Saving Democracy from Itself: Lessons from John Rawls

The question of how democracy can accommodate an increasing plurality of conflicting religious and secular world-views within a single legitimate and stable political structure is perhaps one of the most pressing questions of our time. Is there a way to successfully fend off fundamentalists of all stripes and protect a plural democracy from being hijacked by the narrow moral project of a particular group? If you believe as I do that this issue is of paramount importance, then you’d be happy to know that John Rawls, arguably one of the brightest philosophical minds of the twentieth century, spent the last two decades of his life wrestling with this very problem. In his own words, this is “the torturing question in the contemporary world, namely: Can democracy and comprehensive doctrines, religious, non-religious, be compatible? And if so, how?” In this essay I will present Rawls’ solution to this question which he elaborated more fully in his book Political Liberalism. As I will argue here, the great value of grappling with Rawls’ political philosophy is that one gains a clear understanding of the conditions required for democracy to successfully negotiate pluralism and stability. But more importantly, once one comes to appreciate those conditions, one also realizes more vividly why in a post 9/11 world, the solution Rawls sought to construct is no longer the way forward.

Too Much Democracy? The Paradox of Democratic Justification

Rawls argument on Political Liberalism starts with the observation that the cultural environment of modern democratic societies is marked by a diversity of religious, philosophical and moral doctrines. He argues that this diversity is not a surprising fact since the protection of personal freedom that democratic societies facilitate naturally leads over time to an increasing diversity at the level of what he calls “the background culture” i.e., the civil society — the space where we all freely cultivate our personal goals and pursue diverse associations.

Highlighting that the background culture of modern democratic societies is marked by diversity is really nothing new or particularly illuminating. This is a fairly common phenomenon we are all quite familiar with in most large westernized cities. What is new, and what Rawls appreciated with incredible insight, is that this mounting diversity introduces a particularly puzzling justificatory problem for democracy. This justificatory problem can be stated as follows: if the diverse beliefs that we all hold are irreconcilable and conflicting, which beliefs can be used to justify the democratic system itself? Put differently, if I am not willing to endorse a political system based on your beliefs — which I disagree with — but you are not willing to accept one based on mine either, is there any common ground left to serve as the basis for public justification that a democracy requieres? This problem is known by political philosophers as the paradox of democratic justification. Let me elaborate a bit further so that the paradox comes into sharper focus.

Any political system, including a democracy, prescribes the use of state power — through its corresponding system of justice — and sets the rules of the game as to what counts as legitimate coercion. In simple terms, the political decides what is lawful and what is not and empowers the government to use force (through the courts, the police, the military) to coerce you when you step out of line. But in a democracy, by definition, all citizens have an equal share of ultimate political power, meaning that no one is authorized to coerce others without the previous free consent of its fellow citizens. In a democracy, the system of justice — usually encapsulated in a constitution — has to be endorsed by all citizens in the light of principles and ideals each of them finds acceptable. What this means is that for the exercise of political power to be legitimate in a democratic setting, the reasons we would offer one another to justify coercion have to be stated in reciprocal terms everyone can endorse. This justificatory requirement is known as the principle of democratic legitimacy. And here lies the paradox: if democratic freedoms allow for our beliefs to grow so diverse that they seem now irreconcilable, how can we possibly find terms that are acceptable to all? What could those terms be? We all want a system that protects our freedom and maximizes our autonomous capacity to elect our beliefs; but in time this system becomes a victim of its own success: as diversity grows, the space of shared public reasons that can serve to justify the system itself grows thin and eventually disappears. We all agree that democracy is right in setting a high bar for justifying coercive power, but we seem to be at a loss when it comes to finding that common ground that can serve as the basis for public justification. To put this intuitively, think of democracy as a system justified by principles that intercept in a Venn diagram where each sphere represents a set of different world views. If each sphere becomes more and more distinct pulling away from other spheres as diversity increases, the overlapping section of the diagram becomes smaller and smaller and democracy is on thin ice.

Divisive political controversies are recurrent in a democratic society, particularly when it grows ever more diverse, but the shared reasons we can appeal to in order to settle the disputes seem to have been vacated by the rise of diversity. In a paradoxical way, it seems as if too much democracy cannibalizes itself. Are we then condemned to a tense and fragile democracy that has lost its shared justifiability and is constantly abused or at risk of destruction by those able to get away with advancing their own case? Is there a way out of this conundrum?

