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Rawls: Standpoint epistemologist? (II)

February 27, 2018
  • the privilege’s scope

The social locations now defined, we can turn to specifying the scope for each of the proposed standpoints. In contrast with the “location”, the standpoint’s scope is reasonably well-defined on Rawls’s picture. That said, different elements fall under the Rawlsian standpoints’ scopes than under more conventional standpoint theories. Anderson explains that “the scope of the claimed privilege includes the character, causes, and consequences of the social inequalities that define the groups in question”. Rawls will be more considered with the ideas and principles organizing political society as a cooperative endeavor.

i.) “you and me”: This standpoint’s scope is the broadest of all and concerns the entire constructivist procedure as well as the person’s considered convictions.

ii.) “citizen in a well-ordered society”: This standpoint’s scope is rather limited, for it concerns the question of stability in a society publicly regulated by the two principles of justice.

iii.) “representative party”: This standpoint’s scope concerns the principles regulating a conception of justice.

iv.) “delegate”: This standpoint’s scope concerns the constitutional and institutional arrangements in conformity with the principles of justice selected by the “representative party”.

v.) “legislator”: This standpoint’s scope concerns social policies and legal statutes passed in accordance with the arrangements selected by the “delegate”.

vi.) “rule-enforcer/rule-follower”: This standpoint’s scope is the broadest of the four-stage sequence in that it concerns the basic structure’s interaction with society at large and individual enforcement of and compliance with policy.

vii.) “citizen”: This standpoint’s scope concerns the basic structure’s justification rather than elaboration of constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice.

viii.) “individual”: This standpoint’s scope concerns the judgment and justification of either non-essential and non-basic political questions or a comprehensive doctrine’s understanding of the basic structure.

ix.) “reasonable citizen”: This standpoint’s scope concerns the stability which does or does not obtain upon mutual accounting of others’ standpoints.

Clearly, this second element aligns better with the general idea of a standpoint insofar as it defines specific questions and subject matters over which each perspective has a certain privilege. Put differently, the structure of the person’s experience is such that she knows something in a way that others do not and this way is better (in some sense still to be defined). What aspect then secures the superiority of that standpoint relative to that question and so confers the privilege?


  • the social location’s aspect conferring that privilege

Unlike standard standpoint epistemology, the Rawlsian variant ordinarily does not appeal to contingent facts about the person as that aspect which confers the standpoint a certain epistemic privilege. Indeed, this marks one of the strongest breaks or discontinuities in our proposal. Yet there remains an aspect, highlighted by Rawls, which does confer that epistemic privilege, whether this be an element drawn from an idealization, moral psychology, his fundamental “ideas”, or, in select cases, something about the person’s character or upbringing. These aspects can be laid out as follows:

i.) “you and me”: The privilege-conferring aspect is the person’s relation to her considered convictions as well as the desire to be consistent in her ethical and political judgments.

ii.) “citizen in a well-ordered society”: The privilege-conferring aspect is the idealization of the person in this standpoint as her view of justice is uncluttered by non-ideal or real-world circumstances.

iii.) “representative party”: The privilege-conferring aspect is the strength of the information constraints imposed on the person occupying this standpoint, constraints which approximate the impartial character of an ideal judge.

iv.) “delegate”: The privilege-conferring aspect is the presence of moderate information constraints and the self-imposed constraint of respecting the previous stage’s outcomes as modelled by the approximation of an ideal judge.

v.) “legislator”: The privilege-conferring aspect is the presence of weak information constraints and the self-imposed constraint of respecting the previous stages’ outcomes as modelled by the approximation of an ideal judge and the person’s being constrained by such modelling.

vi.) “rule-enforcer/rule-follower”: The privilege-conferring aspect is the absence of information constraints in the sense that the person so situated is able to judge the resultant system as a whole, i.e. access to particular information enables her to determine whether and where adjustments need to be made.

vii.) “citizen”: The privilege-conferring aspect is the kind of reciprocity, respect, and reasonableness built into the standpoint and its need to meet the liberal principle of legitimacy.

viii.) “individual”: The privilege-conferring aspect is the person’s familiarity with the comprehensive doctrine and enhanced capacity to determine how to embed the political conception therein.

ix.) “reasonable citizen”: The privilege-conferring aspect consists in the fact of mutual accounting and the “respect” shown for others’ comprehensive doctrines by insulating them from critique by the political conception of justice.

