Justice and Congruence: Political Not Ethical

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Rawls’s congruence argument hardly gets any attention in the voluminous literature on his work. In retrospect, that’s hardly a surprise, given that the congruence argument sprawls over the last several hundred pages of a very large book on justice. Some readers, no doubt, succumb to sheer exhaustion before they even reach Part III. And for those intrepid readers who stay the course through the seemingly meandering series of arguments culminating in §86 on “The Good of a Sense of Justice,” some may find that their efforts were in vain only to discover that Rawls takes his ‘political turn’ in an attempt to resolve a problem internal to justice as fairness. The problem is the account of stability is inconsistent with the view as a whole, and the culprit is the original congruence argument. Whereas congruence is the pinnacle of Rawls’s account of stability in A Theory of Justice, he seemingly abandons it well before Political Liberalism.

Despite appearance to the contrary, my paper attempts to extrapolate the enduring significance of Rawls’s concerns with congruence, albeit in a way that should be understood as political not ethical (or metaphysical). The first part of the paper offers an overview of the congruence argument, pausing briefly to defend the salience of the original argument, before proceeding to diagnose the reason for its eventual failure, which takes us to Rawls’s political turn. The second part of the paper takes up the task of developing a revised congruence argument by drawing upon a set of distinctively political goods, and calls attention to the relationship between justice and people’s good, which necessitates various kinds of reciprocal adjustments between the requirements of justice and people’s comprehensive conceptions of the good. If successful, a revised congruence argument may pave the way to resolving Gerald Gaus’s “problem of justificatory instability,” which threatens the possibility of stability for the right reasons. At times, the arguments I put forward are present or latent in Rawls’s later text, while at other times the arguments transcend the text itself. My intention is not to deify Rawls’s text, rather my ambition it is to carry the project forward by adding brush strokes to the unfinished painting that is Rawls’s theory of justice, by reinvigorating interest in trying to discover what is right and good.