An Immanent Critique of Rawls’ Idea of Public Reason under the Light of a Twofold Neutrality

12 de febrer de 2013 1

“Any rational observer would agree the human race is running low on rational observers.”


 1. Introduction 

The purpose of the paper is to analyze some key requirements of Rawls’ ideal of public reason under the light of a twofold neutrality, that is, as political pluralism and as epistemic inter-subjectivism.

Rawls claims that his notion of justice is free-standing, and, in general, he defends an understanding of the political discourse as something separable from epistemic and metaphysical discourses. My goal will be to analyze if by separating his theory from these discourses he manages not to step into them implicitly, even if he never mentions their questions explicitly. To do this, I will start by refining the distinction between political neutrality and epistemic neutrality (section 2), that lay at the core, respectively, of the liberal state and political philosophy. My central claims thus will be (1) that although these two neutralities overlap, they do not fully correspond to each other, due to the burdens of reason. One is related to the plurality of citizens in a framed political sphere, the other is related to cognitive stand-points. Secondly (2) that Rawls way of dealing with political neutrality is dependent on his view on epistemic value, a view that we find implicitly stated in his use of intersubjectivity.

Once I have defined this distinction, I am going to reconstruct the the 5 requirements for public reason as they appear in Rawls’ The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, but in order to weight their importance in the entire theory, I will also draw from some of his other works, especially, Political Liberalism, as well as to his Reply to Habermas, and, marginally, to some critiques around their debate, McCarthy’s and Lafont’s. The first two requirements, what I will refer to as the ‘who’ and the ‘what to’ of public reason will serve as an opening for the application of the distinction of neutralities on the idea of public reason (section 3); but the main critique will be focussed on the role that reasonableness, reciprocity and legitimacy play in trying to secure the freestanding position of the political conceptions of justice that lay behind his claims (section 4).

My three main claims in this respect will be that (1) although these requirements respect the necessary political neutrality under the conditions specified by Rawls’s idea of public reason, (2) the conditions themselves do trespass into an epistemic debate without providing a sufficient account of its neutral position. A deeper claim underlining the whole critique is that (3) any account of the political based on the idea of the consensus of reasons, when settling the limits for this consensus, necessarily ends up affirming one form or another of epistemic legitimacy that does not respect the initial implicit claim for neutrality and free-standingness.

2. A twofold neutrality 

John Rawls’s political philosophy is ‘impressively self-contained,’ as Habermas puts it, and its concepts are profoundly interdependent. The reason for these two qualities, I think, is the non-metaphysical aim that pervades Rawls’ political theory. Rawls delimits the notion of the political in a precise anti-metaphysical fashion, making explicit its adherence to the sphere of practical reason, as opposed both to epistemological and metaphysical uses of it. Although he denies any adherence to the Kantian idea of transcendental reason, he inserts himself into a broad Kantian tradition by endorsing possible distinctions between uses and legitimacies of reason, but, in his case, through a limited application of a form of political constructivism in matters of what traditionally has been understood as matters of practical reason, but without endorsing Kant’s moral constructivism.

Rawls’ theory works as a well thought out system of relations between key concepts, such as reasonability, legitimacy, or reciprocity, from which he highlights those aspects that allow him to link them logically without having to appeal to anything external to the sphere of ‘the political’ in proving its adequacy within the hierarchic structure of the whole system. His ideal ends up in an overlapping consensus and a reflective equilibrium that are meant to be freestanding. This is what Habermas calls ‘the avoidance strategy.’

Rooted in this conception of the political, and also in the content of Rawls’ theory, there is a central vortex from which both derive: the idea of neutrality. This idea must be present both in the task of the philosopher that wants to find and explain a proper theory for a just and stable society, as well as to public institutions and public discourses. This is not the only sense in which the philosophical task and its values equal the political task and the values of political institutions. (I am using the word ‘value’ here uncontroversially: I want to stress the fact that the aim behind Rawls’ search and the aim behind all the restrains that his theory poses to political institutions both obtain their legitimacy from the idea of neutrality.)