We see that the aspects so described break along various lines, which are more or less distant from the aspects of other well-known but more conventional standpoints (oppression, productive capacity, reproductive capacity, etc.). Notably, ii.) through vi.) concern idealized or abstracted qualities which make the judgments of the person occupying that standpoint more reliable than those of others. In contrast, i.) and viii.) may very well incorporate aspects like those found elsewhere to the degree that the person’s convictions or comprehensive doctrine give pride of place to ideas like that of oppression, productive capacity, reproductive capacity, etc. As to vii.) and ix.), these lie somewhere between the two poles in that they may be sensitive to the former ideas but will not draw on them directly in order to make a point. Closely related to the privilege-conferring aspect are the grounds for that aspect’s privilege.


Rawls: Standpoint epistemologist? (I)

February 26, 2018

Is Rawls a standpoint epistemologist? In the way that this term is ordinarily understood, that is, as relating to some group’s epistemic privilege over (the conditions of) its oppression, no, Rawls is not. But there is an important formal sense in which Rawls’s approach to epistemology and justification resembles that of a standpoint theorist. Though our intent is not to plumb the depths of the standpoint epistemology literature but merely to explain our (perhaps idiosyncratic) decision to employ the term “standpoint” with regards to the justificatory positions in Rawls’s work (as well as Stout’s), it will be important to say a few words on what that resemblance consists in. In what follows, we draw heavily on §2 of Elizabeth Anderson’s “Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science” entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

At its simplest, a standpoint theory aims “to represent the world from a particular socially situated perspective that can lay a claim to epistemic privilege or authority”. A complete theory will specify the following: a.) the standpoint’s social location, b.) the privilege’s scope, c.) the social location’s aspect conferring that privilege, d.) the grounds for that aspect’s privilege, e.) the type of privilege conferred, f.) the other standpoints over which it has privilege, and g.) the standpoint’s modes of access. It is our contention that one will find these formal aspects in Rawls’s work and, if not the connection with oppression so typical of either feminist or Marxist standpoint epistemology, then that with the position of the least advantaged in society.

Anderson rightly remarks that “[m]any claims to epistemic privilege on behalf of particular perspectives with respect to certain questions are commonplace and uncontroversial” and evokes that of a mechanic’s epistemic privilege over the clients. This illustration of a relatively uncontentious standpoint may help show why we find the term suitable for use outside the more strictly delimited fields of feminist and Marxist standpoint theory. In a word, the idea of one person or perspective’s epistemic privilege over another is commonplace, a vital part of society’s division of (epistemic) labor. If properly qualified, the term “standpoint” illustrates nothing more contentious than just such a division.

Yet this only makes our point indirectly and shows little in the way of resemblance between Rawls’s approach and standpoint epistemology in particular. To do so, we must make a more direct case for rapprochement. To that end, we recall Rawls’s insistence on the need to heed “where we are and whence we speak” (PL 382) and detail how the standpoints in his work map onto the model of a complete standpoint theory laid out by Anderson.

  • the standpoint’s social location

Naturally, the standpoint’s social location will depend greatly on the standpoint in question. If we count that there are as many as nine standpoints in Rawls (the three which he names “you and me”, “representative party in the original position” and “citizen in a well-ordered society”, plus the six which we identify as “delegate”, “legislator”, “rule-enforcer/rule-follower”, “citizen”, “individual” and “reasonable citizen”), each receives a different social location or, perhaps, a null or minimal location.

i.) “you and me”: This is whatever social position, along with its considered convictions, that the person already occupies.

ii.) “citizen in a well-ordered society”: This is an imagined social position of a free and equal person within a society ordered by the two principles of justice, publicly recognized as such and fully complied with. As this is an imaginative projection, this position is more likely null.

iii.) “representative party”: This is an imagined social position of a free and equal person choosing principles by which to order a society under the informational constraints of the veil of ignorance. As this is explicitly artificial, this position is perhaps null.

iv.) “delegate”: This is an imagined social position of a free and equal person choosing constitutional and institutional arrangements in conformity with the two principles of justice. As this is explicitly artificial, this position is perhaps null.

