By John Rawls
The idea of public reason deals with the way citizens should debate with each other in a well-ordered constitutional democratic society. It is important that citizens make arguments only based on public reason coming from a political conception of justice. The public reasons should only include arguments that other citizens could reasonably be expected to accept – they should follow the principle of reciprocity.
The idea of public reason is part of Rawls conception of a well-ordered constitutional democratic society. Public reasons helps to define the form and content that citizens should use to debate with one another. Rawls argues that public reason is necessary because any democratic society will have reasonable pluralism (multiple conflicting religious and moral comprehensive philosophies). Public reason doesn’t criticize or attack any comprehensive doctrine, unless it’s incompatible with the essentials of public reason – i.e it doesn’t accept a democratic regime and legitimate law.
1. The Idea of Public Reason
1.1 Public reason identifies the basic moral and political values that determine a constitutional government’s relation to its citizens and their relation to one another. It doesn’t try to define the whole (comprehensive) truth, but only a political conception. The idea of public reasons has five aspects that make up its structure: 1) the fundamental political questions to which it applies, 2) the person to whom it applies (government officials and political candidates), 3) the contents, which are found in political conceptions of justice, 4) the application of these conceptions in discussions about legitimate law, and 4) citizens ensuring that the principles of the conceptions of justice satisfy the criterion on reciprocity.
Public reason is public because 1) it is the reason of the public (fee and equal citizens), 2) it is used to think about questions regarding the public good, including constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice, and 3) it has a nature and content that are public, since it is made up of political conceptions that satisfy the criterion of reciprocity.
Public reason only applies to questions in the public forum. This can include the discussion of judges in making their decisions (especially in the supreme court), the discussions of government officials (especially the president and congressmen), and the discussion of candidates running for public office (particularly in their public statements and party platforms). The idea of public reason doesn’t apply to the background culture or to the media.
The ideal of reason occurs when judges, legislators, and others explain their reasons for a decision in terms of a political conception of justice. Citizens can use public reason by thinking of themselves as if they were legislators and asking what statutes they would support and for what reasons.
1.2 The fundamental political relation of citizenship has two basic features:
(1) It is a relation of citizens within the basic structure of society, entered only by birth, exited by death.
(2) It is a relation of free and equal citizens who exercise ultimate political power as a collective body.
Citizens are reasonable when, viewing one another as free and equal in a system of social cooperation over generations, they are prepared to offer one another fair terms of cooperation, according what they consider to be the most reasonable conception of justice. Citizens will differ as to which conceptions of political justice they think most reasonable, but they will agree that all are reasonable, even if barely so. When deciding on a matter of basic justice, if everyone acts from public reason, then the opinion of the majority is legitimate law, and morally binding on him or her as a citizen.
Political legitimacy based on the criterion of reciprocity says: Our exercise of political power is proper only when we sincerely believe that the reasons we would offer for our political actions – were we to state them as government officials – are sufficient, and we reasonably think that other citizens might also reasonably accept those reasons. The criterion of reciprocity is usually violated when basic liberties are denied (religious liberty, slavery, women’s suffrage, etc.).
People who insist that fundamental questions should be answered by their own idea of the whole truth (including their comprehensive doctrine) instead of reasons that might be shared by everyone, will reject the idea of public reason.
1.3 The focus of public reason is on a well-ordered constitutional democracy (deliberative democracy). In a deliberative democracy, there are three essential elements, 1) the idea of public reason must exist, 2) the democratic institutions must create a framework for deliberative legislative bodies, and 3) the citizens must be able to understand and use public reason and be able to realize it in their political conduct.
The immediate implications of these elements are: public financing of elections and providing for public occasions for serious discussion of issues of public policy. If this wasn’t done, politics would be dominated by corporate or other interests who could distort political outcomes by giving large contributions. The constant pursuit of money makes the political system unable to function. It is important that citizens be informed about the basic aspects of government and about pressing problems.
