, Volume 40, Issue 2, pp 223–236

Overlapping Consensus or Marketplace of Religions? Rawls and Smith


    • Department of Philosophy and ReligionUniversity of North Dakota

DOI: 10.1007/s11406-011-9352-3

Cite this article as:
Weinstein, J.R. Philosophia (2012) 40: 223. doi:10.1007/s11406-011-9352-3


In this paper, I examine the claim that Rawls’s overlapping consensus is too narrow to allow most mainstream religions’ participation in political discourse. I do so by asking whether religious exclusion is a consequence of belief or action, using conversion as a paradigm case. After concluding that this objection to Rawls is, in fact, defensible, and that the overlapping consensus excludes both religious belief and action, I examine an alternative approach to managing religious pluralism as presented by Adam Smith. I show that Smith’s so-called “marketplace of religions” assumes and encourages religious conversion. I then offer objections to Smith’s approach from Rawls’s point of view, concluding that, while Rawls cannot adequately respond to the Smithian challenge, in the end the two positions are complimentary.


Adam SmithJohn RawlsOverlapping consensusReligious conversionMarketplace of religionsPolitical liberalism

In 1993, in one of the first major reviews of John Rawls’s Political Liberalism, Brian Barry remarked that the conditions of Rawlsian reasonableness cannot be met by most major religions (Barry 1993). While others have made similar comments, Barry’s review remains both the most vehement and the most powerful. In this paper, I wish to examine this claim by asking whether this religious exclusion is a prohibition of belief or action, using religious conversion as a paradigm case. I then offer an alternative approach to managing religious pluralism as presented by Adam Smith. I conclude by offering objections from Rawls’s point of view and then suggesting that the two are, in fact, complimentary.


Identifying what conversion means is a research topic in itself. It is not my intention to delve into the literature here. Instead, I offer only a superficial definition: conversion involves the change of religious or denominational affiliation for reasons of authentic belief, usually the result of radical personal change.1 Rawls recognizes that such change may take place, but does not allow that it affects a person’s political identity. Converts experience no change in rights, duties, or property as a consequence of their conversion, assuming that they do not voluntarily give up elements of these as legality permits: “a conversion implies no change in public or institutional identity, nor in our personal identity as this concept is understood by some writers in the philosophy of mind” (PL 30-31). 2

This approach is consistent with Rawls’s notion that religious belief is private,3 but it does leave a range of questions. Does the divide between religious and political identity prohibit, for example, parole boards from considering conversion as evidence of genuine remorse? Rawls’s account of religious belief presumes a non-integrated or freestanding political identity; a citizen is expected to explain his or her motivations in the language of the common public reason – or, as he defines it, “citizens’ reasoning in the public forum about constitutional essentials and basic questions of justice” (PL 10). A convert cannot describe religious change in these terms.

Parole boards are not discussions of constitutional essentials, although they may be related to interpretations about the basic questions of justice. Nevertheless, for Rawls, encouraging conversion is clearly an important violation of liberal legitimacy. In The Laws of Peoples, Rawls argues that reasonable people do not seek to convert others (LP §1.3). He equates doing so with war, arguing that in a reasonable and just society of well-ordered peoples, “The familiar motives for war would be absent: such people do not seek to convert others to their religions, not to conquer great territory, not to wield political power over other people” (LP §1.3). If we take this at face value, then Barry would be correct in asserting that most observant Christians and Muslims would be excluded from public political debate. To avoid this conclusion, let’s consider the possibility that Rawls is not prohibiting individual acts of persuasion, but is only rejecting calls for, or the actual use of, state power to convert. He makes this more measured claim in JFR (cf. §54.4) and in PRR where he writes that “we must give up forever the hope of changing the constitution so as to establish our religion’s hegemony, or of qualifying our obligations to ensure its influence and success” (PRR §3.1).

Prohibiting the call for or use of power to convert is, Rawls admits, a commitment to the subordinate nature of the religious or politically true (JFR §54.4, also PRR §7.2). For Rawls, of course, the right trumps the good, and here he is struggling with, as he does throughout his writings, the depth of neutrality in a liberal system. While neutrality is famously Ronald Dworkin’s term4 and Rawls himself refers to it as an “unfortunate” choice of words (PL 191), it is still the case that the procedures of right must remain mostly nonaligned with religious positions. For Rawls, making truth commitments about theological statements ought to be avoided.

