Chapter One. A Critique of Public Reason

James Noland


Following in the tradition of Kant, a "critique" is an uncovering or unmasking of something. Kant's Critique of Pure Reason was an attempt to uncover and discuss reason in its pure form. "Pure" in this context did not mean necessarily "good" or "virtuous" but something more like "unmixed." Kant did not suppose that his critique was necessary because reason had somehow been obscured or contaminated in some way; his critique was a philosophical pursuit of clarity rather than a moral mission of rescue. Later critiques, such as those of Marx and the critical theorists of the twentieth century, viewed reason as being in need of reclamation and undertook not only to uncover reason itself but to expose those causes, forces, and persons who were responsible for its having been obscured or masked.

For reasons I will discuss at length below, I have serious misgivings about critique as a method and as a general philosophical approach. However, I have titled this chapter "A Critique of Public Reason" because I want to discuss what I take public reason to be and to uncover some of the implicit (and, I believe, mistaken) assumptions necessary to make public reason seem a viable concept. My project here is a critique insofar as it is an attempt to discern just what public reason is, or rather, how it fails to be what its proponents want it to be.

My central thesis is that public reason is a contemporary myth; for, in reality, there is no such thing as public reason, at least not in the sense proposed by philosophers such as John Rawls. Despite its widespread appeal and popularity, public reason as it is usually conceived cannot be found in reality. Those more inclined to conspiracy theories might call public reason a lie, but for several reasons—one of which is autobiographical—I think this would be too strong. Typically, public reason is promoted by those genuinely searching for some way for persons and peoples of various religions and cultures peacefully and fairly to adjudicate among themselves disputes over how they should order their lives together.

In some cases, such people have strong commitments to a particular religion but recognize that crafting political structures, laws, and policies on the basis of this religion will not be well received by those who do not acknowledge its teachings. For example, I have distinct memories of taking ethics as a young philosophy major and being very concerned to find arguments for moral truth that did not depend on an appeal to Christianity. I was a Christian, and I believed strongly in moral truth. I was dismayed by utilitarianism because it could justify all sorts of actions I took to be inherently wrong. I was troubled and frustrated by the moral relativism I saw practiced all around me and promoted in some of my philosophy texts. I was certain that morality was about truth, not about emotions, and I was therefore somewhat insulted by emotivism. But, all this being the case, I wanted to make arguments for moral truth—for the universality of human rights, among other things—that did not appeal to Christian teaching because I wanted to make arguments that non-Christians, even atheists for that matter, could recognize and accept. I wanted to make arguments based on "reason alone." I thought this was wise practically, and I also remember having some vague notion that this was one of the rules of the game, so to speak. Though I did not know it at the time, I believed in public reason.

John Rawls, one of the foremost proponents of public reason, also describes admirable and familiar intentions for public reason. He takes it as a basic, normal, and unavoidable feature of contemporary society that it is comprised of people holding many varied "comprehensive doctrines." "A doctrine is fully comprehensive," he says, "if it covers all recognized values and virtues within one rather precisely articulated system." Rawls explains that "a plurality of reasonable yet incompatible comprehensive doctrines is the normal result of the free exercise of human reason within the framework of the free institutions of a constitutional democratic regime." Religions, for example, are comprehensive doctrines: they provide accounts of personhood, morality, and meaning. The issue, says Rawls, is that "citizens realize that they cannot reach agreement or even approach mutual understanding on the basis of their irreconcilable comprehensive doctrines. In view of this, they need to consider what kinds of reasons they may reasonably give one another when fundamental political questions are at stake."

Public reason is the means by which members of a community might make judgments about political justice and the common good in such a way that these judgments do not appeal to comprehensive doctrines, but rather to reasons that adherents to any reasonable comprehensive doctrine might endorse or accept irrespective of their comprehensive doctrine. The questions to which public reason is applied are not to every detail of public life but to questions of what Rawls calls "basic justice" such as "who has the right to vote, or what religions are to be tolerated, or who is to be assured fair equality of opportunity, or to hold property." More specifically, and most significantly, public reason is to settle debates between peoples about the question "who are the holders of human rights?"

