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Rawls, Liberalism, and Democracy

John Skorupski
This article offers a critique of John Rawlss great work, Political Liberalism, from a
non-Rawlsian liberal standpoint. It argues that Rawlsian political liberalism is in-
fluenced as much by a comprehensive view I call radical-democracy as by com-
prehensive liberal views. This can be seen in Rawlss account of some of political
liberalisms fundamental ideasnotably the idea of society as a fair system of co-
operation, the liberal principle of legitimacy, and the idea of public reason. I fur-
ther argue that Rawlss impressive attempt to unify liberal and democratic tradi-
tions philosophically obscures the prudent liberal attitude to democracy, which
remains sound.

Political Liberalism is a great work of philosophy; as with other great works

of philosophy, its stature is best discovered and honored by critique. Cri-
tique can be internal: working from within Political Liberalisms capacious
pages to improve and develop the basic ideas, or to apply those ideas to
new topics. It can be external: in this case the aim is to place the work in a
historical and critical light. The approach in this essay is external. Obvi-
ously, it can make no claim to be comprehensive; my aim here is to con-
trast the salient features of Rawlsian political liberalism with another lib-
eral position which I shall refer to as old liberalism.
Political Liberalism marks a significant departure from that tradition.
The divergence centers on how Rawls sees the relationship between lib-
eralism and democracy. His overall aim is to unify liberal and democratic
traditions philosophically. This is a historically important project, and
the way Political Liberalism pursues it gives it great and deserved authority.
But the old liberal attitude to democracy is different. It is not an attitude
of unqualified support: it may be summed up as a mixture of support and
vigilance. Whether it remains a sound attitude for liberals to take is, as I
shall show, a central question in making an estimate of Political Liberalism.
I shall conclude that it is. We should strive to keep liberalism and democ-
racy united, but we should not slide into thinking that they are always
allies, let alone that they are philosophically the same.

Ethics 128 (October 2017): 173198

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174 Ethics October 2017
The argument of the article will proceed as follows. In Section I,
I give an initial sketch of old liberalism and political liberalism. In Sec-
tion II, I contrast two ethical standpoints: impartial individualism and
radical-democracy. Both have been important presences in politics in
the late modern period; the former underlies old liberalism. From Rawlss
point of view they are comprehensive conceptions.1 In Sections IIIVI,
I try to show how Rawlss political liberalism is nevertheless influenced
by radical-democracy. I consider his notion of an overlapping consensus
of reasonable comprehensive positions (Sec. III). Justification of justice
as fairness was not Rawlss main purpose in introducing this notion, but
it might nevertheless be thought that it could serve that role. I argue that
it cannot do so. Something further, a substantive premise, is required. In
search of this premise I turn to Rawlss conception of individuals as free
and equal and of society as a system of fair cooperation (Sec. IV). I argue
that Rawls reads these notions more strongly than old liberals have ever
done. For the latter, the idea of individuals as free and equal is simply
an expression of impartial individualism. In contrast, Rawls reads it in a
radical-democratic way: this leads him to the idea of society as a system
of fair cooperation, and that in turn opens a route to the difference prin-
ciple. In Sections V and VI, I turn to the liberal principle of legitimacy
and the idea of public reason. Here again, I argue, the influence of radical-
democracy is evident. First, the liberal principle of legitimacy is in fact
a radical-democratic principle. Second, while the restrictions on public
reason envisaged by Rawls cannot be justified on grounds of stability or
civility, they make good sense if they are understood, again, in a radical-
democratic way, as conditions that are introduced to guarantee the emer-
gence of a true general will.
In Section VII, I contrast Rawlss view of the problem of stability
in a democracy with that of the old liberals, and in Section VIII, I con-
clude by asking whether old liberals should become political liberals. I
answer in the negative, on the grounds that the old liberal view of democ-
racy is the more realisticand I explain why, for all that, Political Liberal-
ism is a great book.


To fix ideas, consider a tradition of liberal thinking which can fairly be

seen as the main stream in the period since the Enlightenment and the
French Revolutionthe period in which a mode of political thought

1. I put the hyphen in radical-democracy to emphasize that the term refers to a com-
prehensive ethical conception in Rawlss sense, rather than the actual practice of one per-
son, one vote. It may indeed diverge from this actual practice.

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Skorupski Rawls, Liberalism, and Democracy 175
properly describable as liberalism developed. For lack of a term that con-
trasts with political liberalism in Rawlss sense and is not tendentious
(as classical liberal or philosophical liberal might be thought to be), I
will simply call thinkers who belonged or belong to that stream of thought
old liberals. Old liberalism remains very much alive, not just in political
philosophy but even more in active political thought and discussion. It is
an attitude to politics that prioritizes personal self-determination, free-
dom of thought and discussion, equal civil liberty under representative
government, and the impartial rule of law. Importantly, it also insists on
realism about human beings and hence is psychological and historical
as much as it is philosophical. Some exemplary figures (greatly as they dif-
fer) are Sieys in the French Revolution; a group of French restoration
liberals, of whom the best known are Constant, Guizot, and Tocqueville;
in Britain most notably John Stuart Mill; and in the twentieth century, say,
Raymond Aron or Isaiah Berlin.
Millin some ways the greatest of these liberalsis discussed very
sympathetically in Rawlss Lectures on Political Philosophy.2 Rawls lectured
with equal sympathy on Rousseau. This breadth of sympathy is notewor-
thy, for the contrast between the respective attitudes to democracy of old
liberals and Rawlsian liberals is foreshadowed in the attitudes of Mill and
In contrast to Mill (and even more so to some other old liberals),
Rawls tends to see liberalism and democracy as expressions of essentially
the same values, as if one could describe some single late modern progres-
sive standpoint indifferently as liberal or democratic.3 At other times, a
little differently, he presents his project as an attempt to rethink liberalism
from within a democratic standpoint. Thus, in the introduction to the Lec-
tures on Political Philosophy he says, I shall try to identify the more central
features of liberalism as expressing a political conception of justice when
liberalism is viewed from within the tradition of democratic constitution-
alism.4 When liberalism is viewed from within this tradition, it becomes,
Rawls thinks, a political conception of justice.
This is a historic change of perspective. For old liberals might say,
in reply, that they aim to identify the virtues and dangers of democracy as
viewed from within the tradition of liberal constitutionalism. Nor is their

2. John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, ed. Samuel Freeman (Cam-
bridge, MA: Harvard University Press). I discuss the lectures on Mill in John Skorupski, John
Rawls on Mills Principle of Liberty, in Debates in Nineteenth-Century European Philosophy, ed.
Kristin Gjesdal (London: Routledge, 2016), 197208.
3. This is also true of some of his expositors, e.g., Amy Gutmann, Rawls on the Relation-
ship between Liberalism and Democracy, in The Cambridge Companion to Rawls, ed. Samuel
Freeman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 16899.
4. Rawls, History of Political Philosophy, xvii.

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176 Ethics October 2017
liberalism primarily, or constitutively, about justice (though obviously jus-
tice, on any reasonable view, is of prime importance for a fully worked-out
political philosophy). The change of perspective, then, is just this: that
where old liberals think about democracy from the standpoint of liberal-
ism, Rawls thinks about liberalism from the standpoint of democracy.
The determining role played by democratic values in Rawlss theory
is clear in his most basic assumptions: in the distinctive sense and impor-
tance he attaches to the idea of citizens as free and equal, in the idea of
society as a fair system of fair cooperation, and in the idea of public reason.
These fundamental ideas of political liberalism play a vital role in Rawlss
presentation of political liberalism as a freestanding political concep-
tion. We must attend to them in developing the contrast between old lib-
erals and political liberals. But first I must say more about impartial indi-
vidualism and radical-democracy.


