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Democracy & the Unreasonable: Lessons from Rawls

Francisco Mejia Uribe asks if democracy can overcome fundamentalism.

How can democracy accommodate an increasing number of conflicting worldviews within a single legitimate and stable political structure? This is one of the most pressing questions of our time. Is there a way to successfully fend off fundamentalists of all stripes, religious and secular, and protect plural democracy from being hijacked by the narrow moral agenda of a particular group?

If you believe, as I do, that this issue is of paramount importance, then you’ll be happy to know that John Rawls (1921-2002), one of the brightest philosophical minds of the twentieth century, spent the last two decades of his life wrestling with this very problem. In his words, this is “the torturing question in the contemporary world, namely: can democracy and comprehensive doctrines, religious, non-religious, be compatible? And if so, how?” (Political Liberalism, p.485). In this article I will present Rawls’ answer to this question, which he elaborated most fully in the expanded edition of Political Liberalism (1993). As I will argue, the great value of grappling with Rawls’ political philosophy is that one gains a clear understanding of the conditions required for democracy to successfully negotiate pluralism and gain stability. But more importantly, once one comes to appreciate those conditions, one also realizes more vividly why, in a post-9/11 world, the solution Rawls sought to construct can no longer be the way forward.

The Paradox of Democratic Justification

Political Liberalism starts with the observation that the cultural environment of modern democracies contains diverse religious and philosophically-based moral doctrines. Rawls argues that this diversity is not surprising, since the protection of personal freedom that democratic societies promote naturally leads over time to increasing diversity in what he calls ‘the background culture’, that is, civil society – the space where we cultivate our personal ideals and goals. Highlighting that the background culture of modern democracies is marked by diversity is nothing new or particularly illuminating. Most of us only have to look around to see that. What is new, which Rawls appreciated with incredible insight, is that this mounting diversity introduces a particular justificatory problem for democracy.

The problem can be stated as follows: if the beliefs that we hold are conflicting and irreconcilable, which of them can be used to justify the democratic system itself? Put differently, if I am not willing to endorse a political system based on your beliefs, and you are not willing to accept one based on mine, then how are we going to set any common rules to help us live together? This problem is known by political philosophers as ‘the paradox of democratic justification’ (Robert Talisse, Democracy and Moral Conflict, 2009). But let me elaborate a bit further, so that the paradox comes into sharper focus.

Any political system, including a democracy, mandates the use of state power through its system of justice, and sets the rules as to what counts as legitimate coercion. It decides what is lawful and what is not, then empowers the government to use force, through the courts, the police, and the military, to coerce you when you step out of line. But in a democracy, by definition, all citizens have an equal share of ultimate political power – meaning that no one is authorized to coerce others without the previous free consent of a majority of their fellow citizens. So for the exercise of political power to be legitimate in a democracy, the reasons we offer one another to justify coercion have to be stated in reciprocal terms everyone (or at least a voting majority) can endorse. This is known as the principle of democratic legitimacy or the principle of democratic justification. And here lies the paradox: if democratic freedoms allow for our beliefs to grow so diverse that they seem irreconcilable, how can we possibly find terms that are acceptable to all? What could those terms be?

To put this intuitively, think of democracy as a system justified by moral principles that sometimes intersect, where each sphere represents a different worldview or set of ideas. If each sphere becomes more and more distinct, pulling away from other spheres of thought as diversity increases, the overlapping area of agreement becomes smaller and smaller, and democracy is on thin ice.

Political controversies are recurrent in a democratic society, particularly when it grows ever more diverse, and the shared values to which we can all appeal in order to settle disputes seem to become fewer as diversity increases. Paradoxically, then, it seems as if too much democracy cannibalizes itself. Are we then condemned to a tense and fragile democracy that has lost its shared justifiability and is constantly abused or at risk of destruction by those best able to advance their own particular cause? Or is there a way out of this conundrum?

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Picture © Federico de Cicco 2017. To see more of his art, please visit zumar7.com

Freestanding Politics

Since the justificatory requirements of a democracy make it impossible to base its laws on beliefs that a significant number of citizens will find unacceptable, we need to toss away the old idea that politics derives from a particular 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” (Political Liberalism, p.135). But as he immediately counters, “the question the dominant tradition has tried to answer has no answer: no comprehensive doctrine [of the good] is appropriate as a political conception for a constitutional regime.” In other words, 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 even counts as the good. In a world of extreme diversity, we can no longer impose a particular conception of how we should all live and which goals we should all pursue without trampling the legitimate liberty of others.

Rawls insists then that in this new diverse world which democracy itself has helped to create, the justification of political power cannot come either from religion or from shared secular moral traditions. Laws always entail a coercive use of government’s power, so if the justification for some law comes from religion, that will violate the principle of democratic justification, because not all citizens can be expected to accept religious reasons as the source of a law that will ultimately curtail their liberty. The same goes for secular moral traditions: if for instance the justification of certain laws is derived from an Enlightenment idea of human beings as sharing universal reason (as Immanuel Kant argued), or from a Utilitarian calculus of the greater good (as John Stuart Mill recommended), religious members of the society may in turn object to what they see as an unacceptable secular imposition.