Rawls's basic idea seems to make good sense. For Christians, for example, to argue for or against laws because some behavior is either mandated or proscribed in the Christian Scriptures is for them to appeal to reasons that do not count as such for non-Christians. In the first place, it seems to be a tactical mistake to rest one's case on evidence that others do not recognize as such. Appealing, for instance, to the authority of Paul's teachings when others do not believe in the authority of Paul's teachings is not likely to be very effective.

Furthermore, Rawls contends, to appeal to one's comprehensive doctrine when making political arguments treats one's fellow citizens not as "free and rational" individuals but as "socially situated or otherwise rooted, that is, as being in this or that social class, or in this or that property and income group, or as having this or that comprehensive doctrine." We might think of public reason as the language we should use when we are operating as citizens attempting to engage other citizens in discussions about our lives together as citizens. We might use public reason, then, the way scholars of previous centuries used Latin: as a universal language, a lingua franca that facilitates engagement and understanding between persons from different countries (or, in our case, persons holding different comprehensive doctrines).

To continue with this analogy, if failing to engage others through the use of public reason is analogous to failing to engage others in a language they not only understand but can use fluently, then failing to engage others through the use of public reason is really a failure to respect others as free, rational persons. That is, it would be a failure to engage others in genuine dialogue aimed at understanding, if not agreement. Imagine a group of people, some of whom only speak English and some of whom only speak Spanish, and imagine this group trying to devise rules that will govern how they live together. If the members of the group claim they want to operate as a democracy, respecting each other's rights and freedoms, then they must find some way to actually communicate. If the group fails to find some common language, they will fail to achieve communal deliberation and meaningful participation. In other words, they may speak to each other, but they will not be able to offer reasons to one another and they will not be able to achieve consent from one another. Should they vote on anything, this vote will only be an expression of individual interests and will really be more of a show of force (insofar as it is a show of greater numbers) rather than communal decision-making.

This respect for others as free rational persons with whom one wants to cooperate and engage as a fellow citizen is what Rawls terms "reasonableness." Reasonableness, then, has to do with one's disposition and attitude towards engagement with others rather than with one's being right-thinking or intelligent or clear-headed. Such reasonableness is admirable and certainly attractive as a general characteristic of persons. To the extent that reasonableness resembles the disposition of charity, it is something to which Christians should aspire. However, it is a mistake to suppose that employing something called "public reason" is the proper means—for Christians or anyone else—for practicing reasonableness. One reason this is a mistake is that public reason is not truly neutral towards various comprehensive doctrines. Others before me have made the case, and made it well, that the ostensible neutrality of public reason is an illusion. I agree with this assessment, but for now I want to focus instead on what I take to be a more fundamental problem with the very concept of public reason. I want to show that the plausibility of public reason as a concept depends upon a mistaken view of reason in general and that this mistaken view leads to other unfortunate misconceptions about personhood and freedom of which Christians in particular should be wary.

The first step in beginning to make this case is to parse some terms that are sometimes used interchangeably and often vaguely. We have already seen that reasonable as used by Rawls has to do with disposition or attitude. I will continue to use the term in this way. The other terms that I want to spend some time discussing individually are logic, rationality, and reason. Below I will offer brief explanations of these terms, distinguishing them from one another. I think that my explanations and distinctions, while admittedly not as precise as one might wish for in a different context, are uncontroversial and defensible, though I will not be providing such a defense here. Making these distinctions is important because sometimes the words "reason" and "reasoning" are used loosely to refer generally to thinking. Upon consideration, though, we can see that thinking can be done in different ways, with different purposes. It is necessary to distinguish between these various ways in order to make clear just what public reason must be if it is to do the work Rawls and others assign to it.


Simply put, logic has to do with drawing inferences. As such, logic does not necessarily have to do with truth; or perhaps a better way to say this would be to say that it does not necessarily have to do with the way the world actually is. Instead, it has to do with the relationships between ideas. We can, for example, say, "If A then B, and if B then C, therefore if A then C," without knowing what the symbols A, B and C stand for, or whether A is actually true. Similarly, I can know that if today is Monday, then yesterday was Sunday. Whether or not today actually is Monday is irrelevant for purposes of making or evaluating this inference. We use logic when we determine that if murder is always wrong, and abortion is murder, then abortion is wrong. We do not use logic to determine that murder is wrong or that abortion is murder, unless we do so by way of inference from other statements. Logic alone is insufficient for determining the truth or falsity of any given statement about the world.