Freestanding Politics

The first step that Rawls takes in trying to answer this dilemma is to redefine the political as “freestanding”, i.e., separate and independent from the rest of our religious, moral and philosophical beliefs — which he groups under the tag of “comprehensive doctrines”. Since the demanding justificatory requirements of a democracy make it impossible to ground its laws on beliefs that some citizens won’t find acceptable, we need to toss away the old idea that politics derives from a particular comprehensive doctrine. As Rawls explains, “beginning with Greek thought the dominant tradition seems to have been that there is but one reasonable and rational conception of the good. The aim of political philosophy — always viewed as part of moral philosophy, together with theology and metaphysics — was then to determine its nature and content.” But as he immediately counters “the question the dominant tradition has tried to answer has no answer: no comprehensive doctrine is appropriate as a political conception for a constitutional regime”. Under a world of extreme diversity, we can no longer favor a particular conception of how we should all live and which goals we should all pursue without trumping over the legitimate liberty of others. The old paradigm of politics where institutions and laws were justifiable to the extent that they effectively promoted a certain vision of the good can no longer be applied in a world where we fundamentally disagree about what counts as the good. Even the Enlightenment itself with its broad liberal and secular philosophy is denounced by Rawls as failing to meet the principle of democratic justification as it attempts to build a political system from terms not all citizens — mainly religious ones — would agree with. Hence Rawls clarification that his “political liberalism is not a form of Enlightenment liberalism, that is, a comprehensive liberal and often secular doctrine founded on reason and viewed as suitable for the modern age now that the religious authority of Christian ages is said to be no longer dominant”.

Rawls sees himself then as breaking with the dominant tradition of political thought in the west and affirms that, in this new diverse world which democracy has facilitated, the justification of political power cannot come from religion, philosophical schools nor shared moral traditions. If the justification for certain laws (which always entail a coercive use of government’s power) comes from religion, it will violate the principle of democratic justification, since not all citizens are expected to accept religious reasons as the source of laws that will ultimately curtail their liberty. And the same goes for philosophical and moral traditions (including even secular ones): if for instance the justification of certain laws is derived from an enlightened idea of human beings as sharing universal reason — as Kant did — or from utilitarian calculus of the greater good — as Mill recommended — , religious members of society can in turn object to what they see as an unacceptable secular imposition.

If our priced religious, moral and philosophical beliefs cannot serve as the basis for public justification of the political in a plural society, then how do we proceed? As hinted above, Rawls key first step for a solution lies in the introduction of the idea of a “freestanding” politics, that is, a politics that is not derived nor sustained by any of our conflicting comprehensive doctrines. To start grasping the distinction between a freestanding conception of the political and our regular comprehensive doctrines (containing our religious, moral and philosophical beliefs), Rawls asks us to think of the principles of justice “as designed to form the social world in which our character and our conception of ourselves as persons, as well as our comprehensive views and their conceptions of the good, are first acquired.” In other words, he asks us to think about the political as the framework under which we pursue our diverse set of goals and personal ends. The framework is freestanding in the sense that it has primacy over whatever goods we pursue within its boundaries, and consequently has to stand alone even before any religious, moral or philosophical ideas are introduced. To bring this point home, Rawls asks us to think about what happens when any of our cherished conceptions of the good changes either over time or abruptly. When these changes in religious, moral and philosophical beliefs happen we often go as far as to say that we are no longer the same person. But despite these changes, our political self and institutional identity and rights remain intact. It is precisely in this sense that the political is freestanding. As Rawls puts it beautifully, “on the road to Damascus Saul of Tarsus becomes Paul the Apostle. Yet such a conversion implies no change in public or institutional identity.” The now late Mohammed Ali could have served as a more modern example. Summing up, a freestanding conception of political justice stands apart from our beliefs in the sense that it constitutes the institutional framework that enables us to become autonomous citizens with the capacity to pursue our own ends.

But even if we accept Rawls’ proposal that political philosophy needs to present itself in its own freestanding terms and apart from our loaded religious, moral and philosophical beliefs, the question of how do we exactly achieve this remains. To flesh out how a freestanding political conception of justice would actually work, Rawls introduces what is probably his most powerful idea: the concept of the reasonable.

Reasonableness, Neutrality and the Limits of Toleration

In the politics of a modern democracy, with its abundant diversity of world views, what citizens regard as the full truth (the complete scope of their beliefs) is contested to the point of being irreconcilable. If politics is then really aiming at being freestanding as to avoid taking sides, it needs to stand outside the disputed realm of truth. Any claim of truthfulness would immediately put the political in competition with other beliefs and would insert it back into a particular philosophical, religious or moral tradition. So instead of making any truth claims, Rawls’ political liberalism refers to its political conception of justice as reasonable.

