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Dr Thom Brooks, Durham Law School
The Capabilities Approach and Political Liberalism
2 April 2014

John Rawls argues that A Theory of Justice suffers from a “serious problem”: the problem of political stability. His theory failed to account for the reality that citizens are deeply divided by reasonable and incompatible religious, philosophical, and moral comprehensive doctrines. This fact of reasonable pluralism may pose a threat to political stability over time and requires a solution. Rawls proposes the idea of an overlapping consensus among incompatible comprehensive doctrines through the use of public reasons in his later Political Liberalism. Rawls’s proposed solution to the problem of political stability has received much criticism. Some, such as Kurt Baier, Brian Barry, George Klosko, and Edward McClennen, argue that an overlapping consensus is relatively unnecessary. Rawls should have acknowledged existing resources in his account that might secure political stability over time without major changes to his original views about justice. Others, including Kent Greenawalt, Michael Sandel, Leif Wenar, and Iris Marion Young believe that an overlapping consensus is too fragile to secure political stability. Rawls correctly identifies a major problem for his original account, but he fails to provide a satisfactory solution.

I believe these objections rest on a mistake easily overlooked. Each objection claims that, for Rawls, the possibility of future political stability is to be guaranteed by an overlapping consensus alone. This perspective fails to recognize the central importance of the social minimum in securing political stability. There is, in fact, more resources to secure political stability than Rawls or his critics have recognized. My discussion will begin with a brief explanation of why the problem of political stability raises an important challenge to Rawls’s views on justice and why he argues for an overlapping consensus as a solution to it. I will next consider the more important objections to Rawls’s solution and why these fail. I will argue that the social minimum might better support political stability if it is broadly understood in terms of the capabilities approach. This approach is compatible with Rawls’s political liberalism and it provides a more robust understanding of a just social minimum. Political stability does not rely upon an overlapping consensus alone — and it may be better secured where the capabilities approach plays a more central role. Therefore, Rawls does provide an illuminating solution to the problem of political stability that is more compelling if we incorporate the capabilities approach into political liberalism, but in a novel way.

Venue:  Open University Milton Keynes Campus, Faculty of Arts, Meeting Room 5 Wilson A 1st Floor.
Time: 2.00 pm

All welcome

Follow this link for further details of our 2013-14 seminar programme



Members of the department belong to one or more informal research groups in Philosophy of Mind and Language, Philosophy and Public Policy, and the History of Philosophy. These groups host research events at regular intervals throughout the year. Speakers at these and at the regular Departmental Research Seminars have, in recent years, included:

Chris Bertram (Bristol)
Emma Borg (Reading)
Nick Bostrom (Oxford)
Timothy Chappell (Dundee)
Tim Crane (UCL)
Stephen Davies (Auckland)
Miranda Fricker (Birkbeck)
Peter Goldie (KCL)
Robert Hanna (Colorado at Boulder)
Rob Hopkins (Sheffield)
Dan Isaacson (Oxford)
Nick Jardine (Cambridge)
Ward Jones (Rhodes)
Susan Mendus (York)
Adrian Moore (Oxford)
David Owens (Sheffield)
Jennifer Saul (Sheffield)
Anthony Savile (LSE)
Tom Stoneham (York)
Alan Thomas (Kent)
Edward Winters (Westminster)

Future seminars

For details of upcoming research events, please contact the Department of Philosophy by email:

Other external speakers, including many international visitors, have given talks to a more formal research group on Mind, Meaning and Rationality. Details can be found on the group's webpages.

In addition to research talks, external philosophers give lectures to Open University students and tutors as part of our residential schools, in particular AXR271: Doing Philosophy. Guest Lecturers in recent years have included:

Alexander Bird (Bristol)
Michael Clark (Nottingham)
Sean Crawford (Lancaster)
Alice Drewery (Reading)
Robert Frazier (Oxford)
David Owens (Sheffield)
Michael Rosen (Oxford)
Barry Smith (Birkbeck)
Kathleen Stock (Sussex)
Jonathan Woolf (UCL)

Finally, philosophers often visit the OU at the invitation of one of the many philosophers or academics with strong philosophical interests based in other departments, including Art History, Computing, Economics, and Mathematics. For example, Baroness Onora O'Neill (Cambridge) spoke on the nature and ethics of trust to the Computing Research Centre.

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