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Social Philosophy

Justification of Political Liberalism and the Catholic Paradox

Roger Magyar
Temple University

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ABSTRACT: Rawls' justification of political liberalism has been the subject of recent discussion in socio-political philosophy. In Political Liberalism, he has adjusted his original notion of ideal convergence, found in A Theory of Justice, to one of overlapping consensus. I argue that Catholics would find themselves excluded from being good citizens as Rawls defines proper citizenship. This follows from his statements concerning fairness in participating in the democratic process in that it would lead to, what I term, the Catholic paradox. This perspective from within the Catholic point of view indicates that there are similar problems to be found in other traditionally informed conceptions of what the good life is. In this way, the Catholic paradox draws attention to the empirical implausibility that competing conceptions of what the good life is, as understood from within their traditions, will not endorse Rawls' political theory. I then relate how easily it can be inferred that other traditions will face the same paradox and that they will not accept Rawls' political theory as being justified from their perspectives.

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Reason dictates that some things are to be shunned, and some things sought; and of things to be shunned, that some are more to be shunned than others; and of things again to be sought, that some are more to be sought than others; and that the more any good is to be sought the more the opposite evil is to be shunned. Aquinas Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 125, a. 1

In this essay I argue that Rawls' latest justification of political liberalism fails to justify the principles of justice as fairness with the notions of public reason and overlapping consensus. By developing his conception of political liberalism from within the comprehensive doctrine of Catholicism I elucidate how the paradox of democracy immediately arises under the notion of overlapping consensus. My argument for concluding that Rawls fails to justify the principles of justice as fairness comes about by illustrating that an authentic Catholic faces what I call the Catholic paradox. Reference is drawn to what is believed to be an unsound assumption that there will not be a conflict over what public reason is, but the primary objective is to point out a problem that is highly probable from within other comprehensive doctrines that citizens in a democracy hold.

The Catholic paradox refers to the choice between reverting to a modus vivendi agreement strategy or Rawls' liberalist overlapping consensus form of agreement. Modus vivendi forms probably seem undesirable to most as they stand so I will focus on exposing why Rawls' overlapping consensus leads to an undesirable mode of social practice. Liberalism for Rawls arises from the conflict between opposing comprehensive doctrines. A narrative on how the early religious wars gave rise to toleration is used here. Due to such irreconcilable transcendent visions of the good which characterized both continual irresolvable conflicts and the lack of a common base from which to adjudicate over such differences that liberalism arose; i.e., liberalism emerged to offer the alternative of equal liberty of conscience for all citizens. Rawls declares tha political liberalism reveals that the most appropriate and reasonable conception of justice in a democratic society marked by pluralism is one which allows comprehensive doctrines to affirm this political conception and join in an overlapping consensus. Rawls admits that it is crucial that the constuctivism of political liberalism not oppose any comprehensive view -- especially if that comprehensive view is a reasonable one.

Recent concern has transpired over the overlapping consensus because this is the part of Rawls' theory which moves away from A Theory of Justice. (1) Philosophically, this portion of Rawls' theory draws attention because it the linchpin for the legitimization of Political Liberalism. In A Theory of Justice stability relied on the congruence of each citizen's idea of the good with the ideal of justice. This congruence was widely attacked for its being a comprehensive Kantian view. In an effort to secure stability without relying on a comprehensive view, Rawls develops the concept of overlapping consensus. In this way, Political Liberalism claims to present a freestanding political argument for justice that can be endorsed from within any reasonable comprehensive doctrine. But there is a major bug in Rawls' security system. Given both that the Catholic church is one of the most active agents in the promotion of the political principles of justice and Rawls' stabilizing mechanism occasions their inadmissibility into the arena of public reason on the issue of abortion, it can be noted that Rawls' political liberalism by taking away the Catholic church's reasonableness card leads to produce an inauthentic Catholic citizen. Inauthentic citizenry is the tip of the iceberg signaling the essence of an unstable democracy. Rawls' political liberalism leads to the creation of hypocritical citizens when employed in an authentic democracy. While it appears to resolve questions that come out of its basic principles, we can find that it does not resolve such questions in light of what is herein referred to as public reason antinomy. By relating Rawls' ideas concerning overlapping consensus and public reason over the issue of abortion, I want to expound the problems a Catholic perspective would incur. Catholicism is a valid vantage point for Rawls himself considers it a reasonable comprehensive doctrine. An initial motivation for pursuing this inquiry comes from Rawls' declaration that from within each reasonable comprehensive doctrine the political liberalist conception, with its prioritized of principles of justice, can be derived. And in section eight of "The Idea of Overlapping Consensus" Rawls puts aside the religious doctrine, he says for the time being, though there is no substantive dealing with it anywhere later in this text.

