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Self-knowledge and political justification 4

June 14, 2017

Yet a person may not always be in a position to take (thick) stock herself or to draw out what follows from the critical inventory made during the phase of piety and aired out in the phase of storytelling. Accordingly, the person may have need of a spokesperson, be this a philosopher to work out the inferential commitments underlying the reasons for her political position or a community organizer to extract the issue taking shape therein. Hence Stout’s view that public philosophy consists in making explicit and scrutinizing the commitments and norms implicit in political deliberation and reasons: in short, an exercise in “expressive rationality” as per Robert Brandom (5, 12-14). More concretely, this may entail taking norms or reasons, often expressed as material inferences “given that x, I shall y” for which we ordinarily acknowledge the premise x as a legitimate premise for the conclusion y, and working out the premise needed to make them formally valid (188-190). So, to statements like the following: “(a) Going to the store is my only way to get milk for my cereal, so I shall go to the store; (b) I am a lifeguard on the job, so I shall keep close watch over the swimmers under my protection; (c) Ridiculing a child for his limp would humiliate him needlessly, so I shall refrain from doing so”; we would need to append further premises: “(a) a statement expressing my desire to have milk for my cereal; to (b) the conditional that if I am a lifeguard, it is my responsibility to keep a close watch over the swimmers under my protection; or to (c) the principle that one ought not to humiliate people needlessly” (188). (Cf. Brandom 1994, 243-253)

This exercise presents the “advantage of putting the formerly implicit material inferential commitment in the explicit form of a claim, which in turn allows it to be challenged or justified inferentially in light of other considerations” and takes on still greater importance “when conflicts arise among different material inferential commitments that we have undertaken” (189). Certainly, political deliberation and justification may more often involve the strains of practical reasoning at work in (b) and (c) (“institutional” and “unconditional” obligations (Brandom 1994, 252, as cited by Stout 2004, 189)) rather than the desire-based seen in (a). Stout will go on to work out the moral perplexity surrounding the dirty hands problem in drawing on just such a scheme.

More important for our purposes is the way in which working out inferential commitments proves both case and exception to the link between self-knowledge and political justification outlined above. For, if our capacity for self-knowledge may help to secure the justified quality of our political positions by working out the entailments of our beliefs, our cognitive failings may also hinder arriving at (thick) self-knowledge and, hence, P-justified political positions. Such that the person may need to rely upon the public philosopher to arrive indirectly at the thick self-knowledge necessary for a justified political position. Indeed, the person may lack entirely the expressive resources necessary to render those commitments explicit (193). Likewise, those commitments may outstrip the person’s capacity for thin or thick self-knowledge.

How does this impact our main question, i.e. whether self-knowledge advances political justification? We have seen that self-knowledge is an important part of political justification and, if public philosophy advances self-knowledge, then it likewise advances political justification. On the other hand, public philosophy’s advancing self-knowledge hinges on thick other-knowledge and on the person’s taking responsibility for how she forms beliefs before and after the public philosopher’s work. Otherwise, the public philosopher’s work on the raw material of piety and storytelling and on logical entailments of the political positions exposed therein is for nought. (Moreover, it is unclear whether this requirement figures on governmental and institutional political justification as well as on the personal or associational.) Likewise, we may wonder whether public philosophy and its practitioners are themselves capable of articulating thick other-knowledge and thereby advancing indirect self-knowledge, a question to which Brian Leiter has turned his attention in recent years and the subject of our next section.

Self-knowledge and political justification 3

June 13, 2017

Indeed, we will rightly wonder how the person may, in political deliberation, articulate for the audience her sources, reasons and commitments and, by extension, her cognitive context and conceptual economy of which she has taken stock via the practice of democratic piety. Stout’s clearest answer in Democracy and Tradition, expounded at greater length in Blessed are the Organized, lies in the idea that the person should give voice to their deepest reasons and personal histories. In criticizing both particularist and universalist thinkers, he remarks:

[I]t seems clear that neither [Benhabib nor Hauerwas] has imagined the possibility, let alone the desirability, of a loosely structured democratic conversation in which variously situated selves tell their own stories on their own terms […] Both back away at a crucial moment from the full significance of their common insight that the different ways in which selves are situated in the world can make a difference for ethics (DT, p. 179).

