On Public Reason and Justificatory Liberalism

Hi All,

This isn’t really my area, but I’ve been thinking a bit about public reason lately (in preparing to comment on a paper at the APA) and I could think of no better place to put my thoughts than here. I must say, first, that I’ve only taken a quick look at jerry Gaus’ and Chirstopher Eberle’s books so I must apologize to them if I misconstrue anything they say in what’s below. I should also say that, after the APA, I think I better understand what is going on with justificatory liberalism than when I wrote this up. I think I see the crucial premise underlying the view: that coercion on the basis of reasons people could never accept is so important that it trumps all (other) controversial moral concerns. What I’m still not seeing, though, is the argument for that premise. Though I agree that there is a pro tanto reason against such coercion, I don’t see any reason to think it is definitive. So, I guess what is below is a request for help in locating this argument. Here goes:

Liberalism is defined by a commitment to some kind of freedom. But there are many different ways of understanding freedom and, hence, liberalism. On some theories, each individual’s freedom from arbitrary interference is of primary importance. On others, negative freedom is important but people’s positive freedoms or capabilities also merit consideration. Yet other theories balance a concern for different kinds of freedom against other things of value.

On one particular brand of liberalism, justificatory liberalism, respecting others’ freedom requires advocating policies only on the basis of public reason. Many justificatory liberals believe that religious reasons are not appropriately public. Recently, justificatory liberals have turned toward epistemology arguing that the best epistemic theories support accounts of public reason that yield their desired ethical results. Some justificatory liberals suggest, for instance, that liberalism requires advancing policies only on secular bases.

Learning this, I was at first a bit taken aback, for it had not occurred to me that settling a debate in epistemology could decide a debate about whether it is appropriate to appeal to religious principles in justifying public policy (for instance). And, upon reflection, I see little reason to think, epistemology should bear that kind of weight. I am wondering if anyone might help me see why it should. (Though, my primary objective in this post is to suggest that a complaint that seems to be hidden in the appeal to public reason against relying on religious principles in policy debates is a poor one).

But, first, why might someone be attracted to justificatory liberalism? I suppose that if one adopts an account of morality that is tied to epistemology, settling debates in epistemology might let one decide whether it is appropriate to appeal to religious principles in justifying public policy. If, for instance, one is a contractualist and thinks that what is moral is essentially connected to what is rational, reasonable, or (epistemically) justifiable, then showing that it is irrational, unreasonable, or (epistemically) unjustifiable to advance public policies on religious principles might suffice to show that it is immoral to do so.

Since I am not committed to defining morality in terms of rationality, reasonableness, or (epistemic) justification. So, it seems better to me to just consider whether liberalism, understood as some kind of commitment to freedom, requires advancing policies only on secular bases without discussing the nature of public reason, rationality, or justification. The answer to the question of whether liberalism, understood in this way, requires advancing policies only on secular bases depends on what kind of respect for freedom liberalism requires (and that depends on what kind of freedom is at issue). But, I see little reason why a commitment to freedom should require advancing policies only on secular bases on any standard way of construing freedom – positive or negative. What a commitment to freedom requires is not coercing others unjustifiably and perhaps advancing their basic capabilities. One can say whatever one wants as long as doing so is compatible with respecting freedom in these ways. For, if one only advocates a coercive policy (perhaps on the basis of religious reasons) that does not necessarily constrain others’ freedom. Advocating a coercive policy need not constrain others’ freedom even if others could never rationally accept the reasoning in favor of the policy. (Though, advocating the policy might constrain others’ freedom if, for instance, one was broadcasting the message very loudly or inciting people to violence).

Who would disagree? Gerry Gaus might. He seems to believe we are only justified in coercing those who can understand that what they are doing is wrong [1].

But one might argue (following Christopher Eberle) that we are sometimes justified in coercing those who could not understand that what they are doing is wrong – Eberle gives the example of Jill, a woman who cannot understand that genocide is wrong. Gaus objects to examples like Eberle’s. He seems to think that it is rare to find people like Jill and so this example should not be the basis on which we form policies for a liberal society. But, I think this example, though extreme, illustrates a common problem in liberal societies. People often fail to recognize the importance of freedoms – even freedoms a decent liberal society must protect.

