Vallier Reading Group: Chapter 1

I am happy to begin our reading group on Kevin Vallier’s new book, Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation. My thanks to Chad Van Schoelandt for organizing. In earlier reading groups, we have followed a standard format of summarizing a chapter and then raising some questions about it. In this post, I focus on Chapter 1, Public Reason Liberalism: Religion’s Child and King.


The liberal tradition is often accused of hostility toward religion. Because liberalism places constraints on the role of religious commitments in politics, it may seem to have a “secularist bias.” In this chapter, Vallier seeks to defend liberalism against this charge, or at least against the claim that liberalism is motivated by such bias or hostility. Vallier claims that liberalism has a “schizophrenic attitude” toward religion: on one hand, promoting religious liberty and diversity, but on the other, constraining the influence of religion in the political domain. But this attitude does not reflect hostility so much as a good faith effort to balance religious freedom with the demand for a legitimate and stable public authority. To develop this claim, this chapter describes the “source, ground, and structure of public reason liberalism” (10) and, by extension, the liberal tradition more generally.

Although the chapter is divided into six parts, it has two main movements: (1) Parts I-III describe some fundamental features of the liberal tradition, including some tensions within it, focusing on social contract theorists from Hobbes to Rawls; and (2) parts IV-VI provide a “generic characterization” of contemporary liberal theories of public reason and their approach to religion in the public sphere.


Vallier begins by discussing the source of liberalism, which is conventionally traced to the Wars of Religion. As Rawls tells the story, liberalism emerged as a political solution to sectarian religious conflict in 16th- and 17th-century Europe. Vallier does not endorse this “rather crude historical narrative,” but notes that it has become part of modern liberalism’s self-understanding. What we learn from Hobbes and Locke (and also Rousseau and Kant) is the need for a public authority to resolve conflicts between private judgments, including and especially conflicts over religious commitments (12). The state is necessary to resolve disagreements that arise in the state of nature. But since religious differences are often the basis for such disagreements, Hobbes and Locke also developed and defended theological doctrines to limit the social and political implications of Christianity. In this way, they attempted to make religion safe for a stable and legitimate political society; or as Vallier says, “Liberals must tame religion before unleashing it within the social order” (13).

Vallier’s discussion of Hobbes and Locke is a prelude to a more detailed description of Rawls’s efforts to revive the liberal social contract tradition. In moving from A Theory of Justice to Political Liberalism, Rawls developed what Vallier calls the “first version of public reason liberalism” (14). Drawing on work by Paul Weithman, Vallier offers an interpretation of the shift in Rawls’s views. I won’t rehearse the arguments here, which involve concerns about stability and the problem of congruence in Part III of Theory. I will also assume that most readers here are familiar with the basic outlines of Political Liberalism, as well as the main features of Rawls’s idea of public reason and its accompanying duty of civility (otherwise see 14-21).

For Vallier’s purposes, it is significant that the “wide view of public reason” restricts the role of religious reasons in justifying the political principles that regulate constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice. Citizens who act in accordance with public reason may offer religious reasons for their views on such matters, but they must be prepared to justify those views with what they sincerely believe are sufficient public reasons. If public reasons are not available, however, then the duty of civility requires that religious citizens refrain from advocating their views in the political domain. According to Vallier, “Religious reasons, on this model, are second class. They are insufficient to generate political justification” (20). Moreover, in requiring religious citizens to exercise restraint when they lack public reasons, political liberals asserts the priority of public reason over religious values. Thus, like the social contract theorists that preceded them, contemporary proponents of public reason restrict the role of religious commitments ostensibly to protect the stability and legitimacy of a liberal social and political order.

After describing some main features of classical social contract theories and going into some depth about the motivation, structure and content of Rawls’s political liberalism, Vallier identifies four tensions common across the liberal tradition’s approach to the influence of religion in politics. Briefly restated, these are:

(1) Religious citizens are rationally committed to transcending their religious commitments.

