Religion and Politics: John Rawls on Public Reason

Is a Christian presidential candidate allowed to appeal to religion when on the campaign trail?  Is a pro-lifer allowed to appeal to his or or interpretation of the Bible?  Is an Atheist pro-choicer allowed to appeal to his or her conception of the universe — when making a political argument?

Meta-questions like these, questions about the nature of proper poltical debtate, swirl about in the poltical aptmosphere.  Sometimes they are brought up explicitly, more often implicitly, as when one person argues from firmly-held religious stance and another says, “Don’t make your beliefs my law.”

The underlying issue is about the nature of democracy itself — which is to say about poltical convesation in a pluralistic society itself.  We want to be pluralistic, and we want to be able to talk to each other.  So what is to be done?

This meta-issue can be articulated, and a view about it defended, explicitly.  By looking at one such stance, we can hopefully think more clearly about what our own views are: what we think ought to be allowed, and why, in political debate.

The (recently) late political philosopher John Rawls was most famous for his book A Theory of Justice and for an argument he made called the Original Position Argument, which was an attempt to prove that a particular set of priniciples of justice was the most correct.  This diary is not about that.  Rather, I want to look at Rawls’ idea of “public reason” so we can think about it and criticize it, and thus form our own views more clearly on the meta-question of acceptable political debate.

I will quote from Rawls essay “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” in a moment.  But first let me define two central terms he uses.

Comprehensive Doctrine: a set of beliefs, religious or non-religious, that informs a person’s or group’s conception of the capital-T Truth and the capital-G Good.  The set of beliefs might come from a single book, such as the Bible.  Or it might just as well be a set of books, as in the collected works of Ayn Rand or Robert Heinlen.  It might not be written down at all.  Ditto heads might say that Rush Limbaugh presents their comprhensive docrtine on the radio.  The idea is supposed to be that we all have conceptions of the Good and the True, and thus we all have comprehensive docrtines.

Reasonable Comprehensive Doctrine: a comprehensive doctrine that accepts the validity of human rights and other such basic points as are necessary for a decent society.  Additionally, comprehensive doctrines that do not allow for public reason (as defined below) are not reasonable.  Unreasonable comprehensive doctrines are at best ill-suited to pluralistic democracies and at worst are incompatible with them.

Okay.  Now, here’s the basic idea of “public reason” as conceived by Rawls:

The idea of public reason, as I understand it, belongs to a conception of a well-ordered constitutional democratic society.  The form and content of this reason — the way it is understood by citizens and how it interprets their political relationship — are part of the idea of democracy itself.  This is because a basic feature of democracy is the fact of a reasonable pluralism — the fact that a plurality of conflicting reasonable comprehensive doctrines, religious, philosophical, and moral, is the normal result of its culture of free institutions.  Citizens realize that they cannot reach agreement or even approach mutual understanding on the basis of their irreconcilable comprehensive doctrines.  In view of this, they need to consider what kinds of reasons they may reasonably give one another when fundamental political questions are at stake.  I propose that in public reason comprehensive doctrines of truth or right be relplaced by the idea of the politically reasonable addressed to citizens as citizens.

Central to the idea of public reason is that it neither criticizes nor attacks any comprehensive doctrine, religious or nonreligious, except insofar as that doctrine is incompatible with the essentials of public reason and a democratic polity.  The basic requirement is that a reasonable doctrine accepts a constitutional democratic regime and its companion idea of legitimate law.  While democracies will differ in the specific docrtines that are influential within them — as they differ in the Western democracies of Europe, the United States, Israel, and India– finding a suitable idea of public reason is a concern that faces them all.

— from “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” in Rawls’ The Law of Peoples, pp. 131-132

Rawls’ idea is most starkly put in the sentence, “I propose that in public reason comprehensive doctrines of truth or right be relplaced by the idea of the political reasonable addressed to citizens as citizens.”   This is not a small or trivial suggestion.  Rawls is suggesting that truth and good be thrown out as criteria of evaluation in political argument.  If you think the truth is that there is no God and therefore there is no afterlife, this may not be used in a political argument.

