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Copyright (c) 1997 University of Chicago
University of Chicago Law Review

Summer, 1997

64 U. Chi. L. Rev. 765

LENGTH: 23159 words

ARTICLE: The Idea of Public Reason Revisited

John Rawls *

* Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Harvard University. This essay is a revision of a lecture given at The University of Chicago LawSchool in November 1993. I should like to thank Joshua Cohen, Erin Kelly, Percy Lehning, Michael Perry, Margaret Rawls, and T.M. Scanlon for their great help and advice in writing this paper. Throughout they have given me numerous suggestions, which I have gladly accepted. Above all, to Burton Dreben I am especially indebted: as so often before, he has been generous beyond measure in his efforts;in every section he has helped me reorganize and reshape the text, giving it a clarity and simplicity it would not otherwise have had. Without their constant advice and encouragement, and that of others mentioned below, I never could have completed the revisions of my original lecture.

... The idea of public reason, as I understand it, belongs to a conception of a well orderedconstitutional democratic society. ... This ideal is realized, or satisfied, whenever judges, legislators, chief executives, and other government officials, as well as candidates for public office, act from and follow the idea of public reason and explain to other citizens their reasons for supporting fundamental political positions in terms of the political conception of justice they regard as themost reasonable. ... Since the idea of public reason specifies at the deepest level the basic political values and specifies how the political relation is to be understood, those who believe that fundamental political questions should be decided by what they regard as the best reasons according to their own idea of the whole truth - including their religious or secular comprehensive doctrine - andnot by reasons that might be shared by all citizens as free and equal, will of course reject the idea of public reason. ... As I have stressed throughout, it is central to political liberalism that free and equal citizens affirm both a comprehensive doctrine and a political conception. ... Since the criterion of reciprocity is an essential ingredient specifying public reason and its content,political liberalism rejects as unreasonable all such doctrines. ...



The idea of public reason, as I understand it, n1 belongs to a conception of a well ordered constitutional democratic society. The form and content of this reason - the way it is understood by citizens and how it interprets their political relationship - is part of the idea of democracyitself. This is because a basic feature of democracy is the fact of reasonable pluralism - the fact that a [*766] plurality of conflicting reasonable comprehensive doctrines, n2 religious, philosophical, and moral, is the normal result of its culture of free institutions. n3 Citizens realize that they cannot reach agreement or even approach mutual understanding on the basis of theirirreconcilable comprehensive doctrines. In view of this, they need to consider what kinds of reasons they may reasonably give one another when fundamental political questions are at stake. I propose that in public reason comprehensive doctrines of truth or right be replaced by an idea of the politically reasonable addressed to citizens as citizens. n4

Central to the idea of public reason is that it neithercriticizes nor attacks any comprehensive doctrine, religious or nonreligious, except insofar as that doctrine is incompatible with the essentials of public reason and a democratic polity. The basic requirement is that a reasonable doctrine accepts a constitutional democratic regime and its companion idea of legitimate law. While democratic societies will differ in the specific doctrines that...
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