The Exercise of “Public Reason”

In 1997, Harvard philosopher John Rawls wrote a piece for the Chicago Law Review titled “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.” This article challenged Americans to think about the arguments they make to each other. It argued that while reliance on ideologically-based political dogmas may or may not be sound, the arguments from these baselines do not make for reasonable means to attempt to persuade others to see a public good in the ideology.

So…we finally have a logical explanation for why the Right and Left keep talking past each other and why the Edges of each side have so little hope of convincing others of their positions.

Rawls noted that “Public Reason “concerns how the political relation is to be understood.” He went on to observe what has become ever more obvious in today’s politically charged environment: that those “who reject constitutional democracy with its criterion of reciprocity will of course reject the very idea of public reason.”

Rawls wrote that “Citizens realize that they cannot reach agreement or even approach mutual understanding on the basis of their irreconcilable comprehensive doctrines. In view of this, they need to consider what kinds of reasons they may reasonably give one another when fundamental political questions are at stake.”

Most importantly, Rawls added that “Central to the idea of public reason is that it neither criticizes nor attacks any comprehensive doctrine, religious or nonreligious, except insofar as that doctrine is incompatible with the essentials of public reason and a democratic polity.” That, unfortunately, is not where American politics seems to be today in terms of the parties communicating with each other. [1]

This idea of “public reason” is very much worth “revisiting” in today’s Edge-driven political environment.

We’ve mentioned how we both grew up in a Texas that was essentially conservative-democratic-leaning. Chuck was still there as the trend was starting to shift to more red than blue after Carl had departed for the Army in 1972. But, aside from the eccentricities of growing up Texan, we both still observed a good deal of Rawls’ concept of Public Reason. The popular slogan of “Don’t Mess with Texas” (designed to keep litter off the highways) grew out of a “don’t mess with me and mine and I won’t mess with you and yours!” Our Texas was a live and let live kind of place and quite reasonable-seeming back in the day. [2]

We remember a Texas where people could talk to each other and not past each other.

What we admired about our Texas of the 60s, 70s and 80s was the notion of “live and let live.” While Texas of 30-50 years ago was somewhat confusing in its split loyalties to the Stars and Stripes, Stars and Bars and the Lone Star from a cultural standpoint, it was a land of great opportunity, and generally reasonable in those days. At least in the cities and larger towns, Texas of that age tended to reflect objectivity about opportunity regardless of background. Our Texas leaned towards Public Reason.

Neither of us lives in Texas anymore, but that’s beside the point. Neither of us really wants to live in Texas today, more because of how hot it is and how much the state has tampered with what we consider to be objective K-12 education. But it also seems like a lot of the dominant political philosophy has abandoned “live and let live” principles, not unlike what is happening elsewhere in America in 2014.

Texas politics today don’t seem to be a reasoned conservatism as much as a knee-jerk conservatism that at times seems…well, mostly mindless. The people of Texas are still our kindred souls and they generally are awesome folk that usually demonstrate an appreciation of public reason. Unfortunately, the politicians Texans elect tend not to feel the same way. So, we’ll stay “Texpatriates” for a while longer. This could be an object lesson for the rest of America, however.

It is so important that our nation (including Texas) return to an appreciation of Public Reason. As this election season approaches and we witness the appalling lack of Public Reason where politicians feel they cannot argue in reasoned tones that reflect the goals of public service, let’s reflect once more on what Professor Rawls wrote less than 15 years ago: citizens of this nation “cannot reach agreement or even approach mutual understanding on the basis of their irreconcilable comprehensive doctrines” nor can we continue to mindlessly attack each other oblivious to the commonality we all share as Americans.

We should challenge each other, just as our Founders did in Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787, but let’s exercise the same courtesy and sense of compromise our forefathers did in that day. Our goal cannot be to tear each other down, but must be to build up our nation. Let’s exercise Public Reason on behalf of keeping America strong, balanced and worth passing on to our progeny.

Originally posted by Carl and Chuck Hunt, 10/15/2014


[1] Rawls devoted a great deal of the paper laying out the “structure” of public reason, noting that it had five basic aspects: fundamental political questions to which public reason applies; the people to whom it applies (e.g., public officials and candidates for office); the content of public reason as it pertains to justice; the applications of these aspects in the form of legitimate law for a democratic nation; and the citizens’ role in ensuring the principles of public reason satisfy the criterion of reciprocity (essentially, the equitable give and take between parties and citizens): “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited. For a concise background and photo of this remarkable philosopher, please see his biography in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[2] To be sure, bias and prejudice did exist in the Texas we experienced (mostly Houston), but it was at least a “laid-back” kind of bias and prejudice (if that makes any difference)!

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