Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Philosophy
Public Reason Liberalism has proven to be a popular theory for explaining the legitimacy of political institutions that both protect classic liberties and individuals rights and establish democracy as the preferred form of government in many modern multicultural societies. The linchpin of Public Reason Liberalism is the idea of public justification; public justification entails that the political edifice is only legitimate to the extent that it can be freely endorsed by the reasons possessed by free and equal citizens. Political power, especially in the form of law, must be sensitive to the reasons of citizens, for it is in this way that the state shows proper respect for their freedom and equality. The question of how to characterize the reasons citizens possess has led to two radically different interpretations of the idea of public justification and so subsequently to different arguments for key uses of political power. One of the most important uses of political power in diverse societies is the institution of public schooling; such institutions exert a powerful influence over how children develop morally, socially and intellectually and are authorized to do so by coercive means in many cases, even in defiance of parental wishes. Given the diversity present in society, including among parents, whether or not a system of public education is justified is a highly controversial topic. Some parents embrace reasonable perspectives on the world which they wish to impart to their children and which they may judge a system of public education to be a hindrance to that goal rather than a help. Moreover, given that public justification aims at respecting citizens’ strongest reasons, it would seem that Public Reason Liberalism is bound to defer to parents’ wishes with regard to this use of political power. Nevertheless, I argue in this dissertation that this appearance is deceiving; Public Reason Liberalism can maintain its foundational commitment to respecting citizens’ integrity yet at the same time provide a cogent argument for the existence and operation of public schools. These education institutions are justified, as I will show, when oriented around the aim of developing children’s autonomy.