Select a Document from the Menu

“Justice As Fairness: Political, Not Metaphysical,” Excerpts

John Rawls


[Rawls, John. “Justice As Fairness: Political Not Metaphysical.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 14, no. 3. (Summer, 1985): 223–251. Originally published by Princeton University Press, now (in 2016) published by John Wiley and Sons., Inc. Copyright 1985 John Wiley and Sons., Inc. Reproduced with permission of John Wiley and Sons., Inc.]


. . . 

In this discussion I shall make some general remarks about how I now understand the conception of justice that I have called “justice as fair­ness” (presented in my book A Theory of Justice).[1] I do this because it may seem that this conception depends on philosophical claims I should like to avoid, for example, claims to universal truth, or claims about the essential nature and identity of persons. My aim is to explain why it does not. . . . Briefly, the idea is that in a constitutional democracy the public conception of justice should be, so far as possible, independent of controversial philosophical and religious doctrines. Thus, to formulate such a conception, we apply the principle of toleration to philosophy itself: the public conception of justice is to be political, not metaphysical. Hence the title.

I want to put aside the question whether the text of A Theory of Justice supports different readings than the one I sketch here. Certainly on a number of points I have changed my views, and there are no doubt others on which my views have changed in ways that I am unaware of.[2] I recognize further that certain faults of exposition as well as obscure and ambiguous passages in A Theory of Justice invite misunderstanding; but I think these matters need not concern us and I shan’t pursue them beyond a few footnote indications. For our purposes here, it suffices first, to show how a conception of justice with the structure and content of justice as fairness can be understood as political and not metaphysical, and second, to explain why we should look for such a conception of justice in a democratic society.


. . . [J]ustice as fairness is intended as a political conception of justice. While a political conception of justice is, of course, a moral con­ception, it is a moral conception worked out for a specific kind of subject, namely, for political, social, and economic institutions. In particular, jus­tice as fairness is framed to apply to what I have called the “basic struc­ture” of a modern constitutional democracy.[3] (I shall use “constitutional democracy” and “democratic regime,” and similar phrases interchange­ably.) By this structure I mean such a society’s main political, social, and economic institutions, and how they fit together into one unified system of social cooperation. Whether justice as fairness can be extended to a general political conception for different kinds of societies existing under different historical and social conditions, or whether it can be extended to a general moral conception, or a significant part thereof, are altogether separate questions. I avoid prejudging these larger questions one way or the other.

It should also be stressed that justice as fairness is not intended as the application of a general moral conception to the basic structure of society, as if this structure were simply another case to which that general moral conception is applied.[4] In this respect justice as fairness differs from traditional moral doctrines, for these are widely regarded as such general conceptions. Utilitarianism is a familiar example, since the principle of utility, however it is formulated, is usually said to hold for all kinds of subjects ranging from the actions of individuals to the law of nations. The essential point is this: as a practical political matter no general moral conception can provide a publicly recognized basis for a conception of justice in a modern democratic state. The social and historical conditions of such a state have their origins in the Wars of Religion following the Reformation and the subsequent development of the principle of toler­ation, and in the growth of constitutional government and the institutions of large industrial market economies. These conditions profoundly affect the requirements of a workable conception of political justice: such a conception must allow for a diversity of doctrines and the plurality of conflicting, and indeed incommensurable, conceptions of the good af­firmed by the members of existing democratic societies.

Finally, to conclude these introductory remarks, since justice as fair­ness is intended as a political conception of justice for a democratic society, it tries to draw solely upon basic intuitive ideas that are embedded in the political institutions of a constitutional democratic regime and the public traditions of their interpretation. Justice as fairness is a political conception in part because it starts from within a certain political tradi­tion. We hope that this political conception of justice may at least be supported by what we may call an “overlapping consensus,” that is, by a consensus that includes all the opposing philosophical and religious doctrines likely to persist and to gain adherents in a more or less just constitutional democratic society.[5] 


. . .

The course of democratic thought over the past two centuries or so makes plain that there is no agreement on the way basic institutions of a constitutional democracy should be arranged if they are to specify and secure the basic rights and liberties of citizens and answer to the claims of democratic equality when citizens are conceived as free and equal persons. . . . A deep disagreement exists as to how the values of liberty and equality are best realized in the basic structure of society. To simplify, we may think of this disagreement as a conflict within the tradition of democratic thought itself, between the tradition associated with Locke, which gives greater weight to what Constant called “the liberties of the moderns,” freedom of thought and conscience, certain basic rights of the person and of property, and the rule of law, and the tradition associated with Rousseau, which gives greater weight to what Constant called “the liberties of the ancients,” the equal political liberties and the values of public life. This is a stylized contrast and historically inaccurate, but it serves to fix ideas.

Justice as fairness tries to adjudicate between these contending tra­ditions first, by proposing two principles of justice to serve as guidelines for how basic institutions are to realize the values of liberty and equality, and second, by specifying a point of view from which these principles can be seen as more appropriate than other familiar principles of justice to the nature of democratic citizens viewed as free and equal persons. . . . [T]he two principles of justice (men­tioned above) read as follows:

1.  Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with a similar scheme for all. 

2.  Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society. 

. . .

We must now ask: how might political philosophy find a shared basis for settling such a fundamental question as that of the most appropriate institutional forms for liberty and equality? . . . We look . . . to our public political culture itself, including its main institutions and the historical traditions of their interpretation, as the shared fund of implicitly recognized basic ideas and principles. The hope is that these ideas and principles can be formulated clearly enough to be combined into a conception of political justice congenial to our most firmly held convictions. . . .

. . .

Now suppose justice as fairness were to achieve its aim and a publicly acceptable political conception of justice is found. Then this conception provides a publicly recognized point of view from which all citizens can examine before one another whether or not their political and social institutions are just. It enables them to do this by citing what are rec­ognized among them as valid and sufficient reasons singled out by that conception itself. . . . [J]ustification is addressed to others who disagree with us, and therefore it must always proceed from some con­sensus, that is, from premises that we and others publicly recognize as true; or better, publicly recognize as acceptable to us for the purpose of establishing a working agreement on the fundamental questions of po­litical justice. . . .

Thus, the aim of justice as fairness as a political conception is practical, and not metaphysical or epistemological. That is, it presents itself not as a conception of justice that is true, but one that can serve as a basis of informed and willing political agreement between citizens viewed as free and equal persons. This agreement when securely founded in public political and social attitudes sustains the goods of all persons and asso­ciations within a just democratic regime. To secure this agreement we try, so far as we can, to avoid disputed philosophical, as well as disputed moral and religious, questions. We do this not because these questions are unimportant or regarded with indifference,[6] but because we think them too important and recognize that there is no way to resolve them politically. The only alternative to a principle of toleration is the autocratic use of state power. Thus, justice as fairness deliberately stays on the surface, philosophically speaking. . . . Philosophy as the search for truth about an independent metaphysical and moral order cannot, I believe, provide a workable and shared basis for a political conception of justice in a democratic society.

. . . Thus, in what I have called “Kantian constructivism,” we try to avoid the problem of truth and the controversy between realism and subjectivism about the status of moral and political values. This form of constructivism neither asserts nor denies these doctrines.[7] Rather, it recasts ideas from the tradition of the social contract to achieve a practicable conception of objectivity and justification founded on public agreement in judgment on due reflection. The aim is free agreement, reconciliation through pub­lic reason. . . .


Let’s now survey briefly some of the basic ideas that make up justice as fairness in order to show that these ideas belong to a political conception of justice. As I have indicated, the overarching fundamental intuitive idea . . . is that of society as a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons. Justice as fairness starts from this idea as one of the basic intuitive ideas which we take to be implicit in the public culture of a democratic society.[8] . . . In their political thought, and in the context of public discussion of political questions, citizens do not view the social order as a fixed natural order, or as an institutional hierarchy justified by religious or aristocratic values. Here it is important to stress that from other points of view, for example, from the point of view of personal morality, or from the point of view of members of an association, or of one’s religious or philosophical doctrine, various aspects of the world and one’s relation to it, may be regarded in a different way. But these other points of view are not to be introduced into political discussion.

We can make the idea of social cooperation more specific by noting three of its elements:

1.  Cooperation is distinct from merely socially coordinated activity, for example, from activity coordinated by orders issued by some central authority. Cooperation is guided by publicly recognized rules and procedures which those who are cooperating accept and regard as properly regulating their conduct.

2.  Cooperation involves the idea of fair terms of cooperation: these are terms that each participant may reasonably accept, provided that everyone else likewise accepts them. Fair terms of cooperation spec­ify an idea of reciprocity or mutuality: all who are engaged in co­operation and who do their part as the rules and procedures require, are to benefit in some appropriate way as assessed by a suitable benchmark of comparison. A conception of political justice char­acterizes the fair terms of social cooperation. Since the primary subject of justice is the basic structure of society, this is accom­plished in justice as fairness by formulating principles that specify basic rights and duties within the main institutions of society, and by regulating the institutions of background justice over time so that the benefits produced by everyone’s efforts are fairly acquired and divided from one generation to the next.

3.  The idea of social cooperation requires an idea of each participant’s rational advantage, or good. This idea of good specifies what those who are engaged in cooperation, whether individuals, families, or associations, or even nation-states, are trying to achieve, when the scheme is viewed from their own standpoint.

Now consider the idea of the person.[9] There are, of course, many aspects of human nature that can be singled out as especially significant depending on our point of view. This is witnessed by such expressions as homo politicus, homo oeconomicus, homo faber, and the like. Justice as fairness starts from the idea that society is to be conceived as a fair ­system of cooperation and so it adopts a conception of the person to go with this idea. Since Greek times, both in philosophy and law, the concept of the person has been understood as the concept of someone who can take part in, or who can play a role in, social life, and hence exercise and respect its various rights and duties. Thus, we say that a person is some­one who can be a citizen, that is, a fully cooperating member of society over a complete life. . . .

