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John Rawls on Overlapping Consensus - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 93
Overlapping Consensus/Diversity/individualism/Rawls/Waldron: what justifies a conception of justice is not its being true to an order antecedent to and given to us, but its congruence with our deeper understanding of ourselves and our aspirations, and our realization that, given our history and the traditions embedded in our public life, it is the most reasonable doctrine for us. (Rawls 1980(1): 518–19).
Gaus I 94
Ethical and religious heterogeneity were no longer to be regarded as a feature that societies governed by justice might or might not have, or might have at one period but not at another. It was to be seen instead as a permanent feature of the societies, one that could not be expected soon to pass away. >Society/Walzer.
RawlsVsRawls: By the beginning of the 1990s Rawls had become convinced that his approach in A Theory of Justice(2) was disqualified generally on this ground. >Individualism/Rawls.
Diversity/inhomogeneity/society/Rawls: ‘[H]ow is it possible,’ Rawls asked, ‘for there to exist over time a just and stable society of free and equal citizens who remain profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?’ (1993(3): 4). In the introduction to Political Liberalism, he argued that this could no longer be achieved by convincing everyone of the ethical and philosophical premises on which a comprehensive liberal theory of justice might be founded. Instead Rawlsian justice would now have to be presented as something that could command support from a variety of ethical perspectives.
Question: how many of the substantive principles and doctrines of A Theory of Justice would survive this new approach?
Rawls described (...) diversity as a social fact - a permanent feature of modern society. Human life engages multiple values and it is natural that people will disagree about how to balance or prioritize them.
Gaus I 95
Waldron: The key (...) is to insist that an acceptable theory of justice, T, must be such that, among whatever reasons there are for rejecting T or disagreeing with T, none turn on T’s commitment to a particular conception of value or other comprehensive philosophical conception. >Individualism/Rawls, >Rawls/Waldron.
Problems: (...) there are further questions about how [a] threshold test should be understood. One possibility is that T represents an acceptable modus vivendi for the adherents of the various comprehensive conceptions {C1, C2, …, Cn }. Like a treaty that puts an end to conflict between previously hostile powers, T may be presented as the best that C1 can hope for in the way of a theory of justice given that it has to coexist with C2, …, Cn, and the best that C2 can hope for given that it has to coexist with C1 , C3 ,…, Cn , and so on. Rawls, however, regards this as unsatisfactory as a basis for a conception of justice. It leaves T vulnerable to demographic changes or other changes in the balance of power between rival comprehensive conceptions, a vulnerability that is quite at odds with the steadfast moral force that we usually associate with justice (1993(3): 148).
Solution/Rawls: Instead Rawls develops the idea that T should represent an overlapping moral consensus among {C1 , C2 , … , Cn }. By this he means that T could be made acceptable on moral grounds to the adherents of C1 , and acceptable on moral grounds to the adherents of C2, and so on.
Diversity/Toleration//Locke/Kant/Rawls/Waldron: Thus, for example, the proposition that religious toleration is required as a matter of justice may be affirmed by Christians on Lockean grounds having to do with each person’s individualized responsibility to God for his own religious beliefs, by secular Lockeans on the grounds of unamenability of belief to coercion, by Kantians on the grounds of the high ethical
Gaus I 96
importance accorded to autonomy, by followers of John Stuart Mill on the basis of the importance of individuality and the free interplay of ideas, and so on. >Toleration/Locke.
Waldron: Whether this actually works is an issue we considered when we discussed Ackerman’s approach to neutrality. >Neutrality/Waldron.
Overlapping consensus/WaldronVsRawls: The idea of overlapping consensus assumes that there can be many routes to the same destination. Geographically the metaphor is plausible enough, but when the destination is a set of moral principles, and ‘routes’ is read as reasons for the acceptance of those principles, then the matter is less clear. Unlike legal rules, moral propositions are not just formulas. A principle is perhaps best understood as a normative proposition together with the reasons that are properly adduced in its support. On either of these accounts, the principle of toleration arrived at by the Christian route is different from the principle of toleration arrived at by Mill’s route. And this is a difference that may matter, for a theory of justice is not only supposed to provide a set of slogans for a society; it is also supposed to guide the members of that society through the disputes that may break out concerning how these slogans are to be understood and applied. >Justice/Liberalism, >Liberalism/Waldron.
WaldronVsRawls: Social justice, after all, raises concerns that can hardly be dealt with by the strategy of vagueness or evasion associated with overlapping consensus – putting about a set of anodyne formulas that can mean all things to all people. Cf. >Abortion/Rawls.

(1) Rawls, John (1980) ‘Kantian constructivism in moral theory’. Journal of Philosophy, 77 (9): 515–72.
(2) Rawls, John (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
(3) Rawls, John (1993) Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.


Waldron, Jeremy 2004. „Liberalism, Political and Comprehensive“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications.


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution.
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.

Rawl I
J. Rawls
A Theory of Justice: Original Edition Oxford 2005

Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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