By / Aug 30

Richard Rorty once defined truth as “what your contemporaries will let you get away with,” and in a way this notion captures the pragmatic gist of John Rawls’ doctrine of public reason surveyed in part I of this post: the reasonableness of any political claim or assertion is determined by what “the public” finds reasonable. So you might think of “public reason” as conceptual proxy for what we as a society think is true or false, wise or foolish, fair or unfair. Rawls is not suggesting that truth itself is relative, as Rorty sometimes wants to say, but is rather explaining why adjudication of political discourse is conducted by Public Reason. The “overlapping consensus” constituting Public Reason is united by a common commitment to fairness. He thinks fairness is something we all want regardless of whether we’re outspoken about it or not. Crucially, on Rawls view, this shared understanding remains independent of any one philosophic, scientific, or religious viewpoint. “Public reason” is the name of the independent understanding we share in

I also alluded in part I to a couple of ramifications for Rawls’ doctrine of public reason: (i) that knowledge of distinctly political language — knowing the rules of play — is a requirement for participation in public discourse and (ii) that one must refrain from explicit appeal to a comprehensive doctrine unless terms are translated for public discourse. I’d like here to expand upon these implications by highlighting how Rawls’ account of Public Reason controls the terms of public discourse, and then conclude with a few pointed criticisms of his account.

The recurring challenge for someone holding a comprehensive doctrine is detecting the resonances and dissonances that one’s comprehensive doctrine shares with public reason. Suppose you identify as Christian and want the truths of Christianity to shape your life. And suppose further that this commitment has prompted you to take special interest, say, in contemporary immigration policy. For theological reasons you feel that immigrants deserve a place to dwell safely and to pursue their own flourishing. But you quickly discover that your theological rationale for securing a prudent naturalization process does not translate easily into the terms of political debate. You cannot say every human being has dignity because made in the image of God, because on Rawls’ account theological reasons are publicly inadmissible. What you have to do is explain how and why prudent naturalization comports with public reason’s ideals, which would mean explaining how and why prudent naturalization results in a fairer society.

It doesn’t matter that your charitable motivation is Christian in character, or that you wish to affirm the dignity of the person and act for their good, or even that you’d like to give families a place to belong without fear. Public reason is disinterested in love. It requires that you translate your charitable motivations into terms of social justice. Love the immigrant all you want, but to contribute to public discourse on the issue of immigration you are required to demonstrate the comparable fairness of your proposals. This is partly what I mean by “learning the rules of play.” Regardless of what you personally believe or how you feel, all political pronouncements have to be stated as public reason dictates.

But what happens when public reason becomes less and less knowledgeable of the religious traditions from which it arose? Or to put it another way, how are we to respond when it becomes apparent that public reason is religiously illiterate? These are much harder questions. In some cases it is not clear that specific faith commitments can be translated into terms of public reason at all. Take an example.

Suppose I were to claim, following Gilbert Meilander, that on the Christian account we may never seek euthanasia because our lives are not “ours” to dispense with as we please, but belong instead to Christ. That would be a profoundly theological ethic against euthanasia. But public reason will balk at the claim, and the euthanasia advocate will likewise stress the very opposite point: our lives are irrevocably ours to dispense with as we please, especially if we wish to avoid intense suffering. This impasse of whether we “own” ourselves or not is not politically remediable, not purely on Rawls’ terms anyway. Other argumentative strategies are available for the Christian, however, like showing euthanasia’s contradiction to the hippocratic oath of physicians, or highlighting the troubling expansion of eligibility standards in Europe, provided that such points finally reaffirmed the ideals of public reason. Thus there is a definite sense in which the ethical core of a comprehensive doctrine can remain fundamentally irreconcilable with public reason. In such cases public reason always prevails.

