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Rawls and subject 42

May 29, 2017

As shown in Chapter 1, reflective equilibrium is not an absolute notion, and the person cannot be expected to take stock of all possible considerations for or against. Rather, reaching reflective equilibrium admits of degrees. Insofar as a judgment, principle or set thereof may accord more or less at all level of generalities, the former may also prove more or less reasonable. For his part, Rawls envisages the most reasonable reflective equilibrium which the person may hope to attain in the following way:

By addressing this audience of citizens in civil society, as any democratic doctrine must, justice as fairness spells out various fundamental political conceptions – those of society as a fair system of cooperation, of citizens as free and equal, and of a well-ordered society – and then hopes to combine them into a reasonable and complete political conception of justice for the basic structure of a constitutional democracy. That is its primary aim: to be presented to and understood by the audience in civil society for its citizens to consider. The overall criterion of the reasonable is general and wide reflective equilibrium […] (PL, p. 384)[1].

In sum, the political conception of justice, with its attendant notions of society and person, can only count as reasonable on the condition that it is accepted by as many persons as feasible upon due consideration of their convictions[2]. How do the qualifiers “general” and “wide” modify this condition?

In a footnote to the above passage, Rawls expands on these notions. Consider first his elaboration of the qualifier “wide”:

I add here two remarks about wide and general reflective equilibrium. Wide reflective equilibrium (in the case of one citizen) is the reflective equilibrium reached when that citizen has carefully considered alternative conceptions of justice and the force of various arguments for them. More specifically, the citizen has considered the leading conceptions of political justice found in our philosophical tradition (including views critical of the concept of justice itself) and has weighed the force of the different philosophical and other reasons for them. We suppose this citizen’s general convictions, first principles, and particular judgments are at last in line. The reflective equilibrium is wide, given the wide-ranging reflection and possibly many changes of view that have preceded it. Wide and not narrow reflective equilibrium (in which we take note of only our own judgments) is plainly the important philosophical concept (PL, n. 16, p. 384).

Certainly, this discussion reprises a great deal from TJ, pp. 43-4, which received treatment at pp. 8-9 above. That said, it takes on renewed importance in light of the three phases of justification. After all, if the aim of full justification is a reasonable overlapping consensus and the means consist in nonpublic reasoning at the individual, associational, etc., level, what that reasoning seeks at this level is reflective equilibrium between the principles, concepts and values of the political conception of justice and the considered convictions embodied in the person’s comprehensive doctrine. More simply, full justification sets itself the goal of reaching wide reflective equilibrium by putting persons qua individual in a position to weigh the political conception of justice against their comprehensive doctrine and alternative conceptions of justice. Only when the political conception of justice has gained the assent of persons qua individual at all levels of generality (e.g., “general convictions, first principles, and particular judgments”) can it claim to have reached wide reflective equilibrium.

[1] As “civil society” includes both public political culture and background culture, what Rawls here terms “citizen” does not correspond one-to-one to our more careful delineation of citizen and citizen standpoint. Presumably, the author’s usage here conflates both “citizen” and “individual” as the political conception of justice will address itself to persons as both, albeit at different times and phases of justification.

[2] Rawls would append to this condition the term “reasonable”: accepted by as many reasonable persons as possible. Whether the criterion of reasonable’s being identified with what reasonable persons would choose falls prey to circularity lies, for the time being, beyond the scope of our study. On this question, see Mulhall and Swift, _____

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