The disagreement between impartial individualists and radical-democrats

goes back to the French Revolutionin philosophical terms, to the dis-
agreement between protoliberal Enlightenment theorists (e.g., Helvtius,
Diderot, Condorcet) and the Counter-Enlightenment of Rousseau.5
Impartial individualism says that all ethical value reduces to value for
individuals and that all rights are individual rights, identical for all individ-
uals. The right and the good are both seen individualistically, not holis-
tically (people, not a people), respectively as natural rights of distinct
individuals and as the well-being of distinct individuals. They are seen im-
partially: every individual has the same rights, and the well-being of every
individual counts for exactly as much as that of every other. This is, at least
in its foundations, an agent-neutral, cosmopolitan ethic.
But though it was a dominant ethical attitude in 1789, it was not the
only ethical force opposing the old order. A different ethical ideal was pres-
ent from the start and came to the fore from the second revolution of
1792 to the downfall of Robespierre in 1794. There is no obvious name
for itit was referred to at the time as Jacobinism, or Robespierrism, and
associated with Rousseau. These names link it usefully if roughly to that
concrete historical context, but it has turned out to have a life of its own
far beyond that context. I shall refer to it as radical-democracy.

5. For an account of this development and of the role this particular conflict of ethical
ideas played in the French Revolution, see Jonathan Israel, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellec-
tual History of the French Revolution from the Rights of Man to Robespierre (Princeton, NJ: Prince-
ton University Press, 2015).

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Skorupski Rawls, Liberalism, and Democracy 177
The conflict between these two conceptions was absolutely funda-
mental. It was about the normative source of the ethical and the political.
For the constitutionalists of 1789 the normative source was the welfare or
the rights of individuals, or some combination of these, conceived impar-
tially. They might or might not think democracy a good idea; they might
be in favor of a constitution that approached democracy so long as it was
hedged with safeguards. But they did not think that democracy is itself
a fundamental source of legitimacy: it must be justified, and perhaps lim-
ited, by other normative principles that are genuinely fundamental. For
radical-democrats, in contrast, the fundamental source of normativity was
the sovereign will of the people. Normative legitimacy issues from the
general will. In Rousseaus contract, natural human beings are born again
into a political state: in an act of mutual solidarity they become citizens
and acquire rights which they never had before. Those rights arise from
the general will of a democratic republic and could not predate it. The re-
public itself is not a mere means but an ethical end to which citizens owe
allegiance. You owe allegiance to your city-republic; I owe allegiance to
mine. Though this picture differs very much, by virtue of its egalitarian-
ism, from the hierarchical Catholic-feudal vision which still legitimized
the old regime, however infirmly, it actually shares its holistic and eudae-
monist form. Both visions are alien at the very foundations to the impar-
tial individualism of liberals.
As it turned out, the political conflict that developed from this conflict
of ideals was very bloody. Radical-democracy gained ground in the political
clubs and in the Paris Commune, briefly taking power after 1792. There
ensued the famous period of the Terrora main source for nineteenth-
century liberal worries about democratic despotism, which those liberals
associated with the political dictatorship of Robespierre and the political
philosophy of Rousseau.6
One might say that liberalism proper emerged with the realization
that it had enemies, philosophical as well as political, on the left as well
as on the right. The first (though not the only) concern of the liberals
was civil rather than political liberty: in Benjamin Constants terms, the
liberty of the moderns, as against the liberty of the ancients.7 Two things

6. For an account of the period leading up to the Terror and the views of those involved,
see ibid., as well as (among many others) Bronislaw Baczko, The Social Contract of the
French: Sieys and Rousseau, Journal of Modern History 60 (1988): S98S125; Norman
Hampson, Prelude to Terror (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988); Marisa Linton, Choosing Terror
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
7. Benjamin Constant, The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Mod-
erns, in Political Writings, ed. Biancamaria Fontana (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1988), 30928. Speech of 1819, first published 1820.

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178 Ethics October 2017
flow into this liberal stance. At the philosophical level there is the ground-
ing in impartial individualism rather than sovereignty of the people. At
the practical political level there is fear of the despotism of the people,
their extremism, and their oppression of the individual. Old liberalism
approaches politics from ethics, inasmuch as it calls for an argument
for democracy from the ethical premises of impartial individualism. Radical-
democracy sees the ethical as a description of the virtues functionally re-
quired for democracy. The two groups both harbor developed visions of
human excellence and the virtues, but Rousseaus vision of the ethics of
a small self-governing republic is quite different from the ethics of old lib-
eralism, whose notions of excellence and virtue are not tied to the require-
ments of the political but associated with the independent idea of free in-
I think we can agree that both these ethics are still present in con-
temporary Western culture. However, the continuing tension between
liberal individualism and radical-democracy is occluded by a widespread
attitude which sees liberal democracy as a kind of indissoluble whole
perhaps, at most, with a faintly discernible internal hyphen. This, as noted
above, is the standpoint Rawls sought to vindicate in philosophical terms.
The contrasting view is that liberalism and democracy should be kept
analytically and ethically distinct, so that tensions between them can be
clearly articulated.


How then does Rawlsian political liberalism stand in relation to the his-
toric traditions sketched in the previous section? The immediate answer,
no doubt, is that it sends them to the domain of comprehensive concep-
tions. Rawls envisages political liberalism as a freestanding political con-
ception. It does not, that is to say, depend on a specific comprehensive con-
ception of its own, be that impartial individualism or radical-democracy,
but envisages political liberalism as the locus of an overlapping consensus
of reasonable comprehensive positions. A variety of liberalisms, it allows,
can constitute this stable locus, of which Rawlss own argument for justice
as fairness is but one.
The idea of reasonableness therefore plays a fundamental role in Po-
litical Liberalism. The very distinction between comprehensive and polit-
ical conceptions of liberalism appeals to it, inasmuch as Rawls thinks of
political-liberal conceptions as conceptions on which reasonable compre-
hensive views can agree. But why does Rawls introduce this distinction in
the first place?
His main reason is not to provide a justification for justice as fair-
ness, but to show how justice as fairness can provide a stable framework

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Skorupski Rawls, Liberalism, and Democracy 179
for a democratic society.8 That is an important move, to which we shall
return in Section VII, but before we consider the problem of stability, it
is worth asking what role the idea of overlapping consensus could play
in justifying justice as fairness. This will help to clarify the relationship
between justice as fairness and radical-democracy.
A main element in the notion of reasonableness is fair-mindedness.
Whereas rationality in the practical domain, as conceived by Rawls, con-
sists in efficient pursuit of objectives, reasonableness is something else.
Reasonable people take into account the concerns and interests of others
in a fair-minded way.9 I agree that reasonableness is an indispensable no-
tion: it can be clearer and more effective, in many concrete ethical, legal,
and political controversies, to appeal to what a reasonable or fair-minded
person would think than to appeal to an abstract principle of fairness. Fur-
thermore, in the context of a system of social cooperation, fair-mindedness
has determinate implications: it involves not placing unreasonable bur-
dens on people, burdens they could justly complain of, rewarding effort
and/or contribution, and so on.
The appeal to reasonableness plays an important role in ordinary
practical deliberation, then. We also make it in the context of theoretical
reasoning, where reasonableness is a predicate of judgments, beliefs, or,
in Rawlss phrase, reasonable comprehensive positions. Here the role
of fair-mindedness is not at first sight evident. Nonetheless, it can apply,
for example, to a persons assessment of conflicting evidence, provided
by competing advocates, witnesses, or historical sources. The connection
is then with unprejudiced, open to argument, appropriately careful

8. John Rawls, Political Liberalism, expanded ed. (New York: Columbia University Press,
2005), 14044; John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univer-
sity Press, 2001), pt. 5. See also T. M. Scanlon, Rawls on Justification, in Freeman, Cambridge
Companion to Rawls, 13967; Stephen Mulhall and Adam Swift, Rawls and Communitarian-
ism, in Freeman, Cambridge Companion to Rawls, 46087.
9. The contrast goes back to W. M. Sibley, The Rational versus the Reasonable, Philo-
sophical Review 62 (1953): 55460. See Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 7 n. 6, and his reference there
to T. M. Scanlons contractualism. See also, e.g., John Rawls, The Law of Peoples, with The Idea
of Public Reason Revisited (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 177. Here Rawls
characterizes reasonable people both more narrowly and more substantively in two ways:
First, they stand ready to offer fair terms of social cooperation between equals, and they abide
by these terms if others do so also, even should it be to their disadvantage not to; second rea-
sonable persons recognize and accept the consequences of the burdens of judgment. This
passage places specific emphasis on willingness to offer fair terms of social cooperation.
But while the notion of reasonable fair-mindedness should certainly include that, it should
include fairness in noncooperative contexts as well. It is quite possible to recognize the im-
portance to ethical theory of the general idea of reasonable fair-mindedness, without accept-
ing that the only context in which it applies is that of social cooperation. I discuss the signif-
icance of this point in the next section.

