Publicity, associative reasons, and legal systems (I)

John Rawls was the best kind of programmatic philosopher. This was not a guy whose output could be reduced to a single thought-experiment or evocative illustration; you can’t appreciate him as a philosopher unless you can see his systematic design. But that’s got a downside. The thing is, when you’re a programmatic philosopher, a lot of your output can be difficult for others to follow. Everyone understands a view best when they can see contrasts, objections, and alternatives, yet the programmatic philosopher’s prose is often impassively self-referential. So, for instance, when Rawls talks about reason, then you’d better be alert to the special ways that he defines the terms elsewhere; and woe be to the reader who thinks they can deduce the meaning of any single one of these concepts {“reasonable”, “public reason”, “acceptable”} from the others. (Meaning: intellectually accountable, common reason for the commons, and accords with convictions under wide equilibrium, respectively.)

So, I think it’s easiest to appreciate the best parts of Rawls’ theory of justice once we accept his broader political vernacular, but also to extend his analytical tools in ways which let us articulate conceptions of political justice that he does not accept. I have an ulterior motive for wanting to contrast his approach to justice to others, since I am interested in how theory of justice relates to general jurisprudence and legal theory as such, which means I’m obliged to do a compare-and-contrast exercise between different incommensurate moral and legal theories.

So here’s the shtick. I assume you’ve basically got the idea of Rawls’s theory of justice under your belt. Now, in the next few posts I’m going to tell a dogmatic story about how legal systems are best understood in terms of non-public reasons. To do that, I’ll use Rawls’s seminal “The Idea of Public Reason” (in Political Liberalism) as reference point. The story unfolds in three chapters. First, in this post, I’m first going to offer a sympathetic rereading of Rawls’s idea of public reason in a way that makes the most sense of the idea of publicity. My aim is to do justice to the attenuated sense in which associative reasons are publicized. In the next post I’ll compare Rawls’s theory of justice to a charitable rereading of Thomism. Then I’ll conclude by offering a few idiosyncratic complaints about the Rawlsian outlook.


Public reason is the expression of a modern liberal political conception of justice, and since liberalism is a relatively new political phenomenon, public reason is a newcomer on the historical scene. In contrast, associative (“social”) reason is as old as rocks, and an enduring feature of societies, i.e., communities structured by status. Because associative reason is more common, it is easier to understand public reason in contrast to it, rather than vice-versa. Associative reason is the clearer concept of the two, easier to grasp as the historical rule than as the exception. (I will use the term ‘associative reason’ here, which is my own term, not his. Instead, Rawls prefers the term ‘social’ or ‘nonpublic’ reason. I do not join him in his usage because the very idea definition of the social is contestable, and his formulation of ‘nonpublic’ reason is something I will take issue with later.)

As I have argued elsewhere, the most plausible mainstream theories of law in the Western canon have all held that law is necessarily promulgated to be law. Publicity is a criterion for legal validity. Suppose that’s so. It follows that, if associative reason is a legal universal, then we should expect it to be public in some sense or other. And indeed it is universal, in the minimal sense that every reason to adopt a policy that is open to view in public discourse is at least an associative reason as opposed to a private reason. A potential for contradiction lurks here, since associative reason is not ‘public reason’ by definition, but is public. But the air of paradox is resolved by noticing the equivocation at work in the word ‘public’. Associative reasons are not public in Rawls’s sense of ‘public reason’, since Rawls’s use of the phrase concentrates only on reasons that are public qua public — i.e., those reasons for policy that are aimed at achieving a reasonable overlapping consensus among the free and equal citizenry. That is why Rawls thinks that associative reasons do not play a just role in legitimate democratic institutions — they are not public in the maximal sense of being common reason for the commons. In this, Rawls is articulating a model of legitimacy as consent of the governed analogous to other well-known social contract theorists — e.g., Rousseau’s sense that civic participation should be aimed at the general will.

I hope you’ll let me rehearse the idea of public reason one more time, because it’s especially important to a guy like me who cares about the importance of publicity to legal theory. Rawls tells us that the aim of public reason is to establish the constitutive features of a democratic system, especially those features related to political and legal standing of free and equal citizens. His way of speaking entails that public reason is public in the pure sense of being reasons directed at the commons, and not in the mere sense of just being public-facing, i.e., mere attempts to resolve collective action problems. In Rawls’s theory of justice, a public reason is an attempt to arrange our plans in a way that is conceived of through the original position — i.e., a device of representation where hypothetical future participants of a society establish the principles of the political order they would like to live in despite being ignorant of their own rank and status in the future order. It is not just reason open to view, but reason that happens in the commons for the commons.

Yet, although we can distinguish between publicity and public reason, we should not ignore the relationship between the two concepts. For Rawls — and for many of us — strong, justifiable rationales are a part of public reason. This is a point that Rawls makes explicitly in his astute formulation of the publicity condition elsewhere in Political Liberalism (Ch.2, s.4). (If we are feeling especially Whiggish, we might even go so far as to say that the teleological point of publicity is to, eventually, recommend that we adopt public reason as a model of legitimacy, and hence that honoring the ideal of publicity in tyrannies shall eventually bend politics towards the cause of democracy, though these speculations are not ones that I am eager to endorse.)

A final word, ending the setup of the discussion of public and associative reason. When we are thinking about political affairs, we are generally interested in two major topics, which are the requirements of practical justice and epistemic justice. Practical justice is made up of a statement of (a) basic rights in principle (i.e., an articulation of the sense in which citizens are free and equal), and (b) the assurance of means to use those rights in practice (i.e., equity and matters of distributive justice). Public reason is political in the sense that it is directed at the basic structure of society, i.e., the society’s main social, political, and economic institutions, conceived of as a single system of cooperation. Epistemic justice sets guidelines for inquiry, e.g., rules of evidence and process at trial and by police. Because these considerations mark off constitutional essentials, they must be justifiable to all citizens with different ideas about how to live the good life.

Well, suppose that’s all good. It certainly seems like an intuitive characterization of justice, as it correctly characterizes the operations of legal systems as we know them as creatures directed to the cause of justice.

It follows that, if the question of what public reason requires of us is pursued sincerely — i.e., by checking off hypothetical opinions of real people in hypothetical situations — then the sense that the basic constitution of the regime is justified will depend on facts we can refer to about how people think about the implicit contract that binds them. Since those facts are known or intuitively knowable, they are accessible; and since they are accessible, they are publicized. In which case, public reason will get away with satisfying the publicity condition “on the cheap”. In contrast, if a legal regime goes about publicity through associative reason, then it will require an activist spirit, swimming upstream against the currents of a community’s considered sense of fair play.


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