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Rawls on Religion and Public Life Part 1

December 26th, 2008 by Matt

In a two part series I will reflect on John Rawls’ widely celebrated discussion on religion and public life. In part 1, I will outline Rawls’ position and then in part 2 I will offer some critical comments on this position drawing from Nicholas Wolterstorff.

One common line of argument for excluding theological premises from public debate is that not everyone accepts the truth of such premises. Any policy decisions based on such a purported divine law would be binding upon these people in spite of the fact they do not accept such theological doctrines.

One obvious problem with this line of argument is that exactly the same thing can be said about many secular, non-theological, beliefs. Phillip Quinn articulates this point,

… if the fact that religious reasons can not be shared by all in a religiously pluralistic society suffices to warrant any exclusion of religious reasons for advocating or supporting restrictive laws or policies, then much else ought in fairness also be excluded on the same grounds.[1]

Quinn notes correctly that secular moral theories such as Utilitarianism or Kantianism, Intuitionism, Socialism, Libertarianism, can all be reasonably rejected in a philosophically-pluralistic society.

Indeed, it would seem that the appeal to any comprehensive ethical theory, including all known secular ethical theories, should be disallowed on the grounds that every such theory can be reasonably rejected by some citizens in a pluralistic democracy. And if justification of restrictive laws or policies can be conducted only in terms of moral considerations no citizen of a pluralistic democracy can reasonably reject, then in a pluralistic democracy such as ours very few restrictive laws or policies would be morally justified, a conclusion that would, I suspect, be welcome only to anarchists.[2]

One influential attempt to avoid these problems is proposed by John Rawls in Political Liberalism.[3] Rawls defends the thesis that it is wrong to appeal to religious or theological beliefs in debates pertaining to “constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice”.[4] Rawls does this on the same grounds that Quinn refers to above; such beliefs can be “reasonably rejected by some citizens in a pluralistic democracy”.[5] Rawls states,

Our exercise of political power is proper and hence justifiable only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials of which all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse in light of principles and ideals acceptable to them as reasonable and rational.[6]

On the other hand, Rawls concedes Quinn’s point; “it would seem that the appeal to any comprehensive ethical theory, including all known secular ethical theories, should be disallowed on the grounds that every such theory can be reasonably rejected by some citizens in a pluralistic democracy”.[7] Rawls acknowledges this and argues that it is not just wrong to appeal to theological premises but also, “no comprehensive doctrine is appropriate as a political conception”.[8] [Emphasis added] Rawls maintains that contemporary society,

[I]s always marked by a diversity of opposing and irreconcilable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines. Some of these are perfectly reasonable, and this diversity among reasonable doctrines political liberalism sees as the inevitable long-run result of the powers of human reason at work within the background of enduring free institutions.[9]

In summary, Rawls states there is a plurality of comprehensive doctrines that are irreconcilable with each other. Each doctrine is reasonably held by some people and reasonably rejected by others. Yet, respect for others forbids us to appeal to premises that we can expect reasonable people to reject.[10] It follows then, that in questions of “constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice” that no one should appeal to premises that require the truth of a comprehensive doctrine that some people can and/or do reasonably reject.[11]

However unlike Quinn, Rawls denies that this has anarchistic implications. He rejects Quinn’s claim, as cited above, that this rationale entails that “in a pluralistic democracy such as ours very few restrictive laws or policies would be morally justified”. Instead, Rawls maintains that one can construct answers to “constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice” by utilising what he calls “public reason” the basic idea is that if a people will address basic questions of “constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice” by appealing only to ideas implicit in the shared political culture of society. Nicholas Wolterstorff calls this the “consensus populi”.[12] Rawls explains this process:

[B]y looking to the public culture itself as the shared fund of implicitly recognized basic ideas and principles. We hope to formulate these ideas and principles clearly enough to be combined into a political conception of justice congenial to our most firmly held convictions. We express this by saying that a political conception of justice, to be acceptable, must accord with our considered convictions, at all levels of generality, or in what I have called elsewhere, ‘reflective equilibrium.’[13]

In addition to appealing to the consensus populi, public reason can utilise “presently accepted general beliefs and forms of reasoning found in common sense, and the methods and conclusions of science when these are not controversial”.[14] However, in using public reason people, “are not to appeal to comprehensive religious and philosophical doctrines”.[15]

Continued in part 2.

[1] Phillip Quinn, “Political Liberalism and their Exclusion of the Religious,” in Religion and Contemporary Liberalism, ed. Paul Weithman (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 144.
[2] Ibid.
[3] John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).
[4] Ibid., 214.
[5] Quinn, “Political Liberalism and their Exclusion of the Religious”, 144.
[6] Rawls, Political Liberalism, 217.
[7] Quinn, “Political Liberalism and their Exclusion of the Religious”, 144.
[8] Rawls, Political Liberalism, 135.
[9] Ibid., 3-4.
[10] Christopher J Eberle argues that Rawls’ rationale here is incoherent as it conflicts with the method that purports to justify it. See Religious Convictions in Liberal Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 140-150.
[11] I am grateful for discussions with Dr Glenn Peoples for helping me to develop this argument.
[12] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Role of Religion in Decision and Discussion of Political Issues,” in Religion in the Public Square; The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate, ed. Nicholas Wolterstorff & Robert Audi (Lanham, Md: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc, 1997), 91.
[13] Rawls, Political Liberalism, 8.
[14] Ibid., 224.
[15] Ibid.

RELATED POSTS:
Rawls on Religion and Public Life Part 2
Some More Thoughts on Religion and Public Life: Robert Audi’s Critique of Wolterstorff

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