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180 Ethics October 2017
in considering each case, and conscious of the fallibility of ones own
and others judgment.10 A fair-minded judge, and judgment, of an argu-
ment or claim is one that givers of evidence, advocates of positions (in-
cluding comprehensive positions), persons under review, and so on, have
no just cause to complain of.
So fair-mindedness plays a part in the epistemic as well as the practi-
cal case. If we want to keep them apart, we can call a person who is fair-
minded in judgment of an epistemic case judicious and reserve the term
fair-minded for a person who takes due practical account of others con-
cerns and interests. A reasonable person is then one who is both judicious
and fair-minded, and a reasonable position is one that a reasonable per-
son could agree with (or at least not reject). All that remains to make
the reasonableness of a position relevant to its justification is the defensi-
ble principle that if a position is reasonable, there is a non-negligible rea-
son to adopt it.
Hence, if there is an overlapping consensus of reasonable positions
on justice as fairness, that is a non-negligible reason to adopt it. And the
fact of consensus may be held to strengthen the reason. But still this
doesnt go all that far, certainly not as far as constituting a sufficient rea-
son to adopt the position, let alone showing it to be the correct view. For
there may be reasonable positions that do not figure in the consensus but
figure in some alternative consensus. Or, if we take overlapping consen-
sus to mean, somewhat breathtakingly, consensus of all reasonable posi-
tions, there might still be a plurality of such consensuses. That is so even if
we restrict it to mean all the reasonable positions that are actually around
right now. The reasonable view, it seems to me, is that there is more than
one reasonable position as to what justice is. Note also that while views
about what is reasonable do not, on this account of justification, them-
selves belong to the freestanding political conception, they are nonethe-
less highly likely to be in political dispute. The higher-order question of
whether a given consensus is a consensus of (all) reasonable positions is
unlikely to attract a consensus of positions, each of which accepts all the
others as reasonable. Disagreement will go all the way up.
I take it that Rawls could agree with these points about justification.
His way of arguing for justice as fairness goes back to the original posi-
tion in A Theory of Justice and is restated in part 3 of the book, Justice
as Fairness. The claim that there could be an overlapping consensus of
reasonable comprehensive positions which endorsed an acceptably lib-
eral political conception is significant, not so much for the element of jus-
tification that it can provide for justice as fairness as for the role such an
overlapping consensus could play in giving stability to a liberal democracy

10. The burdens of judgment are described by Rawls, e.g., in Political Liberalism, II.2.

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Skorupski Rawls, Liberalism, and Democracy 181
organized on its basis. Here it becomes important that Rawlss conception
of the problem of stability is very different from the old liberal concep-
tion of the problem, and much narrower, as I show in Section VII. Before
we get to that, however, there is a question to ask, raised by the discussion
of this section. If justice as fairness cannot (as Rawls accepts) be justified as
the consensus of all reasonable comprehensive positions, can it be justi-
fied in a more direct and substantive way? In answering that question,
we begin to see how justice as fairness belongs in the radical-democratic
sphere of influence.



Political liberalism has an internal argumentative structure in which the

two important load-bearing elements are the political conception of cit-
izens as free and equal and the conception of society as a fair system of so-
cial cooperation. It can therefore be asked whether any reasonable com-
prehensive position would endorse these elements, or whether they bring
in something stronger, that it might be reasonable not to endorse.
The slogan that citizens are free and equal conceals significant dif-
ferences. There is, in particular, a clear difference between what an old
liberal means by that slogan and what a radical-democrat means. For the
old liberal it expresses the fundamental ethical principle of impartial in-
dividualism. At the political level it means equality under a rule of law
which secures equal civil rights to all. These tenets do not yet yield de-
mocracy; for that, further argument is required. For a radical-democrat,
in contrast, the slogan refers, from the start, to an equal political say, im-
plied by the very idea of a general and sovereign will of all the people. Of
course, this difference does not mean that liberals will be against democ-
racy, or that radical-democrats will be against liberal civil rights. But it does
mean that liberals and radical-democrats base the core modern values of
liberty and equality on very different grounds.
As already noted, Rawls often says that his conception of justice as
fairness is designed for democracy from the outset: Justice as fairness
is framed for a democratic society. Its principles are meant to answer the
question: once we view a democratic society as a fair system of social coop-
eration between citizens regarded as free and equal, what principles are
most appropriate to it?11 The interesting move here is the move from a
democratic society to a fair system of social cooperation. The concep-
tion of a democratic society as a system of cooperation among equals is
very important to the structure of Rawlss position. It is, he says, the most

11. Ibid., xxvi; see also Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 5, 83, 176.

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182 Ethics October 2017
fundamental idea in his conception of justice.12 I shall call it the ideal of
We shall shortly come back to the question of how this ideal is re-
lated to the democratic reading of equal freedom. But for the moment
consider the idea of cooperation itself. We cannot see democratic society
as solely a fair system of social cooperation. Society, including demo-
cratic society, is a multifarious congeries of social relations, more or less
systematic. These include systems of social cooperation; they also include
competition and outright opposition. We are competitors and opponents
as much as we are co-operators. We compete for goods; we oppose people
with different views from our own. And then for much of the time, though
more for some people than for others, society is at most a background
to the aims of their own life: we live side by side with others, and our motto
in those periods of indifference is live and let live. Very few people
want to spend all their time cooperating, competing, or opposing. And
that is fine.
It is important that the general notion of fairness covers all these
types of social relation: we need rules for competitors and opponents,
and indeed for people who simply want to live and let live. But fairness
amounts to different things in these various contexts: the rules for a duel
between enemies can be fair or unfair, but fairness here is not fairness
in the distribution of burdens, as it would be if the duelists were jointly
engaged in some burdensome collaborative scheme, such as improving
the common parts of their neighborhood. What fairness means in non-
cooperative contexts does not particularly help Rawlss project. Putting
this another way, if the notion of fair cooperation is to be extended to
noncooperative interactions simply in virtue of their being governed by
rules that may be fair or unfair, then it is too weak a notion for Rawlss
purpose. What Rawls needs for his purpose is not just the general notion
of fairness, but the specific notion of fairness in cooperative interaction.
Let me explain. In paradigm cases of cooperation we get together
to achieve some shared goal, for example, to keep open a village shop
or a local football team which will go out of business if left to itself, or
to engage in collective action against the threat of an airport on our door-
step, or to set up some charity that we all believe in. Or we combine in a
mutual enterprise such as a winegrowers cooperative. These are activities
in which we engage as free and equal, in a clear sense of that phrase: we
freely join as equal participants because we have a common goal, whose
achievement will give each one of us satisfaction and is best achieved by
working together. In such forms of cooperation we typically expect to
have an equal say in collective decisions. On that condition all of us are
willing to take a share of the burden in bringing it about, so long as it

12. Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 5.