The only way for commitments and epistemological formations to come to light consists in the person’s telling her own story and development. Indeed, storytelling enables the audience better to grasp the real horizon of reasons and commitments within which the person is working (supposing that the person knows the story elements and tells it accurately). Moreover, not only should the person’s right to self-expression and storytelling merit respect from the audience; her reasons and commitments, as well as the person herself, deserve our respect, on the condition of being responsibly held or P-justified. In one instance, it is in such fashion that Stout enjoins the audience to respect both the believer’s right to express and the content of that expression:

Insofar as [those who differ from us religiously] do acknowledge that dependence [piety] appropriately, given their own conceptions of the sources of existence and progress through life, they may be said to exhibit an attitude that is worthy of our respect, if not our full endorsement (DT, p. 34).

Provided that the person abides by the virtue of piety and appropriately takes stock of and reflect her concepts and context in deliberation, there proves little reason to dismiss those concepts and context out of hand. All the more so in that such expression allows the audience to unearth those reasons and commitments leading the person to back a given position; it may also grant the person an opportunity at greater thin or thick self-knowledge. Notably, listening to stories and according respect as due does not inevitably lead to a mere modus vivendi:

If [citizens] are discouraged from speaking up in this way, we will remain ignorant of the real reason that many of our fellow citizens have for reaching some of the ethical and political conclusions they do. We will also deprive them of the central democratic good of expressing themselves to the rest of us on matters about which they care deeply. If they do not have this opportunity, we will lose the chance to learn from, and to critically examine, what they say. And they will have good reason to doubt that they are being shown the respect that all of us owe to our fellow citizens as the individuals they are (DT, p. 64).

Far from isolating the audience into incommensurable spheres of discourse, respect proves the first stepping stone to critical examination and exchange of reasons and commitments. For without the knowledge afforded by listening and respect, critical examination would otherwise have no object on which to work. And, without materials for examination, no way out of an impasse will present itself to participants in political deliberation.

In addition, respect serves a second, more practical purpose. If, by virtue of listening to stories, respect grants knowledge of the person’s real reasons and commitments informing a given position (other-knowledge), this practical exercise also makes the person more amenable to the exchange of reasons with the audience which follows. In some important sense, through respect, the audience recognizes the person as a full-fledged member of political deliberation and as perhaps P-justified in believing that to which she has just given expression. This comes out all the more strongly in Stout’s 2010 book-length case-study of broad-based citizens’ organizing and its look into “house meetings” and “one-on-ones”, understood as “individual conversations” and “small gatherings”. (For a general overview, cf. Stout 2010, 2-3; for a concrete example with interlocutors Carmen and Lupita, cf. ibid., 151-6.)

Self-knowledge and political justification 2

June 12, 2017

II: Stout on self-knowledge and justification: piety, storytelling and inferential commitments

Both the narrow and broad critiques capture the most important aspects of Jeffrey Stout’s understanding of (political) justification and its relation to self-knowledge. In a word, (political) justification proceeds or should proceed with a view to the person’s relation to a context, namely a personal history in the broader historical setting of a given time, place and culture. Insofar as (political) justification is indexed to a given context and successful (political) justification turns on knowledge of that context and a given context includes the person justifying, then (political) justification’s success is indexed to knowledge of the person justifying. When justifying one’s views to another, justification then entails thick self-knowledge (strong and thick version). Hence, Stout’s understanding preserves the Pryorian outline sketched above.

It is this insight that Stout attempts to work out over the course of four books. 2004’s Democracy and Tradition confronts the reader with a view of political deliberation as earnest reason-giving. In short, when engaged in political deliberation, participants thereto should give their real reasons for a given political position, whether those reasons be tied to a political conception of justice or to a comprehensive doctrine, religious, philosophical or moral. It would be epistemologically unreasonable on our part to maintain that persons giving comprehensive reasons for a political position be excluded from deliberation insofar as such reasons can be responsibly held or P-justified (in the sense of in accord with the person’s rational commitments). Nor should we require them to voice reasons other than their own.

Naturally, in order for the person to voice those reasons and to hold them responsibly, she must first know what those reasons are. All of which requires the person’s taking stock thereof. Wherefore Stout’s notion of “democratic piety” for which for some clarification is needed. The author understands this notion as the person’s making an inventory of the different moral and social sources responsible for the shape of her life at a given moment in time and giving appropriate expression thereto (DT, p. 9). In that these intertwine with the person’s life history, they provide her with a horizon of reasons which may justify or fail to justify her political position (distinction 1) and which she may use to justify, successfully or unsuccessfully, her political position (distinction 2). Elsewhere, he further specifies the context as “democratic” and the sub-context as “Emersonian”:

[F]rom a democratic point of view, the only piety worth praising as a virtue is that which concerns itself with just or fitting acknowledgment of the sources of our existence and progress through life […] Imagining or conceiving of those sources and choosing ethically and aesthetically apt expressive means of acknowledging dependence on them are both things for which an Emersonian poet or essayist expects to be held responsible discursively (DT, p. 30).

