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Public reason, civic trust and conclusions of science

Nebojsa Zelic
p. 99-117


Rawlsian idea of public reason refers to the boundaries on political justification of coercive laws and public policies that have wide impact on lives of citizens. The boundaries of public reason means that political justification should be based on reasons we can expect every citizen can reasonably accept independently of any comprehensive religious, philosophical or moral doctrine to which she adhere. In modern liberal democracies characterized by reasonable pluralism of comprehensive doctrines it is unjustified for political argumentation to be based on claims that many citizens can not accept. As I understand it, the point of idea of public reason is to strengthen the relationship of civic trust or civic friendship that can ensure inherent stability of just political regime. An important part of the idea of public reason is how it incorporates scientific claims in political argumentation. Rawls writes that citizens are to base their public justification on „presently accepted general beliefs and forms of reasoning found in common sense, and the methods and conclusions of science when those are not controversial.“ If the idea of public reason is the source of political stability it is necessary to answer what it means that conclusions of science are controversial in political and social context? First, scientific controversy is different from controversy of comprehensive doctrines. Science stands outside of comprehensive doctrines so conclusions of science will not be controversial because they clash with comprehensive beliefs, but they will be controversial if they rely on comprehensive beliefs. Second, if conclusions of science are controversial within scientific community, if there are some expert witness disputing its validity, then maybe value-judgments can enter to set standards for certification of the scientific claim. If potential consequences of scientific claim are bad for welfare of some group in society than standards of evidence that will certify this claim must go up. Finally, even if some scientific claim has been certified it still can be controversial as a premise in political justification. The reason can be that certification has not been transparent and many citizens do not realize that this claim is part of scientific consensus. Again, the criterion for controversy of scientific conclusions in political context is connected to the notion of trust and not to the validity of scientific claim or supportive evidence by itself.

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  • 2 Rawls (1996, 2001).

1Public reason liberalism is primarily concerned with relation of individual moral disagreement and shared political principles. Final aim of public reason liberalism is to achieve stable social cooperation through politics and find solution to the problem how there can be any legitimate political decisions in society characterized by reasonable pluralism. The form of public reason liberalism I should discuss in this paper is political liberalism of John Rawls.2 In a nutshell, the distinctive feature of political liberalism and its own idea of public reason is that political decisions that will affect all citizens must be based on shared political values. It demands that public political justification be deprived of comprehensive religious, philosophical or moral claims on which there will always be disagreement in free and democratic society. Thus, idea of public reason sets boundaries on appropriate premises of political justification – premises in political justification must be based in shared political values or public reasons that we can reasonably expect all citizens can accept. These boundaries primarily refer to practice of judges and public officials (such as politicians) but they also refer to citizens when they exercise their collective power as final sovereign in democratic society. By respecting the boundaries of public reason citizens fulfill, what Rawls calls, moral duty of civility – citizens must make their case for legislation or policies they support in terms of public reason or political values. It is clear that we go beyond the boundaries of public reason and that we do not respect duty of civility when in political justification we appeal to religious teachings or certain philosophical doctrine.

  • 3 Ivi: 246.
  • 4 Ibidem.

2But it is not clear how it refers to scientific claims. In referring to scientific claims John Rawls writes that citizens should base their public justification on “presently accepted general beliefs and forms of reasoning found in common sense, and the methods and conclusions of science when those are not controversial ”.3 Further, he writes that citizens should not appeal to “comprehensive religious and philosophical doctrines – to what we as individuals or members of associations see as the whole truth – nor to elaborate economic theories of general equilibrium, say, if these are in dispute.”4 This raises some puzzles. Is Rawls simply equating controversy of religious beliefs and controversy of scientific claims? Is for political liberalism science somehow symmetrical to comprehensive doctrines? It seems odd to present the problem that pluralism of comprehensive doctrines presents for political justification as the same problem that scientific disputes present for such political practice.

  • 5 Lister (2007: 13).
  • 6 Nussbaum (2011a: 8).

3Andrew Lister points this problem clearly: “The fact of current (scientific) controversy by itself (about the dynamics of supply and demand, say) does not create the moral problem to which public reason is meant to be solution. The moral concerns about legislation based on particular conception of salvation do not obviously extend to legislation based on complicated economic theories”.5 In actual world where many political decisions must and will be based on scientific claims we have to know more about Rawlsian concept of non – controversial. Rawls did not present us with any argument about controversy of scientific claims, but, as Martha Nussbaum emphasizes, “the future of political liberalism as a source of political stability and reconciliation in democratic societies depends on filling this gap in some convincing manner”.6

4This paper questions some problems concerning relation between the idea of public reason taken as referring to political practice of plural liberal democracies and conclusions of science when they play role as premises in public political justification. First, I will discuss the point of the idea of public reason which I take to be constitution of mutual trust and civic friendship. Second, I will question the relationship between science or scientific claims and comprehensive doctrines and comprehensive beliefs. In the third part I consider a problem of values that scientific claims must take into account if they are going to play a role as premises in political justification. Finally, I will shortly consider problem for scientific claims to serve as premises in public justification if lay public does not accept them.


