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Rawls and Habermas on Religion and Public Reason

  • University of London (map)

In 2005 Habermas advanced a view of the role of religion in public “institutional translation proviso”. He takes the view to be an alternative to the Rawlsian idea of public reason, an alternative that is superior in that it convincingly answers two objections he takes to apply to the Rawlsian view, namely that it puts unfair burdens on religious citizens and that it wrongly impugns their identity. (In my view, neither applies to Rawls’s view properly understood.) Virtually all commentators, whether for or against Rawls, argue that Haberma's’s position is essentially no different from Rawls’s. To Rawls’s defenders, Habermas’s position is, to the extent that it is tenable, unoriginal. To Rawls’s critics, it is untenable because vulnerable to the just same objections that apply to Rawls. I show that all these critics are mistaken about the propinquity to Rawls’s theory, and about its status as normative, theory. The similarities are merely terminological, and Habermas’s terminology is deeply misleading. The distinctiveness of Habermas’ view comes into sharp focus when it is viewed in the light of his own theory of law, and his criticism of Rawls. It is at its weakest where he attempts (needlessly in my view) to make it answer the two objections.