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Rawls and subject 43

May 30, 2017

What then of the “general” qualifier?

Recall that a well-ordered society is a society effectively regulated by a public political conception of justice. Think of each citizen in such a society as having achieved wide reflective equilibrium. Since citizens recognize that they affirm the same public conception of political justice, reflective equilibrium is also general: the same conception is affirmed in everyone’s considered judgments. Thus, citizens have achieved general and wide, or what we may refer to as full, reflective equilibrium. In such a society, not only is there a public point of view from which all citizens can adjudicate their claims of political justice, but also this point of view is mutually recognized as affirmed by them all in full reflective equilibrium. This equilibrium is fully intersubjective: that is, each citizen has taken into account the reasoning and arguments of every other citizen. (n. 16, pp. 384-5)

Where the “wide” qualifier concerned instances of full justification, the “general” qualifier instead concerns public justification. Moreover, it further reveals the peculiarities of this justification to which we have already alluded above. Namely, persons qua individuals achieve wide reflective equilibrium with regards to one and the same political conception of justice after which persons qua reasonable citizens (or subjects) publicly recognize that each and every person qua individual affirms one and the same political conception of justice[1]. This recognition thereby allows them to reach general reflective equilibrium. As Rawls emphasizes, the public point of view arrived at through nonpublic reason in full justification must be known as such in public justification.

Strikingly, for the author, wide and general, i.e. full, reflective equilibrium is thoroughly intersubjective in the sense that “each citizen has taken into account the reasoning and arguments of every other citizen” (PL, n. 16, p. 385). Whether Rawls truly meets this intersubjective criterion remains debatable, even by his own lights[2]. One need only consider the varying readings to which lends itself the phrase “tak[ing] into account the reasoning and arguments of every other citizen”. Regardless, Rawls will cut through the ambiguity by maintaining that each person need only indirectly take into account the reasoning and arguments of every other citizen.

The reasons therefor owe to his worry that, were one to require or merely to allow that each person take into account the reasoning and arguments of every other citizen, the political conception of justice would, despite its nominally freestanding character, rely on comprehensive doctrines for its justification[3]. That said, one may nonetheless wonder whether indirect justification does not similarly compromise the political conception’s freestanding character. All of which leads us to two questions, one laid out at the beginning, the other set aside in the course of exposition. The latter asks whether counting full justification as a justification means that the political conception of justice ultimately relies on comprehensive doctrines for its more or less final justification. Relatedly, the former inquires as to the reasons why public justification precludes persons from looking into one another’s comprehensive doctrines. In the end, the answers thereto will prove one and the same.

 

[1] Viewed from another angle, “wide” denotes a person’s scope of deliberation whereas “general” concerns the uniformity of the object at which persons arrive upon deliberation.

[2] Given his contentious understanding of political sociology with regards to persons and comprehensive doctrines, alluded to above ____, one may naturally entertain certain doubts as to the intersubjective quality of the justification in question.

[3] Naturally, this leaves aside the question of whether such a requirement would even prove feasible.

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