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June 5, 2018

Over the course of weeks and thorough scrubbing, I had at last managed to thin the artisanal soap bar down to a film. I held it up to the ceiling light and admired the grain before laying it over a breast, a forearm and a palm. At last, I settled upon the back of my hand as the resting place for this, the beginning of my second skin.



June 4, 2018

Therapy is pageantry, or so he concluded upon reflection. After all, it amounted to an exercise in self-presentation for other-examination, dressing up to make striking, prompt replies to foreseen questions with no less foreseen answers, taking stock of acceptable flaws and papering over the unacceptable, or so he found himself thinking.

Travelogue (sketch)

June 1, 2018

In Amsterdam, amidst the tangle of canals and litter-strewn streets, I found my way to a Christian hostel. Though a species largely unknown, the Christian hostel offered bed and bedding for little more than the professed love of Jesus. I was soon to learn that all the youth were straightedge, at least within the hostel’s narrow bounds. Outside those bounds, all bets are off, for no more than fifty meters on, the hostel’s side street slips between red-backlit window panes whence the temptresses beckon. Apart from those shared with the temptresses, words were few in coming that night, each measured, voiced and exchanged in perfect sobriety. Exception to the rule proved two token swaps with fellow Americans. Most often these merely reveal my own linguistic dislocation, my dissociational identity. In English, I am never from Kansas and in French never from France, but ever from no place in particular. This suggests that I perhaps suffer from a malady akin to my sister’s and mother’s, overlapping in cause, disjoint in outcome. For, where they have no permanent sense of self, ever free to slip the bonds of an old identity for those of the new with a strong sense of belonging and with nary the actor’s distance in this, their role of a lifetime, I have no such self which might change and so feel no compulsion to take on any form of rootedness. The eldest is always a wanderer, of unclear affiliation, with no one place to call home, at least not without qualifier. Yet I am unsure whether this label this relation between kin and myself inverse, converse or contrapositive, and not only from my shortcomings with logical form. So, from my sadsack self-mythology on high and the tea-stained teeth below, I come back to that evening of the two, that middle, where most people dwell, but where I am ever passing.

Fr. 804

May 28, 2018

Stout is far from the first to object to Rawls’s account of the “reasonable” as being “loaded”. Indeed, it is just as likely that he is not the first to consider the “reasonable” to be unreasonable as formulated. While Stout goes on to spell out why he thinks this is so, namely, that it is not unreasonable to view as dim the prospects for the project of a common justificatory basis defined ex ante, it seems that his account could be strengthened by making Rawls’s twofold definition of the reasonable do his work for him. Recall that Rawls defines the “reasonable” thusly:

For the purposes of a political conception of justice, I give the reasonable a more restricted sense and associate it, first, with the willingness to propose and honor fair terms of cooperation, and second, with the willingness to recognize the burdens of judgment and to accept their consequences. (PL 49, n. 1; cf. PL 54).

Stout’s qualms lie with the first sense rather than the second of these senses. In truth, it would seem that he is likely to give Rawls reason on the second insofar as he also thinks that human beings’ cognitive context and conceptual economy are such that many people will have justified (if not justifiable) beliefs on a number of positions. Were we similarly situated, we would likely believe the same.

Yet Stout does not inquire whether the burdens of judgment, as formulated by Rawls, provide motivation for rejecting the first sense of “reasonable”. These burdens are factors which prevent human beings as presently constituted from exercising their reason without risk of error. More precisely, these burdens may be summarized as follows:

a. Complexity of evidence
b. Relative weight of different reasons
c. Conceptual indeterminacy and hard cases
d. Disparate life experiences
e. Conflicting normative considerations
f. Limited social space

On our reading, it would seem that burdens c., d. and e. may motivate a reading on which it is difficult, if not untenable, both to seek a common justificatory basis and to recognize the burdens in question. More specifically on c., conceptual indeterminacy and hard cases may make it such that judgment and interpretation are required in determining whether a person fulfils the duty of civility and hence upholds political legitimacy in justice as fairness. The place of religious reasons in political deliberation may be seen as one such hard case.

