Vallier Reading Group: Chapter 2

Last week, Micah Schwartzman kicked off our reading group with an excellent discussion of the first chapter of Kevin Vallier’s Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation. I am grateful to Chad Van Schoelandt for the opportunity to add to that discussion in this post. Chapter 2 of Vallier’s book is entitled “The Religious Objections: The Faithful Revolt.” Here Vallier digs deeper into the Principle of Restraint introduced in the first chapter and assesses a trio of religiously motivated objections that have been raised against it. I begin with a brief summary of the main elements of the chapter and then dive into some more critical discussion.

1. Summary

The Master Argument

The analysis of the present chapter, and presumably of much of the manuscript to follow, centers on what Vallier calls the “Master Argument” for restraint. Advocates of restraint need this Master Argument in order to show why their commitments to public justification (as reflected in the Public Justification Principle) imply that citizens ought to practice restraint in their political activities. Without this argument, Vallier suggests that the principle of restraint would appear to be a free-floating curiosity in the public reason liberal view

As Vallier describes it, the Master Argument involves three inferential leaps. The first leap starts with the Public Justification Principle and draws out a requirement that insofar as political arrangements are to be justified to all members of the public, the reasons involved in these justifications are to be shared by all citizens, or at least accessible to them. The second leap starts with this “Accessibility/Shareability Requirement” and draws out a further requirement that when laws are crafted and interpreted, the only reasons to be used in these activities are the ones that are shared by or accessible to all. Finally, the third leap moves from this “Principle of Exclusion” to a requirement that when citizens and officials are engaging in the actual practices of deliberating over and justifying political arrangements in the public arena, the only reasons that are admissible in these practices are the shared or accessible ones picked out in the previous two steps. This last requirement is the Principle of Restraint.

In the text, Vallier represents this Master Argument through a series of hypotheticals:

  1. Public Justification Principle -> Accessibility/Shareability Requirement
  2. Accessibility/Shareability Requirement -> Principle of Exclusion
  3. Principle of Exclusion -> Principle of Restraint

These hypotheticals are taken to show why public reason liberals have traditionally thought that a Principle of Restraint follows from their commitments to the Public Justification Principle.

Varieties of Restraint

With this Master Argument laid out, Vallier observes that liberal theorists have had different ways of understanding the particular kind of restraint mentioned in the argument’s final inference. For Charles Larmore, the requirement that citizens remove their idiosyncratic reasons from politics only applies when citizens confront otherwise irresolvable disagreements and are engaging in public decision-making activities. When citizens are able to reach agreements without resorting to shared/accessible reasons, or when they are simply engaging in what Larmore calls “open discussion,” the requirements of restraint do not apply.

For John Rawls, restraint is interpreted slightly differently. In Rawls’ view, citizens are permitted to introduce their idiosyncratic concerns into public deliberations so long as suitable “public” (i.e., accessible/shareable) reasons are found in due course. Further, even this requirement only applies when citizens are engaging in the practice of justifying policies: when citizens are simply expressing their own personal views, making reference to others’ personal views, or voicing their private dissent from public decisions, inaccessible/unshared reasons may be invoked freely.

Robert Audi provides yet a third interpretation, which is distinguished in part by the fact that Audi does not take himself to be defending public reason liberalism at all. For Audi, restraint demands that citizens have “secular” (i.e., non-religious) rationales available for proposed policies, though they may invoke their idiosyncratic reasons so long as these reasons are not the sole bases for the policies they advocate. Crucially, even this requirement applies only to the imposition of coercive policies: when citizens advocate for the lifting of coercion, Audi believes that they may freely appeal to whatever reasons they find important.

Religious Objections

These various interpretations of the Principle of Restraint help to clarify the targets of the three objections that Vallier considers next. The first objection holds that restraint violates the integrity of religious citizens by asking them to divide their identities between their public and private lives. On this “Integrity Objection,” public reason liberals require citizens of faith to “bracket” their religions from playing a role in deliberations about political matters even though these citizens see their religions as centrally relevant to public affairs. Hence restraint divides religious citizens against themselves, not only imposing psychological hardships on them but also undermining their capacities for “realizing” their citizenship in a meaningful way.

