Monday, May 28, 2007

Longer version of 'Reasonable Cosmopolitanism'



One of the most contentious debates in political philosophy today focuses on two camps of international political theory. One of these clusters of political theories is cosmopolitanism, defended by advocates such as Pogge and Benhabib. In opposition, advocates such as Rawls and Avila support a Society of Peoples approach. Each of these two positions claims the best and most feasible conception of a global political structure, and they do this for differing reasons.

In this essay, I will briefly review the clash between cosmopolitan political philosophy and the ideas of Rawls’ Law of Peoples. In addition, I will draw attention to important subject matter that is absent from this debate, namely a discussion of public reason. I will advocate that once both sides can address the arguments of Kant’s conception of public reason and Rawls’ conception of public reason, the debate between cosmopolitanism and the Law of Peoples may be closer to a reconciliation. While Kant’s conception of public reason is too strong to function in the international context, it reveals what parts of Rawls’ public reason require revision within a Society of Peoples.


Cosmopolitan arguments generally begin with a review of universalism, and conclude that morals and political ideals should apply globally. According to this strategy, principles of distributive justice should extend beyond particular national borders, and each nation should consider how wealth becomes distributed to all individuals and societies. Some cosmopolitans hold that this universalism requires each nation to become subordinate to a superior governing body. Other cosmopolitans, such as Pogge, advocate against a structured hierarchy in favor of a distributed and decentralized horizontal decision-making structure, similar to how the U.S. Federal government functions as three branches. Still others see cosmopolitanism as requiring only a revision of individual conceptions of a global distributive principle. However, without a controlling international body, it is difficult to see how a global distributive principle can be enforced without an overarching political authority.

Adherents of a Society of Peoples are not confident that a global government can achieve stability, and if it can, it can at best only accomplish it as a temporary balance of forces. Instead of generating a system where each nation becomes subordinate, advocates of a Society of Peoples argue that achieving a flourishing global society is the responsibility of decent and liberal peoples. The Society of Peoples casts this responsibility as the Law of Peoples, and this law instantiates a criteria of toleration. Toleration, says Rawls and Avila, is the mechanism where liberal and decent peoples justifiably affect political situations outside their borders.

Cosmopolitans usually attack a Society of Peoples approach by focusing on the ideas of a decent people and a liberal people. Peoples and states are not synonymous, but to cosmopolitans the distinctions between the two concepts are vague. This apparent vagueness gives cosmopolitans ground to declare cosmopolitanism superior. In response, the defenders of the Law of Peoples say that the distinction between a people and a state is definitively clear. Peoples define groupings of people, a character that binds them, and identifies them apart from the institutions that define the governments of which they are a part. Peoples do not have the same abilities as states, but this distinction does not prevent peoples from utilizing their governmental institutions from accomplishing state-specific actions. Rawls posits two categories of peoples: decent peoples and peoples that are not decent (not all political societies deserve the honorary title of peoples; societies outside the scope of decency include outlaw states, benevolent absolutisms, and burdened societies). Inside the decent peoples category, Rawls defines that there are liberal peoples and mere decent peoples. One major distinctive difference between liberal peoples and decent peoples is the use of public reason. On one hand, liberal peoples have a democratic constitutional structure. In addition, the individuals within a liberal society offer each other fair terms of cooperation, and this behavior satisfies Rawls’ criterion of reciprocity. On the other hand, merely decent peoples do not necessarily employ democratic and constitutional institutions. Instead, decent peoples utilize various governmental structures that achieve a tolerable distribution of rights to its citizens, and a distribution of wealth that does not threaten anyone’s well-being. Merely decent peoples, because of their specific governments, are incompatible with the use of public reason. The absence of public reason entails that the individuals within a merely decent peoples do not offer each other fair terms of cooperation and do not satisfy Rawls’ criterion of reciprocity.