v.) “legislator”: This is an imagined social position of a free and equal person choosing social policy and legal statutes in conformity with the previously chosen constitutional and institutional arrangements and the two principles of justice. As this is explicitly artificial, this position is perhaps null.

vi.) “rule-enforcer/rule-follower”: This is an imagined social position of a free and equal person enforcing and following rules set out by the “legislator” standpoint. While artificial, there are no informational constraints, so this social location is in theory identical with that otherwise occupied by the person (e.g. “you and me” standpoint). (In optimal conditions, this position may approach that of the “citizen in a well-ordered society”.)

vii.) “citizen”: This is the social position of a free and equal person offering reasons in publicly available modes for political judgments on matters of basic justice or constitutional essentials. The location is that which the person already occupies but with certain justificatory constraints.

viii.) “individual”: This is the social position of a free and equal person offering reasons in nonpublicly available modes (derived from a comprehensive doctrine) on non-basic or non-essential matters or on basic and essential matters with others belonging to the same comprehensive doctrine. The location is that which the person already occupies as the holder of a comprehensive doctrine.

ix.) “reasonable citizen”: This is the social position of a free and equal person taking account of others’ reasoned assent to the basic structure in accordance with the particulars of their comprehensive doctrines. This location is that which the person already occupies but does not entail looking into others’ comprehensive doctrines.

What emerges from the above? First, that those standpoints (iii., iv., v.) associated with the first three stages of the four-stage sequence are linked with artificial, imaginary or methodological social locations, bereft of particular information on their persons, in accordance with one part of Rawls’s constructivist procedure. In a short, this seems a peculiar use of the term social location though perhaps not wholly unsuitable if one allows that a social location may exclude particulars on the person. Additionally, ii.) might also be grouped therein as it involves an idealization. (Still, it might be contested that this just not what it means for something to be a standpoint.)

Of the remaining, i.), vi.) and viii.) most clearly resemble the idea of social location most familiar from the standpoint epistemology literature as the first is just the person’s location, the second an imagined location where the person has all information about herself, and the last the person’s location as member of an association bound by a comprehensive doctrine. This leaves vii.) and ix.) which sit somewhere between the two groups. They are closer to the former in that they incorporate constraints but draw nearer the latter when it is remarked that those constraints are not on particular information about our persons but, instead, justificatory restrictions on the kinds of reasons which can be offered for a position. In short, the person’s social location is still her own, but it may not be appropriate for her draw on the full depth and breadth of her own experience in making those points. Again, whether this is, functionally speaking, too distant from a standpoint might be the subject of lengthy debate.


February 23, 2018

The world is winter, the snows have come on, and the sandshoveler makes his annual appearance. Typically no earlier than late morning and no later than earlier afternoon, he shuffles out from his unseen hiding place and sets about his work on a stretch of sidewalk. The sections on which he works today are to be found before an impressive building in yellow limestone, quarried, stacked and set at some point in the 1920’s, but its story is not today’s nor is it that of the sandshoveler.

His work is unforgiving, by its nature slow, so he sometimes spends entire days on a single concrete section. In the night, a truck and its attendant have kindly deposited a pile of brown sand. At the start, the pile comes to the sandshoveler’s waist; by mid-afternoon, he hopes to have trimmed it down to knee-level. So does the shoveler pass the day, sometimes two, rearranging his coarse brown mound.

He begins the process by eyeing the mound for flaws: too much sand here, an uneven mount there, drops from the icicles marring its surface with small craters, other things of this order. At this point, the shoveler brings down the spade in a few select places, evening as he sees fit, before the shoveling begins tentatively. The tip of the spade breaks the crust in a few places and brings away a poor shovelful, hardly more sand than he might have gathered with his hands. These first few grains are upended on the side nearest the curb; the content of each shovelful will be upended closer to the original pile with each successive movement.

Having lightly dusted the sidewalk, he works the spade in a little deeper and comes back with slightly larger amounts, perhaps two handfuls at most. He will repeat the process several times more, but it is now time for his first breather of the day, and so he leans the shovel into a nook in the facade and pulls a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He gives the end of the pack a good thud and, cigarette in hand, he steps back to assess the work that has been done so far. The cigarette moves from waist to mouth, mouth to waist, is occasionally caught at a height between the two. The shoveler’s lips pull a final time on the cigarette and his lungs on the smoke, and the butt is cast aside and comes to rest in a nearby grate, lodged between the bars. A horrified shopowner will contemplate this butt that very evening and wonder whether she should post a sign.

