Reference : The real problem with Rawlsian reasonableness
Scientific congresses, symposiums and conference proceedings : Unpublished conference
Arts & humanities : Philosophy & ethics
The real problem with Rawlsian reasonableness
Burks, Deven mailto [University of Luxembourg > Faculty of Language and Literature, Humanities, Arts and Education (FLSHASE) > Identités, Politiques, Sociétés, Espaces (IPSE) >]
Warwick Graduate Conference in Political and Legal Theory
University of Warwick
United Kingdom
[en] Rawls ; reasonableness ; justification
[en] Rawlsian “reasonableness” has been the object of considerable and varied criticism. Reactions range from its being “loaded” (Stout 2004: 184) or “chimerical” (Young 2005: 308) to “entirely circular” (Mulhall and Swift 2003: 483). Yet more critical reactions often employ external standards or equivocal senses of reasonableness to their detriment (Freeman 2004: 2045, 2063-5) or marshal apparently conflicting materials from Rawls’s broader theory (Young 2005, 2006). In this paper, I put forward a narrow, immanent criticism whereon the two basic aspects of reasonableness are shown to be in tension: the “burdens of judgment” may give the person reason to disagree over the need to propose and to abide by a common basis of fair terms of cooperation. My aims in doing so are threefold. First, I try to make sense of and set on firmer ground Stout’s (2004) critique of reasonableness as being epistemologically untenable. My second and third aims stem from the first. The second consists in carving out a middling conceptual space wherein the negation of Rawlsian “reasonableness” is not merely “unreasonable” in the sense of being willing to impose one’s comprehensive doctrine on others as the terms of political justification and coercion (Rawls 1996: 60-1; Freeman 2004: 2049) nor “unreasonable” in the sense of persons’ culpably endorsing a doctrine inconsistent with acceptance of the burdens of judgment (Rawls 2001: 184, 190; Freeman 2004: 2064) but, instead, “reasonably unreasonable” in the sense of the person’s nonculpably or justifiably rejecting the requirement to offer and to abide by fair terms of cooperation in view of the burdens of judgment. Third, I attempt to salvage a minimal core of reasonableness from the two-conjunct Rawlsian reasonableness, a core which contemporary political philosophers are hard-pressed to do without: the second conjunct consisting in the person’s acknowledgement of the burdens of judgment (Rawls 1996: 54-8).
To that end, I proceed in two steps. First, I shall recall the two aspects of reasonableness and hold that their conjunction is necessary for a person to qualify as “reasonable”. In particular, this involves showing that a biconditional obtains: a person is reasonable if and only if the two basic aspects of reasonableness obtain, i.e. if and only if she is willing to propose fair terms of cooperation and she is willing to recognize the burdens of judgment. I also briefly define the site wherefrom one checks a person’s reasonableness: the “you and me” standpoint (Rawls 1996: 28). Secondly, I shall examine whether any burden gives reason to doubt the need to propose and to abide by a common basis of fair terms of cooperation. I find that each of the burdens, in its own way, leaves room to doubt whether reasonable persons in a well-ordered society would assent to such a need.
For the first burden (complexity of evidence), the evidence backing the requirement of shared terms of cooperation defined ex ante is not obviously less complex than that contained in reasonable comprehensive doctrines. Regarding the second (relative weight of reasons), even supposing agreement on which reasons are relevant to deciding questions of justice, there may be still be disagreement over the relative priority of those reasons in deciding a given question. As to the third (conceptual indeterminacy and hard cases), such concepts as justice and fairness, cooperation and equality are all subject to the difficulties of identifying hard cases and probing a concept’s limits. Of the fourth (divergent total life experience), it is clear that, through her life experience, a person acquires a set of beliefs (political, moral, epistemological, religious, etc.) which could give the person reason to doubt or otherwise reject the first basic aspect of reasonableness, especially given its significant complexity. Finally, for the fifth burden (conflicting distinct normative considerations), persons may disagree over whether the first basic aspect in fact realizes these different considerations, the priority ordering to be fixed for such considerations and whether a common currency might be found so as to make such considerations commensurable, any of which may suffice for persons to be unable to reach agreement on the requirement, not simply on the reasons why it holds, but also on whether it holds at all.
In reaching these findings, I parallel Clarke’s (1999: 639-41) claim that the burdens of judgment apply both to contractarianism’s “reasonable rejection procedure” and principles but do so from narrower, immanent grounds rather than the stronger claim that Rawls’s approach must be committed to substantive epistemological positions. This analysis yields two striking conclusions: First, public reason – the demand to present others with reasons which the person could reasonably expect them to accept – becomes looser and shifts to the domain of politics where one sees what public reasons others may in fact accept (Laden 2001). Seen from a different angle, one need not accept the idea that the first basic aspect and, hence, Rawlsian reasonableness are necessary conditions of political justification under conditions of reasonable pluralism (contra Krasnoff 2014: 696-7): rejecting this aspect and reasonableness in no way means that there can be no political justification under conditions of (reasonable) pluralism. Second, when conceiving justification and discourse, Rawls may be committed, despite himself, to accepting “reasonableness pluralism”, i.e. the view that there exist distinct, possibly irreconcilable accounts of reasonableness to which one may appeal when conceiving justification and discourse. Their combination may lead to a public reason liberalism framework which is at once looser and more actionable.

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