Cosmopolitans have almost nothing to say about public reason, except to say that a cosmopolitan society would have to employ a wide notion of public reason in order to succeed (Bohman, 1999). Bohman defines a structure of public reason and describes how it would function to accommodate an overlapping consensus spanning a global regime. This version of public reason is tailor-made for a cosmopolitan society constituted strictly by a deliberative democracy (Bohman, 1999), but is incompatible with a Society of Peoples. Bohman’s cosmopolitanism tolerates neither decent peoples nor a global society constituted by more than one peoples, and features no political grounds to defend this standard. We have to assume that Bohman defends his cosmopolitanism on moral grounds. Discussing the truth of moral universalism at a global scale with no political assumptions arguably violates the principles of public reason, since such a discussion draws from Bohman’s comprehensive doctrine and stops there as a moral foundation. A discussion of the merits and viability of global universalism as the best method of eradicating human rights violations worldwide could avoid appealing to comprehensive doctrines. However, Bohman seems to argue for moral universalism rather than mere political viability.

Although Rawls explicitly rejects a cosmopolitan framework and cosmopolitans object to the idea of a Society of Peoples, I believe that a focus on public reason as an issue will be productive because it may offer ways for Rawlsians and cosmopolitans to agree. These new areas of agreement will allow a political philosopher to advocate cosmopolitanism and a Society of Peoples simultaneously. However, cosmopolitans still need to confront Rawls’ standard of a realistic utopia, and this essay will only indirectly answer that question.

The ideas that I will advocate here are not new. Components of the Law of Peoples that are sympathetic to cosmopolitanism are Rawls’ own footnotes in The Law of Peoples. In addition, I derive a critical analysis of Rawls’ idea of public reason from Onora O’Neill (1997). A review of these ideas should make cosmopolitanism and a Law of Peoples more compatible.


While Rawls does not think that a world government is viable, he is sympathetic to the idea that separate liberal societies should be able to merge, or combine. In a footnote, Rawls has this to say about the merging of peoples:

53. What does the Law of Peoples say about the following situation? Suppose that two or more of the liberal democratic societies of Europe, say Belgium and the Netherlands, or these two together with France and Germany, decide they want to join and form a single society, or a single federal union. Assuming they are all liberal societies, any such union must be agreed to by an election in which in each society the decision whether to unite is thoroughly discussed. Moreover, since these societies are liberal, they adopt a liberal political conception of justice, which has the three characteristic kinds of principles, as well as satisfying the criterion of reciprocity, as all liberal conceptions of justice must do (S1.2). Beyond this condition, the electorate of these societies must vote on which political conception they believe to be the most reasonable, although all such conceptions are at least reasonable. A voter in such an election might vote for the difference principle (the most egalitarian liberal conception), should he or she think it is the most reasonable. Yet so long as the criterion of reciprocity is satisfied, other variants of the three characteristic principles are consistent with political liberalism. To avoid confusion, I add that what I later call the “duty of assistance” applies only to the duty that liberal and decent peoples have to assist burdened societies (S15). As I explain there, such societies are neither liberal nor decent. (Rawls, 1999, p. 43)

This footnote defines very specific conditions for any merger to take place. First, the most obvious condition, according to Rawls, implies that only liberal societies can combine. The main reason for this is clear: liberal societies adhere to public reason and satisfy the criterion of reciprocity. In addition, a liberal society has an authentic mechanism where the electorate will vote on issues and the important details of those issues are salient. The presence of mature voting institutions is questionable at best in societies that are not decent. Finally, the criterion of reciprocity is missing in merely decent societies. In the absence of legitimate voting structures and a space for a people to employ public reason, it does not seem likely that a decision for two peoples to merge will be informed. Therefore, according to Rawls, liberal peoples should only combine with liberal peoples.

It is quite surprising that Rawls considers the possibility for two societies to join and become one society. Such a possibility is an interesting scenario for cosmopolitans, since a Law of Peoples does not tolerate peoples that are not decent. If a Law of Peoples ends this intolerance by transforming all peoples into decent peoples, then any two liberal societies would be able to have merger elections. The only challenges to this sequence of events are (1) a failure of a Society of Peoples in general, or (2) a failure of a specific vote among liberal peoples to combine.

