Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: December 2010

6 - The Limits of Public Justification


In the previous chapter, I spelled out how an exclusive principle of public reason differs from a laissez-faire principle and Rawls's more inclusive principle and showed how it requires people to exercise as much self-restraint as possible when they offer reasons to those who are likely to reasonably disagree with them. I also stressed that following an exclusive principle of public reason is more likely to produce reasons that are more easily understood in a society like our own. In this chapter, I want to shift my focus from those who try to publicly justify public laws and constitutional decisions to those who are asked to accept the public justification in question. Public justification has two sides, and those who care about justifying the most important laws not only give reasons but also receive them. I then explain how a reasonable person should go about determining whether the justification that someone else has offered is good enough to legitimize the decision at issue.

This approach also requires good faith and competence. Just because someone sincerely believes a reason to be sufficiently public does not make it so. At the same time, that belief ought to prompt others to scrutinize their own reasons more carefully and be willing to revise them when necessary. The more complicated the case, the more likely reasonable persons will dispute whether particular reasons have met the standard of public justification, and the burden of proof is on those who seek to restrict the freedom of others or treat them unequally.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO
Reidy, David A., “Rawls's Wide View of Public Reason: Not Wide Enough,” 6 Res Publica (2000), 52, 64
Greenawalt, Kent, Religious Convictions and Political Choice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 147
Gaus, Gerald F., Contemporary Theories of Liberalism: Public Reason as a Post-Enlightenment Project (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003), 12
Williams, Andrew, “The Alleged Incompleteness of Public Reason,” 6 Res Publica (2000), 203
Quong, Jonathan, “The Scope of Public Reason,” 52 Political Studies (2004), 244
Schwartzman, Micah, “The Completeness of Public Reason,” 3 Politics, Philosophy, and Economics (2004), 207
Gaus, Gerald F., Justificatory Liberalism: An Essay on Epistemology and Political Theory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 151–8
Hunter, James Davison, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Arts, Education, Law and Politics in America (New York: Basic Books, 1992)
Baum, Lawrence, The Supreme Court, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1985), 229
Brighouse, Harry, “Civic Education and Liberal Legitimacy,” 108 Ethics (1998), 736
Elgin, Catharine Z., Considered Judgment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), ix
Greenawalt, Kent, “On Public Reason,” 69 Chicago-Kent Law Review (1994), 677
Macedo, Stephen, “In Defense of Liberal Public Reason: Are Slavery and Abortion Hard Cases?” in Natural Law and Public Reason, ed. George, Robert P. and Wolfe, Christopher (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000), 44
Dworkin, Ronald, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 14–45
Low-Beer, F. H., Questions of Judgment: Determining What's Right (New York: Prometheus Books, 1995)
Burton, Steven J., Judging in Good Faith (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 57
Nussbaum, Martha, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 10
Nussbaum, Martha, “The Discernment of Perception: An Aristotelian Conception of Private and Public Rationality,” in Aristotle's Ethics: Critical Essays, ed. Sherman, Nancy (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 145–6
Shafer-Landau, Russ, “Moral Rules,” 107 Ethics (1997), 585
Macedo, Stephen, Liberal Virtues: Citizenship, Virtue, and Community in Liberal Constitutionalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 76
Dreben, Burton, “On Rawls and Political Liberalism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Rawls, ed. Freeman, Samuel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 316–17
Benhabib, Seyla, “The Democratic Moment and the Problem of Difference,” in Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political, ed. Benhabib, Seyla (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 9
Raz, Joseph, “The Obligation to Obey: Revision and Tradition,” in The Duty to Obey the Law: Selected Philosophical Readings, ed. Edmundson, William A. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999), 160
Greenawalt, Kent, “Legitimate Authority and the Duty to Obey,” in The Duty to Obey the Law: Selected Philosophical Readings, ed. Edmundson, William A. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), 178
Brighouse, Harry, “Civic Education and Liberal Legitimacy,” 108 Ethics (1998), 720–1
Nozick, Robert, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 11
Holmes, Stephen, The Anatomy of Antiliberalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 236
Hardin, Russell, “Political Obligation,” in The Good Polity: Normative Analysis of the State, ed. Hamlin, Alan and Pettit, Philip (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 103–19
Simmons, A. John, Moral Principles and Political Obligations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), esp. 75–100
Rawls, John, “Legal Obligation and the Duty of Fair Play,” in Law and Philosophy, ed. Hook, Sidney (New York: New York University Press, 1964), 3–18
Wolff, Robert Paul, In Defense of Anarchism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970), xxvii
Dworkin, Gerald, The Theory and Practice of Autonomy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 15–18
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, The Social Contract, ed. and trans. Kress, Donald A. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1987), 24
Aristotle, , The Politics, trans. Sinclair, T. A. (London: Penguin Books, 1992), 362
Shenkman, Rick, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter (New York: Basic Books, 2008)
Barnett, Randy E., Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 4
Freeman, Samuel, Rawls (New York: Routledge, 2007), 16
Dworkin, Ronald, “The Original Position,” in Reading Rawls: Critical Studies on Rawls's “A Theory of Justice,” ed. Daniels, Norman (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989), 16–53
Gaus, Gerald F., “Liberal Neutrality: A Compelling and Radical Principle,” in Perfectionism and Neutrality: Essays in Liberal Theory, ed. Wall, Stephen and Klosko, George (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), 138
Larmore, Charles E., “The Moral Basis of Political Liberalism,” 96 Journal of Philosophy (1999), 600–7