To illustrate the point, suppose we start with a robust conception of liberalism which embraces positive freedoms to things like food, water, and shelter. Many people (e.g. libertarians and many conservatives) deny that they are morally obligated to aid the poor. But aid may still be necessary to protect poor individuals’ positive freedoms to food, water, and shelter. So, we may be justified in coercing libertarians and conservatives into paying taxes for welfare programs even if they cannot understand that avoiding these taxes is wrong.

Alternately, consider a modest conception of liberalism which embraces only freedoms to things like physical security, fair trials, and free speech. Some people (namely anarchists) deny that they are morally obligated to provide the police forces and courts necessary to protect these freedoms. But we may be justified in coercing anarchists into (e.g.) paying taxes to protect things like physical security, fair trials, and free speech even if anarchists cannot, from their own perspective, agree that these freedoms merit protection.

Now Gaus might respond that to make either of these claims I must see my fellow citizens (anarchists, libertarians, and many conservatives) as like Jill – coercible because they cannot see the truth of the propositions that I advocate. But I do not see how that follows. I need only believe that it is okay to tax these people (along with everyone else) because doing so is necessary to protect individuals’ rights – I need only think that that is what protecting freedom requires.

To argue against the idea that everyone must be able to endorse one’s reasoning for one to respectfully advance a policy, we might consider a positive argument in defense of coercing people to meet basic needs. Suppose I argue as follows: “Although liberals have focused recently on arguing that whatever coercive institutional systems are imposed upon people must be decent, if not fully just, an equally powerful strand in liberal thought expresses the idea that the actual relationship between the rulers and each person who is ruled must be voluntary in some way. Those who are concerned about individual freedom disagree about what makes the relationship between the rulers and ruled voluntary, but they all agree that this relationship can only be voluntary if the ruled possess at least some freedom. The kind of freedom at issue here is not overly expansive or limited. This freedom is not constituted by the social order but it is compatible with significant constraints on social life. The key idea is that subjects must be free to determine their actions and shape the nature of their relationship with the system to which they are subject. Although individuals may not have a choice of whether or not they are subject to a coercive system, freedom requires that individuals be able to control the way they react to their subjection. Subjects should get to decide whether or not to abide by, dissent from, or consent to coercive systems for themselves. Political liberals almost unanimously agree, for instance, that people have a right to dissent from the rule of their institutional systems by conscientious objection, non-violent protest, passive resistance, and so forth. To do this, people must be able to reason about, make, and carry out significant plans in light of their beliefs, desires, values, and goals. To reason and plan people must be able to secure some minimal amount of food, water, shelter and so forth. In our world, coercion is necessary to ensure that everyone is able to secure these things (to prevent people from interfering without the ways that subjects react to their subjection and to enable them to secure food, water, shelter and so forth).” By giving this argument I do not think I have disrespected anyone’s freedom.

Furthermore, the fact that there are many people who cannot from their own perspectives embrace the value of freedom does not provide a good objection to the above argument. One should not object to arguments like this one by saying some people just do not see the force of that kind of reasoning. Why do not they see it? What is wrong with it? Do not get me wrong, I think there may be good answers to some of these questions (though I also think there may be good responses). But, without further argument, I see little reason to think the fact that there are many people who cannot, from their own perspectives, embrace the value of freedom means it would be wrong to use coercion to protect freedom.

Of course, there may be good arguments in favor of restricting freedom of speech in the ways justificatory liberals like Gaus would like. Perhaps one could object to letting people advance policies without even trying to provide public reasons as follows. Perhaps one can say advocating policies on religious grounds undercuts the public bases of self-respect. It might be best to require people to appeal only to public reasons (if that is possible), because otherwise intolerant policies will often be implemented. But empirical evidence would be necessary to make that case and, anyway, my main point would not be challenged even if this were so. My point is only that the claim that people need to appeal to public reason in advancing policies requires more defense in the face of arguments to the contrary.

