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  • Print publication year: 2014
  • Online publication date: February 2015

39 - Comprehensive doctrine

from C


A comprehensive doctrine is a set of beliefs afirmed by citizens concerning a range of values, including moral, metaphysical, and religious commitments, as well as beliefs about personal virtues, and political beliefs about the way society ought to be arranged. They form a conception of the good and inform judgments concerning “what is of value in life, the ideals of personal character, as well as ideals of friendship and of familial and associational relationships, and much else that is to inform our conduct, and in the limit to our life as a whole” (PL 13). Rawls argues that in a society with a history of democratic institutions citizens will come to afirm different and incompatible comprehensive doctrines. This fact presents a problem for a theory of justice because it suggests that citizens will fail to agree on principles of justice to govern their institutions if they rely exclusively on their separate and incompatible comprehensive doctrines. Rawls addresses this problem by distinguishing between two points of view citizens can adopt – a comprehensive point of view and a political point of view. The comprehensive view is grounded in a comprehensive doctrine, while a political view is “freestanding,” meaning that while it draws from reasonable comprehensive doctrines it does not afirm or deny any particular one. Thus, political liberalism articulates and defends a set of freestanding political values, rather than arguing for the truth of comprehensive values grounded in a particular comprehensive doctrine. The separation of comprehensive doctrines from freestanding political values allows Rawls to locate the source of stability in society in a consensus on political values, while allowing for a plurality of comprehensive doctrines.