On several occasions Stout himself practices democratic piety by describing those moral and social sources on which he depends: (97)/(173)

In the days of my adolescent sublime, Martin Luther King, Jr., was the hero of my humanitarian cause, and Jesus was one of three personifications of my loving divinity. Nowadays things have become more complicated, because I have come to know more about these figures of virtue than their hagiographers and publicists wanted me to know […] Love and justice remain virtues […] but now the relation between the persons and the virtues is more complicated. It requires a different, less doctrinal, more improvisational kind of explication. To the extent that King and Jesus exemplify virtues in my imaginative life, they now do so imperfectly and defeasibly. I therefore need an open-ended way to think the relation through, as it were, from both sides at once. Neither doctrine, nor principle, nor system, nor overarching plot, knowable in advance, constrains the course of thinking […] We all have our examples, after all, and we all make something of them sooner of [sic] later. We do not, however, make the same thing of them. Neither do they make the same thing of us (DT, p. 173).

We can see how Stout takes inventory in “critical” fashion: recognizing sources as such; refusing one-sided tendencies to nostalgia, wishful thinking or idealization; introducing between person and sources two-sidedness via reflection, research and questioning. Just such an earnest stocktaking leaves the person ready to advance reasons, be it in the form of structured argument or personal storytelling.

Self-knowledge and political justification 1

June 9, 2017

I: Introduction: Self-knowledge and justification


What relation might obtain between self-knowledge and (political) justification? Why should we expect any relation to obtain between the two? Certainly, any answer thereto will depend in part on the precise understanding of self-knowledge and (political) justification at issue. A broad understanding of self-knowledge might entail that a person has thin self-knowledge, i.e. of her own attitudes, beliefs and history. Self-knowledge might further involve thick knowledge of the upstream processes (further attitudes, beliefs and history) which led to the formation of the thin. For the sake of simplicity, let us call these thin and thick self-knowledge. We will also have occasion to broach other-knowledge in the same terms.

In parallel, we can put forward a broad understanding of (political) justification. Following Pryor 2004, justification admits of two basic distinctions: 1.) “what you have justification to believe, and what you’re rationally committed to believe by beliefs you already have” (363); 2.) “having justification to believe something, and having a belief that is justified or well-founded” (365). In a way, justification for a “belief that p” amounts to “reasons r” which one might have for holding a “belief that p”. If one does not base one’s “belief that p” on those “reasons r” or opposes thereto other reasons or beliefs, then the “belief that p” is not justified. Only when one has justification for a “belief that p” and one bases the “belief that p” on those “reasons r” and one has no other reasons or beliefs which rationally commit one to an opposed belief is the “belief that p” then justified or well-founded. More simply, having justification for a “belief that p” comes apart from being justified in having the “belief that p”.

Extending these distinctions, political justification partly consists in appending the clause “relative to political deliberation” to the above. Accordingly, one may have justification for the “belief that p” (relative to political deliberation) while failing to have the “belief that p” due to ignorance, doubt, weakness of will, or conflicting beliefs. Likewise, a “belief that p” (relative to political deliberation) will only be justified when one has justification therefor, bases belief thereon and has no conflicting rational commitments. However, an emendation seems in order. For Pryor’s breakdown of justifiable belief and justified belief remains within the realm of the intrapersonal and passive whereas political justification, i.e. political deliberation as justifying beliefs to others, moves us to the interpersonal and active. In this case, successful political justification would entail either of the following forms: transmission of a justified belief from one person to another; another’s recognition of a belief’s justified quality; adapting a belief to another’s cognitive context. Both cases prima facie preserve both thin and thick self-knowledge requirements: one’s expression of a justified belief must retain the relation between beliefs and reasons which render it justified on the interpersonal level.