Insofar as logic at its most basic level has to do with forms and structures that are necessary for thought, it is, by definition, public. The Law of Non-Contradiction, for example, holds universally and is a prerequisite for coherent thought. To appeal to the Law of Non-Contradiction is to appeal to something universally accessible as opposed to something "private" or unique to a particular comprehensive doctrine. If someone were (meaningfully or coherently) to describe someone else as "following his own logic," it would be more appropriate to say that the purposes motivating this other person's behavior are not apparent to others rather than to say that he was actually using his own logic.

Logic would certainly be a necessary feature of public reason, but the disagreements public reason is meant to resolve are not alleged to stem from faulty logic. It is possible, even likely, that citizens arguing from premises provided by their respective comprehensive doctrines could each make logically valid arguments for their positions and yet remain at odds with one another. Their dispute would be over the substantive truth of the premises of each other's arguments, not the formal validity; and logic alone cannot determine the truth or falsity of the disputed premises.


Rationality has to do with identifying the best means for reaching ends and for identifying appropriate intermediate ends for given final ends. In other words, rationality has to do with choosing the best way (or means) to get from A to B. To choose rationally is to employ logic in one's decision-making. Perhaps more often than not, the type of logic employed will be inductive. That is, one will choose the means for achieving one's goal on the basis of experience, determining the steps most likely to be successful. Significantly, the rationality of a particular choice cannot be evaluated without some knowledge of the chooser's goal. If I do not know what a person is trying to achieve, I cannot determine whether or not his behavior is rational. Sometimes, I may safely assume that certain goals such as good health are commonly, if not universally, held, so that I can describe a stranger's behavior as rational or irrational depending on whether or not the behavior is conducive to good health. For the most part, however, if I am ignorant of a person's ends (or goals), I am unable to judge the rationality of his behavior.

Imagine, for example, that my friend tells me he is hungry but is declining my offer of food. If I know my friend is trying to lose weight, I may consider his behavior rational. If I know my friend is trying to gain weight, I may consider his behavior irrational. Absent the knowledge of my friend's purposes, I may be puzzled by his behavior but still not qualified to judge whether or not it is rational. If I do come to know his immediate goal of losing weight and therefore judge his behavior in this instance as rational, I must still refrain from judging whether the fact that he is pursuing this goal is itself rational or irrational until I know what further purpose this intermediate goal is meant to serve. If my friend has been told by his doctor that he is overweight and unhealthy, then I can easily determine that his goal of losing weight is rational insofar as it is instrumental in his quest for better health. The important points to remember here are that behavior in and of itself is neither rational nor irrational and that, because rationality has to do with identifying means to ends, it does not apply to choices of ends themselves, except when those ends are instrumental or intermediate to some greater goal.

Although ends or goals may be privately or uniquely held, to the extent that these are made known, rationality can also be considered "public." One need not share another's goals in order to understand whether this other person has behaved rationally in pursuit of those goals. A Christian may easily be able to understand, for example, a Muslim's decision to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca or a Jew's refusal to work on Saturdays.

As we saw with logic, rationality will certainly be an important component of public reason, but it will not be sufficient for resolving the disputes public reason is meant to address. I anticipate, however, that some might think this claim too strong. After all, it is supposed that public reason will only be exercised by those who have already committed themselves to reasonableness. To be reasonable is to respect one's fellow citizens as one's peers, that is, as one's equals, and therefore as free and rational. This entails engaging one's fellow citizens in such a way as to offer them reasons for one's positions that they are able to evaluate and, potentially at least, accept as reasons for themselves. Assuming we are rational in choosing to be reasonable, this must mean that our common, overarching goal for our lives together is for each of us to be able to live freely, exercising our own rational plans for our lives to the greatest extent possible. If we considered other goals to be more important, it would not be rational to be so strongly committed to reasonableness. We might, instead, hold reasonableness to be good except in those instances when our goal of realizing the greatest possible freedom for one another is trumped by some greater goal.