Rawls does take into account such comprehensive moral doctrines as Kant's and Kantian derivatives, utilitarianism, and pluralistic accounts, yet he gives the slightest of considerations to religious comprehensive views. To do this seems conspicuous in itself, yet, perhaps more importantly, his theory does not pay just due to a vast number of citizens who possess relatively strict religious convictions. To claim outright that these citizens are unreasonable on the issue of abortion based on reasons of belief is arrogant and presupposes a level of transcendence for to know that these views are unreasonable begs for a greater comprehensive awareness. I want now to take up Rawls' challenge that his political liberalism could be embraced by a vibrant comprehensive doctrine. Catholics seem to reveal a dilemma that arises when there is a conflict between one's views qua citizen and one's views qua cultural member, e.g., on abortion, on alternative family groups, same sex marriage, physician assisted suicide, etc. Catholics as citizens can not "accept two ways of life in society, one for the Christian and another for the rest" (2) since to accept two ways of life "would be for the Church to abandon its task of evangelizing the World." (3) Furthermore, Catholic conceptions of the good inform their conception of what a right is, one can not be taken without the other tagging along. (4) A deeper problem arises in the overlapping consensus per se when the basic principle of the right to life brings about an antinomy. This antinomy arises over abortion. Both the thesis, that the unborn fetus has a right to life, and the antithesis, that the zygote or fetal tissue does not have a right to life due to the right of a woman to control her body, rely on public reason. This public reason antinomy can be understood as the Catholic qua citizen being at odds with the self qua Catholic precisely because, on the one hand, public reason declares that it is the woman's right to have an abortion and as a citizen one supports rights, while religious conviction and/or reasonable public intuitive morality informs the self that this is a violation of the right to life of the potential being, i.e., the unborn life. This deeper problem of public antinomy is identical with the problem of the categorical imperative being applied by two different ethos.

Catholic paradox and the antinomy of public reason can be brought out by quoting Rawls on this issue. Using the 'ideal' case he portrays the matter as one of an overriding of political value: Rawls claims that if we consider the question in terms of these three important political values: the due respect for human life, the ordered reproduction of political society over time, including the family in some form, and finally the equality of women as equal citizens. (There are, of course, other important political values besides these.) Now I believe any reasonable balance of these three values will give a woman a duly qualified right to decide whether or not to end her pregnancy during the first trimester. The reason for this is that at this early stage of pregnancy the political value of the equality of women is overriding, and this right is required to give it substance and force. Other political values, if tallied in, would not, I think, affect this conclusion. A reasonable balance may allow her such a right beyond this, at least in certain circumstances. However, I do not discuss the question in general here, as I simply want to illustrate the point of the text by saying that any comprehensive doctrine that leads to a balance of political values excluding that duly qualified right in the first trimester is to that extent unreasonable. . . . Thus, assuming that this question is either a constitutional essential or a matter of basic justice, we would go against the ideal of public reason ifwe voted from a comprehensive doctrine that denied this right (see section 2.4). (5)