Can we have one without the other? The properly amended Pryorian account seems to require it insofar as one must be aware of one’s “belief that p” (relative to political deliberation) and of any other reasons or beliefs which commit oneself to opposed positions. Otherwise, one might simply have a justifiable belief without that belief itself attaining the status of justified. That said, there are cases in which justification, as either justification for a belief or justified belief, seems to proceed without self-knowledge, thin or thick. A person might hold a belief for a reason which they ignore or lack entirely. Somewhat differently, the Rawlsian original position stipulates that, to arrive at a conception of justice for the distribution of primary goods in society or the evaluation thereof, the person have no knowledge of her preferences or beliefs ahead of the resultant distribution. The lack of self-knowledge in no way impedes political justification and may even facilitate consensus (a fact backed up by the empirical literature – cf. Frohlich, Oppenheimer, and Eavey 1987).

Nonetheless, we might have reason to reject this depiction as misguided for several reasons. On our Pryorian account of (political) justification, the class of reasons r and “beliefs that p” might be suitably narrowed such that the little which one knows about oneself figures all the same in the justified belief. So, some thin self-knowledge obtains. With greater emphasis on the Rawlsian account itself, we might have reason, more narrowly, to reject the original position as an untenable or unreasonable epistemological device or, more broadly, to reject knowledge- or justification-claims made from an unsituated, context-free standpoint, such that the original position cannot serve as an example to establish the sufficient, if not necessary, independence of self-knowledge and (political) justification from one another. Provisionally, this leaves us with four possible answers to our starting point:

Strong and thick version: Thick self-knowledge is necessary for political justification.

Strong and thin version: Thin self-knowledge is necessary for political justification.

Weak and thick version: Thick self-knowledge is important for political justification.

Weak and thin version: Thin self-knowledge is important for political justification.

Rawls and subject 50

June 8, 2017

This summary concludes our exposition of public justification, stability for the right reasons and the reasonable citizen standpoint. It also marks the end of our exposition of Rawls’ epistemological standpoints and the different conceptions of person related thereto. Faced with this plethora of distinctions, the reader may nonetheless wonder precisely how they relate logically to one another. After all, there seems a common thread running through them. As such, between the standpoints of representative party, delegate, legislator, judge, citizen, individual, and reasonable citizen, what logical relation could obtain? Two approaches put themselves forward as initially plausible.

One approach might be conceived along the lines of a derivation from or dependence on the representative party standpoint. On this approach, the representative party standpoint and the conception of person associated therewith would stand as the base instance from which the other standpoints and the features therein are either deductively derived from or more generally dependent on the basic instance. This would seem to accord with our habit of tracing the later standpoints to the representative party standpoint and formulating them in terms of its own original formulation. In the end and more imagistically, this would leave us with something like a “tree view”[1] or “arborescence model” on which the representative party standpoint and its attendant notion of person form the core and the subsequent standpoints and conceptions of person grow out from that core, each representing a new ring in the outgrowth. Accordingly, the articulation between the standpoints would be organic and unitary.

Yet this first approach is susceptible of an alternative reading if one takes seriously our description of the standpoints above and on which the person tout court takes up or occupies a given standpoint. This would less seem to suggest an organic whole or outgrowth than a conceptual outgrowth between the rings of which the person moves back and forth freely, as the need arises for considerations of different scope or justifications of different audience or purpose. This second approach could well allow one to retain the derivation or dependence relation from the first approach, but it leaves open another possible understanding of the relation between the standpoints: each may prove more or less independent of the others, at least between those associated with the four-stage sequence and those associated with the three kinds of justification. From this perspective, while we may notice that there exist points of convergence between either the seven standpoints or the two sets thereof, neither can be derived from the other in deductive fashion. Hence, the convergence would prove less derivation than parallelism.

More attention must also be paid to talk of the person moving back and forth freely between standpoints for two reasons. First, it must be asked whether the person is bound to the standpoint(s) or, in some sense, floats free of them. Put differently, may a person don and doff a standpoint as she would a hat? If so, to what extent? As the answers to these questions might well lead us to posit a spurious ontological or epistemological independence of the person tout court, a sort of bare person, such that extreme caution must be exercised.

Still, the question bears answering, whether Rawls has a conception of the person. One could reasonably advance his definition of the person as that of his moral person, i.e. a free and equal person, as being common to each standpoint. One might also point to his talk of the idea of person, like that of society, as an elementary, unconstructed notion from which political constructivism then proceeds[2]. If we are, however, to link that conception of the person with Rawls’ standpoints and standpoint epistemology, it will first be necessary to answer whether Rawls himself suggests that one might take up, occupy or inhabit the standpoints isolated above.