A cosmopolitan will notice that this philosophy offers the possibility of a true cosmopolitan order. Assume for the moment that a Society of Peoples is successful and that all world societies somehow become decent peoples. Assume that we can finesse the issue of decent peoples becoming liberal peoples. Also, assume that all of these liberal societies give a successful up vote on combining. The cosmopolitan has theoretically achieved the ideal of cosmopolitanism.

However, such assumptions are a dream and ignore reality. If we consider what is possible in the real world, we rapidly realize that neither cosmopolitanism nor a Society of Peoples will ever totally succeed. In addition, even granting the possibility of a world where every society is liberal, the possibility of all these different liberal peoples combining to form one liberal people is slim to none, due to the limits of an overlapping consensus. Still more, there is something to be said about the diversity of decent peoples that are not necessarily liberal, since Rawls points out that liberalism mandates that decent peoples are entitled to equal treatment in a Society of Peoples. Therefore, as political philosophers, we should give up the idea that a true one-world institution is possible. Instead, the idea of cosmopolitanism should identify closer with the form of Rawls’ idealism. We should delineate, as Rawls did, between ideal theory and what is realistically possible. A question we should ask is this: is it realistic to envision a world where all peoples are either decent or liberal?

One way to make cosmopolitanism more appealing is by modifying Rawls’ analysis of combining societies. In particular, the Rawlsian and the cosmopolitan may object to Rawls’ insistence that only liberal peoples can converge. If decent peoples deserve toleration from a Society of Peoples, then they are well-ordered enough to conduct their own elections with enough credibility to conduct a merger election. In addition, the Rawlsian and the cosmopolitan should evaluate Rawls’ idea of public reason as inadequate for the task of communication between peoples.

In order to see why Rawls’ idea of public reason may be inadequate for international justice contexts, we should examine how he derived his idea of public reason for use in a Society of Peoples. As Rawls constructed the theory of the Law of Peoples, he utilized a political conception of a person, along with a veil of ignorance to construct a Society of Peoples where peoples would reason in the same way that individuals within a liberal society reason with each other. Rawls called this structure of communication public reason, and he said that those who properly utilize public reason offer fair terms of cooperation and only put forth arguments that they believe produce the possibility of agreement. Put another way, those utilizing public reason satisfy the criterion of reciprocity. However, as O’Neill notes, the criterion of reciprocity properly functions internally within a single liberal society—it does not necessarily function between members of a Society of Peoples.


According to O’Neill, Rawls’ idea of public reason is actually a relaxed version of Kant’s idea of public reason. Rawls was able to implement a more relaxed idea of public reason because his original purpose was to achieve fair terms of cooperation within a liberal domestic society. Inside a liberal society, each individual already has a motivation to offer fair terms of cooperation. Therefore, Rawls’ idea of reasonableness is “a matter of willingness to accept terms ‘which all can accept’ (PL, 50) or ‘to govern their conduct by a principle from which they and others can reason in common’ (PL, 49 n)” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 416). In contrast, Kant’s idea of reasonableness is a matter of willingness to accept terms which all will accept. O’Neill names Kant’s public reason as a ‘modal’ version of public reason, and names Rawls’ public reason as a ‘motivational’ version of public reason.

In a nutshell, Kant’s ‘modal’ version of public reason “does not assume that those who reason must share a political identity, yet arguably also manages to do without metaphysical foundations” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 423). The ‘motivational’ version of public reason that Rawls adopts has little to do with “individual capacities and everything to the political contexts in which they function,” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 421). This means that

What is to count as reasoned in the search for political principles and standards is the thinking of citizens with a common political identity, who seek additional areas of agreement in building the basic principles and institutions of their shared political life. (O’Neill, 1997, p. 421)

The limitation of Rawls’ version of public reason, then, is that the reasons presented is “insiders’ reasoning, so may not convince foreigners or outsiders—or citizens who stand back from the way things are, and ask whether they should be that way” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 422).

