OPR V.14 Modeling Public Justification

This post provides an overview of Section 14 and explains the relationship of this section with previous sections; I make some critical comments in separate posts linked below. I hope I haven’t gone overboard, in terms of the total length of the posts, but section 14 is important because it lays the groundwork for Jerry’s conception of public justification. At the same time, it is the conclusion of the previous 100 or so pages of argument about the moral emotions. So I want to summarize the main claims of section 14, but also explain how they follow from earlier sections. And of course I have some questions and criticisms.


Section 14 defines the “Basic Principle of Public Justification” (BPPJ) and lays out “the deliberative model” that specifies the principle. The BPPJ provides a necessary condition for a moral imperative to be authoritative. The assumption is that an imperative “?” is made in a particular context C based on a rule L. The condition is (1) that each normal moral agent has sufficient reasons to internalize L and hold that L requires ? in circumstances C, and (2) that moral agents do generally conform to L.

The BPPJ provides a rule-based standard for assessing particular moral demands in context, and so has as one of its components a criterion for determining when a rule counts as a bona fide moral rule; each and every normal moral agent must have sufficient reasons to internalize the rule. The idea of a normal moral agent (NMA) has figured in Gaus’s earlier discussions of moral psychology. A person is a moral agent if they have the capacity to understand and care about following social rules for its own sake; such an agent is normal if they have the cognitive capacities of a fully-functioning but still boundedly-rational human being. Thus some people do not qualify as NMAs, either due to lack of cognitive capacity (young children, severe mental disabilities) or lack of ability to internalize rules (young children, psychopaths). The reasons an NMA “has” are not the reasons there truly are, nor simply the reasons that agent thinks she has. On the one hand, Gaus argues that there is no point in saying that I “have” a reason if it is completely inaccessible to me, given my epistemic situation. On the other hand, he accepts that I have a reason not to cross the bridge in front of me even if I don’t think I have such a reason, if a reasonable amount of investigation and reflection would reveal the bridge to be unsafe (234-6). The reasons a NMA has are thus the reasons she would have if she engaged in a respectable amount of good reasoning based on what she currently believes (summarizing 250). ((For doubts about the idea that we have reasons that we would recognize if we deliberated more, see Alexander Moon’s comment to the previous installment of the discussion group))

Implicit in the BPPJ, therefore, is a partly idealized unanimity criterion for the legitimacy of moral rules, a qualified but still multi-perspectival acceptability requirement. Gaus’s “deliberative model” specifies this acceptability requirement, by explaining what the agents in question are deliberating about, and on what basis. Most of Section 14 is devoted to explaining the choices Gaus makes about the different parameters of the deliberative model, and justifying these choices as against other possibilities. Of particular importance are:

  1. The scope of persons included in (or represented in) the deliberative model. Gaus restricts membership to those who share a common society, but only on the grounds that he wants to focus on this case first (268); Chapter VII will deal with the establishment of institutions and practices where none previously existed.The subject matter of deliberation: moral rules, not principles (271).
  2. The range of alternatives the deliberators will consider. Assuming a particular rule is already in place, each deliberator may propose an alternate rule (270).
  3. The manner in which deliberators consider rules in different domains: separately, for the most part, rather than holistically (though I think this is meant to be a defeasible presumption, not a hard and fast rule; 274).
  4. The extent of evaluative diversity amongst the deliberators: reasonable pluralism (277), where the term “pluralism” implies a “wide variety” of evaluative perspectives, but the “reasonable” qualification indicates that all of these perspectives pass a minimal standard of coherence and plausibility such that they can recognize each other as moral perspectives, rather than merely the expressions of malice, egoism, or lunacy (Gaus calls this the mutual intelligibility condition; 279-80).
  5. The basis upon which the deliberators deliberate. Each member of the partly idealized public deliberates based on his or her total set of reasons, not just the reasons such persons share (286).

Explanation of how we have arrived at the BPPJ

Section 14 begins with the statement that we have arrived at the BPPJ. How have we done so?