As Rawls defines it, for an idea or for someone to be reasonable it has to exhibit two main characteristics: 1) it has to respect the principle of democratic justification — meaning that it has to propose terms of social cooperation that others as free and equal might also endorse — and 2) it has to recognize what Rawls calls “the burdens of judgement” — the fact that other citizens in their honest search for truth can arrive at different religious, moral and philosophical beliefs. When you put these two elements together, you can say that a reasonable politics or a reasonable person is one that offers terms of cooperation that are reciprocal and that refrains from using political power to favor their own worldview or to repress that of other reasonable fellows. Essentially, a reasonable person recognizes that the full truth is divisive and unlikely to be attained, and as such accepts the limits that this fact places on what can be brought into the political. If one is reasonable, one is aware that attempting to elevate one’s worldview into political mandates is coercive, thus one refrains from legislating from one’s beliefs. This requirement of the political virtue of reasonableness so defined allows Rawls to arrive at one of the central theses of his political liberalism: in a diverse world like ours, for a conception of justice to be reasonable, it has to be neutral amongst irreconcilable religious, moral and philosophical doctrines. By neutral Rawls means that the political should not express preferences nor promote any particular set of beliefs nor try to sway individuals into embracing a specific worldview. A politics that sides with a particular comprehensive doctrine — be it religious or secular — is unreasonable and hence illegitimate.

Importantly though, neutrality has boundaries: it is delimited by the reasonableness of comprehensive doctrines themselves. In other words, if a worldview is not reasonable, i.e., if it attempts to forcefully impose on others its particular version of the good, then the political is in fact licensed to suppress it. Not in the name of other competing version of the good, but by virtue of the unreasonable attempt at coopting the political. In essence, what this means is that while the state should strive to remain neutral towards conflicting beliefs, toleration has its limits. But for political liberalism, these limits are political in nature and shaped by the virtue of reasonableness, not by any particular conception of men as gifted with a moral, religious or philosophical capacity to tolerate. In Rawls’ political liberalism, toleration is both a right earned by those that are reasonable, and a practice required of them towards fellow reasonable citizens.

The Original Position: Simulating Reasonableness

With the virtue of reasonableness now established as the standard against which a freestanding political conception of justice is to be evaluated — as opposed to the traditional approach of evaluating its truthfulness — Rawls can finally start making the case for his own vision of justice. Yet the requirement of neutrality that reasonableness demands seems to be a difficult restriction to meet for us rational individuals who would under normal conditions favor our version of the good and reason from our deeply held beliefs. So in order to generate the right conditions as to facilitate reasonable deliberation, Rawls argues that we must find a point of view from which the distortions of our own particular circumstances can be set aside. It is at this stage that he introduces his famous idea of the Original Position. In essence, the Original Position is a theoretical simulation that allows us to be the most reasonable that we can be. When we are in it, we are cloaked by a “veil of ignorance” that restricts our knowledge as to what our social circumstances and conceptions of the good are. In Rawls words, “features relating to social position, native endowment, and historical accident, as well as to the content of persons’ determinate conceptions of the good, are irrelevant, politically speaking, and hence placed behind the veil of ignorance.” Rawls contends that placed under such conditions we would offer each other a political conception of justice that is the most reasonable since we would not be committed to any particular comprehensive doctrine and we would only be preoccupied with setting an institutional framework that is fair — irrespective of the beliefs and social position we end up having when the veil is lifted.

Rawls contends that his version of justice — dubbed ‘Justice as Fairness’ — is a plausible outcome of the Original Position since the basic political ideas that it endorses — an array of basic rights and liberties, fair equality of opportunities and certain limits on social and economic inequality — are the most reasonable he can think of. This remains a liberal conception of justice in the sense that basic liberties such as liberty of conscience, freedom of association and freedom of speech are given priority over any other general claims or values, and such liberties and rights apply on equal footing to all citizens. But it is a political version of liberalism in the sense that its justification is freestanding, i.e., it is but a plausible logical consequence of the requirements of reasonableness as a political virtue, not derived from any comprehensive religious, moral or philosophical doctrine. In other words, if you accept that a reasonable person is one that respects the principle of democratic justification and that accepts that arriving at a single truth is not in the cards, then this person will plausibly favor an institutional framework that is liberal in nature. And this is a freestanding conclusion in the sense that, at least according to Rawls, no other religious, moral or philosophical considerations were called upon.

The Problem of Stability and the Overlapping Consensus

So far I have described how Rawls’ political liberalism consciously tackles the problem of democratic justification in societies profoundly divided by conflicting world-views. The realization that justice cannot be legitimately derived from any particular version of the good in a diverse society leads to the search for a freestanding politics that no longer yearns for truth but for reasonableness instead. And thanks to the mental experiment of the Original Position, Rawls offers what he argues is a plausible reasonable framework of justice for a diverse democracy. His ideologically neutral and purely political version of liberalism emerges as a result.

