Rawls and a shrinking liberty of conscience

Andrew R. Murphy

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


John Rawls claims that his system of political liberalism represents the "completion and extension" of liberty of conscience, a grand solution to the problem of religious diversity that accompanied liberalism's emergence in the early modern world. I argue that such a claim cannot withstand historical scrutiny, that Rawlsian liberalism instead represents a retreat from the commitments that drove liberal tolerationists. Rawls's political liberalism forces individuals with non-mainstream comprehensive doctrines either to change the doctrine to fit Rawls's conditions of publicity; to manufacture a "public" justification for comprehensively derived political stances; to seek to change the parameters of public debate through, for example, civil disobedience; or to advance comprehensively derived views only so long as public reasons follow in due course. The first two of these solutions run counter to the historical development of liberty of conscience, and the third fails due to Rawls's pervasive emphasis on stability. The fourth misrepresents the nature of moral reasoning and comprehensive doctrines themselves. In conclusion, I argue that underlying Rawls's liberalism is a belief-action split that has historically suppressed religious liberty and, more troubling, a type of repression that undermines the very notion of comprehensive doctrines.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)247-276
Number of pages30
JournalReview of Politics
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1998
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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