Rawls, John (1921–2002)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S091-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

4. Political liberalism

The problem with congruence is that it conflicts with the ‘reasonable pluralism’ of liberal societies, which should tolerate a wide range of religious, philosophical and moral views. The ‘burdens of judgment’ imply certain limitations on judgment, so that under free institutions we cannot expect agreement upon a comprehensive metaphysical, religious, or moral doctrine or conception of the good. But congruence implies that widespread acceptance of the intrinsic good of moral autonomy is a condition of liberal stability. By hypothesis, most conceptions of the good in a well-ordered society can endorse Rawls’ principles of justice. The problem is, some may not accept the intrinsic goodness of moral autonomy. Teleological views, such as liberal Thomism or a reasonable utilitarianism, will gain adherents in a well-ordered society, and for these views justice and autonomy are at best but instrumental to the one rational and intrinsic good (the Vision of God, and aggregate or average utility, respectively). The incompatibility of congruence with reasonable pluralism then undermines Rawls’ original argument for stability.

In Political Liberalism Rawls reformulates the justification of justice as fairness as a ‘freestanding’ political conception. He aims to provide a public justification for justice as fairness acceptable to all citizens of a well-ordered democracy. This requires an argument that is not grounded in Kant’s or some other comprehensive ethical doctrine, but rather in certain fundamental intuitive ideas implicit in democratic culture. Rawls argues that the features of the original position can be construed as a ‘procedural representation’ of the idea of social cooperation among free and equal citizens implicit in a democracy. The principles of justice can then be represented as ‘constructed’ from a ‘model conception’ of democratic citizens as free, equal and possessed of the two moral powers that enable them to participate in social cooperation. These principles are politically justified since they are presented, not as true, but as most reasonable; they fit best with the considered political convictions of justice shared by democratic citizens, at all levels of generality, in wide reflective equilibrium (see Liberalism §5).

To complete this freestanding political justification, however, Rawls needs an alternative stability argument, one that, unlike congruence, does not rely upon premises peculiar to Kant’s moral philosophy. The idea of ‘overlapping consensus’ says that the conception of justice that is politically justified as reasonable on grounds of individuals’ shared conception of themselves as democratic citizens, will also be judged most reasonable or true on independent grounds, specific to each of the reasonable comprehensive doctrines gaining adherents in a well-ordered society. For its own particular reasons, each comprehensive view (for example, Kantians, utilitarians, pluralists, and religions accepting a doctrine of free faith) can endorse justice as fairness as true or reasonable. Justice as fairness then has one public, but many non-public, justifications in a well-ordered society. Assuming an overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive views exists there, justice as fairness evinces willing compliance, and hence stability.

Citing this article:
Freeman, Samuel. Political liberalism. Rawls, John (1921–2002), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S091-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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