“As we have seen, the Basic Principle of Public Justification is not an ideal imposed upon morality by a philosophical commitment to the idea that moral agents are free and equal but is itself grounded in our reflective understanding of a bona fide social morality – one in which the moral emotions are well grounded and for which it is appropriate to feel guilt for violations” (263).

I want to spend a few moments explaining this important claim, drawing together a number of strands of argument from previous sections.

The starting point for Chapter IV was Strawson’s observation that our moral practices are not merely devices to regulate conduct but involve expressions of attitudes and establish interpersonal relationships (183-4). These moral emotions or reactive attitudes only make sense with respect to persons who satisfy certain conditions (205-6). It makes no sense to resent or feel indignant about the conduct of a very young child, or a psychopath, or someone who has been hypnotized. Such persons either don’t know that what they are doing violates a moral rule, or know that it violates a rule but lack the capacity to care. The young child cannot yet grasp (and the psychopath never will grasp) the idea that one could recognize the authority of a rule, and will oneself to comply with it even at the expense of one’s (other) goals. We seek to regulate the behaviour of such persons, but we cannot sensibly address authoritative prescriptions to them, nor feel resentment / indignation when they fail to comply. The reason is that they are not fully autonomous. Thus Gaus is led to his Principle of Minimal Autonomy: “A moral prescription is appropriately addressed to Betty only if she is capable of caring for a moral rule even when it does not promote her wants, ends, or goals” (211).

Gaus then argues that the same applies to people who do have moral autonomy, but have systematically perverted beliefs, as in the case of the citizen of Oceania from 1984, who simply cannot grasp certain reasons, despite being able to care about following rules. I might initially feel indignant that Betty has violated rule L and therefore issue my demand: “?!” Once I realize that she is from Oceania and cannot grasp that L is a moral rule, however, I cannot maintain my outrage (219). The same holds true, Gaus claims – and this is they key move, I think – even without the systematic perversion of belief (220-21). Suppose Betty is not from Oceania. She fails to ?, and I express my indignation / issue my injunction. She responds in a puzzled tone: “that’s not a moral rule that applies in this situation.” After some discussion, I recognize that when she failed to ? she was acting under the sincere believe that there was no valid rule L requiring ? in C. Her action expressed no disrespect for me or for the community, even if it violated what I take to be our rules. My indignation / resentment must diminish. Still, I am reproachful because I think she failed in her duty to exercise due diligence in identifying and applying the appropriate moral rules. However, after further discussion, I realize that she has been just as diligent and conscientious as I have, but she has simply arrived at different conclusions about whether L is a rule / whether it applies in C / whether it requires ?. Gaus argues that in this situation our ordinary reactive attitudes cannot be sustained. Indignation / resentment is appropriate when one person violates a rule both accept because the violation expresses disrespect, and a rejection of the authority of social morality. The misconduct of someone who is acting as she sincerely and conscientiously believes is correct does not express this disrespect, therefore the ordinary reactive attitudes are undermined. Gaus is therefore led to the “Principle of Moral Autonomy,” which is that a moral prescription is appropriately addressed to Betty only if she is minimally autonomous and if she “has sufficient reasons to endorse the relevant rule” (222).

The BPPJ builds on this idea that moral prescriptions can only be addressed to those who have sufficient reasons to endorse the relevant rule. If moral rules must apply to everyone, then any bona fide moral rule will have to be such that everyone (i.e. each normal moral agent) has sufficient reasons to internalize it.((The continued importance of the Principle of Moral Autonomy is clear in the the deliberative version of the BPPJ: “L is a bona fide rule of social morality only if each and every Member of the Public endorses L as binding…” If every “Member of the Public” endorses L, each “normal moral agent” has sufficient reasons to endorse L.)) What we have, then, in pp.205-285, is a kind of transcendental argument. Starting from very basic aspects of our moral practices, such as feeling resentment and indignation and issuing authoritative prescriptions to other people, and reflecting on the situations in which we recognize that such attitudes and imperatives do not make sense, we come to see that these practices presuppose a conception of moral autonomy and mutual recognition of moral rules. Hence Gaus’s comment on p.263 (quoted above) about the BPPJ being grounded in our reflective understanding of existing moral practice, rather than being derived from philosophical ideals of freedom or equality.