Let me turn now to that second ramification of not explicitly appealing to one’s comprehensive doctrine during public discourse. For Rawls, public reason is normative — it decides things — yet remains “freestanding” and religiously ambivalent. If a Christian, for example, wishes to participate in the public square, she will be heard and understood only if she speaks the language of public reason. But this raises again the natural question of whether the core tenets of Christianity are fully translatable for public address, and in turn to an even deeper question: should the Christian set the theological terms of their existence aside, or perhaps compromise them, in order to gain public hearing? Should anyone, irrespective of their comprehensive doctrine, be required to jettison the very terms of that doctrine in order to participate in political discourse? Plainly the answer to these questions is No.

I pose the questions in this way primarily to draw our attention a still larger, and perhaps even more decisive point: Public Reason is itself a comprehensive doctrine. It has a dogma, narrative, and ends just as longstanding religious traditions do. “The public,” as Rawls describes it, is endowed with a logic, or creed, that mimics other comprehensive doctrines. And on this point I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s short but memorable quip in his Kenyon College commencement address: everybody worships. Everyone bends the knee to something. Humans are worshipping creatures. As such, public reason and indeed the whole project of Social Justice that Rawls account typifies, is religious all the way down. The so-called secularist is as committed to his comprehensive doctrine as the Christian is to hers.

Public reason is an ideology. All political discourse must comport with it, and in determining the validity of a contribution it can weigh the merits only against what has already been judged true. Public reason is indistinguishable from the prevailing opinion, whatever that is. And because public reason is by definition self-validating, it is an ideology in the truest sense of the word; the inerrant authority on what is and isn’t politically correct. And it’s the ideological character of public reason coupled with its uncanny ability to resist falsificaiton that has lent it so much of its theoretical force. Rawls’ doctrine is elegant in theory, but when subjected to more concrete, granular examination it becomes practically untenable. To illustrate, one explanation for the rise of protest candidates this election season, arguably, is to view them as a revolt against the settled rule of public reason.

It is perhaps fitting at this point to speculate momentarily on just what it means to “be public” in the first place. When is it, exactly, that we are public? At what moment? The rather common assumption today is that being public means presenting oneself to a watching or reading audience of some kind, so that “public” just means not-private. But what are we then to make of the obvious disjuncts in publicity, like when someone who wishes to be public fails to gain an audience, or conversely, when the same person this time seeking an audience fails to acquire one? “Bad publicity,” too, is puzzling. The scope of publicity far surpasses our meagre intentions to capture or avoid it. The slipperiness of publicity is attributable in part to the mediated character of social life today. To the extent that “the public” is predominantly mediated, the terms of what counts as public and so according with public reason are often determined by those who control how their respective medium will disclose the very terms of reality and of ideas about it. As John Paul II reiterated in Aetatis Novae, modern media controls through the selection of language not only the way things will be thought, but even whether a thing will be thought at all. “The public” is us as we see ourselves through these mediums.

Rawls thought he was simply describing the way political society worked. What I’ve tried to show is that when Rawls’ doctrine of public reason moves from the descriptive–this is how political society works–to normative–this is how political society should work– it cannot live up to its own criteria. It’s unclear why we shouldn’t think of public reason as constituting a comprehensive doctrine, nor is it clear that we have a shared understanding of what “the public” represents. The very “authority” making public reason right and reasonable itself is questionable. Thus I think it is more fitting to speak of society as composed of many publics rather than of only one public. Rawls’ public is too speculative and mythic.

Now, I certainly do not mean to suggest that these ambiguities should somehow disallow or discourage the Christian from engaging public discourse. Civic participation is imperative. But we do not have to do it as we’ve always done it. Speaking more clearly and persuasively in public requires knowing better what a given public thinks. What are the claims and arguments? Why has it settled on these aims rather than others? Etc. In becoming better informed about the texture of public discourse we will begin to see — because of our commitment to a comprehensive doctrine (Christianity) — the false binaries that paralyze discussion of our most pressing political debates. We’ll also learn a great deal about the proper tone of discourse. In any case, the aim in public discourse can no longer be that of adapting commitments to comport with public rationality, but to challenge the very terms in which that rationality justifies itself. Public reason has its gods–let’s call them out!