Third, fourth, fifth layers go down. It is only with the sixth that he leans his shoulder into the shovel and comes away spade full. The excess sand runs over; the shoveler leaves behind him twin furrows, thin but noticeable. Sand deposited at the curb, he turns and walks back and leans in and turns and walks back. Within a minute, only the areas directly about the pile remain to be covered with this, the sixth layer, and so he need only pivot in order to cast about the collected grains. The sixth layer is the last of the preparatory work. The shovel is again set aside as he paces about the section, eyeing the work that he has done so far.

He looks for the sun through the clouds to gauge the time, determines that the majority of the work remains and flicks the butt from between his fingers. Shovel in hand, he begins the second phase. This consists in what might outwardly seem an indiscriminate tossing and spreading. The spade bites at the brown sand. His body turns about on itself. The shovel comes to an abrupt stop three-quarters of the way through the turn. The sand flies from the shovel. The brown wave breaks on the pavement.

The pile now stands at a reasonable level, just below the knees, so the shoveler is ready for the third and longest phase, but, first, the lighter springs to fitful life in his hands and he enjoys another cigarette. After some minutes, he discards the butt and returns to the layers of sand before him; in it he contemplates the myriad would-be worlds to be seen there, whether from boredom or, instead, some sense of purpose, even as he sets about reshaping them.

At times, he flattens and smooths. At others, he furrows and folds. Yet, with every movement of the dull metal, new landscapes open up before him, the brown relief suggesting hills, valleys, rivers, stone outcrops, even cities. In one place, he draws the point of the spade towards himself and opens up a rift between a number of hills in the middle of which rises a building. A temple. Perhaps even a Greek temple which simply is. A thrust hand and flicked wrist and the temple on the rocky ground founders in an Alpine lake, hiding unseen depths and munitions. Dragging shovel towards himself, the munitions remain but now repose on a muddy river bottom, flush with city runoff and pollution. A spadeful of sand will erase river but raise a city street, lined with stately private residences.

But what does the sandshoveler see therein? The point of the exercise is just this, that we may never know. In the end, his right hand will rest on the shovel’s end, the left at his waist, he will admire his work of several weeks, and sandshoveler will depart for another sidewalk, another sandpile. And that will be that.


February 22, 2018

They (this him and this her) took in the strange sunset, a feeble yellow filtering through clouds heavy with rain, and commented for a time on the diffuse rainbow over the damp hills. Particles of its seven-colored band were cast to every corner of the valley, hanging at different elevations, each particle waiting to be condensed into that intended band to stretch from one corner of the air to another only to be scattered anew. Yet this band was absent or, at least, only distantly present or somehow present and absent at once, and their narrow rainbow never materialized. She spoke to him at length of the eye, of the ways in which it could be understood as a broken prism, through the dispersed fragments of which color passes and dispels itself. In the end, she fell silent, and they joined hands to walk back to their apartment through the general prismatic gloom.

Laden’s “The House That Jack Built” VI

February 21, 2018

Second, Laden points to the early forms of Rawls’s arguments for justice as fairness and their incorporation of a similar view of justification. 1958’s “general position” “imagines people within an already existing society reflecting about how to justify rules designed to adjudicate disputes to all of their fellow citizens” with no mention made of informational constraints like those under the veil of ignorance (idem.). 1951’s “Outline” unfolds along similar lines. This gives the author reason to underscore Rawls’s affinities with Kant on two counts: i.) the idea that the agreement of free and equal citizens coincides with reason’s findings; ii.) justice involves respect fellow citizens as ends by offering them intrinsically acceptable reasons and agreeing to be “governed by their reasonable response to those justifications” (idem.). While we do not contest the Kantian outlines of this picture, it is worth asking whether there are not other ways to be both (more) reasonable and respectful, which is largely Stout’s tack.