If we are committed to reasonableness because we are committed to cultivating a society wherein freedom can flourish, then it seems that public reason might very well be a matter of exercising our rationality in pursuit of this goal. Reasoning publicly, then, would be a matter of supporting positions by appealing to evidence available to others that such positions are most conducive to freedom flourishing. Here, however, we come to a problem. What, exactly, do we mean by "freedom"? And, furthermore, about whose freedom are we talking; that is, whom exactly are we counting as members of our society? When we begin to ask these questions we can see that, as is the case with logic, exercising public reason cannot simply be a matter of exercising rationality. When proponents of public reason appeal to public reason as a means for resolving difficult political questions, they are not merely advocating the use of logic or rationality; they are talking about something more basic.


In order to exercise either logic or rationality we need concepts and information to provide content. My logical powers may be Vulcan-like, but my talent alone will not allow me to know anything about the actual world. I need to have some data—some input—to be able to conclude anything about the world in which I live. Similarly, I may have access to the most extensive and reliable set of actuarial tables imaginable, but if I do not know who I am and what I want to accomplish, I cannot use this information to make any rational decisions. Reason provides us with the concepts and content necessary for us to use logic and choose rationally.

Rawls explains just why public reason must entail more than thinking logically and rationally:

Public reasoning aims for public justification. We appeal to political conceptions of justice, and to ascertainable evidence and facts open to public view, in order to reach conclusions about what we think are the most reasonable political institutions and policies. Public justification is not simply valid reasoning, but argument addressed to others: it proceeds correctly from premises we accept and think others could reasonably accept to conclusions we think they could also reasonably accept.

The critical task set before public reason is to provide premises that we all can accept and that are not derived from (though they may, of course, be compatible with) any particular comprehensive doctrine. Logic and rationality may only be useful once these premises are established. One way to describe what our faculty of reason does is to say that it is employed in the task of naming. By "naming" I do not mean what we are doing when we contemplate how we shall refer to our children or pets. Instead, I mean what we are doing when we are thinking about, for example, what justice is as well as when we are discerning whether a particular case is a case of justice or not. To say it another way, reason is the faculty whereby we discern the meaning of universals and the faculty that allows us to recognize instances of these universals. Yet another way of saying this is that reason is what enables us to understand what words mean and how to use them.

Of course, philosophers disagree about just how reason works and whether it discerns truth or creates it, but speaking in general terms, reason is what renders the world intelligible to us by allowing us to process the raw data our senses provide. What is asked of public reason is that it provide for us a way of naming the things of the world—or at least that set of things relevant for political decision-making—that does not depend on special insight or revelation or religious authority or anything else not equally accessible to all reasonable parties. Remember, the situation for which public reason is the proposed remedy is that society is comprised of peoples and persons holding many varied and incommensurate comprehensive doctrines. The goal is to develop a system that will be neutral relative to these comprehensive doctrines and will facilitate to the fullest extent possible the ability of individuals to exercise their freedom and rationality.

The Failures of Public Reason

Rawls and others fail in achieving this neutrality, but as I noted above, others before me have made this case well. What I aim to do now is to show that these failures to contrive a neutral political theory using public reason are not simply instances of particular theoretical shortcomings, but are guaranteed by the very nature of the project. Such projects are guaranteed to fail because they propose an understanding of reason that is simply incoherent. One aspect of this misunderstanding is a misconception of what it means to be free.

