Publicity, Divisiveness and Restraint: Comments on Chapter 2

Let me begin by thanking Danny for commenting on my work. Danny and I overlapped in graduate school for three years, and he’s offered perceptive comments on my work ever since. So I’m especially grateful to him for his lengthy engagement with my work.

Danny has two big concerns about the second chapter of my book: (i) that we might ground restraint in the value of publicity and (ii) that my objection to divisiveness-based arguments for restraint is unsuccessful. Together, (i) and (ii) may vindicate restraint despite the objections in the chapter.

A quick note before I begin my replies. Even if Danny’s objections are successful and restraining divisiveness and promoting publicity both support restraint, restraint is not thereby vindicated (and Danny does not say as much). Just to be clear: to vindicate restraint, we must show that both objections override the integrity and fairness objections. We do not yet have an argument for that position.

I. Publicity

All public reason liberals value publicity, the social state where the rationales for state coercion, power and laws are publicly known and recognized. That includes me. But unlike Danny, I do not think publicity-based arguments provide an independent argument for restraint but rather an argument that we should adopt an accessibility or shareability requirement on justificatory reasons based on a generic commitment to public justification. I spend time in Chapter 4 rebutting the case for these requirements, and there I discuss whether a publicity grounding of a shared reason requirement is successful (p. 110, p. 123). But we’re not to chapter 4 just yet.

But that aside, Danny’s publicity-based case for restraint goes as follows:

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.

Danny’s argument assumes that publicity could support restraint by supporting shareability and accessibility requirements (though you can adopt restraint without the requirements and adopt the requirements without restraint). But I can’t see how this argument works. The question of whether publicity supports restraint is derivative from which sort of reasons we want to make public. If we think the reasons that justify coercion must be shared, then we will want shared reasons to be public. But if we think the reasons that justify coercion need merely be intelligible, then we will want intelligible reasons to be public. So a publicity-based grounding of restraint must have already settled on a criterion of justificatory reasons. Accordingly, it is hard to see how we can get from publicity to a conception of justificatory reasons, and then from there to restraint.

I think Danny is incorrect because he’s not making a distinction that almost no one else makes either. There is a difference between whether a reason is publicly recognized as a reason and whether that reason is publicly recognized as a reason for everyone. These are not the same thing. We could see value in making arguments public that we reject but that others accept. So supporting publicity is not the same thing as supporting shared or accessible reasons requirements. As a result, I can’t see a clear move from a concern with publicity to a conception of justificatory reasons.

Now, Danny could claim that while operating under a shared reasons requirement, we might find publicity easier to realize, given that it may be less difficult to publicize arguments everyone already accepts. But even so, we already need to know what sorts of reasons we want to make public.

In this case, it is difficult to see how publicity considerations could support restraint, much less override the integrity and fairness objections.

In my view, the only way publicity supports restraint is by supporting a shared reasons requirement, and then adding an argument for the third premise of the Master Argument. But we’ll see in Chapter 4 that this doesn’t work.

II. Divisiveness

One of the more confusing parts of the public reason literature are the hand-wavy attempts to vindicate restraint on the grounds that keeping private reasons private reduces social divisiveness. What is not clear in the literature is why divisiveness is a problem. Typically liberal theorists prize rigorous disagreement and think divisiveness is sometimes a political necessity for realizing justice. So what sort of divisiveness is problematic? And why is it problematic?

The argument seems to be that the use of religious reasons, by being divisive, undermines social stability in some sense. I distinguish between an empirical conception of stability and a normative conception of stability in order to clarify which form of stability is at issue. The divisiveness argument supports restraint either because restraint produces real-world political stability or because it supports stability for the right reasons. I argue that both arguments for restraint fail, and I call my objection to these arguments the divisiveness objection, as it responds to divisiveness arguments (I think another name for the objection might have been clearer, like “the objection to divisiveness arguments” but that was too unwieldy).

I interpret the argument from divisiveness for restraint as a defense of the third premise of the Master Argument (connecting exclusion to restraint). That is, I understand it as an argument that restraint will help political order be based on genuinely normative considerations, like good public reasons. If restraint helps exclude dangerous, destabilizing arguments and reasons from entering into the political process, then presumably it will tamp down on both empirical and normative instabilities.

Danny notes, fairly, that it seems like divisiveness is an independent argument for restraint. And I admit that treating the argument from divisiveness as part of the Master Argument might feel like a stretch. But we need to explain why public reason liberals are concerned with divisiveness and if divisiveness has no negative impact on the quality of public justification and does not undermine publicly justified law, it is not clear why public reason liberals should care about it. Perhaps instability of some sort is just plain bad, but what would explain what it is bad on public reason liberalism is that it would undermine a publicly justified order which, in virtue of being publicly justified, will be stable both empirically and normatively.

Danny next turns to a rather hard-hitting criticism of my use of the divisiveness objection. I claim that there is no empirical evidence that a failure to comply with principles of restraint in the literature (or principles similar to them) will help prevent religious conflict and violence. I suggest instead that the religious violence that is sometimes blamed on a lack of restraint is caused by other factors, such as attempts by religious groups to co-opt state power to use for their own ends.