Before moving to the fourth and last element of the alternative blueprint, the author points out that the notion of public justification in PL is too narrow as it supposes that all citizens will converge on one and the same public political conception of justice. To his credit, Rawls qualifies this point in “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” when he allows that “our fellow reasonable citizens will endorse one of a family of reasonable political conceptions, of which one will be justice as fairness” (388). This further reinforces the idea that there lingers the question of the two principles’ application and what other conceptions of justice they might issue in. Regardless, the takeaway is simply “that the search for something like the basis for public justification spans Rawls’s career, and the supposedly monologic, difference-insensitive argument from the original position looks less like the core of his argument and more like one among many means for making clear what reasons we can offer others in good faith for our political positions” (idem.). This is a point which the author has made convincingly enough even if it has not been pushed as far as it could be. The fact also remains that the (four-stage sequence of) the original position is still the basis for making the two principles applicable.

The fourth element of the alternative blueprint consists in the claim that “the central idea and high point of his achievement is the idea of public reason and its accompanying picture of political deliberation, and the importance of the original position argument is that it is one possible route by which to justify principles of justice publicly” (379). Indeed, the natural progression from the preceding steps is to home in on that basis, which brings with it two effects. On one hand, what proves vital about the two principles of justice is not the specific arguments deployed to justify them but the mere fact that they, unlike other conceptions of justice, can be “publicly justified” (388). (Presumably, from the idea of public reason and pro tanto justification rather than public justification proper. Moreover, Laden specifies in a footnote that “This is as true of the argument in Theory as in Political Liberalism. The difference between them lies in what Rawls takes to be necessary to achieve such justification in the two books. In Theory, he thought that a public justification could appeal to a fully drawn moral psychology. In Political Liberalism, he tries to do without it.” (388, n. 56)) This may give us reason to come back on our claim that the other standpoints in Rawls’s approach are in fact derivative of the party standpoint.

It also results a view on which reciprocity and stability “matter more in their justification than their potential derivation from minimal rational choice-type premises” (388), i.e. they are important not for being integral to an situation modelling incontrovertible rational conditions but for being the sorts of reasonable conditions which one might reasonably convince others to accept as fair limits on a decisionmaking process. Or as the author puts it, “both turn on whether we, as citizens, can offer satisfactory reasons to support the two principles of justice to our fellow citizens”, of which the original position is then just an especially effective rendering (389). (Indeed, Rawls makes similar remarks to this effect.)

On the other hand, this calls for reassessment of Rawls’s place in the democratic theory literature: “if the centerpiece of Rawls’s work is a model of political deliberation in a pluralist democracy, then we need to think of him as not primarily a liberal or an egalitarian but, first and foremost, a democrat” and not a rational choice theorist (idem.). In a word, we would do well to juxtapose his work with that of others working in deliberative democracy and civil republicanism, to understand just how he deploys “the fuller range of justifications for the two principles of justice” (idem.). All in all, Laden’s essay represents not just an important contribution to the Rawls secondary literature but a call to pivot from the standard blueprint to the alternative. It may now be time to ask whether a further pivot, to an alternative alternative blueprint is not needed.

Laden’s “The House That Jack Built” V

February 20, 2018

Though understandable, it is also somewhat lamentable that Laden does not at least evoke Rawls’s purported solution to the question of applicability, the four-stage sequence of the original position, which defines a procedure and related standpoints for making the two principles applicable. On a final note, it bears mentioning that there exist other methods for engaging in democratic politics “reasonably and reflectively” without Rawls. If Rawls’s aim is truly to produce a view showing why a constitutional democratic regime merits faith, it would be worth taking up other such views to assess their (in)adequacy.

To the author’s mind, this reappraisal of Rawls’s purpose and outcomes leaves us more ready and willing “to see him as adopting the position of a citizen of a democratic regime addressing his fellow citizens” (384-5). While persuasively argued, this may likewise strain Laden’s point in important ways. Even if the “you and me” standpoint is technically that of everyday people with their ordinary considered judgments, the standpoint remains highly philosophical and the machinery surrounding it quite elaborate.

This might be straining it to some extent. The machinery is quite elaborate…even if the “you and me” standpoint is technically that of everyday people. That standpoint is highly philosophical. To claim that Rawls writes “as one citizen among others” is not without style, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating, which, in this case, takes the form of citizens’ actually being able to employ that standpoint and machinery to arrive at reasonable political judgments on the basic structure.