It may be appropriate for Rawls to advocate a motivational concept of public reasoning for the domestic case, since in that context citizens already have a common political identity. However, according to O’Neill, the motivational concept of public reasoning may be inappropriate for use between peoples in a Society of Peoples, since liberal peoples will not be the only participants in a well-ordered Society of Peoples. Inevitably, a Society of Peoples must tolerate and communicate with decent peoples, and the international context necessitates that a liberal peoples not make any political assumptions about decent peoples. Therefore, if we follow O’Neill, in the international context, liberal peoples should utilize a modal version of public reason, not merely motivational public reason.

However, the idea of modal public reason may not function within a Society of Peoples. O’Neill recognizes that both motivational and modal public reason functions with a liberal society, but both do not function identically in the international context. Therefore, the viability of modal public reason is not guaranteed.


There are several reasons to reject the actual use of modal public reason. Modal public reason may not function as well as motivational public reason. In addition, modal public reason may be impossible. As we will see, each of these objections are independently sufficient to reject the use of modal public reason.

The difference between modal public reason and motivational public reason depends on what we assume about the individuals who constitute the ‘public’ in public reason. Those who are participating in modal public reason only put forth ideas that will produce agreement with others that also participate in modal public reason. This form of public reason would be identical to motivational public reason if we assume that each individual already is motivated to produce agreement with other people (O’Neill, 1997, p. 417). Rawls uses political reasons, rather than psychological reasons, to claim that citizens within a domestic society effectively utilize public reason. So, in the context of Rawls’ political philosophy, we are not entitled to make such psychological assumptions regarding the nature of citizens’ minds (O’Neill, 1997, p. 418). When considering the debate between cosmopolitanism and a Society of Peoples, motivational public reason is not equivalent to modal public reason.

The political reasons that Rawls appeals to are assumptions regarding a domestic society. Rawls distances himself from appealing to particular psychological reasons that would vindicate his idea of public reason (“ ‘Moral Psychology: Philosophical not Psychological’ is the title of part 8 of lecture 1 (86-88) in Political Liberalism”; see O’Neill, 1997, p. 417, note 7). Instead, Rawls assumes facts regarding the citizens within a liberal society:

1. “Citizens conceive of themselves and one another as able to hold and to revise, and entitled to advance, their comprehensive conceptions of the good” (O’Neill, 1997p. 418).

2. Citizens “acknowledge that although they may hold different comprehensive conceptions of the good, they cannot resolve disagreements about them” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 418).

3. Citizens “conceive of themselves as the citizens of a certain society with abilities ‘to be normal and cooperating members of society over a complete life’ (PL, 81)” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 418).

4. Citizens conceive of their society as “self-contained and as having no relations with other societies. Its members enter it only by birth and leave it only by death” (Political Liberalism, p. 12 as cited in O’Neill, 1997, p. 418).

If we grant each of these political assumptions, Rawls is able to justify his theory of domestic justice in a liberal society. These four assumptions, respectively, guarantee four parameters or consequences of a society: (1) Members of a liberal society are entitled to share their comprehensive doctrines. (2) Comprehensive doctrines that citizens have will never be completely reconciled. (3) This failure of social reconciliation does not prevent members of a society from achieving a certain level of cooperation. Finally, (4) a society does not participate in international relations with other societies. This restriction applies to trade of goods and technology, and it prevents significant communication with other societies.

If the above four political assumptions of public reason obtain, then motivational public reason will be successful. Specifically, O’Neill writes, “Within a closed democratic society, reasonable citizens will indeed and unsurprisingly be willing to seek and abide by shared principles and standards for the fundamental arrangements of life when this is possible” (1997, p. 421). In short, instead of using a theory of psychology to justify the viability of motivational public reason, Rawls appeals to a contractualist framework to vindicate public reason within a liberal society (O’Neill, 1997, p. 421). The terms of the social contract as Rawls defines behind the veil of ignorance produce a special state of affairs. O’Neill says, “The most general principles and standards on which citizens who share their political identity can agree are likely to be ones on which they will agree” (1997, p. 422). These assumptions entail that strong cooperative motivations exist within a domestic liberal society. However, in the debate between cosmopolitans and Rawlsians, we cannot always appeal to this ideal structure.