Rawls argues, "Liberal conceptions are also what we may call 'liberalisms of freedom.' Their three principles guarantee the basic rights and liberties, assign them a special priority, and assure to all citizens sufficient all-purpose means so that their freedoms are not purely formal." He goes on to acknowledge that these liberalisms of freedom follow in the tradition of Immanuel Kant and Georg W. F. Hegel, among others. The conception of human freedom at work in this liberal tradition is one that supposes that any attachments or characteristics or encumbrances that an individual self has which are simply given, as opposed to freely chosen by the individual self, somehow limit or obscure this individual's free, rational nature. This is why Kant says that a "pure moral philosophy" must be "wholly cleared of everything which can only be empirical and can only belong to anthropology." In other words, a pure philosophical account of how we should live must be derived from the truth about persons simpliciter (that is, persons as persons, not as this or that particular person—not as man or woman, old or young, Christian, Buddhist or Muslim, and so on), not as they are experienced in the actual world. This supposes that there is some basic core or essence of an individual self that exists independently of any of its particular distinguishing features. Hegel expresses the same basic understanding of personhood, freedom, and rationality when he says, "When I will what is rational, I act not as a particular individual, but in accordance with the concepts of ethics in general.... But a person who does something perverse gives the greatest prominence to his particularity." We can discern this same premise in later philosophers such as Karl Marx and Jürgen Habermas as well.

Here is why all of this matters: Because, as Rawls says, public reason must provide evidence—premises—which can be accepted by all and from which we can proceed to offer well-reasoned arguments for how we should order our lives together, it must be able to provide some content for logic and rationality to work with. But, as soon as one attempts to provide substantive content, one runs the danger of deriving this substantive content—such as conceptions of the equality of persons, or what the good life is, or what kinds of behavior are right and wrong—from some comprehensive doctrine, thereby failing to be neutral. For example, such content cannot be derived from views about "Nature and Nature's God," as it is in the Declaration of Independence.

The solution to this predicament is to derive this substantive content in its entirety from the basic conception of freedom, which conception is presumed to be uncontroversial and universally acceptable. Supposing that persons are most fully free to exercise their rationality when they are unencumbered, divested of all particularity, it follows that all persons are essentially equal because persons divested of their particular features are indiscernible. It follows that political and moral systems should make no arbitrary distinctions between persons and that all persons should be granted the freedom, consistent with equal freedom for others, to choose for themselves their commitments, or obligations, or conceptions of the good, or plans and purposes.

Quite a lot can be shown to follow from this ostensibly neutral starting point. From this premise we can derive the equality of persons and many rights such as the right to freedom of religion and expression. As it turns out, we also can derive some additional things about the duties of states. Suppose it is the case that the given particularities with which we all find ourselves born are not essential to our identities as persons. These particularities encumber us with obligations, opportunities, and obstacles that are on this view arbitrary and, therefore, detrimental to the equal freedom of all individuals. It follows that the state should take steps to address these unequal circumstances and provide the framework necessary so individual citizens have the "all-purpose means" and their freedom is actual and realizable (i.e., exercisable) as opposed to "merely formal."

Freedom and Teleology

There are at least two reasons why such a project must fail. The first reason is that freedom as it is understood in this liberal tradition is unintelligible. It is assumed that the freedom one has as part of one's fundamental nature as a person must include the freedom to determine for oneself one's own conception of the good. The justification for this assumption is that the only other alternatives are for one's conception of the good to be determined by random causal factors outside of one's control (such as instinct, genetic predisposition, or physical necessity) or imposed on one by others who have come before. In other words, the only alternative sources of conceptions of the good are nature and tradition.

The reason that it is assumed that receiving one's conception of the good through tradition (i.e., having it handed down from and embodied and modeled by others in the community into which one is born) impinges upon one's freedom is because it is also assumed that our nature or essence does not include any telos or purpose. If it were part of our nature to have a purpose for which we were made, the achievement of which is the exclusive means to happiness, there would be no good reason that receiving this truth from others could be viewed as impinging upon one's freedom. On the other hand, if our good is simply something we value as opposed to something we ought to become, to receive our conception of the good from tradition is to have our freedom stifled rather than enabled. What this means, though, is that this bare individual self must make its initial choice of value, or the good, without any criteria at all.

In chap. 8 of Theory of Justice, revealingly titled "Goodness as Rationality," Rawls says, "a rational plan of life establishes the basic point of view from which all judgments of value relating to a particular person are to be made and finally rendered consistent." Because the individual must freely choose this basic point of view or rational plan of life to be a free, rational person, and because this point of view is the base from which the individual is to make judgments of value, the rational plan of life itself must be chosen prior to any recognition of value or the good.