  • 7 Inherent stability means that there are forces within the system that can correct deviations from j (...)
  • 8 Burdens of judgment imply that pluralism is inevitable effect of free exercise of human reason unde (...)

5Idea of public reason aims at establishing inherent stability in plural democratic society.7 It presupposes that there is consensus on political values of fairness (which includes values of reciprocity and cooperation), freedom, equality and burdens of judgment.8 These values are underlying values of modern democratic regimes. Thus, the idea of public reason refers to political practice of citizens and public officials that makes these values transparent. Moral duty of civility is met when citizens manifest their acceptance of these political values when they exercise their political power.

  • 9 Wolff (1998: 35).
  • 10 Ibidem.

6By considering political practice to be in accordance with democratic values, idea of public reason forms or shapes what we can name as democratic ethos. In defining ethos we can follow Jonathan Wolff’s definition according to which “ethos is set of underlying values, which may be explicit or implicit, interpreted as a set of maxims, slogans or principles which are then applied in practice”.9 Further, Wolff writes that “typically the values and principles will be internalized by members of that group, and inform their behavior. If the members of the group claim to adhere to the values and principles but no corresponding practices are to be found, we may be entitled to say that the group has not so much an ethos as an ideology”.10 Underlying values to which public reason is referring are values of democratic society, and that is why we can say that public reason defines democratic ethos.

7Interpreting idea of public reason as democratic ethos can be conceived as a solution to the problem of stability in plural societies. The boundaries of public reason – that political justification of coercive laws and political decisions must be based on reasons that we can reasonably expect that other citizens can accept (public reasons)- thus, have purpose to strengthen civic trust or civic friendship through democratic ethos. We can conceive it as returning into liberal discourse the forgotten idea of fraternity in the line with equality and liberty.

  • 11 Festenstein (2005: 138).

8Of course the concept of trust is very complex. As a starting point we can view trust “as a form of judgment, which may be tacit or habitual, on a part of an agent to grant another discretionary power over some good for that agent.”11 So, to trust scientists means that scientists have some level of power or right to determine what is good for us in many areas, from nutrition to public transport safety. To trust politicians means that we give them some discretionary power to make decisions that will be good for us. Beside this vertical trust where we give others, defined by their role in epistemic and political division of labor, discretionary power to bring decisions that are good for us, in liberal democracies we also need horizontal trust between citizens themselves in their role as citizens because finally they are the sovereign of democratic governance. Important difference here between vertical and horizontal trust is that the less we trust those with power over us the more we will be motivated to put in place monitoring procedures and systems of sanctions and incentives in order to make them accountable to us. In horizontal trust monitoring will likely produce counter-effect because it would include trespassing or scrutinizing each other doctrines or sets of beliefs which would bring to mutual distrust.

  • 12 Cited in Festenstein (2005: 139).

9We can feel secure in our rights only when we know that they are supported and protected by our co-citizens and not only by government or police. Of course, relying on trust is very fragile because it leaves us vulnerable to caprices and unknown motivation of others, but in political and social sphere we depend on decisions and behavior of other citizens, scientists and politicians. John Dunn emphasizes this point well when he writes “that in the extraordinarily complex division of labor on which modern social life necessarily depends no one could rationally dispute that human beings need, as far as they can, to economize on trust in persons and confide instead in well-designed political, social and economic institutions.”12

  • 13 Gaus (2011).
  • 14 Quong (2011).

10What is important here to notice is that mutual civic trust will play important role in contemporary debate about the structure of public reason. Some philosophers, most notably Gerald Gaus, claim that public reason must have structure of convergence of non-public beliefs on particular political decision.13 This convergence view does not demand that political decisions should be reached on shared reasons or shared values. What is important is only that individuals find these decisions justified from different reasons whatever they are. On the other side are political liberals who argue that political decisions are legitimate and in accordance with public reason if they are justified on shared public reasons alone.14 Even if contingent convergence of non-public reasons will justify the same political decision as the one justified on shared public reasons there is something that public reason based on consensus of values adds to that situation that is connected with the role of trust.

  • 15 Rawls (1971: 168), cited in Lister (2008: 278).
  • 16 Lister (2008: 278).

11John Rawls put this very clearly in A Theory of Justice when he was answering to the claims of utilitarianism that slaveholding will never be justified because it will never maximize happiness – “There is real advantage in persons’ announcing to one another once and for all that even though theoretical computations of utility always happen to favor the equal liberties …they do not wish that things has been different”.15 Public announcement that we will support or confirm the same political values, liberties or rights even if utility calculus turns out differently is what constitutes civic friendship or civic trust. In a sense, this is counterfactual stability– citizens will not defect from fair cooperation even if that would be rational for them according to some rational calculation, or even if they are powerful enough to impose their interests, or even if particular political decision is in contrast with their conception of good. This counterfactual stability is manifested or displayed when citizens accept the idea of public reason which gives true meaning to a notion of civic friendship. As Lister points this out – “a friend is someone who will not betray you if presented with an opportunity and an incentive to do so, not someone who happens never to get the chance”.16

  • 17 Johnson (1993: 12).

