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Autonomy and Disagreement about

Justice in Political Liberalism*

Paul Weithman
Rawls says in Political Liberalism that the focus of an overlapping consensus is [more
likely to be] a class of liberal conceptions than a single one. In conceding that
members of the well-ordered society are unlikely to live up to justice as fairness,
Rawls would seem to have conceded that they are also unlikely to live autonomously.
This is exactly the conclusion some commentators have drawn. I contend that the
likelihood of reasonable pluralism about justice does not have the implication
for Rawlss project that it is said to have: political autonomy remains available
even when such pluralism obtains.

One of the aims of John Rawlss work was to identify conditions a society
must satisfy if its members are to live justly. Another was the Kantian aim
of identifying conditions a society must satisfy if its citizens are to live
freely. In the bulk of his writingmost obviously in A Theory of Justice and
his Dewey LecturesRawls pursued the second aim by pursuing the first:
he argued that citizens of a society well ordered by justice as fairness would
live freely by living justly. The form of freedom they would enjoy would be
autonomy, for the principles of justice from which they would act would
be principles they would give themselves.
The stability arguments of A Theory of Justice exploited the fact that
in a well-ordered society, living autonomously and living justly come to
the same thing. For Rawls assumed that members of a well-ordered soci-
ety would all have a rational desire to express their nature as free and
equal moral persons. He argued that they could do that by acting from

* I presented previous versions of this article to the Stanford Political Theory Work-
shop and to a symposium on the 25th anniversary of Political Liberalism organized by the
Jean Beer Blumenfeld Center for Ethics at Georgia State University. I am especially grateful
to Eamann Callan, Rainer Frst, Michael Friedman, Gerald Gaus, Rob Reich, Henry Rich-
ardson, Debra Satz, Christopher Shields, John Skorupski, Chad Van Schoelandt, and two
anonymous reviewers for Ethics for their helpful comments on earlier versions.

Ethics 128 (October 2017): 95122


2017 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0014 -1704/2017/12801-0006$10.00

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96 Ethics October 2017
principles they would give themselves in the original position, where they
are represented as such persons. Since someones good consists in the
satisfaction of her rational desires, Rawls inferred that acting autono-
mously would be part of everyones good. And since living autonomously
and living justly come to the same thing, the fact that members of the
well-ordered society would find it good to live autonomously implied that
they would find it good to live justly. The fact that they would was sup-
posed to stabilize the contract arrived at in the original position.1
Some of the most eloquent passages in A Theory of Justice are found
in the culmination of Rawlss stability argument, where he says why au-
tonomy is a good. But as is well known, Rawls came to think that that ar-
gument failed because it assumed that everyones conceptions of the good
would converge on the desire to express their common nature. That as-
sumption, Rawls came to think, was inconsistent with the fact of pluralism.
He therefore recast justice as fairness as a political liberalism and argued
that agreement on his principles of justice would be stabilized by an over-
lapping consensus.2 Rawls gave the fullest presentation of his reformulated
view in the book whose anniversary this issue celebrates: Political Liberalism.
As Gerald Gaus and Chad Van Schoelandt note in their contribution
to this symposium, one early reader likened A Theory of Justice to a Gothic
cathedral. By contrast, Political Liberalism sometimes seems to present a
structure whose pieces are less harmoniously integrated because its re-
construction is still under way. One piece of the Rawlsian edifice that seemed
still to be under construction in Political Liberalism was that connecting jus-
tice and autonomy. In much of Political Liberalism, Rawls writes as if the ob-
ject of an overlapping consensus would be justice as fairness. As we shall
see, citizens participation even in that consensus complicates Rawlss ac-
count of what it is for some of them to live autonomously. But matters are
further complicated by a surprising concession Rawls makes in Political
Liberalism. He says that the focus of an overlapping consensus is [more
likely to be] a class of liberal conceptions than the single conception he
had long elaborated.3 For reasons that will become clear later, I call the
state of affairs that obtains when this possibility is realized reasonable plural-
ism about justice.

1. This paragraph summarizes the arguments of John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cam-
bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 501 and 503.
2. Crudely put, the Rawls of A Theory of Justice had argued that in the well-ordered so-
ciety, there is a stabilizing desirethe desire to express ones naturewhich is common to
everyones conception of the good. The later Rawls reverses the order of the quantifiers,
arguing that everyones conception of the good includes some stabilizing desires, desires
that may differ from conception to conception.
3. John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 164.

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Weithman Autonomy and Disagreement about Justice 97
Rawlss concession may seem to signal his recognition that the ground
had shifted under his feet. A broadly liberal, redistributive consensus pre-
vailed in the north Atlantic democracies during the time Rawls was writing
A Theory of Justice.4 It may then have seemed realistic to think that there
could be stable agreement on a conception of justice that carried the
terms of that consensus to their logical conclusion. By the time Rawls wrote
Political Liberalism, that consensus had been subject to considerable strains.
Even so, much of the book suggests he thought that the fundamental prob-
lem of political liberalism could be answered by showing the possibility of
an overlapping consensus on a single conception of justice.5 Perhaps Rawls
eventually conceded the likelihood of pluralism about justice because he
came to think that those tectonic strains and shifts showed the limits of lib-
eral institutions ability to reproduce themselves, and that political philoso-
phy must reckon with those limitsjust as he turned to political liberalism
because he thought that it must reckon with their inability to bring about
free agreement on the good.
Whether or not these speculations are right, Rawlss concession
heightens the sense that the reconstruction he undertook in Political Lib-
eralism was incomplete, since it raises questions about his Kantian aim that
he did not formulate or address. For in conceding that members of the
well-ordered society are unlikely stably to converge on justice as fairness,
Rawls would seem to have conceded that it is unlikely they would live au-
tonomously. This is just the conclusion some readers have drawn, and
drawn for reasons the analysis of Section IV.B below will help to clarify.6
My own view is thatfor reasons I shall discuss in Section Vthe possi-

4. See, e.g., Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Politics of Hope (Cambridge, MA: Riverside,
1962), 9293.
5. Rawls states the fundamental problem of political liberalism thus: How is it possi-
ble that there may exist over time a stable and just society of free and equal citizens pro-
foundly divided by reasonable though incompatible religious, philosophical and moral
doctrines? (Political Liberalism, xxxix).
6. Samuel Freeman, Justice and the Social Contract (New York: Oxford University Press,
2009), 256. Gerald Gaus locates Rawls in the tradition of what he calls public reason lib-
eralism. The central tenet of that tradition is that principles of justice, laws, and policies
must be justifiable to those upon whom they are enforced. To justify them is to show those
subject to them that there are good reasons to comply with them. When subjects are pro-
vided with such reasons, and when they recognize those reasons as good ones, the compli-
ance that results is free rather than coerced. Indeed, Gaus thinks that it is autonomous; see
Gerald F. Gaus and Kevin Vallier, The Role of Religious Conviction in a Publicly Justified
Polity: The Implications of Convergence, Asymmetry and Political Institutions, Philosophy
and Social Criticism 35 (2009): 5176, 52. But Gaus thinks that admitting the possibility of
reasonable pluralism about justice leaves Rawls unable to justify the enforcement of his
principles. The upshot of Gauss reading therefore seems to be the same as the upshot of
Freemans: that Rawls has to give up on autonomy.

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98 Ethics October 2017
bility of living autonomously remained important to Rawls even after his
turn to political liberalism, when he began to describe the relevant kind
of autonomy as political. I therefore think that the conclusion that
members of a Rawlsian society would not be autonomous would, if true,
be extremely troubling.7
I shall contend that the likelihood of reasonable pluralism about
justice does not have the implication it is said to have. For once Rawls
discarded the stability argument of A Theory of Justice, he no longer needed
the claim that acting from his own two principles and living autonomously
come to the same thing. It was then open to him to argue that citizens
could do one without doing the other, and to conclude that it is possible
for them to live autonomously while living under other conceptions of jus-
tice than justice as fairness. That is not a conclusion for which Rawls him-
self offered an argument, but it is the one I shall defend here.

