Public reason liberalism

Gerald F. Gaus

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

23 Scopus citations


Public reason liberalism: past, present, and future The idea of public reason is almost always associated – sometimes exclusively – with John Rawls’s political liberalism. Many, no doubt, believe that if there is such a creature as “public reason liberalism” it is a Rawlsian creation. This is an error. The social contract theories of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant all are based on the conviction that the main aim of political philosophy is to identify an agreed-upon public judgment or public reason that allows us to overcome the disunity and conflict that would characterize a condition in which each followed her own private judgment or reasoning about morality and justice. Captivated by their own concerns, however, political philosophers have, with very few exceptions, read the fundamental place of public reason out of the contract tradition. Hobbes is typically viewed simply as a theorist of self-interest and a proto-game theorist, Locke as a natural rights proto-libertarian, Rousseau as essentially a radical democrat. In the second section of this chapter focusing on Hobbes and Locke, I take some modest steps to reverse this misreading, pointing out how classical social contract theory was fundamentally and explicitly concerned with identifying a source of public reason. Liberalism and public reason, I argue, arose together as interrelated responses to the modern problem of creating a stable social order in societies deeply divided by religious and moral disagreements. The problem with which social contract theorists such as Hobbes and Locke were grappling is distinctively modern: In matters of religion and convictions about the ultimate value of life, morality and justice, the free exercise of human reason leads to disagreement. Their question – which is also the question of public reason liberalism – is whether a society faced with “intractable struggles” and “irreconcilable” conflicts of “absolute depth” can share a common social and political existence on terms that are acceptable to all.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Liberalism
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages29
ISBN (Electronic)9781139942478
ISBN (Print)9781107080072
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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