Seeing reason.

Author:Madden, Kelly Alvin
Position:Letter to the editor

John Rawls justified his particular constraints on public discourse in part by claiming that natural-law theorists ("rationalist believers") deny "the fact of reasonable pluralism" when giving public reasons. "But do they?" asks Robert George in "Public Morality, Public Reason" (November). And George's answer is yes, apparently.

Professor George does not deny that reasonable people can hold other worldviews, but his approach to engaging such people in public debate is based on the assumption that the differences between those worldviews and that of natural law are due to their mistakes in reason. Disagreements in public debate could apparently be resolved with more careful argumentation.

Public debate predicated on the claim that our opponents are just making errors of reason with regard to their ultimate commitments still strikes me as a non-starter. But my more basic complaint is that those commitments are not products of reason in the way George says. Successful natural-law arguments are those that argue from a particular vision of what human life is supposed to be in full development. Sadly, we no longer hold in common such an understanding as self-evident. Or, more precisely, what we do hold in common is shrinking rather than growing.

It was such intractable differences between visions of the good life, and the practical consequences of those differences, that served as the justification for the Enlightenment project. Arguing from the lowest common denominator of observable human nature and employing the tools of unaided reason alone, that project sought to establish the rational authority of moral precepts. It failed, and surely any project in moral or political philosophy today must begin with the recognition of that failure. Every successful argument for morality must begin with premises that cannot be demonstrated by reason alone. Even Rawls recognizes that his famous thought experiment reflects a conception of the good life, albeit a "thin" conception. Rawls' "original position" is a way to "make vivid" our (Rawls') considered judgments. Rawls has a conclusion in mind, an understanding of justice. When in the first instance the decisions made behind the "veil of ignorance" have not resulted in exactly the principles of justice he wants, he changes the conditions behind the veil. The veil is rigged. There is nothing underhanded about this manipulation. It is unselfconsciously evident in the text of A Theory of Justice. Graciously "recognizing" that this argument had drawn on a form of comprehensive liberalism, Rawls sets out in Political Liberalism to construct a public reason independent of comprehensive doctrines. He fails. The argument of Political Liberalism also imports an understanding of justice derived...

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