Modal public reason will have to function without these assumptions. This entails an abandonment of assumptions (1)-(4) and a denial of the respective consequences. In its place, modal public reason requires that assumptions be applicable to all intelligent beings. In the philosophy of Kant, the only universal assumption of this magnitude is the possession of the faculty of reason. Therefore, according to Kant’s modal public reason, the individuals participating in public reasons present reasons on the condition that those ideas will be accepted by any person (I am narrowing the scope of reason to the anthropological context).

Unfortunately, there are few, if any, viable agreements individuals can achieve by the sole virtue of reason. The contemporary debate over Kant’s metaphysics of morals and the Categorical Imperative give ample room for critics to cite the problem of evil and the problem of particularism (created by over-specifying moral rules so that they universally apply to only one particular case) as grounds not to rely solely on reason as an arbiter of political justice in either the domestic case or the international context. In addition, there is abundant evidence that the possession of rational faculties is not essential to humanity or any intelligent being. Societies frequently grant personhood to individuals who have limited rational ability, and individuals are able to put forth ideas and accept ideas while at the same time lacking the ability to reason rationally. Unreasonable individuals that achieve agreement could still be free of coercion. Furthermore, even if all people are rational, it is difficult to see what agreements are reachable under modal public reason. The lack of standing agreements in today’s global is perhaps the most salient example of the number of agreements that modal public reason achieves. Therefore, Kant’s modal public reason is not a viable base to achieve social cooperation.

Given that decent peoples are equal members in a Society of peoples, and given an articulation of motivational public reason, neither Rawls’ public reason, nor modal public reason are viable candidates for mediating reasons between members of a Society of Peoples. The use of the domestic version of public reason would not work between decent peoples and liberal peoples, since decent peoples do not necessarily utilize public reason at all (Avila, 2007). In addition, Rawls’ public reason would not be viable between liberal peoples, since such a scenario would violate the assumption of a closed domestic society. Therefore, we need a global alternative to Rawls’ motivational public reason and Kant’s modal public reason.

For the assumptions of a particular kind of international public reason, we will begin with the impossible ideal of modal public reason and add on political assumptions until we are sure that liberal and decent peoples can and will achieve fair terms of cooperation. I will begin by analyzing Rawls’ four assumptions of motivational public reason and rejecting the assumptions that liberal and decent peoples do not share.


The first domestic assumption of public reason is that “citizens conceive of themselves and one another as able to hold and to revise, and entitled to advance, their comprehensive conceptions of the good” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 418). In analyzing whether all decent peoples share this assumption, we may check whether this assumption’s consequence is present within all decent peoples. The consequence of this first assumption is that members of a liberal society are entitled to share their comprehensive doctrines. If it turns out that this consequence is absent in some decent peoples, then we cannot make the first assumption regarding decent peoples.

To reveal whether assumption (1) is viable, we must examine what constitutes decent peoples. Avila argues that there are three conditions of decency within a Law of Peoples: “(1) that they do not have aggressive aims and respect the independence of other societies, and (2) that they have a developed sense of justice” (2007, p. 96), and “(3) has a unique historical relationship to a comprehensive doctrine or religious faith” (2007, p. 96). Barring considerations of what “a developed sense of justice” means, it is possible for a people to have peaceful international aims, respect the independence of other societies, have a unique historical relationship to a comprehensive doctrine or religious faith, and still consistently disallow its members the right to an unfettered ability to present their comprehensive doctrines. I interpret “a developed sense of justice” to refer to any developed sense of justice, which may effectively deny members within a decent hierarchical society the unfettered ability to share their comprehensive doctrines.

We produce the same possibility even when we utilize Rawls’ original criteria of decency. Rawls posited two criteria of decency. Avila and Rawls agree on the first criteria, which define the nonaggressive aims of decent peoples. However, Avila and Rawls disagree on the second (and more robust) criteria. Rawls’ second criteria is represented here:

(a) A decent hierarchical people’s system of law, in accordance with its common good idea of justice, secures for all members of the people what have come to be called human rights. A social system that violates these rights cannot specify a decent scheme of political and social cooperation. A slave society lacks a decent system of law, as its slave economy is driven by a scheme of commands imposed by force. It lacks the idea of social cooperation.