Rawls recognizes the difficulties of his position. In Political Liberalism, for example, he distinguishes between inclusive and exclusive rules for allowing truth in public political debate. The latter prevents citizens from providing reasons for their views that are given in terms of comprehensive doctrines, while the former suggests that there are certain situations in which citizens may indeed “present what they regard as the basis of political values rooted in their comprehensive doctrines;” they must only “strengthen the idea of public reason itself” (PL 247).

Rawls favors the inclusive view, arguing both that it is “more flexible” and that it “best encourages citizens to honor the ideal of public reason and secures its social conditions in the longer run in a well ordered society” (PL 248). He also writes that introducing one’s “reasonable comprehensive doctrines” into the public reason “has the advantage of citizens informing one another where they come from, so to speak,” but that eventually “the duty of civility requires us in due course to make our case for the legislative and public policies we support in terms of public reason, or the political values covered by the political conception of justice” (JFR §26.2). Again, this brings up the question of the parole board, although the cases that he cites as examples are the use of comprehensive moral doctrines to argue for equality during the American Civil War and civil rights movement (PL 249-251).

Rawls’s examples are questionable and are susceptible to the exclusion he demands of other comprehensive moral theories. For sure, contemporary American public political culture is committed to the notion that race is not a relevant criterion to justify inequality. There is also a majority belief that the American Civil War and civil rights movement were just causes in the pursuit of equal rights. But to argue from these contemporary positions that religious abolitionist or theological defenses legitimately entered into public political cultures of the time is to beg the question. The issue at hand is not whether religious texts had influence historically, but whether they ought to be permitted to influence unresolved controversies. One important use of political philosophy is to be able to determine in advance or at the moment, which arguments are legitimate objects of debate and which are not, yet Rawls’s examples only inform us that these religious interludes were permitted because they won and we now agree with them.5 Rawls himself cannot offer a substantive resolution to the imagined case of “Alexander Stephens rejecting Lincoln’s appeal to the abstractions of natural right and replying to him by saying: the North must respect the South’s shared political understanding on the slavery question” (PL 45). He can only respond by admitting that “surely, this reply will lead into political philosophy” (PL 45).

This is unpersuasive; political philosophy cannot be undertaken under the restrictions of public reason. As Rawls himself acknowledges, A Theory of Justice presumed a moral comprehensive doctrine (PL xvi) and as authors such as William Galston point out, so does liberalism in general (Galston, 1991). This is also true of many arguments in favor of civil rights. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, for example, is precisely the type of text that would have to be excluded from public political culture under Rawls’s standards. It argues, borrowing from Augustine, that there are two types of laws, that of God and that of humanity, that the former trumps the latter, and that when the two conflict, it is always just to disobey the laws of humanity. Use this argument for anything but an equal-rights position and Rawls would unequivocally deny its legitimacy. For example, consider using it against gay marriage, to argue for polygamy, or to suggest that some people are naturally inferior, and it ought to become obvious how Rawls would respond. In fact, he does reference the latter example, and only to exclude it – a more polemic prohibition than he offers anywhere else.

To illustrate: in JFR, while revisiting his position in TJ that natural endowments are not morally deserved, Rawls asserts,

This statement is meant as a moral truism. Who would deny it? Do people really think that they (morally) deserve to be born more gifted than others? Do they think that they (morally) deserve to be born a man rather than a woman or vice versa? Do they think that they deserve to be born into a wealthier rather than a poorer family? No (JFR §21.1).

This is not a throw away claim for Rawls. He elaborates on it twice, first in a footnote, remarking that, “all reasonable such doctrines would endorse this remark and hold that moral dessert always involves some conscientious effort of will” (JFR §21.1 fn) and then adds several pages later that, “justice as fairness does not reject the concept of moral dessert given by a fully or partially comprehensive religious, philosophical, or moral doctrine. Rather, in view of the fact of reasonable pluralism, it holds that no such doctrine can serve as a political conception of distributive justice” (JFR §22.1).

The last claim does not agree with the earlier two. The first two reject any logical connection between moral worth and a person’s characteristics at birth. The second makes a procedural claim about using such moral claims as criteria for distributive justice. Again, Rawls is having trouble distinguishing between individual belief and state power, the problem I tried to avoid by suggesting that individual attempts to try to convert others are not prohibited in political liberalism. Yet, while he once more lands on the position that people can believe in endowments based on moral desert while the state can’t endorse it, he accepts, along the way, the position that people should not even think in such terms. In fact, he argues that no one actually does think this, and here, he is obviously mistaken. Many strands of Hinduism hold that one’s caste is determined by previous lives, and that one’s successes and failures are rewards or punishments based on these past actions.6 Reincarnation is itself a matter of substantial debate in moral comprehensive doctrines, but it is also a matter of debate about state power, since political opportunities have historically been distributed based on caste or clan. Rawls opposes this, of course; his first principle of justice in both TJ and PL outlaw such criteria. But arguing for one’s own political commitments is different that suggesting that an opposition’s claims are not actually thought.

