Public Justification, Authority and Coercion: Comments on Chapter 1

I want to begin by again thanking Chad for putting this group together and to all the participants, especially Micah for his excellent summary and questions of Chapter 1 of my book. I didn’t see a way to answer his discussion questions in a unified fashion, so I’m largely going to respond point by point. Since question 5 generated discussion, I’m going to lead with it. Here’s Micah’s:

Why is PJP limited to coercive laws? Are there any laws that are not coercive? I ask that question because Vallier mentions Rawls’s view that “political power is always coercive power.” If that is the case, one might argue that all laws are the product of exercises of political power, and so they are, at some level, always coercive. But I am not sure whether Vallier wants to extend the scope of the principle that far. For example, what about a law that calls on public officials to exhort their fellow citizens in support of Christianity? Suppose the law explicitly disclaims any sanction. No one who violates it can be punished by the state in any way. Would this law require public justification? (For other examples, see Colin Bird’s recent paper, Coercion and Public Justification.)

So several issues arise here. First, I do think that basically all laws are coercive and in virtue of that fact require public justification. But insofar as the laws that are not coercive attempt to be authoritative in generating duties to comply with the law, they also stand in need of justification. And this is because the ultimate thing that requires justification is a kind of moral authority.

And in fact, on pg. 26 and note 61, I explain this a bit. But let me elaborate.

As Chad and Andrew Lister discuss in the comments, I actually do say that it is ultimately moral authority that must be publicly justified, and the reason coercion must be publicly justified is because there is an already justified presumption against coercion that can be met with a public justification. I’m following Jerry Gaus’s discussion of the justification of authority and coercion in The Order of Public Reason here. However, I started writing the book before I began to believe that the public justification of moral authority is foundational to public reason. Chad and Jerry convinced me of this along the way, which is why the issue is largely addressed in a footnote. But I do acknowledge the challenge: public reason liberals need a better explanation for why they are committed to the public justification of coercion, and that explanation runs through the public justification of authority.

What this means, in response to Andrew’s worry in the comments, is that if we didn’t care about moral authority then we would lack sufficient motivation to care about the public justification of moral authority. But I think the drive for moral relations with others requires moral authority, and an analysis of moral authority suggests that it must be partly justified in terms of the reasons that others can come to rationally appreciate.

However, you can still reasonably ask why moral authority is all that important in comparison to other values. Why not prioritize the authentic good, moral authority be damned? Gaus’s answer is that we’re already deeply committed to realizing relations of moral authority, though in a recent paper I argue it’s not entirely clear why. The answer is something to the effect that it is necessary to realize lots of valuable features of relationships, like love and friendship, but here Gaus just cites his discussion of love and friendship from Value and Justification (now 25 years old) and he doesn’t indicate how they’re connected. I’m dedicated to providing a more detailed answer eventually. And to lay my cards on the table, the only story I know how to tell is partly theological (as my paper indicates; feel free to ask me for it if you’re interested).

Now on to Micah’s other four questions. I have quick answers to questions 1 and 2. Question 1:

This chapter contains a lot of stage setting, and I expect that some readers will want to argue (or quibble) with Vallier’s description of “public reason liberalism,” the Public Justification Principle, the Liberty Principle, and the account of the values that motivate a commitment to public reason. I have some questions along these lines as well and include a couple of them below. But stepping back for a moment, the chapter is framed as a response to the charge that liberalism is hostile to religion. Vallier addresses that objection by arguing that liberalism’s approach to religion is “well-motivated by [its] foundational values and theoretical framework.” But I suppose a religious critic might reply that the charge of hostility is not about motivation. The problem isn’t that liberals are acting from animus or bias. Even if they are well motivated, the principles they support have the effect of excluding religion. And it is that effect which is the source of the objection. So arguing that liberals restrict religion for the best of reasons (as they understand them) doesn’t seem fully responsive. Maybe that is just the point, given that this chapter is a prelude to an attack on the principle of restraint. But perhaps it would help to sharpen the initial objection by describing more precisely how liberalism is (purportedly) hostile to religion.

A: I address a number of these issues in Chapter 2. The goal of Chapter 1 is to get the religious critic to see what liberals are actually after, as many see liberalism as essentially a smokescreen for secular authoritarianism. I’m trying to get both sides to take the concerns of the other side seriously by outlining key motivations.

Question 2:

A related question is: When does Locke get to stop replying to Proast? After 325 years of argument about this, why should liberals be so concerned about the charge of religious hostility? As Vallier writes, “liberals have not always handled themselves with grace in response. Many insist that their critics are simply chafing under the restraints liberalism imposes on their authoritarian and unreasonable impulse” (10). But lack of grace doesn’t make their response mistaken. If the liberal tradition has been largely successful in ameliorating or preventing religious conflict over time, why not take that as a reason to discount the objection? Of course, there might still be particular instances of hostility that should be addressed. In legal parlance, liberals might worry about “as-applied” challenges, while rejecting “facial” or general objections to their approach to the role of religion in politics. But then maybe the answer here is just that it is part of the liberal tradition to worry about general objections of this kind? Locke never gets to stop replying (after all, he died in the middle of writing A Fourth Letter for Toleration). That’s part of what makes him a liberal.

