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Rawls and subject 46

June 2, 2017

The author closed the above passage with the remark that “[h]olding 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” (idem.). This unearths a second important consideration weighing in favour of the stricture on looking into others’ comprehensive doctrine: the question of political division and social cooperation. Although Rawls here focuses on persons qua individual issuing truth-claims as to the status of the political conception, we might reasonably extend his remarks to persons maintaining from the individual standpoint that one comprehensive doctrine is true as opposed to another, rather than couching that claim in terms of reasonability. After all, one can imagine easily enough how one person’s issuing truth claims about another’s comprehensive doctrine, even if it be from the individual standpoint and framed with regards to a question of political justice, could jeopardize the conditions necessary for future social cooperation. The more controversial the question, the more fraught the truth-claims surrounding it.

Certainly, other remarks to this effect lend credence to such a view[1]. Indeed, on such a question, the text may be plausibly read as calling for the widest extension of toleration possible, at least concerning reasonable comprehensive doctrines:

This extension [of the principle of toleration] is required for an agreement on a political conception of justice given the historical and social circumstances of a democratic society. To apply the principles of toleration to philosophy itself is to leave to citizens themselves to settle the questions of religion, philosophy, and morals in accordance with views they freely affirm (PL, p. 154).

[W]hen an overlapping consensus supports the political conception, this conception is not viewed as incompatible with basic religious, philosophical, and moral values. We need not consider the claims of political justice against the claims of this or that comprehensive view; nor need we say that political values are intrinsically more important than other values and that is why the latter are overridden. Having to say that is just what we hope to avoid, and achieving an overlapping consensus enables us to do so. (PL, p. 157)

On this reading, the duty of toleration self-imposed by the political conception would concern in some measure comparisons from the individual standpoint between different comprehensive doctrines. Leaving truth-claims of all kinds untouched with regards to questions of justice between comprehensive doctrines might prove the surest way of securing toleration and, consequently, social cooperation[2]. All the same, it is regrettable that Rawls is not more forthright on this question, even in his description of interpersonal or interassociational exchanges in the background culture of civil society.

A third group of reasons might help to explain Rawls’ motivation for excluding a person’s looking into others’ comprehensive doctrines during the phase of public justification. Were a person to have knowledge of the reasons for which other persons qua individual reached overlapping consensus on the political conception of justice, this might induce political bargaining and thereby sap the moral quality of the overlapping consensus, thereby rendering it a mere modus vivendi.

[I]n the overlapping consensus consisting in the views just described [in the model case], the acceptance of the political conception is not a compromise between those holding different views, but rests on the totality of reasons specified within the comprehensive doctrine affirmed by each citizen (PL, pp. 170-1).

[In the model case,] [e]ach comprehensive view is related to the political conception in a different way. While they all endorse it, [Kantian comprehensive liberalism] does so as deductively supported and so continuous from within; [Bentham and Sidgwick’s classical utilitarianism] as a satisfactory and possibly the best workable approximation given normal social conditions; and [the pluralist doctrine] as resting on considered judgments balancing competing values, all things tallied up. No one accepts the political conception driven by political compromise (PL, p. 171).

While this worry may come across as more hinted than fully sketched, the interdiction against looking into others’ comprehensive doctrines could also serve to preclude contingent considerations of the kind which would enable persons to engage in just such political bargaining and persuade or dissuade others accordingly. Most simply, persons would be unable to identify the different interests leading one another to affirm the political conception.

[1] In this vein, see passages at PL, pp. 152, 153, 157.

[2] To this effect, see Rawls’ discussion of the pluralist comprehensive doctrine from the model case and why knowing the reasons which brings other persons qua individual to affirm the political conception may ultimately prove unimportant, if not undesirable (PL, p. 156).

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