I. FULL AUTONOMY: POLITICAL NOT ETHICAL

In Political Liberalism, Rawls says that members of a well-ordered society


enjoy what he called full autonomy.8 He insists that full autonomy is
political not ethical, and he stresses that contrast in the description of
full autonomy he gives in the second essay in Political Liberalism. There
Rawls says,

It is citizens of a well-ordered society who are fully autonomous. This


means that in their conduct citizens not only comply with the prin-
ciples of justice, but they also act from these principles as just. More-
over, they recognize these principles as those that would be adopted
in the original position. It is in their public recognition and informed
application of the principles of justice in their political life, and as
their effective sense of justice directs, that citizens achieve full auton-
omy. Thus, full autonomy is realized by citizens when they act from
principles of justice that specify the fair terms of cooperation they
would give to themselves when fairly represented as free and equal
persons.
Here I stress that full autonomy is achieved by citizens: it is a po-
litical and not an ethical value. By that I mean that it is realized in
public life by affirming the political principles of justice and enjoy-
ing the protections of the basic rights and liberties; it is also realized

7. Gerald Gaus says that admitting the possibility of reasonable pluralism about justice
casts Rawlss theory into disarray. Gerald Gaus, Is Public Reason a Normalization Proj-
ect?, http://www.gaus.biz/PublicReasonNormalization.pdf, 5.
8. The quoted phrase in the section heading is from Rawls, Political Liberalism, 77,
where it serves as the title of essay II, sec. 6.

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Weithman Autonomy and Disagreement about Justice 99
by participating in societys public affairs and sharing in its collec-
tive self-determination over time. This full autonomy of political life
must be distinguished from the ethical values of autonomy and in-
dividuality, which may apply to the whole of life, both social and in-
dividual, as expressed by the comprehensive liberalisms of Kant and
Mill.9

I believe that this difficult passage can be mined for the conditions of full
autonomy as Rawls understands it. I enumerate those conditions in the
next section. In this section, I take up the question to which Rawls gives
a perfunctory answer in the first sentence of the passage, that of who re-
alizes full autonomy. For as will emerge in Section III, it is only by seeing
who realizes full autonomy that we can see how some of its conditions are
satisfied.
At the beginning of the passage, Rawls says that it is citizens of a well-
ordered society who are fully autonomous (emphasis added). Context
makes clear that Rawls is contrasting citizens, who are fully autonomous,
with parties in the original position, who are rationally autonomous. He is
not contrasting citizens with resident aliens or illegal immigrants, since
everyone in the well-ordered society is assumed to be a citizen. That means
that everyone in the well-ordered society can achieve full autonomy. Why,
then, does Rawls say that it is achieved by citizens specifically rather than
by persons or by members of the well-ordered society?
Rawlss word choice serves both as a reminder that members of a
well-ordered society can be viewed under a variety of descriptions and
as an assertion that they realize full autonomy only under the description
of them as citizens rather than as members of private associations or as
adherents of their religious or moral views. Citizens, considered as such,
have two moral powers: the capacity for a sense of justice and the capac-
ity to form and advance a conception of the good.10 They also have sta-
tus: they are self-authenticating sources of valid claims.11 Their status
does not depend on the particular good they choose to advance, on their
native endowments, or on the circumstances into which they were born.
When Rawls implies in the second sentence that citizens achieve full
autonomy in their conduct (emphasis added), I take him to imply that
they realize it just in their conduct as citizensthat is, just in their exer-
cise of their two defining capacities, independent of their view of the
good. And so I read the first and second sentences of the passage as to-
gether laying down a constraint on the predication of full autonomy: we

9. Ibid., 7778.
10. Ibid., xlvi.
11. Ibid., 33.

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100 Ethics October 2017
can say that members of a well-ordered society act fully autonomously,
but only when we work within the abstractions of Rawlsian moral psychol-
ogy and describe them as having the status and capacities of citizenship.
As we shall see, this condition holds because full autonomy is a result of
how their two defining capacities work together.
It is not clear from Rawlss text just how wide a range of activity fully
autonomously can modify. If what I said in the previous paragraph is cor-
rect, the activities to which the phrase applies are the activities character-
istic of citizenship. The third sentence suggests that Rawls thinks that
those activities consist of the public recognition and . . . application of
the principles of justice in . . . political life (emphasis added), and the last
sentence contrasts political life with the whole of life. These sentences
therefore suggest that fully autonomously modifies a subset of conduct.
There is a natural way of construing the phrase political life which
confirms the suggestion. On that construal, political life consists of vot-
ing, deliberating in the public forum, and otherwise participating in so-
cietys public affairs and sharing in its collective self-determination over
time. Thus, the phrase in public lifeand the contrast Rawls draws
in the last sentence between political life and the whole of lifemight
be taken to imply that in these activities alone can citizens act fully auton-
omously. Call this the narrow view of political life.
The narrow view provides an economical explanation of what it is
for full autonomy to be a political value. But it seems to be at odds with
Rawlss claim, in the penultimate sentence of the quoted passage, that
full autonomy is realized by enjoying the protections of the rights and lib-
erties, since we enjoy those protections outside political life narrowly con-
strued. The narrow view is also inconsistent with things Rawls says or im-
plies about full autonomy elsewhere in Political Liberalism. For example,
in The Basic Liberties and Their Priority, he says, Full autonomy in-
cludes not only th[e] capacity to be rational but also the capacity to ad-
vance our conception of the good in ways consistent with honoring the
fair terms of cooperation; that is, the principles of justice.12 This passage
suggests that in pursuing their good justly, members of the well-ordered
society act fully autonomously. Since they pursue their conceptions of
the good in a much broader range of activities than those that count as
political on the narrow view, the passage suggests that Rawls has a wider
view of public or political life in mind.13

12. Ibid., 306.


13. The suggestion seems to be confirmed in Reply to Habermas, where Rawls treats
of both public and private autonomy. Rawls does not define private autonomy, but he
says that it is specified by the liberties of the moderns (ibid., 410). He contrasts those lib-
erties with the liberties of the ancients, which are exercised in politics precisely as the nar-
row view understands it (see ibid., 299). I therefore take Rawls to hold that private autonomy

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Weithman Autonomy and Disagreement about Justice 101
I am not sure that it is possible to recover a precise account of what
Rawls means by political life from his texts. But we can make some head-
way by considering someonecall her Joanwho embarks on a reli-
gious way of life that demands total obedience. In embarking upon that
life, she performs an action with two facets, picked out by two complemen-
tary descriptions of Joan and her conduct. According to one description,
Joan acts as a lifelong adherent of her religion who responds to what she
takes to be her vocation. According to the other, she acts as a member of
the well-ordered society who avails herself of the right of free faith to pur-
sue a life plan that is regulated by the principles of justice and the law.
I take the second description of Joans conduct to be the one that is
important for Rawlss purposes. According to a fuller version of that de-
scription, Joan is a person with the moral powers and the status of citizen-
ship. Her behavior is described by her concerted exercise of those powers
in a single act: her enjoy[ment of ] the protection of the basic rights and
liberties and her application of the principles of justice to her pursuit
of her good. This description abstracts from the content of Joans good
and uses political concepts. In doing so, it picks out political conduct in
which Joan engages. And so when Rawls implies that Joan has a public
or a political life, I do not believe that he is referring just to Joans po-
litical activity narrowly construed. I believe, rather, that he is referring to
her behaviorany of her behaviorunder a political description. When
Rawls says that political autonomy is realized in public life, I take him
to be saying that it is her conduct so described which the predicate fully
autonomously can modify.
Thus, the narrow view begins with activities that are assumed to be
political and says that Joans political life consists in those activities. Rawlss
account of political or public life begins instead with an understanding of
the citizen as a public person. That is, it begins with an understanding of
a citizen as someone who has the two moral powers; whose status is inde-
pendent of her conception of the good, her talents, or her class of origin;
and who has certain capacities, entitlements, and role-specific duties. It
then describes someones conduct as the conduct of a citizen so under-
stood. All the conduct so described constitutes her political life.
I said that the conduct in which Joan engages as a political person
can be fully autonomous. But when is it? It is sometimes thought suffi-

is realized outside political life narrowly construed. Unfortunately, Rawls does not connect
his discussion of the two kinds of autonomy in Reply to Habermas with his discussions of
full autonomy earlier in Political Liberalism. But if we take public and private autonomy to be
two components of full autonomy, then full autonomy must be realized in a wider range of
activity than the narrow view allows. I am grateful to Henry S. Richardson for drawing my
attention to these important passages.