12This is of most importance for non-ideal circumstances in which we currently live for two reasons. First, history shows us that deviations from justice in time of crisis can be severe. Relationship of trust and civic friendship will be valuable when crisis make our society or individuals vulnerable on various ways. In economic crises, for example, norm of trust can easily turn itself to stronger notion of solidarity. Second, many political decisions will not be reached by consensus but by inevitable compromise or majority voting. In such situations “what provides basis for trust here is not that we agree necessarily with decisions taken on our behalf, but that we follow the process of moral thinking by which they are reached. We trust the rules of the game and so distrust is not our automatic response if we regard any particular outcome as undesirable”.17

13Now it is more or less clear why comprehensive beliefs should be bracketed or left outside of the boundaries of public reason in political argumentation. Legislation based on such premises would be considered as imposing beliefs that many citizens can not accept. Problem is not that such belief is false or that it will make some citizens second class citizens or that it will provoke social conflict. Problem is that it will diminish value of civic trust that is based on fairness, mutual respect and acceptance of reasonable pluralism. The boundaries of public reason shape political practice that can constitute relation of civic trust or civic friendship in plural democratic societies.

14But, how does public reason apply to scientific claims when they play a role as premises in political argumentation? As we already saw Rawls demands that citizens should not appeal to conclusions of science when those are controversial. How are we to understand that demand? In what sense are scientific claims controversial?

15They can be controversial in three ways. First, controversy of scientific claims can be understood symmetrical as controversy of comprehensive beliefs. In political justification we should not rely on comprehensive beliefs because we can not expect that other reasonable citizens who adhere to different comprehensive doctrines will accept that belief. If the controversy of conclusions of science is symmetrical to controversy of comprehensive beliefs then we are not allowed to bring to public justification those conclusions of science that are in conflict with teachings of comprehensive doctrines. Surely, this will present big problem because we do not consider science symmetrical to comprehensive doctrines and validity of scientific claims dependant on comprehensive teachings. Second, controversy can mean controversy within scientific community. We are not allowed to base public justification on those scientific claims that are not part of strict scientific consensus. This will also be a problem because for any expert scientific conclusion, as the history of litigation shows, some expert witness can usually be found to dispute this conclusion. Third, controversy can mean not only controversy within scientific community but also controversy concerning lay public. Even if there is satisfying level of consensus on some conclusions of science, there can still be wide opposition from the number of citizen to that conclusion not because of comprehensive doctrines, but because of lack of information, widespread ignorance or distrust in values that scientists have taken into account. We must question each of these suggestions starting with the first.


  • 18 Rawls (2000: 5).

16It would be wrong to assume that in political liberalism science is symmetrical to comprehensive doctrine. Political liberalism takes as its historical starting point socio-historical moment of western societies in which science is outside of reasonable pluralism of comprehensive doctrines and it is not under influence of any comprehensive teaching. In his Lectures in the History of Moral Philosophy Rawls explicitly mentions three historical developments that political liberalism must take into account. These three major historical developments are: “First, fragmentation of religious unity of the Middle Ages which led to religious pluralism… Second, development of modern state with its central administration… Third, development of modern science”.18

17Thus, we have three historical facts that we have to take seriously in political theorizing. First, the fact of reasonable pluralism of opposed comprehensive doctrines. Second, the fact of shared institutions. The world is not any more ordered on the principle “whose realm his religion.” Third, science is no more under control of any comprehensive doctrine; its role is not any more to serve or to confirm any comprehensive teaching. The role of science is considered to be giving us information that we store in public depository of knowledge. That depository of knowledge is public means that information equally concerns all citizens irrespectively of comprehensive doctrines to which they adhere.

  • 19 This problem is discussed in Nussbaum (2011b) and Mandle (2000: 72-75).
  • 20 Rawls (2001: 592).

18Thus, science is not symmetrical to plurality of comprehensive doctrines. Conclusions of science will not be controversial in the same sense as comprehensive beliefs are controversial, and comprehensive beliefs are controversial simply because we can not expect that all reasonable people will accept them. But, is there something in criteria of reasonableness that demands from reasonable doctrines to take into account empirical evidence or conclusions of science and to accept them if they are sound? The problem is that if we insist on formal or epistemological criteria of reasonableness on which such demand would be based we will fall into perfectionism, because we would imply that some doctrines are superior and some are inferior independently of their willingness to cooperate.19 If we demand epistemological or rational scrutinizing of doctrines then we will too often trespass each other doctrines which will certainly bring to mutual distrust. As Rawls writes, for doctrines to be considered reasonable they “need not be by some standards logically correct, or open to rational appraisal, or evidentially supportable”.20 The criteria of reasonableness in political liberalism are primarily substantive criteria of political reasonableness which means that doctrines are reasonable if they accept ideas of cooperation, freedom, equality and burdens of judgment. In other words, we do not scrutinize or question doctrines if they accord with democratic polity.