Such a choice is exactly that which Jean-Paul Sartre says we are condemned to make because of our essential freedom as beings for whom "existence precedes essence" (for whom, in other words, there is no given telos). As Sartre explains, "To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of what we choose, because we can never choose evil." In any other context such a choice would not be considered free but would be considered arbitrary and random. Truly, without criteria for choosing, and with no final end towards which such a choice could be instrumental, we cannot accurately call this initial step Rawls and Sartre describe a "choice" or an "action." Just as uncaused motion must be considered indeterminate, an act of choosing independent of any criteria or framework of value must be considered unintelligible rather than free. The basic premise from which public reason is presumed to proceed is logically impossible and it follows that no system of reason can be built upon it or follow from it.

The second reason a project to establish public reason must fail was hinted at in the explanation of the first reason. The stated mission of public reason is to devise a political theory that is neutral with respect to comprehensive doctrines. This neutrality is violated in the very first step. The conception of freedom presumed as the basis and justification for pursuing an account of public reason is not neutral with respect to Christianity. Public reason, the Rawlsian version or otherwise, does not fail to be neutral with respect to Christianity merely insofar as it disallows appeal to biblical teachings as one source of moral wisdom. Public reason more fundamentally fails to be neutral with respect to Christianity because the very nature of the project is a denial of Christian teaching about freedom and what it means to be a person.

Its proponents claim that public reason is neutral with respect to conceptions of the good and what it means to be a person, but in fact, conceptions of the good and what it means to be a person are logically prior to its supposed foundational premise about human freedom. It presumes a concept of freedom that entails that persons do not have a purpose for which they are created and in service to which their freedom is instrumental. Because public reason is not neutral in its conception of freedom, it is also not neutral in its conception of the good. Rawls and others suppose that, because their proposed system will allow individuals freely to choose their own conceptions of the good, their system is therefore neutral with respect to such conceptions. However, to conclude that this is what neutrality consists of is to assume that goodness is a matter of subjective value and to rule out the possibility that goodness is a matter of excellence of function or conformity with God's will.

A core tenet of Christianity is that man's essential nature is teleological (that is, built into our nature is a purpose) and that the freedom for which we were made, and to which we have been restored through the power of the cross, is the freedom to pursue, fulfill, and enjoy this given purpose. Thus, Christian concerns about the whole project of which the notion of public reason is just one part are (at least) twofold.

The first area of concern is that any political system that purports to employ public reason is already biased against basic Christian teaching in principle and cannot help but be biased against Christianity in practice. Of course, were Christians to live under such a system, it would not be the first time in history that a political regime was opposed to Christianity. It might, however—if these Christians were not alert to the ways in which this form of liberalism denies Christian teaching—be in some important ways more dangerous than earlier, more overtly hostile regimes.

The second area of concern is related to the first. Earlier I said that to the extent that reasonableness resembles the Christian virtue of charity, it is a stance Christians should embrace. This is true; Christians should endeavor to treat others with respect, to engage them politically by offering them reasons and making arguments rather than manipulating them rhetorically or imposing upon them through sheer numerical force. However, Rawlsian reasonableness is not equivalent to Christian charity. The temptation to pursue public reason as a means of exercising charity ends up undermining the very basis for our hope that informs this charity. After admonishing his fellow Christians to respect everyone and to recognize governmental authority, Peter directs them to "always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Pet 3:15). We cannot give an account of the hope that is in us if the form of reason we think we must employ in order to give this account respectfully entails denying the content and foundation of our hope.

One way the attempt to use public reason denies the basis of our hope is that it denies our knowledge of whom we have been created to be and our receipt of the grace that grants us the freedom to become whom we have been created to be. Public reason denies this basis by presenting an alternative, contrary conception of freedom. As we have seen, this conception of freedom, articulated so powerfully and influentially by Kant, is a hallmark of modernity and postmodernity alike. The Kantian man—the individual self, stripped of particularity—wants to declare his embodiment in place and time insignificant, to use his freedom to assert his will and legislate the moral law for himself. It is noteworthy that Iris Murdoch, who was not a Christian, was nonetheless able to perceive that "Kant's man had already received a glorious incarnation nearly a century earlier in the work of Milton: his proper name is Lucifer."