On the subject of standpoints, Laden is right to draw attention to Rawls’s quite though frequent insistence on “the position to and from which certain reasons are offered” (385), a point on which we have also fixed. According to the author, this insistence “follows from his conviction that justification is always justification to a particular other and often results in a kind of division of justificatory labor”, the upshot of which is that, if “justifications are directed to people in different positions, we realize that they need not have the same form” (idem.). That said, the author does not seem to pursue this thought far enough, for it must be asked whether Rawls himself a.) pays enough attention to the different justificatory positions even within his own work and b.) covers the most prominent alternative justificatory positions either from the literature or which his approach leaves aside. Of the latter, how might we identify them?

Such questions form parts and parcel of our own efforts to draw an “alternative” alternative blueprint. We hold that Laden’s own review of the three positions in TJ, namely “you and me”, well-ordered citizens and party, does not cast a wide enough net. Given that “we likely to mischaracterize his arguments if we fail to attend to the position from which they are offered” (386), it is all the more important to scrutinize the work to see whether there are not justificatory positions which pass unannounced therein.

Regardless, this yields on the author’s reading a new outlook on Rawls’s work. First, it means that “we should pay greater heed to his remarks about the nature of justification and what sorts of justification we can hope to achieve in a pluralist society”, particularly those about the search for a public basis of justification regarding the basic structure (386). This outlook is integral to the third element of the alternative blueprint, to wit, that Rawls’s “arguments are meant to serve as public justifications rather than as deductions from premises about human nature or rationality” (379). Wherefore Laden’s interest in the idea of “public justification by political society” (PL 387), which he reads in an entirely different fashion than ourselves. He presents this phase of justification thusly:

Doing so involves thinking about whether the arguments presented for justice as fairness can be offered in good faith to all our fellow reasonable citizens, taken not as stripped-down rational choosers but in all their diversity and complexity. It is this exercise, then, rather than the argument from the original position that should be understood as Rawls’s version of the social contract. (386)

While the author is likely right to view public justification as Rawls’s take on the social contract rather than the initial situation, a close reading of the text suggests that what he here presents as public justification is not what Rawls denotes by that phase at all. The argument for justice as fairness is made by members of non-public associations to other members of their association, as Rawls makes clear in his description of the justificatory phase of full justification. Contrary to a natural reading of the quoted passage above, there is no one person offering reasons therefor in a way that cuts across those associations or, at least, there need not be. Indeed, Rawls states that we need not look into others’ comprehensive doctrines to carry out public justification, which, if we have understood it correctly, does not offer arguments so much as act as a kind of roll call of the reasonable comprehensive doctrines in society. (Questioner: “Have you embedded the political conception in your reasonable comprehensive doctrine?” All: “Yes!”. Questioner: “Then we have reached overlapping consensus and a public basis for political justification.”)

At this point in the essay, Laden pivots to account for the apparent divergences between TJ and PL. He attributes this perceived divergence to a shift in Rawls’s approach, albeit “not one of aim or method but of clarity in expressing the aim and in seeing what would be necessary to achieve it” (idem.). More specifically, the author adduces two arguments in his favour. First, Rawls maintains in TJ that the argument from the original position is not complete until such a time as it has been ascertained whether a society ordered by those principles would be stable, for which one must first determine “whether real flesh and blood citizens in all their particularity could affirm the two principles of justice and their justification” (387). This last point is only shown in PL with its new argument for stability, independent of the formulation in Part 3 of TJ. In a word, what has changed between TJ and PL “is not the aim of finding principles of justice that could be publicly justified but the understanding of what such justification would require” (idem.). Leaving aside whether Rawls has advanced the best understanding, we wholeheartedly second this reassessment: he is eminently concerned with making the principles applicable and understanding the conditions under which their justification might be secured.

Laden’s “The House That Jack Built” IV

February 19, 2018

If the first element changes the problem-context from which Rawls’s thought emerges, the second elaborates a more concrete account of just what he is doing and how he tries to do it. This account the author dubs “philosophy as defense” after Rawls’s remark that the public political conception of justice “understands itself as the defense of the possibility of a just constitutional regime” (PL 101, quoted by Laden at 383). As further motivation therefor, Laden gestures at Rawls’s broadly Kantian remark to the effect that “until that thought and practice [of ordinary sound human reason] appears to be at odds with itself, it needs no defense” (idem.). This yields a more modest goal for Rawls’s understanding: making the case “that despite appearances, the thought and practice of democratic societies are not necessarily incoherent” (383). The least that can be said of this account is that it is largely reasonable.