A second objection holds that restraint imposes disproportionate and unfair burdens on citizens of faith by requiring them to carry out public discourse in a manner that is alien to their normal ways of thinking and speaking. This “Fairness Objection” suggests that religious citizens are warranted in feeling resentment due to these unjustified burdens and in therefore rejecting the legitimacy of restraint itself.

Unlike the two objections just described, the third objection Vallier considers is a debunking objection to what he calls the “Argument from Divisiveness.” According to this argument, restraint is justified because of the role it plays in preserving social stability, which is itself necessary for enabling political arrangements to be characterized by the exclusion of idiosyncratic reasons. The “Divisiveness Objection” holds that restraint does not in fact mitigate divisiveness, and that it may in fact generate new kinds of divisiveness. Hence one of the main pillars of support for restraint actually turns out to be a point against it.

Vallier takes these three objections to be powerful reasons for rejecting the Master Argument as he has presented it. This in turn threatens the Public Justification Principle and the project of public reason liberalism as a whole – that is, unless public reason liberals can divorce their theories from restraint and thereby dodge the three religious objections. Vallier thinks that he can do this, and thereby save public reason liberalism from embarrassment. But in doing so, he thinks that he will have to abandon one of the longstanding commitments characteristic of many forms of public reason liberalism, namely the Principle of Restraint.

2. Critique

With the second chapter summarized, I now turn to the task of criticism. In what follows, I focus on two related worries. First, I dispute the notion of “public justification” that Vallier has employed throughout the manuscript so far, suggesting that an alternative interpretation of that concept may provide a more straightforward and compelling justification for restraint than Vallier acknowledges. Second, I argue that the Divisiveness Objection offers not so much an objection to the Principle of Restraint as a clarification of when and how restraint is most appropriately to be utilized. The upshot of these comments is a live possibility that public reason liberals can remain committed to the Principle of Restraint despite the concerns that Vallier raises in this chapter.

The Significance of Publicity

In the first chapter of his book, and again in this second chapter, Vallier articulates the “Public Justification Principle” as follows:

A coercive law L is justified only if each member I of the public P has some sufficient reason(s) Ri to endorse L.

The formulation of this principle is such as to leave open essentially all questions of how justification is to be obtained and how citizens should act in order to properly respect the principle’s importance. There is no direct specification of what reasons can fill the role of R; there is no claim about what kinds of reasons can be used by public officials in crafting or interpreting coercive laws; and there is no requirement that citizens use particular kinds of reasons when deliberating with one another about shared political arrangements. This is why Vallier thinks that the Master Argument is so important: it links the Public Justification Principle with various other commitments that tend to characterize the views of public reason liberals.

Unfortunately, the Master Argument turns out to provide only a weak rationale for the Principle of Restraint – one that is easily dismissed on the grounds that Vallier presents in his chapter. However, it seems to me that this weakness can be attributed to the fact that Vallier’s Public Justification Principle ignores the centrally important notion of “publicity.” In what follows, I will suggest that by incorporating this foundational idea into the notion of Public Justification, public reason liberals can provide a much stronger justification for the Principle of Restraint than Vallier’s Master Argument suggests.

In Political Liberalism, John Rawls contends that the political arrangements of a well-ordered society will be characterized by three levels of publicity (II.4.1). First, citizens accept “public principles of justice,” they know that others likewise accept them, and this mutual knowledge is itself mutually known (and presumably so on down the line). Second, citizens generally agree about certain factual matters on which political arrangements are to be based. Finally, the grounds on which political arrangements are justified are accessible to all citizens.

