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Public Reason and Political Action: Justifying Citizen Behavior in Actually Existing Democracies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 April 2012


Political theorists seeking to respond to public concerns about citizen behavior in democratic politics might turn to the literature on public reason. Within that literature, idealized citizens are expected to abide by what we call the “public-reason-giving requirement” when engaging in political acts. Here we examine what the doctrine of public reason has to say to political actors in nonideal democratic circumstances. We find that the recommendations for actual behavior in this literature rely heavily upon a forward- and backward-looking “Janus-faced” justification, focused on the way in which non-reason-giving political actions have or could serve the long-term interests of public reason itself. Through a critical evaluation of this idea we suggest that public reason has nothing meaningful to say to contemporary political actors. This, we maintain, is a serious flaw in a putative standard for political behavior and thus the liberal commitment to “public reason” under nonideal circumstances is misplaced.

Research Article
Copyright © University of Notre Dame 2012

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1 See Helene Cooper and Jeff Zeleney, “Obama Calls for a New Era of Civility in U.S. Politics,” New York Times, January 12, 2011.

2 See Ian Traynor, “Far-Right Fringe Exploits European Coalitions,” The Guardian, November 15, 2010.

3 See, for example, Rawls, John, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Rawls, John, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” in The Law Of Peoples with “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999)Google Scholar; Larmore, Charles, “Public Reason,” in The Cambridge Companion to Rawls, ed. Freeman, Samuel (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003), 368–93Google Scholar. Public reason in liberal theory runs wider than just Rawls and Larmore, of course. See, for example, Gaus, Gerald F., Contemporary Theories of Liberalism (London: Sage, 2003), esp. chap. 8Google Scholar; Ackerman, Bruce, “Political Liberalisms,” Journal of Philosophy 9 (1994): 364–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Macedo, Stephen, “In Defense of Liberal Public Reason: Are Slavery and Abortion Hard Cases?,” American Journal of Jurisprudence 42 (1997): 158CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; MacGilvray, Eric, Reconstructing Public Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004)Google Scholar. There are however significant variations in this literature in how the conception of public reason is understood and employed, on which see Young, Shaun P., ed., Political Liberalism: Variations on a Theme (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004)Google Scholar. We focus here on the version of public reason similarly employed by Rawls and Larmore (although as noted below Rawls and Larmore have their own differences) in order to provide a focused and coherent account. For a contrasting critique of the use of public reason to generate recommendations for citizen behavior, see White, Stephen K., The Ethos of A Late-Modern Citizen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 Throughout this essay “public reason giving” entails offering reasons that satisfy the demands of the public reason requirement, as opposed to offering reasons of any sort (which may emanate, for example, from a comprehensive conception of the good that others cannot reasonably be expected to endorse).

5 Rawls, “Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” 78.

6 For overviews, see Bohman, James and Rehg, William, eds., Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997)Google Scholar; Gutmann, Amy and Thompson, Dennis, Democracy and Disagreement (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996)Google Scholar; Gutmann, Amy and Thompson, Dennis, Why Deliberative Democracy? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mansbridge, Jane, ed., Beyond Self-Interest (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)Google Scholar.

7 See Dunn, John, The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics (London: Harper Collins, 2000)Google Scholar; Geuss, Raymond, Philosophy and Real Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Philp, Mark, Political Conduct (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008)Google Scholar; Shapiro, Ian, The State of Democratic Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

8 Larmore, “Public Reason,” 385.

9 See Sparks, Holloway, “Dissident Citizenship: Democratic Theory, Political Courage, and Activist Women,” Hypatia 12 (1997): 74110CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Olson, Joel, “The Freshness of Fanaticism: The Abolitionist Defense of Zealotry,” Perspectives on Politics 5 (2007): 685701CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Stears, Marc, Demanding Democracy: American Radicals in Search of a New Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010)Google Scholar; Walzer, Michael, Politics and Passion: Toward a More Egalitarian Liberalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004)Google Scholar. For a rival historical view, see Richards, David A. J., “Public Reason and Abolitionist Dissent,” Chicago-Kent Law Review 69 (1994): 787842Google Scholar.