A: In Chapters 2 and 3 I try to show that liberals, at least in the social contract and public reason variants, care about preserving integrity and respecting diversity, which will be enough to drive the argument of the book.

My answer to question 3 is more detailed. Question 3:

The two halves of this chapter raise an interesting contrast between classical social contrast theorists and contemporary political (and justificatory) liberals. Whereas Hobbes and Locke engaged in both political and theological arguments to support their theories, liberals today tend to avoid the latter, though there are notable exceptions. I wonder whether Vallier thinks that this aspect of the liberal tradition is largely lost, or whether it has some prospects for recovery under his conception of public reason liberalism. Is all the revision and development to be done on the side of liberalism, or is there a continuing role for theological argument (perhaps in the form of what Rawls describes as “reasoning from conjecture”)?

A: I think the liberal tradition has largely followed Rawls in the last few decades in leaving to each person or group the job of working out the full justification of a conception of justice. Political liberals have largely given up the project of showing why people’s comprehensive doctrines are committed to or open to liberal principles and laws. This is partly because they have their own secular liberal, probably Kantian, story, and few liberal theorists are religious. Most just assume that Protestantism, Catholicism (at least since Vatican II) and Judaism are obviously compatible with liberalism, but some have written on the question of liberalism and Islam as of late (Andrew March, Lucas Swaine).

But I don’t think the work of reconciliation is so obvious and I think this is why anti-liberal theologians are so popular in Christian circles today (Alasdair MacIntyre, influential though he’s a philosopher, John Milbank, Stanley Hauerwas). Liberals should never have given up the project. That’s why the work of political theologians like John Courtney Murray is so interesting to me (Murray helped convince the Catholic hierarchy to embrace a right of religious freedom). And it is why I think Nick Wolterstorff’s recent work on this is so important (see his new book The Mighty and the Almighty).

So maybe it doesn’t have to be part of liberal political theory proper to show that, say, Christianity and liberalism are compatible, but it is surely something some political philosophers should care about enough to write on.

Eventually I want to write something on this myself.

Finally, question 4:

In describing the four tensions within liberalism, Vallier says that public reason liberals believe that (1) “religious citizens are rationally committed to transcending their religious commitments” and (4) “rationally committed to a secular public sphere.” But political liberals might resist this description of their views. First, they aren’t claiming that religious citizens are rationally committed. It is up to individual citizens to determine whether it is rational for them to support liberal principles. What political liberals are saying is that if religious citizens are reasonable, then they will justify their political demands by appealing to public reasons. Second, reasonableness might not require religious citizens to “transcend” their religious views or give priority to public reason. It is possible that their religious views will support a commitment to public reason, in which case there is no need for transcendence or prioritization. Putting these points more generally, two of the tensions that Vallier identifies seem to presuppose a more aggressive theory about the convergence of rationality and reasonableness than the one adopted within political liberalism.

A: I think reasonableness must contain some minimal requirement of rationality. It is not clear to me how to call a view reasonable if it has no epistemic credence, or how we can call a person reasonable in virtue of holding a view with absolutely no epistemic credentials (here I think I disagree with both Nussbaum and Quong). So what liberals want (or should want), in virtue of showing liberal institutions to be reasonable, is to show that religious citizens have sufficient reason to comply with them.

As for transcendence, that is basically what I take the consensus model of public reasoning to require: you set aside your religious reasons and focus on shared reasons; you take a public point of view (in part for reasons discussed in chapters 2 and 4). I oppose that approach, but I think it is a fair characterization of the mainline position.

Again, I’m grateful to Micah for his post and for Chad and Andrew’s comments.

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9 Responses to Public Justification, Authority and Coercion: Comments on Chapter 1

  1. Just a quick reply on the last point about reasonableness. If you’re sketching a general characterization of public reason liberalism, it seems like a problem that your account doesn’t capture Rawls’s view, which people like Quong and Nussbaum are following. They want to distinguish between rationality and reasonableness, and that distinction is important to the architecture of their positions. That you deny is equally important to yours. But then we don’t have a general characterization of a family, but more like two competing accounts that diverge on something rather basic to the theories.

  2. I think you still draw the distinction. Rationality and reasonableness are both capacities of persons, but being reasonable does require that your reasoning have at least some epistemic credentials, such as that it not be obviously contradictory or insane. I take the capacity to be rational as built around choosing and acting upon a conception of the good, choosing final ends, ordering them, etc. So its more like practical rationality, whereas I’m claiming that reasonableness has a component that requires some epistemic rationality. To sever epistemic rationality from reasonableness seems to me to have bizarre consequences, such as that someone could engage in an exercise of her capacity to be reasonable that is completely irrational, epistemically unjustified, defeated, etc.

