The Law of Peoples: with The Idea of Public Reason Revisited

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When a society conforms to the demands of political liberalism, it will present, in response to political problems, solutions that satisfy the two principles of justice. The manner in which these solutions are chosen will also accord to the procedural norms put forward in the original position.

Among these norms Rawls includes the principle of legitimacy. Responsibility to comply with this rests not only with judges, legislators and other public office holders but also citizens.


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By restricting justice as fairness to the political domain, Rawls seeks to avoid conflict between its requirements and the various incompatible but reasonable comprehensive doctrines held by citizens. He states that political liberalism is not concerned with the things that religious or non-religious comprehensive doctrines are since it is a political as opposed to a comprehensive conception of justice. Principles selected in the original position are neutral in relation to the various available comprehensive views and conceptions of the good. He states that it is a more or less determinate scheme of definite final ends being ends that one wants to realise for their own sake as well as attachments and loyalties to particular persons and institutions.

Parties in the original position are aware that they have a comprehensive view and a conception of good but do not know what that view or conception is. To be sure, the parties do not know the content of these determinate conceptions, or the conceptions used to interpret them. But they still have a third high-order interest to guide them, for they must try to adopt principles of justice that enable the person represented to protect and advance some determinate but unspecified conceptions of the good over a complete life, allowing for possible changes of mind and conversions from one comprehensive conception to another.

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This means that while they have an interest in adopting principles that protect their ability to hold and advance some unspecified conception, they are unable to either affirm or deny the truth of any particular conception and are forced to adopt a neutral position. Political liberalism is also neutral with regard to the types of reasons that satisfy the principle of legitimacy.

Legislation that is justified by some comprehensive doctrine or its associated conception of the good, for example, will generally not satisfy the requirements of public reason since it would not be reasonable to expect citizens with contrary comprehensive views to acquiesce. As a result political liberalism requires the state to ensure that a all citizens have an equal opportunity to advance their conceptions of the good, and b nothing is intentionally done to promote any particular comprehensive doctrine above another.

According to Rawls, the acceptability of political liberalism provides a point of consensus over which otherwise incompatible comprehensive points of view may agree. Thus, despite the fact of reasonable pluralism, a reasonable overlapping consensus of support in favour of political liberalism is possible wherein all citizens and all reasonable comprehensive doctrines endorse it.

On the other hand, if political liberalism is not supported by a reasonable overlapping consensus then it is not a sufficiently stable political conception.

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The Law of Peoples: With "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited" / Edition 1

If it does not Rawls recognises that it is in difficulty and that one would have to evaluate what changes could be made to the theory to improve its stability. Although Rawls states that all reasonable comprehensive views should be able to endorse political liberalism, this is simply not true. Rawls fails to give sufficient consideration to the fact that political liberalism will vary in its acceptability for different comprehensive views.

What is PUBLIC REASON? What does PUBLIC REASON mean? PUBLIC REASON meaning & explanation

Although Rawls distinguishes political liberalism from the comprehensive liberalisms of those such as Kant and Mill, he admits that his political conception is a liberal conception. Political liberalism, through the veil of ignorance, is neutral on the conception of good but gives special emphasis to the values of freedom and equality in adopting the two principles of justice.


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Liberal comprehensive doctrines or liberalism also place great importance on liberty, equality and fraternity, and though not always adopt a neutral position on the conception of good. The comprehensive liberalism of Mill, for examples, holds that liberty requires that freedom is maximised for all and government interference limited to instances when restrictions on freedom are necessary for the sake of preventing harm to others or protecting freedom itself. Non-liberal comprehensive views, on the other hand, may endorse a particular conception of good and emphasise values in addition to or other than liberty, fraternity and equality.

Political liberalism, as such, is less palatable, less familiar and less acceptable to holders of non-liberal comprehensive doctrines than those who subscribe to liberalism. This distinction is problematic. Firstly, every political actor is a human person. If the actor is a human person, then the act can be described as being the act of a person.

This holds true whether a person makes their lunch, casts a vote or makes a judicial decision. So, even though one act may be political in nature and another act non-political, if both are committed by a person then they share the same genesis.

Book Review: The Law of the Peoples - Global Ethics Network

For this reason it is argued that every political act has no existence apart from the personal acts of the people involved. If one chooses to act in a certain way this choice is an acknowledgement whether conscious or not that there is some good to be gained in pursuing that course of action. Because political acts are also personal acts, they will refer to this conception when they make decisions on how they ought to behave in the political domain.

Although Rawls states that political liberalism neither affirms nor denies the truth of any comprehensive doctrine, it does take a definite position in that it asks people to refrain from referring to or relying on any conception of the good in a selecting principles to govern society in the original position, and b their public reasoning.

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The constructivist approach adopted by Rawls implicitly denies the proposition forwarded by various comprehensive views that practical reason must or ought to be guided by a conception of the good. The idea of public reason governs the exercise of political power in relation to fundamental issues of justice. The decision as to whether or not society and its constitution should be governed by principles selected in the original position falls within the realm of constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice.

Given the conceivable number and range of comprehensive views that endorse a conception of good, it is not likely that political liberalism could ever generate a reasonable overlapping consensus in its support.