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Rawlsian reasonableness 1

July 23, 2018

Reasonably unreasonable: Salvaging the minimal core of reasonableness

  1. Introduction

Rawlsian “reasonableness” has borne considerable criticism for understandable, if not entirely correct, reasons. While Rawls presents this moral-political notion as revisable and open to the reader’s judgments (Rawls 1999b: 30), he insists within the same work that “political liberalism  offers no way of proving that this specification [of reasonableness] is itself reasonable” for “none is needed” as “it is simply politically reasonable to offer fair terms of cooperation to other free and equal citizens, and it is simply politically unreasonable to refuse to do so” (87-8). Readers’ reactions range from the notion’s being “loaded” (Stout 2004: 184) or “chimerical” (Young 2005: 308) to “entirely circular” (Mulhall and Swift 2003: 483). Yet more critical reactions often employ external standards or invoke equivocal senses of reasonableness to their detriment (Freeman 2004: 2045, 2063-5) or marshal conflicting materials from Rawls’s broader theory (Young 2005, 2006). In this paper, I put forward a narrow, immanent criticism whereon the two basic aspects of reasonableness are shown to be in tension: the “burdens of judgment” may give the person reason to disagree over the need to propose and to abide by a common basis of fair terms of cooperation.

My aims in doing so are threefold. First, I try to make sense of and set on firmer ground Stout’s (2004) critique of reasonableness as being epistemologically unreasonable. While Stout goes on to spell out why he thinks this is so, i.e., that it is not unreasonable to view as dim the prospects of a common justificatory basis defined ex ante, and intimates that Rawls’s twofold sense of reasonableness is inconsistent as both sufficiently and insufficiently permissive regarding justified belief, he also appeals to a standard of reasonableness which is not Rawls’s own, to wit, “epistemic entitlement”. Accordingly, his critique is open to the charge of (mindful) equivocation and the reply that he and Rawls are simply talking past one another (Freeman 2004). To my mind, Stout’s critique could at once be rescued and shored up by explicitly making Rawls’s twofold definition of the reasonable do his work for him: showing that the first and second basic aspects of “reasonableness” are inconsistent with one another.

My second and third aims stem from the first. The second consists in carving out a middling conceptual space wherein the negation of Rawlsian “reasonableness” (defined below) is not merely “unreasonable” in the sense of being willing to impose one’s comprehensive doctrine on others as the terms of political justification and coercion (Rawls 1996: 60-1; Freeman 2004: 2049) nor “not unreasonable” in the sense of persons’ nonculpably or justifiably endorsing one of a wide range of comprehensive doctrines (Rawls 2001: 184, 190; Freeman 2064) but, instead, “reasonably unreasonable” in the sense of the person’s nonculpably or justifiably rejecting the requirement to offer and to abide by fair terms of cooperation in view of the burdens of judgment. Third, I attempt to salvage a minimal core of reasonableness from the two-conjunct Rawlsian reasonableness, a core which contemporary political philosophers are hard-pressed to do without: the second conjunct consisting in the person’s acknowledgement of the burdens of judgment (Rawls 1996: 54-8). In so doing, I hope to preserve the spirit of Stout’s critique, if not the letter thereof.

To those ends, I proceed in three steps. I begin by recalling the two aspects of reasonableness and hold that their conjunction is necessary for a person to qualify as “reasonable”. In particular, this involves showing that a biconditional obtains: a person is reasonable iff the two basic aspects of reasonableness obtain. I shall then quite briefly define the site wherefrom one checks a person’s reasonableness: the “you and me” standpoint (Rawls 1996: 28). Lastly, I shall examine whether any burden gives reason to doubt the need to propose and to abide by a common basis of fair terms of cooperation. Although I shall conclude that each of the burdens, in its own way, leaves room to doubt whether reasonable persons would assent to such a need, I place particular emphasis on the kinds of doubts to which the third, fourth and fifth burdens may give rise. In so doing, I parallel Clarke’s (1999: 639-41) claim that the burdens of judgment apply both to contractarianism’s “reasonable rejection procedure” and principles issuing therefrom but do so from narrower, immanent grounds rather than from the stronger claim that Rawls’s doctrine is, despite itself, epistemological.

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