By / Aug 18

His name is John Rawls. Born in Baltimore, his father was an attorney and his mother president of the League of Women Voters. He attended Princeton as an undergraduate. For a time he contemplated entry to the priesthood. Combat during War World II brought that prospect of clerical service to an abrupt end. Rawls lost his faith. The carnage of the battlefield and the barbarity of the Holocaust was, for him, just too much to bear. Such evil meant God simply could not exist.

After leaving the army Rawls returned to Princeton to complete his PhD in philosophy. He taught at Cornell for a brief stint before joining the faculty at Harvard in 1962, where he would teach for the next three plus decades. After sustaining some debilitating strokes in the mid 90’s, slowing his productivity, Rawls passed away a few years later (in 2002) at the age of 81.

On first take that’s not exactly what you would call a life of intrigue or stardom, is it? Seems almost sort of dull. But make no mistake, John Rawls is quite possibly the most important western thinker of the latter 20th century. He’s the most important guy you’ve probably never heard of. But trust me, you do know Rawls. You know him really, really well. He’s everywhere you look.

Here’s what I mean: Rawls thought has been so persuasive for so long that in many ways it has come to define the very political terms of American public life today. It’s not just that Rawls contributes in some significant way to how we think about politics and law, or about what kind of society we want. His influence is far more pervasive than that. American society is now in large measure a Rawlsian society.

How did this happen, you ask? Partly through a small army of wildly gifted students, who studied with Rawls and then went off to have their own careers in the academy and elsewhere. But primarily through his two monumental works: A Theory of Justice (1971) and Political Liberalism (1993). I don’t throw this word around often, but both books are masterpieces. Even if you don’t agree with him, it is impossible to grapple with any part of his general argument and come away unscathed or unimpressed. His writing is so crisp and clear, his claims so tightly argued, his theories so intuitive and compelling that he often feels unassailable. Whole books have been written on mere pages of Rawls work.

Suffice to say, I can’t really survey the whole of Rawls’ political theory here and do it justice. What I can give you is a sort of thumbnail sketch of one narrower idea that conveys a sense of Rawls importance and that also illustrates how formative his thought has been in American law and politics. Central to Rawls’ political thought is a doctrine, or idea, he refers to as public reason. Let me tell you what he says about public reason and then in a second part to this piece I’ll explain how the doctrine has infused American public life today.

What one thing must we say something about in order for it to alter an entire political theory? Justice. Rawls thought begins with a now famous definition of justice: fairness. Justice is fairness. And as definitions go it seems commonsensical enough — we all want a fair shake in life and, on the whole, think others should get fair shake too. Don’t mistake Rawls for an ideologue, though. He doesn’t think justice should or even can be totally level and equalized. He’s concerned more with making social institutions, or ordering mechanisms, widely beneficial to all.

We live in a society composed of diverse viewpoints about life’s most important truths and yet somehow a political equilibrium (of sorts) is achieved with rather considerable regularity. Despite all our tremendous differences, Rawls believes that what holds us together as a society is our shared understanding of justice. We all wish to be as free and as equal as possible. That’s what all liberal societies — in the narrow, historic sense of the word “liberal” — most want. The challenge in modern times has been how precisely to balance freedom and equality in a pluralistic society with differences of opinion about who needs or deserves what.

So, Rawls proposes “a conception of justice that may be shared by citizens as a basis of a reasoned, informed, and willing political agreement.” The key word there is “shared.” This “shared” understanding must remain independent of alternate philosophic or religious viewpoints vying for political supremacy. “Public reason” is the name of the independent understanding we share in. Getting along is important to us, and this means we need to agree on what justice will look like for us as a society. This doesn’t have to be conscious for us; it happens gradually over time.