According to liberal theory, it can be rational to have religious beliefs, and yet citizens are also rationally committed to bracketing their religious views and abiding by the constraints of public reason. Vallier comments on “how odd this is” (22) – that liberal theory recognizes the rationality of religious belief and, simultaneously, the rationality of its political renunciation.

(2) Religion is best protected if its political power and influence is restricted.

Vallier says that this claim may seem less strange in societies in which religious toleration is the norm, but religious believers might rationally conclude that the best way to protect religion is to secure its political dominance (22). For someone who holds this latter view, liberalism’s restrictions on religion seem to be in conflict with its claim to protect religious liberty.

(3) Religious commitment is both a resource and a threat to liberal institutions.

Religion is a source in the sense that disagreement and conflict about it provides a motivation for liberal theories of toleration and state neutrality among religions. But religion also threatens to destabilize liberal political institutions, which in turn motivates liberal commitments to religious disestablishment, privatization, and an ethics of citizenship that emphasizes restraint, leading to:

(4) Religious citizens are rationally committed to a secular public sphere and secular state.

Having stated this final tension, Vallier explicates the title of his chapter: “Public Reason Liberalism: Religion’s Child and King.” Liberalism is both the child of religion, being borne of religious pluralism and conflict, and its king, since it claims legitimate authority to limit the influence of religion in the public sphere (23).


In the remainder of this chapter, Vallier offers a “generic characterization” of a family of liberal theories of public reason, explains their motivation, and shows that they are subject to the same four tensions discussed above.

All liberal theories of public reason are committed to what Vallier describes as a master principle, namely, the Public Justification Principle (PJP):

A coercive law L is justified only if each member I of the public P has some sufficient reason(s) Ri to endorse L. (24)

Obviously this principle can be specified in numerous ways. Vallier discusses six aspects of it. Briefly stated, these are:

(i) grain of coercion: PJP applies to coercive law (L), but the scope of the principle could be narrowed by applying it only to some subset of laws (e.g., constitutional essentials) or expanded by applying it to laws as well as other forms of state action (25).

(ii) conception of legitimacy and authority: PJP states conditions for the justification of a law, but it does not specify a conception of legitimacy or authority. PJP is therefore neutral with respect to different conceptions of those concepts, including whether laws that satisfy its conditions provide the state with Hohfeldian privileges or claim-rights to coerce compliance with justified laws (26).

(iii) scope of the public: Following Rawls and others, Vallier assumes that PJP applies to “present adult members of a nation-state” (27).

(iv) conception of sufficiency: Vallier argues that a reason is sufficient only if it is (a) undefeated in the sense of not being rebutted or undermined by some other reason, and (b) requires endorsement of a law over other possible alternatives, including having no law at all (27).

(v) conception of justificatory reasons: PJP refers to a class of reasons, Ri, which must be specified. Vallier explains that public reason liberals disagree about the types of reasons that can serve as public justifications. The basic difference here is between those who favor consensus theories, which hold that public reasons must be shared (or accessible) to members of the public, and those who adopt convergence theories, which hold that reasons are justificatory when they are intelligible to members of the public, that is, when they can be seen as justified within others’ comprehensive views, even if those views are not shared or otherwise accessible.

(vi) conception of idealization: Theories of public reason must describe the members of the public to whom laws must be justified. In doing so, they engage in varying levels of idealization with respect to the rational capacities and information available to citizens. Another aspect of idealization is the requirement of reasonableness. Citizens must be willing to follow norms of reciprocity, and they must recognize the fact of reasonable disagreement.

In addition to describing these six conditions, Vallier notes that PJP only requires justification of coercive laws. This restriction is based on a presumption in favor of liberty. Vallier adopts The Liberty Principle, which states:

Liberty should be the norm … coercion always needs some special justification. Unjustified coercion is pro tanto wrong. (30)

Vallier holds that to overcome the presumption stated by this principle, a coercive law must be justified according to PJP. Lastly, Vallier notes that many prominent liberals endorse the Liberty Principle, including Rawls, for whom “political power is always coercive power” (31).