  • 21 Cohen (2009: 38).
  • 22 Freeman (2007: 350).

19But, it is not the case that formal criterions are completely neglected. In order to cooperate, reasonable doctrines must not be solid or unchangeable, but they must have tendency to develop in light of new information and new reasons with which they are given. This criterion is necessary for cooperation and deliberation because it is hard if not impossible to cooperate or deliberate with someone who simply does not take into account new information or new reasons you give her. Thus, we can use this formal criterion to say that doctrines are reasonable “just in case its adherents are stably disposed to affirm it as they acquire new information and subject it to critical reflection”.21 If the role of science is to give us new information about the world that can have a role as premise for some political decision than reasonable doctrines must acquire it and subject it to critical reflection. New information can, for example be, overwhelming evidential support for theory of evolution. This information can be relevant in discussions about the public school curriculum. Doctrine that would simply refute or deny scientific evidence on the basis of Book of Genesis and claim that public curriculum that includes theory of evolution is not publicly justified, would not undermine public justification because we would be entitled to claim that such doctrine is in this case (not necessarily in all other cases) unreasonable. Denying new information that is supported by overwhelming evidence will nor result with reasonable disagreement to which public reason is the answer, but with mere disagreement. So, the only formal criterion for reasonable doctrines is that they are not solid and unchangeable but that they have tendency to develop. Samuel Freeman writes that this criterion includes “standards of evidence and falsifiability that would allow it to admit mistakes and revise itself in the light of new information. Rawls’s inclusion of these conditions excludes what he calls ‘fundamental doctrines’ which do not admit of change, in spite of changed conditions and evidence that contravenes their major doctrines”.22 Reasonable comprehensive doctrine must adjust itself to accommodate many of the scientific and political realities of the modern world.

20Reality of the modern world is not only that science is best in providing us with new information about the world; it is also, as far as we know, the best provider of treatments that alleviate, al least physical, suffering. For example, researches in stem-cell biology give us well supported hope that we will be able to heal people with serious heart attacks or neural damages. On the other hand this research includes in vitro fertilization of human egg and destroying it (in form of blastocyst) three to five days later. Current Catholic doctrine opposes to such research because they believe that blastocyst is ensouled from the moment of conception and has equal normative moral status as any other human person. As we said, if debate of financing the stem-cell research takes place in public political forum then it must be within the boundaries of public reason, justification to finance such research must be based on public reasons or political values. Demand for health or demand for normal development of capabilities and avoiding disability, cannot be dismissed as irrelevant for questions of justice, as certain tastes and preferences are. These demands can be understood as reasonable demands for primary goods that every person must have to be able to form, revise and rationally pursue its rational plan of life or it can be considered as part of political value of fair equality of opportunity. On the other hand, religious belief in ensoulment can also be translated in the political value of due protection of human life which is important value that all citizens accept if they are reasonable. So, debate will be in the terms of public reasons or political values. But, decision to stop stem – cell research would give excessive weight to due respect we owe to human life in contrast to weight of some primary good or fair equality of opportunity. To justify this special weight assigned to due respect for human life in this context would bring in nonpublic value or belief that blastocyst has nonoverridable right to life from moment of conception. This belief about moral status of blastocyst is not belief that all reasonable citizens accept. It would be wrong to deprive people of some good or diminish certain political value on the basis of belief that we can not reasonably expect that this persons can accept. The reason is not that we claim that this belief is false and present falsehood of that belief as reason why it can not override political values. The reason why belief in ensoulment can not override scientific claims or political values is that this belief is not open to reasoned interpersonal evaluation in the same way as scientific claims and political values are.

  • 23 Kitcher (2011: 157-165).
  • 24 Ivi: 157.
  • 25 Ibidem.
  • 26 In presenting this example I follow Rachels (2002: 61-62).