2. The Content of Public Reason
2.1 A citizen engages in public reasons when he deliberates using a reasonable political conception of justice. The political conception must express political values that others, as free and equal citizens might also reasonably be expected reasonably to endorse. The content of public reason is given by a family of political conceptions of justice (Justice as Fairness is just one of many). However, all of them must include the criterion of reciprocity
Each of these conceptions endorses the underlying idea of citizens as free and equal persons and of society as fair system of cooperation over time. They all include protection of basic rights, such as religious liberties and freedoms. However, each may use different formulations and different rankings of political principles. It’s important that there are always a variety of permissible forms of public reasons to ensure that ideas arising from social change are not repressed.
2.2 Public reason does not simply mean secular reason. Comprehensive secular doctrines (like comprehensive religious doctrines) are too broad for public reason. Political conceptions should have three features: 1) their principles apply to the basic structure of society, 2) they can be presented independently from comprehensive doctrines of any kind (though there may be overlapping consensus with comprehensive doctrines), and 3) they can be developed using fundamental ideas that are implicitly in the public political culture of a constitutional regime (citizens are free and equal persons, society is a system of fair cooperation, etc.).
Public reason requires using a political conception to debate. However, Rawls proviso states that this requirement still allows us to introduce into political discussion our comprehensive doctrine, provided that we give properly public reasons to support the principles and policies our comprehensive doctrine is said to support.
2.3 A political conception must be completely defined – you cannot simple proceed from a comprehensive doctrine to several political principles and particular institutions. A full political conception must express principles, standards, ideals, and guidelines for inquiry. It must be able to give a reasonable answer to all or nearly all questions about basic justice. Finally, the ordering of principles must be reasonable via political reasoning.
2.4 Rawls provides a few examples to illustrate the content of public reason compared to moral reason.
Example 1 Autonomy: Political autonomy includes the legal independence and integrity of citizens who are able to share equally in the exercise of political power. Moral autonomy promotes a particular way of life (Mill’s idea of individuality).
Example 2 The Good Samaritan: Public political culture allows us to use the Gospel story, but public reason requires that we justify our proposal in terms of political values.
Example 3 Desert in fair distribution of income: A political conception of fair distribution of income might argue that persons in various offices should have the requisite qualifications and should have fair opportunities to quality themselves for these positions. A moral conception of fair distribution of income might argue that goods should be distributed in accordance with moral desert or moral worth of character.
Example 4 State’s interest in the family and human life: A political conception recognizes the need for the state to perpetuate itself leads to need to regulate the family (in a form that is just), provide arrangements for rearing and educating children, and provide institutions for public health. A moral conception might propose that the state should enforce monogamy or prevent same-sex marriages because of religious or other reasons.
2.5 It is important to remember that secular comprehensive doctrines are not allowed – the same way that philosophical and religious comprehensive doctrines are not allowed. These fall outside the domain of the political. This can be seen if we consider what each type of doctrine might ask with regard to making homosexual relations among citizens a criminal offense. A secular doctrine might ask, “Is it precluded by a worthy idea of the full human good?” A religious doctrine might ask, “Is it a sin?” A political conception would ask, “Will legislative statues forbidding those relations infringe on the civil rights of free and equal democratic citizens?”
3. Religion and Public Reason in Democracy
3.1 How is it possible for a citizen of faith to support a democratic society in which their comprehensive doctrine may not prosper? We can consider the example of Catholics and Protestants in the 16th and 17th century. They tolerated each other, but if either could have gained control, they would have imposed their comprehensive doctrine on everyone. This type of situation might lead to a similar system to the one we have – it would involve a constitution to protect religious liberty and would require debate in political terms to avoid open religious conflict. However, the stability would exist for the wrong reasons – it would not be secured by a firm allegiance to society’s political ideals.
Instead, in a well-ordered society, while no one is expected to put his or her religious or non-religious doctrine is in danger, they must give up forever the hope of changing the constitutions so as to establish their religions’ hegemony, or qualifying or obligations so as to ensure its influence and success.
3.2 This is possible if religious doctrines understand and accept that, unless they endorse a reasonable constitutional democracy, there is no other fair way to ensure the liberty of its adherents consistent with the equal liberties of other reasonable free and equal citizens. Our political conception requires that we protect religious liberty of all citizens.
4. The Wide View of Public Political Culture
4.1 Reasonable comprehensive doctrines (religious or nonreligious) may be introduced into public political discussion provided that in due course, proper political reasons are presented to support whatever the comprehensive doctrines are introduced to support (the proviso). We can acknowledge that there may be positive reasons for introducing comprehensive doctrines into public political discussion, however, the details of satisfying the proviso must be worked out in practice, not in advance.