In reality,textual evidence would seem to suggest that the answer is at once positive and negative, owing to the different justificatory devices to which each set of standpoints is related. For representative party and delegate, legislator and judge arise with reference to the four-stage sequence and the original position which frames it, yet Rawls insists on the fact that these standpoints neither concern actual persons nor depict moral psychology as it unfolds in practical reasoning[3]. Rather, both these standpoints and the persons occupying them are constructions of the person’s practical reason; the person is a construction occupying the standpoint, another construction[4]. Nonetheless, this supposes that the person is independent of those constructions to the point of being able to set up and run through them.

For the citizen, individual and reasonable citizen standpoints, these arise with reference to the three kinds of justification and the notion of public reason in terms of which they are set out either positively (citizen), negatively (individual) or indirectly (reasonable citizen). Given that, in contrast with the standpoints native to the four-stage sequence, those standpoints native to the three kinds of justification are to be employed by actual persons in actual political deliberation and that they do not equally concern all spheres of discourse, deliberation or life, we can suppose that the person must be able to take on or occupy them as need be. In short, so long as no one standpoint exhausts all spheres and there exists a multitude thereof, the person must be free to move between the standpoints according to the needs of the sphere at issue.

In the end, this leaves us in a position where, for his epistemology and standpoints to hold together, Rawls must posit at least an epistemologically, if not ontologically, independent conception of the person capable either of taking up different standpoints as the need arises or of expanding or contracting along a number of different dimensions (e.g. personalized, autonomous, political, moral, symmetry, public, nonpublic, etc.) to fit the circumstances. Regardless, in either case, it seems that something, namely, the conception of person, must stand free of its circumstances. For this reason, this base conception of person might be termed subject or moral person[5]. If we also take seriously Rawls’ warning that we must also take heed of the place from where we speak at any given time, it would perhaps prove useful to designate this placeholder conception of person in turn a proto-standpoint which can be inserted into the standpoints above illustrated, much as a module: the subject standpoint.

The questions to which we have just turned are attention may well admit of no definitive answer, and we will again find ourselves asking in Part II in what way, if any, persons are independent of the standpoints which they might be said to occupy. For Jeffrey Stout will also proceed along the lines of a standpoint epistemology, albeit of an entirely different breed. Notably, his own epistemology will give us reason to wonder whether, for matters of political deliberation and public discourse, there might not exist another kind of justification beyond those for which Rawls allows: three, four or even no kinds of justification.


[1] This expression also seems to concern the cascading view of files or folders familiar from computer browsers but could likewise be adapted to the purposes at hand. After all, the highest folder on the branching view could be seen as the representative party standpoint, each subsequent standpoint occupying the folder immediately following in the cascade.

[2] See O’Neill, p. _____

[3] Cf. PL, p.

[4] See also Weber’s talk of a construction within a construction, pp. ___

[5] See TJ, p. ____ where Rawls seems to use these terms synonymously. Etymologically, it is worth noting that subject derives from the Latin “subicio”: sub- ‎(“under, beneath; at the foot of; close to”) +‎ iaciō ‎(“throw, hurl”).

Rawls and subject 49

June 7, 2017

Naturally, the second reason for the change owes to the status of the reasons involved; they enjoy a rightness, or perhaps even correctness, which the reasons for mere stability did not in A Theory of Justice. Transposing Theory’s social union of social unions into Liberalism’s more modest “deepest and most reasonable base of social unity” (PL, p. 391), Rawls lays out the three marks of stability for the right reasons:

  1. The basic structure of society is effectively regulated by the most reasonable political conception of justice.
  2. This political conception of justice is endorsed by an overlapping consensus comprised of all the reasonable comprehensive doctrines in society and these are in an enduring majority with respect to those rejecting that conception.
  3. Public political discussions, when constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice are at stake, are always (or nearly always) reasonably decidable on the basis of the reasons specified by the most reasonable political conception of justice, or by a reasonable family of such conceptions (PL, p. 391).

Indeed, stability’s reasons have been transposed from the comprehensive doctrine of justice as fairness’s reasons to merely political reasons, as Rawls understands them. A.) reminds the reader that the political conception of justice is reasonable because it “tries to put no obstacles in the path of all reasonable doctrines endorsing a political conception by eliminating from this conception any idea which goes beyond the political” (PL, p. 389). B.) recalls that the political conception is “endorsed, or in some way supported by, all reasonable (or the reasonable) comprehensive doctrines in society” (PL, p. 391). Their combination shows in what way , when stability for the right reasons obtains, the political conception affords the “most reasonable base of social unity” (idem.).

