Andrei Bespalov

Sceptical Liberalism

What Is Politically Reasonable in the Age of Disagreement?

SCEPTICAL LIBERALISM is inspired by Robert Frost’s sarcastic definition of a liberal as a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel. Taking this joke to heart, I develop a version of political liberalism that can face up to the challenge of avoiding self-defeat.

Given the fact of deep moral and ideological disagreement in contemporary liberal democracies, I call for a sceptical epochē towards three major ideas at the core of Rawls’s political liberalism: the idea of public reason, the idea of an overlapping consensus on liberal political conceptions of justice, and the idea of political society as a fair system of cooperation. 

Sceptical liberalism is political liberalism with three amendments.


According to the standard Rawlsian public justification principle (PJP), the exercise of political power is legitimate only if it is justified on the grounds of reasons that all may reasonably be expected to accept. But if reasonableness is readiness to abide by fair terms of cooperation and recognize the burdens of judgment, then, under the conditions of deep moral disagreement, public reason can hardly be a repository of moral values that all may reasonably be expected to accept. Yet, it can be a set of fallibilistic rules for democratic deliberation that prevent citizens from making structurally non-negotiable claims on one another. The fallibilistic conception of public reason allows only those justifications for political decisions that can be subject to reasonable criticism and revision. It excludes all ‘conversation stoppers’ arising from judgments about ends-in-themselves (e.g. God’s grace), self-vindicating doctrines (e.g. conspiracy theories), and claims of abstractly postulated values insensitive to context (e.g. ‘liberty’ vs. mandatory public health provisions). 

Hence the Fallibilistic Amendment: The standard Rawlsian PJP is to be replaced with the fallibilistic PJP - the exercise of political power is legitimate only if it is justified on the grounds of reasons that can be subject to reasonable criticism.


Liberal conceptions of justice are subject to deep disagreement, just like comprehensive conceptions of the good. However, even in the absence of an overlapping consensus about theories of justice and conceptions of the good, democratic institutions and liberal egalitarian policies can be successfully justified to citizens as the best means of maintaining social stability. There are two alternative ways of maintaining social stability: either to increase the oppression of potentially dissatisfied citizens by limiting their formal and real freedom, or to ensure their satisfaction by guaranteeing an adequate scope of opportunities that are formally available and really accessible to them. There are strong historically informed prudential reasons for citizens to prefer stability through satisfaction to stability through oppression. Generally speaking, these reasons draw on common sense and the realities of authoritarian political regimes, which trigger what Judith Shklar (1989) called the fear of fear and cruelty. So, on the liberal realist conception of social stability, state policies must not be oppressive. This means that each citizens opportunity to access available resources must not be restricted more than is necessary to make it compatible with the same opportunity of everyone else. At the same time, state policies must not be wasteful. The point of public justification then is to strike the balance between the considerations of freedom, which maximize citizens’ opportunities here and now, and the considerations of efficiency, which maximize their opportunities for the foreseeable future. Thus, the right political question about distributive policies enforced by the state is not ‘Does justice require them?’ but ‘Can we afford them?’ 

Hence the Liberal Realist Amendment: Proper public justification of political decisions is to be grounded not in the alleged consensus about political conceptions of justice but in the guarantees of the value of basic liberties commensurate with the economic and institutional capacities of the state. These guarantees bring genuine social stability, which in its own turn is an all-purpose means to multiple ends that citizens might wish to pursue.


Regular free elections, political partisanship, and separation of powers exist not in order to make it easier to enforce social cooperation despite disagreement, but precisely for the opposite purpose. These agonistic institutions enable citizens to peacefully resist the adoption of laws and policies they disagree with. Thus, liberal democracy is more adequately understood not as a Rawlsian fair system of cooperation between free and equal citizens, but rather as a fair system of competition between them. Citizens, of course, cooperate insofar as they develop and oversee the enforcement of the common rules of their social interactions. However, the interactions in question are not necessarily or entirely cooperative. Citizens should not be expected to use political power in order to help everyone to achieve their goals. Instead, citizens should use political power to ensure that the rules of the pursuit of their sometimes incompatible goals are fair, and everyone complies with them.  

Hence the Agonistic Amendment: Political society is not a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons, but a fair system of competition between individuals as free and equal co-legislators.

THE UPSHOT of the three amendments is that the legitimacy of political institutions and legal provisions is grounded in their capacity to deliver social stability. The latter is present insofar as citizens abide by fair terms of competition and do not impose their final ends on one another by the coercive power of the state. The necessary and sufficient condition for social stability is full equality with regard to basic rights and liberties whose fair value is guaranteed for all citizens at the level that the society can afford. This version of political liberalism is not premised on any dogmatically postulated final ends, it evades the charge of self-defeat, and provides the least morally demanding view of a well-ordered democratic society.

Thus, three commitments are politically reasonable under the conditions of deep disagreement.

First, it is the fallibilistic openness towards reasonable criticism. — This is opposed to dogmatic reliance on reasons that all citizens would allegedly accept if only they belonged to some properly idealized constituency.

Second, it is the political realist awareness of the destabilizing effects of rights violations, and acknowledgement that all citizens must be guaranteed the means to realize their rights commensurate with socially available resources. — This is opposed to moralistic appeals to controversial conceptions of justice, which can lead to protracted ideological disagreements impeding the adoption of practical solutions that would meet the citizens’ interests.

Finally, it is the agonistic readiness to engage in robust partisan contestation over laws and policies according to agreed rules. — This is opposed to the populist demand for civic friendship, which is constantly frustrated and, thereby, constantly exploited by demagogues who thrive on widening political polarization.