4.2 Citizen’s knowledge of each others’ religious and non-religious doctrines is important, because they recognize that the roots of democratic citizens’ allegiance to their political conceptions lie in their respective comprehensive doctrines. Mutual knowledge about citizens’ comprehensive doctrines provides a positive ground for introducing and discussing those doctrines. When considering an issue such as abolition or civil rights, all sides should introduce their comprehensive doctrines as a way to explain how these doctrines support basic political values (which are also supported by reasonable conceptions of political justice).
4.3 Public reasoning aims for public justification. The goal is to argue from premises that we accept and that we think others could reasonably accept. In doing so, we should declare our own comprehensive doctrine, though we do not expect others to share it. We can show how our comprehensive doctrine leads us to endorse a reasonable political conception. For example, we might cite the story of the Good Samaritan and then go on to give a public justification of the parapble’s conclusions based on political values. We can also use this kind of reasoning to conjecture about how other people’s comprehensive doctrine could be used by them to support a reasonable political conception.
5. On the Family as Part of the Basic Structure
5.1 The family is part of the basic structure, since one of its main roles is the orderly production and reproduction of society and its culture from one generation to the next. Reproductive labor is socially necessary labor. The central role of the family is to arrange in a reasonable and effective way the raising and caring for children. Within a family, the elders have a certain moral and social authority.
5.2 In order for public reason to apply to the family, it must be seen as a matter for political justice. This is the case, because political justice is concerned with the basic structure of society. It is necessary to apply the principles of justice to the internal life of families, otherwise we cannot ensure equal justice for wives along with their husbands.
The argument that political justice should apply to the internal workings of groups, not just to societies structure, could be applied to all associations - churches, universities, etc. However, we don’t require that Bishops be elected or that the church hierarchy satisfies the difference principle. Not all of the liberal principles of justice need to apply. However, we do impose some essential constrains. For example, the public law does not recognize heresy or apostasy as crimes, so members are always free to leave their faith. Similarly, not all political principles apply directly to internal family life, but they do impose constraints on the family as an institution. All members of the family are guaranteed basic rights and liberties, freedoms, and opportunities. The appropriate constraints may vary depending on the nature of the group or association. As citizens we must impose constraints on associations based on political principles of justice. But as members of associations we aim to limit those constraints to leave room for a free and flourishing internal life appropriate to the association in question.
6. Questions about Public Reason
6.1 Some might argue that the idea of public reason would limit the topics that are available for political debate.
For example, some people might believe that public reason tries to settle political reasons in advance, such as in the case of prayer in schools. However, we can see that when Patrick Henry argued for establishing the Anglican Church for Virginia, he argued that Christian knowledge would correct the morals of men, restrain vices, and help preserve the peace of society. He argued using political values (peace in society, etc.), not by saying that Christian knowledge was intrinsically good. Madison rebutted this argument by saying that the religious establishment wasn’t necessary for ensuring an orderly society. This example shows that public reason is not about a specific set of political institutions or policies, it is about the types of reasons that citizens can use when making political cases. The reasons for separation of church and state should be based on principles that can be affirmed by all free and equal citizens, given reasonable pluralism. This law protects religion from the state and the state from religion. No religion has to fear being outlawed, or having another religion be officially endorsed.
Some people may think that public reason will lead to a stand-off and will fail to bring decisions. However, this can happen in all forms of reasoning, including science and common sense. In the case of stalemate, a reasonable process must be endorsed. For example, if a judge thinks the legal arguments are balanced on both sides, he can’t just appeal to his own personal political values. For citizens, this is the same – if a decision can’t be made based on public reason, they can’t simply fall back on their comprehensive views – this would fail to satisfy the criterion of reciprocity.
For example, the issue of abortion is one that may lead to stand-off between different political conceptions. In this case, citizens must vote according to their complete ordering of political values. However, reasonable political conceptions of justice do not always lead to the same conclusion – we should not expect unanimity of views. However, the outcome of the vote is legitimate as long as everyone uses public reason, and voting occurs within a constitutional regime.