This idea of neutrality is related to the modern debate over the legitimacy of reason that he updates politically and thus to the non-metaphysical stand-point as well. It is the lack of full epistemic and metaphysical value concerning human affairs what demands for a particular use of reason. Political reason must be able to bridge the distance that we find between the rational assent of a theoretical problem and the urgency of praxis that all political communities must deal with. In other words: if the modern project of ‘objective reason‘ (or ‘rational intuitionism’, as Rawls refers to it) had succeeded to the extent of definitive truths, even in moral issues, this problem would not exist. But nevertheless it does. This is the reason why plurality is regarded not only as a fact of human nature qua social, or a natural offspring from a liberal democracy, but it is also a necessary outcome of the weakness of reason. Conversely, plurality and disagreement serve as proof of the limits of reason and, at the same time, of the relevance of perspectives in cognitive stand-points. We are not heading towards an radical skepticism here, nor towards a form of sophistic moral relativism; but the idea of neutrality, as seen in most neoKantian theories of the liberal state, such as Rawls’, is meant to guarantee a fundamental openness not only due to moral standards –such as the ones that can underline the right to liberty of consciousness or to free speech– but also due to (the lack of) epistemic legitimacy. The idea of neutrality becomes a negative idea, its main focus is restraining reason from trusting its powers completely. The embodiment of this neutrality, politically, is public reason.

These two facts taken together –the presence of pluralism and of the limits of reason– open the door for a new kind of legitimacy, namely, intersubjective legitimacy. This can be applied both to science and politics, but in different manners. I have argued elsewhere that from the pragmatist, Piercean view on science some lessons can be learned for social praxis, especially when it develops the idea of a community of inquirers. Behind all forms of falsification there is an account of fallibility, and behind all forms of social cooperation –in science and elsewhere–, there is an account of beneficial opposition and overlapping of perspectives. For half a century now, many social and political theorists have tried and built up different approaches to this topic: theories of communication, inter-subjective cognitive processes, or social action. All of them point to the contradiction that informs the idea of democracy: there is strength to be found in the sum of weaknesses.

 Key concepts in Rawls’ theory of the liberal state, such as reciprocity, overlapping consensus, or reasonability deal with this same contradiction. These concepts are meant to address the problem of the limits of perspectives, and the limit of plurality. This is where science and politics diverge. A limit in scientific discourse can not be the same as a limit in political (or moral) discourse, in the same manner as a political law is not the same as a scientific law. The tension between positivism and naturalism, when translated into ius positivism and ius naturalism, opens a new set of problems, not like a genus to species, but, rather, like genus to genus. Questions on what, why, where, when and how things are fundamentally differ from the one on how things should be. Not all claims on nature are scientific, whereas all claims on the social fabric, even if they are scientific, are political to some extent.

 Although the border between science and pseudoscience is far from settled, within science, among other standards, results and means work as facts; whereas in political and moral discourses results work as telos and means as ideology. This is the reason why neutrality in the eyes of science (or philosophy, for that matter) is different from political neutrality. It is the fact/value distinction. A neutral point between facts and interpretations is eased because although natural laws must exist –in one way or another–, scientific laws are secondary to them. A neutral point between goals and ideologies, values ultimately, is burdened because political laws –especially in a democracy, and even more specifically in a liberal democracy– must exist (even their absence is a form of law, as Hobbes showed). This is what I earlier called ‘the urgency of praxis’.

 In setting the limits of plurality, even if procedural, there must always be an assessment concerning the value of intersubjectivity. They are mutually dependent. However, the neutral position is different in each case. The first is political, the second, at least, epistemical, if not metaphysical. The first needs to be settled to some extent, it is necessary, the second is an open question fundamentally, on necessity. The key to any liberal conception of the state is to be able to settle the former, without settling the latter.  That is, a form of political neutrality must be present without, at the same time, settling the question on necessity. There is doubt that this can be done, but many proposals for a theory of the liberal state, like Rawls’, assume that this is possible. Therefore, a common accusation for some of them is that they fail in doing so.

