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Nonpublic Reasons and Political Paradigm Change

21 Pages Posted: 5 Jan 2011 Last revised: 14 Feb 2012

Ian C. Bartrum

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law

Date Written: October 1, 2011


John Rawls famously argued that citizens in a just democracy have a moral duty to ensure that "the principles and policies they advocate and vote for can be supported by the political values of public reason." This so-called "duty of civility" obligates us to cast our votes on "constitutional questions and matters of basic justice" for reasons that we can explain in terms of the public good and the "ideals and principles expressed by society's conception of political justice." Rawls contrasts these public reasons with "nonpublic reasons" - such as "comprehensive religious and philosophical doctrines" - which he claims cannot legitimize acts of political coercion. And yet our Constitution singles out and protects certain paradigmatic kinds of nonpublic reasoning, at least in the private sphere (the Free Exercise Clause), and, arguably, in the political sphere as well (the Test Oath Clause). This paper attempts to justify these constitutional protections by offering a structural account of the essential role that nonpublic reasons play in the progress and evolution of a liberal democratic state.

Many thoughtful and influential scholars - Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Walzer, and Michael Sandel, to name a few - have written on the place of nonpublic reasons in democratic debate, and Kent Greenawalt has devoted two entire books to the subject. To my knowledge, however, none of them have advanced, at least directly, the thesis I present here. I suggest that, within the processes of democratic evolution, nonpublic reasoning can function in much the same way that the phenomenon of mutation does in the evolution of species. That is, nonpublic reasoning can be a source of diverse, nonconformist, and nonlinear thinking; it may produce ideas that are true Kuhnian paradigm shifts, and thus cannot be explained or justified in terms of the existing framework of public reasons. Seen in this light, Rawls's moral "duty of civility" - while it promotes discourse and tolerance - may also stunt the kinds of deep innovation necessary to keep a democratic state vital and responsive to an evolving civic and moral culture.

In the hope that a short case study might better illustrate my argument, I present a brief account of the New York Catholic School controversy in the early 1840s. In particular, I focus on Archbishop John Hughes's efforts to mobilize a Catholic voting coalition, which threat led directly to the destruction of the New York Public School Society, and paved the way (eventually) for the transition from nonsectarian to secularized public schooling. While we might easily justify secular schooling in terms of the public reasons our modern conceptions of political justice provide, many of those conceptions were not broadly available in 1840. Only when confronted with the Catholic remonstrance did New York, and eventually the nation, refine and clarify its political values in ways that made this particular democratic evolution possible. There are other notable illustrations of this phenomenon - black churches and the Civil Rights Movement, for example - which I mention, but do not explore.

In concluding, I suggest that thinking about the religion clauses in these terms may ultimately give us greater insight into the constitutional value of nonpublic reasons, which, in turn, may help us better understand the structural dimensions (as distinct from the human rights dimensions) of the freedom of conscience.

Keywords: legal theory, public reasons, rawls, greenawalt, kuhn, catholic school controversy, bartrum

Suggested Citation

Bartrum, Ian C., Nonpublic Reasons and Political Paradigm Change (October 1, 2011). St. John's Law Review, Vol. 85, p. 473, 2012; UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper Series. Available at SSRN:

Ian C. Bartrum (Contact Author)

University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law ( email )

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