Public Reason and Moral Authoritarianism

In The Order of Public Reason, Gerald Gaus presents an important new statement of public reason liberalism, one that grounds the demands of public reason in the aspiration to avoid moral authoritarianism in social and political life. Public reason liberalism is distinguished from other political theories by its commitment to a publicity condition on the justified imposition of the demands of political morality. An account of public reason liberalism must characterise the publicity condition, specify the conditions under which it can be satisfied, and identify a rationale for insisting upon it. This critical notice argues that Gaus’ characterisation of the publicity condition and his specification of the conditions under which it can be satisfied do not cohere well with the rationale he identifies for it. That rationale, as mentioned, is the aspiration to avoid moral authoritarianism. My critique turns on the issue of whether the publicity condition must satisfy its own strictures. The claim that it must do so is the reflexivity requirement (RR). I argue that, given the rationale Gaus identifies for accepting the publicity condition, he should accept this requirement. I then explain how accepting RR generates trouble for his account of public reason liberalism. Along the way, I aim to bring out how quixotic the quest to avoid moral authoritarianism in politics is, at least for those who live in the modern world.

Published in: The Philosophical Quarterly
2012 Volume 63, Issue 250 Pages 160–169