Andrei Bespalov

Skeptical Liberalism

SKEPTICAL 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 skeptical epochē towards three major ideas at the core of Rawls’s political liberalism: the idea of public reason, the idea of a well-ordered society, and the political conception of justice.

Skeptical liberalism is political liberalism with three amendments.


According to the standard Rawlsian public justification principle (PJP), the exercise of political power is legitimate 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 ideological disagreement, public reason can hardly be conceived of as a repository of substantive truths and values that we all agree upon or those truths and values that properly idealized reasonable persons would agree upon. Rather, it is a rule that citizens ought to follow in the process of democratic deliberation so that their arguments could be subject to reasonable criticism. 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.

Reasons that meet the fallibilistic PJP do not involve claims about final values. Final values are ends-in-themselves that have neither exchange nor consumer value, which makes them incommensurable. Accordingly, one’s adherence to or rejection of a final value may be praised or condemned, but it cannot be subject to reasonable criticism. Therefore, arguments that draw on final values ought to be excluded from public justification of legal provisions.


Rawlsian civic friendship as a model of the political relationship in a well-ordered society is incompatible with the fallibilistic PJP because friendship is a final, not an instrumental value. So, maintaining civic friendship cannot serve as a public justification for legal provisions backed by the coercive power of the state. Moreover, we do not need this power in order to be able to cooperate — that is what voluntary associations and free market partnerships are for. But we do need the coercive power of the state in order to be able to compete — to pursue our own aims that may be incompatible with those of others and to resolve conflicts without the resort to violence and domination. Free and equal citizens do not have to act like friends and cooperate in the pursuit of their diverse aims. But in order to avoid war and domination they have to cooperate in determining the rules of competition and be ready to impose penalties on perpetrators. 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.

This means that a well-ordered society may well be nothing more than a stable modus vivendi, in which the only thing that citizens are legally required to cooperate in is maintenance of fair terms of competition between them.


Not only doctrines of the good, but also conceptions of justice are ultimately grounded in final values, which makes them subject to deep disagreement and insulates them from reasonable criticism. Therefore, the conceptions of justice cannot be part of public justification of legal provisions just like the comprehensive doctrines of the good. All public reasons for and against legal provisions ought to be formulated as far as possible in terms of concrete costs and benefits to citizens. Such reasons can be egalitarian, or prioritarian, sufficientarian or desertist in their logic and argumentative appeal, but they cannot be given in the form of requirements derived directly from one or another postulated principle of justice. Hence the Realistic Amendment:

The political conception of justice is to be replaced with the liberal conception of social stability. The conception does not include any foundational principle of distributive justice. It only retains Rawls’s principles of equal liberty and fair equality of opportunity justified instrumentally as means to social stability, which in its own turn is an all-purpose means to multiple ends that citizens might wish to pursue.

This means that social and economic inequalities are permissible insofar as they do not undermine equal liberty and fair equality of opportunity.

The upshot 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 preferred final values on one another by the coercive power of the state. The necessary condition for social stability is full equality with regard to basic rights and liberties and fair equality of opportunity for all. Here equal liberty serves as a means to stability, which, in its own turn, is an all-purpose means to multiple ends that individuals might wish to pursue. This version of political liberalism is not premised on any dogmatically postulated final values, it evades the charge of self-defeat, and provides the least morally demanding view of a well-ordered society.