Public Reason vs. Social Justice?

One of the things I’ve done this year is to rework the main portions of my paper “Public Justification and the Limits of State Action“, as a chapter for my book manuscript about public reason and political community. This chapter addresses a common objection to Rawls’s “political liberalism,” which is that if reasonable disagreement about the nature of the good life requires the state not promote or discourage any of these rival conceptions, but there is room for reasonable disagreement about justice as well as about the good life, then the state may not implement controversial conceptions of social justice, or do much of anything.

My chapter assesses an important response to this objection, which is to invoke the argument from higher-order unanimity. Instead of thinking of redistribution of income or wealth as a discrete policy, we can think of it as just one component of an egalitarian system of property rights, i.e. you have property only in your post-tax income. (Whether the government is forcibly taking some portion of your income, or forcibly keep other people’s hands off of it, there is still a system of property rights being enforced). So our choice is between a left-wing system of property rights, a right-wing system of property rights, and none at all. Framed that way, it seems that all reasonable points of view would agree that either system is better than none at all, and so it might seem legitimate for us to select either by some appropriate democratic mechanism. This is a potentially powerful argument, but its implications depend heavily on the level at which it is applied; how much or how little are we to bundle policies into packages, or unbundle them? Consider: moralistic perfectionist state, minimal state, no state – would democratic choice make the perfectionistic state legitimate? Maybe to be legitimate a law should have to acceptable to all reasonable points of view not just against no law, but against all less coercive laws. These are the kinds of issues the chapter explores.

Chapter 8: Does Public Reason Undermine Social Justice?

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