Rawls’s own inability to distinguish between theological belief and procedural criteria is indicative of an intractable problem in political liberalism. Gandhi could never have challenged the caste system in India had he not been able to politically engage with comprehensive doctrines. King could not have had his say without religion. Rawls acknowledges this in JFR, falling back on the distinction between the inclusive and exclusive views of public reason (now renamed “wide” and “narrow” views), and advocating for a wide view that permits introduction of comprehensive moral doctrines in non-ideal circumstances (JFR §26.2fn12). However, if his only criteria are that non-ideal societies permit wider notions of public reason, then we end up with a radical discord between a utopian vision of a Rawlsian society and everything else. Since ideal societies are fully compliant by design, there will never be relevant challenges to the overlapping consensus. Pluralism becomes purely theoretical, a non-problem. In the actual world, however, neither Gandhi nor King meet the criteria for either inclusive or exclusive attitudes about truth in public political culture. Brian Barry’s claim is thus affirmed regardless of whether one talks about religious belief or political action.


For Rawls, the limiting of political debate to the public political culture is a consequence of his commitment to developing an overlapping consensus, the details of which need not be rehearsed here. I would like to contrast this approach with Adam Smith’s so-called “marketplace of religions”. My argument is that Smith develops a better mechanism for integrating individual belief with public argument.7 It is also worth noting that Rawls’s discussion of religion focus entirely on belief-based religions and not practice-based religions; Smith’s approach can include both.

Rawls’s own comments on Smith are not reliable. He falsely equates Smith with David Hume, he considers Smith a utilitarian, and he implies that Smith puts forth an ideal observer theory.8 None of these are accurate (Weinstein, forthcoming, 2006). Rawls also critiques the system of “natural liberty” as an alternative to his conception of justice (TJ 65-75). However, although natural liberty is a term originating in The Wealth of Nations and while it is possible to read Rawls as referencing the book in his discussion, Buchanan accurately points out that Rawls does not address the details of Smith’s own approach. He refers only to modern capitalist theories that evaluate markets in terms of efficiency and Pareto optimality (Buchanan, 1976).

Rawls’s applicable comments on Smith focus on the impartial spectator, an anthropomorphization of an imagined stance, taken by a moral agent, to separate him or herself from biases while also considering community opinion. In its first role it is the analogue to the original position9; in its second, one can see comparisons with the overlapping consensus. But one shouldn’t take these parallels too far. While Rawls argues that there is nothing inherent in an ideal observer theory that precludes approval of the principles of justice (TJ 184), the impartial spectator, he says, takes a general point of view while judgments in the original position are particular to specific agents. The impartial spectator, he claims, “has all the drawbacks of the classical principle of utility to which it is equivalent” (TJ 188). Furthermore, Rawls observes, the impartial spectator is sympathetic, while the persons in the original position are mutually disinterested (TJ 187). As a result, he concludes, while an impartial spectator may agree to the principles of justice, no one in the original position would agree to a standard set by an impartial spectator (TJ 188).

Smith’s impartial spectator does not embody utilitarianism in the way Rawls claims. For Smith, mutual sympathy is pleasurable, but moral judgments are the product of a mixture of commonalities, duty, virtue, and obedience to general rules of morality – Smith is explicitly critical of utilitarianism in all spheres except the aesthetic realm, and even then utilitarianism is only a transitional phase (TMS IV.2). The impartial spectator is an intersubjective perspective and not the utilitarian generalized aggregate conflation of all into one that Rawls famously condemns, although this intersubjectivity is prohibited under the veil of ignorance. Thus, the disagreement between the two involves, as Fleischacker puts it, the place of “controversial, highly specific, factual matters of the kind that cannot enter into Rawls’s original position.” (Fleischacker, 1999).