Rawls’ contribution to the solving of this problem is central to the debate on it. Rawls’ idea of public reason is meant to offer material and procedural value to the claims on political organization, that is, ultimately, coercion, without imposing itself into what he calls ‘background culture.’ Politically, public reason works in opposition to what he calls ‘comprehensive views.’ If a comprehensive view were to take the place of public reason, then neutrality would be broken. However, to close the circle, the most problematic trait of a ruling comprehensive view is not so much that plurality would not be possible –as such, a comprehensive view could be comprehensively pluralistic–, but rather that the fundamental proviso of intersubjectivity, openness, would be trespassed. Therefore, one of the most fundamental requirements of public reason is not to be a comprehensive view. Rawls builds his idea of public reason against this challenge, and he does so, as I said earlier, by using the avoidance strategy of a self-contained theory. In order to see if it works we must then go into detail under the light of these two ideas of neutrality, and the necessities for each one of them.

3. Rawls’ public reason I: who and to what. 

Rawls’ public reason is a limited reason in many ways, but most centrally there are limitations that concern which content it must be applied to and who is required to use it.   Public reason, then, must be applied to questions of ‘fundamental political justice’, which Rawls defines as ‘constitutional essentials’ and ‘matters of basic justice’. The former are political rights and liberties, and the deliberation guided by public reason decides whether they ‘may reasonably be included in a written constitution, when assuming the constitution may be interpreted by a supreme court.’ Matters of basic justice ‘relate to the basic structure of society and so would concern questions of basic economic and social justice and other things not covered by a constitution.’ Likewise, public reason must be used to deliberate on these matters only by government officials –including, especially, judges–,  and candidates for public office. A further limitation implies that these individuals are required to make use of public reason only in discussions ‘of those questions in what I refer to as the public political forum. (…): the discourse of judges in their decisions, and especially of the judges of a supreme court; the discourse of government officials, especially chief executives and legislators; and finally, the discourse of candidates for public office and their campaign managers, especially in their public oratory, party platforms, and political statements.’

Apparently, these two conditions are consistent with the requirement of a neutral state concerning plurality. The subject and the predicate, state and basic justice, must restrain from imposing themselves on plural visions. There is no doubt that the historical reference for this delimitation on agents of public law — creators, interpreters, and executioners of it–, and for the fact that they apply only to certain actions allowed or prohibited to public institutions (in the broadest sense), is the period of religious wars in Europe. The overwhelming power of the state, as configured before the appearance of the modern version of limited government, established a competition for dominance of the public action. When the doctrine of the separation of church and state became effective, it had to address both problems: the problem of the presence of religious justification for public legitimacy, and the question of public legitimacy in itself. The former, is related to a negation of interference in public affairs by certain foundations for thought and action, namely, comprehensive views, the latter, implies a negation of the discretionality of the state in general. If the separation of the church and state is imperfect or difficult to achieve, or at least, progressively implemented, the limitation of the discretionally of the state ensures that even if a faction holding an active comprehensive view were to interfere in government, there is only so much harm it could do. Hopefully, moreover, the weakening of the possible interventions of the state can be an incentive for churches and individuals with comprehensive views to take their quarrel for cultural hegemony elsewhere.

 However, these two limits point to two different neutralities. The limitation affecting the ‘who’ and ‘where’ of public reasoning is directed towards differentiating the sphere of the public from all other spheres, be them purely private or somehow in between public and private, like public opinion. As such, it only demands of certain people to behave in a certain way. Admittedly, this could be required from a comprehensive point of view. For example, it could be argued that a church, the Catholic Church to be specific, might ask their clergy to discuss moral matters from the pulpit making use exclusively of theological reasoning. In this case, plurality would be relative to a common standard, namely, theological argumentation and its sources; but intersubjective neutrality would be trespassed, precisely because this standard works as if it were an objective stand-point –embodied, ultimately, by an explicit God’s-eye view–.

