top of page
  • Writer's pictureWalter

Democracy and Public Justification for Thomas Christiano

Thomas Christiano writes that “the aim of democracy as public justification is reasoned consensus among citizens,”[1] but what does the term “public justification” means in this context? This short paper aims to explain and elaborate that term.

The modern vision of democracy has itself been strongly challenged from a number of perspectives, one of them is the consensus among citizens. One ponders the implications when there is a lack of consensus within the democratic argument, and differences linger as what is reasonable to me might be fairly weak to my compatriot. In a perfect world, we all imagine a picture-perfect portrait of democracy where equal citizens provide impartial and rational justifications to support their arguments. However, and when we observe outside this quasi-idealistic notion of democracy, we can find that arguments in the real world seem not obviously to favour the principle of reasonableness. We also idealize that at the heart of a liberal democracy is the concept of the rational actor, someone who reflects, and judges acts by her/his consequences and picks the best alternative. S/he strongly holds the thought that within the democratic debate there is a solution for every problem, and for every conflict a resolution; moreover, the democratic citizens embrace the principle that they can negotiate and select what it is best for all society. Christiano provides, to a certain extent, foundational assumptions of what is considered “reasonable” to bring consensus among citizens when it comes to principles that regulate their society. However, his highlights imply postulations where arguments that support principle of reasonableness can sometimes offer oversimplified justifications. In other words, not everyone is a liberal democrat and often moral arguments from minorities are overlooked by a majority, or as Rawls puts it: “regulated by principles on which there is an overlapping consensus,”[2] the most desirable form of stability in a society. But, is this view that fundamentally claims that stability achievable when complete consensus within the public justification is highly unlikely due to an increasingly diverse society? Consensuses might depend on what constitute morally and reasonably significant for only one portion of that big spectrum of diversified citizens. Furthermore, reasoned consensus among citizens is crucial in order to justify the purpose of democracy; a sort of implied justification to accommodate everyone to reflect the heart and essence of multiculturalism; a principle of political morality where certain public norms must apply to all citizens.

Laws, policies, regulations are created and fulfilled by bipartisan agreements. They are generally designed as a function of the majority or the most common frame of application. Debates from both sides of a legislative floor must come to an agreement that, in theory, will reach the vast majority of the population. Still, what is rational for one side may not resonate as equal to their counterparts, and validations offered must assume responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. We can all agree that public institutions and policies that are meant to regulate, protect, and guide citizens must be led by the premise that all individuals have an equal opportunity to choose their life plan and to implement it in the democratic field. Nevertheless, democratic debates undergo roadblocks where individuals participating in them come from a wide range of diverse background rooted with different social structure, gender, sexual orientation, physical characteristics, ethnicity, history, and (of course) religion. Can all this complexed web ensure reasonableness in the democratic debate? Unlikely.

Public reason within a debate, as a form of consensus, does expect disagreements from one another as difficulties in argumentation are a priory anticipated as well as expected up until any final outcome. Obstacles arise when one-side or both claim, dispute, or present their quarrel as an objective truth (i.e. self-referential reasons), which is the opposite of a rational proposal. Everything underlined above, that I apologize if seem to depict a pseudo-apocalyptic image of public justification or reasonableness in the democratic field, should keep in mind that the argument per se is the medium where we find some forms of reciprocity and notions of understanding and agreement. Even with its downfalls, the debate is at the core of all this process.

There are very significant subjects we must stress when considering how “public justification” is understood within the democratic domain. One of them is the subject of ‘language.’ To ensure equality or equal opportunity in a debate, a common-shared language, though this seems obvious, appears foundational to minimize block in communication. What is more, the use of specific jargon, slang, or technicalities may impose further difficulties when challenging rhetorical discourses. In short, when trying to persuade the other in a democratic debate, technical or non-inclusive expressions do provide more road blocks than clarifications.

Another topic is the acknowledgment, for those involved in what we consider public reasonableness, that there are no legitimate argumentation or justifications in the use of:

· hate speech;

· traditions as a modus of validation;

· preaching or imposition of religious beliefs (God = just because).

Just as found in traditions, religions are evolving systems that comprise not only beliefs but deeply represented by practices; a somewhat fluidity and flexibility that allows major religions to remain current and grow. It is because of this assumption that does not seem unreasonable for the public to ask religious persons to adapt their beliefs to the public rules, or better yet, to set them aside. From that stand point, religious beliefs are one kind of subjective preference among others. However, the line is crossed when public justifications touch the legislative flood and affects lawmaking. I strongly claim that we must differentiate between public justification (public reasonableness) of the general public from that of the lawmakers. There is a strong distinction when validations for public justifications, such as the ones highlighted above, touch the fields of constitutional law it affects all citizens of the state.

Public justification-based accounts of liberal legitimacy rely on the idea that a polity’s basic structure should, in some sense, be acceptable to its citizens. However, the original question Christiano proposed still resonates: How can some moral or “political rules be rightly imposed on all of us, particularly if we assume deep and permanent disagreement amongst persons about matters of value, morality, religion, and the good life?”[3] Just as we have been influenced, and we are the result of our social inheritance, by ancestry, the contemporary moral and political philosophy is deeply rooted by the works of thinkers that shaped the original system of the polis. It is what we received in the work of Hobbes, Kant, and Rousseau.

[1] Thomas Christiano, “Democracy,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, first published Jul 27, 2006, [2] John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996) 134. [3] Christiano, “Democracy,” 1.


Christiano, Thomas. “Democracy.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. First published Thu Jul 27, 2006.

Rawls, J., 1996, Political Liberalism, New York: Columbia University Press, revised edition.

bottom of page