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Rawls and subject 45

June 1, 2017

Certainly, the above passage suggests the extent to which persons occupying the citizen and reasonable citizen standpoints should avoid issuing truth-claims as to the political conception. For those standpoints the horizons of which are set by the political conception, itself silent on questions of its own truth, it follows that they are likewise silent. All the same, this passage leaves unexplained why persons occupying a given standpoint should avoid (issuing truth-claims or) merely examining others’ comprehensive doctrines. Rawls’ draws nearer the mark when he asks:

Should we think that any of the reasonable doctrines present in society are true, or approximately so, even in the long run? The political conception itself does not speak to this question. It aims to work out a political conception of justice that citizens as reasonable and rational can endorse on due reflection, and thus reach free and informed agreement on questions of constitutional essentials and basic matters of justice. With that done, the political conception is a reasonable basis of public reason, and that suffices (PL, p. 128)[1].

Just as the political conception abstains from any claims to its own truth, so does it avoid the same with regards to comprehensive doctrines in society. Beyond its self-limitation, the political conception lacks the conceptual means and vocabulary to make sense of those comprehensive doctrines and possible truth-claims related thereto. If this remark suffices to eliminate the citizen standpoint, it may still leave open the possibility that the individual standpoint might proceed to make such truth-claims. Additionally, it may seem that the individual standpoint could take the fact of an overlapping consensus as evidence towards the political conception’s truth. Rawls notes:

From within our own comprehensive view, however, we can ask ourselves whether the support of an overlapping consensus of reasonable doctrines, especially when this support is sustained and increasingly strong over time, tends to confirm the political conception as in line with the correct account of the truth of moral judgments. We are to answer this question for ourselves individually, or as members of associations, keeping in mind that reasonable pluralism – as opposed to pluralism as such – is the long-run outcome of the work of human reason under enduring free institutions (PL, pp. 128-9).

As to the second of these concerns, the author allows that the person qua individual might take a lasting overlapping consensus as a sign of the political conception’s truth. That said, such does not apply to the person qua citizen. Yet this leaves the first concern above. Can persons qua individual stipulate as to the truth of one or another comprehensive doctrine? On this question, Rawls’ response may appear cagey:

Whatever our specific view of the truth, or the reasonableness, of moral judgments may be, must we not suppose that at least the way to truth, or reasonableness, is to be found in one of the reasonable doctrines (or some mix thereof) arising under those conditions? And must not we add that this will be the more likely the more enduring and firm this consensus? To be sure, within a political conception of justice, we cannot define truth as given by the beliefs that would stand up even in an idealized consensus, however far extended. But in our comprehensive view is there no connection? The advantage of staying within the reasonable is that there can be but one true comprehensive doctrine, though as we have seen, many reasonable ones. Once we accept the fact that reasonable pluralism is a permanent condition of public culture under free institutions, the idea of the reasonable is more suitable as a part of the basis of public justification for a constitutional regime than the idea of moral truth. Holding a political conception as true, and for that reason alone the one suitable basis of public reason is exclusive, even sectarian, and so likely to foster political division (PL, p. 129).

In short, supposing that one of the comprehensive doctrines making up the overlapping consensus is true and hence affirms the political conception for the right reasons, a lasting overlapping consensus may lead the person to deem that supposition of truth all the more likely in virtue of its lasting quality. In this way, a person qua individual might come to issue truth-claims as to another comprehensive doctrine. That said, Rawls seems to discount the utility of such an exercise. Moreover, this conclusion leaves aside whether the person may, from the individual standpoint, issue truth-claims about comprehensive doctrines which stem directly from a doctrine’s express content rather than indirectly from the lasting quality of the overlapping consensus on a political conception of justice, a truth-claim which bears as much on the political conception as on the comprehensive doctrine[2].


For all these reasons, Rawls prefers to remain within the domain of “reasonable-claims” in relation to public justification. If this line of reasoning can only take us so far in interpreting the author’s interdiction of looking into other comprehensive doctrines, at least during the phase of public justification, the passage’s closing remarks may provide a clearer path therefor. After all, it remains to be seen whether the reasonable citizen standpoint falls on the side of the citizen standpoint or that of the individual standpoint with regards to this question, and no line of inquiry merits outright exclusion.

[1] This notion is not without recalling H.L.A. Hart’s discussion of validity in The Concept of Law, …., p. ____

[2] Put differently, in issuing such a truth-claim, would the object of the person’s truth-claim be a given comprehensive doctrine or merely of any among the collection of comprehensive doctrines in civil society?

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