Since we start within the tradition of democratic thought, we also think of citizens as free and equal persons. The basic intuitive idea is that in virtue of what we may call their moral powers, and the powers of reason, thought, and judgment connected with those powers, we say that persons are free. And in virtue of their having these powers to the requisite degree to be fully cooperating members of society, we say that persons are equal.[10] We can elaborate this conception of the person as follows. Since persons can be full participants in a fair system of social cooperation, we ascribe to them the two moral powers connected with the elements in the idea of social cooperation noted above: namely, a capacity for a sense of justice and a capacity for a conception of the good. A sense of justice is the capacity to understand, to apply, and to act from the public con­ception of justice which characterizes the fair terms of social cooperation. The capacity for a conception of the good is the capacity to form, to revise, and rationally to pursue a conception of one’s rational advantage, or good. In the case of social cooperation, this good must not be understood nar­rowly but rather as a conception of what is valuable in human life. Thus, a conception of the good normally consists of a more or less determinate scheme of final ends, that is, ends we want to realize for their own sake, as well as of attachments to other persons and loyalties to various groups and associations. These attachments and loyalties give rise to affections and devotions, and therefore the flourishing of the persons and associ­ations who are the objects of these sentiments is also part of our conception of the good. Moreover, we must also include in such a conception a view of our relation to the world—religious, philosophical, or moral—by reference to which the value and significance of our ends and attach­ments are understood.

. . .

. . . [T]he conception of persons as having the two moral powers, and therefore as free and equal, is . . . a basic intuitive idea assumed to be implicit in the public culture of a democratic society. . . .


I now take up the idea of the original position.[11] This idea is introduced in order to work out which traditional conception of justice, or which variant of one of those conceptions, specifies the most appropriate principles for realizing liberty and equality once society is viewed as a system of cooperation between free and equal persons. Assuming we had this purpose in mind, let’s see why we would introduce the idea of the original position and how it serves its purpose.

Consider again the idea of social cooperation. Let’s ask: how are the fair terms of cooperation to be determined? Are they simply laid down by some outside agency distinct from the persons cooperating? Are they, for example, laid down by God’s law? Or are these terms to be recognized by these persons as fair by reference to their knowledge of a prior and independent moral order? For example, are they regarded as required by natural law, or by a realm of values known by rational intuition? Or are these terms to be established by an undertaking among these persons themselves in the light of what they regard as their mutual advantage? Depending on which answer we give, we get a different conception of cooperation.

Since justice as fairness recasts the doctrine of the social contract, it adopts a form of the last answer: the fair terms of social cooperation are conceived as agreed to by those engaged in it, that is, by free and equal persons as citizens who are born into the society in which they lead their lives. But their agreement, like any other valid agreement, must be en­tered into under appropriate conditions. In particular, these conditions must situate free and equal persons fairly and must not allow some per­sons greater bargaining advantages than others. Further, threats of force and coercion, deception and fraud, and so on, must be excluded.

. . . But agreements in everyday life are made in some more or less clearly specified situation embedded within the background institutions of the basic structure. Our task, however, is to extend the idea of agreement to this background framework itself. . . . [W]e must find some point of view, removed from and not distorted by the particular features and circum­stances of the all-encompassing background framework, from which a fair agreement between free and equal persons can be reached. The original position, with the feature I have called “the veil of ignorance,” is this point of view.[12] And the reason why the original position must abstract from and not be affected by the contingencies of the social world is that the conditions for a fair agreement on the principles of political justice between free and equal persons must eliminate the bargaining advantages which inevitably arise within background institutions of any society as the result of cumulative social, historical, and natural tend­encies. . . .

. . . [T]he original position is simply a device of represen­tation: it describes the parties, each of whom are responsible for the essential interests of a free and equal person, as fairly situated and as reaching an agreement subject to appropriate restrictions on what are to count as good reasons.[13] 

. . .

. . .[W]e introduce an idea like that of the original position because there is no better way to elaborate a political conception of justice for the basic structure from the fundamental intuitive idea of society as a fair system of cooperation between citizens as free and equal persons. There are, however, certain hazards. As a device of representation the original position is likely to seem somewhat abstract and hence open to misunderstanding. The description of the parties may seem to presuppose some metaphysical conception of the person, for example, that the es­sential nature of persons is independent of and prior to their contingent attributes, including their final ends and attachments, and indeed, their character as a whole. But this is an illusion caused by not seeing the original position as a device of representation. . . . We must keep in mind that we are trying to show how the idea of society as a fair system of social cooperation can be unfolded so as to specify the most appropriate principles for realizing the institutions of liberty and equality when citizens are regarded as free and equal persons.


. . .

[Now I will] sketch a positive account of the political conception of the person, that is, the conception of the person as citizen (discussed in Section III), involved in the original position as a device of representation. To explain what is meant by describing a conception of the person as political, let’s consider how citizens are represented in the original po­sition as free persons. The representation of their freedom seems to be one source of the idea that some metaphysical doctrine is presupposed. I have said elsewhere that citizens view themselves as free in three respects, so let’s survey each of these briefly and indicate the way in which the conception of the person used is political.[14] 

First, citizens are free in that they conceive of themselves and of one another as having the moral power to have a conception of the good. . . . [A]s citizens, they are regarded as capable of revising and changing this con­ception on reasonable and rational grounds, and they may do this if they so desire. . . . Given their moral power to form, to revise, and rationally to pursue a conception of the good, their public identity as free persons is not affected by changes over time in their conception of the good. . . .

It is essential to stress that citizens in their personal affairs, or in the internal life of associations to which they belong, may regard their final ends and attachments in a way very different from the way the political conception involves. . . . They may regard it as simply unthinkable to view themselves apart from certain religious, philosophical, and moral convictions, or from certain enduring attachments and loyalties. These convictions and attachments are part of what we may call their “nonpublic identity.” These convictions and attachments help to organize and give shape to a person’s way of life, what one sees oneself as doing and trying to accomplish in one’s social world. . . . But our conceptions of the good may and often do change over time, usually slowly but sometimes rather suddenly. When these changes are sudden, we are particularly likely to say that we are no longer the same person. We know what this means: we refer to a profound and pervasive shift, or reversal, in our final ends and character; we refer to our different nonpublic, and possibly moral or religious, identity. . . . There is no change in our public or political identity, nor in our personal identity as this concept is understood by some writers in the philosophy of mind.[15] 

The second respect in which citizens view themselves as free is that they regard themselves as self-originating sources of valid claims. They think their claims have weight apart from being derived from duties or obligations specified by the political conception of justice, for example, from duties and obligations owed to society. Claims that citizens regard as founded on duties and obligations based on their conception of the good and the moral doctrine they affirm in their own life are also, for our purposes here, to be counted as self-originating. . . .

. . . That this aspect of [citizens’] freedom belongs to a particular political con­ception is clear from the contrast with a different political conception in which the members of society are not viewed as self-originating sources of valid claims. Rather, their claims have no weight except insofar as they can be derived from their duties and obligations owed to society, or from their ascribed roles in the social hierarchy justified by religious or aristocratic values. Or to take an extreme case, slaves are human beings who are not counted as sources of claims, not even claims based on social duties or obligations, for slaves are not counted as capable of having duties or obligations. . . .

The third respect in which citizens are regarded as free is that they are regarded as capable of taking responsibility for their ends and this affects how their various claims are assessed.[16] Very roughly, the idea is that, given just background institutions and given for each person a fair index of primary goods (as required by the principles of justice), citizens are thought to be capable of adjusting their aims and aspirations in the light of what they can reasonably expect to provide for. Moreover, they are regarded as capable of restricting their claims in matters of justice to the kinds of things the principles of justice allow. Thus, citizens are to recognize that the weight of their claims is not given by the strength and psychological intensity of their wants and desires (as opposed to their needs and requirements as citizens), even when their wants and desires are rational from their point of view. . . .

. . .



I now take up a point essential to thinking of justice as fairness as a liberal view. Although this conception is a moral conception, it is not, as I have said, intended as a comprehensive moral doctrine. The conception of the citizen as a free and equal person is not a moral ideal to govern all of life, but is rather an ideal belonging to a conception of political justice which is to apply to the basic structure. . . . [I]n a constitutional democratic state under modern conditions there are bound to exist conflicting and incommensurable conceptions of the good. This feature characterizes modern culture since the Reformation. Any viable political conception of justice that is not to rely on the autocratic use of state power must recognize this fundamental social fact. This does not mean, of course, that such a conception cannot impose constraints on individuals and associations, but that when it does so, these constraints are accounted for, directly or indirectly, by the requirements of political justice for the basic structure.[17] 

Given this fact, we adopt a conception of the person framed as part of, and restricted to, an explicitly political conception of justice. . . . [P]ersons can accept this conception of themselves as citizens and use it when discussing questions of political justice without being com­mitted in other parts of their life to comprehensive moral ideals often associated with liberalism, for example, the ideals of autonomy and in­dividuality. . . . [T]hese comprehensive ideals, despite their very great importance in liberal thought, are extended too far when presented as the only appropriate foundation for a constitutional regime.[18] So understood, liberalism be­comes but another sectarian doctrine.

. . .

By contrast with liberalism as a comprehensive moral doctrine, . . . justice as fairness seeks to identify the kernel of an overlapping consensus, that is, the shared intuitive ideas which when worked up into a political conception of justice turn out to be sufficient to underwrite a just constitutional regime. This is the most we can expect, nor do we need more.[19] . . .

It may appear that, so understood, the public acceptance of justice as fairness is no more than prudential; that is, that those who affirm this conception do so simply as a modus vivendi which allows the groups in the overlapping consensus to pursue their own good subject to certain constraints which each thinks to be for its advantage given existing cir­cumstances. The idea of an overlapping consensus may seem essentially Hobbesian. But against this, two remarks: first, justice as fairness is a moral conception: it has conceptions of person and society, and concepts of right and fairness, as well as principles of justice with their complement of the virtues through which those principles are embodied in human character and regulate political and social life. . . . 

Second, in such a consensus each of the comprehensive philosophical, religious, and moral doctrines accepts justice as fairness . . . from within its own point of view. . . . We might say that they recognize [the] concepts, principles, and virtues [of justice as fairness] as theorems, as it were, at which their several views coincide. But this does not make these points of coincidence any less moral or reduce them to mere means. For, in general, these concepts, principles, and virtues are accepted by each as belonging to a more comprehensive philosophical, religious, or moral doctrine. . . . The doctrines in an overlapping consensus differ in how far they maintain a further foundation is necessary and on what that further foundation should be. These differences, however, are compatible with a consensus on justice as fairness as a political conception of justice.


