World Philosophy Day: Part 2 – Overlapping Consensus

by Quentin Wodon 

The question of what social justice requires is important for those involved in service and development work. Service work can be conceived as humanitarian, but it can also be conceived as a response to injustice. In the first post of this 3-part series on the occasion of World Philosophy Day, the answer provided by philosopher John Rawls to the question “what is social justice?” was briefly sketched. In this second post, the focus is on the communitarian critique of Rawls, his response, and (yes!) how it could perhaps apply to Rotary.

Overlapping Consensus
Overlapping Consensus

Neutrality of Justice as Fairness

In Theory of Justice, Rawls relied on a social contract framework. He used the device of a fictive original position to suggest two principles of justice that should govern just societies. Representative individuals adopt in the original position the principles that will govern their social cooperation. A veil of ignorance prevents them from knowing which position they might occupy in society, so that they do not argue in favor of principles that would be to their own advantage. The representative individuals are nevertheless self-interested and values such as altruism or faith seem to be excluded from the original position.

Rawls seems to strip the representative individuals from any substantive moral principles, such as those that could be associated with comprehensive religious doctrines. The original position, and thereby the conception of social justice that emerges from it – justice as fairness, is neutral with respect to comprehensive doctrines of the good. Since these doctrines are not shared by all, they should not be imposed on all. The original position device aims to ensure that this will be the case when selecting the principles of justice that will govern social cooperation. This however leads to a number of communitarian critiques of Rawls, as expressed among others by Michael Sandel in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice.

Communitarian Critique

A first communitarian critique is that Rawls’ theory is not actually neutral. The “neutral” view that Rawls proposes is a secular liberal view (liberal in the specific sense that government should be neutral between competing conceptions of the good). But we all have our own worldviews. We cannot escape them. Instead of adopting an apparently neutral worldview, we would be better off openly discussing the strengths and weaknesses of competing worldviews, try to persuade others of the merits of our view, and then vote!

A second communitarian critique is that Rawls’ theory is not actually feasible. Even if we would like to adopt his liberal approach, we cannot simply shed our moral and religious convictions when entering debate in the public sphere. When deciding about laws, don’t we base our views in large part on our deepest moral or religious convictions? The idea of the original position is not only fictive – it is also not practical. We are not ‘unencumbered’ liberal selves, so we cannot be impartial and unbiased. We are connected to others and to our communities, and this defines who we are and how we view the world.

Apart from a lack of neutrality and a lack of feasibility, a third communitarian critique is that Rawls’ approach may also be not desirable. Do we actually want to remove deep moral or religious convictions from the public debate about what the principles of justice should be? Rawls’ approach is a deontological liberalism – it seems to put an absolute priority on the rights of individuals to lead the life they choose over the good of the community. Shouldn’t what is conceived as right depend on the understanding of what the good calls for?

Rawls’ Response

Rawls responded to communitarian and other critiques through a series of articles and ultimately through the publication of Political Liberalism. The question asked in that book is whether a stable and just society comprising of free and equal citizens can flourish when the members of that society hold reasonable but incompatible religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines. History shows that achieving consensus between philosophical and religious doctrines is unlikely to succeed. The alternative is to consider a political rather than comprehensive conception of justice. If the principles of justice cannot be derived from moral/religious doctrines because there is no agreement on these doctrines, they must be derived from a political understanding of society as a fair system of social cooperation.

Rawls hopes that his principles of justice can gain the support of an “overlapping consensus” of reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines. Even though individuals may disagree on religious, philosophical, or moral grounds, they may still be able to agree on the principles of justice proposed. If such an overlapping consensus is reached, then the society will be stable and well-ordered with free and equal citizens who respect each other. Political liberalism holds that public political values do have priority in the public debate about social cooperation over comprehensive doctrines of the good. But this priority holds only for public reason and constitutional essentials pertaining to the basic structure of societies. This leaves citizens free to adopt in their life their own conception of the good.

Ideally, the acceptance of the principles of justice that regulate social cooperation does not simply result from a modus vivendi, but is actually embraced by free and equal citizens as part of their own comprehensive doctrines. If the overlapping consensus is achieved, citizens will not discard their own beliefs, but in matters of the public square they will be tolerant of the views of others and all will jointly uphold the principles of justice agreed upon. Achieving the overlapping consensus is the way for pluralistic liberal societies to practice tolerance while avoiding the risk that a majority could impose its comprehensive views on minorities.

A Note on Rotary

I realize that this whole discussion is a bit conceptual, but as mentioned in the first post of this 3-part series, it may be worth once in a while to discuss issues of social justice and ethics on this blog. One could perhaps argue that service organizations put in practice the idea of the overlapping consensus in their own limited way. The analogy is of course rather imperfect, because service clubs are private organizations and Rawls applied the idea of the overlapping to the public sphere. But Rotarians do come from many different horizons and worldviews.  This is certainluy true worldwide, but also at the level of clubs and districts.

In my club in the capital city of Washington, DC, some members are Republican, others Democrat, and still others Independent. Judging from the words of inspiration shared at the beginning of each weekly meeting, many are religious, but some are not. And while a majority are likely to be Christian, many different denominations are represented, and some members believe in other religions.

If the idea of the overlapping consensus is at work within Rotary, it is – hopefully – around the ideal of service towards the less fortunate. This ideal should motivate members who hold fairly different worldviews. There is always, as with any organization, somewhat of a gap between reality and ideals, but the ideal of service above self is reasonably utopian, as Rawls could say. It must be kept strong as the motivating force behind what the organization and its members actually do. In the third post of this series, the key question for Rawls of who the least fortunate are, and whether Rotary is succeeding in serving them, will be discussed.