After explaining the various conditions built into PJP, Vallier turns to the question of what motivates the demand for public reason. On his view, the answer for liberal theories is always based on an appeal to three values: liberty, equality, and respect for persons. Persons are free in the sense that no other person has natural authority over them. They are equal in that everyone has the same freedom or “natural liberty” (32). And respecting persons in their freedom and equality requires providing them with justifications, at the bar of their own reason, for the exercise of political authority, which inevitably entails the use of coercive power (32-33). Since liberals recognize the fact of reasonable pluralism, meeting this demand for justification requires appealing to public reasons.

With a general account of public reason liberalism in place, Vallier returns to the question of how liberalism approaches the role of religion in the public sphere. The standard (Rawlsian) theory of public reason requires that citizens refrain from invoking their religious beliefs in making political decisions. Proponents of this theory have different views about how to interpret this principle of restraint, but they generally agree that citizens ought to appeal to shared (or accessible) reasons. Since religious reasons are not shared (or accessible), however, citizens should avoid offering them as justifications for coercive laws.

Against the standard theory, Vallier claims that the requirement of public justification does not entail restrictions on what reasons citizens offer in political deliberations. There is a difference, he argues, between justification and deliberation. Even if the former requires restraint, the latter does not (36). Vallier considers and rejects two arguments that purport to connect justification and deliberation. The first is that following a principle of restraint in public deliberations promotes social stability. The second is that respect for persons requires restraint, either because the Principle of Public Justification entails restraint or because, regardless of PJP, respect for persons requires engaging with others in a practice of mutual justification based on shared (or accessible) reasons (36-37).

However this issue is resolved, the important point is that the standard theory is committed to a principle of restraint. For that reason, it embodies the four tensions that Vallier discusses earlier in the chapter. Public reason liberalism holds that (i) citizens are rationally committed to transcending their religious views, which are (ii) best protected when their political influence is restricted. These claims reflect the liberal view that (iii) religious commitments are both a source of diversity and motivation for adopting liberal institutions and also a potential threat to their stability. To maintain those institutions, public reason liberals endorse (iv) a rational commitment to a secular public sphere and a secular state.

Vallier concludes this chapter by suggesting that public reason liberalism is not motivated by hostility to religion. It is a continuation of the tradition of social contract theory and “its tolerant yet privatizing spirit” (38). But even if public reason liberalism is not guilty as charged, it remains open to further religious objections, which are the subject of Chapter 2.


Here are some questions to get our discussion going:

1. This chapter contains a lot of stage setting, and I expect that some readers will want to argue (or quibble) with Vallier’s description of “public reason liberalism,” the Public Justification Principle, the Liberty Principle, and the account of the values that motivate a commitment to public reason. I have some questions along these lines as well and include a couple of them below. But stepping back for a moment, the chapter is framed as a response to the charge that liberalism is hostile to religion. Vallier addresses that objection by arguing that liberalism’s approach to religion is “well-motivated by [its] foundational values and theoretical framework.” But I suppose a religious critic might reply that the charge of hostility is not about motivation. The problem isn’t that liberals are acting from animus or bias. Even if they are well motivated, the principles they support have the effect of excluding religion. And it is that effect which is the source of the objection. So arguing that liberals restrict religion for the best of reasons (as they understand them) doesn’t seem fully responsive. Maybe that is just the point, given that this chapter is a prelude to an attack on the principle of restraint. But perhaps it would help to sharpen the initial objection by describing more precisely how liberalism is (purportedly) hostile to religion.

2. A related question is: When does Locke get to stop replying to Proast? After 325 years of argument about this, why should liberals be so concerned about the charge of religious hostility? As Vallier writes, “liberals have not always handled themselves with grace in response. Many insist that their critics are simply chafing under the restraints liberalism imposes on their authoritarian and unreasonable impulse” (10). But lack of grace doesn’t make their response mistaken. If the liberal tradition has been largely successful in ameliorating or preventing religious conflict over time, why not take that as a reason to discount the objection? Of course, there might still be particular instances of hostility that should be addressed. In legal parlance, liberals might worry about “as-applied” challenges, while rejecting “facial” or general objections to their approach to the role of religion in politics. But then maybe the answer here is just that it is part of the liberal tradition to worry about general objections of this kind? Locke never gets to stop replying (after all, he died in the middle of writing A Fourth Letter for Toleration). That’s part of what makes him a liberal.

