Political liberalism, free speech and public reason

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In this paper, I critically assess John Rawls’ repeated claim that the duty of civility is only a moral duty and should not be enforced by law. In the first part of the paper, I examine and reject the view that Rawls’ position may be due to the practical difficulties that the legal enforcement of the duty of civility might entail. I thus claim that Rawls’ position must be driven by deeper normative reasons grounded in a conception of free speech. In the second part of the paper, I therefore examine various arguments for free speech and critically assess whether they are consistent with Rawls’ political liberalism. I first focus on the arguments from truth and self-fulfilment. Both arguments, I argue, rely on comprehensive doctrines and therefore cannot provide a freestanding political justification for free speech. Freedom of speech, I claim, can be justified instead on the basis of Rawls’ political conception of the person and of the two moral powers. However, Rawls’ wide view of public reason already allows scope for the kind of free speech necessary for the exercise of the two moral powers and therefore cannot explain Rawls’ opposition to the legal enforcement of the duty of civility. Such opposition, I claim, can only be explained on the basis of a defence of unconstrained freedom of speech grounded in the ideas of democracy and political legitimacy. Yet, I conclude, while public reason and the duty of civility are essential to political liberalism, unconstrained freedom of speech is not. Rawls and political liberals could therefore renounce unconstrained freedom of speech, and endorse the legal enforcement of the duty of civility, while remaining faithful to political liberalism.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)180-208
Number of pages29
JournalEuropean Journal of Political Theory
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • John Rawls
  • political liberalism
  • free speech
  • public reason
  • duty of civility
  • political legitimacy

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