This Rawlsian demand for publicity highlights an important difference between Vallier’s and Rawls’ views about what it means for a particular political arrangement to be “publicly justified” in the sense relevant for public reason liberalism. On Vallier’s account, a political arrangement is publicly justified only if all citizens independently have sufficient reason to endorse it. On Rawls’ account, an additional requirement is added to the effect that the conditions of publicity must be met with respect to those arrangements. “Public” justification, on this Rawlsian-type account, is robustly “public” in a way that Vallier’s “public” justification is not.

I hesitate to put too much weight on Rawls’ specific formulation of the idea of publicity. But I take it to be an important element of many public reason liberals’ views that policies are not only to be justified to all citizens, but also that the fact of this justification and its basis must be publicly available to all. If this is so, then the implications for the Master Argument seem considerable.

If we take the Public Justification Principle to demand publicity as well as sufficient reasons held by all citizens, then it will seem relatively straightforward that the reasons underlying political arrangements, and used in their construction and interpretation, will need to be accessible/shareable. The leap to a Principle of Restraint will likewise seem straightforward, especially once we acknowledge the difference between the practice of offering “justification” and the variety of other discursive practices (“declaration,” “conjecture,” and “witness”) to which the Principle of Restraint is not taken to apply. If justifications for political arrangements must be “public” in the sense of being characterized by publicity, then invoking controversial considerations in favor of a policy simply would not count as contributing to public justification at all. A speaker invoking such considerations as “justifications” would either be mistaken or trying to pass off a non-public justification as a public one. The Principle of Restraint would simply demand that citizens try to avoid this behavior when possible and to confine themselves to justifications that could actually achieve publicity.

At least intuitively, then, introducing the notion of publicity into the Principle of Public Justification seems to provide a straightforward and compelling explanation for why public reason liberals would embrace restraint on the basis of the Public Justification Principle. Restraint is demanded, on this view, not because it is somehow necessary in order to justify political arrangements to all citizens: rather, it is demanded because it is necessary for the achievement of publicity in the political arena.

This adjustment seems also to provide some ammunition for disputing some of the religious objections voiced in chapter 2. On p. 60, Vallier acknowledges that merely violating a citizen’s integrity by dividing her against herself will not count as an objection to a theory if the theory can provide sufficient justification for demanding that division. Hence a political order that divides mobsters or incompetent judges against themselves and undermines their senses of integrity is not to be ruled out simply in virtue of this fact. Along similar lines, Vallier worries on p. 71 about the disproportionate burdens placed on citizens of faith by the Principle of Restraint because these burdens will give religious citizens sufficient reason to reject the arrangements proposed by public reason liberals. The core of both the Integrity Objection and the Fairness Objection therefore seems to be that public reason liberals simply don’t have any weighty reason for demanding restraint that could appeal to religious citizens.

If we grant that publicity is an important desideratum for political arrangements in a reasonably pluralistic society, then it seems obvious how the public reason liberal could respond to these concerns. Although restraint has the potential to divide citizens against themselves and to impose disproportionate burdens on them, the requirements demanded by the Principle of Restraint might nevertheless be justified in virtue of the importance of publicity in political life. Citizens would have reason to accept the internal divisions and heavy burdens implied by the Principle of Restraint because of the role that restraint plays in enabling us to live in a society characterized by publicity. Further, citizens who come to understand the importance of restraint may have little basis for seeing it as dividing their identities or imposing unfair burdens on them: on the contrary, approaching politics in line with restraint may become an expression of their identities and of their commitments to bear appropriate costs in order to live on terms of mutual respect with their neighbors. Once publicity is affirmed as a positive goal for political societies, the Integrity Objection and Fairness Objection seem to fade away.

I am not sure if this line of response works, but it does seem like the sort of thing that might be offered against the worries sketched in this chapter by public reason liberals who prize the Principle of Restraint. Further, the view sketched here seems like arguably a more faithful expression of the standard public reason liberal position than the one that Vallier develops in his chapter. I wonder, then, if Vallier has a view on why this is not a fruitful way to proceed, especially since the chapters to come promise to develop a very different approach to public reason liberalism than I have outlined here. Vallier obviously doesn’t think that restraint is desirable in liberal politics, but I think that his rejection of this idea would be much stronger if he said a bit more about why he doesn’t find considerations relating to publicity to be persuasive.