As always, the broad outlines can be contested. From a general standpoint, one may object to the idea of “philosophy as defense” from the idea that, in order to arrive at a just constitutional regime, one may also need some offense. To be action-guiding, ideal theory must come with some teeth. On a reading like Stout’s, two problems come to the fore. First, it may be that democratic society needs somewhat less defense than Rawls thinks, that it is less fraught than communitarians maintain. Second, in his attempt to impose ex ante requirements to discourse, Rawls overcorrects no less than the communitarians and makes of himself something like a functional(ist) communitarian. Still, Stout would likely second these impulses.

Regardless, the author points out four aspects of this account of “philosophy as defense”: a.) its philosophical chops (in attempting “to establish a conceptual possibility” (idem.); b.) its limited scope (in replying to the challenge posed to democracy’s coherence by the problem of reasonable pluralism); c.) its therapeutic results (in bringing to awareness the structure of our convictions and reinforcing our confidence therein); d.) its intended beneficiaries (in that those who make the most of such reflection are ordinary citizens rather than philosophers). Each of these points would benefit from lengthier treatment, but we will restrict ourselves to some initial observations. Of a.), this naturally depends on one’s conception of philosophy as philosophy may (or should) not be interested in conceptual possibilities, particularly when those possibilities are already existent (as “is” implies “can”). Regarding b.), one plausible reading of Rawls has him arguing that the threat posed by reasonable pluralism is both bane and boon. The diversity of rational life-plans is that which foregrounds the “social union of social unions”:

Yet the good attained from the common culture far exceeds our work in the sense that we cease to be mere fragments: that part of ourselves that we directly realize is joined to a wider and just arrangement the aims of which we affirm. The division of labor is over- come not by each becoming complete in himself, but by willing and meaningful work within a just social union of social unions in which all can freely participate as they so incline. (TJ 464, cf. §79)

Moving on to c.), this observation allows us to reaffirm, with Kymlicka, that those considered judgments or convictions, rather than the original position, provide the preponderant argument for justice as fairness. Finally, d.) may call for some scepticism on whether Rawls is best situated to set up and reward our faith in democratic society. The author makes this case out in the following way:

[F]aith in the possibility of a just democratic constitutional regime is something we manifest (or not) in our ordinary dealings as citizens, in the way that we approach political matters of the day and the justifications that we offer to one another for our positions. Political philosophers engaging in political theorizing are not so clearly interested in such faith. They are trying to establish once and for all the superiority of a particular system of political organization, perhaps motivated by the thought that the right political theory will dispense with the need for political faith. (384)

This point comes across as highly contentious in several ways. On one hand, Rawls does not exhaust the range of manners in which one might approach justifications to be offered for one or another position. On the other, it is not clear that so-called “political theorizing” is as inimical to political faith as the author claims. One thinks notably of an author like Robert Talisse who is at once committed to providing a justification for democracy as the best (epistemological) model for social organization and to showing how citizens might bolster their faith through reflection on the nature of their mutual justifications. As further proof in this direction, we need only gesture towards Rawls’s own conviction that justice as fairness is better, on balance, than other conceptions of justice, though perhaps all possible conceptions.

Stating the outcomes of Rawls’s work in this way also exposes it to challenges from applicability. If, as the author maintains, this outcome might be transposed into “terms of politics rather than faith” showing that “the alternative blueprint suggests that Rawls aims to help us, as citizens, engage in democratic politics reasonably and reflectively” (384, n. 41), this means that Rawls must be able to show precisely where the ideal “rubber” meets the non-ideal “road”. Put differently, the outcomes must be action-guiding and applicable cannot content themselves with merely demonstrating a concept’s possibility or non-contradiction. Shifting the emphasis from the original position to the idea of public reason and the method of reflective equilibrium is good and well, but it must be shown how one employs the two principles of justice, as the lone principles which may be justified in terms of public reason, both to frame and to back reasonable political judgments on the basic structure (or elsewhere) which merit other citizens’ assent.