I shall conclude by considering the way in which social unity and stability may be understood by liberalism as a political doctrine (as opposed to a comprehensive moral conception).[20] 

One of the deepest distinctions between political conceptions of justice is between those that allow for a plurality of opposing and even incom­mensurable conceptions of the good and those that hold that there is but one conception of the good which is to be recognized by all persons, so far as they are fully rational. Conceptions of justice which fall on opposite sides of this divide are distinct in many fundamental ways. Plato and Aristotle, and the Christian tradition as represented by Augustine and Aquinas, fall on the side of the one rational good. Such views tend to be teleological and to hold that institutions are just to the extent that they effectively promote this good. Indeed, since classical times the dominant tradition seems to have been that there is but one rational conception of the good, and that the aim of moral philosophy, together with theology and metaphysics, is to determine its nature. Classical utilitarianism be­longs to this dominant tradition. By contrast, liberalism as a political doctrine supposes that there are many conflicting and incommensurable conceptions of the good, each compatible with the full rationality of hu­man persons, so far as we can ascertain within a workable political con­ception of justice. As a consequence of this supposition, liberalism as­sumes that it is a characteristic feature of a free democratic culture that a plurality of conflicting and incommensurable conceptions of the good are affirmed by its citizens. Liberalism as a political doctrine holds that the question the dominant tradition has tried to answer has no practicable answer; that is, it has no answer suitable for a political conception of justice for a democratic society. In such a society a teleological political conception is out of the question: public agreement on the requisite conception of the good cannot be obtained.

As I have remarked, the historical origin of this liberal supposition is the Reformation and its consequences. Until the Wars of Religion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the fair terms of social cooperation were narrowly drawn: social cooperation on the basis of mutual respect was regarded as impossible with persons of a different faith; or (in the terminology I have used) with persons who affirm a fundamentally dif­ferent conception of the good. Thus one of the historical roots of liberalism was the development of various doctrines urging religious toleration. . . . One task of liberalism as a political doctrine is to answer the question: how is social unity to be understood, given that there can be no public agreement on the one rational good, and a plurality of opposing and incommensurable conceptions must be taken as given? And granted that social unity is conceivable in some definite way, under what conditions is it actually possible?

In justice as fairness, social unity is understood by starting with the conception of society as a system of cooperation between free and equal persons. Social unity and the allegiance of citizens to their common institutions are not founded on their all affirming the same conception of the good, but on their publicly accepting a political conception of justice to regulate the basic structure of society. The concept of justice is in­dependent from and prior to the concept of goodness in the sense that its principles limit the conceptions of the good which are permissible. A just basic structure and its background institutions establish a framework within which permissible conceptions can be advanced. Elsewhere I have called this relation between a conception of justice and conceptions of the good the priority of right (since the just falls under the right). I believe this priority is characteristic of liberalism as a political doctrine and some­thing like it seems essential to any conception of justice reasonable for a democratic state. Thus to understand how social unity is possible given the historical conditions of a democratic society, we start with our basic intuitive idea of social cooperation, an idea present in the public culture of a democratic society, and proceed from there to a public conception of justice as the basis of social unity in the way I have sketched.

As for the question of whether this unity is stable, this importantly depends on the content of the religious, philosophical, and moral doc­trines available to constitute an overlapping consensus. . . .

The strength of a conception like justice as fairness may prove to be that the more comprehensive doctrines that persist and gain adherents in a democratic society regulated by its principles are likely to cohere together into a more or less stable overlapping consensus. But obviously all this is highly speculative and raises questions which are little under­stood, since doctrines which persist and gain adherents depend in part on social conditions, and in particular, on these conditions when regulated by the public conception of justice. Thus we are forced to consider at some point the effects of the social conditions required by a conception of political justice on the acceptance of that conception itself. Other things equal, a conception will be more or less stable depending on how far the conditions to which it leads support comprehensive religious, philosoph­ical, and moral doctrines which can constitute a stable overlapping con­sensus. These questions of stability I cannot discuss here.[21] It suffices to remark that in a society marked by deep divisions between opposing and incommensurable conceptions of the good, justice as fairness enables us at least to conceive how social unity can be both possible and stable. 

[1] Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.

[2] [footnote omitted]

[3] Theory, Sec. 2, and see the index; see also “The Basic Structure as Subject,” in Values and Morals, eds. Alvin Goldman and Jaegwon Kim (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1978), pp. 47–71.

[4] See “Basic Structure as Subject,” ibid., pp. 48–50.

[5] This idea was introduced in Theory, pp. 387f., as a way to weaken the conditions for the reasonableness of civil disobedience in a nearly just democratic society. Here and later in Sees. VI and VII it is used in a wider context.

[6] Ibid., pp. 214f.

[7] [footnote omitted].

[8] Although Theory uses this idea from the outset (it is introduced on p. 4), it does not emphasize, as I do here and in “Kantian Constructivism,” that the basic ideas of justice as fairness are regarded as implicit or latent in the public culture of a democratic society.

[9] It should be emphasized that a conception of the person, as I understand it here, is a normative conception, whether legal, political, or moral, or indeed also philosophical or religious, depending on the overall view to which it belongs. In this case the conception of the person is a moral conception, one that begins from our everyday conception of persons as the basic units of thought, deliberation and responsibility, and adapted to a political conception of justice and not to a comprehensive moral doctrine. It is in effect a political conception of the person, and given the aims of justice as fairness, a conception of citizens. Thus, a conception of the person is to be distinguished from an account of human nature given by natural science or social theory. On this point, see “Kantian Constructivism,” pp. 534f.

[10] Theory, Sec. 77.

[11] Ibid., Sec. 4, Ch. 3, and the index.

[12] On the veil of ignorance, see ibid., Sec. 24, and the index.

[13] The original position models a basic feature of Kantian constructivism, namely, the distinction between the Reasonable and the Rational, with the Reasonable as prior to the Rational. (For an explanation of this distinction, see “Kantian Constructivism,” pp. 528–­32, and passim.) The relevance of this distinction here is that Theory more or less consis­tently speaks not of rational but of reasonable (or sometimes of fitting or appropriate) conditions as constraints on arguments for principles of justice (see pp. 18f, 20f., 120f., 130f., 138, 446, 516f., 578, 584f.). These constraints are modeled in the original position and thereby imposed on the parties: their deliberations are subject, and subject absolutely, to the reasonable conditions the modeling of which makes the original position fair. The Reasonable, then, is prior to the Rational, and this gives the priority of right. Thus, it was an error in Theory (and a very misleading one) to describe a theory of justice as part of the theory of rational choice, as on pp. 16 and 583. What I should have said is that the conception of justice as fairness uses an account of rational choice subject to reasonable conditions to characterize the deliberations of the parties as representives of free and equal persons; and all of this within a political conception of justice, which is, of course, a moral conception. There is no thought of trying to derive the content of justice within a framework that uses an idea of the rational as the sole normative idea. That thought is incompatible with any kind of Kantian view.

[14] [footnote omitted]

[15] [footnote omitted]

[16] See “Social Unity and Primary Goods,” in Utilitarianism and Beyond, eds. Amartya Sen and Bernard Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), Sec. IV, pp. 167–70.

[17] For example, churches are constrained by the principle of equal liberty of conscience and must conform to the principle of toleration, universities by what may be required to maintain fair equality of opportunity, and the rights of parents by what is necessary to maintain their children’s physical well-being and to assure the adequate development of their intellectual and moral powers. Because churches, universities, and parents exercise their authority within the basic structure, they are to recognize the requirements this structure imposes to maintain background justice.

[18] For Kant, see The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and The Critique of Practical Reason. For Mill, see On Liberty, particularly Ch. 3 where the ideal of individuality is most fully discussed.

[19] For the idea of the kernel of an overlapping consensus (mentioned above), see Theory, last par. of Sec. 35, pp. 220f. For the idea of full autonomy, see “Kantian Constructivism,” pp. 528ff.

[20] This account of social unity is found in “Social Unity and Primary Goods,” referred to in footnote 27 above. See esp. pp. 160f, 170–73, 183f.

[21] [footnote omitted]

“The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” excerpts

By John Rawls* 


[Rawls, John. “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.” The University of Chicago Law Review 64, no. 3 (Summer 1997). 765–807. © The University of Chicago Law Review. Reproduced with permission of The University of Chicago Law Review.]

[*Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Harvard University. This essay is a revision of a lecture given at The University of Chicago Law School 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 Dre-ben 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,[1] 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 democracy itself. This is because a basic feature of democracy is the fact of reasonable pluralism—the fact that a plurality of conflicting reasonable comprehensive doctrines,[2] re­ligious, philosophical, and moral, is the normal result of its cul­ture of free institutions.[3] Citizens realize that they cannot reach agreement or even approach mutual understanding on the basis of their irreconcilable 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.[4]

Central to the idea of public reason is that it neither criti­cizes 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 are influential and active within them—as they differ in the western democracies of Europe and the United States, Israel, and India—finding a suitable idea of public reason is a concern that faces them all.


§ l: The Idea of Public Reason


1. The idea of public reason specifies at the deepest level the basic moral and political values that are to determine a constitu­tional democratic government’s relation to its citizens and their relation to one another. In short, it concerns how the political relation is to be understood. Those who reject constitutional de­mocracy with its criterion of reciprocity[5] will of course reject the very idea of public reason. For them the political relation may be that of friend or foe, to those of a particular religious or secular community or those who are not; or it may be a relentless strug­gle to win the world for the whole truth. Political liberalism does not engage those who think this way. The zeal to embody the whole truth in politics is incompatible with an idea of public rea­son that belongs with democratic citizenship.

The idea of public reason has a definite structure, and if one or more of its aspects are ignored it can seem implausible, as it does when applied to the background culture.[6] It has five differ­ent aspects: (1) the fundamental political questions to which it applies; (2) the persons to whom it applies (government officials and candidates for public office); (3) its content as given by a family of reasonable political conceptions of justice; (4) the appli­cation of these conceptions in discussions of coercive norms to be enacted in the form of legitimate law for a democratic people; and (5) citizens’ checking that the principles derived from their con­ceptions of justice satisfy the criterion of reciprocity.

Moreover, such reason is public in three ways: as the reason of free and equal citizens, it is the reason of the public; its subject is the public good concerning questions of fundamental political justice, which questions are of two kinds, constitutional essen­tials and matters of basic justice;[7] and its nature and content are public, being expressed in public reasoning by a family of reason­able conceptions of political justice reasonably thought to satisfy the criterion of reciprocity.

It is imperative to realize that the idea of public reason does not apply to all political discussions of fundamental questions, but only to discussions of those questions in what I refer to as the public political forum.[8] This forum may be divided into three parts: the discourse of judges in their decisions, and especially of the judges of a supreme court; the discourse of government offi­cials, especially chief executives and legislators; and finally, the discourse of candidates for public office and their campaign man­agers, especially in their public oratory, party platforms, and po­litical statements.[9] We need this three-part division because, as I note later, the idea of public reason does not apply in the same way in these three cases and elsewhere.[10] In discussing what I call the wide view of public political culture,[11] we shall see that the idea of public reason applies more strictly to judges than to others, but that the requirements of public justification for that reason are always the same.