As to its deepness, c.) elucidates in what way, with regards to constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice, the principles operative in political deliberation are those stemming from the political conception rather than comprehensive doctrines. In this domain, at least, the former enjoy a deepness unavailable to the latter. It also suggests a second sense of deepness in that “the fundamental ideas of the political conception are endorsed by the reasonable comprehensive doctrines, and these doctrines represent what citizens regard as their deepest convictions – religious, philosophical, and moral” (PL, p. 392). Upon the coincidence of these three conditions does stability for the right reasons follow.

With the final answer in place to our three questions on public justification, it is worth returning to the reasonable citizen standpoint to see how it compares to those which came before, notably, the representative party standpoint. Above, we stated that the reasonable citizen standpoint resembles the citizen standpoint in that both avoid issuing truth-claims as to the status of political conception and comprehensive doctrines. Yet it does not stand as a direct counterpart to the individual standpoint in the same way as the citizen. Whereas the person occupying the later deliberates in terms of public reason as opposed to the individual standpoint’s nonpublic reason, the person taking up the reasonable citizen standpoint does not proffer first-order reasons of either sort. Wherefore an additional dissymmetry in the three kinds of justification. Like the citizen standpoint, it remains free of truth-claims in the realm of the reasonable. Unlike the citizen standpoint and the individual standpoint, it can offer only second-order reasons, (indirectly) parasitic on those given from the individual standpoint.

In terms of its formulation, how does the reasonable citizen standpoint then compare with the representative party, citizen and individual standpoints? In other words, how is the person occupying each standpoint to consider herself relative to the kind of deliberation at issue?

Representative party: a depersonalized person in symmetrical relations with others autonomously proposing reasonable principles in publicly available modes

Citizen: a political person in free and equal relations with others autonomously proposing, in accordance with public reason, reasonable principles in publicly available modes for principles of political justice

Individual: a nonpolitical person in free and equal relations with others proposing, in accordance with nonpublic reason and within a given association, nonpublicly available reasons for principles of political justice

Reasonable citizen: a political person in free and equal relation with others taking account of, in accordance with the limits of public reason, the existence of a reasonable overlapping consensus of nonpublicly available reasons for principles of political justice

In keeping with our remarks as to the asymmetry of the three kinds of justification, we find the reasonable citizen standpoint to be continuous with each of the standpoints above, albeit on different aspects. As for the person occupying the citizen standpoint, we find a political person in free and equal relations with others proceeding in view of politically delimited reasons. In relation to the person taking up the individual standpoint, the reasonable citizen standpoint reprises its reference to nonpublicly available reasons. Moreover, all three bear on one and the same object, namely, the political conception, through related though conceptually distinct approaches: 1.) public and direct; 2.) nonpublic and direct; 3.) public and indirect.

Yet the reasonable citizen standpoint breaks with each of them in that it proposes no first-order reasons of its own belonging to either kind but contents itself with remarking the existence of first-order reasons for others. So does it describe a narrowly delimited intersubjective point of view. Furthermore, the reasonable citizen standpoint also demonstrates certain continuities with the representative party standpoint and the conception of person therein and this for two reasons. On one hand, this continuity follows from the latter’s outward development, through its linkage with public reason, into the standpoints relevant to each kind of justification. In this way, the traces of the representative party standpoint remain visible in each. On the other, certain restrictions impose themselves on the person occupying this reasonable citizen standpoint as to the kind of knowledge which she should have of the contingent formations informing persons qua individuals at the time of full justification. These informational constraints are not without recalling those imposed in the original position.

Rawls and subject 48

June 6, 2017
  • Why is public justification bound up with stability for the right reasons?

To the justificatory requirements of legitimacy, sketched in §1, and a reasonable overlapping consensus, laid out in §2, is intimately connected a third, namely, stability[1]. By which Rawls intends:

This means that those who affirm the various views supporting the political conception will not withdraw their support of it should the relative strength of their view in society increase and eventually become dominant. So long as the three views [Kantian liberalism, classic utilitarianism, and pluralist comprehensive doctrine] are affirmed and not revised, the political conception will still be supported regardless of shifts in the distribution of political power. Each view supports the political conception for its own sake, or on its own merits. The test for this is whether the consensus is stable with respect to changes in the distribution of power among views. This feature of stability highlights a basic contrast between an overlapping consensus and a modus vivendi, the stability of which does depend on happenstance and a balance of relative forces (PL, p. 148).