Dealing with Divisiveness

Up to this point, I have not said much about the Divisiveness Objection, in part because I find the dialectic leading up to it to be difficult to follow and in part because the way that Vallier frames the Argument from Divisiveness does not make clear how it relates to the Master Argument under examination. So let me now see if I can clarify the issue enough to make a plausible objection to Vallier’s discussion of this point.

As Vallier presents it, the Argument from Divisiveness is supposed to link the Principle of Exclusion to the Principle of Restraint. One immediate problem, however, is that Vallier’s reconstruction of the Argument from Divisiveness seems to make no direct reference to the Principle of Exclusion:

(A) A morally responsible citizen won’t engage in divisive activity.
(D) A widespread refusal to comply with X’s principle of restraint is divisive.
(E) Hence, a morally responsible citizen will comply with X’s principle of restraint.

Vallier rightly rejects (A) in the argument above and ultimately concludes that attempts to revise the argument will not succeed. But if the point of the Argument from Divisiveness is to link the Principle of Exclusion to the Principle of Restraint, then (A) seems entirely beside the point. The relevant argument in this context would seem to be something like the following:

(F) A morally responsible citizen won’t engage in activities that undermine the fulfillment of the Principle of Exclusion.
(G) The fulfillment of the Principle of Exclusion will be undermined if citizens engage in divisive activity.
(D) A widespread refusal to comply with X’s principle of restraint is divisive.
(E) Hence, a morally responsible citizen will comply with X’s principle of restraint.

This argument now seems relevant, but it is also unquestionably odd: is it really plausible to think that the reason that we are concerned with divisiveness is that we think that it will undermine the Principle of Exclusion? Throughout his discussion of the Divisiveness Objection, Vallier speaks as if his interlocutors are concerned with the dissolution of liberal society, or with the loss of “stability for the right reasons” (which, I hasten to point out, again seems tied to the idea of publicity). Perhaps, then, it would be more fruitful to think of the Argument from Divisiveness as an independent argument for restraint rather than as an argument for the third premise of the Master Argument as Vallier suggests.

In any case, much of Vallier’s discussion focuses on the empirical dubiousness of something like (D) above. Vallier says that:

The idea that a contemporary liberal democratic order can be undermined if some of its citizens fail to comply with principles of restraint is flatly implausible. Religious conflict can be dangerous, but no empirical evidence demonstrates that restraint helps to prevent it. Religious violence can be explained by other factors, perhaps by states that employ their coercive power to promote religious conversion, to restrict dissent and compel participation in rituals. It is more likely that attempts to co-opt state power to further religious ends produce violence and unrest rather than a failure to engage in religious restraint.

On its face, this is an astonishing claim, and one that ought to have been better documented than the single citation provided in the text. The historical record at least seems quite clear in demonstrating that: a) societies that have been embroiled in sectarian conflict have overcome those conflicts after embracing certain norms of restraint; b) societies have intentionally embraced norms of restraint in response to perceived conflicts between sects, and lower levels of divisiveness have followed; c) members of societies that have embraced norms of restraint appeal to the importance of avoiding sectarian conflict to defend adherence to those norms; and d) there are other areas of life where we know that taking divisive issues off of the table for negotiation can enable processes of deliberation and collective decision-making to go forward. So although none of these claims prove that restraint mitigates divisiveness, it is at least true that restraint correlates with lower divisiveness, that restraint has been prescribed as a solution to divisiveness with desired results, that people who utilize restraint believe that it is responsible for the lower levels of divisiveness that they have experienced, and that similar practices are effective in other domains. All of this is consistent with restraint effectively playing the role of a placebo, of course. But it at least seems to go much too far to say that there is “no empirical evidence” for the “flatly implausible” claim that restraint reduces divisiveness.