Distinct and separate from this three-part public political fo­rum is what I call the background culture.[12] This is the culture of civil society. In a democracy, this culture is not, of course, guided by any one central idea or principle, whether political or relig­ious. Its many and diverse agencies and associations with their internal life reside within a framework of law that ensures the familiar liberties of thought and speech, and the right of free as­sociation.[13] The idea of public reason does not apply to the back­ground culture with its many forms of nonpublic reason nor to media of any kind.[14] Sometimes those who appear to reject the idea of public reason actually mean to assert the need for full and open discussion in the background culture.[15] With this political liberalism fully agrees.

Finally, distinct from the idea of public reason, as set out by the five features above, is the ideal of public reason. 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 the most reasonable. In this way they fulfill what I shall call their duty of civility to one another and to other citi­zens. Hence, whether judges, legislators, and chief executives act from and follow public reason is continually shown in their speech and conduct on a daily basis.

How though is the ideal of public reason realized by citizens who are not government officials? In a representative govern­ment citizens vote for representatives—chief executives, legisla­tors, and the like—and not for particular laws (except at a state or local level when they may vote directly on referenda questions, which are rarely fundamental questions). To answer this ques­tion, we say that ideally citizens are to think of themselves as if they were legislators and ask themselves what statutes, sup­ported by what reasons satisfying the criterion of reciprocity, they would think it most reasonable to enact.[16] When firm and widespread, the disposition of citizens to view themselves as ideal legislators, and to repudiate government officials and can­didates for public office who violate public reason, is one of the political and social roots of democracy, and is vital to its enduring strength and vigor.[17] Thus citizens fulfill their duty of civility and support the idea of public reason by doing what they can to hold government officials to it. This duty, like other political rights and duties, is an intrinsically moral duty. I emphasize that it is not a legal duty, for in that case it would be incompatible with freedom of speech.

2. I now turn to a discussion of what I have labeled the third, fourth, and fifth aspects of public reason. The idea of public rea­son arises from a conception of democratic citizenship in a consti­tutional democracy. This fundamental political relation of citi­zenship has two special features: first, it is a relation of citizens within the basic structure of society, a structure we enter only by birth and exit only by death;[18] and second, it is a relation of free and equal citizens who exercise ultimate political power as a col­lective body. These two features immediately give rise to the question of how, when constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice are at stake, citizens so related can be bound to honor the structure of their constitutional democratic regime and abide by the statutes and laws enacted under it. The fact of rea­sonable pluralism raises this question all the more sharply, since it means that the differences between citizens arising from their comprehensive doctrines, religious and nonreligious, may be ir­reconcilable. By what ideals and principles, then, are citizens who share equally in ultimate political power to exercise that power so that each can reasonably justify his or her political de­cisions to everyone?

To answer this question we say: 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 to what they consider the most reasonable conception of political justice; and when they agree to act on those terms, even at the cost of their own inter­ests in particular situations, provided that other citizens also ac­cept those terms. The criterion of reciprocity requires that when those terms are proposed as the most reasonable terms of fair co­operation, those proposing them must also think it at least rea­sonable for others to accept them, as free and equal citizens, and not as dominated or manipulated, or under the pressure of an in­ferior political or social position.[19] Citizens will of course differ as to which conceptions of political justice they think the most rea­sonable, but they will agree that all are reasonable, even if barely so.

Thus when, on a constitutional essential or matter of basic justice, all appropriate government officials act from and follow public reason, and when all reasonable citizens think of them­selves ideally as if they were legislators following public reason, the legal enactment expressing the opinion of the majority is le­gitimate law. It may not be thought the most reasonable, or the most appropriate, by each, but it is politically (morally) binding on him or her as a citizen and is to be accepted as such. Each thinks that all have spoken and voted at least reasonably, and therefore all have followed public reason and honored their duty of civility.

Hence the idea of 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 also reasonably think that other citizens might also reasonably accept those reasons. This crite­rion applies on two levels: one is to the constitutional structure itself, the other is to particular statutes and laws enacted in ac­cordance with that structure. To be reasonable, political concep­tions must justify only constitutions that satisfy this principle.

To make more explicit the role of the criterion of reciprocity as expressed in public reason, note that its role is to specify the nature of the political relation in a constitutional democratic re­gime as one of civic friendship. For this criterion, when govern­ment officers act from it in their public reasoning and other citi­zens support it, shapes the form of their fundamental institu­tions. . . . The criterion of reciprocity is nor­mally violated whenever basic liberties are denied. For what rea­sons can both satisfy the criterion of reciprocity and justify de­nying to some persons religious liberty, holding others as slaves, imposing a property qualification on the right to vote, or denying the right of suffrage to women?

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—and not by reasons that might be shared by all citizens as free and equal, will of course reject the idea of public reason. Political liberalism views this insistence on the whole truth in politics as incompati­ble with democratic citizenship and the idea of legitimate law.

. . .


§ 2: The Content of Public Reason

1. A citizen engages in public reason, then, when he or she deliberates within a framework of what he or she sincerely re­gards as the most reasonable political conception of justice, a conception that expresses political values that others, as free and equal citizens might also reasonably be expected reasonably to endorse. Each of us must have principles and guidelines to which we appeal in such a way that this criterion is satisfied. I have proposed that one way to identify those political principles and guidelines is to show that they would be agreed to in what in Political Liberalism is called the original position.[20] Others will think that different ways to identify these principles are more reasonable.

Thus, the content of public reason is given by a family of po­litical conceptions of justice, and not by a single one. There are many liberalisms and related views, and therefore many forms of public reason specified by a family of reasonable political concep­tions. Of these, justice as fairness, whatever its merits, is but one. The limiting feature of these forms is the criterion of reci­procity, viewed as applied between free and equal citizens, them­selves seen as reasonable and rational. Three main features characterize these conceptions:

First, a list of certain basic rights, liberties, and opportuni­ties (such as those familiar from constitutional regimes);

Second, an assignment of special priority to those rights, lib­erties, and opportunities, especially with respect to the claims of the general good and perfectionist values; and

Third, measures ensuring for all citizens adequate all-purpose means to make effective use of their freedoms.[21]

Each of these liberalisms endorses the underlying ideas of citizens as free and equal persons and of society as a fair system of cooperation over time. Yet since these ideas can be interpreted in various ways, we get different formulations of the principles of justice and different contents of public reason. Political concep­tions differ also in how they order, or balance, political principles and values even when they specify the same ones. I assume also that these liberalisms contain substantive principles of justice, and hence cover more than procedural justice. They are required to specify the religious liberties and freedoms of artistic expres­sion of equal citizens, as well as substantive ideas of fairness in­volving fair opportunity and ensuring adequate all-purpose means, and much else.[22]

Political liberalism, then, does not try to fix public reason once and for all in the form of one favored political conception of justice.[23] That would not be a sensible approach. For instance, political liberalism also admits Habermas’s discourse conception of legitimacy (sometimes said to be radically democratic rather than liberal),[24] as well as Catholic views of the common good and solidarity when they are expressed in terms of political values.[25] Even if relatively few conceptions come to dominate over time, and one conception even appears to have a special central place, the forms of permissible public reason are always several. Moreover, new variations may be proposed from time to time and older ones may cease to be represented. It is important that this be so; otherwise the claims of groups or interests arising from so­cial change might be repressed and fail to gain their appropriate political voice.[26]

2. We must distinguish public reason from what is some­times referred to as secular reason and secular values. These are not the same as public reason. For I define secular reason as rea­soning in terms of comprehensive nonreligious doctrines. Such doctrines and values are much too broad to serve the purposes of public reason. Political values are not moral doctrines,[27] however available or accessible these may be to our reason and common sense reflection. Moral doctrines are on a level with religion and first philosophy. By contrast, liberal political principles and val­ues, although intrinsically moral values, are specified by liberal political conceptions of justice and fall under the category of the political. These political conceptions have three features:

First, their principles apply to basic political and social in­stitutions (the basic structure of society);

Second, they can be presented independently from compre­hensive doctrines of any kind (although they may, of course, be supported by a reasonable overlapping consensus of such doctrines); and

Finally, they can be worked out from fundamental ideas seen as implicit in the public political culture of a constitu­tional regime, such as the conceptions of citizens as free and equal persons, and of society as a fair system of cooperation.

Thus, the content of public reason is given by the principles and values of the family of liberal political conceptions of justice meeting these conditions. To engage in public reason is to appeal to one of these political conceptions—to their ideals and princi­ples, standards and values—when debating fundamental politi­cal questions. This requirement still allows us to introduce into political discussion at any time our comprehensive doctrine, re­ligious or nonreligious, provided that, in due course, we give properly public reasons to support the principles and policies our comprehensive doctrine is said to support. I refer to this re­quirement as the proviso, and consider it in detail below.[28]

A feature of public reasoning, then, is that it proceeds en­tirely within a political conception of justice. Examples of politi­cal values include those mentioned in the preamble to the United States Constitution: a more perfect union, justice, domestic tran­quillity, the common defense, the general welfare, and the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. These include under them other values: so, for example, under justice we also have equal basic liberties, equality of opportunity, ideals con­cerning the distribution of income and taxation, and much else.

The political values of public reason are distinct from other values in that they are realized in and characterize political in­stitutions. This does not mean that analogous values cannot characterize other social forms. The values of effectiveness and efficiency may characterize the social organization of teams and clubs, as well as the political institutions of the basic structure of society. But a value is properly political only when the social form is itself political: when it is realized, say, in parts of the ba­sic structure and its political and social institutions. It follows that many political conceptions are non-liberal, including those of aristocracy and corporate oligarchy, and of autocracy and dicta­torship. All of these fall within the category of the political.[29] We, however, are concerned only with those political conceptions that are reasonable for a constitutional democratic regime, and as the preceding paragraphs make clear, these are the ideals and prin­ciples expressed by reasonable liberal political conceptions.

. . .

5. . . . A view often expressed is that while religious reasons and sectarian doctrines should not be in­voked to justify legislation in a democratic society, sound secular arguments may be.[30] But what is a secular argument? Some think of any argument that is reflective and critical, publicly intelligible and rational, as a secular argument; and they discuss various such arguments for considering, say, homosexual rela­tions unworthy or degrading.[31] Of course, some of these arguments may be reflective and rational secular ones (as so defined). Nevertheless, a central feature of political liberalism is that it views all such arguments the same way it views religious ones, and therefore these secular philosophical doctrines do not pro­vide public reasons. Secular concepts and reasoning of this kind belong to first philosophy and moral doctrine, and fall outside of the domain of the political.

