The publication of John Rawls’s Political Liberalism put public reason squarely on the agenda of contemporary political theory. Ever since, it has been a central topic in the field. Although Rawls developed a distinctive account of public reason, his account is but one among many. Indeed, some commentators have insisted that public reason is a very old notion, one that can be found in the political writings of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, for example. Public reason has a distinctive subject matter. It applies to the common good of a modern political society and the political institutions that serve that common good, and it contrasts with forms of reasoning that apply to less inclusive associations and communities that exist within a modern political society, such as churches, voluntary clubs, or professional associations. Public reason also contrasts with applications of reason that are not transparent and/or acceptable to adult citizens of modern political societies. The demands of transparency and acceptability have proven to be complex and contentious, and rival articulations of these notions have generated rival accounts of public reason. Public reason informs public political justification, and proponents of public reason often hold that public, political justification of at least the fundamental political arrangements of a political society is necessary for its political order to be legitimate. The reasons for insisting on public reason and the reasons for rejecting it are diverse. Common to all defenses of public reason is the thought that it represents a fitting response to the fact of intractable disagreement in modern political societies.
Franz Mang and Joseph Chan
In contemporary Anglo-American political philosophy, perfectionism is widely understood as the idea that the state may, or should, promote valuable conceptions of the good life and discourage conceptions that are worthless or bad. As such, debates over perfectionism occupy a central place in contemporary political philosophy because political philosophers are deeply concerned about whether or not a liberal state is permitted to promote any particular ethical or religious doctrine or impose it on its citizens. In general, contemporary perfectionists do not argue for the state’s pursuit of any religious doctrine. They only maintain that the state is permitted to make a wide range of public policies with the aim of promoting the good life. These policies, commonly found in liberal democratic societies, may include subsidizing museums and art galleries, preserving cultural heritage, setting up public libraries and providing free access to reading materials, encouraging athletic excellence, conserving nature and biodiversity, and educating citizens about the harm of recreational drugs. Nevertheless, perfectionism remains controversial among philosophers and political scientists. It might be beneficial to take a sympathetic view of perfectionism and consider how perfectionists might defend their position against some of the common objections. These objections mainly include: (a) that the state does not possess legitimate authority to make decisions about the good life and seek to promote it; (b) that perfectionist policies are generally illiberal and paternalistic; and (c) that conceptions of the good life are objects of reasonable disagreement and hence cannot legitimately be promoted by the state. In addition, the nature and importance of perfectionist policies and politics will be discussed.