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Skorupski Rawls, Liberalism, and Democracy 183
is a fair shareand here a fair share does mean something like a distribu-
tion of the work involved whose reasonableness can be justified to each
one of us. An inverse difference principle might be applied; we might well
agree that the burden or cost should be shared out equally, or, where for
one reason or another burdens or costs have to be distributed unequally,
that those who have to take on the greatest burden or cost should have it
lightened as much as possibleminimize the greatest burden.
Given that this is at least one attractive norm for systems of cooper-
ation, were society as a whole a system of cooperation, we would be at least
on the way to the difference principle. By the same token, if the ideal of
cooperation is built into a freestanding political liberalism, then political
liberalism will have a tendency to favor views of distribution based on the
idea of fairness in the distribution of burdens undertaken in pursuit of
a common aim. That feature, however, arises not from a fact about the
nature of society as such, but from political liberalisms acceptance of a
substantive ethical ideal, the radical-democratic ideal of cooperation.
True, enforcement and maintenance of fairness across all the kinds
of social relations, including government itself, is a common task in
which we should all play our fair part. That means that the burdens of tax-
ation and other forms of citizen contribution (time, effort) that must be
undertaken to enable the state, or other body, to carry out that task have
to be fairly allocated in accordance with fairness in cooperation. So here
again some variation on the difference principle could be appropriate
(among other considerations): minimize the burden on the least well
off. Importantly, however, what we are dealing with in this case is the spe-
cial question of fair contribution to the common or public aim of the
state, rather than the general question of fair distribution of income and
wealth. They are linked, but they are not the same. Even if raising taxes
is a cooperative task in pursuit of a common goal, it does not follow that
society is. As plenty of people will rightly point out, it is at best a pious par-
able to think of the distribution of income and wealth as resulting from
the rewards of a kind of total all-encompassing cooperative enterprise, a
winegrowers cooperative writ large.
Still, even if society is not a system of overall cooperation in fact, is it
not a noble ideal to make it as much like that as possible? Is there not
something admirable in the disposition to cooperate as much as possible
with others? It is, and there is.13 But now the crucial point is that an ideal

13. Sec. 79 of A Theory of Justice (rev. ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), titled
The Idea of Social Union, is a particularly rich and inspiring account of this ideal, in
which Rawls relates it to ideals of old liberalism that one finds, for example, in Humboldt
(whom Rawls cites). Note also that while Rawls says that a well-ordered society (in his sense)
would be a social union of social unions, he does not say that this is what societies actually
are. Nor, I believe, could an old liberal accept that the ideal of a social union could apply to
a society as a whole, as against some important aspects of it. All aspects of social life, coop-

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184 Ethics October 2017
is not an obligation. There are many ideals that are admirablesay, the
ascetic life of a monastery, or a life devoted to medical work for a third-
world charity, or a life of rigorous scholarship or high artistic endeavor
but to admire them is not to prescribe them to everyone or to feel any
obligation to take part ourselves. Ideals cannot, therefore, be part of an
agreed consensus on justice; they must be placed among the diversity
of admirable aims which citizens may choose to pursue, on their own
or together. Seeking cooperation with others wherever possible is admi-
rable, at least much of the time. In contrast, paying your fair share of
tax is a duty of justice, which you may be compelled to discharge. This dis-
tinction between public ideals, which should be allowed to flourish in all
their variety so long as they are consistent with justice, and public duties is
of course an important ingredient of old liberalism.
Impartial individualism, considered in itself, does not mandate co-
operation. Rather, from within that framework one would have to argue
that the well-being or the rights of individuals would be significantly ad-
vanced if society were transformed as much as possible into a cooperative
system. This has long been one of the great empirical arguments for so-
cialism; evidently it has not convinced all liberals. In contrast, things look
quite different if we start from the standpoint of radical-democracy. It
envisages the basic structure of its ideal society as a system of cooperation
right from the start. A radical-democracy is a society built by free and equal
citizens, working together in fair cooperation. Moreover, cooperation is
not merely the means; it is part of the standing, holistic end of the general
will.14 It is not implausible, as I noted above, to see radical-democracy
as a kind of eudaemonistic/holistic ethic, though quite different from
the Christian-feudal kind, in that equality of full citizenship replaces hier-
archy, the republic or nation replaces the Christian kingdom of France
(say), and the will of the people replaces the will of God. That is precisely
the relationship between democracy and cooperation among equals that
Rousseau envisaged for his small civic republics.
The radical-democratic conception of society as ab initio a system
of cooperation would yield a direct argument for the difference princi-
ple. But a comprehensive conception which rejects the idea that we have
an obligation of justice to make the basic structure of society a fair sys-
tem of cooperationas against an obligation to ensure general fairness
in the variety of possible interactionsis not thereby unreasonable. It fol-
lows that the ideal of cooperation, as against the requirement of general
fairness, should play no part in a freestanding political conception of lib-

erative and noncooperative, are important from the old liberal point of view, inasmuch as
they all conduce to human flourishing. However, there is no space to pursue this quite
complex issue here.
14. See again Rawls, Theory of Justice, sec. 79.

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Skorupski Rawls, Liberalism, and Democracy 185
eralism, whatever part it plays in a comprehensive radical-democratic
conception of society. It is a public ideal which it is not unreasonable,
and not unjust, to reject as a basis for government, even if one admires it.
One can argue that Rawls himself acknowledges these points. He
allows that the difference principle should be dropped from the free-
standing conception of political liberalismunderstood as specifying
constitutional essentialsin favor of a social minimum principle. The dif-
ference principle would instead be contested in the arena of debate.15
This concession would be impermissible if the difference principle were
a categorical requirement of justice. But it makes sense if the difference
principle is advanced as a public ideal of democratic cooperation, a public
ideal to which not everyone subscribes, even though its proponents hope
to persuade as many people as possible to do so.
An old liberal can then agree that the difference principle, like any
other public ideal, may properly be supported and promoted by a party
of citizens, argued for in a democratic assembly, and enshrined in law if
voted through. Or at least that is so if there is (as I assume there is) an
acceptable old liberal defense of democracy which acknowledges, contra
some libertarians, that democratic majority agreement on a public ideal
can in certain circumstances legitimate its enforcement.16
If we took Rawls to be proposing the difference principle as a public
ideal of democratic cooperation, we could explain why he does not in-
clude it in the overlapping consensus on justice that constitutes political
liberalism. In contrast, if the radical-democratic conception of society is
correct, then plausibly the difference principle is the correct principle
of justice. For on the latter view a society is, of its basic nature, a system
of cooperation; cooperation is not just an ideal, admirable but optional.
In that case fairness in contributionand thus, plausibly, the difference
principlemust govern societys basic structure. This, I believe, is Rawlss
view. So I do not read his willingness to accept a constitutional consensus
on a social minimum as indicating that he regards the difference princi-
ple only as an admirable ideal. I believe he regards it throughout as the
correct principle of justice. It seems then that he is prepared to compro-
mise with other views of justice which he regards as reasonable, though
incorrect, in order to arrive at a liberalism that reasonable people in gen-
eral can accept. In the end, for Rawls, the value of reasonable consensus

15. Rawls, Political Liberalism, 22829; Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 4748, 162.
16. One could still ask what the basis would be for including, in freestanding political
liberalism, the social minimum as a constitutional essential, given that constitutional essen-
tials must reflect a consensus of reasonable comprehensive positions. Rawlss idea of fair
equality of opportunity has some plausibility as a liberal constitutional essential, so a pos-
sible approach is to argue on from that to the requirement of a social minimum in order to
assure it.

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186 Ethics October 2017
outweighs the influence of radical-democracy; nonetheless, that influ-
ence is there.



