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 .
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
 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.