Furthermore, some real tensions do arise between many religious doctrines and liberalism. Many religions embrace intolerant policies that do not respect freedom. A policy prohibiting gay marriage would be illiberal. But the right to advocate such a policy on religious grounds is protected by liberalism.

So, to sum up, I am skeptical of the idea that debates in epistemology can either justify or undercut the case for liberalism. I doubt that such debates can tell us whether it is okay to advocate public policies on private religious grounds. For, I do not think that liberalism should be defined by a commitment to public reason. Liberalism should be defined by a commitment to freedom. And, on this way of understanding liberalism, Eberle’s conclusions are plausible, while Gaus’s worries about the compatibility of religious doctrine and liberalism, though slightly off the mark, are serious. For, on this way of understanding liberalism, it does not matter why a private individual advocates a public policy. What matters is that the policies we implement are tolerant in a way many who subscribe to religious doctrines reject.

O.K, whew, that’s all I’ve got!  Thanks! -Nicole

[1] As I understand him, Jerry Gaus thinks that to respect someone’s freedom you must only blame them for not abiding by norms that they could embrace. And he believes we can only use coercion to keep people from doing things that would be morally wrong or make them do things that they are morally required to do. So, he concludes, blame must be appropriate when people do what we are justified in using coercion to prevent them from doing or when they do not do what we are justified in using coercion to get them to do.

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11 Responses to On Public Reason and Justificatory Liberalism

  1. I agree with your main point, that it is not clear why “coercion on the basis of reasons people could never accept is so important that it trumps all (other) controversial moral concerns.” But I think Jerry might make a couple of points in response. (He can of course make them himself, but let’s see if I can figure out what they might be).

    First, it’s a bit misleading to talk of restricting freedom of speech. It might bring to mind the idea that there should be an Office of Public Reason dispensing fines for public utterances of non-public reasons. The conventional understanding is rather that this is a norm we the citizens apply to ourselves, by criticizing what we take to be violations of the ideal of public reason (and in response denying that the reasons in questions are non-public, etc.).

    However, in the paper Jerry co-wrote with Kevin Vallier , he and Kevin argue that the liberal standard of public justifiability is a standard laws have to meet, but not a standard that citizens necessarily have to try to follow. Kevin and Jerry focus instead on designing institutions to ensure the generation of publicly justifiable laws, by citizens and lawmakers who are not necessarily motivated by such considerations. If I’m bungling this summary, one of them will be sure to jump in.

    Secondly, Kevin and Jerry argue for a version of convergence justification, rather than consensus justification. Consensus justification involves identifying reasons acceptable to all reasonable or otherwise qualified points of view, reasons that are sufficient to justify the exercise of political power (even if the various points of view would not accept the laws in question based on their comprehensive sets of reasons). However, if what we really care about is that the exercise of political power be reasonably acceptable, why require that all reasonable or qualified points of view accept it for the same reasons? Convergence justification demands acceptability to qualified points of view, and regards such acceptance as satisfactory even if there isn’t a set of shared reasons sufficient to justify the state action in question. When public justifiability is viewed as a standard laws have to meet, but not necessarily a standard citizens have to apply, and when the justification is understood as convergence justification rather than consensus justification, the concerns of citizens of faith about liberal ideas of public are largely met, Vallier and Gaus argue. True, if a particular policy can only be justified by appeal to religious (i.e. theistic) arguments, it will not be justifiable, because it is not unreasonable to be agnostic or atheistic. Yet there is no general norm against appealing to religious reasons in debates on public policy, on their view.

    These comments don’t answer your basic question, however, about why one would think reasonably rejectable coercion so fundamentally wrong as to trump all other considerations. I’ve gotten off track from the main issue, but hopefully some of this will help, or stimulate additional comments by others.

