Theories of Multicultural Toleration: An Examination of Justice as Fairness and Political Theology

By Matthew B. Wilks
2014, Vol. 6 No. 03 | pg. 2/4 |

In presenting the overlapping consensus, a distinction is made between “comprehensive doctrines” and the political conception of justice. Comprehensive doctrines are theological, moral or philosophical views on the way the world works, and are separate from the political conception of justice which only concerns justice within the state for all individuals. (Rawls, 2001: 33) Rawls finds it impossible under the reality of reasonable pluralism that people might agree on one comprehensive doctrine, but it may be possible for them to agree to one political conception of justice by creating an overlapping consensus. (Rawls, 2001: 33) Rawls recognizes that reasonable citizens often disagree, but that state power cannot be used to eradicate diversity. (Rawls, 2001: 36) The overlapping consensus develops from a reflective equilibrium, in which diverse groups realize that they have conflicting judgments. (Rawls, 2001: 31) In this realization, the groups withdraw the most incompatible of their views with the aim of finding a conception of justice that each finds compatible with their comprehensive views. (Rawls, 2001: 31-32) Overlapping consensus is created from “groups [seeing] their views as congruent with the political conception of justice, and they come to agree with it starting from their own views” (Rawls, 2001: 195). Once this happens, Rawls sees the potential for a type of “slippage” where over time, the values of the political conception of justice are integrated into the comprehensive doctrines of people. (Rawls, 2001: 193) This promotes social unity, and allows for a well ordered and stable society as these values are passed from one generation to the next (Rawls, 2001: 202).

Rawls moves to discuss the way that the principles of justice must be adopted by groups with different comprehensive doctrines if they are to be seen as legitimate by all. Naturally, groups in negotiating the principles of justice will try to attain conditions most favourable to their group. (Rawls, 2001: 86) In response to this, the “veil of ignorance” is introduced as a way that diverse groups should negotiate a political conception of justice. (Rawls, 2001: 86) The purpose of the veil of ignorance is to allow for an agreement on the political conception of justice to be reached under fair and equal conditions for all groups no matter their strength or population. (Rawls, 2001: 86) The veil of ignorance achieves this by making parties evaluate the principles of justice while limited to the same body of general facts, and not knowing the comprehensive beliefs of those that they represent. (Rawls, 2001: 86-87) The aim is to eliminate any bargaining advantages that a party may have, encouraging them to negotiate with the interests of the whole society in mind. (Rawls, 2001: 87) When there is an agreement on the political conception of justice, it must then be made public so the population can understand and endorse the agreement. (Rawls, 2001: 86) Justice as fairness aims to be the model that will allow this type of agreement to come about and endure.

By developing the theory of justice of fairness, Rawls hopes to create a political conception of justice that can be realistically be adopted. This is done by appealing towards the overlapping consensus. (Rawls, 2001: 32) Because of the reality of reasonable pluralism, the endorsement of the overlapping consensus must be captured in endorsing the principles of justice, allowing for a well-ordered society. (Rawls, 2001: 32) A significant amount of time is spent by Rawls in Justice as Fairness addressing the overlapping consensus as a concept, as any agreement of the political conception of justice must capture the overlapping consensus in order to be viable. (Rawls, 2001: 32) Rawls states that “while in a well-ordered society all citizens affirm the same political conception of justice, they [do not] do so for all the same reasons” (Rawls, 2001: 32) meaning the political conception is a shared viewpoint of consensus between groups. The hope is that the political conception of justice can be publicly justified by people sharing and understanding the views of other groups regarding the conception. (Rawls, 2001: 33) This allows for the creation of social cooperation and an atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation among citizens while attempting to narrow disagreement through thoughtful and reasonable discussion. (Rawls, 2001: 33) The motivating goal for justice as fairness is not to spread the most good among the citizens under utilitarian reasoning, but rather social cooperation is viewed as a good in itself, benefitting society and its citizens. (Rawls, 2001: 107) The ultimate end of justice as fairness is to use social cooperation to demonstrate the possibilities of tolerance, allowing for an exercise of moral power in reasonable people that is both morally good and socially good. (Rawls, 2001: 197) This in turn leads to the final good of a well-ordered society (Rawls, 2001: 202).

Multicultural Toleration in Justice as Fairness

In presenting the theory of justice as fairness, Rawls addresses multicultural tolerance in a liberal democratic society. Indeed, the entire aim of justice as fairness is to provide consensus among groups and to attempt to provide a conception of political justice that is agreeable to all by capturing the overlapping consensus. (Rawls, 2001: 117) First, it is accepted that disagreement and a diversity in comprehensive beliefs as a given in society and seeks to finds a way to achieve societal unity in spite of them. (Rawls, 2001: 32) The principles of justice presented by Rawls both provide an endorsement of multicultural toleration. The first principle of justice ensures basic liberties are protected, and that each person in society has these same basic liberties. (Rawls, 2001: 42) Furthermore, these rights are held to be irrevocable, and this promotes multicultural toleration by protecting minority groups from discrimination and the threat of having their rights denied to them. Since these rights are drawn up under the veil of ignorance, they are not biased in favour of any group as they are designed with the interests of the general society in mind. (Rawls, 2001: 81) This ensures that the basic liberties of the state are reasonable to all of the diverse groups. The second principle of justice endorses multicultural toleration by ensuring social equality of opportunity and this also links into the theory of multicultural tolerance. (Rawls, 2001: 42) This equality of opportunity makes sure that no groups are excluded from public position, encouraging a degree of social cooperation and toleration. For multiculturalism to be tolerated, it is important that discrimination is removed and this principle of justice legislates on a public level that all groups are to be treated equally when contending for a position.