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102 Ethics October 2017
cient for autonomous action that an agent act from moral principles for
their own sake. Rawls acknowledges the thought behind this claim, say-
ing in the second sentence that citizens act autonomously when they act
from [the] principles as just (emphasis added). But for him that is merely
one condition and to stop there would significantly underdescribe the
conditions of full autonomy. To see how autonomy can be realized in a
society characterized by reasonable pluralism about justice, we need to
see what these conditions are.

II. THE CONDITIONS OF FULL AUTONOMY

When I introduced the long passage from Political Liberalism at the be-
ginning of the previous section, I said it could be mined for the condi-
tions of full autonomy. For reasons of space I shall not engage in the
sentence-by-sentence exegesis that would be needed to show exactly how
the conditions can be unearthed from that passage. Instead, I shall simply
list the seven conditions I believe the passage contains, saying just enough
about each to set up the argument to come.

A. The Collective Self-Legislation Condition


Since members of the well-ordered society can act autonomously only by
acting on principles they would give themselves, the first condition of full
autonomy is what I shall call the collective self-legislation condition. The fifth
sentence of the passage from Political Liberalism suggests that the most
natural way to express the condition is as follows:

CSL. The principles of justice are principles citizens would give


themselves on the basis of their own freedom and equality.

But in A Theory of Justice, Rawls referred to the principles of justice as the


fundamental terms of [citizens] association.14 I think that there is no
loss of fidelity to either A Theory of Justice or the passage from Political Lib-
eralism if we reformulate the collective self-legislation condition as follows:

CSL0 . The fundamental terms of citizens association are those they


would give themselves on the basis of their own freedom and equality.

The reason there is no loss of fidelity to the texts is that the Rawls of A
Theory of Justice and the Rawls who wrote the passage quoted at the begin-
ning of the previous section would not have thought that there was a
meaningful difference between CSL and CSL0 . But we shall see that there
is a difference once Rawls concedes the possibility of reasonable pluralism
about justice. I shall contend that Rawls would have appreciated that dif-

14. Rawls, Theory of Justice, 10.

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Weithman Autonomy and Disagreement about Justice 103
ference, and would have endorsed CSL0 , had he fully worked through the
implications of his concession.

B. The Regulation Condition


We saw in Section I that Joan can conduct herself fully autonomously in a
wide range of activities provided that that conduct is regulated by her
sense of what justice demands and allows. To treat the sense of justice as
regulative is to accord principles of justice regulative authority in practical
deliberation: actions can be performed and conceptions of the good can
be advanced just in case they are consistent with the principles.15 But
whether someone who treats the principles as regulative realizes full au-
tonomy also depends on her reasons for treating them that way. I believe
Rawls thinks that to realize full autonomy Joan must treat the principles
as regulative because she recognizes that they would be collectively self-
legislated, where the because is the because of justification. The fact
that those terms are collectively self-legislated must be what Joan takes to
justify treating them as regulative or authoritative. And so the second con-
dition on full autonomy, which I shall call the regulation condition, is as fol-
lows:

Rg. Citizens treat the fundamental terms of their association as reg-


ulative in practical deliberation, and they take the authority of those
terms to be justified by the fact that the terms would be collectively
self-legislated.

C. The Full Publicity Condition


The phrase full publicity and its cognates are technical terms for Rawls.
When justice as fairness is fully public, all the justificatory machinery of that
conception of justice is publicly available.16 Members of a well-ordered so-
ciety are then in a position to recognize that the principles of justice are
collectively self-legislated. That is, they are in a position to see what they
need to see if they are to satisfy the regulation condition. And so the third
condition of full autonomy is as follows:

FP. The fundamental terms of citizens association are fully public.

D. The Content Condition


Citizens ability to conduct themselves fully autonomously also depends
on the content of the fundamental terms on which they live. And so the
fourth condition on full autonomy is the content condition:

15. See ibid., 430, 497.


16. Rawls, Political Liberalism, 66.

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104 Ethics October 2017
CC. The fundamental terms of citizens association make it possible
for them to enjoy the protections of the rights and liberties.

This condition might not seem very demanding, but I take enjoy and
protections to impose significant constraints. In Section IV.E we shall
see how demanding those constraints are.

E. The Public Reason Conditions


Citizens in a well-ordered society are subject to laws, administrative actions,
and judicial decisions. Arguing that they can live fully autonomously re-
quires arguing that full autonomy is compatible with all those kinds of
subjection. One strand of the argument that it is depends on Rawlss claim
that measures which bear on the constitutional essentials and matters of
basic justice must be justifiable by public reasons.
Rawls famously revised his treatment of public reason in the years
after his first essay on the subject appeared in the hardback edition of
Political Liberalism. The fifth condition of full autonomy, the public rea-
son conditions, draws on the final statement of his view:

PRCs. Judges, executives, legislators, and candidates who advocate


measures which bear on constitutional essentials and matters of ba-
sic justice do so on the basis of public reasons. If ordinary citizens de-
bate such measures in the public political forum, or vote on them,
they are prepared to show in due course that the measures they favor
can be supported by such reasons.17

F. The Determination Condition


Public reasons, together with the principles of justice, do not single out
unique solutions to every political problemnot even to every funda-
mental one. Instead, there may be a number of laws and policies that are
consistent with the demands of justice and that citizens could give them-
selves. In those cases, as Rawls says in A Theory of Justice, justice . . . is inde-
terminate.18 In both A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism, he says that
when a number of measures are consistent with the principles of justice,
legislatorsand sometimes citizenshave to choose among them by vot-
ing, and that voting issues in a settlement that is authoritative.19 I believe
that the authority of the settlement depends on the decision procedure
itself being supportable by public reasons. And so I take Rawls to impose
the determination condition on full autonomy:

17. In this and the previous sentence, I draw on John Rawls, The Law of Peoples (Cam-
bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 13536; see also 169.
18. Rawls, Theory of Justice, 176.
19. Ibid., 318; Rawls, Political Liberalism, lvlvi.

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Weithman Autonomy and Disagreement about Justice 105
DC. The procedure for selecting among laws, policies, administra-
tive actions, and judicial decisions can be supported by public reasons.

G. The Full Regulation Condition


When principles of justice satisfy the collective self-legislation condition,
society is well ordered by terms of association its members would give
themselves. When the public reason and determination conditions are
satisfied, legislation and policy are selected from a set of options which
citizens could give themselves by a procedure which is authoritative be-
cause they could also give it themselves. In that case, the selections have
the authority of legitimate law.20 Citizens are then to treat the law as reg-
ulative, as constraining the courses of action that are open to them.
The modal which applies to laws and policies is weaker than the one
that applies to principles of justice. But what matters for present pur-
poses is that neither the legislation for enacting the principles of justice
nor the principles themselves need to derive their reason-giving force
from what Rawls calls a prior and independent moral order.21 Rather,
laws and policies, like the principles, derive their authority from being
collectively self-legislated. When the full publicity condition is satisfied,
so that everyone knows that the determination condition DC is satisfied,
citizens can see that the laws are collectively self-legislated. They can then
satisfy not just the regulation condition Rg but also the last of the condi-
tions of full autonomy, the full regulation condition:

FRg. Citizens treat duly enacted law and policy as authoritative in


practical deliberation, and they take the authority of those laws and
policies to be justified by the fact that they are fully and collectively
self-legislated.