3. The two halves of this chapter raise an interesting contrast between classical social contrast theorists and contemporary political (and justificatory) liberals. Whereas Hobbes and Locke engaged in both political and theological arguments to support their theories, liberals today tend to avoid the latter, though there are notable exceptions. I wonder whether Vallier thinks that this aspect of the liberal tradition is largely lost, or whether it has some prospects for recovery under his conception of public reason liberalism. Is all the revision and development to be done on the side of liberalism, or is there a continuing role for theological argument (perhaps in the form of what Rawls describes as “reasoning from conjecture”)?

4. In describing the four tensions within liberalism, Vallier says that public reason liberals believe that (1) “religious citizens are rationally committed to transcending their religious commitments” and (4) “rationally committed to a secular public sphere.” But political liberals might resist this description of their views. First, they aren’t claiming that religious citizens are rationally committed. It is up to individual citizens to determine whether it is rational for them to support liberal principles. What political liberals are saying is that if religious citizens are reasonable, then they will justify their political demands by appealing to public reasons. Second, reasonableness might not require religious citizens to “transcend” their religious views or give priority to public reason. It is possible that their religious views will support a commitment to public reason, in which case there is no need for transcendence or prioritization. Putting these points more generally, two of the tensions that Vallier identifies seem to presuppose a more aggressive theory about the convergence of rationality and reasonableness than the one adopted within political liberalism.

5. Why is PJP limited to coercive laws? Are there any laws that are not coercive? I ask that question because Vallier mentions Rawls’s view that “political power is always coercive power.” If that is the case, one might argue that all laws are the product of exercises of political power, and so they are, at some level, always coercive. But I am not sure whether Vallier wants to extend the scope of the principle that far. For example, what about a law that calls on public officials to exhort their fellow citizens in support of Christianity? Suppose the law explicitly disclaims any sanction. No one who violates it can be punished by the state in any way. Would this law require public justification? (For other examples, see Colin Bird’s recent paper, Coercion and Public Justification.)




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6 Responses to Vallier Reading Group: Chapter 1

  1. Micah, thanks for the great post. You raise a number of great questions, but I will here focus on just the last one regarding Kevin’s focus on coercion. I want to approach the issue in two ways. First, you raise the issue that Kevin’s account does not require non-coercive laws to be publicly justified, but I think Kevin actually cannot even say that all coercive laws must be publicly justified, at least not fundamentally. Second, I want to suggest that Kevin could (try to) answer my worry by suggesting that there is a publicly justified rule prohibiting unjustified laws, though such a rule need not be limited to coercive laws.

    Regarding the first point, Kevin indicates that “the best foundations of public reason begin by publicly justifying moral authority and then showing how coercion must be justified insofar as members of the public want the coercion they use against one another to have moral authority. This also suggests that if we wish to coerce without moral authority, we may not need to publicly justify that coercion.” (p. 41, note 61; cf. my own “Justification, Coercion, and the Place of Public Reason”) We can raise questions about Kevin’s claim that it will be rare for us to be willing to coerce without moral authority, since many regimes seem willing to rule by mere force and terror. The key point, in any case, is that on Kevin’s account it is really authority, and not coercion, that requires justification. We might have aspects of the law, like speed limits, for which coercion without authority seems sufficient. (People regret when they get tickets, but don’t generally feel guilty for going a little over the legal limit.) Perhaps many laws in fact get adequate compliance through coercion and we are willing to coerce even without authority because the consequences are so great even if some coerces citizens are not in a position to understand those consequences from their perspective. On this account, some non-coercive laws will also require public justification if they are intended to have moral authority, which they may well if they take the form of commands with expectations of obedience, but those intended as expressive, suggestive, symbolic, or otherwise not meant to include moral authority will have no need at all of public justification.