  3. I agree that there is an aspect of epistemic rationality in public justification (appeals to common modes of reasoning, etc.), but your claim in the text suggests an appeal to practical rationality. To show that religious people are committed in the ways you discuss (e.g., to transcendence of their religious commitments) requires going beyond the aspect of epistemic rationality that might be part of our conception of reasonableness. Otherwise, we’re not aiming for congruence but something else. Or maybe I’ve missed something here?

  4. I don’t think I understood that part of Gaus, when I read it. If I’ve got it now, the argument is this:
    1. Claims to authority must be publicly justified.
    2. All moral claims involve claims to authority.
    3. Hence all moral claims must be publicly justified.
    4. The first moral claim that is publicly justified is that there is a presumption in favour of liberty, against coerion, which can only be defeated by public justification.

    If that’s the argument, I’m not sure you should concede to Chad, in that footnote that coercion without an authority claim doesn’t require public justification. The argument above suggests that it does. The first publicly justified moral claim is that coercion requires public justification, for Gaus, not that coercion+authority requires justification.

    Is the idea supposed to be that only moral claims on *others* need public justification, but that otherwise I can do whatever I think right? That would be a modification of premise 2. Moral claims on others require public justification, but my own conduct need not be publicly justifiable even if I’m coercing others; it’s only if I claim authority to command others that the principle kicks in. So: I can *threaten* you to get you to pray to my God, without public justification, I just cant *order* you to pray to my God (without public justification). That doesn’t seem right.

    I know this isn’t the main issue in the chapter, I’m just interested in the question of what kind of a principle public reason is supposed to be – what it’s relationships are with justice, legitimacy, authority, and obligation and do on.

    • I think the argument involves your proposed modification to premise 2. It’s all moral claims made on others to abide by your interpretation of moral requirements. You’re bound instead by your own values and ideals. Jerry doesn’t spend much time on the other half of Strawson’s “Social Morality and Individual Ideal” distinction.

    • Fabian Wendt says:

      At first sight, it seems that publicly justifying coercive laws (p.24) and publicly justifying claims to authority (p. 26, 41) are completely different things. Claims to authority are made by persons or institutions (not by laws), and only persons or institutions can have liberty-rights and claim-rights (laws, of course, do not have rights). But here’s a suggestion how publicly justifying coercive laws might nonetheless imply publicly justifying claims to authority: To publicly justify coercive laws implies showing that the state has a liberty-right to enact and enforce them (and, according to Kevin – p. 26 -, also a claim-right to have these laws respected). If this is how publicly justifying coercive laws and publicly justifying claims to authority connect, then there cannot be any coercive laws that need not be publicly justified, because the state needs a liberty-right to enact and enforce them and a claim-right to have the laws respected (which is a claim to authority that has to be publicly justified). Does that make sense? And could it be a response to Andrew’s question/worry that we could “evade the demand for public justification simply by withdrawing our claim of authority” (previous thread)?

      A second comment: Authority may require more than mere liberty-rights (to enact and enforce laws), but less than claim-rights (to have these laws respected): it may require powers to impose duties (to respect enacted laws).

  5. Lori Watson says:

    Hello, all.
    Interesting discussion so far!
    I want to weigh in with two concerns.
    1. I wonder whether Kevin overstates concern over the role of religious belief by employing the notion of “privatization.” Its true that on consensus models that rely on sharability, and some versions of accessibility, religious claims and beliefs can’t play a justificatory role in public reason, but that isn’t the same as pushing religion into a guarded “private” realm. Religion and religious practices, beliefs, etc. are still granted wide publicity, as it were through the background culture, and given that we protect freedom of expression generally. So, religious persons are free to advocate for their full version of the truth in religious terms throughout the background culture (the public). The restraint is limited to justifying coercion over others who don’t share their beliefs. Its true that in Kevin’s view many religious proposals won’t end up being justified because others will have defeaters;however, might we not think that offering up as a public reason–as justification–to another citizen based on beliefs that they reject and may be possibly offensive to them is disrespectful?
    2. My second concern is whether the pluralism that Kevin thinks needs to be respected/protected is, in fact, a reasonable pluralism. If I am reading Kevin correctly, he argues that
    (a) humans have natural freedom (and equality),
    (b) that natural freedom will lead to pluralism about truth, values, etc.
    (c) a PJP is a way of justifying coercion consistent with such natural freedom and equality because each person must see a Law as being justified with sufficient reasons (from within their own value system).
    In contrast, Rawls’s account of reasonable pluralism is specifically about how “reasonable” pluralism arises under liberal institutions (in a well-ordered society). Here I am thinking of Quong’s distinction as to whether to read Political Liberalism as responding to a problem internal to liberal theory or as providing an external justification of liberalism. Quong argues the best reading of Rawls is the former (internalist reading) and I agree. But, Kevin’s account seems to start from our natural freedom, not our freedom under liberal institutions. So, my question is whether he is concerned about reasonable pluralism (and if so, what is the account of reasonable pluralism?) or pluralism per se? If the latter, should we worry about public justification to/for the unreasonable, who would dominate or overthrow us if they could? And if not, how do you exclude them?

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