According to Rawls we’re after something “we hope can gain the support of an overlapping consensus of reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines in a society regulated by it.” This consensus the plurality of folks have in common he thinks amounts to a “freestanding” view of justice reliant only upon a long-negotiated and entirely neutral public reason. To clarify, an “overlapping consensus” is what we all essentially think is the case despite our great many other differences. We’ve got this common idea of justice as fairness and that’s our political starting point.

A somewhat superficial example might help here. Suppose you are a college football fan and you feel your team’s chances of winning the conference championship this year are pretty good. You’re not alone; a lot of other fans think so too. All of the fans, you included, want more than anything for the team to succeed. But there is a wide difference of opinion about specific parts of the team. Some think the team is too young at crucial skill positions, some worry about the coach’s offseason problems, and some think the secondary is weak. Opinions are all over the map. The thing held in common by true fans, however, is an unwavering commitment to support the team and stick with them regardless of wins or losses. They’re your team. Nothing can change that for you and every genuine fan sticks with them. In a way, this undying commitment to the team is sort of like Rawls’ public reason — the thing we all agree on without much thinking about it.

A final point of clarification. Rawls calls justice a “political conception,” by which he means that “justice as fairness” is what the overlapping consensus has come to agree upon. Political concepts are neutral. They’re mutually agreed upon, even if tacitly, and apply to everyone. But, and this is a huge but, the neutrality of public reason means that it cannot be religious. Rawls is confident his theory can be accepted reasonably by all citizens irrespective of viewpoint, even by citizens with definite religious convictions, provided those religious citizens understand that their convictions cannot figure into “political discussions of constitutional essentials and basic questions of justice.” The cost for any religious citizen wishing to contribute to these important political discussions is the privilege of appealing to religious convictions. In other words, to contribute means checking “comprehensive doctrines” at the door and entering the discourse on purely political terms. These are simply the terms of social cooperation; any political conception of justice must remain invulnerable to special interests of any comprehensive viewpoint.

So, despite the great plurality of viewpoints represented in constitutional democracies it remains possible on Rawls’ account to achieve modest social consensus if citizens show some willingness to compromise. And notice, the decisive criterion here is the reasonableness of one’s viewpoint (i.e., comprehensive doctrine). What determines whether your religious viewpoint is sufficiently reasonable? The public! For Rawls, public reason determines finally what is and is not a legitimate viewpoint. A governor may appeal to some religious viewpoint in her speech, for example, but only if it can be translated into terms accordant with public reason. Religious appeals must comply with the public values of freedom and equality. Thus, public reason is what he thinks makes his conception of justice “freestanding” and ideologically neutral. Democratic societies rise or fall on the willingness of citizens to recognize the terms of justice set by public reason, and comply.

As you may already detect, Rawls’s doctrine of public reason carries tremendous ramifications for participation in public discourse. First, it means that the person who chooses to engage in such discourse knows the political language and its many discrete dialects. Wanting to participate and knowing how to participate are two very different things. A discourse is by definition something already underway, and so every new entrant is required to learn the terms of its procession. No one can play baseball, after all, without knowing what strikes and balls mean, or when and how to run the bases. The same idea applies here: political participation requires learning the rule of the game, and on Rawls account the rules are determined by public reason. At the very least, participation will require identifying and respecting salient political values public reason enshrines.

Second, because participation in public discourse requires doing so on political terms, as Rawls would have it, the person holding a “comprehensive doctrine,” like that of Christianity, say, must refrain from direct appeal to the terms of that comprehensive doctrine. If you want to be heard in public, you have to say what you want to say on purely political terms. It is OK to draw privately on your own faith commitments for engaging in public discourse, but deploying those commitments explicitly in public is a mistake, not because it’s wrong in principle, but because it either cannot or will not be heard. If one’s faith contributes to the logic of one’s political commitments, then to be heard requires translation of one’s faith into language that is publicly intelligible, which is to say in keeping with public reason.

Now you have the wildly truncated account of Rawls doctrine of public reason. In my next post I’ll unpack a few of its implications for our contemporary political experience.