  2. On the main point: Jerry’s position seems most implausible when assumes that it rules out a vast array of conventional state activities, because these activities are not beyond reasonable controversy. However, in many cases we may be able to argue there is a range of policies each of which is preferred by all fully rational and moral individuals to no common policy at all, in which case there is reasonable disagreement about which is best, but no reasonable disagreement that any is better than none, and we can thus choose from this set of policies democratically.

  3. Andrew Sabl says:

    Good stuff.

    I don’t know the latest Gaus arguments in detail, but would like to say something more generally about justificatory forms of liberalism—partly because I myself am tempted to dismiss them far too casually. I think justificatory arguments, in the end, work better in defense of secularism than in defense of libertarianism. See what you think.

    I think it’s common when arguing against justification to use examples that are true by stipulation and assumed to be true by one’s likely audience. (I’ve done so too.) So to take the least controversial argument above:

    Alternately, consider a modest conception of liberalism which embraces only freedoms to things like physical security, fair trials, and free speech. Some people (namely anarchists) deny that they are morally obligated to provide the police forces and courts necessary to protect these freedoms. But we may be justified in coercing anarchists into (e.g.) paying taxes to protect things like physical security, fair trials, and free speech even if anarchists cannot, from their own perspective, agree that these freedoms merit protection.

    This all looks unobjectionable, provided that the people we’re coercing are odd enough (e.g. anarchists) that the problem seems to be their irrationality, rather than our intolerance. Justificatory liberalism is persuasive to the extent that, and in the cases that, we refuse to make this “assumption of oddness.” The less willing we are to assume that lots of people typically have very poor reasons for their political and social views, the more likely we are to distrust our own confidence in our substantive rightness–and therefore to demand quasi-universal justification as the standard. (This helps explain the strange fact that libertarians can be either Kantians [Fried, Gaus in some moods] or skeptics [Hayek, sort of]. The former are committed to assuming that others are almost certainly as rational as we are, so that we must listen to them; the latter, committed to assuming that we are almost certainly as irrational as the others, so that they need not listen to us.)

    An example. It’s clearly the case that people must be coerced into giving up any rutabagas they may own. The reason for this is clear given a standard agabatur conception of liberty: rutabagas make liberty impossible by squirking plar fimblegoops. You might say that this doesn’t count as a reason, but that’s inexact. Actually, you reading this have no idea whether it counts as a reason or not, because it’s not even written in proper English.

    But that’s the point. “IUDs should be banned because the essential qualities of human life are present at conception” isn’t written in “proper” secular language, and it’s as unreasonable to expect me to accept this argument (I don’t believe “essential” is a meaningful word) as it is to expect someone to accept the squirking reason above. Once upon a time, the Thomist orthodox could have accused me of lacking “right reason” if I denied the essence argument. But most of us now judge that this was mere dogmatism: not because I can disprove Thomist reasons, but because we no longer think I’m unreasonable to find their reasons unintelligible (not “wrong”). It’s not just the fool who says in his heart, or out loud, “there is no essence.”

    Hence the secular conclusions arising out of justificatory liberalism, which I’ve come to think are stronger than I once thought them.

    What about the libertarian conclusions? Those seem a very different case. They stand and fall, I think, on the assumption that none of the arguments for government action are automatically intelligible: that they all involve language like “squirk” or “essence” (or else arguments so strange and illogical that they may as well be written in similarly bizarre language). I actually think that this is mostly true for lots of common academic philosophy arguments. That Rawls changed his mind completely about what he meant by “primary good,” or Nussbaum kept changing her list of human capabilities (the lists tended to include sexual satisfaction, which Nussbaum favored, but exclude children and family life, which she didn’t), seems to me strong evidence that the concepts are theological and matters of interpretive fiat: jargons of schools, not the kind of language we can expect our fellow citizens to master.