On this statement alone the Catholic should at least begin to feel some tingle of skepticism that the notions of overlapping consensus and public reason will not be recognized as deserving equal recognition. But I also want to draw out that what Kant did not recognize as an inherent problem in the categorical imperative Rawls also fails to recognize. The failed recognition is that a conflict will arise over how as a society we are to deal with those issues that bring about such a dilemma where both sides are informed by public reason. Even when we look back on America's recent history, we can note there occured an antinomy of public reason on the issue of slavery. A public reason antinomy which led to Civil War. Rawls declares that one need not chuck their beliefs to join the overlapping consensus, for this is contrary to the way he has conceived it. I do not see this, it seems that he expects the Christian to renege on the Covenant, their contract with God, in order to enjoy membership in a temporary overlapping consensus. This is the unwanted conclusion which the overlapping consensus horn leads to.

We exist in a complex social system today that demands that to sustain society we can not be merely with our own communal group, otherwise numerous islands unrelated would exist alongside one another. At the other extreme in a democratic political system there can not be an official religion, nor any religion which wields excessive political force compelling adherence to its comprehensive views. This is the unwanted conclusion that the modus vivendi mode of social agreeing leads to according to political liberalism as Rawls tells it. But there is no threat that if Catholics were to fully enact living out their religious convictions, that either of these two cases would come about. Nor would it be the case that the majority would fall under the power of the minority. On this point, I see no reason why minorities would feel compelled to oblige Rawls by censuring themselves. T. S. Eliot points out the unfounded implied assumption of liberalist thinking:

It is assumed that if the State leaves the Church alone, and to some extent protects it from molestation, then the Church has no right to interfere with the organization of society, or with the conduct of those who deny its beliefs. It is assumed that any such interference would be the oppression of the majority by a minority. (6)

Paradoxes of democracy lead to the hypocrisy of what Rawls calls ideal public reason. Participation in Rawls' liberal democracy allows for free reflection of personal and political questions wherein all varieties of comprehensive views can be entertained. But the ideal of public reason is engaged in the political forum by citizens while voting "in elections when constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice are at stake." (7) Rawls feels that by giving the ideal of public reason this two-forked function that he has staved off the devil of hypocrisy that "citizens talk before one another one way and vote another." (8) He has not. This is exactly what he is proposing. Citizens can entertain religious views in deliberation, reflection, and discourse, but when they vote on a basic constitutional essential it can only be through the filter of institutional public reason. The two ways are different. For instance, Rawls would expect Catholics not to vote with any consideration of moral obligation, while they would be free to voice these considerations at all other times.

The authentic educated Catholic would argue that for Aquinas, (9) truthfulness comes under the category of justice since individuals have to tell the truth to those who have a right to it. Citizens of a democracy have a right to it, despite Rawls' claims that -- in essence -- read to the contrary. From within Catholic doctrine the bearing of false witness is regarded as venial. He came into the world "to testify to the truth." (10) Again, the authentic Catholic will not see reason for divorcing the notion of the good from the right given the comprehensive background framework of their ethos.

Catholics have a moral obligation to vote for absolute prohibitionists because they would best endorse laws that advance the common good. Representatives running for office who oppose abortion display good character for governing. They are said to be the best candidates for endorsing beneficial laws because they promise to protect the vulnerable from those who might exploit them. This is why absolute prohibition of murder, rape, and torture are good laws. Since these representatives would protect the unborn from the more powerful, this would give reasonable security that they would be legitimate representatives for the community. Such a representative has competence and good character and would thus be suited for office. Rawls would deny this reasonable reasoning entry into the overlapping consensus, as well as claim that these voters are both unreasonable and do not qualify as instantiating ideal public reason. Beyond his opinion, it continues to remain the case that we Catholics are "ideally expressing our opinions as to which of the alternatives best advances the common good." (11) Let me spell out the reductio just elaborated: Rawls claims that the Catholic on his account is unreasonable. I have attempted to show the Catholic's reasonableness. But more importantly, I have shown how a Catholic does instantiate Rousseau's ideal of public reason, on the very issue Rawls has claimed Catholics are unreasonable and possibly even cruel and oppressive. Communitarian perspectives, such as those of Alisdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, (12) criticize liberalists' portrayals of value in two ways. First, choice is inherently bound up in people's understanding of social practices and the subsequent assessment of the worth of goods internal to those practices. Even radical questioning, as William Kymlicka notes in our pursuit of getting choices right, that lead to the rejection of past beliefs are informed by such an interpretation of value often more "personal" and leads such seekers to finding out of similars who think in like manner. Second, choice should not be the primary focus of attention for what remains morally important is the intricate intertwining network of the meaning and significance of social practices, personal desires, capacities, and obligations that lead to choice. Michael Sandel correctly emphasizes this moral primacy of knowledge that is inclusive of self-discovery. (13) Choices presuppose a complicated background of (often tacit) knowledge. Rawls only mentions this background without considering its full import.