21Here it is important to note that political justification does not exhaust all forms of public justification in public forums. Discussion in other public forums must be vivid and without boundaries appropriate for public political forum. In other public forums we can, for example, argue that this belief is product of what Phillip Kitcher calls chimeric epistemology.23 Chimeric epistemology is manifested when persons “in everyday life use and accept scientific procedures and evidence but simply deny them when they get in contrast to Holy Scripture or some dogma.”24 Also, in the case when “the same scientific methods and conclusions that they are willing to apply in other areas they just refuse to apply on questions of their religion or history of some of their beliefs.”25 The belief of ensoulment at a moment of conception, mentioned above, can be questioned on historical grounds and be presented as a product of chimeric epistemology.26 The idea that fetus is human being from the moment of conception is relatively new idea. St. Thomas Aquinas held that an embryo does not have a soul until several weeks into the pregnancy because it does not have human shape that according to Aquinas was necessary for ensoulment. But in 17th century, some scientists looking through primitive microscopes at fertilized egg imagined they saw perfectly formed people – homunculus, and thought that it has a human shape. And if it has a human shape than it is ensouled and it is wrong to kill it. However, as our understanding of human embriology progressed scientists began to realize that this view of fetal development was wrong, and that Aquinas original thought was right. But when the biological error was corrected the church’s moral view did not revert to the older position even though it was based on it. In this way it can be presented as example of chimeric epistemology. It was based on scientific claim in some moment in history but when new information from science was presented it was simply refuted. In non-formal public forums this argument can legitimately be used in debate about many issues from abortion to stem-cell research. Discussion in the background public culture can include epistemic or rational scrutinizing of doctrines and mutual trust will not be jeopardized if we manifest willingness not to do it in public political forum.

  • 27 Kitcher (2011: 235).

22On the other hand, it can also be possible to argue in the background culture that science will somehow cast some doubt on that belief when believers are educated in the process of fertilization. This also what Phillip Kitcher mentions: “The mechanism of early human ontogeny should be described in enough detail to raise puzzles about the exact stage at which ‘ensoulment’ might occur.”27 This kind or argumentation should also take place in discussions in background culture. What is important is not to argue that science will present belief in ensoulment as false. This would probably raise doubts and distrust in science because it is possible that citizens of faith will see scientists claiming that as having some ideological agenda. What must be shown is simply that conception is complicated process in which it is hard to define exact moment of conception and that notion of conception can be differentiated from the notion of fertilization. However, all this discussion must take place in background culture and not in political forum.

23So, conclusions of science are not controversial in the same sense as the comprehensive beliefs are controversial. Science stands outside of comprehensive beliefs, so the reason why according to criterion of public reason some scientific claim is controversial is not because it is in clash with some comprehensive belief.


24Let us turn now to the second sense of controversy. Scientific claims can be controversial if they are disputable within scientific community. For any expert scientific conclusion some expert witness can usually be found to dispute it. In that sense many scientific claims are controversial. Of course, there are wide areas of science to which Rawlsian notion of scientific controversy or public reason does not apply. Many areas of physics, chemistry, and biology will hardly play any role in political justification. Rawlsian notion of controversy applies only to those scientific claims that can play role as premises in justification of political decisions. Some scientific claims will surely play important role for such decisions, for example, conclusions about anthropogenic climate change or GMO. Are there some implications of the idea of public reason and democratic ethos for scientific practice? We said already that science is outside of reasonable pluralism of comprehensive doctrines, and that many scientific disputes will not present problem for which public reason is the answer. Various sciences have their own methods of assessing evidence and certification of results submitted from researches. Idea of public reason that refers only to political practice is not referring to particular scientific problems.

  • 28 This is what Kitcher argues in Kitcher (2011: 31-41).

25But, scientific practice itself is not outside of society. Scientific practice is one important part of epistemic division of labor and so it is practice within society that is based on some values. If scientific practice is not or can not be value – free,28 but is inevitably permeated with value judgments then this can present a problem to which public reason has something to say. If values play important role in scientific practice than it is practice that in some instances should reflect democratic ethos.

  • 29 These problems are discussed in Kitcher (2011: ch. 5).

26Firstly, values will play important role in deciding which problem should be scientifically significant and for which problem is particularly important to find solution. This is the problem that refers to the question what is the best form of democratic input in scientific practice. Some form of democratic input is necessary because scientists themselves are not experts in knowing what interests’ people have, and interests of citizens are necessary in defining which problems are most important to solve. Of course, this does not imply that science should be under same democratic control as politics are. That would cause with scientific shortsightedness. Political liberalism is alert to the ways in which delegation to institutions with some insulation from direct electoral accountability or insulation from some democratic input can improve deliberation, system’s working and public support. In this context scientific institutions are similar to, for example, central national banks which demand some sort of discretion and insulation to work for citizens’ good. In this paper I do not consider that problem which is concerned with social epistemology and discussions of expertism.29

  • 30 See more on this in Kitcher (2011) and Brom (2004).
  • 31 Cited in Brom (2004: 420).

27Secondly, values are important for assessing the consequences. For example, scientific practice is very important for risk assessment of various products we use and risk assessment will surely play important role in political decisions about, for example, climate change or GM food. It is common to regard scientific assessment of risks as value free, but this is wrong impression.30 According to the Fao/Who expert meeting Foodsafety: Science and Ethics: “Codex policies emphasize that risk analysis should be based upon risk assessment as a scientific enterprise. Since the relationship between science and ethics is crucial in the risk analysis process, it is important to clarify what is meant by ‘scientific.’ If ‘scientific’ is taken to mean rigorous, impartial and with interpersonal objectivity, then this is a good description of the standard for which risk assessment should strive. If ‘scientific’ is meant to imply ‘value free’ and providing the only ‘right’ answers in the identification, assessment and management of risks, then this is plainly false.”31 In risk assessment to be exposed to a risk means, roughly, to be in circumstances in which it is possible that an event with unwanted consequences will occur. And to declare certain consequences unwanted is to make a value judgment.