The Importance of Particularity

Another way the attempt to use public reason denies the basis of our hope is that it supposes that the truth we know through Jesus Christ is a truth that can be discerned and known independently of Jesus Christ. In other words, this general conception of public reason entails that our particularity is not essential to our identity. In fact, it assumes that reason rightly and freely exercised is done so by persons unencumbered by their particularity. For those who accept this view, the message about the significance of particularity that permeates the biblical narrative is a stumbling block; it is literally scandalous—it is what Walker Percy and others refer to as "the scandal of particularity."

Paul's words to the Corinthians, "For the Jews ask for signs and the Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles" (1 Cor 1:22-23), are more relevant here than we might first imagine. As Richard John Neuhaus says, speaking of Jesus Christ, "The cross is not just what happened to him—it is who he is.... The God whom we worship is a crucified God." Neuhaus tells the story of a woman who came to him asking about the meaning of the cross saying, "I think I am almost ready to be a Christian. I have no doubts about God... but my problem is with the cross." The significance of Paul's words to the Corinthians is that if this woman does have a problem with the cross, then she actually does have doubts about God. We cannot simply reason our way to knowledge of God; we must meet God in Christ. Similarly, we cannot simply reason our way to understanding concepts such as "justice" or "power" or "peace" independently of the particular stories in which these concepts are exemplified. Nor can we discern who we are or determine our good independently of understanding the particular stories of which we are a part.

We see positive arguments for this truth throughout the New Testament, particularly in Paul's letters, for example, where he speaks of Gentiles being grafted in to the vine that is the story of the Jews and redefines the concepts of power and weakness, inverting their relationship. We also see this in John's letters where he explains how we know what love actually is. We find further evidence for this truth in the abundant examples of the disastrous consequences of its denial, as detailed in the first chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans.

When Christians try to argue for the truth of Christianity or for the truth of any of its specific moral teachings on the basis of "reason alone" (as I was wont to do as a young philosopher), we implicitly present Christian truth as but an instance of some larger universal truth. While it is easy to understand the motives for such an approach—ranging from evangelistic zeal, firm confidence in moral truth, or basic neighborly courtesy—it nevertheless reflects mistaken theology as well as mistaken philosophy.

Whereas Paul helps us to understand why this approach—the appeal to pure or public reason in pursuit or defense of the truth—reflects mistaken theology, Alasdair MacIntyre helps us to understand why it also reflects mistaken philosophy. As he explains in one of his earlier works, A Short History of Ethics, "To understand a concept, to grasp the meaning of the words which express it, is always at least to learn what the rules are which govern the use of such words and so to grasp the role of the concept in language and social life." The project of public reason, Rawlsian or otherwise, is to reason from and about concepts such as "freedom," "justice," "good," and "equality" independently of the way they are used and understood within any particular community's language and life. Above, I suggested that public reason might function as a lingua franca, a common language of political discourse in much the same way as Latin functioned in the academy for many years. Now we can see, however, that while this is the aspiration for public reason, the analogy is imprecise. The only reason scholars from different communities across the world and through the ages were able to use Latin as their common language was that, despite its status as a dead language, they still had an abundance of rich stories that provided the necessary context for understanding the language. The analogy of public reason as a contemporary political lingua franca is imprecise because public reason is conceived of as a language without stories.

MacIntyre illustrates the necessary impotence of such a language at the beginning of the second chapter of his master-work, After Virtue. There he lays out several different sets of familiar rival arguments about the justice of war, the morality of abortion, and the obligations of the liberal state, and shows that though each argument uses the terms of public reason, the concepts employed and the conclusions reached are incommensurable. Because these arguments are joined by those attempting to use such concepts as "equality" and "freedom" as if they could be extracted from the particular stories that give them substance, there can be no criteria of correctness for their usage and thus no justification given for their respective interpretations or for the relative priority given to one over the other. When freedom is understood merely as freedom from something, whether it be nature or tradition, as opposed to freedom for something, there can be no way of prioritizing the various forms or types of freedom and rights (such as freedom of speech versus freedom from harassment, or the right to life versus the right to self-determination).