Social groups, such as gender, race, class, religion, and nationality are not live options calling for change for the average citizen. This existential aspect of a pluralistic democratic society finds its citizens intrinsically defined within a context of group affiliations. Rawls only pays lip-service to this in that he does not recognize the full force of such group affiliations and the limits of citizenship. Rawls needs to justify political liberalism from a more realistically grounded perspective, rather than imposing a weakened categorical imperative that hypothetically pictures citizens as enjoying a buffet of social affiliations instead of having strong committments to their inescapable frameworks.

Let me put this more simply: Imagine a society which practiced public reason without reliance on any comprehensive view engaging in an overlapping consensus. Is there desire for social community under this form of political liberalism? Suppose further that you divorced your frameworks conception of the good from what is right. Would you consider what is right for society without having a notion of what the good is? If not would the good spring out of the right? If not then what is the justification for Catholics to adopt political liberalism? If one retorts that this has something to do with an intrinsic sense of fairness, i.e., in allowing others beliefs and desires to count as equal, then are we not drifting away from a liberalist justification to one which possesses a higher level comprehensive view.

The upshot of all this is that Rawls fails to justify the principles of political liberalism. First, in any authentic pluralistic society there will undoubtedly be conflicts over what public reason is -- how will we agree to agree, let alone agree on what would constitute our agreeing on the terms and criteria of our agreeing, especially when Rawls himself claims to have shown that "the appropriate limits of reason vary depending on historical and social conditions." (14) Second, the emergence of public reason antinomies, even in science, (15) arise from the deep socio-politico-economical differences that are in the soil. This soil from which pluralistic conflicts of interpretation rise is the self-same soil from which ideal public reason is supposed to arise. Third, the hypocrisy of ideal public reason -- which would only arise if both the first and second points are utterly ungrounded, though a more realistic perspective than Rawls would appear to contradict such utter ungroundedness would leave political liberalism with hypocritical citizens given that there would be religious freedom in which an ecclesiatically informed identity, such as a Catholic, would dwell in a Rawlsian democracy. Thus on these grounds I claim that Rawls' conception of justice fails to provide the necessary space for 'authentic' Catholicism to embrace his political liberalism. Moreover, from within the Catholic framework Rawls' opposition to abortion is not justified. This is not a call for a Catholic conception of justice built from within this framefwork, but rather is a call to find a liberal political framework that virtually all ethos will be able to endorse. This is in accord with the Aristotlean-Thomas tradition in that this line of thought has consistently insisted that no one can flourish outside of a flourishing community.

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(1) Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (Canbridge: Belknap Pr. of Harvard Univ. Pr., 1971).

(2) Thomas Stearns. Eliot, "The Idea of a Christian Society" in: Christianity and Culture, (San Diego et al: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1976), 72. Emergence of public reason antinomies elucidate this fact. One public reason antinomy suffices, yet even if there be no public reason antinomy, the charge that there would not be conflict of interpretation over what public reason means would still stand. And even if there were a real possibility of a pluralistic society coming to agree on when they aggree, let alone the criteria for such an agreement, the subsequent ideal of public reason would produce a democracy of hypocritical citizens when freedrom of religion allows for authentic Catholic citizens. Symbolized here in a loose sense for example could be Hinduism and Islam.