    But lots of down-to-earth arguments for government intervention–like Nicole Hassoun’s–are not like this at all. They merely make commonsense arguments about the preconditions for doing something or the bad effects of people’s not having something. Libertarians who say they can’t accept these kinds of arguments cannot, I don’t think, say that the terms are in principle inaccessible or ridiculous to them. They can only say that they understand the terms but disagree with the arguments. But then, so what? Mere disagreement does not raise questions of paternalism or dogmatism; one party might simply be wrong for the usual reasons–greed, stubbornness, intoxication. If the firefighter tells the person parked in front of the hydrant that his car is blocking the hose and the driver disagrees about the laws of physics, the proper response is not to worry about paternalism but to break the car’s windows.

    Sorry for going on so long. This is all very quick, perhaps quickly refutable. Thoughts?

  4. Andy:

    Libertarians who say they can’t accept these kinds of arguments [commonsense arguments about the preconditions for doing something or the bad effects of people’s not having something; AL] cannot, I don’t think, say that the terms are in principle inaccessible or ridiculous to them. They can only say that they understand the terms but disagree with the arguments. But then, so what? Mere disagreement does not raise questions of paternalism or dogmatism; one party might simply be wrong for the usual reasons–greed, stubbornness, intoxication. If the firefighter tells the person parked in front of the hydrant that his car is blocking the hose and the driver disagrees about the laws of physics, the proper response is not to worry about paternalism but to break the car’s windows.

    Being conventionally Canadian I am all in favour of peace, order and good government, but if I put on my Arizona hat, I would agree that mere disagreement is not a problem, and so agree that the disagreement of the obviously greedy, stubborn or drunk doesn’t matter. Of course they ought to have a legal right to speak their mind and vote their interests, but I won’t pay any attention to their disagreement in deciding what coercive laws I can support. We have to be talking about disagreement from points of view that are reasonable, or in some other defensible sense “qualified”, to use Estlund’s generic term. The problem, in Estlund’s case, is that he insists that any and all of the doctrines, reasons, factual claims, judgments etc. invoked to justify the exercise of political power have to be acceptable to qualified points of view. The point you are making in your post is that differences of judgment about the application of common principles or values in a disputed factual context are not morally on a par with the gulfs in intelligibility you describe so vividly with your rutabaga example. Still wearing my Arizona hat (apologies to all the non-libertarian Arizonans), I would ask what this difference is? If one really believes in a reasonable acceptability standard for the exercise of coercive political authority, why water it down simply to avoid a libertarian conclusion?

    Here’s a related problem for justificatory liberalism. In the rutabega case, can the different parties to the dispute still recognize each other as reasonable, or qualified? Do we have a dilemma, here, for the justificatory liberal?

    And now, as much fun as this is, I must begin grading.

  5. Andrew Sabl says:

    Andrew, as usual you have the annoying habit of demanding of me not just fun examples but an actual argument. Shame on you.

    But in this case the demand for an argument is easily met, though not in the usual way: I simply do not, and never have, regarded the “reasonable acceptability standard for the exercise of coercive political authority” to be a proper standard or even a plausible one. I’m not watering down the demand for justification so that it doesn’t entail libertarianism (or “classical liberalism,” if one’s concerned with avoiding Samuel Freeman’s attack against radical forms of libertarianism). I just believe in a very bare-bones version of that demand in all contexts, whether religious or economic.

    My musings on intelligibility and rutabagas gesture towards what that bare-bones version looks like. Here’s an attempt to put it more explicitly. “Public argument and debate [or perhaps, thinking more narrowly and in dry- Rawlsian mode, only those arguments bearing on constitutional essentials] that are literally unintelligible to wide swaths of the population are illegitimate” (though of course to be tolerated, as Andrew stipulates). My claims don’t have to be “acceptable” to those who disagree with my view of the world, nor the claims of those other people acceptable to me. Legitimate public justification merely requires that each use terms that uncontroversially make sense to the rest.

    This standard is pretty minimal, but by no means inconsequential. The rutabaga argument violates it. So does the essence argument against IUDs. So, I’d argue, does most “natural law” theory (an example that Rawlsians, in an attempt to prove their non-hostility to religion, sometimes cite as an example of arguments that do respect public reason–but mistakenly).