    That analysis is all about what fundamentally requires public justification, but here I come to my second point in suggesting a strategy for Kevin (that he may reject). One way to get all coercive laws to require public justification is through a morally authoritative rule, like “Don’t pass coercive laws that are not publicly justified!” This rule seems a plausible candidate for itself being publicly justified, since all citizens have an interest in not being coerced in ways that are not justified to them. And, as some have emphasized, the coercive power of the state is the power of the citizens themselves, a power exercised in their name, and thus they may have additional interest in that power not being used in ways that are not justified to them or perhaps even in ways that are not justified to other citizens. While the interest in not being coerced supports a narrow rule (regarding only coercive laws), concern for the demands made by the state in the name of all citizens seems to support a broader rule, like “Don’t pass laws that are not publicly justified!” Or perhaps even more broadly than laws, the rule may be that all official acts, including non-binding resolutions, since claiming to represent all citizens, must be publicly justified. In this way, would not be that the laws themselves even have to claim authority, but that we can claim justified moral authority to demand that such laws not be passed or such official acts not be done. Now, I am not confident that this strategy would in fact work, and the details would in any case require some difficult working out, but I raise it here as one way for Kevin to explain why laws, coercive and non-coercive alike, would require public justification.

  2. I have some questions for Kevin about the justification of public reason. They ay be premature, given that this chapter just sets the stage, and if so we can come back to them later on.

    Section II discusses the evolution of Rawls’s thought, focusing on the concept of stability (drawing on Paul Weithman). The need for stability explains Rawls’s turn to a liberalism that is political in the technical sense of having limited scope and being acceptable from some range of different philosophical points of view (16–17). Public reason enters the picture as a means to providing assurance that one’s fellow citizens are truly committed to a society’s political conception of justice (18). My first question is whether Kevin is just presenting this material as background, to introduce the concept, or whether he accepts this general account of the role and motivation for public reason. My reason for asking is that later in the chapter (n Section 5, p.31), Kevin says that defenses of public reason appeal to liberty, equality and/or respect for persons. I’m not clear what the relationship is between these justifications via liberty, equality and/or RFP, and justification via assurance / stability. I think that these may be different justifications, leading in different directions.

    The argument from stability on pp.14–17 gives public reason a downstream or derivative role, not a foundational role. Roughly speaking the argument is this:

    A conception of justice must be such that a society well-ordered according to this conception is inherently stable, meaning that when there are deviations from justice, justice has a tendency to reassert itself because citizens have an effective and appropriate sense of justice.
    Stability depends upon (a sufficient level of) congruence in the population, between justice and people’s conceptions of the good, as well as mutual assurance of commitment to justice grounded in congruence.
    Given reasonable pluralism, stability can only be achieved via a political conception of justice.
    But citizens also need assurance of their fellow citizens’ commitment to this political conception of justice.
    The liberal principle of legitimacy, the ideal of public reason, and the duty of civility provide this assurance.

    It seems that inherent stability can fail in two ways. First, institutional deviations from justice may not be corrected (or there may be no such tendency). Second, institutions might remain just but not be supported by the moral commitments of citizens. In this case compliance would be based primarily on force.

    Why care about inherent stability? The first form of failure suggests that the answer is justice itself; a conception of justice that is unstable is one that makes it likely that justice so defined will not endure. The second form of failure suggests that the answer involves something else, in addition to lasting justice, because a society might be stably just but not inherently stably just. One can imagine a society in which institutions are optimally just (because they respect and protect individuals’ freedom and equality), but the population dissents from these values, to a signficant extent. In this case we would have the second type of stability failure – a lack of inherent stability. A failure to be stable because of lack of fit with citizens perceived reasons (hence excessive dependence for stability on coercion) is bad because – well, why? Is it liberty, equality or respect for persons? I don’t think so, because we could imagine that the institutions in question are optimal from the point of view of those values, despite lacking inherent stability due to lack of fit with the population’s moral commitments.