Similarly, in public reason, the fact that there’s a limit that separates public officials and the general population, in itself it only assures that plurality is not formally restricted, but it does not guarantee that there will not be an objective standard that will impose itself when this general population tries to translate its plurality into public action. It bans certain reasons to be used as coercive reasons, but it has yet to establish which reasons may count as legitimately coercive. The key, then, is if it is limited enough. The second limitation, that is, the topics in which this public reason is allowed to have a coercive impact, is meant to address this, and points to the other kind of neutrality, i.e., inter-subjective neutrality.

The problem with this second limitation is that, in the end, it must affirm something. By delimiting not the content of public reason but the content to which this public reason can and must be applied, Rawls is highlighting which aspects of a communal existence ensure the possibility of living according to one’s own cognitive stance. Necessarily, this implies a restriction in an individual-to-individual or group-to-group basis, as much as unrestricted conditions for affirming one’s view and living according to it. This a very delicate moment because it demands a standard that must be, at the same time, external to any comprehensive view and internal to intersubjective legitimacy. This tension is seen clearly in the use of the words ‘essential’ and ‘justice‘ in Rawls‘ account.

To some extent, his use of them is question begging. If government officials must follow public reason in deciding on constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice, and what counts as essential or as justice were to be defined formally by what these government officials decide it is, then we would be facing a banal vicious circle. Therefore, there must be content somewhere, in order to inform public reason in such a way that essentials for social life and matters of political justice are delimited. Furthermore, there is not enough with limiting the presence of comprehensive views in deciding this, but there must also be an affirmation of content, and to this extent, external to the debate, that can work as if it were a standard for the essentiality of social life and justice within it. This is the reason why Rawls needs an account of justice and essence that neither negates nor affirms the possibility of old and new subjective perspectives as well as a system of limitations that protects this very diversity. In a nutshell, ideas of justice and political essentials that do not confront comprehensives views, provided they comply with some requirements. It goes both ends, the ideas of justice and political essentials are a limit both to themselves and to comprehensive views. This is why, to see if it holds, all goes down to the requirements.

Besides the ‘who’ and the ‘to what’ the other three aspects of public reason that Rawls establishes are intended to solve this riddle. The first one is content: “its content as given by a family of reasonable political conceptions.’ They key word of this aspect is ‘reasonable’, otherwise the aspect would again lapse into a vicious circle. The second one is transparent objectivization: ‘the application of these conceptions in discussions of coercive norms (are) to be enacted in the form of legitimate law for a democratic people.’ The key of this aspect is legitimate, otherwise it would be a truism. The third, critical self-consciousness: ‘citizens’ checking that the principles derived from their conception of justice satisfy the criterion of reciprocity.’ Here the spotlight is on ‘reciprocity,’ otherwise the work of citizens would be solipsistic.

 As I have been saying from the beginning, these three concepts, reasonability, legitimacy, and reciprocity are intimately interdependent. There is no legitimacy without reasonability, there is no reasonability without reciprocity and vice-versa, and there is no real reciprocity without legitimate procedures. Likewise, the aspects they point to are consistent with the problems that a comprehensive view shows: content, objective standards and self-consciousness. A religion, or a moral view, has a content derived from a standard claimed to be objective that can lead to an impermeable self-consciousness. What Rawls wants to find by interconnecting reasonability, legitimacy, and reciprocity is a content derived from a standard that does not claim to be objective in the traditional, modern way; that is, not like rational intuitionism. Rather it should bear a sort of objectivity that is just neutral, so as to produce a permeable self-consciousness. In Political Liberalism, when describing his idea of political constructivism, Rawls dedicates a few pages to clarify his understanding of objectivity. The six essentials for objectivity that he states are all meant to deny the ‘objective eye’ of the moderns, by affirming common grounds: frame, aim, distinctive point of views, the burden of reason, and agreement among reasonable agents.

