The Order of Public Reason: Conclusion (and Appendix A)

We reach the end of the book. It has been a long-haul and I am grateful to everyone who has been involved. I’m going to use this post to achieve two aims: (a) to summarize the main themes of the book in light of Jerry’s emphases in the conclusion and (b) to discuss the novelties explored in Appendix A.

Discussion and Review

The very first sentence of the Conclusion is illustrative: “The philosopher’s stone that transforms individual goal pursuit into social restraints on goal pursuit is, like other alchemical projects, enticing but misguided” (547). Let’s reflect for a moment on why Gaus begins the conclusion of this 550-page book in this way. Wasn’t this point merely one of many made along the way? Isn’t this just part of the point of the book?

I. Hayek and the Social Contract Tradition

I suggest that if we take Jerry at his word, we can shed light on the deepest themes in the book. First, note that this claim in effect rejects the entire basis of the social contract tradition, a tradition one might easily think that Jerry is defending and extending rather than rejecting. In some sense, Jerry rejects the contract metaphor. The idea that our interest in social morality can ground our reasons to follow social-moral rules (the idea that arguably lies at the heart of the contractarian tradition) must be rejected; and Jerry has tried to show why at great length. Instead, we must adopt an entirely distinct philosophical anthropology, one that is at root deeply Hayekian, for as Jerry says, “Our reason did not produce social order – we did not reason ourselves into being followers of social rules. Rather, the requirements of social order shaped our reason.” This just is Hayek, who wrote:

Man is as much a rule-following animal as a purpose-seeking one. And he is successful not because he knows why he ought to observe the rules which he does observe, or is even capable of stating all these rules in words, but because his thinking and acting are governed by rules which have by a process of selection been evolved in a society in which he lives, and which are thus the product of the experience of generations (LLL, 11).

Many of you know Hayek the classical liberal, but Jerry is following Hayek the social theorist, who attempted to integrate the rationality of rule-following into his philosophical anthropology at the deepest level. Jerry has argued throughout the book that the conception of the person employed within public reason liberalism and liberalism broadly speaking must move in this Hayekian direction. If public reason liberals follow Jerry’s lead, the fundamental structure of public reason and even the nature of the social contract theorists’ project must substantially change. In short, political justification must not begin with deriving the rationality of rule-following from a teleological conception of practical reason. Instead, it must begin with an understanding of the nature of human beings who are already rule-followers and the nature of the moral emotions and cooperative activities that accompany such rule-following. It is in this way that Jerry moves most forcefully away from Hobbesian conceptions of public reason. He goes further by arguing that even the Kantian conception of the person he endorses cannot be constructed out of practical reason alone. Instead, human nature contains Kantian elements for thoroughly Humean-Hayekian-evolution reasons. Our rule-following nature is contingent on our social development (though no less contingent than our goal-seeking nature).

And yet even if we abandon the old way of understanding the social contract tradition, we can both retain and satisfy its classical aim of reconciling the social order with the freedom and equality of all. If we understand public reason as a method of testing our extant social practices, both moral and political, we can reconcile order and freedom. A Hayekian social order can make Rousseau’s dream of remaining “as free as before” within the bounds of civil society a reality.

II. The Relationship between Goals and Rules

Note the paradoxical claim in the next paragraph: “Justified morality is neither derived from our goals and ideals nor divorced from them” (547-8). We can find great significance here. Jerry’s claim is not that the right is determined independently of our aims; it is not a caricatured deontological view. Instead, Jerry advances a deep and subtle attempt to tie rules and goals together. Not only are the constraints of rules compatible with our aims, but these constraints can extend our aims, since the authority claims we accept “provide wide-ranging protection for each to act on her evaluative standards and ends” (548).

III. Anti-Statist but not Libertarian

I think that Jerry’s way of conceiving of the relationship between morality and politics in public reason is quite unique. Notice that “the political order is needed to complete and reform the moral order” (549). The reason that we have political order is not to achieve order as such but is instead to complete and reform a necessarily pre-existing moral order. This is the element of Hegel and T.H. Green in Jerry’s work-we do not begin constructing political morality from a pure rational contract but from an organic set of evolved moral rules without which the process of moral and political justification cannot get off the ground. Notice that in this way Jerry has made public reason into a profoundly anti-statist doctrine without making it libertarian. Public reason extends into the moral world and retains the political world as a result. Gausian public reason goes beyond Rawlsian Political Liberalism into social morality and uses the public justification of social morality to limit the state and its role in society. Jerry’s conception of the state is fundamentally classical liberal not so much because it endorses private property rights but because it is seen as completing a pre-existing spontaneous order that includes the basic elements of civil society. In this way, civil society is prior to the state, not historically, not even causally, but normatively – the evolved social morality of civil society sets the limits of the state.

