OPR: Preface

The Order of Public Reason opens with concerns about how contemporary political philosophy is practiced. Gaus argues that political philosophers artificially divide up core questions in order to make their jobs easier. Instead, they miss vital connections between these questions. When Gaus says he is a “fox” in the fox-and-hedgehog-sense, you may want to laugh (I chuckled) but I take Gaus to mean that his method is highly eclectic in contrast to the methods of most political philosophers. One point of OPR is to show how a more holistic and comprehensive method pays off.Despite his foxy method, Gaus is explicit that OPR aims to answer a single, hedgehog’s question:

Can the authority of social morality be reconciled with our status as free and equal moral persons in a world characterized by deep and pervasive yet reasonable disagreements about the standards by which to evaluate the justifiability of claims to moral authority? (xv)

This question seems clear on its face, but in fact as we make our way through the book, it will become clear that the question refers to ideas that Gaus develops in great detail, including “authority”, “social morality”, “free and equal moral persons”, “reasonable disagreements” and “the justifiability of claims”. Nonetheless, it should be clear to the reader that Gaus intends to use a “Foxy” method to answer a Hedgehog’s question. And in fact, this is arguably the central question of political philosophy from the perspective of the social contract tradition. Gaus conceives of his project as an attempt to answer the classical asked by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant and Rawls, and yet he thinks their questions cannot be answered without reference to philosophers and social theorists from very different traditions, like David Hume, Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek.

The preface provides us with a clear statement of how Gaus understands morality as a set of distinct domains of normative analysis. It is crucial to see at the outset that Gaus is focused on what he calls social morality. It is a bit like Tim Scanlon’s “what we owe to each other” morality, the set of social rules and practices by which we make moral demands of one another. Gaus sees social morality as essentially constituted by prescriptions about what others to do. He worries that morality can be authoritarian, that is, social morality can consist in an unjustified set of social practices of ostracism, arbitrary domination, and the like. A social order cleansed of authoritarianism, whose social morality is justified to all, is “an order of public reason.” Remember Gaus’s words: “Morality does not directly speak to us; it is other people who speak to us, asserting their views of morality as demands that we act as they see fit.”

The foundational assumption of OPR is that we are free and equal moral persons in the following sense: person is born the authority over any other. That is to say that no one has any “natural” duties to others that do not stand in need of justification. If we are equals, Gaus claims, we cannot simply order each other around. That would be to assert one’s authority over an equal without justification. It is because we are equals that we owe moral justifications to one another.

What we find in the preface, therefore, is two sets of claims about Gaus’s methods. First, there is the Fox aspect: the idea that political philosophy is too rigidly subdivided and that it is better to proceed in a more holistic way (ironic for a fox). Second is the Hedgehog aspect: the idea that political philosophy should ask how social and moral authority can be reconciled with the moral equality and freedom of persons, despite the fact that they reasonably disagree. We can see that Gaus’s method is both highly empirical but highly deontological and Kantian-inspired. The key question that Jerry seeks to ask is how to justify moral claims in ways that maintain our status as free and equal.

I will not raise my own criticisms here. Instead, I will simply set out two broad questions that I believe will be of interest to you all:

(1) Is Gaus right to complain about the partitioning of political philosophy? If so, why? If not, why not? What’s a better way to do political philosophy other than Gaus’s eclectic half-fox, half-hedgehog method?

(2) Is Gaus’s core question well-formed? In other words, does the question Gaus asks serve to illuminate the foundational concerns of political philosophy?

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6 Responses to OPR: Preface

  1. Alexander Moon says:

    I haven’t read this book but if Gaus means by his question what Rawls means, I think it could be question-begging. Gaus appears to argue that our basic moral circumstance is that we live in a world of free and equal persons and that these persons disagree on what the rules of social life ought to be. This moral circumstance makes problematic imposing a set of rules on others (and probably also makes problematic not imposing certain rules on others, e.g. freedom-protecting or enabling rules). This account of our moral circumstances begs questions against other not-clearly-implausible starting points, if Gaus says nothing further to justify it. For example, many Christians and Gandhians begin from the idea that we have almost infinite obligations to love and advance the good of other people and a duty never to harm them by, for example, using force on them (because we are channels for God’s love or because we are not in any important way distinct from them and thus our good is the same as theirs). Oddly, some postmodernists (Connolly, Coles, Critchley) claim to find in Levinas, Nietzsche, or Adorno some similar set of duties. Cohen holds, in his Why Not Socialism?, that the central moral premise is that each ought to be interested in advancing everyone else’s good, as well as his or her own distinct good. Utilitarians, Aristotelians, etc. also have their own accounts of our basic moral situation. Beginning from these different starting points could lead to different conclusions about social morality (the authors concerned seem to think that it will) though, depending on how they are spelled out, it may not. Given that avoiding question-begging arguments would require justifying the premises about free and equal persons, a better starting question for political philosophy would be to ask what the rules of social life ought to be and then to make the case that the justification for such rules depends not only on a person’s all-things-considered judgment about what the rules ought to be, but also acceptance by all persons conceived as free and equal. Again, I haven’t read the book. Perhaps, Gaus answers this concern in the book.

