The Independence/Dependence Paradox within John Rawls’s Political Liberalism


Rawls in his later philosophy claims that it is sufficient to accept political conception as true or right, depending on what one's worldview allows, on the basis of whatever reasons one can muster, given one's worldview (doctrine). What political liberalism is interested in is a practical agreement on the political conception and not in our reasons for accepting it. There are deep issues (regarding deep values, purpose of life, metaphysics etc.) which cannot be resolved through invoking common reasons (this is the fact of free reason itself), and trying to resolve them would involve us in interminable debates and would hamper the practical task of agreement on the political conception. Given the absolute necessity of a political society which is stable and enduring, it is thus wise to avoid these issues in founding a political society and choosing its basic principles - this is the pragmatic part of Rawls's position. In this paper I argue that this strategy leads Rawls into a paradox: (i) although the intention is to stay independent of comprehensive doctrines, the political conception is in fact totally (and precariously) dependent on comprehensive doctrines (not just on one doctrine but on each and every major doctrine in society). It is dependent on them: for its conceptualisation as an independent idea, for its justification, for the check of its reasonability in relation to the external world, for the formation of identities and value inculcation and hence for the formation of its model citizen; (ii) the very search for independence makes the political conception more dependent on comprehensive doctrines, and by extension makes it potentially more prone to intervention in and tampering with comprehensive doctrines (it is enough to show that it is a strong conceptual possibility to cast doubt on the whole strategy). Thus, for example, the political conception relies on the hope that “firmly held convictions gradually change” and that it would “in fact . . . have the capacity to shape those doctrines toward itself”. The purpose of the Rawlsian conjecture is to give these “hopes” a concrete, practical form by giving advice to proponents of the comprehensive doctrine on how they can do all this and “try to show them that, despite what they might think, they can still endorse a reasonable political conception”. I further argue that this paradox can be overcome by making the core of political liberalism more flexible.

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Ali Rizvi
La Trobe University


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