Perhaps you can see his point.  Rawls is suggesting that it is dirty pool to employ premises in your political arguments that you, in all fairness, know your opponent cannot accept.  As an example, imagine two people arguing over gay marraige, shouting past each other.  One says gay marraige goes against the Bible, the other says it does not.  They are each employing their own interpretations of the Bible and so are each employing their comprehensive doctrine of truth and right.  And they don’t get anywhere.  Nothing gets done.

How would two such people, in an argument like that, toss out questions of truth and right in order to engage each other “as citizens,” as Rawls puts it?  In the first place, they would make arguments that they believe, in all fairness, use premises that the opponent can accept.  It isn’t fair to argue that the Bible says this, not that, in a political debate, becasue your opponent does not, cannot, accept the premise.   Fair arguments do not ask citizens to reject their own comprehensive doctrines.  Public reason does not appeal to comprehensive doctrine.

It might seem that Rawls is saying: poltical debate has nothing to do with truth or right.  At least, it has nothing to do with capital-T truth.  It has to do with fairness, only.

This isn’t quite what Rawls means.  For Rawls, it is perfectly fair for citizens to be motivated by their comprehensive doctrines to argue for this or that law.  It is merely illicit for them to use those doctrines when engaging in political debate.

We argue for and against comprehensive docrtines all the time.  These are called philosophical or religious debtates.  Rawls’ idea is that these kinds of debtates are different and seperable from political debates, although the motivations for each citizen in each type of debate might be similar.

If we engage with Rawls, here, and ask if he is right about the content and form that public reason ought to take, then we will find we are engaging in the ultimate meta-discussion: a discussion about the conditions of possibility of democracy itself.

I will close with two questions for Rawls:

Is it true that all people have comprehensive doctrines?  I am not sure.  I think the idea is supposed to be that if you have a comprehensive doctrine, then you have somewhere to go and look for an answer whenever you face a moral dilemma.  But I certainly can be flummoxed or confused as to what to do in some kinds of moral quandries.  I might have to sort it out for myself — fully aware that I have no docrtine to appeal to.  I assume that this is a fairly common occurance.  If so, then it might be that comparatively few of us actually have what Rawls would call comprehensive doctrines.  Does this matter?

Is it that easy to tell where a comprehensive doctrine ends and political concerns begin?  In the case of the cartoon Christian fundamentalist who argues against gay marraige by saying it will cause hurricanes, it is easy enough to tell where the line is.  But take a person who really believes Milton Friedman has The Truth about economics: that all regulation is bad, almost as a theological or ethical point.  In that case, is the person arguing from a comprehensive doctrine when he argues for deregulation?  I find myself wanting to say “yes.”  But that leaves the idea of public reason kind of cloudy.  Similarly for Marxism: the coming of Jesus is one thing, the coming of the workers’ revolution, another.  Maybe.


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  1. Also at DailyKos.

  2. ..than a Rawls person, and I have deep, tremendous problems with his theory of Justice as Fairness (which I believe Rawls believes because he erroneously believed that Kant was superior to Bayes as a rationalist).

    Still, this is the sort of post I think we all need a lot more of.

  3. …I would posit that the reason why I think that “public reason” and Rawls in general is incompatible with reality is because certain absolute values are incompatible, and cannot be “set aside” for the sake of reasonableness.  Which is why strongly staking out individual rights, as advocated by Locke and Nozick, is key: because you cannot and have no right to prevent evangelicals of any faith or absence of faith from speaking in public.  Which is why such unreasonable speech and other activities needs to be tempered with property and contract rights.

    • geomoo on May 19, 2008 at 7:53 am

    I’ve been thinking about posting a diary about Obama’s “unity” and what unity would actually look like.  Complete with my compulsive chiding of progressives for confusing unity with a full implementation of all their dearest policies along with a heartfelt apology from everyone who voted for Bush.  But now I read this, my essay starts to sound something like, “I was thinking to myself in the shower the other day and . . .”  Sigh.

