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The Social Epistemology of Public Institutions

New Waves in Philosophy of Law, Maksymilian del Mar, ed., Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp.185-208

34 Pages Posted: 19 Jan 2011 Last revised: 19 Feb 2017

Mathilde Cohen

University of Connecticut

Date Written: January 19, 2011


This article discusses what it means for a decision-maker to have a reason for a decision and to give that reason as a justification for the decision. Indeed, if the relationship is difficult to sort out at the individual, private level, it becomes even more complicated when we move to complex collective entities like public institutions. This is why we need to know under what conditions public institutions may 'have' reasons for their decisions.

The article explores the hypothesis that proper ascriptions of reasons to institutions depend on whether they have formally adopted a common set of reasons. I contend that the correct understanding of the relationship between having a reason and giving it as a reason gives rise to what I call the 'no-priority view.' The no-priority view is simply the idea that there may be reciprocal relationships between the reasons a decision-maker 'has' and the reasons she puts forward for a given decision. Following this view, it becomes possible to understand how the legal requirement to give reasons can become an effective oversight mechanism to prevent arbitrary decision-making and increase the contestability of public decisions.

Keywords: Reasons, Collective Decision, Public Institutions, Justification, Social Epistemology, Public Reason

JEL Classification: K30, K40, K41

Suggested Citation

Cohen, Mathilde, The Social Epistemology of Public Institutions (January 19, 2011). New Waves in Philosophy of Law, Maksymilian del Mar, ed., Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp.185-208. Available at SSRN:

Mathilde Cohen (Contact Author)

University of Connecticut ( email )

65 Elizabeth Street
Hartford, CT 06105
United States

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