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Convergence Justifications Within Political Liberalism: A Defence


According to political liberalism, laws must be justified to all citizens in order to be legitimate. Most political liberals have taken this to mean that laws must be justified by appeal to a specific class of ‘public reasons’, which all citizens can accept. In this paper I defend an alternative, convergence, model of public justification, according to which laws can be justified to different citizens by different reasons, including reasons grounded in their comprehensive doctrines. I consider three objections to such an account—that it undermines sincerity in public reason, that it underestimates the importance of shared values, and that it is insufficiently deliberative—and argue that convergence justifications are resilient to these objections. They should therefore be included within a theory of political liberalism, as a legitimate form of public justification. This has important implications for the obligations that political liberalism places upon citizens in their public deliberations and reason-giving, and might make the theory more attractive to some of its critics, particularly those sympathetic to religious belief.

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  1. Useful overviews are Boettcher and Harmon (2009); Weithman (1997).

  2. Bird (2014) criticises this ‘coercion-based’ account of political liberalism, but it remains the standard approach in the literature, so I will assume it here. Many of my arguments could be adapted so as to apply to theories that see something other than coercion as triggering the demand for public justification.

  3. This qualification is assumed throughout. Precisely what is required for a citizen to be ‘reasonable’ is controversial. Such a caveat is necessary, but I take no position here on what it entails.

  4. My formulation of PJP is based on Gaus and Vallier’s (2009, p. 53), but is more ecumenical than theirs. PJP is a necessary, not sufficient, condition for legitimacy. Other necessary conditions might include democratic enactment and constitutionality.

  5. Rawls does not make this explicit, but Larmore (1999, 2003) argues that respect is fundamental to Rawls’s thought.

  6. All future references to ‘laws’ should be taken to mean ‘coercive laws’. Some theorists believe that all laws are coercive. I take no position on this here. PJP applies to all coercive laws, whether or not every law is coercive.

  7. This also applies to secular comprehensive reasons.

  8. These reasons must be ‘conclusive’, or ‘sufficient’, as I explain below.

  9. Some consensus theorists argue that these obligations only apply to officials, not to ordinary citizens. See Habermas (2006); Laborde (2013).

  10. This term is from Stears and Humphrey (2012, p. 287).

  11. Rawls’s (2005, pp. 462–463) ‘proviso’ is an example of this.

  12. This is not to imply that every publicly justified law must be enacted, but that there will be some publicly justified laws which are not known to be so. Awareness that they could be legitimately enacted is lacking.

  13. There might be a minimal proposal-restraint requirement, stating that a citizen should not support laws she knows cannot be publicly justified and that are likely to be enacted if she supports them. See Vallier (2014, pp. 184–190); Gaus (2009).

  14. In the absence of further objections not considered here.

  15. At least in cases where it is likely the law will then be enacted—see fn. 13. Even when the law is unlikely to be enacted, it would be insincere to claim that a law is publicly justified when one knows it cannot be justified to some fellow citizen(s). I put these complications to one side, since they do not affect my arguments.

  16. This is based on Quong (2011, p. 266). I have amended (ii), however. Quong’s (ii) says that A must reasonably believe that B is justified in endorsing L. This is problematic, since citizens are unlikely to know whether every fellow citizen is justified in endorsing a law. Instead, the requirement should be that they shouldn’t support laws that they know cannot be justified to some fellow citizen(s).

  17. For similar arguments, see Bohman and Richardson (2009), pp. 269–270); Audi (1997, pp. 135–136). Schwartzman (2011) is a full discussion of sincerity in public reason.

  18. Quong (2008, pp. 5–6) gives a similar example.

  19. Eberle calls this one’s ‘evidential set’.

  20. There is clearly ambiguity in terms like ‘easily attainable’ empirical information and ‘obvious errors’ in reasoning. Different specifications of these terms give different levels of idealisation. The precise specifications do not matter for my argument here.

  21. At one point Quong (2011, p. 142, fn. 11) explicitly says that individuals can be justified in believing falsehoods, if they reason blamelessly but reach false conclusions due to their limited epistemic situation.