III. THE COMPLICATIONS OF AN OVERLAPPING CONSENSUS

I said at the outset that Rawls attached great importance to autonomy


even after his turn to political liberalism, and that the claimput forward
by some interpretersthat he made concessions which preclude the pos-
sibility of realizing it would be very troubling. These interpreters do not
deny that citizens in a society with an overlapping consensus on justice
as fairness can realize full autonomy. On my reading, Rawls thought that
the seven conditions discussed in the previous section are singly necessary
and collectively sufficient for realizing it. I believe that it is clear that four

20. See Rawls, Political Liberalism, 42829.


21. John Rawls, Collected Papers, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Uni-
versity Press, 1999), 399.

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106 Ethics October 2017
of the conditionsthe self-legislation, full publicity, content, and determi-
nation conditionscan be satisfied when an overlapping consensus ob-
tains on justice as fairness. But Rawlss description of such a consensus raises
interesting questions about how some participants in it can satisfy the reg-
ulation and full regulation conditions. The answers to those questions
complicate satisfaction of the public reason conditions. Seeing how these
conditions can be satisfied, and full autonomy can be realized, when there
is an overlapping consensus on justice as fairness will help show how to an-
swer those who are skeptical of realizing it when there is reasonable plural-
ism about justice.

A. The Regulation Conditions Revisited


In Section II.B we saw that one condition of full autonomy is the following:

Rg. Citizens treat the fundamental terms of their association as reg-


ulative in practical deliberation, and they take the authority of those
terms to be justified by the fact that the terms would be collectively
self-legislated.

Whether citizens satisfy this condition would seem to depend on the con-
tent of their comprehensive doctrines. Rawls wants to leave open the pos-
sibility that some comprehensive doctrines which take part in an overlap-
ping consensus hold that normative authority is ultimately based on natural
law or on some other prior moral order. With a bit more detail we can take
Joan, whom I introduced in Section I, to exemplify this possibility.
Joan may treat principles of justice as regulative. But if she thinks
they are precepts of or implications of a natural or divine law, then the rea-
sons she takes herself to have for treating them as regulative will reflect
that. She will think that their authority is justified by the prior normative
authority of God or of the natural law. In that case, she does not seem to
be fully autonomous because she does not satisfy the second conjunct of
Rg. If I am right that Rawlss Kantian aim remained important to him af-
ter his turn to political liberalism, then it would be troubling if partici-
pants in an overlapping consensus like Joan were prevented from living
fully autonomous lives by their comprehensive doctrines. The challenge
is to show how Rawls can avoid that conclusion.
In Section I, we saw that full autonomy is realized by members of the
well-ordered society in their role as citizens. It is therefore in that capacity
that they satisfy the conditions of full autonomy which apply to them, in-
cluding Rg. So to see how Joan can satisfy the second conjunct of Rg, we
have to see how Joanin her role as a citizencan take the collective
self-legislation of principles of justice to justify their authority.
When practical principles have authority over our deliberations in-
sofar as we occupy a particular role, the considerations that justify their

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Weithman Autonomy and Disagreement about Justice 107
authority depend on the specifics of the role. I said in Section I that cit-
izenship in a well-ordered society is a status which does not depend on
ones comprehensive doctrine. And so when members of that society
think of themselves as citizens, they must think of themselves as having
the capacity for a conception of the good, but they also have to abstract
from the particulars of the conception of the good they have. Thus, un-
der some descriptions of herself, Joan may take the principles of justice
to be justified by her comprehensive doctrine. But when she thinks of
herself as a citizen, she can and must take their authority to be justifiable
just on the basis of the values she affirms in that role.
What values are those? Citizenship is a political role, and the values
citizens affirm in that role are political values, such as reciprocity and cit-
izens freedom and equality. The original position brings these values to
bear on the identification of principles of justice. To say that Rawlss prin-
ciples would be collectively self-legislated in the original position is to say
that they are the principles those values single out and justify. Since, in
her capacity as a citizen, Joan takes those values to have justificatory force,
she canagain in that capacitytake the authority of the principles to
be justifiable by the fact that they would be collectively self-legislated.
Thus, by recalling the distinctions in Section I among the various descrip-
tions under which Joan can view herself, and by recalling that she lives fully
autonomously under just one of those descriptions, we see how she can sat-
isfy the second conjunct of Rg.22
Joan might also have seemed unable to satisfy the second conjunct
of the full regulation condition

FRg. Citizens treat duly enacted law and policy as authoritative in


practical deliberation, and they take the authority of those laws
and policies to be justified by the fact that they are fully and collec-
tively self-legislated.

for roughly the same reasons she seemed unable to satisfy the second
conjunct of Rg. She believes in a prior and independent moral order,

22. In Reply to Habermas, Rawls famously identifies three kinds of justification; see
Rawls, Political Liberalism, 38587. It may be thought that the kind of justification I have said
Joan must have if she is to satisfy Rg should find a place in that schema. But it cannot fit
into that schema, since the schema distinguishes kinds of justification that can be had
by a political conception of justice as a whole, and not by the authority of their first prin-
ciples. Moreover, Rawls does not say that these three kinds of justification are all the kinds
of justification there are. He merely implies that they are all the kinds he needs to identify
to answer the question he has in view: that of how the concepts of justification and stability
for the right reasons fit together. The kind of justification I have discussed here does not
need to fit into the schema of Reply to Habermas since it bears on a very different ques-
tion, that of how full autonomy is possible.

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108 Ethics October 2017
and she may think that human positive law derives its authority from its
relationship to that order. But once we see how Joan can satisfy the sec-
ond conjunct of Rg, we can also see how she can satisfy the second con-
junct of FRg. FRg, like Rg, is a condition which Joan is to satisfy in her
role as a citizen. In that capacity, she recognizes the justificatory force
just of political values, such as those realized in processes which satisfy
the determination condition. And so she takes the fact that laws and pol-
icies are the outcomes of those processes to confer legitimacy, and hence
authority, upon them.
Appealing to the distinctions drawn in Section I thus helps to salvage
full autonomy, which I have said is an important value to Rawls. But that
value may now seem to have been salvaged at a very high price. As ordi-
narily understood, citizenship in a liberal democracy is a status which
confers a range of rights and liberties. The freedom we enjoy when we ex-
ercise those rights and liberties might seem to be the most important
kind of freedom available to us as citizens. It is a kind of freedom which
we can enjoy even if we do not have views about what justifies the rights
and liberties we exercise. It is therefore a kind of freedom we can enjoy
even if we do not think of ourselves as Rawlsian citizens or enjoy full au-
tonomy.
The fact that we can enjoy what may ordinarily seem the most im-
portant freedoms of citizenship without being fully autonomous presses
a question that has been in the air since Section I, when I said what Rawls
means by claiming that full autonomy is enjoyed by citizens. That is the
question of why full autonomy matters. Crudely put, if living fully au-
tonomous lives is something we can do only under a highly idealized de-
scription of ourselvesa description under which we abstract from our
comprehensive views and take the justification provided by political val-
ues to be sufficientwhy should we care whether or not we realize it?
I will return to these questions in Section V. First, I want to turn to
another condition of full autonomy that is complicated by the existence
of an overlapping consensus on justice as fairness.

B. The Conditions of Public Reason Revisited


Members of a well-ordered society can satisfy the full regulation condition
only if they are in a position to see that measures bearing on the constitu-
tional essentials and matters of basic justice can be supported by public
reasons. But when there is an overlapping consensus on justice as fairness,
each endorses that conception of justice on the basis of her own compre-
hensive view. As we saw in the case of Joan, comprehensive views may fur-
nish ultimate reasons for principles of justice. They may also furnish ulti-
mate reasons for laws and policies. Citizens like Joan may be tempted to
use those reasons to defend the principles, laws, and policies they favor.