    In case it seems that secularists don’t have all the fun: militant atheism, it seems to me, sometimes violates this minimal standard as well. After all, claims like “we need to start with the premise of a morality without God” sound to Christians like calls for square circles. Atheists may certainly believe in a morality without God, as I do too. We may even have good reason to believe in it. But we should consider shutting up about such matters, as Hume did, in making public claims. If we don’t shut up, we’re at risk of making arguments that are valid but not legitimate–the kind of distinction that the public reason debate rightly makes in such cases.

    But almost no serious claim about economics or policy is unintelligible–aside from crackpot theories that really are just superstitions with numbers. It’s almost impossible to fall afoul of my minimalist standard when it comes to this kind of question.

    If one believes in the acceptability standard, however, I think that Gaus’ claims may actually be stronger than we admit. In good reflective-equilibrium style, this strikes me as a reason to question that standard.

    We’ve gotten pretty far afield of the original post, I know. Nicole (if I may, and call me Andy): may I ask what you think?

  6. Andrew Sabl says:

    By the way: I can anticipate some objections to the consequences of a mere intelligibility standard. I once heard a deliberative democrat use “because the Pope says so” as the paradigm case of an argument that violated public reason. “Because the Pope said so” may be unacceptable, however defined, to non-Catholics. But it is, of course, intelligible. Will I concede that public justification regarding economics or even abortion may legitimately take such a form?

    Actually, yes. Precisely because the claim is perfectly intelligible, it’s easy for those who disagree to see. and show, how weak, even laughable, it is.* We don’t need standards of public justification to protect us against such claims. Weak or baldly authoritarian arguments can and should be knocked down directly. It’s slippery and superstitious ones that we need philosophy to vanquish.

    *This may be why, in my experience, intelligent Catholics never give this as their reason. The example reflected a certain bigotry.

  7. Nicole wrote (very interesting post BTW): “[Gaus] seems to believe we are only justified in coercing those who can understand that what they are doing is wrong”

    But as I read Gaus’s discussion of Rawls in “Justificatory Liberalism” pp. 133-136, it seems as if he objects to Rawls’s argument in favour of “common-sense reasoning” because he feels that the way ordinary people ordinarily reason (ie common-sense reasoning) is highly error-prone. So he rejects this “epistemic populism” even though he admits that “nothing is quite common as reasonable people believing what is not well justified, or failing to believe what is well justified” (136). So it is a permanent part of the human condition that because of their epistemic shortcomings, normal people will often fail to understand or at least fail to accept that what they believe is wrong, but this shouldn’t stop us from imposing proposals on them which we can justify to them.

    It seems as if we can distinguish between three different views here:

    1. An agent A wrongly rejects a certain political proposition P, but could under some to-be-specified circumstances see that P is justified to her and that she ought to accept P. In this case, we might impose P on her even if she here and now doesn’t assent to it.

    2. A wrongly rejects P and can’t, because of her cognitive shortcomings, ever see that she ought to accept P. But if we look at her set of justified beliefs and find that P is justified to her, we can still impose P on her.

    3. A rejects P and can never accept it, because given her set of justified beliefs, it isn’t justified to her. Nevertheless, since P is morally the right thing to do, we can impose it on her.

    So the idea is that (1) represents Rawls’s treatment of reasonable persons or something along those lines (because the reasonables, being reasonable, will forgive the state the fact that something was imposed on them which they did not assent to once they see that they were wrong), (2) represents Gaus’s view and (3) represents Eberhard or whoever doesn’t care about public justification. I should hasten to add that I’m not that familiar with Gaus’s other works, so if he has qualified his position elsewhere, I wouldn’t know about it.

    If I have characterised Gaus’s ideas correctly, I personally think this is the point where his attempt to treat political philosophy along the same lines as applied epistemology starts to be problematic. For if the situation we end up with is one where we just don’t care whether people are able to see the reasons we impose on them or not, just as long as they’re justified according to epistemological standards which these people also need not assent to (since Gaus is clear that these standards do not have to be justified to everyone), then we don’t care whether citizens will perceive their state as justified or merely as an exercise in naked, incomprehensible power, and then something will have gone wrong from a liberal point of view. (Unless we’re very Hayekian about all of this.)

