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Rawls and subject 48

June 6, 2017
  • Why is public justification bound up with stability for the right reasons?

To the justificatory requirements of legitimacy, sketched in §1, and a reasonable overlapping consensus, laid out in §2, is intimately connected a third, namely, stability[1]. By which Rawls intends:

This means that those who affirm the various views supporting the political conception will not withdraw their support of it should the relative strength of their view in society increase and eventually become dominant. So long as the three views [Kantian liberalism, classic utilitarianism, and pluralist comprehensive doctrine] are affirmed and not revised, the political conception will still be supported regardless of shifts in the distribution of political power. Each view supports the political conception for its own sake, or on its own merits. The test for this is whether the consensus is stable with respect to changes in the distribution of power among views. This feature of stability highlights a basic contrast between an overlapping consensus and a modus vivendi, the stability of which does depend on happenstance and a balance of relative forces (PL, p. 148).

Herein, the author underscores the manner in which changes in the socio-political environmental do not map (changes in) support for the public political conception of justice. Recall that public justification is a second-order justification: persons qua reasonable citizen recognize that other persons qua individual, following full justification, endorse the political conception as in accord with their reasonable comprehensive doctrines. In so doing, persons qua reasonable citizens take account of each other’s full justification, and this fact or existence of full justification lends public justification its justificatory strength. At the furthest limit, persons qua reasonable citizens taking account of each other’s full justification may lack knowledge not just of the conceptual content proper to a reasonable comprehensive doctrine which leads the person qua individual to affirm the political but also of the nature of the reasonable comprehensive doctrine. In short, in public justification, one may ignore all aspects whatsoever of the reasonable comprehensive doctrine being taken account of and yet still secure general reflective equilibrium. Indeed, entirely new reasonable comprehensive doctrines could take the place of which initially to a reasonable overlapping consensus, yet public justification would be altered in its form not one whit.

Seen from another angle, public justification thus justifies in virtue of its generality and reciprocity. Notably, these criteria are formal and may apply to any given reasonable comprehensive doctrine. Accordingly, public justification takes on a categorical character, wherefore its moral rather than prudential status. As long as its justificatory force is not (directly) dependent on a contingent state of affairs, the stability which public justification secures is of a categorical rather than a hypothetical nature. To see this more clearly, we need only consider the contrast with the hypothetical nature of a mere modus vivendi.

Whereas any change in the self- or group interests of those committed to a modus vivendi will thereby alter the authority, institutions and behavior which they recognize, any change in the self- or group interests (including their points of view) of those committed to an overlapping consensus will not fundamentally alter the political conception of justice nor authority, institutions and behavior thereof which they recognize. More simply, the political conception of justice qua moral is binding on persons in a way that a modus vivendi is not; the terms of agreement are not altered with changes to circumstances[2]. This quality allows us to speak of a moral stability or, as the author puts it in the paperback edition, “stability for the right reasons”

Nevertheless, we have said little enough about stability for the right reasons, so it will be necessary to consider Rawls’ reasons for tethering this notion to the justificatory phase of public justification. Both public justification and stability for the right reasons emerge from the failings of A Theory of Justice to secure “a social union of social unions” (TJ, p. 462) on grounds compatible with free democratic institutions. Rawls seeks to correct that failing by way of public justification:

I refer to public justification as a basic case for political liberalism because of its role in that doctrine and of its connection with the ideas of a reasonable overlapping consensus, stability for the right reasons, and legitimacy. That idea of justification is a part of the rebuilding of a fundamental conception of Theory III, and expressed in section 79 on the conception of a social union of social unions and its companion idea of stability, which depends on the congruence of the right and the good […] This conception depends, however, on everyone’s holding the same comprehensive doctrine and so it is no longer viable as a political ideal once we recognize the fact of reasonable pluralism, which characterizes the public culture of the political society required by the two principles of justice […] One is not replying to objections but rather trying to fix a basic inherent conflict (recognized later) between the cultural conditions needed for justice as fairness to be a comprehensive doctrine and the requirements of freedom guaranteed by the two principles of justice. With this understood, I believe the complexities – if such they are – are no longer surprising (PL, n. 21, p. 388).

This need for correction provides at least one clue as to why mere stability becomes stability for the right reasons. For Rawls’ initial depiction of stability as that of a well-ordered society in which justice as fairness reigns as the sole comprehensive doctrine was theoretically imposed onto a society incapable of realization under free democratic institutions. Thus, the author sought a principled stability rather than an imposed.


[1] Cf. PL, pp. 388-9: “There is, then, no public justification for political society without a reasonable overlapping consensus, and such a justification also connects with the ideas of stability for the rights reasons as well as of legitimacy.”

[2] Rawls calls attention to a similar distinction at PL, p. 389, contrasting two notions of consensus: that of an overlapping consensus with political consensus understood as bringing together different existing interests. See also the discussion at PL, p. 392 of a society in which persons have proceeded to full justification but not connected the individual instances thereof.

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