John Rawls’s Political Liberalism

Rawls is known for his work A Theory of Justice through which he breaks the tradition in the political philosophy. Previously the main concern of the political philosophy is the discourses of authority of the state. Only after the publication of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1975) do the scholars pay more attention to the problem of justice. Nevertheless after subsequence consideration Rawls acknowledges that his idea concerning justice he proposes in A Theory of Justice needs a revision. He thinks that the idea of justice that he developed in A Theory of Justice is unrealistic because it is part of the comprehensive conviction. It is unrealistic expectation that the citizens will base the political discussion and decision on that conception of justice when it is known that modern democratic culture “is always marked by a diversity of opposing and irreconcilable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrine”, (Rawls, 1993: 3-4). To revise the theory proposed in the previous work, Rawls writes Political Liberalism in which he attempts to find a proper relation between the conception of justice and the plurality of comprehensive doctrine.  

Considering that his motivation in Political Liberalism is to work out in finding a proper relation between a conception of justice with the plurality of comprehensive doctrine, it is for sure that Rawls is struggling to solve the modern political problematic. In his observation of the modern society Rawls discovers that it “is characterized not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical and moral doctrines but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines” (Ibid.) and to each whoever holds it, the comprehensive doctrine is believed as the absolute truth; it is therefore “no one of these doctrine”, says Rawls, “is affirmed by citizens generally. Nor should one expect that in the foreseeable future one of them or some other reasonable doctrine will ever be affirmed by all or nearly all citizens” (xvi). Given that members of modern society live in a plurality of reasonable yet incompatible comprehensive doctrines is a normal way of life, the question is how is it possible to develop stability within this plural society?
Rawls’s primary concern when he outlines his political liberalism is to find out “the most appropriate conception of justice specifying the fair terms of social cooperation between citizens as regarded as free and equal citizens and as fully cooperating members of society over a complete life, from generation to the next” (3) and "to find the grounds of toleration in society which is characterized by reasonable pluralism" (5). Rawls’s political liberalism consists of two stages. The first is to work out to establish the conception of political justice as freestanding principle. While the second one is to find a way by which this conception of political justice can gain the support of an overlapping consensus. This last stage then becomes a precondition to create a just and stable society.
 As stated earlier the purpose of the first stage of political liberalism is to work out for the conception of political justice. Here Rawls ascribes three characteristic features for his conception of political justice. The first feature concerns with the subject of a political conception. No doubt this conception is a moral conception but it works out for a specific subject, namely the political, social and economic institution. In another word this political conception of justice applies to the “basic structure” of the society. The second feature relates to its presentation, means that the conception must be freestanding and independent from other wider convictions. In working out for political liberalism it is therefore indispensable to differentiate political conception of justice from other comprehensive convictions. The difference between the two conceptions lies in the scope. It is considered a comprehensive conviction “when it includes conceptions of what is of value in human life, and ideals of personal character, as well as ideals of friendship and of familial and associational relationships, much else that is to inform our conduct, and in the limit to our life as a whole.” In contrast, “a political conception tries to elaborate a reasonable conception for the basic structure alone and involves, so far as possible, no wider commitment to any other doctrine.” The last feature has to do with the content of political conception of justice; it “is expressed in terms of certain fundamental idea seen as implicit in the public political culture of a democratic society.” Thus political conception of justice, as has been mentioned earlier, is inseparable from a democratic culture. It “starts from within this certain political tradition and takes as its fundamental idea that of society as a fair system of cooperation over time from one generation to the next” (11-14). The explanation why political liberalism must be reliant upon a democratic society is that within this society it has been existed values and traditions which makes it possible to develop political liberalism. “In a democratic society”, Rawls finds, “there is a tradition of democratic thought, the content of which is at least familiar and intelligible to educated common sense of citizens generally”. Furthermore, “society’s main institutions, and their accepted forms of interpretation, are seen as a fund of implicitly shared ideas and principles” (14).
Again it is to be kept in mind that the aim of establishing the political conception of justice is to find a basis for political discussion and that this basis must be independent of wider comprehensive doctrines even though it is part of and derived from that doctrine. Therefore it is to be constructed by and for the citizens who are engaging in the social cooperation. In doing so, it is necessary to abstract “by looking to public culture itself as a shared fund of implicitly recognized basic ideas and principles.” Then we work “to formulate these ideas clearly enough to be combined into a political conception of justice congenial to citizen’s most firmly held conviction” (8). In order that the political conception of justice is to be accepted, it must accord with the considered convictions in all levels of generality. To this approach Rawls calls “the pursuit of reflective equilibrium” (Rawls 1993, 8). When we find a conception of political justice in condition of which democratic citizens achieve reflective equilibrium, then we have reached a reasonable public basis of justification of fundamental political questions (xix).
            Having discussed the way to establish ideas of political justice, Rawls goes on to explain the ideas of society and person. The fundamental idea of society is “that of a fair system of cooperation over time from one generation to the next” (Rawls 1993, 14). That is cooperation involving “the idea of fair terms of cooperation” or  “terms that each participant may reasonably accept, provided that everyone else likewise accepts them” (16). While “[t]he fundamental idea of person” is that of  “citizens as free and equal” (19). That citizens are free means that they have two “moral powers” namely “a capacity for sense of right and justice” that is “to honor fair terms of cooperation” (302), and a “capacity to form, to revise and rationally to pursue” a conception of good (19). Then citizens are equal if they have “these powers to the requisite minimum degree to be fully cooperating members of society” (19).
             In political liberalism the ideas of society and person are quite important. As many times Rawls insists, this is only a matter of politics and not anything else, meaning that the political conception is to be free from other conceptions and to be produced only by the free and equal persons in their cooperation with others in a democratic society. Thus the case is limited only to “how citizens are to think of themselves and of one another in their political and social relationship as specified by the basic structure” (300).
            The two moral powers, which possessed by each person mentioned above, are closely related to the ideas of “reasonable” and “rational.” These two concepts are different, which means that “the reasonable and the rational are taken as two distinct and independent basic ideas,” in the sense that “there is no thought of deriving one from the other” (51). A person is considered as reasonable if he or she has the capacity “to engage in fair cooperation as such, and to do so on terms that others as equals might reasonably be expected to endorse” (51). In another word the capacity to be reasonable means the capacity for a sense of justice. In contrast, “the rational … applies to a single, unified agent (either an individual or cooperative person) with the powers of judgment and deliberation in seeking ends and interests peculiarly its own” (50). Thus the capacity to be rational is identical with the capacity to form and pursue a conception of the good. That these two “basic ideas” are independent, means that “merely reasonable agents would have no ends of their own they wanted to advance by fair cooperation” while “merely rational agents lack of a sense of justice and fail to recognize the independent validity of the claim of others” (52). The reasonable persons accept terms and principles of justice even though they are incompatible with their own ends or with their compatible comprehensive doctrine. Moreover the reasonable persons are willing “to recognize the burdens of judgment and accept their consequences for the use of public reason in directing the legitimate exercise of political power in constitutional regime” (54). While the rational persons might be doing the opposite of what which the reasonable person have done.
If political liberalism seeks the reasonable terms of cooperation, how, then citizens and their representatives are working to achieve the justified conception of justice as the realization of the reasonable terms of the cooperation on the condition that they are under the “veil of ignorance” (27). To achieve the publicly justified conception of justice with the above-mentioned condition, Rawls suggests using “the idea of original position” (26). This idea is “a device that serves as means of public reflection and self-clarification” (26). Again we should remember that Rawls always insists that his political conception of justice must be freestanding or independent of any comprehensive doctrines. Therefore Rawls proposes that the device of “original position” be aimed at identifying “the reasonable point of view” concerning the principle of justice. How we do it, he says “we can, as it were, enter this position at any time simply by reasoning for principle of justice in accordance with the enumerated restrictions on information” (27).
Armed with such devices and situated in a democratic culture, citizen will agree to adopt two principles of justice as follow:
a.    Each person has an equal claim to fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.
b.    Social economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be the greatest benefit of the least advantage member of society (Rawls 1993, 5-6).

