Public Justification for Governments

In a democracy justice serves the purpose of providing a shared basis of public justification between citizens. In democratic debate we cannot rely on specific metaphysical viewpoints, or absolute moral truths because they could not serve as the basis of reasonable agreement in a pluralistic society. 

Samuel Freeman [Avalon Professor in the Humanities at The University of Pennsylvania. Justice and the Social Contract: Essays on Rawlsian Political Philosophy. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 2007. 37] [brackets from “provide….institutions” are in original]. 

We have considered how the social contract plays a role within Rawls's conception of justice, from the point of view of free and equal persons and from the perspective of the parties in the original position. Let us now consider a second way in which agreement plays a role, implicit in a third perspective in Rawls's view, that of ourselves as members of a democratic society.45Rawls identifies the aim of political philosophy as [is] a practical one: to define a conception of justice that can [provide a shared public basis for the justification of political and social institutions.]46 Its task is to locate a basis for agreement in a culture that all can affirm and accept and that can serve as a basis for public reasoning and stable social cooperation. The practical aim of a political conception is to be contrasted with what we might call the [theoretical aim] of a moral conception, which is truth. [Justice as fairness . . . presents itself not as a conception of justice that is true, but one [something] that can serve as a basis of informed and willing political agreement between citizens] (JF, 230). This does not mean that Rawls is not interested in objectivity or truth (clearly Rawls thinks that the general facts assumed by his theory and the parties are true [TJ, 547/481 rev.]). Rather, there is a difference between the primary objects of a practical versus a theoretical inquiry. Whether Rawls's principles are or can be true, in the sense that they satisfy a metaphysical account of truth, is a separate issue which Rawls does not address. He thinks it important to [avoid the problem of truth and the controversy between realism and subjectivism] if justice as fairness is to achieve its practical aim in a democracy (JF, 230). This point is essential to Rawls's version of liberalism, as well as to understanding the sense in which his is a social contract view. The practical aim of a political conception does not by itself seem to imply any form of a social contract. For, we might imagine a society in which appeals to religious authority, or to self-evident truths about good reasons, provided the basis for public justification and agreement (cf. CP, 343). Rawls's point is that such appeals cannot work in a democracy. For, given that [since] democratic citizens have different and competing philosophical conceptions of the nature and bases of truth, objectivity, and so on, a basis for public reasoning and agreement cannot be achieved by a conception of justice that relies on such premises. Here the idea of social agreement comes in; such an idea is implicit in what I will call the [practical justification] that Rawls sees as [is] appropriate [of] for a democratic society.

Thus, a government must find a way to justify its decisions to the citizenry to maintain its legitimacy.