Let us now turn to Rawlss doctrine of public reason. Here again we shall
see how much more persuasive it looks when viewed through a radical-
democratic lens.
The basis of the principle is that political discussion should work
through the exchange of reasons that are publicly acceptable to all:
Citizens must be able to . . . present to one another publicly acceptable
reasons for their political views in cases raising fundamental political
questions. This means that our reasons should fall under the political val-
ues expressed by a political conception of justice. If free and equal per-
sons are to cooperate politically on a basis of mutual respect, we must jus-
tify our use of our corporate and coercive political power, where those
essential matters are at stake, in the light of public reason.17 As Rawls in-
dicates in many passages,18 the doctrine of public reason is a restriction
that applies to the content of political discourse in the public political
forum (as against the background political culture).19 It demarcates
what reasons for our political commitments we are allowed to state, and
what reasons we are not allowed to state, in such discourse. The restric-
tions apply to discussion of questions regarding the constitutional essen-
tials and basic questions of distributive justice. Rawls allows that where
legislative policy debates do not raise these questions the restrictions im-
posed by public reason do not apply to them, or if they do, at least not in
the same way or so stringently.20
I am not convinced that the distinctions Rawls intimates between
restricted and unrestricted forums and topics of political debate can be
made without artificiality. But we can waive this problem, because the rel-
evant question for us is what the basis for this doctrine is in the first place.
There were two linked considerations in Rawlss mind. One derives
the doctrine of public reason from his liberal principle of legitimacy in
the exercise of power. The other presents it as a duty of civility.
Consider first, then, the principle of legitimacy. One of Rawlss for-
mulations is as follows: Our exercise of political power is fully proper
only when it is exercised in accordance with a constitution the essentials

17. Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 91.

18. The doctrine is explained in Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture VI; Rawls, Law of Peo-
ples, The Idea of Public Reason Revisited; and Rawls, Justice as Fairness, pt. 3, sec. 26.
19. Rawls, Law of Peoples, 13334.
20. Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 91 n. 13.

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Skorupski Rawls, Liberalism, and Democracy 187
of which all citizens as free and equal may reasonably be expected to en-
dorse in the light of principles and ideals acceptable to their common
human reason. This is the liberal principle of legitimacy.21 Now as many
critics have observed, both this principle and its connection to public
reason restrictions are unclear. As to the meaning of the principle itself,
a main problem is to find an interpretation of the phrase acceptable to
their common human reason which neither makes the principle trivial
nor makes it false. Standard problems about idealization arise here,22 but
again I set the question aside. For our purpose let us take the criterion of
legitimacy to be that political power is fully proper only when exercised in
accordance with a constitution whose principles almost everyone could
endorse, if they exercised a potential for reasonableness which it is not unreason-
able to impute to each or almost all of them. Lets assume, for the sake of argu-
ment, that there are such principles to be found, that is, that this crite-
rion is satisfiable. The criterion itself is essentially Rousseaus, except that
he made the italicized clause something like a condition for an actual
vote to count as expressing the general will at all.23 That makes it the
basic principle of radical-democracya constitutive account of what
the general will is, whereas, taken as a pure counterfactual, it would make
any law that accords with it legitimate whether or not anyone had voted
for or in any other way assented to it. Perhaps we should say that any law
that accords with it is morally sound, but is legitimate or valid only if it
has been voted through.24 Again we can set this aside, in order to ask our
main question: how might the liberal principle of legitimacy give rise to
the restrictive doctrine of public reason?
As Rawls notes, putting forward reasons in a public forum, for or
against some legislation, is in and of itself an exercise of political power.
It follows that it must accord with a constitution that itself accords with
the principle of legitimacy. From this requirement of double accordance
Rawls seems to infer that the reasons put forward in a public forum should
be public reasons in the sense that their content, not just their assertion,
should fall under the political values expressed by a political conception
of justice. Public reason requires us to make our case for legislation
and public policies we support in terms of public reasons.25
The force of this inference is not clear. Why shouldnt a constitu-
tion that accords with public values allow any reasons whatever to be put

21. Rawls, Political Liberalism, 137.

22. See, e.g., David Enoch, Against Public Reason, April 30, 2015, available at Social
Science Research Network: http://ssrn.com/abstract52601187.
23. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract and Other Later Political Writings, ed.
and trans. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), bk. 2, 15.
24. There is some discussion of this issue in John Rawls, Political Liberalism: Reply to
Habermas, Journal of Philosophy 92 (1995): 13280.
25. Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 90.

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188 Ethics October 2017
forward in the public forum, without restriction of content? Isnt free-
dom of speech a public value? At a deeper philosophical level it is also
not clear why old liberals should accept Rawlss principle of legitimacy
in the first place, assuming that that principle has something like the form
suggested. Shouldnt an old liberal say that the right constitution is the
one that best fulfills the criteria implied by ethical principles that are
sound, that is, by some form of impartial individualism?26


Perhaps, then, rather than trying to derive public reason from the so-
called liberal principle of legitimacy, we should instead see it as a moral
duty of civility. The trouble is that it seems far beyond anything that could
be required simply as a matter of civility.
As a specific example, imagine that assisted suicide is illegal in our
polity. And lets say that there is a debate in the legislative assembly about
decriminalizing it under certain restricted conditions. A is in favor on lib-
eral grounds, such as the principle that people should be free to join in
an action which has no harmful effect on others. B is against, for several
reasons. One is a slippery slope argument about how legalizing assisted
suicide might lead to legalisation of nonvoluntary euthanasia. Another
is that ruthless people would be encouraged to put pressure on elderly
relatives to make them give up their lives. Then a thirdand lets suppose
that this is the reason to which B is most fervently committedis that our
lives do not belong to us but to God, and that it is for God to decide when
we die.
Putting forward the first two reasons is, I take it, allowable by public
reason; putting forward the third is not. Or at least it is not if we take the
religious argument to be unacceptable to common human reason. B
might, of course, disagree that it is unacceptable to common human rea-
son: he thinks he can explain his position and its theological background
quite clearly, in a way that is accessible to human reason even if not every-
one will agree with it. There must, after all, be a difference between a rea-
son that is acceptableaccessible, comprehensibleto human reason
and a reason that is acceptable in the sense of sound and sufficient; all B
has to argue is that his position is acceptable in the first sense.

26. Guizots view of representative government was just this: its authority depended
on whether it was in accord with reason, not on whether it was in accord with the mythical
will of the people. Rational competence was the basis of political right; government by
competent representatives, conducted in a setting of full publicity and freedom of speech,
was the form of government most likely to achieve accordance with reason. See Franois
Guizot, History of the Origins of Representative Government in Europe (Indianapolis: Liberty
Fund, 2002), introduction and notes by Aurelian Craiutu, esp. lecture 10, which is a criti-
cism of Rousseau, and lecture 15.

