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?