Volume 50, 2008
Social and Political Philosophy
Can Classical Utilitarianism Participate in Overlapping Consensus?‐Why Not? (A Reply to Samuel Scheffler)
The main objective of Rawls’ Political Liberalism was to explain how a workable theory of justice can be established and sustained within a society that is marked by reasonable pluralism. In order to meet this end, Rawls introduces the following three concepts: political conception of justice, public reason, and
overlapping consensus. By relying on these three concepts, Rawls presents his two principles of justice as a two stage process. In the first stage, the two principles of justice are presented as a freestanding political conception justified solely by public reason. In the second stage, individuals engage in overlapping consensus which enables them to find additional supporting reasons for the political conception of justice from their own comprehensive doctrine. According to Rawls, even classical utilitarianism can support his two principles of justice by participating in overlapping consensus. However, Samuel Scheffler thinks that this is impossible. Scheffler’s argument relies on the fact that classical utilitarianism is decisively rejected by the initial contracting parties of the original position. I
argue that Scheffler misconceives the main purpose of the original position and that his argument doesn’t show that it is impossible for classical utilitarianism to participate in overlapping consensus.