Danny thinks my claim is “astonishing” and severely underdocumented (though the documentation I reference is an extensive attempt to address the empirical claim). Danny thinks 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. 

I think what Danny misses is that I’m critiquing divisiveness arguments for principles of restraint in the literature, not any sort of deliberative restraint at all in any context. It may well be that discussing religion at certain times and in certain contexts rather than others has helped to reduce conflict and violence, but the even the empirical evidence even for this claim is feeble, despite the presence of a weak correlation. What we lack any evidence for is that the principles of restraint defended by public reason liberals have played a role in reducing divisiveness on net. 

This may come as a surprise to readers, but I agree that much of what has been accomplished by way of increased stability is at least connected to repressing certain kinds of religious talk. But the form of restraint that has historically done so are norms that prevent people from talking about religious issues with just about anybody ever. We have strong social norms against talking about religion with people we don’t know. I think these norms may have benefits, but they have also been destructive in various ways (a la Mill, people don’t know what they believe or why in many cases). But that’s not the sort of restraint public reason liberals are focused on.

 III. Addendum on Assurance Mechanisms 

Danny worries that my and John Thrasher’s game theoretic analysis of restraint’s role in generating stability for the right reasons does not show that restraint is unnecessary to promote assurance. All we show, Danny claims, is that restraint is not sufficient to generate stability. But here I think Danny misses the structure of the dialectic. Justifying restraint requires showing that it has a concrete benefit. Otherwise, it is pointlessly illiberal to restrict public discourse. If we can show that restraint does not promote stability for the right reasons or even clearly contribute to it, then this would show that one reason to support restraint (the promotion of stability for the right reasons) fails. Thrasher and I argue that the use of public reasons does not reliably contribute to assurance due to the phenomena of cheap talk and informational drift. Since it does not contribute, then the stability-for-the-right-reasons basis for restraint fails.

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6 Responses to Publicity, Divisiveness and Restraint: Comments on Chapter 2

  1. Another way of putting Kevin’s response to the publicity argument for restraint would be to say that it assumes restraint rather than justifying it. I think the natural way to read Rawls’s publicity condition is as requiring that both principles and “the grounds”; for principles be common knowledge (as well as the fact of our society satisfying these principles). In other words, publicity amounts to common knowledge that our society satisfies principles that we all share on the same grounds. But if that’s what publicity means, then it assumes a shared reasons requirement rather than justifying it. In principle, it might be common knowledge that people accept the same principles for different reasons (or at least roughly the same principles, or some set of basic principles – attenuate as you will).

    Kevin may be underestimating the difficulty of realizing publicity in a convergence framework, however. If we have a shared reasons constraint, then publicity involves common knowledge that political arrangements are justified (as good enough or better than nothing, not necessarily as best) on the balance of reasons that are shared by reasonable or otherwise qualified points of view. For each point of view, the set of shared or public reasons is smaller than the total set of reasons that point of view accepts. In contrast, in a convergence framework what has to be common knowledge is that political arrangements are justified according to each qualified point of view’s total balance of reasons (by which I mean, for each point of view, the balance of all the reasons it accepts, public and nonpublic). If it is meant to be common knowledge why each point of view accepts political arrangements, not just that it does, that’s going to be a hard standard to meet.

    There remains the question of why publicity is valuable, and how important that value is as compared to integrity and fairness, if as Kevin argues those values tell against public reason.

  2. Danny Shahar says:

    Thanks to both Kevin and Andrew for these helpful replies. I should also thank Chad for some valuable discussion around the office yesterday. I want to try to push back a bit on few counts, mostly to see if I understand what’s going on. But for now, I’ll limit myself to the issue of publicity and take up the other issues in additional comments later on.

    Let me start by saying that if “publicity” just means that we all know why political arrangements are justified to everyone, then I agree that we aren’t going to get a shared reasons account without building in further baggage. A convergence account like the one that Kevin develops will obviously be able to achieve justification of that sort and it’s hard to see why practices of restraint would be pivotal in making that achievement a matter of public knowledge. So up to that point, I’m with Kevin in lockstep.

    But I take it that — at least for Rawls — the goal is not just to achieve justification to each citizen and to have this fact be known. Part of what Rawls is after is a justification for political arrangements that can be described as “the official justification,” or the “public’s” justification. So you might imagine that a foreign national visits our country and asks, “Why is law L justified?” It seems like Rawls wants us to be able to offer some set of reasons, “Ri,” where that same answer could be given by all citizens with the knowledge that other citizens would agree. Along the same lines, we would want to be able to explain to a young child why the political arrangements of our society are justified, and we’d want her school teacher to be able to tell her the same story without knowing anything about her developing beliefs or those of her family. Likewise, we’d want to be able to publish civics textbooks that explain the rationales underlying our institutions with confidence that those explanations would be broadly acceptable. And so on and so forth.

