Be Reasonable: Thoughts from John Rawls

The late Harvard philosopher, John Rawls, wrote one of the most influential works in 20th century political thought — his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice. Twenty-two years later, he updated some of his ideas from A Theory of Justice with in Political Liberalism. In both of those works, Rawls seeks to lay out a comprehensive philosophical framework for an egalitarian / social justice conception of liberalism. As part of that, he covers the twin concepts of rationality and what it means to be reasonable.

People may debate whether or not Rawls’ philosophy is liberal. Though we will not attempt to outline his entire philosophical system here, some of his thoughts on being reasonable, particularly from Political Liberalism, appear especially relevant today. So, what does it mean to be reasonable?

Being Reasonable Requires Reciprocity

Rawls writes that

Persons are reasonable in one basic aspect when, among equals say, they are ready to propose principles and standards as fair terms of cooperation and to abide by them willingly, given the assurance that others will likewise do so.

Let’s unpack what he is saying a bit. Assume that you are speaking with a group of your peers about political principles. In that discussion, everyone in your group is advocating different ideas or principles. It is reasonable to advocate principles that you, yourself, are are willing to live by. Reciprocity is part of being reasonable. You must abide by rules you propose for others.

Being reasonable is, thus, “public in a way that rational is not.” Here, we contrast being reasonable with being rational. Rationality is concerned with rules of logic. Being reasonable has to do with what might be appropriate to propose to others.

Acknowledging Competing Life Goals

Rawls continues

[i]n a reasonable society, . . . all have their own rational ends they hope to advance, and all stand ready to propose fair terms that others may reasonably be expected to accept, so that all may benefit and improve on what everyone can do on their own.

People are different. People seek different things out of life. Members of society must be willing to propose reasonable rules to govern society. These rules, though must not only pass the reciprocity test, but there has to be a realistic expectation that others can accept the rules. Since people have different goals for their lives, reasonable rules will be those that can be very broadly accepted. A prohibition on murder, for instance, would appear to meet this requirement.

Assume that we take seriously the requirement that reasonable rules will be voluntarily accepted. The outcome of that is a minimal set of enforced societal rules. If the rules are to be voluntarily accepted, they must appeal to people with widely different conceptions of the good life. If that is true, we can expect that the rules will involve minimal constraints on how people choose to organize their lives. In a reasonable society, we will seek to compel or constrain other’s behavior as little as possible.

Someone might object that a rule of voluntary acceptance can’t work. There won’t be unanimous support for many rules. The need for general acceptance does not seriously require absolutely unanimous consent. It simply would not be reasonable to take Rawls to that extreme.

Being Reasonable Required for Cooperation

Rawls continues:

Reasonable persons, we say, are not moved by the general good as such but desire for its own sake a social world in which they, as free and equal, can cooperate with others on terms all can accept. They insist that reciprocity should hold within that world so that each benefits along with others.

By contrast, people are unreasonable . . . when they plan to engage in cooperative schemes but are unwilling to honor, or even to propose, except as a necessary public pretense, any general principles or standards for specifying fair terms of cooperation. They are ready to violate such terms when circumstances allow.

Rawls says reasonable people see cooperation as more important than everyone adhering to the same concept of the common good. There is more to it, though. Social cooperation requires being reasonable. Being reasonable, further, requires acknowledging that others may have and seek to pursue different goals. It means allowing people with differing conceptions of the good to, as much as possible, pursue their conceptions of the good.

Reasonableness, Burdens of Judgment, and Disagreement

Rawls goes on to say that another aspect of being reasonable is “the willingness to recognize the burdens of judgment and to accept their consequences for the use of public reason in directing the legitimate exercise of political power in a constitutional regime.”

This takes us to the notion of reasonable disagreement. What if you have reasonable people who disagree? Rawls writes that “[r]easonable disagreement involves an account of the sources, or causes, of disagreement between reasonable persons. . . . I refer to [these] as the burdens of judgment.”

Rawls provides several examples of these causes of disagreement, or burdens of judgment.

  • First, empirical evidence on a question may be conflicting or complex, making it hard to evaluate.
  • Second, even if we agree about what is relevant to a question, we may disagree about which are most important. For example, if we agree that the cost of a government policy is a factor we should consider along with some perceived benefit. If one person highly values the benefit while the other thinks the cost is the most important factor, disagreement about whether to implement such a policy is possible, even though both persons are reasonable.
  • Third, in some cases, we have to rely on judgment where reasonable people can disagree.
  • Fourth, our life experience will shape how we approach problems, and since we have different life experiences, we may disagree.

Reasonableness versus Authoritarianism

Ultimately, no one belief system will be readily accepted by all. The best we can accomplish is a broad agreement on some basic rules for how society will work. The only alternative would appear to be imposing a specific concept of the good on the people. Such an imposition would ultimately have to be by use of force or threat of force.

Most would consider such an option as completely unacceptable when considered in the abstract. How often, though, are we quick to seek to impose any particular conception of the good?

Writes Rawls (emphasis added):

Religious and philosophical doctrines express views of the world and of our life with one another, severally and collectively, as a whole. Our individual and associative points of view, intellectual affinities, and affective attachments, are too diverse, especially in a free society, to enable those doctrines to serve as the basis of lasting and reasoned political agreement. Different conceptions of the world can reasonably be elaborated from different standpoints and diversity arises in part from our distinct perspectives. It is unrealistic – or worse, it arouses mutual suspicion and hostility – to suppose that all our differences are rooted solely in ignorance and perversity, or else in the rivalries for power, status, or economic gain.

Do we not often call our adversaries “stupid,” “idiot,” or similar names? If we are to build common ground, should we not consciously bear the burdens of judgment as Rawls says? Should we not start with the presumption that our “adversaries” are reasonable? If we are having constant deep contention between seemingly reasonable competing belief systems, is it not possible that the political sphere is crowding out civil society and private life?