. . .


§ 3: Religion and Public Reason in Democracy

. . .

2. . . . How is it possible—or is it—for those of faith, as well as the nonreligious (secular), to endorse a constitutional regime even when their comprehensive doctrines may not prosper under it, and indeed may decline? Here the answer lies in the religious or nonreligious doctrine’s understanding and accepting that, except by endorsing a reason­able constitutional democracy, there is no other way fairly to en­sure the liberty of its adherents consistent with the equal liber­ties of other reasonable free and equal citizens. In endorsing a constitutional democratic regime, a religious doctrine may say that such are the limits God sets to our liberty; a nonreligious doctrine will express itself otherwise.[32] But in either case, these doctrines formulate in different ways how liberty of conscience and the principle of toleration can cohere with equal justice for all citizens in a reasonable democratic society. Thus, the princi­ples of toleration and liberty of conscience must have an essential place in any constitutional democratic conception. They lay down the fundamental basis to be accepted by all citizens as fair and regulative of the rivalry between doctrines.

Observe here that there are two ideas of toleration. One is purely political, being expressed in terms of the rights and duties protecting religious liberty in accordance with a reasonable po­litical conception of justice. The other is not purely political but expressed from within a religious or a nonreligious doctrine, as when, for example, it was said above that such are the limits God sets on our liberty. Saying this offers an example of what I call reasoning from conjecture.[33] In this case we reason from what we believe, or conjecture, may be other people’s basic doctrines, re­ligious or philosophical, and seek to show them that, despite what they might think, they can still endorse a reasonable politi­cal conception of justice. We are not ourselves asserting that ground of toleration but offering it as one they could assert con­sistent with their comprehensive doctrines.

§ 4: The Wide View of Public Political Culture

1. Now we consider what I call the wide view of public politi­cal culture and discuss two aspects of it. The first is that reason­able comprehensive doctrines, religious or nonreligious, may be introduced in public political discussion at any time, provided that in due course proper political reasons—and not reasons given solely by comprehensive doctrines—are presented that are sufficient to support whatever the comprehensive doctrines in­troduced are said to support. This injunction to present proper political reasons I refer to as the proviso, and it specifies public political culture as distinct from the background culture.[34] The second aspect I consider is that there may be positive reasons for introducing comprehensive doctrines into public political discus­sion. I take up these two aspects in turn.

Obviously, many questions may be raised about how to sat­isfy the proviso.[35] . . . Yet the details about how to satisfy this proviso must be worked out in practice and cannot feasibly be governed by a clear family of rules given in advance. How they work out is deter­mined by the nature of the public political culture and calls for good sense and understanding. It is important also to observe that the introduction into public political culture of religious and secular doctrines, provided the proviso is met, does not change the nature and content of justification in public reason itself. This justification is still given in terms of a family of reasonable political conceptions of justice. However, there are no restrictions or requirements on how religious or secular doctrines are them­selves to be expressed; these doctrines need not, for example, be by some standards logically correct, or open to rational appraisal, or evidentially supportable.[36] Whether they are or not is a matter to be decided by those presenting them, and how they want what they say to be taken. They will normally have practical reasons for wanting to make their views acceptable to a broader audi­ence.

. . .

3. Public reasoning aims for public justification. We appeal to political conceptions of justice, and to ascertainable evidence and facts open to public view, in order to reach conclusions about what we think are the most reasonable political institutions and policies. Public justification is not simply valid reasoning, but ar­gument addressed to others: it proceeds correctly from premises we accept and think others could reasonably accept to conclu­sions we think they could also reasonably accept. This meets the duty of civility, since in due course the proviso is satisfied.

. . .


§ 5: On the Family as Part of the Basic Structure



§ 6: Questions About Public Reason

I now turn to various questions and doubts about the idea of public reason and try to allay them.

1. First, it may be objected that the idea of public reason would unreasonably limit the topics and considerations available for political argument and debate, and that we should adopt in­stead what we may call the open view with no constraints. I now discuss two examples to rebut this objection.

(a) One reason for thinking public reason is too restrictive is to suppose that it mistakenly tries to settle political questions in advance. . . . [discussion omitted]

(b) Others may think that public reason is too restrictive be­cause it may lead to a stand-off[37] and fail to bring about decisions on disputed issues. A stand-off in some sense may indeed hap­pen, not only in moral and political reasoning but in all forms of reasoning, including science and common sense. Nevertheless, this is irrelevant. The relevant comparison is to those situations in which legislators enacting laws and judges deciding cases must make decisions. Here some political rule of action must be laid down and all must be able reasonably to endorse the process by which a decision is reached. Recall that public reason sees the office of citizen with its duty of civility as analogous to that of judge with its duty of deciding cases. Just as judges are to decide cases by legal grounds of precedent, recognized canons of statu­tory interpretation, and other relevant grounds, so citizens are to reason by public reason and to be guided by the criterion of reci­procity, whenever constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice are at stake.

Thus, when there seems to be a stand-off, that is, when legal arguments seem evenly balanced on both sides, judges cannot re­solve the case simply by appealing to their own political views. To do that is for judges to violate their duty. The same holds with public reason: if, when stand-offs occur, citizens simply invoke grounding reasons of their comprehensive views,[38] the principle of reciprocity is violated. From the point of view of public reason, citizens must vote for the ordering of political values they sin­cerely think the most reasonable. Otherwise they fail to exercise political power in ways that satisfy the criterion of reciprocity.

In particular, when hotly disputed questions, such as that of abortion, arise which may lead to a stand-off between different political conceptions, citizens must vote on the question accord­ing to their complete ordering of political values.[39] Indeed, this is a normal case: unanimity of views is not to be expected. Reason­able political conceptions of justice do not always lead to the same conclusion;[40] nor do citizens holding the same conception always agree on particular issues. Yet the outcome of the vote, as I said before, is to be seen as legitimate provided all government officials, supported by other reasonable citizens, of a reasonably just constitutional regime sincerely vote in accordance with the idea of public reason. This doesn’t mean the outcome is true or correct, but that it is reasonable and legitimate law, binding on citizens by the majority principle.

Some may, of course, reject a legitimate decision, as Roman Catholics may reject a decision to grant a right to abortion. They may present an argument in public reason for denying it and fail to win a majority.[41] But they need not themselves exercise the right to abortion. They can recognize the right as belonging to le­gitimate law enacted in accordance with legitimate political in­stitutions and public reason, and therefore not resist it with force. Forceful resistance is unreasonable: it would mean at­tempting to impose by force their own comprehensive doctrine that a majority of other citizens who follow public reason, not un­reasonably, do not accept. Certainly Catholics may, in line with public reason, continue to argue against the right to abortion. Reasoning is not closed once and for all in public reason any more than it is closed in any form of reasoning. Moreover, that the Catholic Church’s nonpublic reason requires its members to fol­low its doctrine is perfectly consistent with their also honoring public reason.[42]

. . .


2. Some of the considerations underlying the stand-off objec­tion lead to a more general objection to public reason, namely, that the content of the family of reasonable political conceptions of justice on which it is based is itself much too narrow. This ob­jection insists that we should always present what we think are true or grounding reasons for our views. That is, the objection in­sists, we are bound to express the true, or the right, as seen from our comprehensive doctrines.

However, as I said in the Introduction, in public reason ideas of truth or right based on comprehensive doctrines are replaced by an idea of the politically reasonable addressed to citizens as citizens. This step is necessary to establish a basis of political reasoning that all can share as free and equal citizens. Since we are seeking public justifications for political and social institu­tions—for the basic structure of a political and social world—we think of persons as citizens. This assigns to each person the same basic political position. In giving reasons to all citizens we don’t view persons as socially situated or otherwise rooted, that is, as being in this or that social class, or in this or that property and income group, or as having this or that comprehensive doctrine. Nor are we appealing to each person’s or each group’s interests, though at some point we must take these interests into account. Rather, we think of persons as reasonable and rational, as free and equal citizens, with the two moral powers[43] and having, at any given moment, a determinate conception of the good, which may change over time. These features of citizens are implicit in their taking part in a fair system of social cooperation and seek­ing and presenting public justifications for their judgments on fundamental political questions.

I emphasize that this idea of public reason is fully compati­ble with the many forms of nonpublic reason.[44] These belong to the internal life of the many associations in civil society and they are not of course all the same; different nonpublic reasons of dif­ferent religious associations shared by their members are not those of scientific societies. Since we seek a shareable public ba­sis of justification for all citizens in society, giving justifications to particular persons and groups here and there until all are cov­ered fails to do this. To speak of all persons in society is still too broad, unless we suppose that they are in their nature basically the same. In political philosophy one role of ideas about our na­ture has been to think of people in a standard, or canonical, fashion so that they might all accept the same kind of reasons.[45] In political liberalism, however, we try to avoid natural or psy­chological views of this kind, as well as theological or secular doc­trines. Accounts of human nature we put aside and rely on a po­litical conception of persons as citizens instead.

3. 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. However, the relation be­tween a comprehensive doctrine and its accompanying political conception is easily misunderstood.

When political liberalism speaks of a reasonable overlapping consensus of comprehensive doctrines,[46] it means that all of these doctrines, both religious and nonreligious, support a political conception of justice underwriting a constitutional democratic so­ciety whose principles, ideals, and standards satisfy the criterion of reciprocity. Thus, all reasonable doctrines affirm such a society with its corresponding political institutions: equal basic rights and liberties for all citizens, including liberty of conscience and the freedom of religion.[47] On the other hand, comprehensive doc­trines that cannot support such a democratic society are not rea­sonable. Their principles and ideals do not satisfy the criterion of reciprocity, and in various ways they fail to establish the equal basic liberties. As examples, consider the many fundamentalist religious doctrines, the doctrine of the divine right of monarchs and the various forms of aristocracy, and, not to be overlooked, the many instances of autocracy and dictatorship.

Moreover, a true judgment in a reasonable comprehensive doctrine never conflicts with a reasonable judgment in its related political conception. A reasonable judgment of the political con­ception must still be confirmed as true, or right, by the compre­hensive doctrine. It is, of course, up to citizens themselves to af­firm, revise, or change their comprehensive doctrines. Their doc­trines may override or count for naught the political values of a constitutional democratic society. But then the citizens cannot claim that such doctrines are reasonable. Since the criterion of reciprocity is an essential ingredient specifying public reason and its content, political liberalism rejects as unreasonable all such doctrines.