An individual may not view this as the true or correct outcome, but is should be considered a reasonable and legitimate law, binding on all citizens. This system does keep open the opportunities for citizens to continue to argue (using public reason) to change a law, even if they don’t win a majority. It is not a fault that public reason does not always lead to general agreement of views – debate using public reason deepens our understanding of one another.
6.2 It may be objected that any political conception of justice will be too narrow, and that it will be necessary to rely on comprehensive doctrines to show what is right. Public reason is compatible with forms of non-public reason. It merely requires that ideas about what is right (even if they are based on comprehensive doctrines) are expressed in terms that are politically reasonable to all citizens.
6.3 It is important within political liberalism that citizens have both a comprehensive and a political conception of justice. The overlapping consensus of comprehensive doctrines allow for a political conception of justice supporting a constitutional democratic society. If a comprehensive doctrine can’t support a democratic society, it is considered unreasonable. This type of comprehensive doctrine (such as fundamentalist religious, or a doctrine of divine right of monarchs) does not satisfy reciprocity and does not establish equal basic liberties. Political liberalism rejects as unreasonable all doctrines that override the political values of a constitutional democratic society
A true judgment in a reasonable comprehensive doctrine should never conflict with a reasonable judgment in its related political conception. If needed, citizens can affirm, revise, or change their political comprehensive doctrines. A religious person may argue that religious values such as salvation and eternal life are more important than any political values. However, these considerations do not need to override reasonable values. In endorsing a constitutional democracy, a religion may say that such are the limits God sets to our liberty
6.4 Another possible objection is the idea that public reason is unnecessary and serves no purpose in a well-established constitutional democracy. Public reason would only be necessary if a society is sharply divided or includes many hostile religious or secular groups. This objection is incorrect, if citizens’ did not use public reason and civility, hostilities would assert themselves over time. Harmony among doctrines is not a permanent condition of social life.
7.1 Can democracy and comprehensive doctrines, religious and non religious, be compatible; if so, how? To answer, political liberalism makes the distinction between a self-standing political conception of justice and a comprehensive doctrine. Conflicts between democracy and reasonable religious doctrines and among reasonable religious doctrines are greatly mitigated within the bounds of reasonable principles of justice in a constitutional democratic society. Citizens practice political toleration, and provide both religious and non-religious reasons for toleration. It is acceptable for concordant judgments made within political conceptions of justice on one hand and comprehensive doctrines on the other.
Three main kinds of conflict set citizens at odds. 1) Differences may arise because comprehensive doctrines are irreconcilable. To solve this, citizens affirm political conceptions of justice and public reasons that others can agree with. 2) Differences may arise because of differences in status, gender, race, etc. Reasonable principles of justice will help to ensure that these kinds of conflict need not arise. 3) Conflict may arise because of differences in judgment. This type of conflict will always exist.
7.2 Reasonable persons are characterized in two ways:
(1) They stand ready to offer fair terms of social cooperation between equals, and they abide by these terms if others do also, even should it be to their advantage not to;
(2) Reasonable persons recognize and accept the consequences of the burdens of judgment, which leads to the idea of reasonable toleration in a democratic society
Some fundamentalist religious doctrines, or dictatorial rules will reject ideas of public reason and deliberative democracy. They will assert that the religiously true overrides the politically reasonable. This type of doctrine is politically unreasonable. These unreasonable doctrines pose a threat to democratic institutions, since their existence prevents the full realization of a reasonable democratic society with the ideal of public reason and legitimate law. In reality, every actual society will contain some unreasonable doctrines. Society must determine how far to tolerate these doctrines based on appropriate principles of justice.
7.3 There is a fundamental difference between “A Theory of Justice” and “Political Liberalism.” “A Theory of Justice” attempted to develop a comprehensive liberal doctrine – something based on the social contract and superior to utilitarianism. However, the comprehensive doctrine contradicted the fact of reasonable pluralism. “Political Liberalism” proposed that a reasonable political conception of justice could be formed based on overlapping comprehensive doctrines. In “A Theory of Justice” public reason is given by a comprehensive liberal doctrine. In “Political Liberalism” public reason is a way of reasoning about political values shared by free and equal citizens that does not trespass on citizens’ comprehensive doctrines, so long as those doctrines are consistent with a democratic polity.