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Weithman Autonomy and Disagreement about Justice 109
If they do, their interlocutors face an assurance problem: they need assur-
ance that the positions they advocate can be properly supported.23
In some cases, the assurance may not be far to seek. Despite Joans
appeal to her comprehensive views, her interlocutors may recognize her
political positions as ones that could be supported by public reasons.
And they may be willing to grant that Joan believes they could be so sup-
ported. Background knowledge of one anothers comprehensive doc-
trines and their history may allow that. When it does, interlocutors recog-
nize what they would need to recognize if they were to satisfy the full
regulation condition were those positions to be enacted into law. In other
cases, despite the best efforts at charitable interpretation, doubts may re-
main. Then good citizenship requires Joan to show that justice as fairness
giv[es] the content of [her] political judgments on basic institutions
by showing how those judgments can be supported by public reasons.24
According to Rawlss final statement of the public reason condition
which applies to ordinary citizens, reasonable [comprehensive doctrines]
may be introduced in public reason at any time, provided that in due
course public reasons, given by a reasonable political conception, are pre-
sented sufficient to support whatever the comprehensive doctrines are
introduced to support.25 The example of Joan, which arises because of
an overlapping consensus on justice as fairness, shows how the in due
course clause gains its purchase and shows why that clause is included
in the public reason conditions.26
It is an infrequently observed fact that Rawls thinks that compliance
with the demands of public reason requires sensitivity to context. Fora
which might be thought private or associational can be transformed into
public fora by the actions and intentions of the speakers and address-
ees.27 The common expectations of a discussion can make public justifi-
cation appropriate. Only with appropriate sensitivity will citizens know
when they have entered the public forum, how the arguments of others
are to be taken, how their own arguments might reasonably be taken by
others, and when those arguments have triggered the in due course
clause. As we shall see in Section IV.F, the likelihood of pluralism about

23. This may not seem like an assurance problem properly so called. I argue that it is
in Paul Weithman, Why Political Liberalism? On John Rawlss Political Turn (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2010), 32731.
24. Rawls, Political Liberalism, 39.
25. Ibid., lilii.
26. Rawls could have dealt with the possibility of such cases by forbidding themthat
is, by forbidding citizens to introduce comprehensive doctrine in the first place. So the ar-
gument for the in due course clause also depends on the assumption that such a prohi-
bition would make the public reason conditions implausibly restrictive.
27. I explore this in Paul Weithman, Religion and the Obligations of Citizenship (Cam-
bridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 9596 and 11112.

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110 Ethics October 2017
justice heightens the need for context-sensitivity and makes the achieve-
ment of full autonomy more precarious.

IV. REASONABLE PLURA LISM A BOUT JUSTICE

When Rawls conceded the likelihood of reasonable pluralism about jus-


tice, he invited us to imagine a society in which adherents of several lib-
eral political conceptions of justiceincluding justice as fairnesscon-
tend politically. I now want to show that the seven conditions of full
autonomy can be satisfied in the society Rawls invites us to imagine. If the
arguments succeed, full autonomy will have been shown compatible with
reasonable pluralism about justice. The threat some readers think is posed
by Rawlss concession would then be averted.
I believe that the arguments I offer in support of that conclusion are
faithful to Rawlss views, but they require going beyond what he says in
the passages about full autonomy on which I have relied. The need to
go beyond them confirms points I made at the outset: that at the time in
which Rawls published Political Liberalism, he had not fully worked through
the implications of reasonable pluralism about justice or reconciled every-
thing he said in that book to his concession that such pluralism is likely.
That is why I said then that Political Liberalism presents us with a recon-
struction in progress. Fortunately, the reconstruction can be carried for-
ward provided that we can discern the direction in which Rawls intended
to build.

A. A Preliminary
Full autonomy in a society characterized by pluralism about justice might
be thought impossible by definition. For full autonomy is, by the mean-
ing of full, possible only for members of societies which are well or-
dered.28 And a well-ordered society is one in which (1) everyone accepts
and knows that the others accept the same principles of justice, and (2) the
basic social institutions generally satisfy and are generally known to sat-
isfy these principles.29 Since a society characterized by reasonable plu-
ralism about justice cannot satisfy conditions (1) and (2), it seems to fol-
low that citizens of that society cannot be fully autonomous.
But basic social institutions could, at any given time, satisfy the de-
mands of one conception or another, though which conception is satis-
fied could change over time. Indeed, since Rawls seems to allow that a
mixture of conceptions counts as a conception,30 it seems that basic in-
stitutions always satisfy the demands of a conception of justice, so that

28. See Rawls, Political Liberalism, 67.


29. Rawls, Theory of Justice, 4 (emphasis added).
30. Rawls, Political Liberalism, xlix.

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Weithman Autonomy and Disagreement about Justice 111
condition (2) holds whenever satisfaction is public knowledge. Satisfac-
tion will be public knowledge when the full publicity condition is satisfied,
which I shall assume it can be. Whether condition (1) holds depends on
what accepts means. If someone accepts a conception of justice C only if
she ranks it first among competing conceptions, then condition (1) will
not hold when reasonable pluralism about justice obtains. But if someone
accepts C at time t1 only if she acknowledges C as the public basis of justi-
fication at t1, then condition (1) can be satisfied despite disagreement
about which conception is the most reasonable public basisprovided
that at t1, everyone knows that everyone else acknowledges C. As we shall
see, common knowledge of this kind is available when the public reason
conditions are satisfied. So societies marked by pluralism about justice
are not, just in virtue of their pluralism, precluded from being well or-
dered. They are therefore not, just for that reason, societies in which it is
impossible for members to live fully autonomously.
Can the seven conditions of full autonomy be satisfied in those so-
cieties? As we shall see in Section IV.F, there are many more sets of public
reasons in these societies than there are in a society with an overlapping
consensus on justice as fairness alone. But the variety of conceptions of
public reasons does not affect the possibility of finding legislative, admin-
istrative, and judicial procedures which public reasons support. I there-
fore assume that it is clear enough that the determination condition can
be satisfied. I will focus on the remaining six conditions.

DC. The procedure for selecting among laws, policies, administra-


tive actions, and judicial decisions can be supported by public rea-
sons.

B. The Collective Self-Legislation Condition


Because the contending conceptions of justice are political conceptions,
they are worked out for the basic structure from fundamental ideas found
in societys political culture. Justice as fairness is one such conception, con-
structed on the ideas of citizens as free and equal and of society as a fair
scheme of social cooperation. Of course, those ideas may belong to more
than one political conception of justice. But in Political Liberalism, Rawls
raises the possibility that conceptions may interpret the shared political
culture in different ways and so be built on different fundamental ideas.31
He does not give examples, but he grants elsewhere that there could be a
common good conception of public reasons developed out of the Tho-
mist tradition.32 This suggests that there could be a political conception

31. Ibid., 167.


32. Rawls, Law of Peoples, 142 n. 29.

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112 Ethics October 2017
of justice based on Thomist ideas of a political common good and of cit-
izens as free and equal participants in it.33
Conceptions of justice may therefore be conceptualized differently
from their grounds up. But suppose that all of the conceptions are based
on ideas of citizenship and society that can plausibly be extracted from
the public political culture when that culture is interpreted in light of
the tradition of democratic thought. Suppose further that the compet-
ing conceptions are all reasonably elaborated on the basis of those ideas.
Suppose, that is, that they all move from basic ideas to principles of jus-
tice on the basis of plausible inferences from premises which can be sup-
ported by public reasons. In that case, pluralism about justice seems to
merit the label reasonable pluralism. And regardless of which concep-
tion of justice wins out politically, its principlesthe principles that then
well order the society Rawls invites us to imagineare principles citizens
could give themselves just on the bases of conceptions of themselves and
their society that citizens could reasonably hold.
The problem is that the principles of the conception which wins out
might fail to satisfy the collective self-legislation condition,

CSL0 . The fundamental terms of citizens association are those they


would give themselves on the basis of their own freedom and equal-
ity.