    Also, both of these failures of stability are a matter of more or less (and similarly with the dependence of stability on congruence). How do we get from the concern that a conception of justice be sufficiently stable to the demand that it be unanimously acceptable, amongst reasonable views? Kevin’s statement of the Public Justification Principle (PJP) is as follows:

    “A coercive law L is justified only if each member I of the public P has some sufficient reason(s) Ri to endorse L. (24)”

    Each and every member must have sufficient reason to endorse L, not just most or almost all.

    • Andrew, those are really interesting thoughts regarding stability. I would only add that it is not obvious how one could have “a society in which institutions are optimally just (because they respect and protect individuals’ freedom and equality), but the population dissents from these values, to a significant extent[,]” at least if such a society is democratic. Though Kant thought that with the right checks and balances in the institutions, even a “nation of devils” could maintain a just republic, it seems that such dissent from justice among those that can vote undermines the stability of justice. That is at least when dissenters make up a substantial part of the population.

  3. lost some of the formatting there… the stability argument was supposed to be an ordered list

  4. Chad, were you suggesting that so long as we don’t claim authority we get to coerce as we see fit, based on our own philosophical view unrestricted by any principle of public justification? You referred to a set of laws that are commonly understood as not involving claims of authority – parking regulations, where there is allegedly no duty to respect the rules if you are willing to pay the price of getting a ticket (whereas other laws do involve authority claims – you have a duty not to steal or murder, for example). Could we evade the demand for public justification simply by withdrawing our claim of authority? Do you think that’s Kevin’s view, based on note 61?

    The statement of the general idea of public reason liberalism on p.24 is cast in terms of coercion :

    Public reason liberalism holds that state coercion is permitted only when each person has sufficient reason to accept it.

    The PJP is also framed so as to apply to coercive laws. So public justification is at least a necessary condition for the right to coerce, it seems.

    At the bottom of p.24 Kevin makes the important point that public justification is fundamentally “a social state achieved when coercive actions bear a certain relation to those coerced” (as opposed to being a norm governing citizens’ deliberations – it might be that too, but only if such a norm reliably leads to the necessary social state). Here too, the focus is on coercion.

    At the bottom of page 25, Kevin notes that some public reason liberals think that public justification just gives the state a permission to coerce (via law), whereas others “take a stronger view,” which is that when publicly justified a law is also authoritative (i.e. citizens have a duty to comply with it). So there is a disagreement about whether public justification is sufficient for the right to coerce, or sufficient also for creation of a duty to comply. On p.26 he notes that his PJP is neutral between these two views, i.e. “neutral about whether the state merely has a liberty-right to coerce or whether it has a claim right to coerce.”

    Based only on this material, I would conclude that Kevin thinks that public justification is necessary and sufficient for coercion (the liberty-right to coerce), and that it is necessary but perhaps not sufficient for authority (the claim-right to coerce, which is correlative to a duty of compliance on the part of citizens).

    However, on p.26 Kevin goes on to say that he will focus on the justification claim rights “because I see public reason liberalism as an attempt to explain how free and equal persons can have authority over one another.” Note 61 amplifies on the priority of authority over coercion:

    “Given these foundations, a natural worry about my view is why we should make such a big deal about justifying coercion when we must also justify authority. What explains why they go together? The short answer is that I think the best foundations of public reason begin by publicly justifying moral authority and then showing how coercion must be justified insofar as members of the public want the coercion they use against one another to have moral authority. This also implies that if we wish to coerce without moral authority, we may not need to publicly justify that coercion. I think such cases are rare with respect to the vast majority of human beings, since our moral emotions lead us to care that our demands have authority over others.”

    Page 26 and note 61 seem to say that public justification is necessary for authority, but not for coercion by itself. Is that right? I wonder if Kevin is really committed to the italicized sentence, which seems to suggest that we can evade the demand for public justification of the exercise of political power if we simply avoid claiming authority.

    • Yes, I read him as saying that really it is not coercion as such, but authority that requires public justification. Of course Kevin does write of coercion requiring justification, but, given the claims you and I highlight, I think those should be read as something like “generally” or “nearly always, because such coercive laws at least implicitly claim authority.” I am not sure, however, how much Kevin would want to say some coercion really does not need public justification or how much making that explicit would require further changes in his work.

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