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Political Philosophy: Rawls’ Overlapping Consensus Essay


Rawls introduced the concept of an overlapping consensus where the values of liberalism are compatible with the moral values of the people. He argues that political liberalism is practiced when people have equal rights to basic liberties. In a society where they have a political system that favors political liberalism, it is not just a matter of obeying rules since the enactment of the political system is similar to the moral values of the people. Rawls puts forward the theory of reflective equilibrium where the political values of an individual are coherent with the moral, religious, and philosophical values or his comprehensive world views (Rawls, 1987).

The Critique of the Overlapping Consensus

In evaluating the theory of the overlapping consensus, there are certain concepts that I agree with while others I disagree with. I agree with Rawls on the conditions that must exist for the state of overlapping consensus to hold. Any society is composed of individuals or groups that have divergent and at times irreconcilable moral, religious, and philosophical doctrines. Rawls attempts to answer the question: how would a political system that is liberal exist in a society with such opposing or different values in its citizens. There has to be social cooperation from the citizens for it to work. The people in the society have to be rational and reasonable desiring a system where what is practiced is what is good for everyone in society. I agree with him that there are two critical issues when it comes to politics which he has addressed. First of all, Rawls has highlighted the concepts of acceptance and the concept of justice very clearly.

Even though the political system is just it does not mean that the system is acceptable. This is evident in countries that have signed peace treaties only later for certain people to object, rebel, and political chaos to ensue. There are citizens who will not just accept what is being proposed, they have to be convinced of the good of the political steps that the society or the state has taken (Habermas, 1995). With time, it has been observed that even the most firmly held convictions by any people after a while begin to change.

A good example is a slavery. Gradually, people have come to accept that it is morally wrong and even though it has not been addressed fully in certain government’s social policies, no person is speaking of its benefits or advantages. This brings in the issue of the legitimacy of the political system. It has to be acceptable to people who are reasonable. The people in the cooperative society are endowed with the powers to be rational and reasonable. These reasonable citizens are described as people who want to live in a well-ordered society where there is social cooperation between each other. There is no imposition of a particular value system but rather people accept mutually accepted rules. In a democratic or liberal society, citizens are expected to be fair and reasonable (Thomas, 2005).

The people have no self-interest. For the theory of political liberalism to operate there has to be the concept of the original position (Estlund, 1998). This is where the people operate under a veil of ignorance, there is no self-interest operating since the people are not aware of the privileges or hardships that may accrue to them due to their talents, social status, and other abilities at the point of decision making.

People have an ability to tolerate each other therefore in a system of worldviews; there will be a reasonable catholic, a reasonable Muslim, and people of other religions or moral values who are reasonable.

In the world, over the years, it has been perceived that the political institutions that acted on the foundation of freedom and equality helped to end the conflicts brought about by the diverse religious views. However, could it be that the principle of tolerance and not freedom and equality was the critical factor that played a major role at the end of these wars? The political system based on justice as fairness however is independent of the comprehensive world views that exist at a particular time (Rawls, 2005). It is difficult to endorse a particular worldview if you are on the opposing team. There will be chaos however the political system must be independent.

The political system will be based on such values as fair opportunities for all the citizens, decent distribution of wealth and income, and basic healthcare for its citizens.

The idea of the overlapping consensus may be a dangerous concept. The political liberals by saying that the political constitution will be based on a deep moral understanding of all the people’s work lead the people to avoid political disagreements. In such a society, dissenting voices will be quietened. They will be hushed and not allowed to speak which is dangerous for any society. We are not referring to the people with doctrines that do not espouse equality however to the voices that want to speak against observed cases of inequality.

The overlapping consensus will end up smothering the voices of the agonists. In a world of democracy, there cannot be contestations perpetually however at one time or another there has to be scrutiny and critique of the political system, and any objections that may be there should be raised.

The political consensus denies the nature of the politics which tends towards leading the people to have mutual antagonism. In other words, agonistic democracy faces up to the reality that the people will have plural and divergent views at a particular point in time. It acknowledges the reality and better yet its principles help the people to channel their objections and resolve them in non-destructive ways. In other words, there can be no long-lasting and stable point that Rawls speaks of in the overlapping consensus.

There is no permanent or long-standing permanency or point of objectivity. Even what appears to be permanent or ultimate or what Rawls would refer to as the point of overlapping consensus is really a temporal position. The moral, religious, and philosophical values of the people are in an open system and they keep changing or evolving (Mouffe, 2005). Secondly, at the point in time where there is a level of consensus, it is really about politics where the people with those values or viewpoints are the ones in power.

