What does "deliberation" usually mean in John Rawls' theory of justice?


“Deliberation” can mean a long careful consideration or be used to describe a process of interaction between various subject. When being used in the second sense, it refers to a crucial component of democratic regime. In the writings of some political philosophers, e.g., Harbermas, deliberation always means the formal political discussion happened in a public space. But when Hobbes use “deliberation” in Leviathan, he definitely means by it consideration, in his terms, a mental state right before “desire”. Aristotle’s modern translators frequently use “deliberation” meaning consideration or calculation to render Aristotle’s thought. Therefore in philosophical writings, deliberation still has different meanings.

I was really puzzled by John Rawls’ use of “deliberation” in his Political Liberalism. He writes to present the structural features of a democratic regime. So it is tempted to think that he denotes an interaction between citizens by “deliberation”. However, mostly, he uses “deliberation” in this sort of context:

To conclude the account of how parities’ deliberations model citizen’s rational autonomy: this autonomy depends, we said, upon the interests that the parties are concerned to protect and not solely on their not being bound by any prior and independent principles of right and justice. (Rawls, Political Liberalism, p72)

Rational autonomy emphasizes only personal prudence or rational pursuit of one’s own aim. If deliberation or the description of deliberation in his political conception of justice is to model rational autonomy, then deliberation seems to mean not much than prudent consideration about how to realize one’s aim or the coherence of one’s aims.


Posted 2015-03-17T17:39:30.890

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It might be helpful to look at some of Rawls' earlier works to grasp what he's meaning by the term. I take it to refer back to the basic meaning of deliberation in a Theory of Justice.

The central image of a Theory of Justice is that we can arrive at a just society if we deliberate about how we would want society organized if we did not know where in society we would wind up. To put it another way, it's a game and we're making the rules before we play it. On the theory, we are going to produce something moderately fair because we would not in our rational deliberation pick a world where say we personally were tortured every day.

At least that's how I take him to be using the term. There's some evolution after the first work as we move towards the you're looking at. Reading the passage in question, I take Rawls to be saying the following things:

  1. Premise: There is no need for external pre-existing rights in the case of the deliberator (we don't need to make him deny that these exist here). Instead rights are created as consequences of the deliberation process.
  2. Parallel: Rational autonomy like the deliberation in question such that it produces its own list of desideratum without the need for prior commitments to other rights.

The idea in both cases is to avoid requiring sharp metaphysical commitments to get justice and modern liberal democracy respectively (with liberal here not referring to political leaning but to the idea of free rational agents).


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Two preliminaries

Two points about Rawlsian deliberation are that it is (a) public and (b) exclusivist. It is public in that it involves citizens deciding on their basic social and political arrangements, not (say) my deliberating on what type of car to buy.

It is exclusivist in that it disallows from public deliberation any ideas or arguments promoting 'substantive conceptions of the good',comprehensive views about what constitutes a good and valuable life - such views as are found in Christianity or Islam (in any of their versions), Judaism, Buddhism and the like. Rawls has no desire whatever - on the contrary - to impede the observance of any such views in the private lives of individuals or groups. His political point can be illustrated as follows : if as citizens we are deciding on our basic social and political arrangements, it is ruled out for me to say, 'We must do this, because it is laid down in the New Testament'. It may indeed be so laid down (not that the NT has much to say about politics) but this gives a Buddhist no reason for action. Public deliberation has to be conducted on shared assumptions.

Deliberation in Rawls

The starting-point of Rawls' political philosophy is what he calls "the fact of reasonable pluralism": Wherever conditions of free inquiry and expression obtain, citizens tend to develop different and incompatible views about what is right and wrong, and what constitutes a good and valuable life. Furthermore, the plurality is reasonable in the sense that we find it also among people we consider to be intellectually sophisticated. This plurality can only be reduced though coercion or manipulation that would violate citizens' basic rights and freedoms.

Given this reasonable pluralism, Rawls asks: how is it possible that a democratic society can function well and remain stable over time, even though its citizens hold quite different, albeit reasonable, views of which goals society should pursue? His reply is that we need to adopt a kind of exclusivism, and thus conduct public deliberation without falling back on motivations and arguments derived from our comprehensive doctrines. This is particularly important whenever "constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice" are at stake. In other spheres, gathered under the name "background culture", citizens should have the right to embrace and advocate more or less any comprehensive doctrine as they see fit, as long as they respect exclusivist restrictions in public deliberation.

So why exclude comprehensive doctrines from public deliberation? Here, we need to keep Rawls' social contract-approach to political philosophy in mind. In the "original position", citizens situated behind a veil of ignorance which deprive them of knowledge of their abilities and social status, as well as their respective conceptions of good, agree to submit to coercion in exchange for the benefits of a stable society. They will nevertheless object to coercion on grounds they cannot accept as valid. Now, Rawls argues, in pluralistic societies, any grounds for coercion that presuppose the truth of some comprehensive doctrines will be rejected as illegitimate by a significant number of citizens. Widespread use of comprehensive doctrines in public deliberation marginalizes minorities, which may not consider future participation worthwhile. We may expect that the willingness to comply with majority decisions declines correspondingly.

Why is this kind of society not stable? Well, it may be stable on the surface if the majority is stable, and minorities only express their dissatisfaction by silently withdrawing from public deliberation. It fails, however, to be stable for the right reasons, and shifts in the relative strength of different comprehensive doctrines open for bitter conflicts.

In exclusivist societies, on the other hand, even those who disagree with some or several majority decisions will feel obliged to comply with them, since they can acknowledge the motivations and grounds offered, even in the cases where they disagree with the decision in question.

As a substitute for comprehensive doctrines in the public sphere, Rawls presents public reason, which consists of well-established knowledge and insights from common sense and science (disputed and controversial points excluded), and the normative principles of justice that we would agree to behind a veil of ignorance. The first of these principles is The principle of liberty, stating that "each citizen has a right to the most extensive freedom which can be combined with the same degree of freedom for everybody else". The second principle, subordinated to the first, can be split into two "sub-principles": The difference principle, which states that "social and economic inequalities are only acceptable if they benefit the weakest in society", and The prin- ciple of fair opportunity, which states that society should be ordered in such a way that "social and economic privileges are tied to positions that are open to all". Rawls claims that public reason gives sufficient guidance for most, if not all, questions of public deliberation. (Ulf Zackariasson, 'A Critique of Foundationalist Conceptions of Comprehensive Doctrines in the Religion in Politics-Debate', International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Feb., 2009), pp. 11-28 : 13-14.)


Ulf Zackariasson, 'A Critique of Foundationalist Conceptions of Comprehensive Doctrines in the Religion in Politics-Debate', International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 65, No. 1 (Feb., 2009), pp. 11-28.

There is a large literature on the nature, coherence and validity of public reason. The issues are too numerous and complex to go into here but you might look up :

Robert Westmoreland, 'The Truth about Public Reason', Law and Philosophy Vol. 18, No. 3 (May, 1999), pp. 271-296.

Fred M. Frohock, Public reason : mediated authority in the liberal state. ISBN 10: 080143677X / ISBN 13: 9780801436772.

Natural Law and Public Reason, ISBN 10: 0878407669 / ISBN 13: 9780878407668 Published by Georgetown University Press, United States, 2000.

Geoffrey Thomas

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