A Skeptical Problem for Public Reason: Religious Beliefs and Human Rights

Brock Michael Mason, Fordham University


Public reason liberalism requires that coercive measures be justified to all reasonable citizens. As a result, when publicly deliberating, citizens must only invoke those beliefs that all citizens could reasonably accept, on some level of idealization. Religious beliefs are routinely taken as the paradigmatic example of a non-public reason: beliefs that not all citizens can reasonably endorse. This dissertation argues that to fully evaluate the plausibility of the public reason view, we must look to epistemology. Public reason's commitments to public justification and to limiting public dialogue (in part) on the basis epistemic properties require considering its epistemological ramifications. This dissertation argues that public reason is open to serious skeptical objections. That is, given public reason's commitments, there will be important beliefs—ones that we take to be public—that will turn out to be non-public. Chapter 1 outlines the main contours of the public reason tradition, especially its epistemological commitments. Chapter 2 argues that by ruling out religious beliefs as non-public, public reason has set the bar for public beliefs incredibly high. Work in religious epistemology in recent decades has shown that religious beliefs are often quite similar to other beliefs, especially moral beliefs, and to hold that religious beliefs are non-public carries a great epistemic cost. Chapter 3 then argues that public reason's notion of justification is internalist. This present problems not only for public reason's purported claim to neutrality; it furthers the skeptical worries outlined in Chapter 2. By limiting justification to those beliefs which have accessible justifiers, public reason has again raised the bar for public justification. Chapters 4 and 5 give teeth to this skeptical argument, building on the arguments of Chapters 2 and 3. I argue that given public reason's commitments, beliefs about human rights are non-public. Given the centrality of human rights to contemporary moral/political philosophy and political dialogue, this is a serious drawback of the view. Chapter 4 argues that human rights require a justification to be seen as public. They cannot be built into the starting conditions of idealization, either as outgrowths of liberal values or as self-evident (and hence an outgrowth of reasoning well). Chapter 5 then considers various justifications for human rights, arguing that none of them provides what the public reason theorist needs. If I am correct in these arguments, public reason is susceptible to skeptical objections. By committing itself to public justification and ruling out religious beliefs, it looks as though human rights will be non-public. But rather than suggesting something problematic about human rights, I argue that this suggests we should alter or reject public reason. In any event, the plausibility of public reason will require jumping headlong into these kinds of epistemological debates.

Subject Area

Philosophy|Political science|Law

Recommended Citation

Mason, Brock Michael, "A Skeptical Problem for Public Reason: Religious Beliefs and Human Rights" (2021). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI28713787.