For CSL0 says that the fundamental terms of the well-ordered society are
those that citizens would give themselves, not those that citizens could
give themselves. And since CSL0 is a necessary condition of full auton-
omy, citizens cannot live fully autonomous lives in a society whose first
principles of justice fail to satisfy it.
The failure of the principles to satisfy CSL0 would have a cascading
effect. Citizens who recognize that the principles fail to satisfy it might still
satisfy the first conjunct of the regulation condition,

Rg. Citizens treat the fundamental terms of their association as reg-


ulative in practical deliberation, and they take the authority of those
terms to be justified by the fact that the terms would be collectively
self-legislated.

But they would be unable to satisfy its second conjunct, since that con-
junct refers to the fact that the terms would be collectively self-legislated
and principles which fail to satisfy CSL0 would not be. Even if the prin-
ciples of the winning conception do satisfy CSL0 , reasonable pluralism
about justice ensures that there will be citizens of the well-ordered society
who believe they do not because they think that the principles of some
33. See ibid., 77 n. 19 and accompanying text.

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Weithman Autonomy and Disagreement about Justice 113
other conception satisfy it instead. Those citizens will then be unable to
satisfy the second conjunct of Rg. Hence, though it is possible to live fully
autonomously in their society, they would be prevented from living that
way by their views about justice. Their views would stand in the way of their
full autonomy, despite the fact that those views are reasonable. I assume
that this is not a conclusion Rawls would welcome.
I said at the outset that some readers have claimed that Rawls had to
give up on full autonomyor full autonomy for allonce he conceded
the likelihood of reasonable pluralism about justice. These readers have
not, to my knowledge, spelled out the argument for that claim in any de-
tail. But with conditions CSL0 and Rg in hand, we have now seen roughly
how that argument would go. To see how Rawls could block the argu-
ment, I need to return to another of the conditions of full autonomy, the
content condition.

C. The Content Condition


Recall the content condition:

CC. The fundamental terms of citizens association make it possible


for them to enjoy the protections of the rights and liberties.

I said when I introduced this condition that it is more demanding than it


appears to be. To see its demands, let us look first at three reasons why
Rawlss principles are strong enough to satisfy it.
One is that his first principle singles out the basic rights and liber-
ties and says that everyone is entitled to the most extensive equal scheme
of these rights and liberties compatible with a similar scheme for all.34 An-
other is that the first of Rawlss principles is lexically prior to the second.
This lexical priority implies that citizens enjoy[] the protections of the ba-
sic rights and liberties (emphasis added). For it implies that liberty can
only be curtailed for the sake of liberty,35 so that citizens freedom is pro-
tected against encroachment in the name of the greater good. The third
is that the difference principle, by requiring that the least well-off be as
well-off as they can be, ensures that everyone has the resources needed
to enjoy[] the protections of the basic rights and liberties (emphasis
added) by making effective use of those rights and liberties.
The question whether Rawlss are the only principles that satisfy CC,
or whether other and weaker principles satisfy it as well, is one that bears
directly on my thesis: that citizens can live fully autonomously under con-
ditions of reasonable pluralism about justice. The Rawls of Political Lib-

34. Rawls, Theory of Justice, 220.


35. Ibid., 214.

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114 Ethics October 2017
eralism presumably conceded that there could be reasonable pluralism
about justice because he thought that there could be reasonable disagree-
ment about what justice demands. I believe he thought that two of the foci
of such disagreement would be the argument for the lexical priority of his
first principle and the maximin argument for the difference principle.
For as has been amply confirmed by the philosophical literature since pub-
lication of A Theory of Justice, there are a number of reasonable priority
rules for protecting liberties short of the absolute protection required by
lexical priority. And there are a number of reasonable principles weaker
than the difference principle that seem to accord everyone sufficient re-
sources. The upshot is that there are many sets of principles, weaker than
Rawlss, that citizens arguably [could ] give to themselves when repre-
sented as a free and equal.36
The content condition on full autonomy should be interpreted so
that it can be satisfied by any of those conceptions. It should therefore
be interpreted so that it can be satisfied by any conception of justice which

(L1) specifies certain rights, liberties and opportunities (of a kind


familiar from democratic regimes),
(L2) assigns a special priority to these freedoms, and
(L3) requires measures assuring all citizens, whatever their social
position, adequate all-purpose means to make intelligent and effec-
tive use of their liberties, and opportunities.

This is precisely what is done by political conceptions Rawls calls liberal,


and it is done by definition, since L1L3 say what makes a political concep-
tion of justice liberal in Rawlss terms.37
If the foregoing reasoning is rightif the clauses which define lib-
eral political conceptions are identical to those which define the content
conditionthen the citizens in a well-ordered society do not have to treat
Rawlss principles as regulative to live fully autonomously. They can treat
the principles of any liberal conception that way, including the principles
of whatever liberal conception happens to win out politically. This in itself
is a significant result. But it is not enough to show that citizens who treat
those other principles as regulative live fully autonomously, for the other
conditions of full autonomy also have to be satisfied, including the collec-
tive self-legislation condition CSL0 and the regulation condition Rg. And
we do not seem to be any closer to seeing how those conditions can be sat-
isfied when the principles of many liberal conceptions are those citizens
could, rather than would, give themselves.

36. Any liberal conception would arguably satisfy the fundamental interests of the
parties in the original position, since Rawls says that the parties have a fundamental inter-
est in liberty and in the means to make fair use of it (Theory of Justice, 493).
37. Rawls, Political Liberalism, xlviii.

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Weithman Autonomy and Disagreement about Justice 115
To see how CSL0 can be satisfied, note that the principles for the ba-
sic structure which are associated with various liberal conceptions may be
first principles of justice, but they are not highest-order principles. For
L1L3 constrain what first principles of justice liberal political concep-
tions can endorse. In a society in which the focus of an overlapping con-
sensus is a family of liberal political conceptions, all citizens take L1L3
as the highest-order constraints on what conceptions of justice can con-
tend politically and on what constitutional measures, laws, and policies
can be adopted. In Political Liberalism, Rawls generally writes as if what
an overlapping consensus stabilizes is justice as fairness.38 When the ob-
ject of an overlapping consensus is a family of liberal political concep-
tions rather than justice as fairness, what gets stabilized are these con-
straints, so that political outcomes remain within their bounds.
In Section II.A I said that Rawls called the principles of justice the
fundamental terms of [citizens] association in A Theory of Justice.39 What
made them fundamental was the role they played in constitution making
and legislating. The Rawls of A Theory of Justice thought that members
of the well-ordered society would take them as highest-order constraints
on the constitution, laws, and policies. He thus took them to play the
role I have said L1L3 play in a society marked by reasonable pluralism
about justice. Conceding the likelihood of reasonable pluralism about
justice should therefore have led Rawls to sayor would have led him
to say had he completed the reconstruction of his viewthat fundamen-
tal terms of citizens association in a well-ordered society are not princi-
ples of justice. They are the highest-order principles L1L3 that define or
demarcate the range of liberal political conceptions with which princi-
ples of justice are associated.
Since CSL0 expresses a condition on fundamental terms, it can
be satisfied if L1L3 are principles members of a well-ordered society
would give to themselves when fairly represented as free and equal per-
sons, as I believe they would be.40 If I am right, then L1L3 would be

38. See, e.g., ibid., 65.


39. Rawls, Theory of Justice, 10.
40. I cannot muster an original position-type argument that they would be, let alone a
proof of that claim in the moral geometry to which Rawls aspired in A Theory of Justice ; see
ibid., 105. But one informal argument for thinking they would be is as follows.
Parties who would give themselves L1L3 would choose them from a menu of candi-
date principles (or sets of principles) for the same role. That role is the one I described
two paragraphs earlier as highest-order and constraining. The other candidates for that
role would differ from set L1L3 by substituting a stronger or weaker principle for at least
one of its members. The rationale for using a choice situation in which citizens are repre-
sented as free and equal persons is to identify terms of association that allow those who as-
sociate to live as free equals. As we saw, the upshot of Rawlss concession that it is reason-
able to disagree with his own principles is that L1, L2, and L3 are strong enough to allow
citizens to live that way. We do not need to strengthen L2 so that it requires lexical priority

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116 Ethics October 2017
collectively self-legislated. The collective self-legislation condition CSL0
can therefore be satisfied in a society characterized by reasonable plural-
ism about justice.