Rawls is correct that Smith’s moral agents are sympathetic because, for Smith, sympathy is both the motivation for moral action and the means of assessment. Impartiality is not hypothetical in either TMS or WN,10 it does not presume an economic rationality, and, representative of its non-Kantian roots, Smith’s approach explicitly takes into account the historical accidents of context, talent, and attributes. It is also worth remarking that Smith has his own version of the maximin principle. Smith’s economics are built on an attempt to create “universal opulence,” or that condition in which even the poorest individuals have what they need because of the wealth of a free-market system. This is most similar to Rawls’s point that the two principles of justice can be said to presume a third lexically prior principle “requiring that citizens’ needs be met, at least insofar as their being met is necessary for citizens to understand and to be able fruitfully to exercise those rights and liberties” (PL 7). It may then be helpful to think of Smith’s system as working out this third principle, and it should be no surprise that those pursuing a post-Rawls “capabilities approach” to justice use Smith as an inspiration at least as much, if not more, as Rawls. 11

But, again, the parallel can only be taken so far. As Buchanan tells us, “Smith expressed little or no normative concern with income differences among persons; he was primarily concerned with the absolute levels of income generated, and with the differences in these levels among time periods, that is with growth.”12 In other words, Smith’s approach is compatible with this new third principle and with the first principle that seeks equal liberties open to all. However, while universal opulence allows for some conditions sought by the difference principle, it does not codify community betterment as a precondition for inequality. Commercial systems, for Smith, result in de facto economic betterment for all, but such advantage is not de jure required.

These elements ought to be understood as the background to Smith’s approach to religious interaction in society. His system is designed to mediate beliefs and commitments – sympathetic attitudes about moral judgments as represented by the impartial spectator, judgments of relative value as manifest by price, and religious commitments as indicated by allegiances to sects and denominations. To what extent any of these are representatives of objective value is a matter of great controversy. Smith, for example, used a labor theory of value to objectify price and allowed that sympathetic judgments can be “perverted.” As a result, he is often considered a realist13 and, building on Hume’s “natural belief,”14 Smith’s “skepticism about the ultimate sufficiency of our metaphysical beliefs is mitigated by the fact that we are necessarily compelled to act and live as if these beliefs are true” (Hanley, 2010: p. 199) Thus, when Smith claims that every religion is committed to an afterlife or divine punishment for unjust injury, he is articulating “empirical or sociological evidence for the universality of this natural belief,” and identifying such belief as “the proper core of religion” (Hanley, 2010: p. 205). Smith is, in his own manner, seeking a narrowly defined overlapping religious consensus (again, de facto, but not de jure).

But for Smith, these claims are not in the service of the theological. As Rawls’s discussions of religion are, Smith’s concerns are built on care for the polity and preservation of individual liberty. His discussion of belief in TMS is located in a chapter called “Of the influence and authority of the general rules of Morality, and that they are justly regarded as the Laws of the Deity.” For Smith, the general rules of morality are empirically derived (TMS III.4.8). They are not a priori and they are not handed down by God via revelation. Furthermore, because they are not analogous to the dictates of a social contract as Rawls’s two principles of justice are, they are neither representative of a priority of right nor are they final. For Smith, procedure and the good are intertwined and inseparable.

Notice that in the chapter title, Smith does not claim that the general rules are the laws of the deity, only that they are properly regarded as such. This is a rhetorical and political claim, not an epistemological or metaphysical one. For Smith, societies are more stable when their members are motivated by religious conviction to abide by general rules. These rules, he indicates, are “properly called a sense of duty” (TMS III.5.1). They are the foundation of “the very existence of human society, which would crumble into nothing if mankind were not generally impressed with a reverence for those important rules of conduct” (TMS III.5.3). Their content is “confirmed by reasoning and philosophy” (TMS III.5.3) but “when the general rules which determine the merit and demerit of actions, come thus to be regarded as the laws of an All-powerful Being, who watches over our conduct, and who, in a life to come, will reward the observant, and punish the breach of them; they necessarily acquire a new sacredness from this consideration” (TMS III.5.12).

For Smith, there is a compelling public interest in cultivating religious belief. But religious belief here should not mean specific doctrines; the state does not prescribe a catechism. Smith could not have consistently tied general rules to a particular theology because this would be to declare moral good by fiat, and would be violations of the natural liberty each person has “to pursue his own interest in his own way…” (WN IV.ix.51), the precepts of tolerance (TMS III.6.12), and the Lockean commitment that the sovereign has no authority over matters of conscience (WN Vi.i.g.18). Instead, Smith reaches a political compromise that once again anticipates Rawls’s overlapping consensus. He makes room for institutions to manage religious belief without dictating its content. For Rawls, the political conception of justice is justified by each person’s own moral comprehensive doctrine. For Smith, each person’s obedience to morality is supported by the religious underpinnings of duty.

