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Rawlsian reasonableness 2

July 24, 2018
  1. Two basic aspects of reasonableness

Rawls (1996: 54) defines reasonableness as a moral-political quality of persons[1] having two basic aspects:

(A1) “The willingness to propose fair terms of cooperation and to abide them by provided others do so.”

(A2) “The willingness to recognize the burdens of judgment and to accept their consequences for the use of public reason in directing the legitimate exercise of political power in a constitutional regime[2].”

One way to read the above is that (A1) and (A2) form a conjunction within a biconditional[3]:

(R) A person is reasonable iff she is willing to propose fair terms of cooperation and she is willing to recognize the burdens of judgment.

Of these aspects, (A1) is likely more familiar to readers: free and equal persons propose their own norms and principles for cooperation which “they view as reasonable for everyone to accept and therefore as justifiable to them” while remaining ready to discuss the norms and principles proposed by others (Rawls 1996: 49).

Despite being equally important on this conjunctive reading, (A2) figures less prominently in the Rawlsian corpus. Recall that the burdens of judgment are five[4] in number (Rawls 1996: 56-7):

(B1) “The evidence—empirical and scientific—bearing on the case is conflicting and complex, and thus hard to assess and evaluate.”

(B2) “Even where we agree fully about the kinds of considerations that are relevant, we may disagree about their weight, and so arrive at different judgments.”

(B3) “To some extent all our concepts, and not only moral and political concepts, are vague and subject to hard cases; and this indeterminacy means that we must rely on judgment and interpretation (and on judgments about interpretations) within some range (not sharply specifiable) where reasonable persons may differ.”

(B4) “To some extent (how great we cannot tell) the way we assess evidence and weigh moral and political values is shaped by our total experience, our whole course of life up to now; and our total experiences must always differ. Thus, in a modern society with its numerous offices and positions, its various divisions of labor, its many social groups and their ethnic variety, citizens’ total experiences are disparate enough for their judgments to diverge, at least to some degree, on many if not most cases of any significant complexity.”

(B5) “Often there are different kinds of normative considerations of different force on both sides of an issue and it is difficult to make an overall assessment.”

One may read the burdens as a nested conjunction: to qualify as reasonable on (A2), the person must accept all the burdens. Fed back into (R), this gives the following:

(R*) A person is reasonable iff she is willing to propose fair terms of cooperation and she is willing to recognize all five burdens of judgment across the full range of political judgments.

Before I suggest why this conjunction (and, hence, the biconditional) may not hold, let me recall the purpose behind Rawls’s introducing the burdens. Namely, they describe conditions of theoretical and practical reason which show not just why disagreement on conceptions of the good occurs in societies with free institutions but also why that disagreement must be accepted rather than dismissed as unreasonable or coerced away. Moreover, the existence of reasonable disagreement shapes impacts the person’s use of practical reason, to wit, limiting the kinds of argument which she may deploy when justifying the use of political coercion in matters of constitutional essentials and basic justice touching public institutions and social policies. Accordingly, the burdens serve a twofold purpose: they are at once descriptive and epistemic, showing why reasonable disagreement obtains, and prescriptive and moral, showing why the existence of reasonable disagreement enjoins one to abide by the ideal of public reason[5].

[1] In its other uses to modify nouns, “reasonable” may be derivative of this first sense and hence denotes the kind of belief, principle, etc. which the reasonable person forms, advances, etc. (Freeman 2004). For criticism of this reductive reading, see Boettcher (2004). To my mind, it is not essential to resolve this conflict as my account concerns above all what makes persons and disagreement reasonable as opposed to beliefs, principles, etc. Whether I follow Freeman (crudely, reasonable disagreement is disagreement between reasonable persons) or Boettcher (roughly, reasonable disagreement is disagreement stemming from the burdens of judgment recognized by reasonable persons) changes little in my account. For I focus on what may be the object of reasonable disagreement rather than how such disagreement is generated. Otherwise, I should note that Rawls maintains that, while reasonableness has epistemic qualities, it is not a strictly epistemic notion (Rawls 1996: 62). For analysis and criticism of reasonableness’s ostensibly non-epistemic character, see Naticchia (1999).

[2] I take this opportunity to point out that I will focus on the first half of (A2) and largely leave untreated whether persons accept the consequences thereof for the use of public reason. It seems to me that the second half can be, in large part, assimilated to (A1) insofar as public reason consists in a “common point of view” which shares the public status of the fair terms of cooperation being proposed and accepted. In this way, most of my case against (A1) may be cross-applied to the second half of (A2) to the point that (A2) might itself be presented as an inconsistent conjunction much as are (A1) and (A2). I pursue this question no further.

[3] Another way may be to read (A1) and (A2) as a standalone biconditional – (A1) iff (A2) – but I do not pursue this question further. For pushback to aspects of a reading like this, see Blake (2014: 76-7).

[5] Admittedly, the link between the epistemic and moral aspects is less tight than it may seem, and Rawls furnishes little in the way of support for this link. We leave this question aside. For a brief survey and possible ways out, see Blake (2014: 76-7).

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