So, again, the aspects of reasonableness, reciprocity and legitimacy appear to inform the validity of an ‘as if’ for objective reason for politics, which finds the strength in the claim for an unepistemical neutrality. Let us briefly see then how these three concepts interact.

4. Rawls’ public reason II: contingent interconnection 

Since reasonableness, reciprocity and legitimacy are inter-connected, each of them has meanings that overlap with those of the others. To unfold this, in this section I will start with a longer reconstruction of Rawls’ reasonableness, the content of which I am going to stretch until it touches the other two requirements, the content of which will only need to show consistency with the problems appeared in reasonableness, and thus, a much shorter analysis.

  1. Reasonableness

Acting from and following the idea of public reason, according to Rawls, means explaining “to other citizens their reason for supporting fundamental political positions in terms of the political conception of justice they regard as the most reasonable.’ It is clear that public reason does not demand, to those who are to exercise it, a justification for truth. A political conception is, strictly speaking, the place for the content of justice to affirm itself. But of all political conceptions, that is, of all possible contents, the ones that count for the constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice are only those that can claim to be reasonable. Reasonableness, then, works as a substitute for truth in the sense that its presence excludes the possibility of asserting views based on truthfulness.

In this substitution, the word ‘reasonable’ points to the idea of process both in its grammatical structure and in the faculty it highlights. The suffix ‘able’ signals a potentiality not an actuality. As such, it could mean able to think, or understand, but then it would only refer to its active voice: one who is reasonable, thus, judges according to some logical laws. Rawls, however, uses this term also in its passive form: something is reasonable if it is able to be thought, digested through reason alone. The coincidence of these two voices brings a meaning that implies idealization. Reasonability is a feature of a conception, responsible for an expectation regarding the reasonability of other citizens (especially if they hold a different comprehensive view). This expectation is an idealization of reason, projected onto others.

In this passage of The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, we find this two uses of reasonability together:

“A citizen engages in public reason, then, when he or she deliberates within a framework of what he or she sincerely regards as the most reasonable political conception of justice, a conception that expresses political values that others, as free and equal citizens must also reasonably be expected reasonably to endorse”

The first usage of the word is passive, a quality of the conception; the last one is active, a quality of a subject, the one in the middle corresponds to the act of idealizing, and links the conception with the subject.

Now, the requirement for a neutrality among plurals is met because the account of reason incorporates in principle the existence of the Other. Grammatically, the potentiality applied to reason is the acknowledgment of the weakness of rationality in its actuality. And therefore, is meant to moderate the act of idealization. This is further stressed by the use of the word ‘sincerely’, –an essential for political objectivity to appear– which implies willingness as a value, in order to compensate for the lack of accuracy in the projection that reason imposes on other subjects’ reason.

But, beyond grammar, the faculty highlighted by the use of ‘reasonable’, namely, reason, is what keeps the problem unsolved. Reasoning and rationalizing are meant to be different, in this account. The implication is that there does not exist a rational political conception that is, at the same time, fully reasonable, unless it accepts as a standard the impossibility of a standard. In this account, reason is a mediating faculty that impedes a full assertion of truth. This view is paradoxically a uncomprehensive comprehensive view. It holds that the only way not to be wrong is assuming that everybody could be wrong in their particular way. This particularity, including interests, is what Rawls wants to extract in his Theory of Justice’s original position.

This is where constructivism comes into play to assert freedom and equality as preconditions for deliberation, as we will see further on. Being reasonable, then, means using reason and a sincere will to project an idea of the Other as free and equally reasonable in asserting that their reasons and beliefs might not have anything to do with the truth. An unreasonable political conception then would be any conception that is unable to project this notion of reason onto Others.  This would exclude also this view: there is no political conception that one can reasonably expect others to reasonably endorse if they are free and equal. The limit of the intersubjective neutrality appears to be the idealization of citizens as free and equal, including, both in freedom and equality, freedom of consciousness and equality of imperfection in reaching truth.