(3) Ibid. Michael Sandel portrays this as argument between two types of argument he classifies as naive and sophisticated. While I agree with this formulation, I think that the naive argument can be understood more deeply such that it too is sophisticated. Sandel makes this distinction in "Moral Argument and Liberal Toleration: Abortion and Homosexuality" in: New Communitarian Thinking: Persons, Virtues, and Communities, ed. by Amitai Etzioni, (Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 1995), 71- 87. While I do not deny that my views have been inculcated by a Catholic upbringing, I do not think that I am mistaken that on a deeper level there is a strong case for there being a public antinomy over the issue of abortion. Perhaps the Judeo-Christian notion of the self, so deeply embedded in our culture, is the root of this problem: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you (Jeremiah 1:5).

(4) Aquinas discloses that "the object of the will is universal good" (Summa Theologicae I-II, q. 2, a. 8). And "it belongs to the goodness of soul to tend to the perfection of justice" (ibid., II-II, q. 113, 1, section 2).

(5) John Rawls, Political Liberalism, (New York: Columbia Univ. Pr., 1993), 243 n. 32. Hereafter referred to as PL.

(6) T. S. Eliot, "The Idea of a Christian Society" in: Christianity and Culture, 72.

(7) Rawls, PL, 215.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Aquinas,Summa Theologicae, II-II, qq. 17-22. Fides et spes quarens  intellectum, faith and hope seeking understanding, a la Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas is revelation and promise about this world. Such a conviction, mind you, need not be based on religious conviction, but can likely be seen to coincide with parallel reasons that are as reasonable as any other employing clinical institutional public reason.  One might object that on the issue of abortion there is no unified Catholic view, but with respect to automatic excommunication there is. Nonetheless, historically, this Catholic concern has included Joseph Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago on the progressive side of the issue and John Cardinal O'Connor of New York on the orthodox side. Special interest groups arose on both sides of this issue as well: Catholics for Free Choice (1972) and the Committee of Concerned Catholics (1986) against the Catholic Traditionalist Movement (1964), Catholics United for Faith (1968), the Catholic League for Religious Civil Rights (1973) -- with about 30,000 members -- Catholics for Political Action (1977), the American Catholic Committee (1982), and the Society of Traditional Roman Catholics (1984). There is a more pronounced radical split amongst the Evangelical denominations of the Lutherans and the Baptists, as well as other Christian denominations. There is a lesser emphatic split amongst the Jews. Throughout this essay the ideal case of abortion to hear this phrase itself sounds odd is being considered, i.e., a mature responsible women, the victim of no crime. uinas distinguishes between moral inner passions and justice etween external agents. (Hegel called these inner/outer realtions oralitat und Sittlichkeit.) Abortion is a matter of justice because the eed of life is not an inner passion. Aquinas discloses that "the object f the will is universal good" (Summa Theologicae I-II, q. 2, a. 8). And it belongs to the goodness of soul to tend to the perfection of justice" ibid., II-II, q. 113, 1, section 2).

(10) John 18:37. Compare John 17:17. Concerning hypocrisy, see Matthew 23, Matthew 6:1-17, 1 Acts of the Apostles 5-11, and 1 Timothy 4:1-2.

(11) Rawls, PL, 220.

(12) Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, (London: Duckworth & Co., 1981) and Charles Taylor, Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Paper 2, (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1985).

(13) Michael Sandel in Democracy's Discontent, locates Roe v. Wade as an indicative focal point which shows the shift from American politics shift from the good to the right. Moral issues are bracketed, privacy turned into autonomy, and abortion became a right.

(14) Rawls, PL, 251.

(15) See Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, particularly chapter 10's discussion on the impossibility of a neutral language.


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