Among the human rights are the right to life (to the means of subsistence and security); to liberty (to freedom from slavery, serfdom, and forced occupation, and to a sufficient measure of liberty of conscience to ensure freedom of religion and thought; to property (personal property); and to formal equality as expressed by the rules of natural justice (that is, that similar cases be treated similarly). Human rights, as thus understood, cannot be rejected as peculiarly liberal or special to the Western tradition. They are not politically parochial. […]

(b) […] Impose[s] bona fide moral duties and obligations (distinct from human rights) on all persons within the people’s territory. Since the members of the people are viewed as decent and rational, as well as responsible and able to play a part in social life, they recognize these duties and obligations as fitting with their common good idea of justice and do not see their duties and obligations are mere commands imposed by force. They have the capacity for moral learning and know the difference between right and wrong as understood in their society. In contrast to a slave economy, their system of law specifies a decent scheme of political and social cooperation.

[…] Persons [in a decent peoples] can recognize, understand, and act in accordance with their moral duties and obligations as members of these groups.

(c) […] There must be a sincere and not unreasonable belief on the part of judges and other officials who administer the legal system that the law is indeed guided by a common good idea of justice. (Rawls, 1999, pp. 65-66)

Unsurprisingly, decent peoples may satisfy all of these added conditions and still fail to endow all of its members with the ability to freely share their comprehensive doctrines. Rawls does think that this freedom must be present, but with strict limits. Rawls establishes these limits under the rubric of a “sufficient measure of liberty of conscience,” (1999, pp. 65 & 74), but this quantification appears to be absent in the criteria of liberalism because “these freedoms are not as extensive nor as equal for all members of the decent society as they are in liberal societies” (Rawls, 1999, p. 74). Therefore, because we have no bright line of sufficiency, when considering international public reason, we cannot safely assume that comprehensive doctrines are freely exchangeable within decent peoples, at least not as freely as within liberal peoples. However, we can assume that both liberal and decent peoples meet the lower standard of a “sufficient measure of liberty of conscience,” whatever that means.

The second domestic assumption of public reason is that citizens “acknowledge that although they may hold different comprehensive conceptions of the good, they cannot resolve disagreements about them” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 418). Fortunately, we do not have to appeal to consequences to conclude that this second assumption is present within both liberal and decent peoples. Some decent comprehensive doctrines may hold that children or mentally disabled individuals lack a comprehensive doctrine, but I am going to finesse this problem since neither Avila nor Rawls give it significant attention. Even in the strictest decent hierarchical societies, decent comprehensive doctrines recognize that their doctrine is not universal and that disagreements at this level are permanent. We can assume a plurality of comprehensive doctrines between liberal and decent peoples. In addition, this analysis allows us to increase the precision of decency by requiring that decent peoples tacitly acknowledge that its members have comprehensive doctrines rather than merely accord its members with a limited ability to share them.

The third domestic assumption of public reason is that citizens “conceive of themselves as the citizens of a certain society with abilities ‘to be normal and cooperating members of society over a complete life’ (PL, 81)” (O’Neill, 1997, p. 418). Decent peoples appear to satisfy this assumption, as members within decent hierarchical societies commonly conceive of themselves in this fashion. If this assumption is not realized within a particular society, then that society arguably fails to meet Rawls’ and Avila’s criteria of decency.

The fourth domestic assumption of public reason is that citizens conceive of their society as “self-contained and as having no relations with other societies. Its members enter it only by birth and leave it only by death” (Political Liberalism, p. 12 as cited in O’Neill, 1997, p. 418). This assumption obviously fails in the international context. A well-ordered peoples cannot be a closed society. A Society of Peoples would not tolerate a peoples that completely isolated itself from outside contact, particularly because it would produce an opaque international situation. In international situations where a nation impugns a society’s human rights record, other peoples traditionally demand a certain level of transparency in order to guarantee that nations meet basic human rights standards. This standard applies to both liberal and decent peoples, because members of a Society of Peoples deliver the verdicts of decency, not the omniscient observers of hypothetical examples.