In a reasonable comprehensive doctrine, in particular a re­ligious one, the ranking of values may not be what we might ex­pect. Thus, suppose we call transcendent such values as salvation and eternal life—the Visio Dei. This value, let’s say, is higher, or superior to, the reasonable political values of a constitutional democratic society. These are worldly values and therefore on a different, and as it were lower, plane than those transcendent values. It doesn’t follow, however, that these lower yet reason­able values are overridden by the transcendent values of the re­ligious doctrine. In fact, a reasonable comprehensive doctrine is one in which they are not overridden; it is the unreasonable doc­trines in which reasonable political values are overridden. This is a consequence of the idea of the politically reasonable as set out in political liberalism. Recall that it was said: In endorsing a con­stitutional democratic regime, a religious doctrine may say that such are the limits God sets to our liberty.[48]

A further misunderstanding alleges that an argument in public reason could not side with Lincoln against Douglas in their debates of 1858.[49] But why not? Certainly they were debat­ing fundamental political principles about the rights and wrongs of slavery. Since the rejection of slavery is a clear case of securing the constitutional essential of the equal basic liberties, surely Lincoln’s view was reasonable (even if not the most reasonable), while Douglas’s was not. Therefore, Lincoln’s view is supported by any reasonable comprehensive doctrine. It is no surprise, then, that his view is in line with the religious doctrines of the Abolitionists and the Civil Rights Movement. What could be a better example to illustrate the force of public reason in political life?[50]

4. A third general objection is that the idea of public reason is unnecessary and serves no purpose in a well established con­stitutional democracy. . . .

However, this objection is incorrect and sociologically faulty. For without citizens’ allegiance to public reason and their hon­oring the duty of civility, divisions and hostilities between doc­trines are bound in time to assert themselves, should they not al­ready exist. . . .


§ 7: Conclusion

1. Throughout, I have been concerned with a torturing ques­tion in the contemporary world, namely: Can democracy and comprehensive doctrines, religious or nonreligious, be compati­ble? And if so, how? . . . To answer it political liberalism makes the distinction between a self-standing political conception of justice and a comprehensive doctrine. A religious doctrine resting on the authority of the Church or the Bible is not, of course, a liberal comprehensive doctrine: its leading religious and moral values are not those, say, of Kant or Mill. Nevertheless, it may endorse a constitutional democratic society and recognize its public reason. Here it is basic that pub­lic reason is a political idea and belongs to the category of the po­litical. Its content is given by the family of (liberal) political con­ceptions of justice satisfying the criterion of reciprocity. It does not trespass upon religious beliefs and injunctions insofar as these are consistent with the essential constitutional liberties, including the freedom of religion and liberty of conscience. There is, or need be, no war between religion and democracy. In this re­spect political liberalism is sharply different from and rejects Enlightenment Liberalism, which historically attacked orthodox Christianity.

The conflicts between democracy and reasonable religious doctrines and among reasonable religious doctrines themselves are greatly mitigated and contained within the bounds of reason­able principles of justice in a constitutional democratic society. This mitigation is due to the idea of toleration, and I have distin­guished between two such ideas.[51] . . .

2. Reasonable comprehensive doctrines do not reject the es­sentials of a constitutional democratic polity.[52] Moreover, reason­able persons are characterized in two ways: First, 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;[53] second, reasonable persons recognize and accept the consequences of the burdens of judgment, which leads to the idea of reasonable toleration in a democratic soci­ety.[54] Finally we come to the idea of legitimate law, which rea­sonable citizens understand to apply to the general structure of political authority.[55] They know that in political life unanimity can rarely if ever be expected, so a reasonable democratic consti­tution must include majority or other plurality voting procedures in order to reach decisions.[56]

. . .

I noted in the beginning[57] the fact that every actual society, however dominant and controlling its reasonable citizens may be, will normally contain numerous unreasonable doctrines that are not compatible with a democratic society—either certain relig­ious doctrines, such as fundamentalist religions, or certain non­religious (secular) doctrines, such as those of autocracy and dic­tatorship, of which our century offers hideous examples. How far unreasonable doctrines may be active and are to be tolerated in a constitutional democratic regime does not present a new and dif­ferent question, despite the fact that in this account of public reason we have focused on the idea of the reasonable and the role of reasonable citizens. There is not one account of toleration for reasonable doctrines and another for unreasonable ones. Both cases are settled by the appropriate political principles of justice and the conduct those principles permit.[58] Unreasonable doc­trines are a threat to democratic institutions, since it is impossi­ble for them to abide by a constitutional regime except as a mo­dus vivendi. Their existence sets a limit to the aim of fully real­izing a reasonable democratic society with its ideal of public rea­son and the idea of legitimate law. This fact is not a defect or failure of the idea of public reason, but rather it indicates that there are limits to what public reason can accomplish. It does not diminish the great value and importance of attempting to realize that ideal to the fullest extent possible.

3. I end by pointing out the fundamental difference between A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism. The first explicitly attempts to develop from the idea of the social contract, repre­sented by Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, a theory of justice that is no longer open to objections often thought fatal to it, and that proves superior to the long dominant tradition of utilitarianism. A Theory of Justice hopes to present the structural features of such a theory so as to make it the best approximation to our con­sidered judgments of justice and hence to give the most appro­priate moral basis for a democratic society. Furthermore, justice as fairness is presented there as a comprehensive liberal doctrine (although the term “comprehensive doctrine” is not used in the book) in which all the members of its well ordered society affirm that same doctrine. This kind of well ordered society contradicts the fact of reasonable pluralism and hence Political Liberalism regards that society as impossible.

Thus, Political Liberalism considers a different question, namely: How is it possible for those affirming a comprehensive doctrine, religious or nonreligious, and in particular doctrines based on religious authority, such as the Church or the Bible, also to hold a reasonable political conception of justice that sup­ports a constitutional democratic society? The political concep­tions are seen as both liberal and self-standing and not as com­prehensive, whereas the religious doctrines may be comprehen­sive but not liberal. The two books are asymmetrical, though both have an idea of public reason. In the first, public reason is given by a comprehensive liberal doctrine, while in the second, 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. Thus, the well ordered constitutional democratic society of Political Liberalism is one in which the dominant and controlling citizens affirm and act from irreconcil­able yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines. These doctrines in turn support reasonable political conceptions—although not nec­essarily the most reasonable—which specify the basic rights, lib­erties, and opportunities of citizens in society’s basic structure.

[1] See John Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture VI, § 8.5 (Columbia paperback ed 1996). References to Political Liberalism are given by lecture and section; page numbers are also provided unless the reference refers to an entire lecture, section, or subsection. Note that the 1996 paperback edition of Political Liberalism contains a new second intro­duction which, among other things, tries to make clearer certain aspects of political liber­alism. Section 5 of this introduction, id at 1-lvii, discusses the idea of public reason and sketches several changes I now make in affirming this idea. These are all followed and elaborated in what is presented here and are important to a complete understanding of the argument. Note also that the pagination of the paperback edition is the same as the original.

[2] I shall use the term doctrine for comprehensive views of all kinds and the term con­ception for a political conception and its component parts, such as the conception of the person as citizen. The term idea is used as a general term and may refer to either as the context determines. 

[3] Of course, every society also contains numerous unreasonable doctrines. Yet in this essay I am concerned with an ideal normative conception of democratic government, that is, with the conduct of its reasonable citizens and the principles they follow, assuming them to be dominant and controlling. How far unreasonable doctrines are active and tol­erated is to be determined by the principles of justice and the kinds of actions they per­mit. See § 7.2. 

[4] See §6.2. 

[5] See §1.2. 

[6] See text accompanying notes 12-15. 

[7] These questions are described in Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture VI, § 5 at 227­30 (cited in note 1). Constitutional essentials concern questions about what political rights and liberties, say, may reasonably be included in a written constitution, when as­suming the constitution may be interpreted by a supreme court, or some similar body. Matters of basic justice relate to the basic structure of society and so would concern ques­tions of basic economic and social justice and other things not covered by a constitution. 

[8] There is no settled meaning of this term. The one I use is not I think peculiar. 

[9] Here we face the question of where to draw the line between candidates and those who manage their campaigns and other politically engaged citizens generally. We settle this matter by making candidates and those who run their campaigns responsible for what is said and done on the candidates’ behalf. 

[10] [omitted] 

[11] See § 4. 

[12] Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture I, § 2.3 at 14 (cited in note 1). 

[13] The background culture includes, then, the culture of churches and associations of all kinds, and institutions of learning at all levels, especially universities and professional schools, scientific and other societies. In addition, the nonpublic political culture mediates between the public political culture and the background culture. This comprises media— properly so named—of all kinds: newspapers, reviews and magazines, TV and radio, and much else. Compare these divisions with Habermas’s account of the public sphere. See Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture IX, § 1.3 at 382 n 13 (cited in note 1). 

[14] See id, lecture VI, § 3 at 220-22. 

[15] See David Hollenbach, S.J., Civil Society: Beyond the Public-Private Dichotomy, 5 The Responsive Community 15 (Winter 1994/95). . . . 

[16] There is some resemblance between this criterion and Kant’s principle of the origi­nal contract. See Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals: Metaphysical First Princi­ples of the Doctrine of Right §§ 47-49 at 92-95 (AK 6:315-18) (Cambridge 1996) (Mary Gregor, trans and ed); Immanuel Kant, On the Common Saying: ‘This May be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice/ Part II, in Kant: Political Writings 73-87 (AK 8: 289-306) (Cambridge 2d ed 1991) (Hans Reiss, ed, H.B. Nisbet, trans). 

[17] See also § 4.2. 

[18] Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture I, § 2.1 at 12 (cited in note 1). For concerns about exiting only by death, see id, lecture IV, § 1.2 at 136 n 4. 

[19] The idea of reciprocity has an important place in Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement chs 1-2 and passim (Belknap 1996). However, the meaning and setting of our views are not the same. Public reason in political liberal­ism is purely political, although political values are intrinsically moral, whereas Gutmann and Thompson’s account is more general and seems to work from a comprehensive doctrine. 

[20] Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture I, § 4 at 22-28 (cited in note 1). 

[21] Here I follow the definition in Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture I, § 1.2 at 6, lec­ture IV, § 5.3 at 156-57 (cited in note 1). 