If our religious and moral beliefs cannot serve as the basis for the political system in a plural society, how do we proceed? Rawls’ key first step lies in the introduction of the idea of a ‘freestanding’ politics, that is, a politics that is not derived nor sustained by any of our conflicting doctrines.

To start grasping the distinction between a freestanding conception of the political and our regular political doctrines, Rawls asks us to think of the principles of justice “as designed to form the social world in which our character and our conception of ourselves as persons, as well as our comprehensive views and their conceptions of the good, are first acquired” (p.41). In this, he asks us to imagine the framework under which we may pursue our diverse goals and personal ends. This framework is freestanding in the sense that it preceeds whatever values we pursue within its boundaries, and consequently it has to be set up before any particular religious or moral ideas are introduced. To bring this point home, Rawls asks us to think about what happens when any of us changes our cherished conceptions of what’s good, either over time or abruptly. When this happens, we often go as far as to say that we are no longer the same person. But despite this, our political and institutional identity and rights must remain intact. It is precisely in this sense that the political is freestanding. Rawls puts it beautifully: “On the road to Damascus Saul of Tarsus becomes Paul the Apostle. Yet such a conversion implies no change in [his] public or institutional identity.” (p.31) This is how a freestanding conception of political justice constitutes the institutional framework that enables us to become autonomous citizens with the capacity to pursue our own ends.

But if we accept Rawls’ proposal that political philosophy needs to present itself in freestanding terms, what exactly does this mean and how can we achieve it? To flesh out how this could actually work, Rawls introduces possibly his most powerful idea: the concept of the reasonable.

Be Reasonable!

If a political system is really aiming at being freestanding, then to avoid taking sides, it needs to stand outside the disputed realm of ‘the truth’. Any claim of truthfulness would immediately draw it back into a particular religious or moral tradition, and put it in competition with other beliefs about what’s true. So instead of making absolute truth claims, Rawls’ political liberalism refers to its political conception of justice as reasonable.

As Rawls defines the term, an idea or person counts as politically reasonable if they exhibit two main characteristics:

1) They have to respect the principle of democratic justification – meaning that they have to propose terms of social cooperation that others might also endorse; and

2) They have to recognize what Rawls calls ‘the burdens of judgment’ – the fact that other citizens can arrive at different beliefs in their honest search for truth.

Putting these two elements together, we can say that a politically reasonable person is one who offers reciprocal terms of cooperation, refraining from using political power to favor their own worldview or repress the views of other reasonable people. Essentially, they recognize that in politics, ethics and religion ‘the full truth’ is divisive and hard to attain, and accept the limits this places on what can be brought into the political arena. This requirement of the political virtue of reasonableness allows Rawls to arrive at one of the central theses of his liberalism: in a diverse world, for a conception of justice to be reasonable, it has to be neutral amongst irreconcilable doctrines. It should not express preferences, nor promote any particular set of beliefs, nor try to sway individuals into embracing a specific worldview. A politics that sides with any particular doctrine – be it religious or secular – is unreasonable, and hence illegitimate.

The Original Position: Simulating Reasonableness

With reasonableness now established as the standard by which a freestanding political system is to operate, Rawls can finally start making the case for his vision of justice. Yet the requirement of neutrality that reasonableness demands seems to be a difficult restriction for people who would under normal conditions favor their own version of goodness. So in order to generate the conditions to facilitate reasonable deliberation, Rawls argues that we must find a point of view from which our own particular circumstances can be set aside. For this he uses his famous ‘Original Position’, a thought experiment he first developed in A Theory of Justice (1971).

In essence, the Original Position is a thought experiment that allows us to be the most reasonable we can be. It goes like this; Rawls asks us to imagine that we are cloaked by a so-called ‘veil of ignorance’ that wipes out our knowledge of what our own social circumstances and conceptions of goodness 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” (p.79). He contends that under such conditions we would offer each other a reasonable conception of justice, since we would not be committed to any particular doctrine; rather, we would only be preoccupied with setting an institutional framework that would be fair irrespective of the beliefs and social situation we end up having when the veil is lifted.

Rawls says that his version of justice, which he calls ‘Justice as Fairness’, is a plausible outcome of the Original Position, since the political ideas it endorses are the most reasonable he can think of. It’s a liberal conception of justice, in the sense that basic liberties such as freedom of conscience, freedom of association, and freedom of speech are given priority over any other general claims or values, and in that such rights apply equally to all citizens. But it is a political liberalism in the sense that its justification is freestanding: that is, it is a plausible consequence of the requirements of reasonableness as a political virtue, not derived from any religious or secular moral doctrine. In other words, if a reasonable person is someone who respects the principle that state power must be democratically justifiable, and who accepts that arriving at a single agreed-upon truth is not on the cards, then this person will plausibly favor a liberal institutional framework. And this is a freestanding conclusion in the sense that (at least according to Rawls) no religious or partisan moral considerations were called upon.

