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Truth or Reasonableness?

Open Panel

Abstract

According to one increasingly influential strand of contemporary liberal thought, public political discourse in modern liberal democracies ought to follow a set of rigid formal and substantive constraints. Among these constraints is the requirement that citizens and government officials offer one another public reasons in support of their favored policy proposals. This means that the private religious, philosophical, or moral convictions of citizens are not granted full admission into public political discourse, and cannot form part of the proper basis of a legitimizing justification of the policies of a liberal state. This paper is animated by the conviction that neither stability nor legitimacy-based arguments are sufficient to justify the rigid constraints on public reason that John Rawls and others have proposed. Firstly, there is no solid empirical evidence for the pragmatic claim that the social or political stability of a state depends upon the capacity of its citizens to agree on a common justification (or even proto-justification) of its norms and institutional practices. Indeed, as far as sources of social stability are concerned, the importance of moral agreement would appear to be minimal when compared with social, psychological, and economic factors such as shared bonds of identity, widespread happiness, or economic productivity. Secondly, Rawls and others too quickly assume that publicly justifying liberal principles in terms of philosophical, religious, or moral ideas would constitute a violation of the equal moral standing of democratic citizens. The cause for hesitancy here is, interestingly, that it appears extremely difficult to determine just what affording citizens equal moral respect concretely entails without appealing to a philosophical, moral, or religious conception of equality. I argue instead for the full admissibility of religious ideas, values, and convictions as potential contributors to public political debate. My paper will defend the claim that there is nothing fundamentally illiberal about religiously-based policy proposals, nor a religiously-based legitimation of the central principles and policies of a political order; the liberalism of a state should be a function of the moral character of its governing principles, not their ideological or justificatory provenance.