Reasonableness Notes for November 22

Main points

We talked about three things.

First, we talked a bit about the overlapping consensus. Specifically, Danny asked an important question: what happens to the unreasonable comprehensive moral doctrines? Of course, that’s going to get its very own day. But it’s worth at least a quick answer, ‘cause it’s a very good question.

Second, we revisited Zach’s suggestion about what changed between A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism.

Third, we talked about “the reasonable”.

We’ll probably revisit the last point on Monday.

What happens to the unreasonable CMDs?

Remember the Venn diagram illustrating an overlapping consensus? We have a bunch of CMDs that overlap on Ps of J, but no B. (CMDs = Comprehensive Moral Doctrines; Ps of J = Principles of Justice; B = Butter. To be strict about it, I guess we should say “Conception of Justice” even though Cs of J sounds all wrong).

Okey dokey. Rawls told us that all those CMDs in the overlapping consensus are reasonable. But what about the unreasonable CMDs? What happens to them?

Short answer: they aren’t part of the overlapping consensus. They’re still part of the society, but they reject the governing conception of justice.

Question requiring a longer answer: isn’t that a bad thing?

I think the thrust of the question is: would Rawls have failed if there could be CMDs outside of the overlapping consensus? That is, isn’t he trying to show everyone that they have to or ought to join the overlapping consensus, such that the argument would be a failure if some didn’t join?

I think the answer falls between “not exactly” and “it depends on what you think he was trying to do.” Let me explain.

He said that he was trying to explain how a society could be stable despite the fact that its members have different understandings of what’s good. How is it possible for people to have different conceptions of the good and still internalize a single understanding of justice? (“Internalize” means accepting and willingly complying with principles; someone who generally complies but looks for opportunities to cheat has not internalized the principles).

Given that understanding of his project, the existence of unreasonable groups need not be a fatal problem. A set of principles could be stable, in this sense, even if there are some groups that reject them. For example, American society is stable despite the fact that there are a lot of cranks and weirdos who reject some of its basic ideas. We have all sorts of separatists, white supremacists, and religious cults but enough members of the society accept its basic values that its stability is not seriously in question.

There are questions about how to handle those characters, of course. But that’s a separate issue from the question about stability.

At the same time, Rawls sometimes suggests he’s after a grander conclusion. Some of the passages in the Introduction that I pointed out suggested that he was trying to explain how those who believe in revealed knowledge could accept a secular political order, even at the expense of what its members believe is necessary for salvation. If that’s what he was after, then it seems to me that the jury is still out on whether he could succeed with some CMDs sitting outside of the overlapping consensus. If those include the religious groups that Rawls was concerned with, then, arguably, he would not have succeeded at this grander project.

Even then, it is at least possible to have the following attitudes at the same time:

  1. Salvation hangs in the balance; what people believe and do here on Earth determines their eternal fate
  2. One should adopt what Rawls describes as a reasonable attitude towards those who disagree; recognize that reasonable people might not see things the same way and allow them to follow their own path, even if it leads to Hell.

Would the mere possibility of thinking both of those things at the same time be enough to deem Rawls’s project a success? It feels like it’s too insignificant a point. Shouldn’t he have to show that this is a likely combination of attitudes or that at least there is good reason to be “reasonable” in his special sense even when salvation is at stake? I’m still thinking about this.

What changed?

In the Introduction to Political Liberalism, Rawls claimed that his account of stability in A Theory of Justice is flawed. It assumes that people will internalize the principles of justice by virtue of believing a particular comprehensive moral doctrine. But in a free society, there will be many comprehensive moral doctrines. So the Theory story can’t be adequate.

One frustrating thing about this explanation is that Rawls didn’t say what comprehensive moral doctrine he had assumed people would believe. We took some pretty good guesses and I said that Zach seemed the closest. What Zach said is that Rawls had assumed that people would accept the priority of liberty on the basis of a theory of the good. That theory assumed that a good life is one that is chosen. That appears contentious, particularly for those who think their course in life is set by a higher power.

Today, we looked at some evidence confirming what Zach had said. Specifically, we looked at p. 30. There, Rawls introduced what he called the “political conception of the person.”

If you weren’t there, have a look yourself.

Now that you’re back, here’s a question. Isn’t the story the same? That is, doesn’t the “political conception of the person” hold that people are free to choose their path in life?

I think the answers are, “no” and “yes”. It does insist on the ability to change. But it’s couched as a “political” conception. I think that is different from a theory of what is good in life. The point about changing one’s view of the good is no longer supposed to be an account of what is good in life. Rather, it’s a description of how people are regarded for political purposes. Even if you think that everyone’s plan in life is set by the Deity, you might also think that the state should leave people free to wander away from their set plan. For political purposes, no one is tied to any particular plan, church, or conception of the good. That’s what people who participate in the reasonable overlapping consensus believe.

That strikes me as a less contentious than the doctrine in A Theory of Justice. It doesn’t say anything about what is good in life. It is just a belief about how people ought to be treated by the state.

There’s something similar to say about the discussion of autonomy on pp. 72f in Political Liberalism compared with the Kantian interpretation of the original position in A Theory of Justice. But I’ll leave that for you to do on your own.

The reasonable

There are two separable parts of the “second aspect” of “the reasonable.” I’ll call these two parts (A) and (B)

Sometimes, it seems that Rawls was trying to show that the one (A) logically entails the other (B). The first part (A), roughly, is that different reasonable people can come up with different opinions about issues such as: (i) what makes life good, (ii) where the moral rules come from, (iii) how we know about the moral rules. The second (B) is that it’s unreasonable to use the state to enforce one particular view against other reasonable ones.

But I don’t think that B follows from A. Someone could believe both A and B. But someone might also believe A and deny B. For instance, I might say that it’s precisely because reasonable people can reach false conclusions that they must given only the true one. That’s a perfectly possible thing to say. It’s why we have schools. Left to your own, reasonable, devices, you might think the world is flat, etc. Mandatory education sets your reasonable faculties on the right path.

If you believe that the cost of getting it wrong is eternal damnation, why not try to set people on the right path to salvation too? I mean, what’s more important, knowing the shape of the Earth or the salvation of your eternal soul?

An old question

Remember when Sam and I got started asking about why Rawls doesn’t let the parties in the original position know how to save their souls? One cost of that decision is that he seems to be giving those who believe in salvation little reason to accept his results. For instance, they might say something like this.

“So the parties in the original position wouldn’t accept a state church. Of course not! You didn’t tell them that this is true church and that believing what it teaches is necessary for eternal salvation! But I know that both of those things are true. So why should I desist from my efforts to make this the state church? If the parties had known that but still decided not to have one, that might be one thing. But they didn’t. So why do I care what they decided?”

Look on p. 70. That looks like an acknowledgment of the question along with a promised answer. The promised answer comes around pp. 216-19. We’re scheduled to discuss that material on Wednesday 29 November. When you’re doing your reading for Monday, the 27th, pay special attention to the “liberal principle of legitimacy” (IV:1.2-3 i.e. pp. 135-7). That’s the critical part of Rawls’s answer.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2006.
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