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 a illuminating solution to the problem of political stability that is more compelling if we incorporate the capabilities approach into political liberalism.