This way of conceiving of the state helps us to see why, despite Chapter VIII, Jerry is not a libertarian. Gaus’s conception of the social order requires a state to reform and complete social morality. But while the state is sharply limited by social morality, stronger libertarian limitations of the state are undermined. On Jerry’s view, libertarian threats to the legitimacy of the state partly depend on the contract view of the person that Jerry rejects. This is why Jerry ties together libertarians and philosophical anarchists like Wolff. Both think that political authority can only be justified by moving from individual reason to political rights and thus they find no (or little) basis for any political authority. But Jerry thinks that political authority derives from moral authority. The existence of moral authority is far harder to deny than the existence of political authority. Thus if morality authority can ground political authority, then libertarianism can be resisted. Because Jerry makes social morality prior to political morality, he both preserves and defends classical liberalism while providing vital conceptual resources to respond and push back against libertarianism.

IV. Anti-Utopianism

Next, it is important to emphasize that Jerry rejects utopian aspirations common among political philosophers. This is another Hayekian hostility, Hayek’s famous hostility to intellectual utopianism, but Jerry’s rejection of utopianism is rooted partly in his rejection of the existence of a set of justified social rules regarded as optimal by all. Instead, justification can occur even when each person does not get her most preferred option. Political philosophy helps delineate an eligible set of proposals that we rank differently. Because we disagree, we cannot always insist on getting what we most want.

If we do so insist, we are either “deluded, authoritarian or nihilistic” – deluded if we think such a set of rules exists, authoritarian if we insist on imposing our preferred set anyway, and nihilistic if we give up. Instead, we must accept that our preferred moral system may not win the assent of all reasonable persons. Only with this humility can we avoid delusion, oppression and nihilism. Now this is not to say that political and moral philosophers should not promote ideal pictures of life. Jerry thinks this practice is often helpful because it “perhaps in the end will produce changes in an order of public reason.” But the philosopher who tries to do more is an enemy of the social order because she destroys the reconciliation of the social order with the freedom and equality of all.

V. The Fragmentation of Morality

In light of this discussion, we can see the importance of Appendix A. In it, Jerry follows Michael Gill in denying “the monistic thesis” – a thesis embraced by most of 20th century moral theory. The monistic thesis asserts that there is a single phenomenon – “morality” – that moral theory must explain. Jerry wishes to fracture the moral landscape into a series of distinct domains. He wants to hold, along with many at my Arizona home, that different moral theories may fit different parts of the moral territory. Notice that the fragmentation of moral theory is vital to his project — it is no mere theoretical novelty tacked on at the end of the book. The philosopher’s disposition to monistic explanations in moral theory is part and parcel of his disposition to authoritarianism, a disposition Jerry stridently rejects. By imposing one theory on all of reality, the moral philosopher must impose his conception of good moral theory on domains of moral practice that do not fit her vision.

Further, notice that the fragmentation of morality is required in order for Jerry to retain the spirit of Rawls’s political liberalism. Jerry has carved out a special role for what he calls “social morality” throughout the book. Social morality, not all of morality, is the object of moral and political justification. It is our social-moral rules that must be justified, reformed and rejected. If social morality cannot be segmented from other domains of moral theory, then OPR is more easily weakened as a theory.

Of course, there is much else of interest in Appendix A, such as Jerry’s distinction between objectivity in moral theory and pluralism about moral concepts (the two can come apart and go together) but I think it is important to emphasize how important the brief discussion in Appendix A is for Jerry’s project. The denial of the monistic thesis makes his project far more plausible, as we should not expect a unitary analysis of all moral language, properties and practices. If we did, we would have far more ground on which to resist Jerry’s use of the idea of social morality in the book.

VI. Kant, Indeterminacy and PPE

Kantian moral theory gives us the tools to delineate an eligible set of social-moral rules that can be justified, but only by looking to real-world social processes can we determine how a member of this set can be selected; without the real world, the Kantian decision procedure is indeterminate. Thus, one way to summarize OPR‘s message to political philosophers is to quote Wittgenstein in Philosophical Investigations: “Don’t think, but look!” (PI, 66)

Another reason to think that OPR is significant is that it shows how to analyze at these social processes. Jerry not only shows how to employ the tools of the politics-philosophy-economics (PPE) research paradigm in political philosophy but he adapts Kantian moral theory such that it can employ these tools as easily and naturally as consequentialist moral and political theories. PPE’s importance is demonstrated and extended in novel ways.

VII. Summary

In sum, OPR defends public reason liberalism without contractarian foundations. It is Kantian without being rationalistic. It is Humean without giving up the project of rationally reforming the moral order. It is evolutionary but not social Darwinist. It is classical liberal without being libertarian. It is Hegelian and organicist without being collectivist or statist. It shows us how political authority can be justified but only by accepting that moral authority limits it. It pushes us to look towards the practical and reject the utopian while simultaneously maintaining that a truly free and equal social order is within our grasp. It rejects the aspiration of political liberalism to neutrality among conceptions of morality while simultaneously retaining its spirit by sectioning off social morality from other normative domains.