10 For recent discussion of these charges, see Fung, Archon, “Deliberation Before the Revolution,” Political Theory 33 (2005): 397419CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Medearis, John, “Social Movements and Deliberative Democratic Theory,” British Journal of Political Science 35 (2004): 5375CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Young, Iris Marion, “Activist Challenges to Deliberative Democracy,” Political Theory 29 (2001): 670–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 See Waldron, Jeremy, “Theoretical Foundations of Liberalism,” Philosophical Quarterly 37 (1987): 127–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 This temporal perspective, it might be noted, casts doubt on the frequent accusation that contemporary liberal political philosophy is somehow “atemporal” or neglects to consider the future, on which see Brown, Wendy, Politics Out of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001)Google Scholar. For insightful critical commentary on the temporal dimension in liberalism, see Honig, Bonnie, “Between Deliberation and Decision: Political Paradox in Democratic Theory,” American Political Science Review 101 (2007): 117CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Rawls, “Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” 136–37.

14 Rawls, John, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 217–18Google Scholar. See also Bruce Ackerman's direct endorsement of this view in “Political Liberalisms,”366–67.

15 Rawls, “Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” 137.

16 Rawls, Political Liberalism, 219. The question of the scope of public reason is germane here as well. Why limit its application to constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice? As Quong argues, those who are committed to the ideal of public reason should surely apply it to all aspects of political life for which it is available—i.e., to all areas of life where the coercive power of the state will force some people to abide by the values of others. See Quong, Jonathan, “The Scope of Public Reason,” Political Studies 52 (2004): 233–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

17 For discussion, see Dryzek, John, Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 6768Google Scholar.

18 Some approaches to public reason allow for religious views to constitute public reasons when “carefully presented in the right way.” See Greenawalt, Kent, “On Public Reason,” Chicago-Kent Law Review 69 (1994): 669–89Google Scholar. We return to this view below. Rawls makes the different argument that matters that may seem intrinsically rooted in religious conceptions can often be argued for on public reason grounds; see his discussion of school prayer in Political Liberalism, liii–liv, incl. n28.

19 Rawls, “Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” 136–37.

20 See Waldron, Jeremy, “Religious Contributions in Public Deliberation,” San Diego Law Review 30 (1993): 817–48Google Scholar.

21 This is called the “proviso” by Rawls in his advocacy of the “wide” form of public reason. See Rawls, “Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” esp. 144. We should note that Charles Larmore is “not convinced that this change is for the better” (“Public Reason,” 386). Larmore still holds to the “inclusive” view of public reason, however. That is, he believes that “citizens may base their decisions upon comprehensive views that are themselves unlikely ever to form part of public reason, provided they believe or could have believed that thereby the ideal of public reason would be strengthened in the long run” (ibid., 385; emphasis added). Here Larmore is still cleaving to a version of what we have dubbed the “Janus-faced argument,” as both the inclusive view and the wide view of public reason share that temporally sensitive perspective. We return to this point below.

22 Larmore, Charles, “Political Liberalism,” Political Theory 18 (1990): 352CrossRefGoogle Scholar; emphasis added.

23 Rawls, Law of Peoples, 15.

24 Rawls, “Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” 174n91.

25 Charles Larmore, “Political Liberalism,” 353. For excellent discussions of similarities and differences in Larmore's approach and Rawls's, see the essays in Young, ed., Political Liberalism.

26 See the discussion of Lincoln's opposition to slavery in Rawls, “Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” 174n91.

27 Larmore, Charles, “The Moral Basis of Political Liberalism,” Journal of Philosophy 96 (1999): 609CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

28 See Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics.

29 Rawls is particularly clear on this in “Public Reason Revisited.”

30 See White, Ethos of a Late-Modern Citizen, 15–19.

31 Larmore, “Political Liberalism,” 352. For a systematic view of what could be said about deliberation under nonideal circumstances, see Fung, “Deliberation Before the Revolution.”

32 This condition is the focus of von Rautenfeld's argument that comprehensive doctrines should be allowed to play a full justificatory role within political liberalism, based on an Emersonian conception of citizen communication. See von Rautenfeld, Hans, “Charitable Interpretations: Emerson, Rawls, and Cavell on the Use of Public Reason,” Political Theory 32, no. 1 (2004): 6184CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 It is worth noting here, as Larmore notes, that the actual reasons provided to justify coercive political behavior do not ever have to become recognized as public reasons for Janus-faced justification to be satisfied; it is sufficient merely that the actions serve to make the world safer for public reason in the long run (Larmore, “Public Reason,” 385).

