The Challenge of Public Reason
When is political power legitimate? Public reasons liberals argue that political power is legitimate only when it is supported by reasons drawn from principles of justice that each citizen could endorse. The most well known model for identifying whether a principle satisfies this requirement is John Rawls’ idea of an overlapping consensus. Typical interpretations of the idea of overlapping consensus hold that it expresses a necessary conceptual condition of any reasonable conception of justice. Against this ahistorical view, my analysis shows that Rawls’ mature account of overlapping consensus rests on a particular historicist thesis that liberal institutions are necessary for social cooperation given the presumption of moral and religious pluralism. The authority of public reasoning ultimately rests on a widespread consensus about the necessity of liberal institutions, rather than on a consensus on any particular conception of justice. The limits of public reason, on my analysis, are fixed first and foremost by liberal institutions. Given the prominent historical role of classical liberalism in specifying and defending liberal institutions, one might suppose that classical liberal conceptions of justice would have a central place in any consensus that defines the boundaries of public reasoning. I argue that this appearance is misleading. The work of scholars in disability studies show that conceptions of justice must be sufficiently sensitive to the unique needs and interests of citizens with disabilities. I argue that applying these insights to the idea of public reason shows that classical liberalism can satisfy the requirements of public reason only by unjustly ignoring the perspective of disabled citizens I show that Rawls’ model of public reason rests on a nuanced and historically grounded view of the consensus circumscribing public reason. Further, it shows that a historically conditioned concept of public reason and political legitimacy need not imply a drastic retreat from central egalitarian commitments, despite initial appearances to the contrary.