[22] Some may think the fact of reasonable pluralism means the only forms of fair adju­dication between comprehensive doctrines must be only procedural and not substantive. This view is forcefully argued by Stuart Hampshire in Innocence and Experience (Harvard 1989). In the text above, however, I assume the several forms of liberalism are each sub­stantive conceptions. For a thorough treatment of these issues, see the discussion in Joshua Cohen, Pluralism and Proceduralism, 69 Chi Kent L Rev 589 (1994). 

[23] I do think that justice as fairness has a certain special place in the family of politi­cal conceptions, as I suggest in Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture IV, § 7.4 (cited in note 1). But this opinion of mine is not basic to the ideas of political liberalism and public rea­son. 

[24] See Jurgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy 107-09 (MIT 1996) (William Rehg, trans) (defining the dis­course principle). . . .  

[25] Deriving from Aristotle and St. Thomas, the idea of the common good is essential to much of Catholic moral and political thought. See, for example, John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights 153-56, 160 (Clarendon 1980); Jacques Maritain, Man and the State 108-14 (Chicago 1951). Finnis is especially clear, while Aquinas is occasionally ambigu­ous. 

[26] Thus, Jeremy Waldron’s criticism of political liberalism as not allowing new and changing conceptions of political justice is incorrect. See Jeremy Waldron, Religious Con­tributions in Public Deliberation, 30 San Diego L Rev 817, 837-38 (1993). See the reply to Waldron’s criticisms in Lawrence B. Solum, Novel Public Reasons, 29 Loyola LA L Rev 1459, 1460 (1996) (“[General acceptance of a liberal ideal of public reason would permit the robust evolution of political discourse.”). 

[27] See note 2 for my definition of doctrine. 

See § 4. 

[29] Here see Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture IX, § 1.1 at 374-75 (cited in note 1). 

[30] See Robert Audi, The Place of Religious Argument in a Free and Democratic Soci­ety, 30 San Diego L Rev 677 (1993). . . . 

[31] See the discussion by Michael Perry of John Finnis’s argument, which denies that such relations are compatible with human good. Religion in Politics: Constitutional and Moral Perspectives ch 3 at 85-86 (Oxford 1997). 

[32] An example of how a religion may do this is the following. Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, in his book Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law 52-57 (Syracuse 1990), introduces the idea of reconsidering the tradi­tional interpretation of Shari’a, which for Muslims is divine law. For his interpretation to be accepted by Muslims, it must be presented as the correct and superior interpretation of Shari’a. The basic idea of An-Na’im’s interpretation, following the late Sudanese author Ustadh Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, is that the traditional understanding of Shari’a has been based on the teachings of the later Medina period of Muhammad, whereas the teachings of the earlier Mecca period of Muhammad are the eternal and fundamental message of Islam. An-Na’im claims that the superior Mecca teachings and principles were rejected in favor of the more realistic and practical (in a seventh-century historical con­text) Medina teachings because society was not yet ready for their implementation. Now that historical conditions have changed, An-Na’im believes that Muslims should follow the earlier Mecca period in interpreting Shari’a. So interpreted, he says that Shari’a sup­ports constitutional democracy. Id at 69-100. 

In particular, the earlier Mecca interpretation of Shari’a supports equality of men and women, and complete freedom of choice in matters of faith and religion, both of which are in accordance with the constitutional principle of equality before the law. An-Na’im writes: 

The Qur’an does not mention constitutionalism, but human rational thinking and experience have shown that constitutionalism is necessary for realizing the just and good society prescribed by the Qur’an. 

An Islamic justification and support for constitutionalism is important and relevant for Muslims. Non-Muslims may have their own secular or other justifications. As long as all are agreed on the principle and specific rules of constitutionalism, in­cluding complete equality and non-discrimination on grounds of gender or religion, each may have his or her own reasons for coming to that agreement. 

Id at 100. (This is a perfect example of overlapping consensus.) I thank Akeel Bilgrami for informing me of An-Na’im’s work. I also owe thanks to Roy Mottahedeh for valuable dis­cussion. 

[33] See § 4.3. 

[34] Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture I, § 2.3 at 13-14 (cited in note 1) (contrasting public political culture with background culture). 

[35] I am indebted here to valuable discussion with Dennis Thompson. 

[36] Greenawalt discusses Franklin Gamwell and Michael Perry, who do evidently im­pose such constraints on how religion is to be presented. See Greenawalt, Private Con­sciences and Public Reasons at 85-95 (cited in note 35). 

[37] I take the term from Philip Quinn. The idea appears in Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture VI, § 7.1-2 at 240-41 (cited in note 1). 

[38] I use the term “grounding reasons” since many who might appeal to these reasons view them as the proper grounds, or the true basis—religious, philosophical, or moral—of the ideals and principles of public reasons and political conceptions of justice. 

[39] Some have quite naturally read the footnote in Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture VI, § 7.2 at 243-44 (cited in note 1), as an argument for the right to abortion in the first trimester. I do not intend it to be one. (It does express my opinion, but my opinion is not an argument.) . . . 

[40] Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture VI, § 7.1 at 240-41 (cited in note 1). 

[41] For such an argument, see Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, The Consistent Ethic: What Sort of Framework?, 16 Origins 345, 347-50 (Oct 30, 1986). . . . 

[42] As far as I can see, this view is similar to Father John Courtney Murray’s position about the stand the Church should take in regard to contraception in We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition 157-58 (Sheed and Ward 1960). See also Mario Cuomo’s lecture on abortion in his Notre Dame Lecture of 1984, in More Than Words: The Speeches of Mario Cuomo 32-51 (St Martin’s 1993). I am indebted to Leslie Griffin and Paul Weithman for discussion and clarification about points involved in this and the preceding footnote and for acquainting me with Father Murray’s view. 

[43] These two powers, the capacity for a conception of justice and the capacity for a conception of the good, are discussed in Rawls, Political Liberalism (cited in note 1). See especially id, lecture I, § 3.2 at 19, lecture II, § 7.1 at 81, lecture III, § 3.3 at 103-04, lec­ture III, § 4.1 at 108. 

[44] Id, lecture VI, § 4 at 223-27. 

[45] Sometimes the term “normalize” is used in this connection. For example, persons have certain fundamental interests of a religious or philosophical kind; or else certain ba­sic needs of a natural kind. Again, they may have a certain typical pattern of self-realization. A Thomist will say that we always desire above all else, even if unknown to ourselves, the Visio Dei; a Platonist will say we strive for a vision of the good; a Marxist will say we aim for self-realization as species-beings. 

[46] The idea of such a consensus is discussed at various places in Rawls, Political Lib­eralism (cited in note 1). See especially id, lecture IV, and consult the index. 

[47] See id at xviii (paperback edition). 

[48] See § 3.2. It is sometimes asked why political liberalism puts such a high value on political values, as if one could only do that by assessing those values in comparison with transcendent values. But this comparison political liberalism does not make, nor does it need to make, as is observed in the text. 

[49] On this, see Michael J. Sandel, Review of Political Liberalism, 107 Harv L Rev 1765, 1778-82 (1994), and more recently Michael J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy 21-23 (Belknap 1996). 

[50] Perhaps some think that a political conception is not a matter of (moral) right and wrong. If so, that is a mistake and is simply false. Political conceptions of justice are themselves intrinsically moral ideas, as I have stressed from the outset. As such they are a kind of normative value. On the other hand, some may think that the relevant political conceptions are determined by how a people actually establish their existing institu­tions—the political given, as it were, by politics. Viewed in this light, the prevalence of slavery in 1858 implies that Lincoln’s criticisms of it were moral, a matter of right and wrong, and certainly not a matter of politics. To say that the political is determined by a people’s politics may be a possible use of the term political. But then it ceases to be a normative idea and it is no longer part of public reason. We must hold fast to the idea of the political as a fundamental category and covering political conceptions of justice as in­trinsic moral values. 

[51] See § 3.2. 

[52] Id at xviii. 

[53] Id, lecture II, § 1.1 at 49-50. 

[54] Id, lecture II, §§ 2-3.4 at 54-62. 

[55] Id, lecture IV, § 1.2-3 at 135-37. 

[56] Id, lecture IX, § 2.1 at 393. 

[57] See note 3. 

[58] See Rawls, A Theory of Justice § 35 (cited in note 55) (on toleration of the intoler­ant); Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture V, § 6.2 at 197-99 (cited in note 1). 

“Politics, Religion, and the Public Good: An Interview with Philosopher John Rawls”

John Rawls

 (Interviewed by Bernard G. Prusak)


[Rawls, John. “Politics, Religion, and the Public Good: An Interview with Philosopher John Rawls.” By Bernard G. Prusak. Commonweal Magazine 125, no. 16, 25 September 1998. Originally published in Commonweal Magazine. Reproduced with permission of Bernard G. Prusak and Commonweal Magazine.] 


Bernard G. Prusak: In A Theory of Justice, religion is not listed in the index. But in your recent work, Political Liberalism and “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” [see, The University of Chicago Law Review, Summer 1997], religion has become, if not the central theme, at least a major focus. You’ve had a turn in your interests. What’s the motivation for this new focus?

John Rawls: Well, that’s a good question. I think the basic explanation is that I’m concerned about the survival, historically, of constitutional democracy. I live in a country where 90 or 95 percent of the people profess to be religious, and maybe they are religious, though my experience of religion suggests that very few people are actually religious in more than a conventional sense. Still, religious faith is an important aspect of American culture and a fact of American political life. So the question is: In a constitutional democracy, how can religious and secular doctrines of all kinds get on together and cooperate in running a reasonably just and effective government? What assumptions would you have to make about religious and secular doctrines, and the political sphere, for these to work together?

Prusak: Your problem in your recent work, then, is different from your problem in A Theory of Justice.

Rawls: Yes, I think it is. A Theory of Justice was a comprehensive doctrine of liberalism designed to set out a certain classical theory of justice—the theory of the social contract—so as to make it immune to various traditional objections like the conflict between individual freedom and the good of the whole. The difference is that, in Political Liberalism, the problem is how do you see religion and comprehensive secular doctrines as compatible with and supportive of the basic institutions of a constitutional regime.

Prusak: Keep to this new problem, to this question of how to make a liberal constitutional democracy not only receptive, but attractive to religious believers, people who wouldn’t call themselves first and foremost liberals, people who live according to a comprehensive doctrine. The distinction between a comprehensive doctrine and a political conception, in your language, has been difficult for many people to understand. Could you clarify it?