Yet, Smith is most concerned about fanaticism; “false notions of religion are almost the only causes which can occasion any very gross perversion of our natural sentiments…” (TMS III.6.12). Smith saw that extreme views lead to factionalism which, in turn, leads to instability; religious authority is often regarded as having greater authority than the state (WN V.i.g.17). For Rawls, the state must “contain” these “unreasonable and irrational, and even mad comprehensive doctrines” so that they do not “undermine the unity and justice of society” (PL xvii). For Smith, in contrast, one does not contain religious fanatics; one persuades them to change their minds. He prescribes that the government create a venue for people to actively try to convert others. Reasonable people attempt to convert others because reasonable people want others to become reasonable as well. The fact that unreasonable people also aim to convert doesn’t change the reasonableness of moderating fanatics by getting them to believe other than they do. For Smith, bad apples do not spoil the bunch.

To explain this, let’s step back for a moment and return to the reasons why Smith is reacting to religion as he does. Rawls sees comprehensive moral doctrines as necessary to personal (not public political) rational deliberation. They provide a myriad of substantive justifications for the overlapping consensus. Smith, in contrast, uses religious communities as a means to measure the propriety of individual action and promote social unity. Religious groups also provide companionship to those without friends and opportunities for those who have no exercise for creativity (WN V.I.g.15). And as stated above, religious groups provide added authority and power to the general rules of conduct. Religious belief prevents individuals from spiraling into depression, alienation, moral depravity, illegality, and apathy. And, unlike institutional education, religious instruction reaches people of all ages – it is a lifelong tool for social support and the encouragement of justice (WN V.i.g).

Yet at the same time, Smith argues that religious instruction can counter political allegiance. It prepares people for the hereafter and not the temporal world, suggesting that political decisions are of lesser importance than theological ones (WN V.i.g.1). Furthermore, the religious institutions are themselves fighting for adherents – their first goal is to cultivate their own power and authority. In campaigning for support, both for themselves and for their religion, Smith believes that clergy and sects necessarily and intentionally breed fanaticism. In order to preserve their influence in popular elections, they are pressured to appear extreme and encourage fanaticism among their followers as a sign of loyalty (WN V.i.g.36).

When the influence of one religious denomination is too great, Smith warns, the sovereign is made to cater to the fanatics. When this happens, he argues, the religious sect that backs the winning party has more influence than any other sect. It grows stronger and richer and may in turn, both force non-believers to abide by their religious doctrines and declare the clergy as being exempt from the secular jurisdiction. The more people become exempt from secular jurisdiction, the more insecure a society is. For Smith, liberty, reason and happiness exist only under the able protection of civil government (WN V.I.g.24).

In order to remain in power during times of political conflict, Smith observes that politicians will inevitably cater to dominant sects by aligning themselves with them and by espousing their specific views. The legislator ends up ceding certain demands, the first of which, Smith remarks, is generally the destruction of their adversaries (WN V.i.g.7). As should be obvious, Smith anticipates many contemporary diversity concerns (Weinstein, 2006). His account of the rise of particular denominations is graphic and persuasive, and is instructive regarding both historical situations and contemporary politics.

Rawls’s solution to the problem of religious threats to the state is to demand theological abstention in the constitution by prioritizing the right over the good, and establish the precondition of reasonableness by mandating that all comprehensive moral doctrines contain within them the module of reciprocal toleration. However, his account offers no mechanism by which comprehensive moral doctrines learn to be tolerant, nor does it provide a reasonable response for when a sect oversteps its bounds. In contrast, Smith endorses conversion. He offers an explicit mechanism for teaching toleration and moderation by creating what is often called a marketplace of religions, a contained location in which denominations compete for religious consumers.15

First, Smith advocates that politicians avoid allegiance with any religious party; this is a strategic measure and not a constitutional one. If politicians avoid the initial appeal to religion, he believes that fanatics will never achieve the foothold that begins the downward spiral to injustice. More importantly, though, Smith seeks an exponential increase in diversity of religious belief. Markets promote growth and the more religions there are in a given society, the more stable it becomes, because an increase in the number of sects reduces each one’s size and influence. Their enthusiasm is mitigated by their lack of power (WN V.i.g.8). They would therefore moderate themselves to protect their own interest and standing in a community – a group of five fanatics does not have the same security or power as a group of five thousand – or, they would, worst case scenario, be a harmless nuisance and would still be subject to, and punishable, by civil laws.16

Smith further discourages fanaticism by pushing for state-sponsored public events: religious festivals that showcase the diversity of options and the differences between denominations (WN V.I.g.15). He creates, in essence, a religious market, a conversion fair, or a location for each religion to peddle their wares and try to win over those who can be moved. This is an obvious violation of the Rawlsian priority of right and an institutionalization of the Rawlsian unreasonable. Such gatherings allow public scrutiny of the newest religions, Smith believes. New sects, he suggests, by virtue of their newness, offer excitement and appeal. Festivals would make them open to public ridicule, and open religious matters to, to use Rawls’s term, “the public forum.”