The content of public reason as expressed in reasonableness, then, is a correction not only of truth, but also of rationality. As such, it proposes a notion of the person as a cognitive stand-point, in which the plurality of views is respected through the emphasis on the potentiality of reason as opposed to the actualization of rationality, but also, in which subjectivity is conditioned by the frame of freedom and equality. Subjectivity is deprived of its particularity through idealization — and by means of the original position–, and then the question is again whether this use of reasonability unwarrantedly trespasses intersubjective neutrality. The risk, here, is that this imposed idealization, this content, could lead to an impermeable self-consciousness. If it did there would be little difference between this idealization and a comprehensive view.

             2. Reciprocity

The ‘aspect’ of reciprocity, extremely connected with the rational expectation, is meant to avoid the solipsism of this idealization. Although the formulation of the criterion of reciprocity resembles remarkably the formulation of reasonableness, there is an important difference: reciprocity partially actualizes the reason that was potentially present in reasonability. Reciprocity affirms the possibility of inter-subjectivity, or, in other words, it permits the idea of a reasonable overlapping consensus to emerge. It assumes that inter-subjective communication is possible. Appealing only to political values, as Rawls claims he does, assumes that there are political values that do not pervade the subject, when the simple possibility of imagining a kind of value that, in a free-standing position, can reach out to different comprehensive views, already presupposes a subject able to assert such values in general, and be understood only by them, while keeping in mind the burdens of reason.

This requirement of reciprocity is a restriction but not based on political values, as Rawls claims, but on epistemic values. It complements the idea of reasonableness with an affirmation of the possibility of breaking epistemic solipsism as a requirement for reasonability itself. This what Rawls refers to when he states that his political constructivism ‘does not proceed from practical reason alone but requires a procedure that models conceptions of society and person.’ So it follows that Rawls, in principle, does not find contradiction between his requirement for a political-only conception of justice, or the necessity of a contingent neutrality regarding epistemic values, and the modeling of a conception of society and person. In his critique of Rawls, Habermas finds this problematic:

For only when the self-understanding of each individual reflects a transcendental consciousness, that is, a universally valid view of the world, would what from my point of view is equally good for all actually be in the equal interest of each individual. But this can no longer be assumed under conditions of social and ideological pluralism.”

Habermas thinks that Rawls political conception is not free-standing, so that the liberal position that Rawls tries to defend as exclusively political, goes beyond that boundary towards the reign of epistemology and metaphysics. Rawls denies this charge of an implicit transcendental necessity in his modeling of the person by way of assessing an idea of person and society by means of values of a political conceptions alone: “The philosophical conception of the person is replaced in political liberalism by the political conception of citizens as free and equal.”

Clearly, therefore, Rawls thinks that the notion of citizen provides enough grounding for the overcoming of the disputes about the notion of person, without forcing any comprehensive view to change its own notion of person. The fact that he adds that these comprehensive views will not be forced to change their views on the person only if they are reasonable permits the reversal of the argument: a reasonable comprehensive view is that view that holds an idea of person in line with the idea of citizen that Rawls’ political liberalism promotes. The requirement of reciprocity, then, is not universal, because it finds its limit in the idea of citizen. It guarantees plurality among citizens, not among persons. And this is why Rawls claims his idea of public reason not to be metaphysical, or not concerned with ‘causal necessity’. Politically it is neutral; epistemologically, it is not.

Reciprocity, then, actualizes the inter-subjective value, not among subjects-persons, but among subject-citizens. A citizen is one who has already accepted the basic premisses of the whole system –obtained through the original position and the constructivist frame-dependent objectivity–, that is, someone who has accepted inter-subjective value as such, epistemically, as expressed in the ultimate content of the idea of justice, which corresponds to the premisses of freedom and equality of citizens.

