Classic Revisited: Greenawalt’s “Private Consciences and Public Reasons”

Today’s Classic Revisited is Kent Greenawalt’s Private Consciences and Public Reasons (OUP 1995), a study of the circumstances in which it is appropriate for citizens, legislators, and judges to employ religious reasons to make judgments about political matters.  My old teacher, known for the carefulness of his analysis and for his fine and thoughtful distinctions between various issues, laces this discussion with lively thought experiments about the sort of political society we would want to live in if given the choice among a number of church-state arrangements.  And as is also common with Kent, sprinkled into the text every so often are personal stories or reflections that have shaped his thinking on these matters.  Finally, and in keeping with the book’s emphasis on the “accessibility” of reasons, Kent writes in a straightforward and easily accessible style.  You could not do better for an introduction to his intermediate, nuanced, middle-road, and deeply sophisticated views on these important questions.  The publisher’s description follows.  — MOD

Within democratic societies, a deep division exists over the nature of community and the grounds for political life. Should the political order be neutral between competing conceptions of the good life or should it be based on some such conception? This book addresses one crucial set of problems raised by this division: What bases should officials and citizens employ in reaching political decisions and justifying their positions? Should they feel free to rely on whatever grounds seem otherwise persuasive to them, like religious convictions, or should they restrict themselves to “public reasons,” reasons that are shared within the society or arise from the premises of liberal democracy? Kent Greenawalt argues that fundamental premises of liberal democracy alone do not provides answers to these questions, that much depends on historical and cultural contexts. After examining past and current practices and attitudes in the United States, he offers concrete suggestions for appropriate principles relevant to American society today. This incisive and timely analysis by one of our leading legal philosophers should attract a wide and diverse readership of scholars, practitioners, and concerned citizens.

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