Smith is committed to a moral psychology of moderation, a contrast to Rawls’s explicit assertion that justice as fairness is not a moral psychology (PL 28). TMS offers a blueprint for how socialization and individual conscience work together to promote civic virtue, attention to duty, and appropriate moral behavior. Space constraints prohibit more than a passing reference to this theoretical foundation other than to remark that Smith’s political comments presume his moral theory. For the time being, it should be enough to observe that the process of a moral actor moderating his or her moral sentiments is analogous to the religious moderation that Smith sees as necessary for a new sect to attract and retain new adherents.

Smith’s moral psychology is built on a commitment to what would now be called liberal education.17 The same is true of his method for moderating religious belief. According to Smith, “every religion except the true” is “highly pernicious” and will promote superstition and delusion that scientific education can counter (WN V.i.g.6, 14). Since the more fanatical religions, he asserts, base themselves upon the most absurd claims, an educated populace would not be as susceptible to inflated boasts. All individuals, he therefore recommends, ought to be instructed in science and philosophy because they offer the foundation for responsible and informed intellectual and moral judgment. Conversion works alongside knowledge to create a more stable society and a more informed populace.

Smith’s commitment to teaching science and philosophy as a bulwark against superstition speaks to his confidence in public reason and the ability of all rational people, not just a select few, to make correct decisions. He is also expressing his optimism that knowledge contributes to more reasonable beliefs, implying along the way that faith can be modified through discovery. However, when religions do not succumb to these social pressures, they are still subject to the laws of justice, where justice, for Smith, largely means refraining from harming people and property.18 Again, in Rawlsian terms, these lawbreaking religions must be contained.

Smith and Rawls

Smith’s approach, as I see it, has several advantages over Rawls’s: it provides a mechanism of growth and change that allows religions to moderate themselves over time; the onus of moderation is on the citizen and not the state; it allows for a wider pluralism than political liberalism, since most modern religions are permissible in his system; it relies on education and pragmatic recommendation, not neutrality by fiat; and it recognizes the important roles that religions play, not only in justification for moral beliefs, but in the state’s stability. Rawls’s priority of the right suggests that religion is an interloper in the liberal society and not, as Smith sees it, a catalyst for pluralist justice. It also suggests a deep discomfort with philosophical conflict that is not present in Smith. The political conception of justice attempts to mitigate profound difference by subsuming it under commonality. Smith permits conflict on every level, from identity formation to religious allegiance, to economic exchange.

Two objections come to mind. The first suggests that Rawls’s “reasoning by conjecture” incorporates Smith’s competition of religious denominations and the second argues that Smith’s notion of stability is unacceptable because it is not “for the right reasons.” Regarding the first, in “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” Rawls elaborates on three different types of discourse aimed at reconciling public and non-public reasons: declaration, witnessing, and reasoning from conjecture (Schwartzman 2010). Declaration takes place when “we each declare our own comprehensive doctrine, religious or other religious” (PRR §4.3). It is a form of free expression and allows people to better understand one another (Schwartzman 2010: p. 4), a by-product of the religious advertising Smith suggests as well. However, Rawls is explicit that one declares only those ideas that others are not expected to share and that such declaration are supposed to affirm that “we also each endorse a reasonable political conception belonging to a the family of reasonable such conceptions” (PRR §4.4).

On one level, this must be so since public declaration for Smith and Rawls must be law-abiding; there is always a shared deference to the rules of social and political engagement. On another level, however, Rawls opposes Smith’s approach since for Smith, those who declare intend for others to share their ideas in the future; their purpose is not to assuage fears but to convert. Furthermore, Rawls suggests that alleviating anxieties “strengthens the ties of civic friendship,” but this implies that civic friendship cannot withstand meaningful otherness, and if this is the case, Rawls is not describing a genuine pluralism.