28For conclusions of science to enter as a premise in public political justification it must be supported by high epistemic standard and they must take into account likely consequences of political decisions they are going to justify. Value judgments concerning the consequences will also influence on the amount of evidential support or the level of epistemic standards for certain conclusions of science to be legitimate premises in political justification.

  • 32 Carpenter (2010: 85-117).

29As example we can look at David Carpenters’ description of one episode of Federal Drugs Agency in the Usa.32 In 1960-61, Fda scientist Francis Kelsey judged the safety studied submitted by the Merrell Company on behalf of the drug, thalidomide, for pregnant women, to be inadequate in having neglected to adequately study the effects of developing fetuses. Kelsey opposed industry pressure, and forbidding the drug in spite of the fact that European governments permitted access to the drug. Soon, it became clear that approximately half of the babies being born to mothers who took thalidomide were being born with severe physical defects. The effect on the reputation of Kelsey and the Fda was overwhelming, and Carpenter details the extent to which media stories and reports circulated a vivid narrative of tough-minded government medical scientists protecting the public from dangerous drugs.

  • 33 This example is discussed in Kitcher (2001: 95).

30What Carpenter emphasizes was the narrative that Fda and media used – that of scientist resisting interests of pharmaceutical industry, and putting higher epistemic standards than other institutions strictly because of bad consequences. Labeling some consequences as bad is domain of values. Narrative and responsibility will be very important for making scientific claims legitimate premises in political justification even if there is dissent in scientific community from these claims. In the example of Fda it was justified and necessary to take into the consideration all possible variables because potential consequences were harmful. Of course, in this example it was clear that possible consequences were very bad. Illness or death will hardly be disputed as bed consequences. But, this example should also orient us in situations where consequences are not universally taken as bed. What if some scientists intentionally or as a side effect of some other research arrive at a conclusion that some group with some characteristic (race, gender, ethnicity) has some trait or shows lack of some capacity.33 Consequences of this scientific claim can be very grave for this group. Situation gets even worse if there are widespread prejudices in society and if this group is already disadvantaged. By submitting this claim to the public, scientists can not use narrative of value – free science or simply claim that the value of truth overrides all other values. This would certainly cause distrust in science and alienation of this group from society. Possible consequences are not only bed because they will cause distrust in science, but they will also strengthen the prejudices and cause mutual distrust between citizens. Also, they will deprive some citizens of one of primary goods that Rawls explicitly mentions, and that is social bases of self-respect. If this conclusion is taken as a premise in political justification it will most probably be taken to justify withdrawal of resources from social welfare programs that are trying to equalize opportunity or provide that group with more powerful political voice. So, such scientific claim can diminish very important political values that surely are important part of democratic ethos – social bases of self-respect, equal opportunity and political equality or political inclusion. Scientists have to be aware that in democratic society these consequences should be considered as bed consequences in truly democratic society. Like in Fda example, harmfulness of consequences will demand to put even higher epistemic standard than usually, asking for more evidential support for that claim and taking into account all possible variables in research with which they are challenged before they submit their research to public. And even if this conclusion is published in scientific journal, scientists have responsibility to react if this claim is used as a premise in political justification. Maybe this will put heavy burden on the scientists, but if we delegate to them necessary degree of autonomy in providing us with goods, then this goods must consider all citizens equally. The criterion of controversy will surely be that certain scientific conclusion is in conflict with democratic values.

  • 34 Kitcher (2011: 163).

31On the other hand, in different cases, it will be unwise to put such high epistemic standards or such high amount of evidential support. If political action is urgent – as in the case of anthropogenic climate change or absorptive capacity of atmosphere – and there is high probability that delay will have catastrophic consequences then constantly asking for new evidence can cause harmful consequences. Manifesting scientific responsibility and certain narrative can make claims less controversial for political justification even if there are dissenters constantly challenging with new variables. In these cases it will be plausible for scientists to say: “If the conclusions we propose to draw are correct, there are serious consequences for human welfare; if we were to delay, we should risk considerable suffering; plainly, we can not consider all possible variables; our judgment is that we have taken into account the important ones”.34

32In these cases it is not necessary constantly to reply to new challenges. It would be irresponsible from political liberals to demand that scientific claims should be used as premises in political justification only if there is reached full consensus. Some circumstances ask for urgent action.


33Finally, the notion of controversy in the idea of public reason applies also to transparency or publicity of scientific claim and not only to criteria of certification. Some scientific claim can be well certified and still be controversial as a premise in political justification. The reason can be that it is known that citizen lack sufficient information that this conclusion of science is well certified. But, also if citizens do not know which values are behind these conclusions. Let’s recall that public reasons to which we should appeal in political justification are those reasons which we can expect reasonable citizens can accept. We can not expect that citizens can accept scientific claims for which they do not know that are well certified or they have reasonable doubt that these scientific claims and political decisions based on these claims will promote interests of some group or is based on some ideological agenda or illegitimate values such as gaining profit for some at expense on others.

