Reason of State and Public Reason

Ratio Juris, 2014, Forthcoming

Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 11/68

28 Pages Posted: 10 Oct 2011 Last revised: 4 Dec 2013

See all articles by Wojciech Sadurski

Wojciech Sadurski

The University of Sydney Law School

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: October 10, 2011


'Reason of state' is a concept that is rarely used in contemporary legal and political philosophy (in contrast to everyday parlance); 'public reason' is ubiquitous, however, especially in liberal philosophy, as a legitimacy-conferring device. In this paper, written for an international symposium on Reason of State at Tsinghua University Law School in Beijing, it is argued that the unpopularity of the notion of 'reason of state' is partly due to its notorious ambiguity. Three different usages of the notion can be identified: a 'thin' usage (where 'reason of state' is equivalent to the common good), an 'ironical' usage (where it is used pejoratively to denounce a pretext to apply illegitimate or illegal means) and a 'pre-emptive' usage (where 'reason of state' acts as a legitimate second-order exclusionary reason to override otherwise mandatory first-order rules of action). It is argued that only the “thin” use is helpful, in a by-and-large liberal-democratic context. The paper then discusses the main dilemmas related to the concept of public reason, especially in the most influential, Rawlsian interpretation, and defends the concept against the usual critiques. In the end, the two concepts are compared and it is argued that a 'thin' usage of 'reason of state' is functionally equivalent to public reason and that both resonate with the theory of 'input democracy' (focusing, as it does, on the legitimacy of reasons – or motivations – for applying coercive rules to individuals). A problematic (and distinguishing) feature of “reason of state” is its emphasis on the state, as a privileged interpreter of such reasons and/or as identifying the range within which the 'constituency' of public reason is ascertained. There are good reasons to resist both of these consequences: the former because of its potentially authoritarian consequences, the latter because of reasons provided by cosmopolitan political conceptions.

Keywords: public reason, reason of state, legitimacy, liberalism, common good, John Rawls, Pihilp Pettit, Robert Goodin

JEL Classification: K10, K30

Suggested Citation

Sadurski, Wojciech, Reason of State and Public Reason (October 10, 2011). Ratio Juris, 2014, Forthcoming; Sydney Law School Research Paper No. 11/68. Available at SSRN:

Wojciech Sadurski (Contact Author)

The University of Sydney Law School ( email )

New Law Building, F10
The University of Sydney
Sydney, NSW 2006

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