    Or have I missed/misinterpreted something here?

  8. Nicole Hassoun says:

    Hi,

    Thank you all for the great comments!

    Let me start by saying a few words about both of the Andrews’ comments.

    I guess I’m still not convinced that justificatory liberal is plausible, but your comments have been quite helpful. Its funny, though, because I was actually motivated to write (something like) the above comments in response to a paper against appeal to religious reasons. I just don’t see the fact that they are not appropriately public as a good reason to prevent people from appealing to them. I’m still not sure why we should think that reasons have be public (even if we understand public reasons as potentially feeding into an overlapping consensus rather than potentially acceptable by all and restrict the requirement to public officials). The fact that most people can’t understand a reason doesn’t seem to be a reason to prohibit people from appealing to it.

    I should also say that I have some sympathy for anarchists – I don’t want to say they are all unreasonable, but let’s just suppose that their policies could never be the basis of an overlapping consensus. Still, suppose an anarchist was elected to office on an anarchistic platform in some district and wanted to (by lawful means) advance policies to eliminate the state. Advancing such policies might or might not be acceptable. It depends on whether they are compatible with protecting human freedom and interests etc. But whether they are seems to me to be an empirical question. I personally believe that some kinds of coercive institutions are necessary in our world, but I could be convinced that I am wrong.

    Finally, Professor Lister, I liked the dilemma you suggest. Here’s the question I’d ask: Why do only the rational/reasonable merit our respect?

    What I’m thinking about now is whether there might not be a place for restricting people to appeals to public reason on policy matters where we do not have the relevant information to make a good choice. In essence, when all we have are people’s preferences to go on, I do think that coercive policies should (at best) be allowed when there is an overlapping consensus on policy. Though, perhaps we should just prohibit coercion in such cases?

    Finally, David’s last comment jumped out at me.

    David says: “If I have characterised Gaus’s ideas correctly, I personally think this is the point where his attempt to treat political philosophy along the same lines as applied epistemology starts to be problematic. For if the situation we end up with is one where we just don’t care whether people are able to see the reasons we impose on them or not, just as long as they’re justified according to epistemological standards which these people also need not assent to (since Gaus is clear that these standards do not have to be justified to everyone), then we don’t care whether citizens will perceive their state as justified or merely as an exercise in naked, incomprehensible power, and then something will have gone wrong from a liberal point of view. (Unless we’re very Hayekian about all of this.) Or have I missed/misinterpreted something here?”

    I guess I just want to be clear that I do care that people are able to understand the reasons we impose on them (not necessarily the reasons we give for advancing policies, but the reasons for the policies we implement coercively). And, I do think there is something, prima facie, wrong with coercing people on the basis of reasons they can’t accept (in Gaus’ sense). I even think there is something bad about coercing people on the basis of reasons they don’t accept. But, I think that coercion can sometimes be justified even if people can’t understand the reasons for it. The examples in my original post were meant to illustrate the point. Just because some people can’t (in Gaus’s sense) see that police are necessary to protect people from rights violations, for instance, doesn’t mean it is wrong to make them pay taxes to support a police force (etc.). At least, I think an argument is necessary to deny this in the face of what seem to me to be good arguments to the effect that taxation is justified to protect people against rights violations. And that is exactly what I was hoping someone might point me to in Gaus or other justificatory liberals.

    I should also say that recent conversations have convinced me that Rawlsian versions of public reason may be more plausible than the Gausian sort (te he). If we import substantive moral considerations into our conception of rationality (or, better, reasonableness) then we may get a plausible version of justificatory liberalism. But, then I wonder if we won’t get an implausible account of rationality (or reasonableness). I think, for instance, I’ve talked to reasonable anarchists (e.g. Simmons). Furthermore, pushing the moral constraints back into the rational or reasonable seems unnecessarily complicated to me (and almost, at times, sneaky). But again, I’m probably missing something there.

