A Rawlsian Argument Against the Duty of Civility


  • This article could not have been written without some very fruitful exchanges with peers and mentors. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to present versions of the paper at the 2003 annual meeting of the Association for Political Theory, the Political Science Graduate Conference at Marquette University (March 19, 2005), and the Notre Dame graduate ethics forum (April 28, 2005). Special thanks are due to Michael Zuckert for his unfailing advice, encouragement, and critical feedback, and to Paul Weithman for his thoughtful comments on an early draft. Last but by no means least, I must give credit to AJPS's editors and reviewers, who pushed me to clarify my arguments and helped me identify and repair serious weaknesses in them. The article is now much stronger due to their input.

David Thunder is a Ph.D. candidate in political science, 219 O'Shaughnessy Hall, University of Notre Dame, IN 46556 (dthunder@nd.edu).


In this article, I show that the assumptions underpinning John Rawls's so-called “duty of civility” ought to lead one not to affirm the duty but to reject it. I will begin by setting out in its essentials the content and rationale of the “duty of civility,” which lies at the heart of Rawls's ideal of public reason. Secondly, I will argue that the very premises allegedly underpinning the duty of civility—namely, the values of reciprocity and political autonomy, and the burdens of judgment—in fact rule it out. Thirdly, I will suggest that if my argument against the duty of civility is correct, then one recent attempt to salvage political liberalism and reasonableness from the charge of incoherence fails. Finally, I draw some challenging lessons from our discussion for political liberalism and the liberal tradition as a whole.