Against Public Reason

31 Pages Posted: 11 May 2015

See all articles by David Enoch

David Enoch

Hebrew University - The Philosophy Department and the Law School

Date Written: April 30, 2015


I argue that public-reason (PR) political philosophy – in all its many different versions (I discuss mostly Rawls, Waldron, Estlund, Gaus, and Quong, but without doing exegesis) – should be rejected.

There are in the literature already, of course, many critical discussions of specific PR accounts (to an extent, I draw on work by Hampton, Brower, Raz, and Wall). My criticism applies – if it works – to all versions of public reason accounts. But my arguments in this paper are unique primarily in that they address PR from a much broader philosophical perspective than is common in this literature.

In particular, I use here a general discussion of idealization in meta-normative theory (put forward in my "Why Idealize?") to shed light on the use that PR theorists make of idealization. I argue that it is going to be very hard to for PR theorists to motivate idealizing the relevant agents consistently with their underlying intuitions, and that this – together with the insurmountable difficulties facing a non-idealizing version of PR theory – is a major difficulty for PR.

Also, I rely on more general discussions of reasons for action and for belief to discuss the thought (or family of thoughts) that in order to be legitimate a political principle must be such that all have reason to endorse, as well as the thought that there is something objectionably "private" in the reasons for action of an agent who relies – in the political sphere – on the moral views that seem to her to be correct.

Despite the negative general tone, I conclude with two more positive points: The first has to do with the right way for a political philosopher to think of her- or himself. PR accounts seem to think of the political philosopher as an arbiter who doesn't (in her capacity as political philosopher) enter the arena of "private" political disagreements, but takes that disagreement as a given and proceeds to ask how to respond to it. I suggest that political philosophers should acknowledge that all there is is that arena, enter it, and join non-philosophers in thinking about and fighting for the good and the just. True, they should also ask themselves how to respond to the fact of reasonable pluralism (or some such), but such questions too can only receive an answer from within the arena. Second, even if I'm right and PR accounts are at the end of the day deeply and importantly mistaken, still they are on to something, they respond to a genuine normative concern. I make this point by noting that even if the kind of accessibility or publicity or consensus or convergence that PR theorists are after is not to be had (without some ad hoc idealization), still it would be good to have it. I conclude, then, by suggesting a way of accommodating this underlying intuition without endorsing PR.

Keywords: Rawls, Public Reason, Political Philosophy, Political Liberalism

Suggested Citation

Enoch, David, Against Public Reason (April 30, 2015). Available at SSRN: or

David Enoch (Contact Author)

Hebrew University - The Philosophy Department and the Law School ( email )

Mount Scopus
Mount Scopus, IL 91905

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics