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Fr. 802

May 23, 2018


In “Reply to Habermas”, Rawls outlines three kinds of justification which might lend support to an overlapping consensus on a reasonable political conception of justice. While the first two of these, pro tanto justification and full justification, are relatively straightforward in the exposition, the third, public justification, presents rather more of a puzzling case. Whereas pro tanto justification appeals to public reasons to justify the political conception and full justification to nonpublic reasons drawn from reasonable comprehensive doctrines, public justifications involves a “mutual accounting” wherein each person makes known that her comprehensive doctrine supports the political conception. If it is already a puzzle whether consensus (in this instance, overlapping consensus) should count towards the justification of a given position, the puzzle is all the greater when maintaining that “mutual accounting” constitutes a distinct kind of justification in its own right.

In a recent interview at 3AM, Fabienne Peter (Warwick) digs further into the question of whether consensus, agreement or mutual endorsement carries or should carry any justificatory weight. She begins with a survey of contemporary epistemology’s take on the relevance of consensus for justified belief:

The issue is this: what is the right theory of justification in the political context and how can we explain the significance of some form of agreement – of mutual endorsement – for political justification? There is a puzzle here. There are many contexts in which we might want to say that endorsement is less important than getting it right. Many moral philosophers, for example, maintain that the moral justification of actions does not vary with what we believe or take to be justified. If an action is, in fact, the morally right thing to do, that is all the justification that is required. Some epistemologists hold a similar view about the justification of belief. But while the dominant view in epistemology today rejects factualism about epistemic reasons, it still holds that what drives the justification of belief is the evidence that you have or the reliability of your belief formation process, not merely the consistency with your other beliefs. So even on that view, getting it right is normatively more important than your endorsement of a belief.

Clearly, the question of consensus cuts not just at the overlapping consensus on a reasonable political conception of justice but also at the broader coherentist method behind reflective equilibrium. Coherence between a person’s or persons’ beliefs counts for less than the accuracy of beliefs or the reliability of the processes whereby they are formed. Yet Rawlsian political philosophy is predicated on the important of just such coherence, consensus and agreement, as Peter remarks.

Rawlsian political philosophy starts from the premise that some form of mutual endorsement of political decisions (and of principles of justice, of course) is normatively more important than getting it right. As it happens, I regard Rawls’ theory of political justification as among the key contributions that his work has made and my prediction is that this contribution outweighs the substantive theory of justice that he has offered and for which he is best known. But because Rawls’ theory is premised on the normative significance of mutual endorsement, it doesn’t help us much with the question of why mutual endorsement is normatively more important than getting it right in the political context. So the puzzle is, in what contexts and why does endorsement become normatively significant?

Certainly, Rawls’s reasons for pivoting from accuracy to coherence follow from his broader attitude of epistemic abstinence. Some passages even lend themselves to a reading on which Rawls doubts that we can overcome the burdens of judgments to get at a fact of the matter, whether in ethics of elsewhere. Regardless, this abstinence leads Peter to move away from a purely Rawlsian view of justification and to embrace a greater measure of accuracy in political justification and legitimacy:

My starting-point is that getting it right matters for political legitimacy. Political decisions that involve atrocities cannot legitimately be made when sufficiently robust knowledge is available that they are atrocities. The problem is, however, that most political decisions have to be made in circumstances where we lack sufficiently robust knowledge of what the right decision is. If such knowledge is unavailable, disagreements are not only likely, but also normatively significant if the disagreements are compatible with all parties to the disagreement responding rationally to the limited evidence that is available. Normatively significant disagreements will undermine the legitimacy of a political decision that is subject to such a disagreement. And if getting to the right decision is epistemically out of reach, only political decisions which are supported by some form of agreement or mutual endorsement can be legitimate. Legitimacy, in those epistemic circumstances, can be secured in two main ways: either the political decision itself is supported by some form of agreement or mutual endorsement or a decision-making procedure which is suitable to resolve normatively significant disagreements is supported in this way.

So, if at all possible, justified or legitimate political decisions are those made in lockstep with accurate beliefs which decisively resolve the question. Should decisive accurate beliefs be unavailable for whatever reason, then consensus can pick up some, though not all, of the slack either through agreement on a specific political decision itself or on a decision-making procedure through which a political decision is then reached. In short, in the best of worlds, political decisions are also accurate decisions, a point emphasized by Peter in her closing remarks on the question.

So, in answer to your question, yes, it is a problem for political legitimacy if political decisions are made that are in conflict with what we know would be the right thing to do. But sometimes we only have this knowledge in hindsight or in a form that is not easily shared and not sufficiently robust as a basis for political decision-making. Democratic decisions that are made on the basis of all participants responding rationally to the limited evidence that is available, are not illegitimate even if, in hindsight, we learn that they were the wrong.

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