Comments and Questions

This post has summarized Section 14’s elaboration of the BPPJ, and explained the basis that was laid in chapters 11-13 for this principle. In the accompanying posts, I want to raise some questions and venture some criticisms.

Sincerity and Shared Reasons

Resentment / Indignation vs. Authority

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4 Responses to OPR V.14 Modeling Public Justification

  1. Thanks for this post, Andrew. I found it very helpful, especially the part explicating Gaus’s claim that BPPJ is not imposed by a commitment to the idea of moral agents as free and equal. But this raises the question of how freedom and equality are related to BPPJ. Consider the following two passages from OPR:

    Our aim in seeking public justification is to treat others as free and equal persons while also claiming moral authority over them. (279)


    The practice of social morality and our reasoning within it occurs among normal humans; it is the reasons that they have which count if our relations with them are to be characterized by freedom and equality. (287)

    If the ideal of public justification is not imposed by a commitment to treating others as free and equal, how should we reconcile these claims with the one you flagged from p. 263? In other words, how are the ideas of freedom and equality related to BPPJ? I realize that’s a large question, but I think your explication of Gaus’s claim, which works without referring to those ideas, leads naturally to it.

  2. Yes, that’s a good question. The p.263 quote might seem to conflict with the idea of free and equal personhood that is (as one would expect) prominent elsewhere in the book. The way I see it, Jerry is not doubting that we should consider people free and equal, but making a point about the place of this idea in the order of justification. He doesn’t want to say “assume free and equal personhood, then BPPJ follows” (even though he would accept that BPPJ does follow, given the assumption). Rather, he wants to show that if we share certain very basic moral practices, we are implicitly committed to BPPJ, and to considering people morally free and equal… But I’m not sure about that “and”. In a caste society, Jerry’s argument for BPPJ would presumably go through, but with a Public limited to members of the caste having top status. So we would need an independent premise about moral freedom and equality to get right public.

    Hmmm… have to go back to the text and think about this. Maybe someone else will chime in.

  3. Hello both. Here’s one possible response to your question, Micah. At p. 223, Gaus says that the “assumption that we confront others as free and equal persons…turns out to be not an exogenous (external demand on an acceptable social morality…but a deep presumption of our social morality with rational reactive attitudes.” To the extent that the BPPJ is grounded “in our reflective understanding of a bona fide social morality” as the realm of appropriately held reactive attitudes, as I understand the argument, it’s thereby grounded in the view of moral agents as free and equal, since that view is implicit in the idea that reactive attitudes can be appropriately held. So, what I take Gaus to be denying in the passage at p. 263 is that the commitment to freedom and equality is a moral/philosophical commitment (such as we might take from the public political culture of a democratic society) that acts as a constraint on our theorising about social morality, not that it’s foundational. Does that sound plausible?

  4. I think there may be an ambiguity in the statement of the Basic Principle of Public Justification in this chapter. Perhaps someone can tell me if this is right and what Jerry’s view is.

    The Basic Principle (p. 263) says a particular imperative, based on a particular rule, “is an authoritative requirement of social morality only if each normal moral agent has sufficient reasons to (a) internalize rule L, (b) hold that L requires phi-type acts in circumstances C and (c) moral agents generally conform to L.”

    I’ll dub this the weak version (see the term ‘generally’ italicized in clause c.

    Later on the page, Jerry says that “The rule is one that all have sufficient reasons to internalize and to follow. When another demands that you comply with a rule, she is demanding that you do what you have sufficient reasons to do” (italics mine). See also the sentences that follow. See also the top of p. 267″: “… have sufficient reason to internalize, endorse, and follow…” (it. mine). Call this the strong formulation.

    On the weak view the Basic Principle yields reasons to internalize, with the expected result of general compliance (a causal claim). The strong version yields, in additions, sufficient reasons to comply in all cases or all undefeated cases (a normative claim).

    These two formulations are different in important ways. And I am sceptical that Jerry’s methodology can yield the stronger one (for reasons having to do with his story about rationality).

    Am I right in thinking that there’s an ambiguity here? And in thinking that Jerry’s view is probably the weak version?

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