“Political liberalism” vs culture war

I’m half-reading John Rawls’s Political Liberalism, – a lot of it is some way over my head – in which Prof Rawls sets out his answer to the question:

How is it possible for there to exist over time a just and stable society of free and equal citizens, who remain profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?

Prof Rawls argues – surely correctly – that “the diversity of reasonable comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines found in modern democratic societies” is a “permanent feature”. The only way to maintain a single comprehensive religious, philosophical or moral doctrine would be “by the oppressive use of state power”.

Hence Rawls’s concept of political liberalism, as distinct from liberalism as a “comprehensive doctrine” in its own right. Consensus cannot be reached on any comprehensive worldview; however, it is possible within “the domain of the political” to find an “overlapping consensus” between “reasonable comprehensive doctrines”.

This then leads Rawls to offer the following three conditions as “sufficient” for society to achieve the outcome described in the paragraph quoted above:

First, the basic structure of society is regulated by a political conception of justice;

In other words, society is not regulated by a particular religious or philosophical view of justice, but by one which operates at a political level.

second, this political conception is the focus of an overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines;

So the political view of justice is not a separate doctrine imposed on all other worldviews. Rather, those holding each “reasonable comprehensive doctrine” can agree on that political view of justice, even if they do so for different reasons rooted in their overall worldview.

and third, public discussion, when constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice are at stake, is conducted in terms of the political conception of justice.

In other words, our participation in the process of deciding these fundamental issues may be motivated by our broader worldview, but need to be expressed in terms of the overlapping consensus of the “political conception of justice”. Where we fail to do so, at best we will find ourselves unable to persuade those who hold different “comprehensive doctrines”; at worst, we will undermine social cohesion by eroding the “overlapping consensus” and promoting a clash between “comprehensive doctrines”.

These principles, especially the third, perhaps explain some of the problems with political engagement by Christians. We still have a lingering nostalgia for the days when society was indeed ordered by one single comprehensive doctrine: ours. This results in our political activities being pulled between two different objectives: first, achieving particular ends within the context of a pluralist society; second, re-establishing “the Christian worldview” as the basis on which society is ordered.

As a consequence, we are often very bad at arguing our case in terms which can persuade those who do not share our worldview, but who nonetheless share the same consensus on the basic ground-rules for political discourse.

This is what motivated my post at the end of last year asking for “secular” arguments against euthanasia. We can argue till we are blue in the face about the “sanctity of life” and the applicability of the commandment against murder, but all people outside our worldview will hear is an attempt to impose our “comprehensive doctrine” on the most vulnerable people in our society.

Hence, while our worldview may be the motivation behind the political position we take, we need to find other ways in which to express that position in the political debate. (To my mind, one of the most powerful arguments is the social psychology concept of “social norming” – the way in which people’s supposedly “free” choices are shaped by what society regards as “normal”. In other words, legalising euthanasia will “normalise” it and lead people to choose it who would otherwise not have considered it.)

The same applies to any other area in which Christians find themselves advocating a particular political position. Otherwise, we may congratulate ourselves on our “faithful witness to the truth”, while hardening society against our views in a way that is unnecessary and counterproductive.

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5 Responses to “Political liberalism” vs culture war

  1. Tom R says:

    Hmmm. In theory, yes. However, in practice it seems the the same people who praise Rawls’ “overlapping consensus”, and pat themselves on the back for being liberal enough to adopt that view in theory, usually baulk at applying it in practice.

  2. John H says:

    Tom: that’s a fair point, and I’m sure we can both think of plenty of examples. As it happens, I’ve now basically given up on Rawls’s book, as I was looking for him to provide arguments supporting his “principles of justice” (especially the “difference principle”) and all he seemed to say was, in effect, “It’s obvious that those in the OP would accept these principles”. Erm, no, I’m not sure it is that obvious, actually.

    But I still think the point addressed in my post is valid: namely, that Christians need to get better at expressing our positions on social issues in terms which have some traction with those who don’t share our underlying worldviews.

  3. Dave says:

    An interesting rebuttal to Rawls on this point comes from Samuel Huntington. Huntington argues that different worldviews cannot coincide in the same society in the long run. Despite attempts at better communication, the differences will only become more pronounced, camps more entrenched, until “reasonable” differences in doctrine are no longer reasonable.

    Huntington gives a bleak view of political liberalism. He seems to consider it a weakness when other civilizations are becoming more uniform and more entrenched in their doctrines. I am not sure I agree with him — his use of statistics can be a little fishy at times — but it is an interesting alternative to consider, especially given the influence Huntington had in US politics in the last couple of decades.

  4. Rick Ritchie says:

    It seems to me our choice is between persuasion and force. Force sounds “realistic” to many. Who wants to argue with the barrel of a gun? But how much force would it take to rule a society where nobody is persuaded that the rules are legitimate? Of course it has been done in the past, but usually in colonies. Back at home, you usually have many people living fairly freely (Even in evil regimes, many may be cooperating happily if they believe in their authority.) who can offer material support out of their abundance. Where there has been no persuasion, the society is at war with the mind, and there will be no abundance. Regimes that are unpopular at home and then extend themselves into other lands find that they cannot hold it together.

    So persuasion is crucial.

    I would likely agree with Huntington that different worldviews cannot coincide in the same society in the long run. But I would want to have “worldview” taken in a sense different from what someone would have gotten from reading Francis Schaeffer. (His use of the term is fine for its own purposes.) Most Westerners have views that coincide enough whether they are conservative Christians or religious liberals or atheists. It is when you try to mix a guilt culture with an honor culture that you run into deep trouble. Not only do they not agree, but they can hardly communicate. I could adopt some of Huntington without seeing that as a problem with democracy in America. I just would want to limit the intrusiveness of what the voters can inflict on each other.

  5. steve martin says:

    “I just would want to limit the intrusiveness of what the voters can inflict on each other.”

    The good old Constitution.

    Remember that?

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