The Problem of Stability

I’ve described how Rawls’ political liberalism tackles the problem of democratic justification in societies profoundly divided by conflicting worldviews. Thanks to the thought experiment of the Original Position, Rawls offers what he argues is a plausible framework for justice for a diverse democracy. This produces, he claims, an ideologically neutral and purely political version of liberalism.

But a major problem remains: the problem of stability. What if, after the veil of ignorance is lifted, we cannot reconcile the beliefs we then find ourselves to have with the institutional framework we agreed on while in the Original Position? We will probably still have to accept the result, since we likely won’t have the means to impose our own worldview on everyone else. But Rawls thinks this is an unsatisfactory and unstable outcome. What Rawls hopes is that once the veil is lifted, we will find enough resources within our doctrines to support the political arrangement in which we now find ourselves. So while our own version of the truth should not ground the political framework, it should still provide enough reasons to support it. Here Rawls turns to the idea of an ‘overlapping consensus’ of reasonable doctrines.

Let me elaborate. If you and I and others fundamentally disagree in our beliefs, but if we all uphold the requirements of reasonableness – if we respect the need for democratic justification and accept that people will forever have different fundamental beliefs – then there will be enough overlap amongst us to facilitate consensus at a political level. The fact that our thinking is reasonable is what ties us all together despite our fundamental disagreements. Exactly how each religious or secular tradition justifies to itself the need to respect the virtue of reasonableness is not political liberalism’s concern. What matters is that they do so somehow. For a democracy to be stable in the midst of irreconcilable diversity, the doctrines of its citizens need to be reasonable. This requirement carries tremendous practical consequences that I will explore in closing.

The Unreasonable and the Rise of Fundamentalism

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Despite its many critics, and the vast literature around the many philosophical shortcomings of Rawls’ political liberalism, the reality is that to a great extent its central ideas mirror how democracies currently operate. The state promotion of basic rights and liberties, together with the aim of staying neutral amongst the irreconcilable worldviews of its citizens, are salient features of our societies. The idea that there is a freestanding network of justice that guarantees personal freedoms and is prior to what we happen to believe, is at the center of what we hope promotes the stability of our diverse democracies. But as Rawls brilliantly articulated, this hope depends on everyone’s acceptance of the virtue of reasonableness. Unreasonable citizens reject the idea that their obligations as citizens take precedence over their beliefs. This 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.

Rawls recognized that if citizens fail to uphold reasonableness, the whole edifice of liberal democracy would be in peril. At one point he asks, “what if it turns out that the principles of justice as fairness cannot gain the support of reasonable doctrines, so that the case for stability fails?… Justice as fairness as we have stated it is then in difficulty” (p.65).

In the Nineties, when Rawls wrote Political Liberalism, there was still reason for a cautious optimism that most religious and secular groups would support democratic regimes by drawing on resources within their own worldviews. But even then he knew this was a stretch: “Here I shall suppose – perhaps too optimistically – that, except for certain kinds of fundamentalism, all the main historical religions admit of such an account and thus may be seen as reasonable comprehensive doctrines” he writes (p.170). In our post-9/11 world, we can see that his optimism was unfounded, to say the least. If the stability of plural democracies really hinges on getting all citizens to sign up to the idea that “holding a political conception as true… is exclusive, even sectarian, and so likely to foster political division” (p.129), then we’re in deep trouble. There is nothing political liberalism can say to those looking to elevate their own version of morality into the political sphere, other than flagging up the fact that they’re being politically unreasonable. Rawls is keenly aware of this when discussing how to react to fundamentalism: “We simply say that such a doctrine is politically unreasonable. Within political liberalism nothing more need be said.”

Since we have little to say to unreasonable actors other than pointing out their lack of reasonableness – which is unlikely to make them lose much sleep – then the only thing left for political liberalism is “the practical task of containing them – like war and disease – so that they do not overturn political justice” (p.64 fn). By drawing the limits of what can be tolerated as reasonableness, political liberalism licenses the state to eradicate uncooperative fundamentalism within it like a disease. But what if the disease has grown so large that attempting to forcefully remove it only leads to a spreading tumour? I believe this is the situation in which we find ourselves today.

As I said at the outset, the great value of understanding Rawls’ argument is that one comes to appreciate why the conditions required for political liberalism to work are now beyond our reach. The truth is that the challenge of Rawls’ generation was a kinder one: ‘How is it possible that deeply opposed though reasonable doctrines may live together and all affirm the political concept of a democracy?’ Remove the words in italics and you have the far more difficult challenge of our generation. Political liberalism, despite its good intentions, is no longer the answer. Beyond the frontiers of the reasonable, insisting on Rawls’ brand of liberalism won’t get us far. If democracy is to succeed in these unreasonable times, we need to mount a principled defense of pluralism that recaptures the hearts and minds of all of those enchanted by the siren song of chauvinist wall-builders.

© Francisco Mejia Uribe 2017

Francisco Mejia Uribe has philosophy and economics degrees from Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. He works in the financial industry in Hong Kong. His blog is ThePhilosopher.blog.

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