Similar cases can be made for d. and e. Of d., we can say that our cognitive context and conceptual economy make it such that some, if not many, deem the quest for an ex ante common basis a search with no object. This may be the case for religious as well as secular comprehensive doctrines. More pointedly, it is good and well to maintain that an overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines on the political consensus is possible, but, if one limits oneself to favorable cases to show that possibility, it is unclear how much work the sample cases actually do (e.g. Kymlicka’s discussion of the Ottoman “millet” system).

As regards e.), it is at least plausible that different normative considerations might weight on whether one deems the search for a common basis to be plausible, particularly depending on how much weight one accords the moral ideas underlying justice as fairness: persons as free and equal, with two moral powers, citizenship as obligatory and overriding (c.f. Kymlicka). Even for people who nominally accept these values as well-grounded, their priority ranking relative to one another may be very much up in the air.

In short, the two senses of reasonableness may, at least on this cursory reading, seem inconsistent with one another (or so Stout could have argued with more force and precision). As befits the method of reflective equilibrium, should such an inconsistency present itself, this gives reason to review the facts of the case and consider whether it is better to maintain, amend or discard the inconsistent position in light of our broader, firmer commitments, theoretical inputs and overall coherence. Were the first sense of reasonableness, the willingness to give fair reciprocal terms, to be excised from justice as fairness, what other kinds of changes would one then need to introduce therein? And what parts of the theory already lend themselves to such an interpretation?

Fr. 803

May 24, 2018

After reading Rawls’s Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, it occurs to me that Rawls’s political conception of justice as fairness might best be read as a contemporary analytic, post-metaphysical, “de-rhetoricized”, English-language version of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Second Discourse and Social Contract.

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.

Fr. 801

May 22, 2018

Rawls is quick to preach the importance of the fair value of the political liberties and to decry the “curse of money”. Rawls even maligns the fact that:

Historically one of the main defects of constitutional government has been the failure to insure the fair value of political liberty. The necessary corrective steps have not been taken, indeed, they never seem to have been seriously entertained. Disparities in the distribution of property and wealth that far exceed what is compatible with political equality have generally been tolerated by the legal system. Public resources have not been devoted to maintaining the institutions required for the fair value of political liberty. (TJ 198-199)

Given this habitual failure, it would seem warranted to seek any and all remedies possible. Indeed, one ready solution might appear in forms of deliberative democracy delegating decision- or deliberation-making power to citizens in randomly selected minipublics in addition to or even in place of public officials. On more radical versions, randomly selected citizens might entirely replace, either in a sortition assembly or a collection of single-issue minipublics, traditional legislative decisionmaking procedures. Considering that Rawls is a self-described deliberative democrat, what, if anything, is to stop the author from including such deliberative bodies within the institutional specifications of the four-stage sequence of the original position, for example, at the constitutional stage?

As the author does not expressly address the question of sortition-style bodies, it may be difficult to give a direct answer thereto. That said, his views on his principle of (equal) participation and whether political participation can be compelled may hold an answer:

Finally, to avoid misunderstanding, it should be kept in mind that the principle of participation applies to institutions. It does not define an ideal of citizenship; nor does it lay down a duty requiring all to take an active part in political affairs. (TJ 200, cf. PL 330-31)

Because political liberalism does not stipulate political participation as a human good nor define in advance what citizenship must like look, it cannot compel citizens to participate actively in political affairs on the model of sortition-style bodies. That said, this response seems unsatisfactory on two counts. First, sortition-style bodies are set up such that participation is always voluntary: following random selection, potential participants are then screened and given several opportunities to withdraw from the body. (Whether this poses a self-selection problem is another issue.) Second, if political liberalism, be it as justice as fairness or another reasonable liberal political conception, is as committed as it is to the fair value of the political liberties, perhaps it should, in contrast with other regimes which have never seriously considered how to secure such, advocate drastic (if not compulsory) steps to guarantee that value.