Rawls’s second discourse model involves “witnessing.” This takes place when “some citizens feel that they must express their principles [and] dissent from existing institutions, policies, or enacted legislation” (PRR §4.5, fn57). Witnessing is a form of protest, although it differs from civil disobedience because the latter appeals only to political justification.19 It may appear then, that we have a counterexample to my claim that there is no mechanism to change the overlapping consensus. Witnessing is intended to persuade others to consider different content for the reasonable, and it is permissible insofar as the society is “ideal, politically well-ordered, and fully just” and that, “on the whole,” those witnessing endorse the reasonable conception of justice.

I concede that those who are already deemed reasonable may affect public change, and once again, Rawls and Smith agree in the overlapping nature of law-abidingness when they attempt to do so. However, witnessing does not provide that which Smith’s marketplace of religions does because it must, by definition, depend on metaphysical justification not on common political commitments. The message may be independent of accepted political norms. Tellingly, Rawls has changed the meaning of the term from its normal American parlance. For Rawls, witnessing is entirely about political influence. But for many Christians, bearing witness is an attempt to spread the Gospel to non-believers, an act that reaffirms their own faith and helps save others’ souls. Christian witnessing involves conversion, reaffirming Barry’s point that Rawls’s political liberalism simply does not allow for many contemporary religious points of view.

We are then left with Rawls’s reasoning by conjecture, by which “we argue from what we believe, or conjecture, are other people’s basic doctrines, religious or secular, and try to show them that, despite what they might think, they can still endorse a reasonable political conception that can provide a basis of public reason” (PRR §4.5). This suggests that individuals can communicate cross-denominationally and step into different contexts. It therefore shares certain characteristics with Smith’s sympathy’s entrance into the perspective of the other. However, the goal of conjecture is different from that of Smith’s marketplace of religions. For Smith, public religious festivals are designed to persuade and recruit. But for Rawls, conjecture is intended only to show that a religion is actually reasonable despite adherents’ claims otherwise. Smith’s approach acts in service to the religion, but Rawls’s acts in service to the reasonable conception of justice. He is endorsing conversion here, but his directionality is reversed. Conjecture converts the non-reasonable to the reasonable, but not the non-believer to belief. Yet, he is still not allowing the unreasonable to develop reasonableness, he is only revealing those who are reasonable but don’t know it.

The second objection challenges the nature of stability in Smith’s theory. While Smith argues that conversion and multiplicity of religions promotes stable societies because no denomination can grow big enough to be dangerous, Rawls might argue that this is not stability “for the right reasons,” in which he means stability is not based on “the reasons from which citizens act include those given by the account of justice they affirm” (PL xl). Here Rawls means to guarantee that justice is authentically assented to and not a mere modus vivendi.

For Rawls, the only stability that is workable is that which comes from an overlapping consensus, guaranteeing that citizens won’t change their minds (Hershovitz, 2000: p. 221). A modus vivendi is less desirable because all parties are motivated to pursue their own interests and will break the agreement if it suits them (PL 147); modus vivendi references international relations and the interests of states, an imperfect analogy since Rawls is concerned with domestic and not global stability (Hershovitz, 2000: p. 224). Yet, Rawls’s emphasis on self-interest highlights precisely why Smith would not accept Rawlsian “stability for the right reasons.” Smith innovation in The Wealth of Nations is to illustrate how prioritizing individual interest serves the national good. His commitment to the invisible hand, the overlap of moral and economic needs, and the nature of progress all emphasize that a free society is one in which individual liberty expands over time. For Smith, a system of perfect liberty is, by definition, an adequately stable one. Each person does follow stability for their own “right reason.” It is just that one person’s right reason may not overlap with another’s. For Smith, social life is intertwined enough that divisions of labor, interests, moral points of view and religious observance function together because of, not in spite of, their differences. Once again, Smith is more pluralistic than Rawls.

Rawls reminds his readers that “the fact that people affirm the same political conception on those grounds does not make their affirming it any less religious, philosophical, or moral, as the case may be, since the grounds sincerely held determine the nature of their affirmation” (PL 147-148). But the challenge of conversion is not the suggestion that those who share the overlapping consensus don’t authentically assent to the public conception of justice. Instead, it highlights that those whose religions demand converting non-believers, regardless of their adherence to the overlapping consensus, are not granted equal freedoms.

Smith, I suggest, offers the opportunity for both a wider pluralism than Rawls and an equally stable society. Yet, at the same time, Rawls’s overlapping consensus imparts an essential truth: there must be some reciprocal and universal agreement in society, at least to the degree that one does not cause physical or intense psychological harm to others. In other words, there must be, at minimum, a narrow and precise overlapping consensus that supports the rule of law. In this regard, while Smith’s approach is, to my mind, superior to Rawls, Smith also assumes an overlapping consensus.

