Reasonableness and Political Justification: A Study of John Rawls' Idea of Public Reason

Dissertation, Boston College (2002)

James Boettcher
Saint Joseph's University of Pennsylvania
My dissertation examines the theory of public reasoning and political justification that is at the heart of John Rawls' political liberalism. In exploring both the merits and limitations of Rawls' idea of public reason, I pursue three main goals in the dissertation. First, I defend the idea of public reason as a deliberative ideal and demonstrate its internal relation to a first-person standard of political justification for fundamental political questions. I respond to charges that public reason would encourage insincerity in public deliberation, that it is inconsistent with an ideal of objectivity in political decision-making, and that it is an impracticable ideal for a public culture characterized by widespread religious belief. A second goal of the dissertation is to provide a more convincing interpretation of reasonableness. The relatively brief exposition of the reasonable in Political Liberalism is inadequate, considering the importance of this idea in the very formulation of Rawls' principles of liberal legitimacy and public reasoning. I argue that while the basic normative content of the reasonable is derived from the fundamental ideas of political liberalism, judgments about the reasonableness of specific claims and arguments must be left to citizens themselves. It is in this sense that the reasonable applies primarily to citizens rather than to their particular beliefs and doctrines. Citizens are able to reassure one another of their reasonableness by acknowledging these fundamental ideas and also by exercising certain liberal and deliberative virtues. A final goal of the dissertation is to uncover the limits of Rawls' idea of public reason. I focus on Rawls' failure to explain the moral basis of a citizen's obligation to adhere to public reason's ideal, especially when that ideal requires restraints on the appeal to a comprehensive religious or philosophical doctrine in political advocacy and choice. I suggest that this failure to account for the moral basis of the obligation to reason publicly is connected to the very structure of political liberalism
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