The burdens of public justification: Constructivism, contractualism, and publicity

The publicity of a moral conception is a central idea in Kantian and contractarian moral theory. Publicity carries the idea of general acceptability of principles through to social relations. Without publicity of its moral principles, the intuitive attractiveness of the contractarian ideal seems diminished. For it means that moral principles cannot serve as principles of practical reasoning and justification among free and equal persons. This article discusses the role of the publicity assumption in Rawls’s and Scanlon’s contractualism. I contend that a regard for publicity and a moral conception’s potential to provide a public basis for justification and agreement account for much of the evolution of Rawls’s account of justice after A Theory of Justice . I also discuss whether contractualism can provide a basis for justification and general agreement under the social conditions that it endorses. I contend that it cannot, and conclude with a discussion showing why this should not be a problem for contractualism. Despite appearances, contractualism is a distinctive form of contractarianism, substantially different from Rawls’s position and the social contract tradition out of which it evolved. Key Words: contractarianism • contractualism • John Rawls • public justification • T.M. Scanlon • justice.
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DOI 10.1177/1470594X07073003
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