Rawls disallows conversion on both the individual and state levels, and offers no mechanism in the public forum for moderating fanaticism by encouraging adherents to change their religious views. While he claims that such beliefs are acceptable even though advocating political restrictions is not, when it comes down to it, he rejects this kind of religious belief as both illiberal and immature. Maybe he is correct.20 Nevertheless, arguing against the legitimacy of conversion is an assertion about the good rather than the right, and thereby a violation of his own principles. To put it bluntly, there is no mechanism in Rawls to allow for Rawls whereas Smith’s approach creates a space for what Smith hopes to do.


For more detailed accounts of the conversion and authentic, radical change see: Heirich (1978), Richardson (1985), Snow and Machalek (1983, 1984).


I use the following abbreviations throughout this essay: JFR – Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Rawls 2001b), LP - The Laws of Peoples (Rawls 2001c), PL – Political Liberalism (Rawls 1993), PRR – Public Reason Revisited (Rawls 2001a), TMS - The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Smith 1982), TJ – A Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971), WN - An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Smith 1976). I retain Adam Smith’s original eighteenth century spelling.


Rawls represents this attitude well by beginning his autobiographical statement about his own religious attitudes with the claim that “my religion is of interest only to me.” Rawls (2009). This sentiment is not generalizable, as is evident by friends, family members, and neighbors deep interest in whether children will become bat mitzvah, for example, or be confirmed. If Rawls’s religion were only of interest to him, there would be no need to publish his autobiographical essay.


Dworkin (1984: p. 64), originally published in Public and Private Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978).


Abolitionist arguments are not convincing examples for inclusive views. The American civil war was not an exercise in reason at all. The resolution to the public debate came about only when those holding one opinion killed enough people and destroyed enough property that they were able to force their view upon their opponents.


Peter Steinberger offers Calvinism as a counter example to Rawls’s claim. See: (Steinberger, 2000).


How different Smith and Rawls are is a matter of debate. James W. Buchanan argues that they are more similar than is often allowed (1976). Samuel Fleischacker contrasts great differences (1999: pp. 184-240), and Carolina von Villez offers a more moderated approach, emphasizing methodological similarities and a common reliance on a “reflective equilibrium” (2006).


See: Weinstein (1997), chapter three.


This should not suggest that the impartial spectator is the analogue of the state of nature; Smith rejects the social contract. See: Khalil (1998).


von Villez writes, “Smith proposes a thick notion of partiality that does not even exclude the natural partiality of individuals toward their own person from the judgment situation. Rather, the latter is entered into the impartiality procedure to balance the scales…” (von Villez, p. 123).


I have in mind Nussbaum and Sen’s work on the capabilities approach. Both have written extensively on Smith.


Buchana, p. 3. Rawls remarks that for simplicity sake, the maximin should be considered a monetary rule (TJ 155). He has this in common with Smith. Like all classical economists, Smith’s minimal standard is subsistence level. Rawls economics is not detailed enough for us to know what he is considering when he considers inequality.


Cf.: Griswold (1999: p. 54) and Montes (2004: p. 52).


Hume does not use the term “natural belief.” It was introduced by Norman Kemp Smith in 1941 (Gaskin, 1993: p. 316).


I am reluctant to endorse a market-based metaphor for all of Adam Smith’s work. In this instance, however, it is useful for emphasizing the competition for adherents that Smith relies upon, and for the non-centralized community-based regulation of fanatical religions. For my opposition to a market-centered interpretation see Adam Smith’s Pluralism (Weinstein, forthcoming) and my review of Jim Otteson’s Adam Smith’s Market Place of Life (Otteson 2002, Weinstein 2004).


Smith was writing before the advent of weapons of mass destruction.


See: Weinstein (2004, 2007).


Justice, for Smith, is a negative virtue and can be followed simply by sitting around and do nothing (TMS II.ii.i.9). See also: WN IV.ix.51 and TMS III.6.11.


Rawls implies that witnessing only takes the form of voting, although this would be too narrow a restriction, precluding public discourse and debate. Thus, Rawls can’t possibly mean to suggest such a limitation.


An unacknowledged criticism of conversion is simply that it is rude. Neither Smith nor Rawls acknowledge this, although Smith deals with it by creating public festivals where conversion is expected and therefore polite.


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