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Rawlsian consensus from Nonpartisan's diary.

According to Rawls, a large majority of people with different views are able to form what he called an "overlapping consensus" -- a core set of policies and governing principles that are contained within all their comprehensive doctrines.  So long as those people are "reasonable" -- that is, so long as they are rational and willing to work with other reasonable people -- there's no need for them to share the same comprehensive doctrine or agree on fundamental principles.  They can govern just fine without any such philosophical agreement, just by passing laws that all or most of them can agree on for their own different reasons.

This is, of course, exactly how our government works: a bunch of people who disagree on ideas come together and agree on policies.  But Rawls was the first to elevate this practical political solution to the level of a philosophy.  Rawls' great insight was that our political system works precisely because of, not in spite of, the fact that we lack universal philosophical standards of right and wrong.  The reason all previous liberal theories had run afoul of pluralism was that they had divided the world into right (those who agreed with the theory) and wrong (those who disagreed with it).  Rawls replaced this dichotomy with another one: he divided the world into the reasonable (those who were willing to work within the overlapping consensus) and the unreasonable (those who weren't).  Rawls' overlapping consensus was much more inclusive than previous theories, since only people with extreme positions would be unwilling to work with others in the overlapping consensus -- and it also meant that people could only be excluded from the consensus by choice, not for any other reason (deep-seated religious belief for Locke, incorrect beliefs for Kant, ethnic/racial/national origin for Mill).  Anyone was welcome within the overlapping consensus unless they voluntarily absented themselves from it.  And anyone who worked within the overlapping consensus had a voice in shaping what that consensus turned out to be.

I see two problems with the above:

  1. A significant group can frustrate the whole process by rejecting everything the somewhat larger group proposes. Sound familiar? It doesn't matter that they might be labeled "unreasonable". It is about power and not reason, with the purpose of power being to feel powerful.

  2. Any solution that would be adequate to the situation could be outside the (manipulated) consensus -- such as is the case just now.

By accepting that the solution has to come from within the consensus, as Obama has done, instead of attempting to move the consensus via leadership to include viable solutions, the consensus approach tends to a Panglossian reducto ad absurdum of "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."

But I will grant Rawls that the problems posed since the deconstruction of positivism, starting in the '60s and '70s is acute. Worse, the fundamental conclusion that social reality is a social construct is much more easily exploited by sociopaths than by those who actually care about anything broader than their own interests. Developing a sense of universal compassion was the response to rampant egoism in settled communities was the response in many cultures starting around 500BC, but it has proved insufficient to the problem.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Thu Sep 30th, 2010 at 10:42:36 AM EST
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