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 accept 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 justice, citizens may continue to support liberal democracy over time simply because they are aware of the historical and contemporary examples of what is likely to happen if they fail to do so. On the liberal realist conception of social stability, there are strong prudential reasons for citizens to agree that basic liberties must not be violated, and that it is desirable to guarantee the fair value of those liberties for everyone at levels commensurate with the economic and institutional capacities of the state. So, for example, on this conception, the proper political question about a welfare programme is not ‘Does justice require it?’ but ‘Can we afford it?’

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 fair value of basic liberties for all citizens. 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. Therefore, attempts to realize the ideals of civic relations that go beyond mutual toleration and respect — e.g. by restricting ‘divisive’ political speech on social media — would be at odds with the basic features of liberal democracy.

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.