thoroughgoing majoritarian, conservative logic. On the other hand, does counting full justification as a justification mean that the political conception of justice ultimately relies on comprehensive doctrines for its more or less final justification? In other words, can the political conception of justice stand free of religious, philosophical or moral doctrines in the way that Rawls has so far claimed?

As the second of these questions leads into the second question posed above, we shall remain with the first. Again, why should one person’s holding the political conception as justified count as a reason for another’s doing the same? Rawls responds thereto in highlighting the link between full justification, public justification and reflective equilibrium:

This basic case of public justification is one in which the shared political conception is the common ground and all reasonable citizens taken collectively (but not acting as a corporate body) are held in general and wide reflective equilibrium in affirming the political conception on the basis of their several reasonable comprehensive doctrines. Only when there is a reasonable overlapping consensus can political society’s political conception of justice be publicly – though never finally – justified. Granting that we should give weight to the considered convictions of other reasonable citizens, this is because general and wide reflective equilibrium with respect to a public justification gives the best justification of the political conception that we can have at any given time. There is, then, no public justification for political society without a reasonable overlapping consensus […] (PL, p. 388)

If full justification secures overlapping consensus and each instance of overlapping consensus reaches general and wide reflective equilibrium, then public justification’s seconding individual instances of full justification as themselves justificatory stands or falls with the notion of general and wide reflective equilibrium. What grounds does this notion give us to count the fact of a person’s full justification of the political conception as a further justifying instance?

To this end, it may be useful to recall the basic features of reflective equilibrium before proceeding to explain in what way one may dub certain instances “general” or “wide”[1]. The author defines reflective equilibrium as when a judgment, principle or set thereof “accord[s] with our considered convictions, at all levels of generality, on due reflection”, with no level of generality being “viewed as foundational” (PL, p. 8). So conceived, reflective equilibrium is reached when the person a.) has taken stock of the various considerations either for or against those considered convictions from which she sets out and b.) has kept, mended or discarded them accordingly.

[1] For more on general and wide reflective equilibrium and its embryonic treatment in TJ, see supra., pp. 8-9.

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