Under The Sun

Tuesday, October 07, 2003


"It is the idea of the citizen as a moral person with equal claims to participate in the political processes of collective decision making that gives rise to the problem of public justification that Rawls addressed in Political Liberalism and that motivated his conception of 'public reason'. According to Rawls, whenever 'constitutional essentials' or matters of basic justice are at stake, the use of political power needs to be justified in terms of reasons that are capable of being publicly recognized by citizens who hold incompatible comprehensive views about the ultimate ends and values of life."
--Wilfried Hinsch, NDPR

The problem with the concept of public reasons is that it is not neutral; it self-privileges. It is, in fact, the crux of the disagreement it claims to try to solve. Such moralists as Antonin Scalia--the most thoughtful if not quite the most prominent representative of the opposing position--don't fail to understand the doctrine of public reasons; they simply disagree with it. And in fact they are correct: the distinction between private morality and public morality is unsustainable. This is true for the empirical reason that ambient morality influences personal morality; it is also true for the formal reason that the distinction itself is a moral judgment: the judgment that certain behaviors--those deemed "private"--are not wrong enough to be of public concern. That is a legitimate moral position, and at least one argument for it--that in practice the moral costs of public enforcement outweigh the moral benefits--I happen to think strong. But it is inescapably a moral position, and the attempt to classify it otherwise is philosophically illegitimate.

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