  • 35 Brom (2004) and Singer (2002: ch. 3).
  • 36 Brom (2004: 420-421).

34As example we can take recent debate between Usa and EU about labeling GM products or not.35 Wto decided that products do not have to be labeled because according to all available scientific evidence GM products are harmless. Now, even if there is certain level of scientific consensus that there is no evidence that GM food is harmful it would be wrong to use this conclusion as a premise on which decision of not labeling GM products should be reached. The reason for this is not only ignorance of biology and biotechnologies; this problem can be corrected by better education or dissemination of scientific knowledge. The reasons are also that citizens reasonably hold that this decision will promote interests of one group, namely food industry, at expense of their interests to have consumers’ autonomy. Problem becomes more complicated if two things are recognized. First, as Brom emphasizes food is not just commodity but something extremely important not only in the sense of nourishment, but also in the sense of citizens’ identity – for example, it is important for many religious views and many citizens see vegetarianism as important part of their conception of good life. Second, it is wrong to think that scientific risk analysis of food safety is value free or purely scientific. As we already said risk assessment will inevitably include value judgments. These value judgments are most times not problematic, because the values involved are uncontroversial: there is in itself no discussion that illnesses and in the extreme cases deaths caused by particular food products are unwanted consequences that we should (try to) prevent. The identification, however, of specific food related risks is sometimes less uncontroversial. Brom makes this clear by giving two small examples of food-borne hazards that are not usually taken into account in risk analysis of food safety – obesity and vitamin deficiency.36 Obesity (huge food hazard in the developed world) and vitamin deficiency (huge food hazard in the developing world) are not caused by a chemical or biological contamination of food that “purely scientific” risk analysis takes into account in assessing food risks. So, Brom concludes that:

  • 37 Ivi: 421.

Whether or not assessing the risks of obesity and vitamin deficiency is seen as a requirement of international food safety standards, is not a ‘purely scientific’ decision. Justifying these decisions, or defending that risk assessment should open up to these kinds of hazard, asks for value clarification concerning the hazards chosen.37

35Three things are important in this example – persons have various conceptions of good or value systems in some of which food plays important role, conclusions of science will inevitable be value-laden, and political decisions based on such conclusions will affect these conceptions of good. What is important in this example is also that it will not promote interests of any disadvantage group or relieve any suffering. So, even if scientific claim that GM food is harmless is based on all available empirical evidence we have it would still be controversial to use it as a premise in political justification for decision not to label GM products. If decision not to label such products will be reached on this premise it will cause serious distrust in science, government and fellow citizens that will support such decision on this premise.

  • 38 These circumstances are listed in Kitcher (2011: 237-243).

36On the other hand, it is important to notice that if circumstances were different, if the values were different than in the labeling problem above - if decision were about producing Gmo as crops that can help to feed the starving and if there is the same level of empirical evidence of harmlessness of this organisms as in the example above and if there is assurance that disadvantaged will not be made agro slaves by food corporations that produce such organisms38 – then empirical evidence takes precedence over conceptions of good. In these circumstances it is legitimate to bring such decision in spite of opposing conceptions of good, because in this case they will behave unreasonably. Firstly, ignoring reasonable claims of others, and claim for food is surely reasonable, simply on the basis of conception of good (for example, ecocentrism) is to behave politically unreasonable. Secondly, ignoring scientific claims or empirical evidence if well presented simply on the basis of conception of good or on the basis of some comprehensive teaching without good scientific reason means to be epistemologically unreasonable.


37In conclusion I will briefly summarize main points of the paper. We started with the question ‘What makes conclusions of science controversial for purposes of public justification in political liberalism?’ Important thing that is that there are no clear criteria according to which we can a priori determine what scientific claims will be controversial. It is hard to see which premises are appropriate for public justification ex ante public discussion. Certainly, many reasons will appropriately be determined as public reason after some level of actual public discussion about specific issues. I believe this also refers to scientific claims.

38But, nevertheless there are some things that can be said about the notion of controversy in this context even before actual public discussion occur. One of things is to separate the notion of controversy that refers to comprehensive beliefs and notion of controversy that refers to scientific claims. That certain scientific claim is in contrast to some comprehensive teaching will not make this claim controversial and as inappropriate to serve as a premise in political justification. Also, as we saw above in second Gmo example, scientific claim can also be in contrast to some conceptions of good that citizens have, but that will also not be enough to say that this claim is not good to serve as premise in political justification.