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for getting this started. I think I am one of those people who finds odd the idea that morality can be authoritarian (referred to on p.xvi). Of course the enforcement of morality and particularly of bad, so-called ‘moralities’ can be authoritarian. But morality as such? My as-of-yet quite vague worry came up in reading this para from your summary:

    The foundational assumption of OPR is that we are free and equal moral persons in the following sense: [no] person is born [with] the authority over any other. That is to say that no one has any “natural” duties to others that do not stand in need of justification. If we are equals, Gaus claims, we cannot simply order each other around. That would be to assert one’s authority over an equal without justification. It is because we are equals that we owe moral justifications to one another.

    From the modern, “no natural authority” thesis, it follows that no one has any natural duty to obey any one else. We are all born with duties to each other, however, I would want to say, moral duties, the violation of which gives rise to justified complaints on the part of others. These duties aren’t duties to obey particular people but duties to do things such as to respect each other as equals. Of course my claim that this is a natural duty stands in need of justification, just like any other truth claim.

    I see that there is going to be a problem reconciling equal freedom with the right to coerce and the duty to obey. But why moral claims as such – particularly since equal freedom is itself part of morality?

    These are very preliminary thoughts – I’ve only just read the Preface.

  3. Mats Volberg says:

    I think that Kevin actually answers your worry, Alexander. While Gaus does not say it explicitly himself (at least not in the preface) the central concern of the book does not purport to be the central concern of the whole discipline of political philosophy, but just the social contract tradition part of it.

    This relates to Kevin’s second question about the well-formedness of the question: the question is not well-formed if we think of that as the question in all of political philosophy, for quite many people would argue that the question of the existence of authority is more fundamental, but it is well-formed if when apply the restriction mentioned of limiting ourselves to the social contract tradition.

  4. @Alex: Jerry will deal with this “regress” worry about reasonable disagreement later in the book so please, stick around!

    @Andrew: raise this issue again after Sec. 2. It’s a good concern to identify now, for sure.

  5. “The foundational assumption of OPR is that we are free and equal moral persons in the following sense: person is born the authority over any other. That is to say that no one has any “natural” duties to others that do not stand in need of justification.” (Kevin)

    There are three assumptions here: we are (a) free, (b) equal, and (c) moral persons. Each seems to be playing a big role in GG’s story, but I am not yet clear what that role is. Much depends on what they mean, and I am not yet clear about that either. At later points I’ll raise questions. For now let me query Kevin about his claim above. He and I encounter one another if foreign lands, far from any Members of the Public that we know or recognize. I kill him. That seems wrong. We have a duty not to kill someone intentionally — a defeasible duty, of course (e.g., self-defense). I don’t know what Kevin means by a natural duty, but this one does not seem to need a public justification. Hobbes and other moral conventionalists would disagree, but I wonder if Kevin and GG mean to. Don’t we have a duty not to act towards others which would not be publicly justified? And must this duty be publicly justified?

    I expect this and other queries I have to be addressed in the chs. to come. I’m just starting to study this book

  6. Chris,

    1.2 explains (a), (b) and (c) in more detail. And you raise some complex issues. I expect that Jerry’s answer would be to emphasize that a large number of our moral norms are so deeply justified that we carry them into our intuitive cases. Presumably you and I would already regard certain forms of killing as wrong when we met given our socialization and biology. However, if indeed we were to meet in a complete amoral state of nature, I’m not sure Jerry thinks there is any reason to be moral. That’s what much of Chapters 2 and 3 are about – about why we can’t reason our way into social morality.

    Also note that Jerry is talking about a specific domain of the moral – social morality. He allows that there may exist external reasons not to kill, so that may help solve your problem.

    As for the duty to engage in public justification, there’s much to say but Jerry explicitly engaged this ‘reflexivity’ objection later in the book (Ch.4).

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