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Skorupski Rawls, Liberalism, and Democracy 189
Would an old liberal consider it permissible to demand that B refor-
mulates his case in a way that omits the theological argument, which is
for B the most firmly held? One sees the prospect of resentment and con-
flict, with no one qualified to decree what is or what is not acceptable to
human reasonunless its the democratic majority, or unless we believe
in philosopher-bureaucrats with powers to make such decrees. More fun-
damentally, from an old liberal point of view, the question arises as to
why such restriction is not an infringement of the liberal principle of free
Consider what Rawls calls the proviso. This says that reasonable
comprehensive doctrines, religious or nonreligious, may be introduced
in public political discussion at any time, provided that in due course
proper political reasons . . . are provided that are sufficient to support
whatever the comprehensive doctrines introduced are said to support.27
Rawls leaves open the question of how to implement this proviso. Jrgen
Habermas, commenting on it, declares that in parliament the standing
rules of procedure of the house must empower the house leader to have
religious statements or justifications expunged from the minutes.28 That
may well be stronger than anything Rawls would want to endorse, but
one can still ask, entirely legitimately, what the proviso means by in due
course. If B thinks that his third argument is sufficient for all cases, while
his other two are insufficient even jointly, such a principle of public reason,
even as weakened by the proviso and presented as a moral obligation of
civility, discriminates against him, forcing him into disingenuousness.
It is perfectly true that there can be an obligation of civility not to
say some things that one has a right of free speech to say. There is no
contradiction there. Equally, it might be politic for B to emphasize the
first two reasons and keep quiet about the third, even though that is the
reason by which B is most convinced. Atheists will feel an obligation to re-
spond to the first two but will merely shrug off the third. But while the tac-
tics of persuasion may recommend keeping quiet about the third reason,
B may want to be open and honest about his reasons so that people know
where he standswhere he comes from.29 He wouldnt want them, for
example, to labor hard to put in place legal mechanisms that respond to
the first two reasons, lets say by ingenious clauses limiting the circum-
stances in which assisted suicide is legal, without being told that he will
vote against legalizing it anyway.
If B comes clean about his real reasons for opposing assisted suicide,
is he being uncivil in a morally objectionable way? Far from it. A is not

27. Rawls, Law of Peoples, 152; see also Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 90.
28. Jrgen Habermas, Religion in the Public Sphere, European Journal of Philosophy
14 (2006): 125, 10.
29. See Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 90.

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190 Ethics October 2017
going to feel disrespected by being told that B believes in God, any more
than B will feel disrespected by being told A does not. There may be sit-
uations where it would be rude or unfeeling to assert, in terms, that one
does not believe in God, for example, to an elderly cousin who tells one
that she has decided, after struggling with doubts, to join a convent. How-
ever, in a political assembly that exercises political power, while civility is
requiredas everywhereit is perfectly proper for it to be a civility based
on honesty and robustness. There is a basic lack of fit between any reason-
able conception of civility and the supposed obligation not to appeal to
ones comprehensive conception. Why should it be uncivilas against
impolitic, tedious, and so onto appeal explicitly to ones most deeply
held convictions?
I conclude that neither Rawlss principle of legitimacy in the exer-
cise of power nor the doctrine of public reason is likely to seem liberal
to an old liberal. But what if we see them not as liberal but as radical-
democratic principles?
When they are seen in terms of the ethic of radical-democracy, every-
thing falls much better into place. From this standpoint, the ethical point
of democratic deliberation is to decide together, cooperatively, as free
and equal. Democratic deliberation falls under the cooperative ideal that
this ethic proposes for society as a whole (Sec. IV). It is thus wrong in prin-
ciple to exclude anyone from such deliberation, not just by refusing them
a say, but also by putting forward reasons that they cannot accept as rea-
sons.30 That is why the reasons put forward must be acceptable to com-
mon human reason. One might even argue, in constructivist spirit, that
only reasons which all can accept (perhaps in some idealized condition)
constitute reasons, and further, that a policy decision can be said to be le-
gitimate only if it can be, and is, supported by all (or most?) on the basis
of such public reasons. Only then does it express the general will. It is
quite natural to see these thoughts as a manifestation of the basic radical-
democratic idea, that the source of normativity is the general will. It is less
natural to see them as a manifestation of liberalism.31

30. In using the word accept here and below I am sidestepping important questions.
Do we mean understand? Or in some sense recognize as a reputable reason (though not
necessarily endorse)? Or something else?
31. As a reminder, I am not ascribing radical-democratic constructivism to Rawlss po-
litical liberalism. Rawls eschews metaphysical debate between what he calls rational intu-
itionism and a comprehensive, as against a political, constructivism. (See Rawls, Polit-
ical Constructivism, in Political Liberalism.) My point is that the constraints introduced by
public reason are more intelligible from a Rousseauist, or radical-democratic, standpoint
than from a rational intuitionist standpoint like Guizots (see note 26). Obviously the latter
could accept the simple good sense of finding what agreements with political opponents
one is able tobut this principle of coalition building does not morph into a principle
of public reason.

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Skorupski Rawls, Liberalism, and Democracy 191

The claim that an overlapping consensus of reasonable positions could

endorse political liberalism plays an important role in Rawlss structure.
We noted earlier that its importance, in Rawlss view, is not so much the
element of justification that it can provide as the role it can play in giving
stability to a democratic society organized on its basis. It is Rawlss answer
to a question he formulates in a rather misleading Kantian way: how is
political liberalism possible?32 Here again I shall argue that because
Rawls starts from a democratic framework into which he fits liberalism,
rather than fitting democracy into the framework of liberalism, he misses
the real nature and extent of the problem.
Rawlss answer to his question is, first, that political liberalism is not
self-undermining, in the sense that if instituted, it would not itself tend
to produce a type of citizen who would destabilize it; and second, that it
could achieve stable acceptance from all reasonable people as the pre-
vailing political conception, even if their own reasonable comprehensive
doctrines differed.33
Now in the context of pure justification, the only further point that
it might be desirable to argue (if possible!) would be that political liber-
alisms conception of justice has greater potential to secure a broad level
of overlapping consensus than do other reasonable conceptions of jus-
tice. There would in particular be no need, in that context, to consider
the reactions of unreasonable people. But in the context of stability, that
is not so. An overlapping consensus of reasonable positions on liberal jus-
tice will reassure us about its resilience under democracy only if we can be
confident that this consensus can stably resist attacks from unreasonable
positionsnot least, unreasonable positions that are rational and strate-
gically shrewd. It is, shall we say, not unknown for people to take such
positions. Can we be sure that people who do wont prevail in a political-
liberal society? We would have to be sure that such a society would not pro-
duce them, at least not in sufficient numbers to undermine itself. The fact
(if it is a fact) that reasonable people can stably converge on justice as fair-
ness is not entirely irrelevant to the question, but its an understatement
to say that, taken on its own, it clearly fails to answer it. Appealing to a con-
sensus of reasonable people cannot help all that much in dealing with un-
reasonable people.34

32. Rawls, Political Liberalism, 134ff.; Rawls, Justice as Fairness, 189ff. (This is a mislead-
ing formulation, because the answer is not a philosophical deduction to a synthetic a priori
truth, but instead propounds an ambitious empirical hypothesis about the kind of citizen a
society of political liberalism would tend to produce.)
33. Rawls, Political Liberalism, 141.
34. Rawls sometimes acknowledges the problem: Of course a society may also contain
unreasonable and irrational, and even mad, comprehensive doctrines. In their case the

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192 Ethics October 2017
Rawls is addressing a question which he has formulated in a very
special way. The question is whether an agreed freestanding political con-
ception is possible given the burdens of judgment which lead reason-
able people to differ on what its content should be. The answer is that, be-
ing reasonable, they can recognize these burdens and find a route to
agreement. He develops the details of his answer to this question in an inter-
esting way. But he pays little attention to what should be the main question
namely, how much certainty can there be that political liberalism will not
be undermined by unreasonable people pursuing their own agendas, quite
possibly in a very rational way? Here Rawlss answervery sparsely devel-
oped (as he himself allows)is that once a political-liberal democracy
has settled in, the civic tradition, social context, and education it provides
will keep the numbers of unvirtuous citizens below the threshold of dan-
ger.35 This is a specific case of the answer on which radical-democrats
(starting with Robespierre) have always relied: virtuous institutions can
educate the people in virtue. We conjecture . . . that as citizens come to
appreciate what a liberal conception achieves, they acquire an allegiance
to it, an allegiance that becomes stronger over time.36 This is a critical
conjecture. It may be true of many citizens, but is it true of enough citi-
zens? Or are there perhaps citizens who, when they come to appreciate
what a liberal conception achieves, set about trying to manipulate it, or
find that they hate it and desire to destroy it? This question is not about
whether liberal democracy is possible among reasonable people, in philo-
sophical principle; it is about whether liberalism can be relied on to survive
among people as they actually are, and remain, under liberal democracy.
Both conservatives and old liberals have seen it as a very obvious
question. The difference, roughly speaking, is that while conservatives
mostly tended to worry that democracy would decline into anarchy and
terror, old liberals mostly tended to worry that it would decline into a
Caesarist seizure of power or a conformist despotism of the mediocre ma-
jority. The difference is relevant to Rawlss treatment of the issue, for while
both worries are understandable, the old liberal worries highlight some-
thing that Rawls fails to consider in considering his problem of stability.
It is the possibility that democracy may produce a cultural stasis or stagna-
tion, a stability of the wrong kind, or indeed an opening for autocracy.
One can hope that a liberal constitution, with the freedom and secu-
rity it can provide, is strong enough to withstand all flash floods of pop-
ulist dissatisfaction. The nineteenth-century liberal response to the dan-

problem is to contain them so that they do not undermine the unity and justice of society
(ibid., xvixvii). That is indeed part of the problem, although Rawls ignores what is arguably
a bigger part, namely, the presence of unreasonable rational people. See ibid, 152.
35. See Rawls, Justice as Fairness, secs. 5859.
36. Ibid., 194.

