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Fr. 956

December 3, 2019

This point represents the starkest contrast between Rawls’s political liberalism and Stout’s pragmatist expressivism and, hence, the most difficult to reconcile. When it come socio-political complexity, i.e. the pluralism of conceptions of the good and of justice, Rawls assumes, for the well-ordered society of justice no less than for our own here and now, that that complexity is a permanent feature. Even under the favorable circumstances of the well-ordered society that complexity narrows but remains. In order to narrow that complexity and better to manage it in our own society here and now, Rawls sketches the justificatory sequence of standpoints elaborated in Part I above. By working through the sequence, the person arrives at a public political conception of justice which is more likely to meet with the assent (or, more weakly, acquiescence) of others both in the well-ordered society and which may elicit a similar reaction in her own here and now.

Although that sequence is rather complex in its articulation and may prove a challenge for the person to navigate, the sequence of standpoints and interlocking justificatory strategies does not amount to complexity for complexity’s sake.  Rather, the sequence’s complexity is Rawls’s attempted answer to the question of how one best manages socio-political complexity. More precisely, I contend that Rawls devises a procedure for uprooting biases (mental, emotional, cognitive, political, etc.) ahead of actual political discourse in order to narrow the range of outcomes over which persons might disagree and which might mire political processes in inaction. In a word, Rawls attempts to substitute a greater justificatory complexity ex ante for a lesser discursive complexity ex post.

In contrast, Stout maintains that Rawls has matters backwards. Recall that Stout accuses Rawls and contractarianism of attempting to find “a way of identifying the norms of social cooperation that fixes their inferential significance in advance, so that discursive exchange can be conceptually (and socially) stable” (DT 80). Effectively, Stout’s charge amounts to the following: a lesser justificatory complexity ex ante attempts to freeze the development of social norms at a certain point in time and thereby denatures the ongoing evolution of political society through repeated interpersonal interaction. In short, to Stout’s mind, Rawls attempts to square the circle, an effort at once impossible and undesirable: impossible in that it is out of keeping with the reality of how norms develop over time; undesirable in that it deprives the person of those resources which are available to her under democratic institutions and practices.

Instead, Stout comes at the question of socio-political complexity from the other end. Namely, he accepts a greater discursive complexity ex post in exchange for a lesser justificatory complexity ex ante. I mean thereby that Stout does not put forward a complex sequence of standpoints through which the person works in order to arrive at a narrower range of outcomes which she then takes up in discursive instances. Rather, pragmatist expressivism widens the range of outcomes by leaving the person with her native justificatory resources – her own cognitive context and conceptual economy – with which she works out a conception of justice to defend in discursive instances. Indeed, Stout would go further than merely emphasizing the discursive stage over the justificatory stage; he would weaken the divide between justificatory and discursive instances by pointing out to what extent they are bound up with one another. That being said, as a heuristic, it is helpful to think of Stout as shifting complexity from the justificatory instances to the discursive instances and as tasking interlocutors with the hard work of finding mutually acceptable proposals for political action.

From the above emerges a picture of two distinct approaches to managing sociopolitical complexity in justificatory and discursive instances. Whereas Rawls builds complexity in up front better to manage that complexity later, Stout reduces complexity up front better to pursue social evolution later. To put it neatly, Rawls opts for front-loaded public justification, Stout for back-loaded public justification. This divide over front-loading or back-loading public justification is precisely what precludes a synthetic account of Rawlsian political liberalism and Stoutian pragmatist expressivism.

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