D. The Regulation Condition


Recall the regulation condition:

Rg. Citizens treat the fundamental terms of their association as reg-


ulative in practical deliberation, and they take the authority of those
terms to be justified by the fact that the terms would be collectively
self-legislated.

Since CSL0 can be satisfied, one obstacle to citizens satisfaction of this


condition has been removed. But to remove the obstacle, I had to argue
that the referents of the phrase fundamental terms of their association
in the first conjunct are not principles of justice but the principles L1L3
that define liberal political conceptions. At the very least, this means that
members of the well-ordered society are going to have to satisfy that part
of Rg very differently than Rawls thought they would. For he quite clearly
thought they would govern their practical deliberations by the principles
of justice.
But the reinterpretation of Rg that is required by the possibility of
reasonable pluralism about justice is not objectionable. Quite the con-
trary, it is perfectly natural once we allow for that possibility. So long as
citizens practical deliberation was taken to concern just their pursuit of
their good, as it was in A Theory of Justice, it made sense to say that the prin-
ciples which frame their deliberations should be principles of right. But
once Rawls conceded the possibility of reasonable disagreement about
justice, he opened the possibility that practical deliberation would con-
cern both the right and the good. That is, he opened the possibility that
members of the well-ordered society would deliberate not only about how
to frame their plans of life but also about which conception of justice should
regulate their plans. If citizens are to live autonomously once this possibility
is open, they must regulate their deliberation by highest-order principles

or to strengthen L3 so that it requires the difference principle. Thus, the question whether
parties to the choice would give themselves L1L3 is really the question whether a set of
principles weaker at one or more of the three places would do.
I think that it is clear that the answer is no. Weakening L1 by removing an entry from
the list of rights and liberties that receive protection would decrease citizens freedom.
Weakening L2 would raise the likelihood that the liberty and equality of some could be
compromised by trading off their liberties for an alleged increase in the greater good.
Weakening L3 would violate equality by leaving some unable to enjoy their liberty. So
L1L3 are just the highest-order constraints members of the well-ordered society would give
themselves.

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Weithman Autonomy and Disagreement about Justice 117
which they would give themselves and which frame deliberations about
the right. Principles L1L3 satisfy that description. Not only can citizens
of the well-ordered society satisfy the first conjunct of Rg by treating those
principles as regulative, but that conjunctas reinterpretedis a plausi-
ble condition of full autonomy.
A society in which there is an overlapping consensus on a family of
liberal conceptions of justice, like a society in which there is a consensus
on justice as fairness, may have members like Joan who think that the
fundamental terms of their association are ultimately justified by some-
thing other than collective self-legislation. But their ability to satisfy the
second conjunct of Rg can be shown here as it was in Section III.A. There
their ability to satisfy it was shown by appealing to the fact that members
realize full autonomy in their capacity as citizens. That, we saw, is a capacity
in which they attach justificatory force only to political values. The same is
true here. Citizens of a society characterized by reasonable pluralism about
justice, like citizens of a society well ordered by justice as fairnesswhen
considered just as suchtake political values, and only political values,
as justificatory. Of course, the family of political values they take as justi-
ficatory may be larger and more diverse because of the diversity of polit-
ical conceptions of justice at play in society. But so long as those values
support collective self-legislation, as I assume they do, then citizens can
satisfy the second conjunct of Rg.
In Section III.A we also saw that members of the well-ordered soci-
ety like Joan can satisfy the full regulation condition:

FRg. Citizens treat duly enacted law and policy as authoritative in


practical deliberation, and they take the authority of those laws and
policies to be justified by the fact that they are fully and collectively
self-legislated.

They can do so because satisfying it is something they do in their capacity


as citizens. In that capacity, they take collective self-legislation and its sup-
porting values to confer legitimacy on political outcomes. The same is
true of those who live in a society in which there is reasonable disagree-
ment about justice. Or they can do so, provided they know that the fun-
damental terms of their association are collectively self-legislated. Their
knowledge depends on satisfaction of the full publicity and public reason
conditions, to which I now turn.

E. The Full Publicity Condition


The full publicity condition is as follows:

FP. The fundamental terms of citizens association are fully public.

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118 Ethics October 2017
When Rawls treats of the condition, he argues that what are fully public
are the principles of justice.41 I assume that in a society characterized by
reasonable pluralism about justice, the principles of whichever concep-
tion wins out politically can be fully public. I assume that this is so even if
different conceptions prevail at different times.
I have argued that the fundamental terms of citizens association are
the defining principles of liberal political conceptions L1L3, but that dif-
ference does not affect the possibility of satisfying FP. For the general ac-
ceptance of those principles can be common knowledge if the public rea-
son conditions are satisfied, as can the fact that the basic structure of
society satisfies them regardless of which conception of justice wins out
politically.42 The philosophical arguments supporting L1L3 can be pub-
licly available in the political culture. So provided that the public reason
conditions are satisfied, the full publicity conditions can be satisfied de-
spite reasonable pluralism about justice.

F. The Public Reason Conditions


In Section III.B, we saw that when citizens offer public reasons to support
laws and policies, they assure one another of their commitment to the
public conception of justice. In a society with an overlapping consensus
on justice as fairness, the need for assurance arises when citizens support
laws and policies based on their comprehensive doctrines. The needed as-
surance is provided whenin due course or as circumstances demand
they support those laws and policies by appeal to public reasons drawn
from justice as fairness.
In a society in which there is an overlapping consensus on a family
of liberal political conceptions of justice, citizens need to assure one an-
other of their commitments to one of those conceptions. Here the pro-
vision of assurance is doubly complicated. One complication arises when
others appeal to their comprehensive doctrines to support measures they
favor. The other arises when they try to solve the problem by appealing to
public reasons drawn from one or another member of the family of lib-
eral views. For all of these can be sources of public reasons.43 As we saw
in Section IV.B, these views of justice can be conceptualized very differ-
ently.
The differences in fundamental concepts used can raise questions
about whether a measure is supported by reasons which are truly public,

41. Rawls, Political Liberalism, 6667.


42. Indeed, it may be easier to show that a society satisfies L3 than to show that it sat-
isfies the difference principle since showing satisfaction of the difference principle re-
quires the assessment of complicated counterfactuals about how well-off the least well-
off would be under alternative arrangements.
43. Rawls, Political Liberalism, liii.

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Weithman Autonomy and Disagreement about Justice 119
and so whether its proponent is really committed to a liberal political con-
ception. Someones appeal to a Thomist-inspired common good concep-
tion could engender the suspicion that she is really appealing to a com-
prehensive view rooted in natural law. Someone elses appeal to justice
as fairness might engender the suspicion that she is really appealing to
a comprehensive Kantianism. The question is how further assurance is
to be provided once citizens are already appealing to reasons they regard
as public. If that question cannot be answered, it is hard to see how every-
one can know what she needs to know to satisfy the full regulation condi-
tion of full autonomy.
Rawls says that our exercise of political power is proper only when
we sincerely believe that the reasons we offer for our political action may
reasonably be accepted by other citizens as a justification of those ac-
tions.44 I conjecture that if the public reason conditions are to be satis-
fied so as to make full autonomy possible, citizens will have to recognize
the sincerity of one anothers justifications and believe that the measures
they favor can be properly supported. They will have to do this even when
they find that the reasons appealed to are only partially comprehensible
because they are expressed in concepts that are alien. This, in turn, may
require a good deal of mutual trust and background knowledge of one
anothers views. If background knowledge has made the vocabulary of
all the conceptions familiar, citizens can assure themselves of one anothers
reasonability.45 If not, they will have to base their assurance on trust in one
anothers good will. Our own society, like the one Rawls invites us to imag-
ine, is characterized by disagreement about the demands of justice. But
if what I have said here is right, it will be possible for members of Rawlss
society to live fully autonomously only if that society has a politics which
is both better informed and a good deal more trusting than ours.