  22. And if all other arguments against meat-eating are mistaken. I am not endorsing this view here.

  23. i.e. Alf doesn’t have to believe that Rb would be accepted by a fully rational individual. Presumably Alf believes that his reasons are true in this sense, since he believes his comprehensive doctrine is true, but he cannot believe that reasons arising from others’ comprehensive doctrines are true in this sense.

  24. As Vallier (2011b) writes, ‘only by embracing convergence can public reason liberals truly respect reasonable pluralism and individual liberty’.

  25. For support for ‘ad hoc justification’, where different citizens are offered different reasons for a law, see Wolterstorff (1997, pp. 106–107); Swaine (2009, pp. 191–193); Stout (2004, pp. 72–73); Eberle (2007, pp. 434–435).

  26. This point can also be made using Swaine’s (2009, pp. 194–196) distinction between inaccessible and incomprehensible reasons. Inaccessible reasons are openly justified to another individual, but rely on experiences one lacks or premises one rejects. They are intelligible; one can see that they are openly justified to the other. Incomprehensible reasons are simply impenetrable; one cannot make sense of them. They are unintelligible. Appeal to another’s inaccessible reasons isn’t disrespectful; appeal to their incomprehensible reasons is.

  27. As a reviewer rightly noted, there are difficult questions here about precisely when another’s beliefs are, or are not, intelligible. He/she offered a case where Betty bases a belief on ‘mystical perception’ of God’s commands (on which, see Eberle (2002, pp. 239–251)). I cannot offer a full reply to such cases, but the most important point to note is that intelligible open justification does not require that we believe others’ basic evaluative standards, or worldview, to be sound, or all-things-considered justified. Quong (2011, pp. 271–272) rightly argues that we should not expect this of citizens. Instead, intelligible open justification centres on whether we can recognise that others’ beliefs are justified to them on the basis of their evaluative standards. If Betty’s belief in mystical perception is part of a broader, reasonably coherent, worldview, then I think that it can be intelligible, even if Alf considers it misguided. Using Swaine’s distinction, the belief is inaccessible to Alf, but not incomprehensible.

  28. Macedo (2010) argues along these lines. My discussion differs from, but does not contradict, Vallier (2011b) reply to Macedo.

  29. In Lister’s (2013b) terms, Quong’s view applies the ‘unanimous acceptability requirement’ to the reasons for decisions, rather than to decisions themselves.

  30. I will not note this idealisation every time, but take it as given.

  31. Note that Erica is not here imposing her comprehensive doctrine on others, or arguing that it provides reasons for them, merely that it provides reason for her to reject L.

  32. Gaus and Vallier (2009, pp. 62–65) call a refusal to allow religious reasons to act at defeaters the ‘error of symmetry’.

  33. I am drawing on the internalist understanding of reasons that I defended in the previous section here. If Quong’s interpretation of the sincerity requirement was correct, then shared values would be necessary for public justification. My arguments in this section thus depend on the success of my arguments in the previous section.

  34. I lack space to defend this claim here. The question of the implications of convergence political liberalism, given this understanding of conclusivity, is an area in which more work is needed from defenders of the view.

  35. For arguments to this effect, see Lister (2013a), Baccarini (2013, pp. 40–49). The implications of convergence political liberalism depend on the precise specification of PJP. For critical discussion, see Lister (2013b, pp. 81–101). Gaus (2010b) replies to some of Lister’s arguments.

  36. No theorist has endorsed this view, as far as I am aware.

  37. And, perhaps, this public justification being publicly offered.


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This paper originates from my MPhil and DPhil research, which were supported by an Arts & Humanities Research Council Studentship. For numerous helpful comments, I wish to thank my supervisor, Stuart White, and the audience at the Oxford Graduate Political Theory Workshop, particularly Franz Mang and Matthias Brinkmann. This essay was previously shortlisted for the Res Publica postgraduate essay prize 2014. I owe thanks to the anonymous reviewers both of the version of the paper that I submitted for the essay prize and of earlier drafts of this version.

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Correspondence to Paul Billingham.

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Billingham, P. Convergence Justifications Within Political Liberalism: A Defence. Res Publica 22, 135–153 (2016).

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  • Political liberalism
  • Public justification
  • Respect
  • Sincerity