Insisting on an overlapping consensus may be prohibitive and even suppressive in nature. Rawls attempts to show that his theory of justice and justice as fairness incorporates pluralist values however Mouffe’s concept of agonistic democracy is better as it really and truly supports pluralistic values in a democracy. There is the the idea that the discursive approach may not work where it leads to destruction. In agonistic democracy however there are no enemies, rather the people view each other as opponents. In any scenario, the opponents understand the rules of the game; they understand that they are not enemies. They are committed to the values of liberal democracy and respect the people with divergent views. They actually consider that these people have legitimate and real concerns.

The idea, therefore, is one of radical democracy where divergent views are expressed amicably rather than a fixed political liberal system that will limit pluralism and might even lead to authoritarianism. The citizens that are able to thrive in such a culture are the ones who despite the deep conflicts that take place in the political domain, have strong bonds to the community and respect ethical and political values.

The people are able to be deeply committed to the community because they can express their individual liberties and views. The tensions in the liberal and democratic zones will always be there and it will be hard for them to be ultimately reconciled. The people will question the ideas or more so wonder why the ideals in the political conception of justice are preferable to other ideals. The people will resort to private scrutiny of the ideals without bringing them to the public arena. After a while, with no channels to act on their questions, the level of scrutiny will significantly reduce and be at an all-time low which will not help any society. There is also the danger that in the future, there will be political individuals who may with gradual frequency introduces values that will in the end not overlap with the comprehensive worldviews and when this happens chaos will ensue.

The political system would only be just if it has been derived from a true doctrine. The different parties maintain that their doctrines are the right or true ones. At the end of the day, the political values that will be adopted will fail to include the major points of the comprehensive doctrines; there will therefore be parties that refuse to sink into enduring tolerance.

Secondly, religious worldviews are usually concerned with answering ethical questions rather than moral questions. Moral questions are concerned with the good of the society while on the other hand ethical questions are concerned with what is good for the individual or certain individuals who in the long run at times is not good for the good of all.

A discursive approach is preferable because it also assists society to move forward. Rawls’s ideal society will end up being an anemic, non-progressive, or stagnant society. It may lead to dogmatism where the temporal overlapping consensus is taken to be the established fact. It is a situation where the people are led by a system that they believe is right yet it has not been sufficiently examined.


Rawls shows that a balance of power is not what the liberal society requires as it will not bring the lasting stability that it needs. Only a consensus of overlapping ideals can achieve stability. The problem with a balance of power is that in the event that the balance shifts, social instability, violence, and other vices may ensue. An the overlapping consensus however on the other hand is supported by the people. The political values are not the second-best alternative or compromise they have taken rather it is their best choice because the political values have come to represent their moral values.

At the end of the day as the citizens of a nation examine their own political system, considering their free will exercise in conscience and thoughts realize that the political values are not really in discrepancy with their moral values.

There is thus an overlap of the moral and the political values of the society giving rise to an overlapping consensus. In the past, the religious doctrines used to regulate the people however they have given way to a political constitution that can be endorsed by all the people. These comprehensive doctrines have not really been able to guide the people as one set of doctrines is generally not accepted by all the people.

Rawls maintains that the overlapping consensus of moral and political values does not eliminate the aspect of pluralism. The political system just incorporates comprehensive doctrines. However, there are certain questions that arise while analyzing this concept. First of all, with the concept of the overlapping consensus of the liberal and moral values, there is a danger of the society not questioning the political system that will be prevailing at that time. In politics, there will always be a lot of questions asked as the people try to make the system better. The people will refuse to be tolerant of a political system that leans towards world views that are unreasonable. There will therefore be no ultimate equilibrium rather there has to be agonistic democracy where the political system is under scrutiny and questions asked and resolved concerning the principles the system is adhering to.


Estlund, D. (1998). Debate: Liberalism, Equality and Fraternity in Cohen’s Critique of Rawls. The Journal of Political Philosophy, 6(1): 99-112.

Habermas, J. (1995). Reconciliation through the Public use of Reason: Remarks on John Rawls’s Political Liberalism. The Journal of Philosophy, 92 (3): 109-131.

Mouffe, C. (2005). The Limits of John Rawls’s Pluralism. Politics, Philosophy and Economics, 4 (2):221-231.

Rawls, J. (2005). Political Liberalism. United States: Columbia University Press.

Rawls, J. (1987). The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 7(1):1-25.

Thomas, A. (2005). What Does A Liberal Society Demand Of Its Citizens? Richmond Journal of Philosophy, 7: 1-6.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Political Philosophy: Rawls' Overlapping Consensus." February 4, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/political-philosophy-rawls-overlapping-consensus/.


IvyPanda. (2021) 'Political Philosophy: Rawls' Overlapping Consensus'. 4 February.

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