Herein, the author underscores the manner in which changes in the socio-political environmental do not map (changes in) support for the public political conception of justice. Recall that public justification is a second-order justification: persons qua reasonable citizen recognize that other persons qua individual, following full justification, endorse the political conception as in accord with their reasonable comprehensive doctrines. In so doing, persons qua reasonable citizens take account of each other’s full justification, and this fact or existence of full justification lends public justification its justificatory strength. At the furthest limit, persons qua reasonable citizens taking account of each other’s full justification may lack knowledge not just of the conceptual content proper to a reasonable comprehensive doctrine which leads the person qua individual to affirm the political but also of the nature of the reasonable comprehensive doctrine. In short, in public justification, one may ignore all aspects whatsoever of the reasonable comprehensive doctrine being taken account of and yet still secure general reflective equilibrium. Indeed, entirely new reasonable comprehensive doctrines could take the place of which initially to a reasonable overlapping consensus, yet public justification would be altered in its form not one whit.

Seen from another angle, public justification thus justifies in virtue of its generality and reciprocity. Notably, these criteria are formal and may apply to any given reasonable comprehensive doctrine. Accordingly, public justification takes on a categorical character, wherefore its moral rather than prudential status. As long as its justificatory force is not (directly) dependent on a contingent state of affairs, the stability which public justification secures is of a categorical rather than a hypothetical nature. To see this more clearly, we need only consider the contrast with the hypothetical nature of a mere modus vivendi.

Whereas any change in the self- or group interests of those committed to a modus vivendi will thereby alter the authority, institutions and behavior which they recognize, any change in the self- or group interests (including their points of view) of those committed to an overlapping consensus will not fundamentally alter the political conception of justice nor authority, institutions and behavior thereof which they recognize. More simply, the political conception of justice qua moral is binding on persons in a way that a modus vivendi is not; the terms of agreement are not altered with changes to circumstances[2]. This quality allows us to speak of a moral stability or, as the author puts it in the paperback edition, “stability for the right reasons”

Nevertheless, we have said little enough about stability for the right reasons, so it will be necessary to consider Rawls’ reasons for tethering this notion to the justificatory phase of public justification. Both public justification and stability for the right reasons emerge from the failings of A Theory of Justice to secure “a social union of social unions” (TJ, p. 462) on grounds compatible with free democratic institutions. Rawls seeks to correct that failing by way of public justification:

I refer to public justification as a basic case for political liberalism because of its role in that doctrine and of its connection with the ideas of a reasonable overlapping consensus, stability for the right reasons, and legitimacy. That idea of justification is a part of the rebuilding of a fundamental conception of Theory III, and expressed in section 79 on the conception of a social union of social unions and its companion idea of stability, which depends on the congruence of the right and the good […] This conception depends, however, on everyone’s holding the same comprehensive doctrine and so it is no longer viable as a political ideal once we recognize the fact of reasonable pluralism, which characterizes the public culture of the political society required by the two principles of justice […] One is not replying to objections but rather trying to fix a basic inherent conflict (recognized later) between the cultural conditions needed for justice as fairness to be a comprehensive doctrine and the requirements of freedom guaranteed by the two principles of justice. With this understood, I believe the complexities – if such they are – are no longer surprising (PL, n. 21, p. 388).

This need for correction provides at least one clue as to why mere stability becomes stability for the right reasons. For Rawls’ initial depiction of stability as that of a well-ordered society in which justice as fairness reigns as the sole comprehensive doctrine was theoretically imposed onto a society incapable of realization under free democratic institutions. Thus, the author sought a principled stability rather than an imposed.


[1] Cf. PL, pp. 388-9: “There is, then, no public justification for political society without a reasonable overlapping consensus, and such a justification also connects with the ideas of stability for the rights reasons as well as of legitimacy.”

[2] Rawls calls attention to a similar distinction at PL, p. 389, contrasting two notions of consensus: that of an overlapping consensus with political consensus understood as bringing together different existing interests. See also the discussion at PL, p. 392 of a society in which persons have proceeded to full justification but not connected the individual instances thereof.