34 Rawls, Political Liberalism, 250.

35 Ibid., 250, emphasis added.

36 Larmore, “Public Reason,” 385. See also Guttmann and Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy?, 51.

37 Rawls, Political Liberalism, 251, emphasis added.

38 See Sabl, Andrew, “Looking Forward to Justice: Rawlsian Civil Disobedience and its Non-Rawlsian Lessons,” Journal of Political Philosophy 9 (2001): 307–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Sabl, Andrew, “Community Organizing as Tocquevillian Politics: The Art, Practices, and Ethos of Association,” American Journal of Political Science 46 (2002): 119CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

39 Rawls, Political Liberalism, 251.

40 Stephen Macedo notes that, despite their apparent desire to place some distance between their own views and those of John Rawls, Guttmann and Thompson “reformulate, streamline, and extend (rather than reject) the commitment to public reason” (“In Defense of Liberal Public Reason,” 11). This is an interpretation that we would endorse.

41 Gutmann and Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy?, 51, emphasis added.

42 “To regard civil war as the worst of political evils and to suppose that differences should always be papered over by a modus vivendi is not a view likely to impress any American thinker, though Europeans of a Hobbesian persuasion often espouse it” (Larmore, “Public Reason,” 385). This may cast the debate between realists and political liberals as one between European pessimism and American optimism.

43 See Williams, Bernard, In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 6566Google Scholar.

44 Williams, In the Beginning Was the Deed, 25, emphasis added.

45 Rawls, “Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” 154n54.

46 Richards, “Public Reason and Abolitionist Dissent,”

47 Larmore, “Public Reason,” 385.

48 The concern is further exacerbated by the fact that the advocates of the ideal of public reason are generally committed to the claim that such an ideal cannot be “externally imposed” in present-day circumstances. As we know from Rawls's work on international justice, as exemplified by The Law of Peoples, the advocates of the ideal of public reason generally suggest that the citizen behaviors captured by the ideal and the legal and political framework that can reinforce those behaviors have to be developed from within. If the ideal of public reason is “alien to a culture,” Larmore thus summarizes, “it can be of no help in solving its problem of finding terms of political association amidst reasonable disagreement about the good life” (“Political Liberalism,” 353). If such a qualification holds for other countries it is certainly not immediately apparent why it does not also hold for a single country at different moments of its political development. If, after all, it is both practically unfeasible and morally unacceptable to impose the ideal of public reason on foreign societies today, then why is it acceptable to judge the actions of movements in our own past by such similarly alien standards?

49 See Arendt, Hannah, “On Violence,” in Crises of the Republic (New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1972)Google Scholar. See also Eric MacGilvray, for whom such forward-looking demands rest “upon claims about the course of future experience whose validity cannot be demonstrated prior to their being tested in practice” (MacGilvray, Reconstructing Public Reason, 30).

50 Some, such as David Miller and James Fishkin, appear very confident that deliberative strategies are appropriate in the present. See Miller, David, Citizenship and National Identity (Cambridge: Polity, 1996)Google Scholar and Fishkin, James, When the People Speak (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)Google Scholar. Others, including Archon Fung, are far less sanguine. See footnote 10 above.

51 Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Why Deliberative Democracy?, 42–43.

52 See Fung, Archon, Empowered Participation: Reinventing Urban Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006)Google Scholar; Fung, Archon and Wright, Erik Olin, eds., Deepening Democracy: Institutional Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance (London: Verso, 2003)Google Scholar; Gastil, John and Levine, Peter, eds., The Deliberative Democracy Handbook: Strategies for Effective Civic Engagement in the Twenty-First Century (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2005)Google Scholar.

53 For an overview of the skeptical position, see Medearis, “Social Movements and Deliberative Democratic Theory.”

54 For arguments along these lines, see Estlund, David, Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 258–76Google Scholar.

55 This view of political theory as something that ought to be action guiding can of course be rejected; see Swift, Adam, “The Value of Philosophy in Nonideal Circumstances,” Social Theory and Practice 34 (2008): 363–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar. We merely claim at this point that it must be so oriented if it is to be able to address our opening question concerning citizen behavior.

56 See, for example, Geuss, Philosophy and Real Politics; Galston, William, “Realism in Political Theory,” European Journal of Political Theory 9 (2010): 385411CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Honig, Bonnie, Emergency Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Tully, James, Public Philosophy in a New Key, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008)Google Scholar. For a review, see Honig, Bonnie and Stears, Marc, “The New Realism,” in Political Philosophy versus History?, ed. Floyd, Jonathan and Stears, Marc (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)Google Scholar.