As has been noticed, the second stage of political liberalism is to think about the possibility that these principles may establish and preserve the stability in a society characterized with the incompatible pluralism. Rawls maintains the idea that to achieve stability is to satisfy two conditions. The first is “whether peoples who grow under just institutions (as political conception defines them) acquire a normally sufficient sense of justice so that they generally comply with those institutions”. And the second is “whether in view the general facts that characterize a democracy’s public political culture, and in particular the fact of reasonable pluralism, the political conception of justice can be the focus of overlapping consensus” (141). Thus in political liberalism relating to the second condition of stability, the problem is to be solved by the way that a political conception of justice “can gain the support of an overlapping consensus of reasonable religious, philosophical and moral doctrines in a society regulated by it” (10). The stable democratic society, then, is one those freestanding principles of justice are supported both by the common “public basis of justification” in political culture and by diverse “nonpublic bases of justification belonging to the many comprehensive doctrines and acceptable only to those who affirm them” (xix).
As a “model case for overlapping consensus,” Rawls mentions the way three views come into agreement. Those views are, first “a religious doctrine that leads to a principle of toleration, and underwrites the fundamental liberties of a constitutional regime;” second “a comprehensive liberal moral doctrine such as those of Kant or Mill;” and third “a pluralist view that includes independent liberal principles of justice and a large family of non political values.” All three views may “lead to roughly the same political judgments and thus overlap on political conception” and they therefore “form a consensus of reasonable doctrines” (144-145).
The overlapping consensus differs from a “mere modus vivendi” because it has a moral ground. Since that the overlapping consensus has a moral ground, it makes it possible that the society is stable while a mere modus vivendi cannot. The latter depends on “happenstance and balance of relative power” and consequently it is possible for the party to break the agreement if the condition allows them to do so. In contrast, through the overlapping consensus the society “is stable with respect to the changes in distribution of power among views.” Thus Rawls guarantees that each of party will continue to support the political conception as far as it is affirmed on moral ground (148).