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Rawls and subject 44

May 31, 2017
  • Why does public justification preclude persons from looking into one another’s comprehensive doctrines?

To answer these questions, it will be necessary to return to Rawls’ initial exposition of public justification at PL, p. 387. We had left off above with the notion of “mutual accounting”. If the persons professing different comprehensive doctrines reach overlapping consensus on a political conception of justice through the means which those doctrines offer them and that overlapping consensus, through mutual accounting, “shapes the moral quality of the public culture of political society”, the shape of the moral quality of the public political culture may be suspected to depend on the persons’ comprehensive doctrines.

While Rawls is ready to grant that the public justification of the political conception or mutual accounting “depends on reasonable comprehensive doctrines” in a certain measure, it depends thereon “only in an indirect way” (PL, p. 387). He elaborates this indirectness as resulting from the fact that “the express contents of these doctrines have no normative role in public justification” (idem.). Put differently, for public justification or mutual accounting to succeed, the person need not put forward the precise claims to truth or reasonableness which she advanced during the phase of full justification prior to reaching overlapping consensus. All of which leads the author to maintain that “citizens do not look into the content of others’ doctrines, and so remain within the bounds of the political” but, instead, “take into account and give some weight to only the fact – the existence – of the reasonable overlapping consensus itself” (idem.)[1]. Undoubtedly, more needs be said on the precise meaning of the terms above.

To some extent, making sense of these claims depends on our ability to distinguish the different standpoints from which a person might regard the comprehensive doctrines making up the overlapping consensus. We know, for instance, that the citizen standpoint, proper to pro tanto justification, is tethered to the idea of public reason. In contrast, the individual standpoint, proper to full justification, is bound to nonpublic reasons. Yet, for public justification, we have so far left the relevant standpoint unspecified, other than to dub it “reasonable citizen”. So how we understand Rawls’ broader claim that citizens do not look into the content of others’ doctrines turns in large part on how we understand his usage of the term “citizen” with regards to public justification.

As suggested above, Rawls is at times less than systematic in his usage thereof[2]. That being said, this instance may receive greater clarity from the author’s earlier discussion of the relation between the political conception, comprehensive doctrines and truth-claims:

Many if not most citizens may want to give the political conception a metaphysical foundation as part of their own comprehensive doctrine; and this doctrine (I assume) includes a conception of the truth of moral judgments. Let us say, then, that when we speak of the moral truth of a political conception, we assess it from the point of view of our comprehensive doctrine. Even when we think political constructivism gives a sufficient public basis of justification for political questions, we may not think, when we see things as individuals, or as members of religious or other associations, that it gives the full story about the truth of its principles and judgments. These further claims political constructivism neither asserts nor denies. As I have said, here it does not speak. It says only that for a reasonable and workable political conception, no more is needed than a public basis in the principles of practical reason in union with conceptions of society and person. Political constructivism does not criticize, then, religious, philosophical, or metaphysical accounts of the truth of moral judgments and of their validity. Reasonableness is its standard of correctness, and given its political aims, it need not go beyond that (PL, pp. 126-7).

With regards to truth-claims and the political conception, we see that only from the individual standpoint may the person extend claims as to the truth of the political conception. Insofar as the citizen and reasonable citizen standpoints operate within the realm of the political, persons occupying these standpoints are in no way situated to issue truth-claims concerning the political conception. After all, the concepts framing these standpoints are elaborated via political constructivism ending in the political conception of justice, and such constructivism proceeds in as uncontentious a manner as possible.


[1] Rawls later speaks of this fact as the reasonable overlapping consensus’ existence and the person’s public knowledge thereof (PL, p. 392).

[2] For example, see PL _____, where it would be more proper to speak of individual than citizen.

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