39Appropriate notion of controversy concerning scientific claims, I argue, is notion of controversy that is connected with values. Scientific claims will be controversial, according to my view, if they are contrary to political values of reciprocity, equality, freedom and if their usage as premises in political justification can diminish certain provision of primary goods as self-respect. Of course, this does not imply that politics should rule science. It means that some scientific claims must ask for more evidence to be certified than some other claims. Certain level of evidential support will not be enough for some scientific claims not to be controversial, while same level of evidential support will be enough for other claims to be appropriate premises in public justification. What is important in determining which claims need more evidential support is foreseeable consequences of using such claims in public justification. Also, consequences should also be evaluated in terms of political values of democratic society. As I mentioned at the beginning of paper, this is of utmost importance for citizens to have trust in science and for mutual trust between citizens who exercise their collective political power over each other by voting or in other ways supporting public policies.

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Brom, F.W.A., 2004, WTO, Public reason and food, “Ethical Theory and Moral Practice”, 7: 417-431.

Carpenter, D., 2010, Reputation and Power, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Cohen, J., 2009, Moral pluralism and political consensus, in Philosophy, Politics, Democracy, Cambridge, Harvard University Press: 38-60.

Festenstein, M., 2005, Negotiating Diversity, Cambridge, Polity.

Freeman, S., 2007, Rawls, London, Routledge.

Gaus, G., 2011, The Order of Public Reason, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Johnson, P., 1993, Frames of Deceit: A Study of the Loss and Recovery of Public and Private Trust, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Kitcher, P., 2001, Science, Truth and Democracy, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Kitcher, P., 2011, Science in Democratic Society, New York, Prometheus Books.

Lister, A., 2007, Public reason and moral compromise, “Canadian Journal of Philosophy”, 37, 1: 1-34.

Lister, A., 2008, Public reason and democracy, “Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy”, 11, 3: 273-289.

Mandle, J., 2000, What’s Left of Liberalism?, Boston, Lexington Books.

Nussbaum, M., 2011a, Rawls’s Political Liberalism. A reassessment, “Ratio Juris”, 24, 1: 1-24.

Nussbaum, M., 2011b: Perfectionist liberalism and political liberalism, “Philosophy and Public Affairs”, 39, 1: 3-45.

Quong, J., 2011, Liberalism without Perfection, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Rachels, J., 2002, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, New York, McGraw-Hill.

Rawls, J 1971, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

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

Rawls, J., 2000, Lectures in the History of Moral Philosophy, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Rawls, J., 2001, The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, in S. Freeman (ed.), Collected Papers, Cambridge, Harvard University Press: 573-616.

Singer, P., 2002, One World, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Weithman, P., 2010, Why Political Liberalism?, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Wolff, J., 1998, Fairness, respect and the egalitarian ethos, “Philosophy and Public Affairs”, 27, 2: 97-122.

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2 Rawls (1996, 2001).

3 Ivi: 246.

4 Ibidem.

5 Lister (2007: 13).

6 Nussbaum (2011a: 8).

7 Inherent stability means that there are forces within the system that can correct deviations from justice in contrast to imposed stability that always imposes some agency out of cooperation that will correct deviations. On this see (Weithman 2010).

8 Burdens of judgment imply that pluralism is inevitable effect of free exercise of human reason under free institutions. It explains that pluralism is not the product of epistemic ignorance or irrationality on part of others, but that comes out of deep and thoughtful reasoning on such complex issues like religion and morality. See in Rawls (1996: 54-58).

9 Wolff (1998: 35).

10 Ibidem.

11 Festenstein (2005: 138).

12 Cited in Festenstein (2005: 139).

13 Gaus (2011).

14 Quong (2011).

15 Rawls (1971: 168), cited in Lister (2008: 278).

16 Lister (2008: 278).

17 Johnson (1993: 12).

18 Rawls (2000: 5).

19 This problem is discussed in Nussbaum (2011b) and Mandle (2000: 72-75).

20 Rawls (2001: 592).

21 Cohen (2009: 38).

22 Freeman (2007: 350).

23 Kitcher (2011: 157-165).

24 Ivi: 157.

25 Ibidem.

26 In presenting this example I follow Rachels (2002: 61-62).

27 Kitcher (2011: 235).

28 This is what Kitcher argues in Kitcher (2011: 31-41).

29 These problems are discussed in Kitcher (2011: ch. 5).

30 See more on this in Kitcher (2011) and Brom (2004).

31 Cited in Brom (2004: 420).

32 Carpenter (2010: 85-117).

33 This example is discussed in Kitcher (2001: 95).

34 Kitcher (2011: 163).

35 Brom (2004) and Singer (2002: ch. 3).

36 Brom (2004: 420-421).

37 Ivi: 421.

38 These circumstances are listed in Kitcher (2011: 237-243).

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Nebojsa Zelic, «Public reason, civic trust and conclusions of science»Rivista di estetica, 69 | 2018, 99-117.

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Nebojsa Zelic, «Public reason, civic trust and conclusions of science»Rivista di estetica [Online], 69 | 2018, online dal 01 mars 2019, consultato il 24 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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