On the Idea of Public Justification

Given our preceding discussion of Rawls’ intended scope for his theory of justice as fairness, I thought it might be useful to say a bit more about his idea of public justification.  First, a bit of groundwork.  Rawls writes at the beginning of Political Liberalism,

“Justice as fairness starts from within a certain political tradition and takes as its fundamental idea that of a society as a fair system of cooperation over time, from one generation to the next.  This central organizing idea is developed together with two companion fundamental ideas: one is the idea of citizens as free and equal persons; the other is the idea of a well-ordered society as a society effectively regulated by a political conception of justice” (1993, p. 14).

Justice as fairness proceeds as an exposition of this idea of a society as a fair system of cooperation, “which we take to be implicit in the public culture of a democratic society” (1993, p. 15).  For Rawls, “fair terms of cooperation specify an idea of reciprocity or mutuality: all who do their part as the recognized rules require are to benefit as specified by a public and agreed upon standard” (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, 2001, p. 6).  A reasonable person, recall from an earlier thread, is willing to propose fair terms of cooperation, even if it is not irrational for them to fail to do.  Here we get to the purpose of principles of justice.  Rawls restates (from the first paragraph of Theory) that “the role of the principles of justice is to specify the fair terms of social cooperation” (2001, p. 7). He continues,

“Since in a democratic society citizens are regarded as free and equal persons, the principles of a democratic conception of justice may be viewed as specifying the fair terms of cooperation between citizens so conceived.  By way of these specifications, the principles of justice provide a response to the fundamental question of political philosophy for a constitutional democratic regime“ (2001, p. 7).  The idea of free and equal persons is not a metaphysical statement about human nature but a political conception of personhood that Rawls takes to be shared by citizens of a democratic society.

Rawls’ goal is to specify a political conception that could form the basis of an overlapping consensus in a democratic constitutional regime.  While comprehensive doctrines make claims to moral universality, a political conception of justice relies on public justification for legitimacy.  Only then will a society be stable for the right reasons.  To explain what he means by the idea of public justification, Rawls restates the essential features of a political conception of justice:

“(a) While it is, of course, a moral conception, it is worked out for a specific subject, namely, the basic structure of a democratic society… (b) accepting this conception does not presuppose accepting any comprehensive doctrine… (c) A political conception of justice is formulated insofar as possible solely in terms of fundamental ideas familiar from, or implicit in, the public political culture of a democratic society: for example, the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation and the idea of citizens as free and equal.  That there are such ideas in their public culture is taken as a fact of democratic societies” (2001, p. 26-27).

By “insofar as possible,” Rawls is recognizing that of course the original position and the basic structure are not familiar ideas in a democratic society.  As Rawls notes in Political Liberalism, these ideas are not seen as familiar but rather, “as ideas introduced for the purpose of presenting justice as fairness in a unified and perspicuous way” (1993, p. 15).

While public justification differs from mere agreement (say, among self-interested individuals who have reason to cooperate) a political conception of justice works up, “from the fundamental ideas implicit in a political culture, a public basis of justification that all citizens as reasonable and rational can endorse from within their own comprehensive doctrines” (2001, p. 29).

So, does justice as fairness “apply” to citizens whose political culture is undemocratic.  In a sense it clearly doesn’t. When restating the principles of justice Rawls urges the reader to “recall first that justice as fairness is framed for a democratic society.  It’s principles are meant to answer the question: once we view a democratic society as a fair system of social cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal, what principles are most appropriate to it?  Alternatively: which principles are most appropriate for a democratic society that not only professes but wants to take seriously the idea that citizens are free and equal, and tries to realize that idea in its main institutions” (2001, p. 39).

Rawls’ goal is not to try to convince members of all societies to affirm liberal democratic principles of justice.  Rawls’ goal is to specify a particular conception of justice (justice as fairness) for a particular sort of society (a constitutional democratic regime).  It is extremely unlikely that justice as fairness could be publically justified in a society whose political culture didn’t provide the building blocks, as it were, for such a theory.

In another sense, it is clear that Rawls believes, and arguably all political liberals believe, that the world would be better if all societies were democratic.  Though Rawls calls reasonable pluralism a fact of democratic societies, I think that both Rawls and I (and Josh) believe that pluralism is a fact of all societies.  So if his works help provide resources for a democratic political culture, where citizens respond to this pluralism reasonably, so much the better.  Indeed, Rawls argues in Law of Peoples that liberal democratic peoples have a duty (as liberal democratic peoples) to help provide many other peoples with the resources necessary for them to become democratic.  Like Kant, Rawls believes that a world of democracies would be a peaceful world.

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One Response to On the Idea of Public Justification

  1. Nates says:

    This is really helpful, Lime. As far as initial impressions go, I’m struck by how different the language is here from Theory of Justice. I don’t recall seeing this sort of explicit restriction of scope in his earlier work, which makes me wonder if perhaps there’s more revision going on in Rawls’ restatement than he acknowledged. I’ll have to keep thinking about this.

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