A Sketch of an Argument for a Reasonable Acceptability Requirement
Appeals to formulations of a reasonable acceptability requirement are common in contemporary political philosophy. This principle states that an exercise of political power is legitimate only if it is acceptable to all reasonable citizens. It specifies a conception of political legitimacy that has been called a foundational commitment and ‘moral lodestar’ of liberalism. More widely, the claim that legitimate political decisions are the outcome of a process of deliberation among reasonable citizens is central to a number of theories of deliberative democracy. In spite of this broad appeal critics have been sceptical that there is a cogent way of specifying what establishing acceptability to a constituency of reasonable citizens involves. And even among those who do accept a version of the requirement, there is disagreement about how to specify its constituency, as well as the reasons we have for endorsing it in the first place. This paper defends a version of the reasonable acceptability requirement. I argue that it can be grounded in an account of the conditions under which our moral powers are uninfluenced by distorting factors. The background conditions of a well-ordered society rule out a moral conception’s being accepted due to force, the threat of punishment, or false consciousness. The acceptance of a moral conception under such conditions is, I argue, an undistorted display of our moral and rational capacities. On this view, a moral conception’s acceptability to citizens of a society well-ordered by it is both a necessary and sufficient condition of its truth. Understanding the reasonable acceptability requirement in this way has two important consequences. First, it allows for an appealing explanation of the importance of ideas of publicity and public justification that is firmly grounded in moral methodology. Second, it establishes that the challenge reasonable disagreement poses is a familiar epistemological one. Moral realists often suppose that our moral beliefs would converge under ideal conditions. The political liberal claim that the acceptance of single comprehensive doctrine in a well-ordered society cannot be maintained without the oppressive use of force can thus be understood as casting serious epistemological doubt on the claim that any comprehensive doctrine provides adequate grounds for the exercise of political power.