The tension between these two qualities of the political subject, both theoretically and historically, is the reason, I think, for the insistence on the nature of autonomy that Habermas shows in his critique of Rawls. A part from the distinctions that both Habermas and Rawls introduce in different accounts of autonomy, distinctions that parallel the debate over their mutual dependency on Kant’s view of it, the notion of political autonomy can be seen formally, and then, be applied to notions of freedom and right, and can also be seen materially, and be applied to notions of capability and goods. In the extremes, libertarianism and communitarianism isolate these two views respectively. The debate itself is of no relevance here, it suffices to say that the problem of autonomy, in Kant as in today, depends very much on the disagreement about transcendence (and communication in and out) of the person. Precisely because the premiss of this debate is that the solution to the problem of violence –both public coercion and state-of-nature like violence– depends on the possibility of advancing reasons, the value of inter-subjective agreement must be stated to some extent. It is a question that must be answered explicitly to be fully honest and transparent because it is always answered implicitly, if one is to take serious the burdens of judgement. Habermas calls this, ‘weak transcendental necessity.’ Or this is why McCarthy can charge both of them of assuming a disputable use of reason as original source: “we need only glance at contemporary debates concerning “the nature, scope, and limit of reason” among modernists and postmodernists, neoKantians and neo Hobbesians, neoHumeans and neoAristotelians, neoHegelians and neopragmatists, and so forth.” Or why Lafont narrows the requirement of reciprocity to the answering of ‘objections’. The demand for reciprocity as a feature of reasonability, and viceversa, is what steps into this debate.

           3. Legitimacy

The last of these three concepts, appears as a meta-procedural warrant for coercion when disagreement happens. Full legitimacy is almost impossible, but, ideally, it would reach its potential with a reasonable consensus of comprehensive views through public reason; as well as the consequent reflective equilibrium on the tension between the demand of public reason being extended to citizens in their civic dutyand the holding of an open comprehensive view. But legitimacy is at work especially when there is disagreement, this is why it stems from the problem of plurality, and embodies the positive aspect of political neutrality. The burden of the epistemic value of intersubjectivity under the light of the burdens of judgement, impedes that this positive legitimacy that validates the democratic procedural be exclusively procedural, and must refer to substantive justice again. This explains why Rawls says:

“There are serious doubts, however, about the idea of procedural legitimacy. It is quite plausible for a reasonably well ordered society, for with well-framed and decent democratic institutions, reasonable and rational citizens will enact laws and policies that would almost always be legitimate though not, of course always just. Yet this assurance of legitimacy of legislative enactments depends on the justice of the constitution (…), and the greater its deviation from justice, the more likely the injustice of outcomes. Laws cannot be too unjust if they are to be legitimate. Constitutional political procedures may indeed be –under normal and decent circumstances– purely procedural with respect to legitimacy. In view of the imperfection of all human political procedures, there can be no such procedure with respect to political justice and no procedure could determine its substantive content. Hence, we always depend on our substantive judgements of justice.”

The built-in imperfection on all ‘human political procedures’, coherent with the burdens of reason, is only compensated with the substantive idea of justice, from where legitimacy obtains its force. The fact that a ‘legitimate procedure is one that all may reasonably accept as free and equal when collective decisions must be made and agreement is normally laking,” implies that the content of freedom and equality is what compensates for the imperfections of all ‘human political procedures’.

To sum up, we end up with an idealization of the person through the idea of citizenship, from which citizens idealize the Other as reasonable, in order to settle constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice, according to the qualities of persons as citizens, that is, as free and equal individuals, both in form and in matter. This is necessary because human political actions are imperfect, due to both the burdens of reason and the fact that we are not fully free and equal. So, what is lacking in terms of epistemic or metaphysic content –an account of freedom and equality–, is posed politically as a precondition. Rawls’ liberal constructivism poses the requirement of freedom and equality to citizens to address the fact that they are not given as free and equal. These facts are what the veil of ignorance is meant to cover, so as to let the frame outcrop.