But one final problem remains in Rawls’ mind: the problem of stability. What if after the veil of ignorance is lifted we cannot reconcile our own beliefs with the institutional framework we agreed while in the Original Position? We will probably still have to swallow the result since we likely don’t have the means or political power to impose our own worldview. But Rawls thinks this as an unsatisfactory and unstable outcome. What Rawls really wants and expects is that once the veil is lifted, we will find enough resources within our comprehensive doctrines to support the political arrangement we now find ourselves in. So while our own version of the truth should not ground the political per se, it should still provide enough resources to support it. Here Rawls turns to the idea of an ‘overlapping consensus’ of reasonable comprehensive doctrines. Once again, the key to understand what Rawls means by an overlapping consensus hinges on it being reasonable. Let me elaborate.

We might fundamentally disagree about our religious, moral and philosophical beliefs but if we uphold the requirements of reasonableness — i.e., if we respect the principle of democratic justification and accept the burdens of judgement — then there will be enough overlap amongst us as to facilitate a consensus at a political level. The fact that our comprehensive doctrines are reasonable is what ties them all together in an overlapping consensus — despite of their fundamental disagreements at the level of what the truth is. Think about the idea of a Venn diagram again. While in a diverse democracy the spheres might remain distant from each other at the level of the truth, they might still overlap in their capacity to embrace the virtue of reasonableness. How each religion, philosophy or moral tradition justifies to itself the need to respect the virtue of reasonableness is not of political liberalism’s concern. What is of fundamental concern is that they do somehow find the resources within them to do so. In sum, for a democracy to be stable in an environment of irreconcilable diversity, the comprehensive doctrines of its citizens need to be reasonable. This requirement of reasonableness carries tremendous practical consequences that I will explore in closing.

The Unreasonable and the Rise of Fundamentalism

Despite its many critics and the vast literature around the multiple philosophical shortcomings of Rawls’ political liberalism, the reality is that its central ideas shape to a great extent the de facto modus operandi of late democratic societies in our day and age. The state promotion of basic rights and liberties together with the aim of staying neutral amongst the irreconcilable world-views of its citizens are salient features of our current democracies. In his last State of the Union speech as the President of the United States, Barack Obama echoed Rawlsian ideas when he warned that “there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background. We can’t afford to go down that path. (…) Whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen.” The idea that there is a freestanding network of justice that takes primacy to what we happen to believe is at the center of what we hope today would promote the stability of our diverse democracies. But as Rawls brilliantly articulated, this hope depends above all on everyone’s acceptance of the virtue of reasonableness. Unreasonable citizens cannot follow Obama’s plead that whatever you may believe you need to uphold your obligations as a citizen — which in essence demand what Rawls’ idea of the reasonable calls for: the recognition that diversity sets limits as to what can be brought into the political.

Rawls was fully honest in recognizing that if citizens fail to uphold the virtue of reasonableness, the whole edifice of liberal democracy would be in peril. At one point he asks “what if it turns out that the principles of justice as fairness cannot gain the support of reasonable doctrines, so that the case for stability fails?” His answer was clear: “Justice as fairness as we have stated it is then in difficulty.” When he wrote his Political Liberalism in the nineties there were still reasons for cautious optimism that most religious and secular outcomes could support a constitutional democratic regime by drawing from resources within their own world-views. But even then he knew this was a stretch: “Here I shall suppose — perhaps too optimistically — that, except for certain kinds of fundamentalism, all the main historical religions admit of such an account and thus may be seen as reasonable comprehensive doctrines.” In our post 9/11 world, we can certainly see that his optimism was naive to say the least. If the stability of our plural democracies really hinges on getting others to sign up on the idea that “holding a political conception as true, and for that reason alone the one suitable basis of public reason, is exclusive, even sectarian, and so likely to foster political division” then we are really in deep trouble. There is nothing political liberalism can say to those looking to elevate their own version of the good into political mandates other than flagging that they are being unreasonable. Rawls is again keenly aware of this limitation when discussing how to react to fundamentalism: “We simply say that such a doctrine is politically unreasonable. Within political liberalism nothing more need be said.”

Since we have little to say to unreasonable actors other than pointing out their lack of reasonableness — which is in all likelihood bound to be an ineffective strategy — the only thing left for political liberalism is then “the practical task of containing them — like war and disease — so that they do not overturn political justice.” By drawing the limits of what can be tolerated at the frontiers of reasonableness, political liberalism licenses the state to squash fundamentalism like a disease. But what if the disease has grown so large that attempting to forcefully remove it only leads to growing metastasis? This, I believe, is the situation in which we find ourselves today. As I said at the outset, the great value of understanding Rawls’ argument is that one comes to appreciate fully why the conditions required for political liberalism to work are now beyond our reach. The truth is that the question of Rawls’ generation was a kinder one: “How is it possible that deeply opposed though reasonable comprehensive doctrines may live together and all affirm the political conception of a constitutional regime?” Remove the words in italics and you have the far more difficult task of our generation. If anything I explained so far is clear is that political liberalism — despite its good intentions — is no longer the answer. Beyond the frontiers of the reasonable, insisting on Rawls’ brand of liberalism wont get us far.