Contemporary Theories of Liberalism: Public Reason as a Post-Enlightenment Project


Gerald F. Gaus

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    List of Figures

    • 2.1 Two-dimensional value comparisons 34
    • 2.2 A two-dimensional moral conflict 38
    • 2.3 Decreasing marginal value 48
    • 4.1 The prisoner's dilemma 85
    • 4.2 A prisoner's dilemma: to follow individual or public reason? 86
    • 4.3 Prisoner's dilemma orderings 87
    • 4.4 An assurance game ordering 87
    • 4.5 An impure coordination problem 90
    • 4.6 A coordination game with a non-coordination point Pareto-superior to a coordination equilibrium 91
    • 4.7 Three social contracts 94
    • 4.8 Destabilizing preference change 97
    • 4.9 Pareto-dominance of a new law 98
    • 4.10 Legislation versus coordination? 98
    • 6.1 A distribution of preferences which generates different results under different voting rules 152
    • 6.2 Sophisticated popular will theory 156
    • 6.3 Espistemic populism 159


    Liberalism is commonly criticized today on the grounds that it is inherently a part of the Enlightenment. As an Enlightenment doctrine, it is said, liberalism is irremediably based on the faith that progress in the moral and political sciences will bring about increased convergence among all rational people on the moral and political truth. However, it is added, this Enlightenment faith is no longer plausible; the modern condition is one of permanent diversity and rational disagreement. Liberalism, it is said, lives in the past. Like most distortions that gain wide currency this one is based on a truth, which I shall explore in the first chapter. Overall, though, this popular view gets things almost exactly wrong. The main current of contemporary liberal political theory seeks to develop a post-Enlightenment account of politics. The question driving contemporary liberalism, and the analysis of this book, is whether ordered political life based on mutual respect, with a politics that aims at justice, is possible in the modern world of deep disagreement about values, justice and what is reasonable. We shall see that contemporary liberals have advanced thoughtful and sophisticated answers to this query, at the heart of which are their accounts of public reason.

    These contemporary liberal theories of public reason are, I think, the most philosophically interesting and innovative developments in contemporary political theory. Although they do not start from scratch — their debts to Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant will become clear — they constitute a fresh approach to political philosophy, raising new issues and, to some extent at least, putting older ones to the side. Thus some of the most familiar debates in political theory, such as the market versus the welfare state, property rights versus distributive justice, and equality versus liberty do not loom large here. Instead, our focus will be on the nature of value comparisons, rational disagreement, coordination games, moral reasoning, justification, consensus, preference aggregation and the idea of the political, as well as, to be sure, more familiar issues such as the nature of democracy, political authority and the extent of political obligation. As Michael Freeden has observed in his Ideologies and Political Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), this is a distinctively philosophical understanding of liberal theory. Providing an overview and analysis will thus lead us to a range of philosophical problems. I have endeavored to introduce and analyze the philosophical issues in ways that will be accessible to advanced undergraduates and postgraduate students, while also engaging other scholars.

    I would like to thank Ian Holliday, for encouraging me to write this book for the Sage Political Texts series, and Lucy Robinson, the politics editor at Sage (UK) for her patience and support as deadlines came and went with breathtaking speed. My thanks to my good friend Fred D'Agostino for reading an entire draft. I am also grateful to two anonymous readers for their extremely useful comments and criticisms. I have learned a lot from my discussions with two graduate students at Tulane. Shane Courtland led me to revise my thoughts on Hobbesian public reason; Andrea Houchard pushed me to think harder about problems of incommensurability. My thanks to both.

    Parts of some chapters are based on papers I have previously published, though in all cases the papers have been extensively revised and ruthlessly edited for this book. I especially draw on ‘Reasonable Pluralism and the Domain of the Political’, Inquiry, vol. 42 (June 1999): 229–258; ‘Reason, Justification and Consensus: Why Democracy Can't Have it All’ in James Bohman and William Rehg, eds, Deliberative Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), pp. 207–242; ‘Looking for the Best and Finding None Better: The Epistemic Case for Democracy’, The Modern Schoolman, vol. 74 (May 1997), pp. 277–284; and ‘Does Democracy Reveal the Will of the People?’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 75 (June 1997): 141–162; ‘The Legal coordination Game’, APA Newsletter on Law, vol. 1 (Spring 2002): 122–128; ‘Backwards into the Future: Neo-Republicanism as a Post-Socialist Critique of Market Society’, Social Philosophy & Policy, vol. 20 (Winter 2003): 59–91; ‘Public Reason’, International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (Oxford: Elsevier Scientific Publishers, 2002), pp. 12572–12578.

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