    O.K. gotta run. Thanks again!

    :) -N

  9. Nicole Hassoun says:

    One more thought: it would be nice if we all advanced policies on the basis of reasons people could understand, I just don’t think we are necessarily disrespectful of others’ freedom if we don’t.

    Isn’t it intelligible to suppose I could create a private language and appeal to it to justify policies that don’t undermine or even support others freedom (even if no one could ever understand me – perhaps because they are not smart enough and I am not smart enough to break it down for them or express the ideas in any other way)? I may not have given others reason to implement the policies but it might be good if they followed my suggestion and implemented the policies…

    O.K. really have to get some work done now! Cheers, N

  10. Nicole,

    Thanks for the response! You wrote: ” But, I think that coercion can sometimes be justified even if people can’t understand the reasons for it. The examples in my original post were meant to illustrate the point. Just because some people can’t (in Gaus’s sense) see that police are necessary to protect people from rights violations, for instance, doesn’t mean it is wrong to make them pay taxes to support a police force (etc.). At least, I think an argument is necessary to deny this in the face of what seem to me to be good arguments to the effect that taxation is justified to protect people against rights violations. And that is exactly what I was hoping someone might point me to in Gaus or other justificatory liberals.”

    OK, so now (I think) I see your problem with Gaus. To the extent that you agree with Gaus in only proposing to implement policies which can be justified to others, you do so because that plays an instrumental role in promoting and protecting freedom. But when it doesn’t do so, such as in a situation when we can’t justify to people that we take their money to protect other people’s rights, justification becomes destructive of freedom. And so we must disregard justification in order to promote freedom. And now you want to know why Gaus thinks that argument is wrong.

    It seems as if you take Gaus’s commitment to justification to be an offshoot of liberalism’s commitment to freedom, since you wrote in the OP: “On one particular brand of liberalism, justificatory liberalism, respecting others’ freedom requires advocating policies only on the basis of public reason.” But I’m not entirely sure that this is the case. To me it rather seems as if Gaus treats justification as the foundational value of liberalism in perhaps the same way as you treat freedom as the foundational value – that was my impression from JL 3-5. And if this is true, then the disagreement between you and Gaus could simply be down to the fact that you disagree on the starting points because you work in different liberal traditions: you value freedom, he values justification.

    But that doesn’t mean that Gaus necessarily gets away with ignoring freedom. Suppose we tweak his theory a bit, so that we drop the non-intervention principle (“the one who proposes to intervene in the affairs of others has the burden of justification”). As one reviewer of JL noted, it’s not immediately obvious why we should have this principle rather than any other, such as placing the burden of justification on someone who proposes to treat others unequally. Gaus’s argument seems to be that it would impossible for someone to live their life if they are the ones with the burden of justification when someone else proposes to intervene in their life. But that would seem to be compatible with a principle of freedom-promotion, which I’m not entirely sure how to put, but which might be put like “the one who proposes to do what doesn’t maximise freedom has the burden of justification”. So if Alf wants to arbitrarily intervene in Betty’s life (to use Gaus’s example), this wouldn’t maximise freedom, since Betty’s loss of freedom would be greater than Alf’s gain. So the burden of justification would lie on Alf. However, if you want to intervene in some people’s lives by taxing them in order to collect money to protect the rights of citizens, and if this would be the freedom-promoting thing to do, then you wouldn’t have to justify yourself to these people in the first place. Just off the top of my mind, it’s not entirely clear what Gaus would say to that, on the basis of what we know about his argument for the non-intervention principle.

    D.

  11. Nicole Hassoun says:

    Hi David,

    I’d like to know what he’d say too! Maybe I’ll ask him… But thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

    My conclusion: Maybe I’ve been disappointed about what we get out of justificatory liberalism when I should have been pleasantly surprised that we can get any morality at all out of a concern for justifying ourselves to others.

    Cheers, -N

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