Monthly Archives: March 2011

OPR VII.19: Coordinating on a Morality

On Gaus section 19
I should preface these remarks with the proviso that I am simply a guest blogger for this section, filling in for someone who dropped out, and have been unable to follow the earlier discussion in the online reading group. For that reason, I am not as intimately familiar with the rest of the book as most of the other participants, so I fear that my remarks will reflect my poor grasp of the overall architecture of this most intriguing, but often forbidding, book. I also apologize in advance if I raise any issues that have already been thoroughly hashed out in earlier discussion.

As I read it, section 19 attempts to lay down one of the foundation stones for GG’s larger effort to reconcile two apparently opposed ways of thinking about the authority of moral rules:

(1) the ‘instrumentalist’ (Hobbesian, Humean, Gauthierian) view that ‘social morality is necessary for human cooperation and social life’ and
(2) the ‘deontological’ (Rousseau, Kant, Strawson, Rawls, Darwall) view that moral requirements are irreducibly constituted by relations among agents who recognize their mutual standing as free and equal persons.

Earlier in the book, GG has said that ‘both are correct’ (193): social morality is both a ‘device’ of social coordination and a body of rules deriving its authority from its consistency with respect for the freedom and equality of all agents. In this section, GG starts to explain how they are integrated and, moreover, why both are necessary. According to GG, taking (1) more seriously than contemporary Kantians often do is the key to overcoming the threat of ‘indeterminacy’ that hangs over the public reason idea.

The ‘indeterminacy’ involved arises because there are, in principle, many alternative sets of moral rules that are consistent with the ‘rights of agency’ and the ‘abstract’ idea of ‘jurisdictional rights’ GG has defended in earlier chapters. Even if these general entitlements can be publicly justified, agents must still settle on a scheme of rules that all can regard as having requisite moral authority. Without such a settlement, it will be impossible to reach agreement on how exactly the more general entitlements of ‘free and equal’ persons should be interpreted in particular cases. Each of these more specific schemes of moral expectations is publicly justified, yet so far no one has sufficient reason to accept any of them as uniquely publicly justified.

One is tempted to suggest here that a uniquely publicly justified scheme can be identified only if it is selected by a collective decision rule that is itself publicly justified. The main point of this section is to deny that this ‘Procedural Justification Requirement’ (392) is necessary. This is good news, according to GG, because he appears to believe that that requirement is impossible to satisfy without resorting to highly artificial – and hence reasonably rejectable – redescriptions of the choice situation (as with Rawls’s Original Position).

In the body of the section, GG attempts to explain how it is possible for a uniquely justified set of social/moral rules to emerge automatically through interaction between agents who are at all times acting only on reasons that reflect their own commitments. To establish the possibility of such a solution, GG relies on a series of game-theoretic coordination models. These are intended to illustrate how the bare, even random, fact of convergence (within iterated interaction) on one of a pair of alternative moral schemes can be (1) an equilibrium solution and (2) in large N-person cases generate a bandwagon effect. As a result of iterated interaction, players in these games find themselves in situations in which they acquire sufficient reason to accept schemes of rules just because others have already opted for them; as more and more do so, we reach a point at which everyone has sufficient reason to go along with the option around which convergence is occurring.

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The Art of Theory

Via Jason Swadley at Brown, a new online political philosophy quarterly: The Art of Theory. This issue contains an interview with Michael Sandel, pieces by John McCormick and Sharon Krause, and a roundtable discussion of Ryan Patrick Hanley’s Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue.

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Petition on the AHRC and “The Big Society”

The petition can be found here and I urge readers to consider signing it. It makes a point of principle, not politics: that the UK-based Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) — which funds research in areas such as law and philosophy — should remove mention of “The Big Society” in its details of strategic research funding priorities. “The Big Society” was a campaign slogan of the Conservative Party. The principled objection is that the policial campaign slogans of any party should not be included. This would be true if the then AHRB had included “The Third Way” after the 1997 election which saw Tony Blair become Prime Minister. This is not about which political party you prefer, but a statement of principle.


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Most Cited Works in Political Theory

As part of a project to assess the relative impact of different works of political theory I ran a google scholar citation search on the authors listed below.  Works had to be at least 10 years old, and with a minimum of 100 citations.  I’ve listed them in order of citations/year.

Arendt, Rawls and Habermas are special cases and I’ve listed their top two cited works.  Google lists Arendt’s and Habermas’ works multiple times so I suspect they are undercounts. Obviously works with appeal outside of political theory and philosophy get a good deal more traction.

The list is simply based on people who came to mind as I was doing this.  I stopped when I realized how much time I was spending, so  this is hardly complete.  If you have additions and wish to contact me (or post) I’d be grateful. (rehfeld [@]


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Conference: Truth and Justice. Normative Questions, Political Practices

13-14 April 2011, Milan, Faculty of Political Science, Via Conservatorio 7


April 13th , 2011

9.00: Welcome Address

Marco Maraffi (Department of Social and Political Studies)
Maurizio Ferrera (Graduate School in Social Economic and Political Sciences)

9.30: Justice, Truth, Transitions

Chair: Antonella Besussi (University of Milan)

Transitional Justice and Constitution-Making Processes
Andrea Lollini (University of Bologna)

Transitional Justice as Liberal Narrative
Ruti Teitel (New York Law School)

Discussants: Claudio Corradetti (University of Rome “Tor Vergata”); Chantal Meloni (University of Milan)


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OPR VI.18 Jurisdictional Rights

At the end of Chapter 17 we saw that the argument from abstraction cannot provide the determinate moral rules that are needed for social coordination.  Members of the public are left with a set of optimal eligible interpretations of the abstract rights presented in Chapter 17.  In Chapter 18 we see how that set can be further narrowed.

Gaus begins with a discussion of the function of rights and an attack on the common taxonomy of choice vs. interest theories of rights.  Rather than give a theory of the necessary conditions of something being a right, Gaus is concerned with what he calls the jurisdictional function of rights.  Gaus’ concern with rights is practical; he is concerned with what rights do, not with giving a theory that specifies the necessary and sufficient conditions of rights.

In so many places in OPR, we have seen Gaus put aside the traditional metaphysical and epistemological concerns with reasons, morality, and responsibility to focus on the practical problems that arise from an attempt to make sense of individual reason and social morality.  The distinctiveness of Baier-Strawson view (which should really be just called the Gaus view) is primarily this focus on the essentially practical nature of the philosophical enterprise.

Gaus sees rights as a solution to the practical problem of the incommensurability of values.  How is it possible to find a collective choice or social agreement between persons when their fundamental values so often conflict?  In the last section we saw that one solution may be to abstract or idealize to find out what common standards we share, but as we have seen, this solution only has limited usefulness.  Another solution is to “partition the moral space” (372) so that each individual is the rightful decision maker in his or her own defined sphere.  In effect, why not privatize social morality in a publicly justified way so that not all value questions are open to social choice?  In each individual’s sphere, they are sovereign and others may not  override their decisions.

The contrast to what might be called the devolution of moral authority is what Gaus calls the centralizing response.  The centralizing response hold that when faced with evaluative diversity, the proper response is look to commonalities in values to try to regulate and organize social morality with an overarching standard.  The problem with this solution to the problem of diversity is that, as we saw in the last section, it is indeterminate.  In contrast, by devolving moral authority each individual has a determinate authority over a determinate sphere.  This solves the problem of seeking a common standard for the basis of public moral authority by relocating that authority in the rules of devolution rather than in the substantive claims of public moral authority itself.

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