At this point, we are left with three viable assumptions of international public reason that carry over from Rawls’ motivational public reason: (a) Members within a society are granted a sufficient measure of liberty of conscience and freedom of religion and thought. (b) Members within a society have comprehensive doctrines and differences between those comprehensive doctrines is not reconcilable. (c) Members within a society conceive of themselves as normal and cooperating members of society over a complete life. Although it is important to note that within a decent peoples, these conditions are met for the wrong reasons (Avila, 2007, p. 97), accomplishing these conditions for the right reasons is not essential for us to assume them for the purposes of defining international public reason.

With these three assumptions, we can construct a model for motivational public reason that is sharable within a Society of Peoples. Peoples employ public reason iff they advance reasons that they believe that other peoples will accept. The advancement of reasons will be contingent on the above three assumptions of all decent peoples, not the assumptions that Rawls makes in the original domestic case.


At first blush, it would appear that all members of a Society of Peoples should be using public reason. However, according to the standard of decency, this is not the case. Public reason is still an essential mark of liberal peoples. While both liberal and decent peoples meet the criteria of decency, liberal peoples meet the criteria by virtue of public reason, but decent peoples only meet the criteria because it matches their comprehensive doctrine (Avila, 2007, p. 96). Therefore, it is not necessarily the case that decent peoples are employing public reason when participating in international relations. However, it does not seem to be the case that a decent peoples is incapable of using international public reason when communicating with other members of a Society of Peoples.

The presence or absence of public reason may answer the question of whether decent peoples are able to combine. Rawls’ footnote suggests that the presence of international public reason is irrelevant, but the real question is whether he would say that a liberal peoples could be justified in not tolerating merely decent peoples that decided to merge. I think that we should entertain this possibility, since it is dubious that there are liberal peoples that could merge, let alone two adjacent liberal peoples that successfully vote to merge. Because the standard of a liberal peoples is so high, we should be tolerant of transnational decisions between decent peoples to merge (or for that matter, between decent peoples and liberal peoples). In any event, the use of international public reason between two peoples that are considering a decision to combine seems to be an important prerequisite.

In addition, Avila suggests that we should be prepared to see decent and liberal peoples move in the opposite direction away from combination. In particular, just as Rawls sees the possibility for peoples to come together and form one nation, Avila notices that it is possible that a decent or liberal peoples may need to split and separate. A society may develop or encounter new aspects of culture that affects its overlapping consensus in such a way that it becomes difficult or impossible for the society to maintain stability for the right reasons or stability as a balance of forces. In these cases, the prospect of separation and combination for societies is a real possibility that has applications that extend beyond the interests of cosmopolitanism. In the situations where peoples need to secede, the establishment of international public reason is crucial in order to ensure that recently-separated societies can return to their previous configurations.

In terms of political theory, both cosmopolitanism and a Society of Peoples approach may require slight revisions. When considering the effect of international public reason on a group of nations, cosmopolitans may not have to clash with a Society of Peoples as a rival theory. Instead, cosmopolitans should view a Society of Peoples as sympathetic to cosmopolitan objectives. However, cosmopolitans should realize that a Society of Peoples does not tolerate bare moral reasoning, but only the practical benefits of decent peoples and political groups. If the world works better by combining peoples and forming larger social bodies, then a Society of Peoples can assist in that endeavor. However, all cosmopolitans should realize that a Law of Peoples is political, not metaphysical. Within a Society of Peoples, the question of a cosmopolitan framework should not be whether such a conception is right, it is whether is it possible. A Society of Peoples answers the cosmopolitan question best because it decides the limits of possibility by allowing real peoples to explore those limits themselves.


Avila, M. (2007). Defending a law of peoples: political liberalism and decent peoples. The Journal of Ethics 11, 87-124.

Bohman, J. (1999). Citizenship and norms of publicity: wide public reason in cosmopolitan societies. Political Theory, 27(2), 176-202.

O’Neill, O. (1997). Political liberalism and public reason: a critical notice of John Rawls, political liberalism. The Philosophical Review, 106(3), 411-428.

Rawls, J. (1999). The law of peoples; with, the idea of public reason revisited. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

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