    As to comprehensive doctrines, what about the somewhat paradoxical case of a comprehensive doctrine that subjects itself to built-in scrutiny, such as the scientific method?  If a group is agreed on such a doctrine, many of the conflicts in public debate will be avoided by reference to the shared system, which is meant to test ideas against what is real.  In theory, the scientific community should be one that functions this way, so that, in theory, there really would be no such thing as a “political” discussion at a science symposium.  In a more general sense, avoidance of conflict in a pluralistic society is greatly furthered by a willingness to subject one’s ideas to testing and refinement.  Along these lines, isn’t there plenty of room for gray area in the notion of a comprehensive doctrine?  In fact, I would say the desire to force their comprehensive doctrines down the throats of others is the precise reason for the war on science by the neocons.  To me, this is perhaps more damaging to civilization than the attack on democracy, although the two are inseparably intertwined.

    Since I find myself sinking rapidly under the weight of the philosophical discussion, allow me to offer my thoughts on a troubling attitude I am sensing from progressives.  I believe your essay concerns the practical problem of unity, so I am hoping you have some thoughts to offer here.

    I feel the conscious creation of polarity by the right–marginalizing “liberals” and suppressing the airing of progressive views–has created feelings of polarity from the left.  Our vision of unity does not include hammering out gun control legislation through respectful debate with honorable adversaries, for example.  Rather, the largely unexamined fantasy is of the country waking up to how right we have been all along and agreeing that guns need to be banned immediately (Please allow this simplification for the sake of argument.)  This feeling of our way or the highway, backed by adamant self-righteousness, makes for a dangerous dynamic in the body politic.  Despite caricatures and distortions from religious fundamentalists, I do believe there is such a thing as humanism, which may be called a comprehensive doctrine, and that many progressives “hold those views to be self-evident,” and thus fair game to invoke in any political argument.  A little more respect for opposing views held with equal fervor would go a long way toward helping us toward unity.

    As to Milton Friedman, that is a dangerous hybrid.  It is a comprehensive doctrine masquerading as a self-correcting system.  Chicago School economics blithely ignores reams of data disproving its contentions while claiming to be as scientific as physics.  The only question there is whether the culprit is cynicism fueled by greed or pure self-delusion.  In fact, this coopting by the right of the form of reasonable comprehensive doctrines–such as true Christianity and science–and dressing it in a delusional and distorting sheeps clothing, is what makes their totalitarianism look almost like democracy.

  4. can we take a moment away from the intellectual acrobatic?

    tossing back the name of philosophers isn’t going get done what we need. but understanding fundamentals, like ideas brought up in this essay, is essential.

    for me, this is about people like us and how our minds grasp things. we need to see our thinking process and the claims we stake in the context of other thinkers, ie, my brother-in-law. and in this journey of evaluation, learn how to argue effectively against what we perceive is wrong.

    i so agree, LC. this is not about ultimate truth. universal right. it is all about the discussions in the marketplace, town hall, and dinner tables. it is dangerous to make political, or any other discussion, formulaic. but we can learn to steer conversation and incite thinking. it is, after all, only about our perceptions. our choices. free-standing ethics and morality, not needing the stamp of GOD.

    i’m not acting on behalf of any agent. but what i believe to be the best course of action.

    so tell me, how do i dismantle the arguments of people, for example,  say separation of church and state is not in the constitution then call it the establishment clause? my first response? muttering jerk, then audibly, it’s NOT a clause. it is the FIRST amendment.

    i did have one good response to the bil, when he said WE have 30 years of oil under the arctic. i said, okay, i’ll concede that point. BUT::: who’s “we,” i asked… 30 years based on what kind of usage and selling how many SUVs? do americans own that oil and to regulate price and usage? or will the oil companies own it and get to sell it to china for more profit? i don’t think he thought about those things.

    i’m beginning to think that agreeing with their initial premise is one good way to begin unraveling it.

    because i am done with truth and right and wrong for everybody. i can only understand it from myself. so i have to go with it.

    but understanding why the Rove et al is so much better at winning messages is key. what is there in our brains to be tapped to get people asking questions… i don’t want to TELL but i do want to cause upheaval.

    if you know what i mean.

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