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Skorupski Rawls, Liberalism, and Democracy 193
gers of democracy did not restrict itself to such hopefulness. It proposed
overt restrictions on the principle of one person, one vote. That route,
as is familiar, was taken by the two comprehensive liberals Rawls frequently
invokes, Kant and Mill. Kant distinguished between active and passive cit-
izensa terminology which he presumably took from the French consti-
tution of 1791, or directly from Sieys, at whose instigation it had been in-
serted into that constitution. All citizens would have the protection of the
law and the constitutional rights of security and liberty that it guaranteed,
but only active citizens would have the vote. The argument was that the
vote should be entrusted only to those who are independent of a master,
and/or have an economic stake in the country that would encourage
them to use the vote responsibly.
Underlying this criterion is the doctrine that the vote is not a natural
right of every individual but a social trust, to be exercised responsibly by
the trustee. To have the vote, you have to merit the trust. Whether or not
one agrees with that view, it must be stressed that it is not incompatible
with old liberal principles. One could plausibly argue, given old liberal
emphasis on personal responsibility, that it naturally belongs with them.
It is, to be sure, another question whether a property test, or a require-
ment of independence from any master, can legitimately serve to pick
out the intended group of responsible and trustworthy citizens. Such
would-be approximations of the criterion are unjustly discriminatory. And
it is clearly unjustifiable for anyone who accepts the notion that the vote
is a trust to exclude all women from the vote, as was the case in the French
revolutionary constitutions. (This was something Olympe de Gouges had
already pointed out, in her Dclaration des Droits de la Femme et de la Cito-
yenne, as early as 1791.37) In Mills case this particular illiberalism disap-
pears. But he still, quite consistently with his impartial individualist liber-
alism, takes the vote to be a trust or responsibility; on that basis, more
dubiously, he denies representation to people who pay no taxes and wants
the number of votes people get to be determined by their educational
qualifications. Of course, against all restrictions to the franchise based
on the idea that the vote is a responsibility, there stands the obvious and
compelling argument, which serious liberal individualists must take into
account, and which Mill well knew, namely, that the unenfranchised will
inevitably have their interests and rights ignored.38
For some time now justifying democracy has not been a live political
issue, and old liberal remedies of placing restrictions on the franchise

37. Gouges was associated with the Girondinsroughly speaking the protoliberal
partyand followed them to the guillotine in 1794.
38. See John Skorupski, The Liberal Critique of Democracy, in The East Asian Chal-
lenge for Democracy, ed. Daniel A. Bell and Chenyang Li (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2013), 11637.

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194 Ethics October 2017
have seemed quaint or even immoral.39 But removing safeguards does
not remove dangers, any more than leaving the front door unlocked guar-
antees that a burglar wont turn up. Does political liberalism provide any
safeguard? The safeguard, it would seem, can only be the doctrine of pub-
lic reason. Whereas in the nineteenth century old liberalism sought to
defend against the danger of liberal instability by proposing constraints
on democracy itself, that is, on who gets a say, the idea of public reason
proposes a constraint on what they can say. Seen as a response to liberal
instability under democracy, its effect is to enhance the influence of ar-
guments that fall within the constraints of public reason by ruling other
argumentsincluding reasonable but inappropriately comprehensive ar-
gumentsoff the agenda.40
The restrictions that nineteenth-century liberals proposed to apply
to the franchise were notso long as we set aside the disenfranchisement
of womenrestrictions on liberal principles as such. Unlike representa-
tive government in general, democracy, in the sense of a universal fran-
chise of one person, one vote, is not an essential element of liberalism,
at least as historically conceived. The vote was viewed as a trust that one
must merit. In contrast, free speech in a political assembly is most cer-
tainly an essential element of old liberalism. So the restrictions proposed
by the doctrine of public reason do infringe on principles of old liberal-
Are they justified anyway? From an old liberal standpoint there would
have to be a very strong case. Obviously a first question is whether they
would work if we tried to apply them. That seems doubtful. They might
prove counterproductive by greatly increasing levels of resentment and
diversionary accusations of gagging, or political correctness enforced by
liberal elites. Then a second question is whether the consequences
would be good if they did work. I have noted that one major worry of
the old liberals was that democracy would produce stability of the wrong
kindthe conformist kind. They held a conflict theory of progress, ac-
cording to which disagreements of all kinds were required for cultural in-
novation and originality. If this analysis is correct, how would it help, say,
no-platform people who seek to present reasons for their political pro-
posals that are considered incompatible with public reason? Who would
decide? How would it increase honesty and diversity or discourage mere
conformity? The purest philosophical argument for such a restriction that
we have found is the radical-democratic argument that restrictions on

39. See, however, in dissent, Jason Brennan, Against Democracy (Princeton, NJ: Prince-
ton University Press, 2016); Tongdong Bai, A Confucian Version of Hybrid Regime: How
Does It Work, and Why Is It Superior?, in Bell and Li, East Asian Challenge for Democracy, 55
87; Ruiping Fan, Confucian Meritocracy for Contemporary China, in Bell and Li, East
Asian Challenge for Democracy, 88115.
40. See the passage I quoted from Rawls, Law of Peoples, 152.

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Skorupski Rawls, Liberalism, and Democracy 195
public reason are needed to guarantee that democratic discussion will ar-
rive at an expression of the general will. But old liberals are not interested
in the supposed general will, because they think that even if there were
such a thing, it would possess no special normativity.


Both liberalism and radical-democracy developed in the late modern pe-

riod. The normative foundation of old liberalism is an impartial and in-
dividualistic ethic, cast in terms of utility or in terms of rights, or in some
individualist mixture of the two. In contrast, the radical-democratic claim
is that the source of authorityultimately of all normative authorityis
the will of the people. A whole variety of modifications, retreats, and ide-
alizations of this radical-democratic view are obviously possible, just as a
whole variety of concrete realisations of impartial individualism are possi-
ble. The two traditions can overlap in their implications, exchange ideas,
blend confusedly, and so on. Nonetheless, impartial individualism and
radical-democracy are, so to speak, rival magnetic poles. Impartial indi-
vidualism cannot accept that a democratic decision has any intrinsic (as
against derived) normative force, while radical-democracy asserts that there
is no normative authority outside the collective or general will (somewhat
as it used to be said that there is no safety outside the church, perhaps). Lib-
erals have seen politics as a branch of ethics, while radical-democrats have
seen ethics as a branch of politics. Liberals have tended, at least until they
lost their way in the twentieth century, to normative objectivism; radical-
democrats have tended to normative voluntarism or constructivism. Late
modern political ideas have gravitated between these poles.
As already noted, Rawls would surely say that these polar views are
comprehensive positions with which he is not directly concerned. Political
liberalism remains, he would say, a freestanding political conception in its
own right, likely to remain so as long as the burdens of judgment prevail.
Nevertheless, the tradition of radical-democracy strongly marks Rawlss
conception of political liberalism. In the discussion of Sections IIIVI I
noted four such marks.
The first mark (I am changing the order) is what Rawls calls the lib-
eral principle of legitimacy. It stems from the Rousseauist tradition and
would be better named the radical-democratic principle of legitimacy. Hard
as it is to pin this principle down, if it is to have bite at all, the bite must
come from some voluntaristic or constructivist reading of the doctrine
of the general will. The second mark, the doctrine of public reason, be-
longs here. One can see it as determining the scope of the general will or-
ganically, so to speak, from within, by deriving limits on the materials that
public reason is permitted to work with from a radical-democratic and co-
operative understanding of the general will, as a will whose content every-

