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Since the publication of A Theory of Justice in 1971, John Rawls has refined, qualified, and enriched his political philosophy, responding generously and with patient analytical care to difficulties posed by critics. Political Liberalism embodies the major developments in Rawls's thought during those two decades. Rawls continues to be a strong defender of political liberalism, but in various respects his philosophical claims are more modest than those he offered in 1971, and the political life he recommends involves more accommodation to the diverse perspectives and ways of life one expects to find in liberal democracies. In most of the chapters of the book, Rawls largely replicates what he has said in important lectures, but each chapter contains some fresh analysis and references to recent work. The most substantial addition to his previous writings is his chapter on "The Idea of Public Reason,” and that is the focus of this Essay. My discussion of that topic requires some attention to another major subject, the "overlapping consensus" of views that can support a political concept of justice, but I do not say more about that subject than is needed for my discussion of public reason.

I first sketch briefly the basic problems to which Rawls's idea of public reason is an answer. I then summarize Rawls's position, drawing mainly from the chapter on public reason, but also outlining his views about overlapping consensus. After clarifying some important aspects of his position, I make some criticisms. These are largely directed at a distinction between constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice, on the one hand, and ordinary political issues, on the other, that forms a major element of Rawls's proposal about public reason. Finally, I suggest very briefly some ways to strengthen an account of the constraint of public reasons.


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