OPR is hard to summarize for these reasons, for it is a systematic attempt not merely to offer a theory of justice, legitimacy and authority but to fundamentally transform how political philosophy ought to be done.


I leave you with three questions, the first of which is of idiosyncratic interest to me and the latter two I regard as enduring.

(1) Jerry acknowledges in Chapter VIII that the “political process is a deeply imperfect way to arrive at equilibrium, as it can so easily miss the mark, and move us from a current equilibrium to a moral disequilibrium that, because it is backed by coercive punishment, can be a stable social equilibrium.” Imagine for a moment a “public reason liberal anarchist” who takes this as grist for her mill. The public reason liberal anarchist is no philosophical anarchist-she accepts that the state can be legitimate and that there is bona fide political authority. She is also no libertarian anarchist-she does not claim that private property rights exhaust the domain of the political. She is also no political utopian-she instead claims that the proper direction of reform for an order of public reason is away from a monopoly government and towards a polycentric legal order, one with overlapping jurisdictions. She claims not only that in theory polycentric legal orders can better avoid moral disequilibrium due to the possibility of migration, but that actual polycentric legal orders, even within states, provide some empirical evidence for her claims. In response to the charge of utopianism, she claims that she has as much epistemic justification for her view that liberal anarchy perfects an order of public reason as democratic reformers had for their views that liberal democracy perfects an order of public reason when liberal constitutional monarchies appeared to be stable and perhaps even so for the right reasons. Can Gaus rebut this challenge?

(2) OPR carefully dances between ought and is, more carefully perhaps than any other recent work of moral and political philosophy. If anything, the deepest and most novel feature of OPR is its conception of the relation between the descriptive and the prescriptive. In my view, it is this feature of the work that deserves the most careful probing. It is also the feature that I find I understand least. Can anyone state Jerry’s view, even at length?

(3) One matter that Jerry almost entirely sets aside in OPR is how the theory of the good interfaces with social morality. Jerry often discusses the relationship between rules and goals, but this is only a formal description of a concrete problem that Rawls grapples with more directly. Rawls recognizes that citizens often have systematic conceptions of the good. When these conceptions are reasonable they are tests for the legitimacy of a political conception of justice. Jerry agrees that our ideals set the bounds of justified political principles and authority, but is there reason to think that social-moral rules usually come out on top in cases of apparent conflict? Jerry’s answer is that if they didn’t often do so, no social order could exist. Our compliance with social-moral rules goes back deep into our evolutionary history. But why, from the perspective of our various conceptions of the good, should we accept where we have landed in the evolutionary history of our social-moral rules and thus take these rules to be overriding? Jerry admits that the “worry gnaws”: “[H]ave we simply landed in a confused practice that we cannot reason ourselves out of? This may be a recipe for despair rather than contented resignation, much less justification.” (192-3).

I’m not sure Jerry needs to answer this question in order to have generated an adequate theory of public reason. However, the question needs at least one answer, one that some moral philosophy must provide. It is here, in a small nexus in the book, that OPR founders somewhat in its relentless attempt to avoid resting on conceptions of the nature ultimate good and the transcendent in practical moral and political life. This is not to say that OPR is committed to some account, but that it may need to be grounded in some more fundamental account of moral and political ideas.

I do not think that OPR unravels here, merely that we can see why political philosophers may remain dissatisfied with OPR as a complete account of justice. Many will want public reason to silence Jerry’s gnawing worry. A theory of justice should rest on some transcendent grounds.

I think Jerry is fine with OPR not being a complete account of justice. Jerry’s theory need not specify how we render social-moral rules consistent with our conceptions of the good. After all, there surely will not be a single story that we can all accept. In fact, I suspect that Jerry will worry any attempt to give a unified account within political philosophy will bleed over into the sort of totalitarian mindset of the philosopher (and, I think, the theologian) he is concerned to resist.

Perhaps I’m running together two issues-one concerning whether our conceptions of the good trump social-moral rules, the other whether we have reason to endorse where we are. But the question of how present right overrides ideal good is part and parcel of determining whether we should reflectively endorse our present set of social-moral rules. And it is at this point that Jerry thinks his synthesis of Kant and Hume is most promising, as we see the space for a Kantian endorsement of a Humean social system. But it is at this point that one might feel the limits of the synthesis as well. Something in our political world reaches out for the transcendent; most of us want something more.

That said, the book is in my view a grand achievement and a serious advance of liberal political theory. No book need answer all the big questions; this book is impressive precisely because it gives novel and compelling answers to so many of them.

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