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196 Ethics October 2017
one must be able to grasp and endorse. But from an old liberal point of
view, the democratic principle of legitimacy cannot have fundamental nor-
mative force. It would have to be justified, to the extent it could be, on the
genuinely fundamental ethical ground of impartial individualism.
The third mark is Rawlss reading of the dictum that human beings
should be treated as free and equal. The old liberal tradition reads this in
terms of its impartial and individualistic ethics; the radical-democratic tra-
dition reads it in terms of its requirement of equal and universal participa-
tion. The fourth mark, the idea of society as a cooperative system, follows.
We saw how it could serve as a foundation for the difference principle.
How are the latter two marks connected with the tradition of radical-
democracy? The heart of this tradition is a very attractive ideal: the ideal
of living and working together for common goals, of being at one with
others, deciding together the norms by which we live. The final goal of
the general will is the republic, the public thing: the public thing that ex-
ists by an act of collective founding. Rawlss ideal of society as a coopera-
tive system aligns with this comprehensive radical-democratic tradition
much better than it aligns with the liberalism of impartial individualists.
Germaine de Stal remarked, Political liberty is of consequence to
ambitious men who desire power. Civil liberty interests peaceful men
who only do not want to be dominated.41 This expresses the reserved atti-
tude of the old liberal to the radical-democrat rather nicely, but it no
doubt goes too far. Political liberty does more than attract ambitious
men who desire power. For a start, we need some form of political liberty
to safeguard our civil liberty (as she realized). But, further, political liberty
is not only a means to the end of civil liberty; it is worthwhile as one ele-
ment in human development: it can teach responsibility and thereby con-
tribute a firm ground of dignity and self-respect.42 It can also greatly mit-
igate the danger of legitimate interests being undermined or just ignored.
Democracy can do all this; alas, this is not all that it can do. It is, at the
same time, a much more unpredictable and risky thing than the great lib-
eral democratic years of stable progress, after the Second World War, lulled
us into thinking. The old liberals concern to develop and maintain insti-
tutions that will lean against democracys openness to populist takeover re-
mains absolutely justified.
It is not so much that Rawls says anything distinctly incompatible with
this; rather, his merging of liberal and democratic valuesthe distinctive
reconciliatory rhetoric of political liberalismmakes it difficult to think
it clearly and say it crisply. His discussion of the issue of stability is a case

41. Quoted in Guy H. Dodge, Benjamin Constants Philosophy of Liberalism (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 40.
42. This was Constants teaching, and of course the teaching of many other liberals

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Skorupski Rawls, Liberalism, and Democracy 197
in point (Sec. VII). The question that interests Rawls, as we saw, is whether
reasonable people, divided by the burdens of judgment, can come together
at the political level in agreement on a liberal constitution. This is a relevant
question within Rawlss framework, and the effort of developing an answer
explains much of the change from Theory of Justice to Political Liberalism. Yet
whether fair-minded and judicious people can agree on some form of lib-
eralism is far from being the most important question to raise about liber-
alisms perils. It should not distract us from classic liberal worries about
democracys tendency toward autocratic populism, or indeed its tendency
to impose a stultifying conformism of attitudes, opinions, and actions. Anx-
iety about the instability of liberal democracy is justified, and so is anxiety
about its tendency toward conformist stability.
The latter concern, so present in Tocqueville and Mill, is not present
at all in Rawls. And even the former concern, about instability, is only pres-
ent in an abstract and unworldly way as a problem that arises and calls
for solution within the framework of Rawlss philosophical assumptions.
Broader and more realistic concerns about the potential instability of lib-
eral democracy are not addressed by the argument that political liberal-
ism can attract an overlapping consensus of reasonable positions, because
this argument pays insufficient attention to the likely presence in society
of unreasonable positions, comprehensive or otherwise, and the fright-
ening magnetism such positions can suddenly and unexpectedly acquire.
Likewise with the restrictions on discourse proposed by the idea of public
reason: apart from infringing on free speech, they would very likely them-
selves generate a resentful counterattack.
It may be answered that Rawls is not trying to address these old lib-
eral questions. He is doing something different: he is trying to rethink
liberalism from the standpoint of democracy. True. But the old liberal
answerwith which I agreeis that this is the wrong way to go. We should
instead maintain our critique of democracy from the standpoint of liber-
alism. And from that perspective the old liberal questions remain entirely
cogent today, almost dramatically so. From that perspective Rawlsian po-
litical liberalism seems to float aloft above the gritty realities of contempo-
rary democracy, in a dignified seminar room of the clouds. This unworld-
liness seems to me to arise from the influence on Rawls of what I have
called the radical-democratic ideal. It encourages a fusion of liberalism
and democracy that is too uncritical, that fails to register clearly enough
the potential tensions between them.
Yet I described Political Liberalism as a great work. The reader may by
now be wondering why. I would say that its greatness is similar to that of
Rousseau. In both cases one cannot fail to respond to the great ideal pre-
sented even if one rejects the political implications, even the whole pic-
ture. The democratic ideal as Rousseau presented itand even more as
Rawls presents it in the form of political liberalismspeaks eloquently

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198 Ethics October 2017
to something within us. It is the desire to be in unity with our fellow crea-
tures, in Mills famous phrase.43 We yearn, sometimes at least, for a so-
ciety of cooperation and mutual support, a vision of politics as what hu-
man beings, working together, jointly will. This really is an inspiring vision,
nor will the yearning go away. The greatness of Political Liberalism lies in
its fully thought-out attempt to reconcile it with liberalism, by working lib-
eral values into it. Given the history of opposition between liberalism and
radical-democracy, this is a philosophical project of major significance.
What I have criticized profoundly inspires others. This is no surprise.
The ideas that make a great philosopher are the ideas that are both most
inspiring and most controverted (e.g., Descartess cogito, Kants transcen-
dental deduction or his categorical imperative). Rawlsian political liber-
alism has this kind of quality: both inspiring and controverted. What I
have tried to show is how it stands against another, older, liberal view
namely, that while we should recognize the great virtues as well as the dan-
gers of democracy, we should not accept it as the unargued ethical frame-
work of our thinking.
It is all very well, of course, to say comfortably that the attitude of lib-
erals to democracy should be warm and committed but objective and vig-
ilant. It is much harder to say what useful form that vigilance should take.
Apart from insistence on the rule of just law and free speech, what is re-
quired is the artthe virtues and competencesof political life, not a
philosophical analysis. Restrictions on discussion imposed by public rea-
son are not the way. Better to recognize clearheadedly and openly the
dangers and tensions of democracy, to remain vigilant about what various
political actors are really up tobut still to play ones liberal cards openly
in a democratic debate that makes no attempt to limit the agenda. Not
only is this, at least to me, a more attractive form of liberalism than that
which idealizes cooperation and introduces restrictions on public reason,
but I also think it is more likely to succeed.44

43. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, chap. 3, para. 10, in Collected Works (London: Rout-
ledge, 1969), 10:231.
44. I am much indebted to Paul Weithman, Henry S. Richardson, and two anonymous
referees for their helpful comments.

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