Although the point of the interaction between these requirements is “to secure for normative statements -and for the theory of justice as a whole- a form of rational obligatoriness founded on justified intersubjective recognition, but without according them an epistemic meaning,” throughout this section I have tried to show that all of them point to a basic epistemic frame that contains value, specifically, that the act of reasonably expecting reasonableness is actualized by an assumption of possible reciprocity. This reciprocity is, at its turn, based on intersubjective value that warrants a form of legitimacy beyond the procedural limit towards a substantive conception of justice, a conception that ideally poses freedom and equality among citizens due to the impossibility of asserting them as facts of epistemic reason.

5. Conclusions

In this paper I have tried to show that the self-imposed requirement for a free-standing political conception of justice and the political in general that Rawls wants to meet involves and understanding of neutrality in a twofold way. The one which Rawls refers to explicitly is political neutrality, connected to the fact of ideological pluralism. The second points to epistemic values (at the very least), and must take into account the fact of subjective cognitive stances under the light of the limits of reason.

As of the first, I wanted to show that in a well constructed system, neutrality understood as the affirmation of contingent, relative pluralism is not enough to secure free-standingness. Even a comprehensive doctrine could achieve that, under some conditions. In this respect, Rawls’ ideal of public reason shows the maximum possible affirmation of plurality within the limits of the system. His political neutrality is dense, it occupies all the space available, and secures all possible doctrines within.

On the necessity for the second kind of neutrality,  although it is specifically denied by Rawls, I wanted to show that it is implicitly embedded into the fabric of both the goals of his idea of public reason –i.e. reasonable overlapping consensus and reflective equilibrium– and the means to achieve them –i.e. political constructivism and the requirements of public reason. To this extent, I claim, Rawls’ system is not neutral. The value of inter-subjectivism is assessed epistemically (a) through an assumption of effective communication and of a capacity for acceptable idealization of rational expectations –that is, an assumption of faculties–; and (b) through the posing of a rational ideal of citizens as free an equal to compensate for the impossibility of affirming them as facts, due to an understanding of the burdens of reason. This a very weak epistemic ground, but it surely enters into the epistemic debate.

A deeper claim that I wanted to test with this immanent critic is whether there is a general impossibility of not entering into the epistemic or metaphysical debates if one wants to set the limits of plurality in the political sphere. Given plurality and epistemic post-metaphysical principles on the limits of reason and humanity in general, it seems that the only way is to set up some form of ground with, at least, epistemic meaning and rules. At this point, the question on whether this ground is a comprehensive view, I think, is secondary: a battle for words.

Personally, I find myself comfortable with Rawls’ epistemic presuppositions. And I find them reasonable. His effort accomplishes a remarkable purification of the limits of the State and strengthens the possibility for political consensus and peace. And I believe that his is probably one of the most open political conceptions in responding to the challenge of plurality in the form of a democratic State. But I do not see that he proves  his conception to be free-standing, and to that extent, objective or neutral.

Darrers articles

Per què deixo d’escriure a l’Ara

Avui he comunicat a direcció i propietat que deixo de col·laborar al diari Ara. Deixo d’escriure a l’Ara perquè la propietat ha decidit que no es publicaran els anuncis que criden a votar en el referèndum de l’1 d’Octubre. Després que alguns accionistes, la redacció i alguns col·laboradors haguem expressat el nostre desacord, sembla que […]

Els nois dels encàrrecs

(L’ARA m’ha informat que no poden publicar aquest article per “no fer campanya a favor d’una candidatura a través dels col·laboradors.” Per això el penjo aquí.) Una generació és sobretot un projecte. Però conec un paio de la meva generació que ha escrit resolucions parlamentàries —de les “històriques”— perquè no hi havia cap diputat amb […]

Feixisme antisistema

(publicat a La Vanguardia l’11 d’Octubre del 2016). El debat de diumenge a la nit es pot resumir amb tres titulars. Clinton va guanyar-lo. Trump va sobreviure a l’espiral destructiva dels darrers dies. I el debat va ser violent i denigrant. Però també es van poder veure els dos debats de fons que divideixen el […]

  • This is a very interesting critique of Rawlsian public reason and comprehensive doctrines. Is it possible for one to Africanise public reason strictly from a universal point of view?

  • Cerca