As Keith pointed out in his last post, Section 13 is one of the most important, and likely to be one of the most controversial, sections of The Order of Public Reason. Although there have been a lot of controversial points made in earlier sections, much of the last several sections may have seemed more descriptive than normative and, therefore, less threatening. This, however, is the section where the normative rubber hits the descriptive road. The account that Gaus develops here represents a continuity that goes all the way back to at least Value and Justification and is continued in Justificatory Liberalism, those that are familiar with these earlier works will find much that is familiar here, though often in a different or expanded form. There is a lot in this section so I won’t necessarily be discussing everything, only the most important points. If there is something that I leave out that is important, we can definitely expand on those points in the comments. I will spend most of my post today presenting Gaus’ view and save my critical remarks for Wednesday’s post, but feel free to bring up any critical issues that you may have in the comments.
Gaus begins this section by noting that the idea of social morality that he has been advancing seems to rely on an internalist conception of reasons. As he claims, the debate between internal and external reasons has become a kind of obsession. Gaus’ conception of reasons stakes out a position in that debate in opposition to what Joseph Raz has called the Classical View of external reasons as facts about properties of action. On the Classical View, internal reasons are merely beliefs about facts, not reasons themselves. The internalist, however, argues that reasons for action must be connected to the motivational set of an agent, that is, to her beliefs and desires about the action in question. The debate between internal and external reasons has, according to Gaus, become confused. The debate is really about what reasons there are or what reasons exist. It is, therefore, really a question about the ontology of reasons. But, as we have seen throughout the Order of Public Reason, social morality in a world of constrained and embodied reasoners is about what reasons we have, not with what reasons there are. Gaus’ theory then is only inconsistent with externalism if the externalist also holds an externalist theory of what it means to have a reason, basically that to have a reason is for there to be an external reason that applies to that person. Gaus rejects this form of externalism, the externalist view of having a reason, as implausible.
Externalism about having reasons is implausible because “it misconstrues the relation between having a reason and being a rational agent.” (233) Consider Aristotle, for instance. The externalist is committed to saying that Aristotle had a reason to accept the truth of particle physics; but surely, Gaus argues, to think that Aristotle had a reason to embrace particle physics is to make a serious mistake. Reasons are justificatory, but there is no way that Aristotle could be justified in believing particle physics. Similarly, to claim that a person or a group have a certain moral reason even though that reason is totally inaccessible to them, in the same way that Aristotle’s reason to accept particle physics is inaccessible, is to not only misuse the language of reasons but, more importantly, to misunderstand and “undermine the point of discourse about reasons and rationality.”(235) We use the idea of having a reason, according to Gaus, to make the actions and intentions of other people intelligible. The externalist view of having a reason severs the idea of a reason from its role in explaining and justifying action.
Rejecting the externalist view of having a reason does not, however, commit Gaus to, what he calls, the Reason Affirmation Thesis that to have a reason is to affirm that one has that reason. Affirming a reason is neither necessary nor sufficient to having a reason. The neurotic may affirm reasons that they do not, in fact, have–crazy beliefs, that the world will end if one blinks for instance, do not provide reasons. Affirmation is also not necessary to have a reason, all that is required is that there be, in the words of Bernard Williams, “a sound deliberative route” from the subjective motivational set that one has to the reason. We might think of the Reason Affirmation Thesis as the idea that only the reasons that an agent actually claims to have at any time can justify action. The rejection of the Reason Affirmation Thesis means that Gaus is committed to some amount of idealization of rational agents. If we notice that we need to go beyond the actual reasons that agents claim to have, we need another standard of what counts as a reason. The problem is that once we begin to idealize, we move closer and closer to the externalist view of having a reason. Gaus cites Steve Wall who argues that once we begin to idealize we realize that “a fully rational person will affirm all, and only, the (external) reasons that apply to her.” (237) If Wall is correct; we will have backed into the externalist view of having a reason merely by idealizing.
Gaus argues, however, that Wall’s approach simply identifies rationality with ability to recognize all of the reasons that apply to one’s situation–this is merely to revert back to the original externalist view of having a reason, with all the problems which that view entails. If this idealized conception of rationality were, instead, something akin to the idea of a perfect epistemic agent with full information, a rational Hercules, the externalist view would be viable again, though with a different justification. Even this model of idealized rationality, the rational Hercules, however, could still not justify the externalist view of having a reason. If we were transformed into rational Herculi, Gaus argues, we would only converge on the same set of beliefs and reasons under two conditions:
- If we “initially believe precisely the same things and had precisely the same values, ends, goals, and so on” (239) or
- Our initial beliefs have no effect on what we come to believe once we are transformed into fully rational agents.
The first condition, that we initially believed exactly the same thing and had the same goals, values, etc. is so implausible that we can easily reject it; the second condition, that our set of beliefs are not causally linked to a discrete set of earlier beliefs, is also implausible. Starting from different initial belief sets, merely idealizing our rationality and transforming ourselves into epistemic heroes will not guarantee or even tend to make our final beliefs converge.
Whatever the process of idealization that we choose, the fact remains that, epistemically, we begin from where we are and any process of epistemic improvement can only operate on the material of our initial set of beliefs. Small differences in initial beliefs will, no doubt, be multiplied as we continue to refine and make coherent that initial set of beliefs. Furthermore, coherence, as Gaus argues, “is more than deductive consistency and closure.”(241) The fact that we make our belief sets coherent by working on the material of our initial, differing beliefs all but guarantees that the convergence of our belief sets and, hence, reasons will be extraordinarily rare, even given radical rational idealization. To add to this difficulty, the process of rational belief revision, even for an idealized agent is also path-dependent. This fact leads to the conclusion that the, “criterion of a fully rational choice is indeterminate: depending on the order in which the choice is made, full rationality may lead to a variety of outcomes.”(243)
Here again we see two key themes that reoccur throughout the Order of Public Reason: path-dependence and indeterminacy. In this case, the ideal of full rationality is shown to be indeterminate partly because of path-dependence, whereas later in the work we will see that path-dependence can often be a solution to indeterminacy. Once we see that full rationality as a means to generating a determinate thing-to-do is, in fact, plagued by indeterminacy, we are led to reject what Gaus calls “the myth of full rationality.” This is the myth that if only we were fully rational, that is, if only we could shrug off our epistemic limitations and have all the relevant information, we would all converge on the same morality, principles of justice, theories of government. This conclusion leads us to another reoccurring theme, the fact of reasonable and inevitable disagreement. Even fully rational agents would be led to endorse different theories of morality, justice, and government so an appeal to full rationality will not solve our problems in the normative realm.
The solution, as we will see Wednesday, is to realize that our moral reasons are not are not and cannot be dependent on some idealized conception of full rationality. Rather than working from an idealized notion of rationality backwards to an account of what reasons a real moral reasoner has, Gaus will build up what it means to have a moral reason from the kind of reasoning that those of us who are not epistemic giants typically use. This strategy follows a similar strategy that we saw in the last several sections. Gaus built his conception of moral rules and rule following out of our practices of rule following. He will attempt a similar project with regards to moral reasons in this section. On Wednesday we will see his account of “real rationality” and how it connects with the type of moral justification that we owe to one another.