    In order to have public justifications like these, it looks like we end up with something like a shared reasons requirement, but not because there’s anything special about sharing reasons. The fact that public justifications would need to rely on shared reasons would follow simply from their function of enabling citizens to say what “the official justification” is for a particular policy without simply reporting why they personally embrace it or why other people do. In other words, if a civics textbook is going to report why a policy is justified, and if we think that its report should be acceptable to all citizens, then it seems like the reasons the textbook uses will have to be shared reasons as a matter of course.

    Now, it seems important to stress that one thing that the civics textbook could report is something like this: “Law L is justified because citizens with diverse beliefs and evaluative standards have achieved stable convergence on the acceptability of L from within their respective worldviews.” If every citizen could accept that L is justified in virtue of convergence obtaining, then such a justification would seem perfectly acceptable from the standpoint of the sort of publicity I’m talking about. But note that “the justification” for L would not be {the particular reasons that each citizen accepts in favor of L}: “the justification” for L would be the fact of convergence itself. So if the textbook said, “Policy L is justified because it is supported by Leviticus, because it is conducive to the maintenance of biodiversity, and because it lines up with the traditions of the Bengali community of Scottsdale,” then we would rightly say that the textbook was talking nonsense. On the other hand, if the textbook said, “Policy L is justified because it manages in various ways to win the endorsement of the Christians, environmentalists, and traditional Bengalis who are affected by it,” then this would be perfectly appropriate. But this, we should note, is a reason that all can accept.

    So if there’s a question in here, I guess it’s this: Does the sort of “publicity” that I’ve been describing get lost in the sort of account that Kevin is developing in the book? And if so, does it matter?

    • Thanks for the comments, both Danny and Andrew. I like Andrew’s way of putting things. In response to Danny, my main thought is this: a shared reasons requirement is a prohibition on using unshared reasons in certain ways in political contexts of a certain sort. A convergence view permits the use of unshared reasons, but it still permits the use of shared reasons. So the question is what of publicity is lost by *permitting* the use of unshared reasons? The convergence view can appeal to *all* shared reasons. I think you have to argue that permitting unshared reasons will somehow thwart publicity or undermine it or set it back in some important ways, but what would that argument be? I’m not saying you can’t construct one, but that’s how I’d reply.

  3. I think the question of whether publicity “gets lost” in Kevin’s account is important. It arises both with respect to the convergence aspect of the view, and the indirect aspect of the view (the idea that best means to attaining publicly justified laws might not be to restrict our deliberations by a norm of public reason). What you’re describing is a situation in which at least on some matters, we know at least in general terms what we think – why we’ve chosen this policy over that one. It would be naive to hope for anything very elaborate or robust, along these lines, and no doubt Rawls is too idealistic, but should we abandon the aspiration itself, and if not why not.

    About this last bit:

    “On the other hand, if the textbook said, “Policy L is justified because it manages in various ways to win the endorsement of the Christians, environmentalists, and traditional Bengalis who are affected by it,” then this would be perfectly appropriate. But this, we should note, is a reason that all can accept.”

    I think that depends whether acceptance of the principle of public justification is itself a criterion of qualification. Someone could be quite reasonable in the ordinary, non-technical sense and still think that that correctness is the only relevant standard, i.e that acceptability to other views (many of them false) is irrelevant. Pick your favourite critic of public reason, here. They might accept that endorsement from diverse perspectives is a good thing, if you can get it, but not that the lack of such endorsement should necessarily restrict our political decision-making.

  4. Danny Shahar says:

    Just to stick with the same example, suppose that a civics textbook author wrote: “The property institutions of the United States are justified because of the way that they facilitate our pursuits of our own projects, protect us in our private affairs, and line up with the core traditions of the Creek people.” Ignoring the possibility that the first two reasons might be controversial, I suspect that most people would think that the textbook author had done something strange and probably inappropriate in invoking the traditions of the Creek in the context of reporting “the American line” on why our property institutions are legitimate. The point is not that the author would have thwarted or undermined anything that we care about. Rather, the author would have simply failed to give a properly formed “public” explanation of why our property institutions are justified. It’s important to stress that this is not because Creek reasons are somehow second class, or are somehow pernicious in the context of public discourse; it’s just that they are not the *sorts* of reasons that can count in fully “public” justifications (i.e., justifications that could be offered as “the public’s justifications”). So the idea is not that unshared reasons are somehow taboo: rather, it’s that unshared reasons simply don’t count as constituting “public reasons,” and so can’t make up our “public justifications” for shared political arrangements.

    • Danny Shahar says:

      (Oops — that last comment was for Kevin’s response, not Andrew’s.)

      On Andrew’s point, I think I agree that there’s a potential problem if people wouldn’t generally accept the fact of convergence as a justification for a policy. If that were the case, then that would seem to highlight to gap between my publicity-laden notion of public justification and Kevin’s. On the view I’m describing, it would count against the claim that “public” justification had been achieved through convergence if it turned out that lots of people considered convergence to be inadequate as justification for a policy. In that case, some other justification would be needed — e.g., “The theories of the good that our best theorists affirm have been satisfied and everyone else is on board for their own reasons, so we’ve achieved a miraculous sort of convergence that leaves no one unsatisfied.”

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