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In this Lecture I shall discuss the reasons that officials and citizens should rely upon in American politics. In recent years, various theorists have claimed that people in liberal democracies should rely in politics on "public reasons," reasons that are accessible to all citizens. Others have objected that such a counsel is unreasonable, if not incomprehensible. I shall concentrate on two facets of this issue. First, does the law exemplify a structure of public reasons – that is, do judges deciding cases draw on a stock of public reasons that is narrower than all the reasons one might give for a particular result? My second inquiry concerns the status of natural law – long claimed by adherents to be a source of reasons of universal power, reasons whose persuasiveness does not depend on theological judgments. Are natural law arguments exemplars of public reasons or not? These two inquiries help us to understand the dimensions of claims about public reasons, and to evaluate their comprehensibility and persuasiveness. They also raise the question whether many reasons are not better seen as lying along a spectrum of publicness rather than as being public or not.

My position is that various recommendations to rely on public reasons are comprehensible, but on examination, they are far more complex than they may first appear. The law is a domain of public reasons, but that point is also less obvious than a first glance suggests. A counsel to rely on public reasons is persuasive for what officials, and would-be officials, express about particular political issues; it is not persuasive for citizens or for all the reasons that motivate officials. Natural law arguments fit uncomfortably with modern ideas about public reasons; some natural law arguments are public in the required sense, but others are not. Our examination of natural law arguments suggests that, in respect to many reasons for decisions, it may be wiser to talk of degrees of publicness, rather than public or not.


Law | Law and Politics | Natural Law | Political Science