V. THE VALUE OF AUTONOMY

I said at the outset that I take one of Rawlss central aims to be the Kantian
one of showing how freedom can be had in political society. I have ar-
gued, contrary to the charge some critics have leveled, that the kind of
freedom Rawls privilegeswhat he called full autonomycan be achieved
in a society with an overlapping consensus on a family of liberal political
conceptions of justice. It can be achieved because the seven conditions of
full autonomy that I have identified can all be satisfied in that society. I
have suggested at a couple of places that Political Liberalism has the ap-
pearance of an ongoing project. The argument offered here is meant to

44. Ibid., xlvi.


45. See Jeremy Waldron, Religious Contributions in Public Debate, San Diego Law
Review 30 (1993): 81748, 83540.

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120 Ethics October 2017
pay tribute to that great book by making a small contribution to the proj-
ects completion. But the conditions of full autonomy would be worth
recovering only if the Kantian aim was worth pursuing and if full au-
tonomy is a kind of freedom worth having. And so it is natural to ask
why full autonomy is valuable.
In A Theory of Justice, Rawls drew on the Kantian interpretation of jus-
tice as fairness to give a powerful and attractive answer to that question.
He argued that when we failor refuseto treat the principles of justice
as regulative, we act[] as though we belong to a lower order, as though
we were . . . creature[s] whose first principles are decided by natural con-
tingencies.46 Allowing ourselves the option of acting unjustly might seem
to preserve a kind of freedom. But in truth, Rawls wrote, to keep that op-
tion open is not to achieve for the self free reign but to give way to the
contingencies and accidents of the world.47 Real freedom is the auton-
omy realized by acting from principles we would give ourselves in the orig-
inal position. Insofar as members of the well-ordered society regulate their
plans by those principles, they express [their] nature as free moral per-
sons.48 For it is acting from this precedence, Rawls said, that expresses
our freedom from contingency and happenstance.49
Expressing our nature as moral persons is something the Rawls of
A Theory of Justice thought everyone in the well-ordered society would
develop a rational desire to do. But as I said in the introduction, Rawls
came to think he had been mistaken to assume that everyone in the well-
ordered society would have the same reasons for finding justice and au-
tonomy to be good. That thought prompted his move to political liberal-
ism. That move, in turn, raised difficult questions about the value of full
autonomy. For in Political Liberalism full autonomy is not a value realized
by free moral persons. It is a value realized under an idealized descrip-
tion of members of the well-ordered society that abstracts from much of
what they care about: the description of them as Rawlsian citizens who
put aside reasons of justice furnished by their comprehensive views and
who take political values as justificatory. That description would be part
of the public culture of the well-ordered society. It would offer a political
point of view on human life that members of the well-ordered society
could adopt at any time. But why would they want to adopt it?
This brings us back to the question posed in Section III.A, the ques-
tion of why they should take any interest in full autonomy. Rawlss polit-
ical turn entailed that the question of why autonomy is valuable has to be
addressed from within different conceptions of the good.

46. Rawls, Theory of Justice, 225.


47. Ibid., 503.
48. Ibid., 501.
49. Ibid., 503.

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Weithman Autonomy and Disagreement about Justice 121
One answer to that question begins from the fact that Rawlsian cit-
izens are agents whose first principles are [not] decided by what are
from the point of view of their common citizenshipcontingencies such
as their class of origin or their conceptions of the good.50 Some will think
that there is something obviously nobleand hence obviously valuable
about rising above those contingencies by acting from fundamental prin-
ciples that do not depend on them. The nobility of such action is visi-
ble when conduct is seen as fully autonomous. To see it that way, we have
to view the agent as a citizen and to view the fundamental terms from
which she acts as justified independently of those contingencies. So one
reason to adopt the political point of view is that it affords us a perspective
in which valuable facets of action are revealed to us. I believe that Rawls
thinks that appreciating the nobility of acting autonomously, by seeing
agents and their principles from the political point of view, may heighten
our desire to live that way ourselves.51
This line of thought appeals to the way fundamental principles are
not justifiedon the basis of natural and social contingencies. But adopt-
ing the political point of view affords a perspective not just on how fun-
damental terms are not justified but also on how they are. For adopting
that point of view, members of a well-ordered society see the terms on
which they live as justified because they are ones they would give them-
selves on the basis of their own nature as citizens. To see why they would
care about how things look from that point of view, we need to see why
they would care about seeing fundamental terms that way.
I have assumed from the outset that among the things Rawls tried to
do in both A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism was to show how we
can live freely while subject to the basic structure of a modern state. From
the opening pages of A Theory of Justice, Rawls argued that if that struc-
ture were well ordered by justice as fairness, the demands to which we
would be subject could be seen as self-imposedand hence, as he might
later have put it, as imposed by our own rationality and reasonability.52
Rawlss argument does not provide a reason for caring about autonomy.
It assumes, rather, that seeing demands of the basic structure as self-
imposedas having a reasonable and rational basiswill draw the sting
from subjection: members of a society which is well ordered can be recon-
ciled to it because they can view their subjection as compatible with a
form of freedom that they recognize as important when they see it.53 If

50. Ibid., 225.


51. John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy, ed. Barbara Herman (Cam-
bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 148.
52. Rawls, Theory of Justice, 12.
53. For reconciliation as a task of political philosophy, see John Rawls, Lectures on the
History of Political Philosophy, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 2008), 10.

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122 Ethics October 2017
what I have said here is right, then according to Political Liberalism, they
can see it only by adopting the political point of view on their lives. The
good of reconciliation gives them a reason to adopt that point of view.
As is amply demonstrated by the world as it is, losing politically
and hence being subject to a conception of justice we do not endorse
can be profoundly alienating, leaving us disconsolate and angry. That ex-
perience makes the problem of reconciliation to our own society both
palpable and urgent. Rawlss concession that members of a well-ordered
society would be likely to disagree about justice, and that adherents of
justice as fairness might lose the political contests which take place there,
reopened the question of how they and other members of that society
could be reconciled to it. I have argued that by viewing themselves as citi-
zens, members of such a society can view the principles, constitution, laws,
and policies to which they are subject as self-imposed, provided that the
seven conditions of full autonomy are satisfied. Viewing themselves and
their political norms that way, they can be reconciled to their institutions
and their fellow citizens.
Full autonomy, then, is a kind of freedom which is compatible with
subjection to a conception of justice one does not share. Its realization is
demanding. The possibility of realizing it may seem remote since it still
requires significant political consensus andas I observed at the end of
Section IV.F a good deal of mutual trust and understanding.54 But
if so, it is worth recalling that the principles defining what I have called
the content condition are, while recognizably liberal, weaker than Rawlss
own two principles. If consensus on a family of conceptions which satisfy
that condition seems significantly more likely than consensus on justice
as fairness, then full autonomy and reconciliation will not seem forever
beyond our reach. By showing how they can be realized, Rawls shows that
we can at least hope to live without alienation in a reasonably just society
of free and equal citizens who are divided not just by reasonable reli-
gious, philosophical and moral doctrines but by conceptions of justice
as well.55 Such hope often seems to be in short supply. The grounds Rawls
provided for it may prove to be one of the great and unexpected legacies
of Political Liberalism.

54. For an especially sobering assessment of the conditions under which large eco-
nomic inequalities can be reduced, see Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the
History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Uni-
versity Press, 2017).
55. Rawls, Political Liberalism, xxxix.

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