Rawls acknowledges that some would object to his case for public reason by pointing to its inability to resolve such "stand-offs," as he calls them. He admits that such stand-offs are inevitable but says they are irrelevant. He says the important thing is that when such stand-offs occur, "Here some political rule of action must be laid down and all must be able reasonably to endorse the process by which a decision is reached."

Of course, Christians should be wary of prioritizing process over truth when it comes to questions about justice. Pilate, after all, recognized this same priority. One unfortunate result of the inability of public reason to resolve stand-offs—which inability follows from its lack of resources for adjudicating between uses and meanings of terms—is that, protestations of reasonableness by its proponents notwithstanding, its conclusions must come to be seen as expressions of preference under the guise of objectivity. This ultimately undermines rather than reinforces any confidence we may have that reason has rightly to do with truth rather than power. This is ironic to some degree given the stated intentions of its advocates, but it really should not be surprising given the fact that we have seen this happen before. Despite Kant's best efforts to the contrary, once he attempted to define and defend pure reason apart from any tradition that might serve as a living argument for a particular rational framework, critics such as Marx and Nietzsche quickly exposed appeals to reason as the exercise of power through rhetoric. Such charges should illustrate yet another reason Christians should avoid embracing public reason.

How, Then, Should We Reason?

At the outset I noted that though I have strong reservations about the philosophical method of critique, I titled this chapter "A Critique of Public Reason" because I wanted to uncover the basic assumptions underlying public reason. My reservations about the method of critique have to do with the fact that, typically, critics purport to represent the perspective of unencumbered reason, a perspective that allows the critic to point out the ways in which the position of his or her target fails to achieve this unbiased perspective. The targeted argument is thereby disqualified because it is shown to represent some particular (often privileged) biased perspective. Furthermore, such critiques often present only a negative assessment of the target and neglect to offer something positive in its place.

To the contrary, my critique is offered unapologetically from the Christian perspective. I have argued from within the Christian tradition that public reason fails on its own terms as well as on Christian terms. Not only do I openly profess my particularity, but I also want to offer a brief sketch of a positive alternative to that which I have criticized.

I believe that in Paul's letters we can discern both a conception of reason and a model of its exercise that is a viable alternative to public reason. We see quite clearly that Paul does not suppose that communication between or across traditions or communities is impossible. He is confident that there are truths that everyone can be expected to know; otherwise he would not have made his speech at Mars Hill, or appealed to the consciences of those Romans who used the same knowledge they denied while condemning others. He tells us, after all, of the moral law that is written on our hearts. Yet Paul also recognizes that God's wisdom is counted as foolishness by the world. Because of this, he does not rely on his words as his primary tool for evangelism. He presents his life and the lives of other Christians as his primary arguments for the truth of the gospel. He also remembers that it is the Holy Spirit who will counsel and convict others and that the spreading of the gospel does not depend on his own capacity for persuasion. And, of course, we also see in Paul's letters a model of patience and a willingness to suffer that must accompany similar attempts to reason with the world. Paul's example provides us with a form of reasoning that is proven to be effective and which remains faithful to the gospel.

Works Cited

Budziszewski, J. The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man. Dallas: Spence, 1999.

———. Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997.

Hegel, G. W. F. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Edited by Allen W. Wood. Translated by H. B. Nisbet. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by James Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984.

———. A Short History of Ethics. 2nd ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.

Murdoch, Iris. "The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts." Pages 363-85 in Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. Edited by Peter Conradi and George Steiner. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.

Neuhaus, Richard John. Death on a Friday Afternoon. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

———. The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

Rawls, John. The Law of Peoples. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

———. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

———. A Theory of Justice. Rev. ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Sandel, Michael. Democracy's Discontent. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1996.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Essays in Existentialism. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: Citadel Press, 1993.

———. Existentialism and Human Emotions. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 2000.

Some Recommended Reading

Gunton, Colin E. The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Hart, David Bentley. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. New York: Touchstone, 1996.