Public Reason and Political Action: Justifying Citizen Behavior in Actually Existing Democracies

Stears, Marc; Humphrey, Mathew
March 2012
Review of Politics;Mar2012, Vol. 74 Issue 2, p285
Academic Journal
Political theorists seeking to respond to public concerns about citizen behavior in democratic politics might turn to the literature on public reason. Within that literature, idealized citizens are expected to abide by what we call the “public-reason-giving requirement” when engaging in political acts. Here we examine what the doctrine of public reason has to say to political actors in nonideal democratic circumstances. We find that the recommendations for actual behavior in this literature rely heavily upon a forward- and backward-looking “Janus-faced” justification, focused on the way in which non-reason-giving political actions have or could serve the long-term interests of public reason itself. Through a critical evaluation of this idea we suggest that public reason has nothing meaningful to say to contemporary political actors. This, we maintain, is a serious flaw in a putative standard for political behavior and thus the liberal commitment to “public reason” under nonideal circumstances is misplaced.


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