Rawls: A comprehensive doctrine, either religious or secular, aspires to cover all of life. I mean, if it’s a religious doctrine, it talks about our relation to God and the universe; it has an ordering of all the virtues, not only political virtues but moral virtues as well, including the virtues of private life, and the rest. Now we may feel philosophically that it doesn’t really cover everything, but it aims to cover everything, and a secular doctrine does also. But a political conception, as I use that term, has a narrower range: it just applies to the basic structure of a society, its institutions, constitutional essentials, matters of basic justice and property, and so on. It covers the right to vote, the political virtues, and the good of political life, but it doesn’t intend to cover anything else. I try to show how a political conception can be seen as self-standing, as being able to fit, as a part, into many different comprehensive doctrines.

Now the good of political life is a great political good. It is not a secular good specified by a comprehensive doctrine like those of Kant or Mill. You could characterize this political good as the good of free and equal citizens recognizing the duty of civility to one another: the duty to give citizens public reasons for one’s political actions.

Prusak: To make the distinction clearer and perhaps more concrete, could you discuss a particular example, like physician-assisted suicide? You cosigned the “Philosophers’ Brief,” submitted to the Supreme Court last year. In the brief, you argue that people have different ways of understanding suffering and that, in a constitutional democracy, no philosophical or religious authority should be able to say how a person should live his or her last days. How, on the question of physician-assisted suicide, does your argument play out?

Rawls: We wanted the Court to decide the cases in terms of what we thought was a basic constitutional right. That’s not a matter of religious right, one way or the other; it’s a constitutional principle. It’s said to be part of American liberties that you should be able to decide these fundamental questions as a free citizen. Of course, we know that not everyone agrees with assisted suicide, but people might agree that one has the right to it, even if they’re not themselves going to exercise it.

Now I think a good argument against this view would be one like Cass Sunstein’s [see, “From Theory to Practice,” Arizona State Law Journal, Summer 1997]. What he says is that it would be very unwise for the Court to establish a right like this which is so controversial. The Court’s decision would depend on a philosophical argument of constitutional law and allow a right that a lot of people would object to. This would be my candidate for a good political argument against the “Philosophers’ Brief.” The way to argue against the brief is that the Supreme Court should not, at this stage, take sides either way. It should say—as I think the Court can be interpreted as saying—that, no, we’re not going to decide this question, it’s being discussed, it may be tried in the states, different states can take different views, and we ought not to preempt the constitutional question when we don’t have to. Partly, I think, the Court had in mind the issue of Roe v. Wade. Now that’s a complicated matter on which I don’t have an opinion as to whether things would have gone better or worse if the Court had not made that decision. Some people say they would have gone better, some people say they would have gone worse. Sunstein is somebody who thinks things would have gone better, because the decision established a right in a really controversial matter when it need not have done that. The Court should have let the debate play out a bit more.

Prusak: Your overall argument, then, has to do really with the kinds of arguments that should be made within a constitutional democracy. So “public reason”—your technical term for these kinds of arguments—is not monolithic, as if it gave all the answers once and for all.

Rawls: Exactly: the idea of public reason has to do with how questions should be decided, but it doesn’t tell you what are the good reasons or correct decisions. You see, the argument in the “Philosophers’ Brief,” as I understand it, was a political argument. The argument by Sunstein is also a political argument. But his is based on the nature of courts: they’re not good at philosophical arguments, they ought not try to get engaged in them, they ought to go by lower-level, less-broad decisions if possible. Otherwise, the Court opens itself to very great controversy.

Prusak: Now another argument against physician-assisted suicide would be like Michael Walzer’s: that the vulnerable population—the elderly, the poor, the abandoned—would be too large, at least at this time, for this right to be granted [see, “Feed the Face,” The New Republic, June 9,1997]. This right is fine and well for people with the means to use the law as an instrument of freedom, but for other people it would actually be quite dangerous. Now that would be yet another example of an argument within public reason.

Rawls: Absolutely. I’m not sure that it’s a good argument, but that’s another question. Public reason arguments can be good or bad just like other arguments. There are many arguments within public reason, and that’s the thing to emphasize. I didn’t emphasize it enough, you see. I’m now revising Political Liberalism so that it fits “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” where this is perfectly clear.

I want to say something here about what in that article I call the “proviso,” because I think it’s important. It’s this: any comprehensive doctrine, religious or secular, can be introduced into any political argument at any time, but I argue that people who do this should also present what they believe are public reasons for their argument. So their opinion is no longer just that of one particular party, but an opinion that all members of a society might reasonably agree to, not necessarily that they would agree to. What’s important is that people give the kinds of reasons that can be understood and appraised apart from their particular comprehensive doctrines: for example, that they argue against physician-assisted suicide not just by speculating about God’s wrath or the afterlife, but by talking about what they see as assisted suicide’s potential injustices. So the idea of public reason isn’t about the right answers to all these questions, but about the kinds of reasons that they ought to be answered by.

Prusak: A critique of your work is that, really, even though you’re open to religiously grounded arguments that could be translated, let’s say, into public terms, terms all people could understand, nonetheless you’re making a veiled argument for secularism. Now this is something you deny.

Rawls: Yes, I emphatically deny it. Suppose I said that it is not a veiled argument for secularism any more than it is a veiled argument for religion. Consider: there are two kinds of comprehensive doctrines, religious and secular. Those of religious faith will say I give a veiled argument for secularism, and the latter will say I give a veiled argument for religion. I deny both. Each side presumes the basic ideas of constitutional democracy, so my suggestion is that we can make our political arguments in terms of public reason. Then we stand on common ground. That’s how we can understand each other and cooperate.

Prusak: Let me restate this: the question would be who determines the terms of public reason. A religious believer might say, well, revelation isn’t only private—it’s here in this book. How come I can’t make an argument from this background? Or more to the point, how come I have to argue in terms everybody agrees with, or might agree with? Given who I have to argue with, it seems that those terms slide into secularism. Take the argument for the sacredness of life. The believer might say that this has been revealed. But by having to make arguments in terms everybody recognizes, I’m being asked to renounce the truth as I know it....

Rawls: No, you’re not being asked to renounce it! Of course not. The question is, we have a particular problem. How many religions are there in the United States? How are they going to get on together? One way, which has been the usual way historically, is to fight it out, as in France in the sixteenth century. That’s a possibility. But how do you avoid that?

See, what I should do is to turn around and say, What’s the better suggestion, what’s your solution to it? And I can’t see any other solution. This solution has been followed in the United States since the First Amendment. As you know, until then, we had establishment in New England with the Congregational church, and we had it in the South with the Anglican church. How did Madison get separation through Virginia and later Congress? The Baptists, the Presbyterians, and the smaller sects hated Jefferson; to them he was a secularist of the worst kind. But Madison could get Jefferson’s bill passed because the Baptists, the Presbyterians, and smaller sects who were excluded in New England and in the South got together for their own protection.

People can make arguments from the Bible if they want to. But I want them to see that they should also give arguments that all reasonable citizens might agree to. Again, what’s the alternative? How are you going to get along in a constitutional regime with all these other comprehensive doctrines? And just put it in those terms.

Prusak: Can religion flourish, can religion survive in this kind of society?

Rawls: I would say the answer is clear: the answer’s yes. If you compare the United States with Europe, my view is that what happened in Europe is that the church became deeply distrusted by people, because it sided with the monarchs. It instituted the Inquisition and became part of the repressive state apparatus. That never happened here. We don’t have that history. Our history confirms, if anything does, that the answer’s yes. I give an historical answer, I don’t give a theoretical answer; but I think you can ask whether Catholicism, for example, flourishes better here than in Brazil, or in France. Tocqueville says the same thing. He traveled around this country and talked to a lot of Catholic priests, who were then very much in a minority. When he asked them why they thought religion was so free and flourishing in this country, they told him because of the separation between church and state.

Prusak: You say, well, what’s your alternative, what do you want? In a way, it almost sounds as if what you’re saying is, look, this is the best way of getting along, this is the best modus vivendi. But you want to argue for more than that as well: you want “stability for the right reasons.” What would those reasons be besides peace—which I think would be a very good reason?

Rawls: Peace surely is a good reason, yes. But there are other reasons too. I already mentioned the good of political life: the good of free and equal citizens recognizing the duty of civility to one another and supporting the institutions of a constitutional regime. I assume that, in line with Vatican II, Roman Catholics affirm these political institutions. So do many Protestants, Jews, and Muslims.

Prusak: It sounds as if you’re really arguing for the dignity of the individual. I’ll turn it back: it almost sounds like, in another way, a religious argument.

Rawls: All right. Why should I deny that? If you want to say that comes down from the sacredness of the individual in the Bible, fine, I don’t have to deny that.

Prusak: But at the same time you don’t want to argue for this on any traditional basis. Instead, your argument for respecting the dignity of the individual follows from the functioning of liberal constitutional democracy.

Rawls: Liberal constitutional democracy is supposed to ensure that each citizen is free and equal and protected by basic rights and liberties. You see, I don’t use other arguments since for my purposes I don’t really need them and it would cause division from the start. Citizens can have their own grounding in their comprehensive doctrines, whatever they happen to be. I make a point in Political Liberalism of really not discussing anything, as far as I can help it, that will put me at odds with any theologian, or any philosopher.

Prusak: How do you think, in your work, the idea of the common good is revised? Is there still a common good? How would we speak of it in a liberal constitutional democracy where pluralism is a fact? Is it thrown out, or is it reconceived?

Rawls: Different political views, even if they’re all liberal, in the sense of supporting liberal constitutional democracy, undoubtedly have some notion of the common good in the form of the means provided to assure that people can make use of their liberties, and the like. There are various ways you might define the common good, but that would be one way you could do it.

Prusak: So the common good would be the good that is common to each citizen, each citizen’s good, rather than an overarching good.

Rawls: The point I would stress is this: You hear that liberalism lacks an idea of the common good, but I think that’s a mistake. For example, you might say that, if citizens are acting for the right reasons in a constitutional regime, then regardless of their comprehensive doctrines they want every other citizen to have justice. So you might say they’re all working together to do one thing, namely to make sure every citizen has justice. Now that’s not the only interest they all have, but it’s the single thing they’re all trying to do. In my language, they’ve striving toward one single end, the end of justice for all citizens.

Prusak: What you’re trying to do is bring together the practice of constitutional democracy and present it in a way that’s compelling.

Rawls: Yes—I hope it’s compelling. I try to show that this form of regime, under certain circumstances, is possible and has its own public form of discourse. This doesn’t answer any particular question, but only says how political questions should be discussed. I am really explaining what I think should be the public philosophy in a reasonably just constitutional regime.