Benny Labamba

Democracy and the Unreasonable: Lessons from John Rawls

Too Much Democracy? The Paradox of Democratic Justification

Rawls argument on Political Liberalism starts with the observation that the cultural environment of modern democratic societies is marked by a diversity of religious, philosophical and moral doctrines. He argues that this diversity is not a surprising fact since the protection of personal freedom that democratic societies facilitate naturally leads over time to an increasing diversity at the level of what he calls “the background culture” i.e., the civil society — the space where we all freely cultivate our personal goals and pursue diverse associations.

Freestanding Politics

Since the demanding justificatory requirements of a democracy make it impossible to ground its laws on beliefs that some citizens won’t find acceptable, we need to toss away the old idea that politics derives from a particular comprehensive doctrine. As Rawls explains, “beginning with Greek thought the dominant tradition seems to have been that there is but one reasonable and rational conception of the good. The aim of political philosophy — always viewed as part of moral philosophy, together with theology and metaphysics — was then to determine its nature and content.” But as he immediately counters “the question the dominant tradition has tried to answer has no answer: no comprehensive doctrine is appropriate as a political conception for a constitutional regime”. Under a world of extreme diversity, we can no longer favor a particular conception of how we should all live and which goals we should all pursue without trumping over the legitimate liberty of others. The old paradigm of politics where institutions and laws were justifiable to the extent that they effectively promoted a certain vision of the good can no longer be applied in a world where we fundamentally disagree about what counts as the good.

Reasonableness and Neutrality

In the politics of a modern democracy, with its abundant diversity of world-views, what citizens regard as the full truth (the complete scope of their beliefs) is contested to the point of being irreconcilable. If politics is then really aiming at being freestanding as to avoid taking sides, it needs to stand outside the disputed realm of truth. Any claim of truthfulness would immediately put the political in competition with other beliefs and would insert it back into a particular philosophical, religious or moral tradition. So instead of making any truth claims, Rawls’ political liberalism refers to its political conception of justice as reasonable.

The Original Position: Simulating Reasonableness

With the virtue of reasonableness now established as the standard against which a freestanding political conception of justice is to be evaluated — as opposed to the traditional approach of evaluating its truthfulness — Rawls can finally start making the case for his own vision of justice. Yet the requirement of neutrality that reasonableness demands seems to be a difficult restriction to meet for us rational individuals who would under normal conditions favor our version of the good and reason from our deeply held beliefs. So in order to generate the right conditions as to facilitate reasonable deliberation, Rawls argues that we must find a point of view from which the distortions of our own particular circumstances can be set aside. It is at this stage that he introduces his famous idea of the ‘Original Position’. In essence, the Original Position is a theoretical simulation that allows us to be the most reasonable that we can be.

When we are in it, we are cloaked by a ‘veil of ignorance’ that restricts our knowledge as to what our social circumstances and conceptions of the good are. In Rawls words, “features relating to social position, native endowment, and historical accident, as well as to the content of persons’ determinate conceptions of the good, are irrelevant, politically speaking, and hence placed behind the veil of ignorance.” Rawls contends that placed under such conditions we would offer each other a political conception of justice that is the most reasonable since we would not be committed to any particular comprehensive doctrine and we would only be preoccupied with setting an institutional framework that is fair — irrespective of the beliefs and social position we end up having when the veil is lifted.

The Problem of Stability and the Overlapping Consensus

So far I have described how Rawls’ political liberalism consciously tackles the problem of democratic justification in societies profoundly divided by conflicting world-views. The realization that justice cannot be legitimately derived from any particular version of the good in a diverse society leads to the search for a freestanding politics that no longer yearns for truth but for reasonableness instead. And thanks to the mental experiment of the Original Position, Rawls offers what he argues is a plausible reasonable framework of justice for a diverse democracy. His ideologically neutral and purely political version of liberalism emerges as a result.

The Unreasonable and the Rise of Fundamentalism

Despite its many critics and the vast literature around the multiple philosophical shortcomings of Rawls’ political liberalism, the reality is that its central ideas shape to a great extent the de facto modus operandi of late democratic societies in our day and age. The state promotion of basic rights and liberties together with the aim of staying neutral amongst the irreconcilable world-views of its citizens are salient features of our current democracies. The idea that there is a freestanding network of justice that guarantees personal freedoms and takes primacy to what we happen to believe is at the center of what we hope today would promote the stability of our diverse democracies. But as Rawls brilliantly articulated, this hope depends above all on everyone’s acceptance of the virtue of reasonableness. Unreasonable citizens reject the idea that their obligations as citizens take precedence over their beliefs — which amounts to a rejection of what Rawls’ idea of the reasonable calls for: the recognition that diversity sets limits as to what can be brought into the political.