On second glance, however, it seems that there is something more to Vallier’s dismissal of the Argument from Divisiveness than this initial assessment would suggest. Notice that Vallier supposes that there is a sharp distinction between the role of religious political advocacy in creating divisiveness and the role of religious cooption of state power in creating divisiveness. It is the latter, Vallier insists, that explains why conflicts have so often accompanied episodes of religious zeal. And it is not completely implausible that if religious advocacy could somehow be divorced from all attempts to coopt state power, then there would be little about religious advocacy in itself that would divide societies along factional lines.

The obvious retort to this point is that it is often difficult to distinguish in practice between religious groups that are merely advocating on the basis of their idiosyncratic beliefs and religious groups that are advocating on the basis of their idiosyncratic beliefs as a prelude to seeking the imposition of publicly unjustified policies. Hence one of the main purposes of norms of restraint, as understood by public reason liberals, has been to provide citizens with an avenue for demonstrating their commitment to public justification and thereby helping to maintain mutual trust among citizens with diverse ideological views. Vallier’s separation of the issue of political cooption from the issue of controversial rhetoric helps to clarify the grounds for demanding restraint, but one might reasonably wonder whether these issues can really be kept separate in a world where controversial rhetoric will often be interpreted as a sign that norms of public justification are about to break down.

To his credit, Vallier addresses this problem of assurance at the very end of his chapter, and I hope that these comments help to make clear why that discussion is so important. But somewhat confusingly, Vallier’s discussion seems to center on the claim that restraint is not sufficient to preempt the breakdown of assurance. This seems to be largely beside the point. The claim that needs to be evaluated is whether restraint is necessary for preventing the breakdown of assurance or, failing that, whether restraint is a worthwhile tool for doing so, perhaps in conjunction with other methods. Vallier plausibly suggests that restraint cannot do the job all on its own, especially if its advocates are comfortable with allowing practices like declaration, conjecture, and witness. But this is not needed for the Argument from Divisiveness to go through: all that must be shown by the advocate of restraint is that restraint plays a critical role in preventing divisiveness in pluralistic societies and that the importance of this role justifies its adoption. As far as I can tell, nothing that Vallier says should lead us to dismiss this claim.

Now, it seems plausible that there will be some scenarios in which restraint will not be needed to prevent a breakdown of mutual assurance. In other scenarios, needed forms of restraint will be limited to particular domains that have proven problematic in the past – citizens may need to avoid political advocacy based on religion, say, but not on perfectionist considerations regarding the importance of musical education. In still other scenarios, restraint will need to be considerably beefed up in order for factional divisions to be preempted – citizens may need to avoid certain kinds of “declaration,” say, in order to prevent misunderstandings from arising. Finally, as the Divisiveness Objection emphasizes, there may turn out to be cases in which restraint actually creates divisiveness, with the implication that it should be avoided in order to prevent factions from emerging. The Argument from Divisiveness will therefore only support restraint of the specific forms that are needed in order to maintain peace among factions, and this may not always line up with the notions of restraint that have been described by public reason liberals.

These observations suggest that if public reason liberals want to justify a principle of restraint like the ones described by Larmore, Rawls, or Audi, then the Argument from Divisiveness will have to play a subsidiary role to other considerations – perhaps including those concerning publicity – in the project of justifying a Principle of Restraint. We can also plausibly say that in some circumstances, the Argument from Divisiveness will suggest practices that are very different from the ones that public reason liberals have historically proposed. But to the extent that we interpret the Divisiveness Objection as establishing only these claims, we see that it provides more of a clarification of how restraint is to be justified and employed than a general criticism of its use.


Glancing at the word count on this post, I can see that I have clearly gone on for much too long. As such, I will conclude these comments by simply thanking Kevin for writing such a thought provoking book. I hope that this post has provided something to chew on as we think through this chapter and prepare to forge onward. But mostly I look forward to the discussion!

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