Reasonable Consensus and the Boundary Problem

24 Oct 2014

Of all attempts to explain what makes political authority legitimate, the most influential in contemporary political philosophy at least, is Rawls’ account of Reasonable Consensus. Attempting to find a balance between the individualism of traditional consent theories and impersonality of instrumentalist justifications, Rawls argued that if the institutions of the state are to be used to coerce its citzens, then those institutions ought be arranged in such a way that they accord with the reasonable views of those citizens.

As long as they do so they have the right to impose duties on their members. The members may not demur on the basis of unreasonable views. Furthermore, it is not necessary on this view that the persons over whom authority is wielded have voluntarily acted or given any sign of agreement. All that need be the case is that the basic principles that regulate the coercive institutions be ones that the reasonable members can agree to.
– Christiano on Rawls 1

Ignore for a moment some of the well know problems with this account - the challenge of objectively determining a criterion of reasonableness, or the not insignificant matter of reasonable pluralism present in liberal societies. Instead, consider what impact the Boundary Problem has on this account of political authority.

For those of you who haven’t been keeping up to date with esoteric challenges in democratic theory, the Boundary Problem describes the lack of normative justification for democratic inclusion. It is the problem of deciding who ought be included in the demos, and subsequently who should be the subject of the state’s authority. It is the problem of how the demos ought to be bounded.

The problem in the Boundary Problem stems from the fact that the issue of democratic inclusion can’t be answered democratically - as that would first require a demos to be identified - and that non-democratic solutions all have significant weaknesses. Typically, the impact of the Boundary Problem has been described in relation to consequentialist or instrumentalist accounts of democratic authority but it seems to me that it is equally problematic for Rawls’ account of Reasonable Consensus.

The Reasonable Consensus view is a sufficientist view. According to Rawls, a reasonable and overlapping consensus on how the basic institutions of society should be arranged is sufficient to justify that authority of the state - so long as its institutions are thereby arranged. And obviously, the content of the beliefs that make up the reasonable consensus is a function of the individual beliefs of citizens within a given state.

Once we are aware of the Boundary Problem and the fact of reasonable pluralism in liberal states, the impact of the two on a state’s political authority becomes apparent. Authority requires a reasonable consensus. Consensus is limited by pluralism - the greater the pluralism concerning basic conceptions of justice, the lower the scope for an overlapping consensus is. Bounding the demos one way creates a different consensus that bounding it another.

The fact of reasonable pluralism means that any association of reasonable people can be divided about basic principles of justice. The Reasonable Consensus view however, requires that for the coercive institutions of the state to have legitimate authority, they must must be ones that reasonable citizens can agree to. But because there is no adequate justification of democratic inclusion, any association of reasonable people could be reorganised so that a different set of institutions were agreed to (and by negation the original set of institutions would no longer be agreed to).

Until a viable account of democratic inclusion is identified, the Boundary Problem will undermine the Reasonable Consensus account of political authority just as it does for consequentiualist accounts.

  1. Christiano, Tom, “Authority”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =