Rawls, Neutrality, and Public Reason

John Rawls argues that public discourse should be neutral with regard to religion. But his rules of public reason are not truly neutral. They privilege the viewpoint of Rawls’s own secular rationalism. “Reason” – or rather a particular understanding of reason – becomes in effect the established religion of the civil community.

Rawls is widely believed to have offered the strongest argument for a religion-free public political sphere (at least with regard to fundamental rights and liberties). While he is essentially a secularizer when it comes to religion and politics, he is also more fair than some of his peers and successors in the sense that he does not attempt to segregate religion from the political process while allowing an army of ideological “isms” to run free. One of the vulnerabilities of an approach such as Robert Audi’s (presented in Religion in the Public Square) is that the secular/religious distinction would inhibit, say, a Christian from participating politically with his faith manifest, while it would seemingly permit a Marxist to freely engage in politics because Marxism is secular in nature. The same problem would not necessarily apply under a plan such as the one presented by Rawls in Political Liberalism because he correctly recognizes that imposition from Marxism is of a similar nature to imposition from Christianity or Islam. The simple truth is that coercive power exercised in accord with someone else’s world and life view exacts a toll on those who do not share that perspective. Instead of more narrowly (and perhaps in blinkered fashion) dealing with the issue of religions and politics, Rawls creates a new category under the name “comprehensive doctrines.”

While the use of comprehensive doctrines is more sophisticated and seemingly superior to a simple sacred-secular distinction, Rawls’s proposed plan of organizing public discourse may actually take away more than it gives. In this chapter, I intend to explain John Rawls’s use of comprehensive doctrines and public reason as methods of improving public debate and policy formation in a pluralistic society and then point to serious problems with his approach which should probably discourage Christians and other sincere holders of comprehensive doctrines from accepting the philosophers invitation to pursue civic virtue as he sees it.


Comprehensive doctrines can be religious, philosophical, or moral in nature. They proceed from the exercise of both theoretical and practical reason and tend to have a fairly stable tradition of thought and doctrine. Many comprehensive doctrines are “reasonable,” according to Rawls. That means that while their adherents believe that their view of the world and their prescriptions for life (individual and social) are true, they also recognize that everyone operates under certain “burdens of judgment.” Burdens of judgment include such factors as the complexity of evidence, differing assessments of the weight that should be given various evidences, indeterminacy, different experiences, varying normative considerations, and the reality of a limited social space which forces prioritization of goals. The existence of the burdens of judgment will prompt reasonable adherence of comprehensive doctrines to accept a political existence in which the doctrines are held off to the side and citizens interact on the basis of what can be held in common in a public square. Consideration of the burdens of judgment helps to clarify an important distinction Rawls draws between reasonableness and rationality. He aims to create a public square characterized by an attitude of reasonableness among participants rather than setting up a test of rationality. Given different affections and proceeding from different premises, any number of moves might be rational for citizens. According to Rawls, a bar of rationality is too low. What is more important is that public actors approach their participation with a sense of mutuality and reciprocity. The focus is not on what can be rationally justified in some way as opposed to figuring out what kinds of propositions are reasonable for others to accept.

Keeping this sense of reasonableness as reciprocity in mind, the different comprehensive doctrines have common views that may operate well together as long as citizens do not dwell upon their specific source. Jacque Maritain’s experience in working on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Man is pertinent. He noted that he and the others could agree on many of the rights human beings have provided they weren’t asked why. The difficulty, according to Maritain, is not in arriving at a set of practical conclusions, but rather in finding a common rational justification for those conclusions. Political liberalism, as formulated by Rawls in his later works, aims to abandon that quest. Political liberalism articulates a similar insight, stating that, “A constitutional regime does not require an agreement on comprehensive doctrine” because “the basis of its social unity lies elsewhere.”


Rawls declares that those adherents of comprehensive doctrines who are reasonable will accept the need to restrict and reformulate their political participation into some form that is commonly acceptable by essentially any other reasonable person. As a result, the social overlay Rawls calls political liberalism will emerge as a reasonable response to a pluralism of comprehensive doctrines. This political liberalism is not metaphysical. It is simply an “overlapping consensus” that involves a reasonable mix of political values whereby we all agree to be bound.