The primary affirmation of multicultural tolerance in justice as fairness comes in the distinction between comprehensive conceptions of justice from political conceptions of justice. Justice as fairness recognizes that because of the reality of reasonable pluralism, there is not a single comprehensive doctrine that all groups will agree on. (Rawls, 2001: 34) Rather, the theory is hinged upon diverse but reasonable groups being able to all agree on a political conception of justice. Rawls is careful to make the distinction that the overlapping consensus is not a “modus vivendi,” meaning that groups do not agree to disagree on the political conception of justice. (Rawls, 2001: 192) Instead, the fact of the overlapping consensus encourages a diversity of comprehensive doctrines by allowing people to hold on to them while finding agreement in the political conception of justice. This allows multicultural toleration as it provides groups a way to find common ground in affirming the political conception of justice, while holding on to their comprehensive doctrine. Furthermore, a public conception of justice allows citizens to publicly justify it by reasonable discussion of their political beliefs. (Rawls, 2001: 27) This is concept is quite similar to the idea of a cultural mosaic, in which various comprehensive doctrines can exist within it as part of a greater whole. In this model, there is multicultural toleration as groups can coexist because of their common affirmation of the political conception of justice. Even though the framework of this mosaic is not achieved through the veil of ignorance, there is a similar affirmation of a common system of government in the liberal democratic state today.

Under the principles of justice, Rawls guarantees equal basic liberties for all, and an equal chance to publicly hold office. In debates about multicultural toleration, one criticism is that multicultural toleration is often only true in a formalistic sense and that public office is only accessible to those of economic and social means above others. (Rawls, 2001: 150-151) Rawls responds by arguing that under justice as fairness the government should intervene to ensure that all groups have equal political liberties and have opportunity to reasonably express their beliefs. (Rawls, 2001: 155) Multicultural toleration is to be ensured by the government guaranteeing that citizens receive fair value in for their political liberties, but Rawls stops short of guaranteeing government support for groups that fail to gather adherents. However, the government has to ensure that there be equal opportunity for political representation for all groups, “[securing] for each citizen a fair and roughly equal access to the use of a public facility designed to serve a definite political purpose” (Rawls, 2001: 150). However, Rawls draws the line at extending this type of fair value to other basic liberties.

Rawls’ most potent discussion of multicultural toleration comes in his discussion on what groups are permissible in the model of justice as fairness. Rawls accepts that reasonable groups holding comprehensive doctrine that are congruent with the two principles of justice as well as “well-articulated, and highly systematic” are welcome. (Rawls, 2001: 33) This means that as long as citizens can have a reasonable discussion about their comprehensive beliefs, then that belief may be welcome in society. However, it is acknowledged that not all comprehensive doctrines are compatible with a well-ordered society as:
“the principles of any reasonable political conception must impose restrictions on permissible comprehensive views, and the basic institutions those principles require inevitably encourage some ways of life and discourage others, or even exclude them altogether” (Rawls, 2001: 153)
The main question that Rawls considers is how this type of exclusion can be justified in justice as fairness.

Within the construct of justice as fairness, Rawls finds there to be two cases under which the exclusion of a comprehensive doctrine is acceptable. If a comprehensive doctrine is in direct conflict with the principles of justice, then it may be justly discouraged. (Rawls, 2001: 154) Secondly, if a comprehensive doctrine requires constant intervention or effective intolerance on behalf of the state to survive, it also will cease to exist in a well ordered society. (Rawls, 2001: 154) Rawls discusses the main criticism of the second case which argues that the reason a comprehensive doctrine may not be able to survive is because the accepted political conception of justice is biased against it. (Rawls, 2001: 154) In defence, Rawls states “social influences favoring some doctrines over others cannot be avoid in any view of political justice. No society can include within itself all ways of life.” (Rawls, 2001: 154) As long as the comprehensive doctrine has a fair chance to succeed under the political conception, then its failing is still just. (Rawls, 2001: 154) Rawls finishes by stating it would be inconsistent with democratic values for the state to intervene in this case (Rawls, 2001: 155).

The overlapping consensus Rawls sees as necessary to a well-ordered society is meant to create a sense of societal tolerance by removing comprehensive doctrine as an obstacle in affirming a political conception of justice. Multicultural toleration can exist because this consensus allows for divergent views on issues within reasonable comprehensive conceptions of the world to reach some sort of understanding and toleration. Justice as fairness is contingent on this type of toleration being present in the case of most issues as reasonable citizens put aside divisive issues in order to affirm a political conception of justice. A spirit of cooperation and compromise is necessary for multicultural toleration to be workable. However, it is inevitable that extreme issues where compromise is impossible will arise and test the limits of any scheme of toleration despite an agreement on the political conception of justice. In these cases, public civility must be followed, allowing for a rational and articulate discussion between reasonable parties to try and settle the issue. (Rawls, 2001: 117) Furthermore, it is critical that political values of justice adjudicate this discussion, separating arguments from any particular comprehensive viewpoint. (Rawls, 2001: 190) If this does not solve the conflict, Rawls says that the political conception of justice will cause slippage through the generations, creating tolerance as viewpoints on irreconcilable comprehensive issues become tempered to fit a consensus under the political conception of justice. (Rawls, 2001: 193) This creates stability over the generations, allowing for multicultural toleration because each groups’ allegiance to the political conception of justice grows to outweigh their comprehensive doctrine. (Rawls, 2001: 194) This social cooperation creates a further toleration for divisive ideas and makes them cease to be a problem as the agreement on the political conception of justice and the good of social cooperation comes to be more important that any divisive comprehensive viewpoint (Rawls, 2001: 195).

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