Public Reason as a Public Good

57 Pages Posted: 3 Aug 2006


Contemporary liberal theorists see value pluralism as a permanent social fact, the natural and inevitable result of living under free institutions. Yet while value pluralism is desirable for many reasons, this same pluralism can threaten the efficacy and the authority of the state. Thus, as Rawls frames it, the fundamental question of the liberal state is: How may there exist a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided over their religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines? His answer - embraced by many other liberal theorists as well - relies in large part on the idea of public reason. Public reason requires officials and (sometimes) citizens to forsake potentially divisive appeals to inherently contestable theories of the good life and instead appeal to political values shared by all reasonable inhabitants of a liberal democracy.

This Article addresses the strategy of public reason. One trouble with public reason is that it is what economists recognize as a public good. Under the conventional theory of collective action, this has dire consequences for the success of public reason. The public goods analysis can thus help provide an account of why public reason often fails us, even if most citizens believe in public reason's aims. The Article then analyzes public reason using an alternative theory of collective action grounded on an empirically observed norm of reciprocity. This analysis leads to a richer, somewhat less pessimistic understanding of the strategy of public reason and generates different policy prescriptions than does the conventional model.

Keywords: Rawls, public reason, reciprocity theory, assurance game

Suggested Citation

Bruhl, Aaron-Andrew P., Public Reason as a Public Good. Journal of Law in Society, Vol. 4, 2003, U of Houston Law Center No. #, Available at SSRN:

Aaron-Andrew P. Bruhl (Contact Author)

William & Mary Law School ( email )

South Henry Street
P.O. Box 8795
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795
United States

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