Religion, Public Reason and Thinking of the Children: Comments on Chapter 7

I am genuinely, truly honored by Harry Brighouse’s comments on the last chapter of my book. Brighouse is one of philosophy’s great theorists of education, and I learned a lot from his remarks. Brighouse’s core worry is that my chapter on religion and public education really has very little to say about the interests of children. And isn’t that an odd oversight on my part?

If I were in the business of offering a general account of the justification of educational institutions, then that would be a severe problem. But given the issues I’m focused on, I think things are more complicated. For starters, within public reason, when we speak of the public justification of laws, it is hard to know how to fit children into that scheme in any direct way. What are children’s’ reasons? And how do we publicly justify law to them?

The rights of children are somewhat challenging for public reason views because public reason liberalism generates rights in line with the “will theory of rights” as opposed to the “interest theory” (a common division among theories of rights). To give a very quick gloss: on the former view, rights are grounded in the reasoning and free agency of rights-holders, whereas on the latter view, rights are grounded in the interests of each person. One common weakness of all will theories is that they have a harder time making sense of children’s rights and the rights of individuals without fully developed rwills. And this is because we have a less clear sense of what their rational wills, well, will or if they have rational wills at all. Moreover, if autonomy in some sense is the ground of rights (as many will theorists believe), then what do we say about humans who lack full autonomy? So on will theories, we have a better idea of how to ground the rights of adults (in their autonomy) than the rights of children. And that’s a potential weakness of the whole public reason approach.

I don’t think the problem is killer. Obviously any adequate theory of rights has to appeal to interests at some point. But if you’re committed to deep respect for diversity, you cannot simply appeal to interests, because the scheme of human interests is a matter of reasonable debate in many cases. In light of this, public reason views attempt to justify rights by appeal to interests at a remove – we must show that those coerced by rights enforcement have sufficient reason to recognize the interests in question as interests as needing rights-grade protection.

In the case of religion and public reason, this is hard because the standard cases depend on controversial accounts of interests. This is because the parties to the dispute, despite agreeing on a great deal of claims about the interests of children, disagree deeply, even radically, about the interests at stake in public education. As I describe in the book, Alvin (a conservative Christian parent) and Dan (a secular progressive parent) have different attitudes to religion and, accordingly, have different accounts of the interests of children. Alvin cares most about the eternal salvation of children, whereas Dan cares more about the interests of children in a limited, finite life. Further, Alvin thinks God exists and that following God’s will is the greatest good that children can realize. But Dan doesn’t believe God exists and thinks that scientific exploration is among the greatest of all human goods. So when they advocate contradictory laws, they both sincerely believe that they act in the interests of all children in their schools.

Since this is the conflict I want to solve, we face a problem: appealing to the interests of children won’t resolve the disputes about the role of religion in public education because the parties have different views about these interests. Instead, public reason accounts, as I argue throughout the book, can only respectfully and morally resolve legal and political conflict with legal regimes that all can endorse from multiple points of view. And that regime, I argue, is likely a system of school choice where Alvin and Dan both elect to forgo attempting to violate their respective wills with respect to their own children in exchange for the free choice to education their own children as they please.

The second issue Harry raises is almost as important: surely we can agree that children have an interest in encountering diversity. I’ve talked with Harry about this at some length and he is critical of both secular and religious parents who insulate their children from challenges to their views. This is a common criticism of religious parents, but a much less common criticism of secular parents. Because on Harry’s view, children have an interest in encountering diversity and developing their ability to think for themselves in important ways, attempts to insulate children from diversity, including spiritual diversity, is problematic. Since the consensus conception of public reason tends towards secularization, Harry worries that it overly restricts religious influences. And since the convergence conception of public reason permits self-segregation among religious parents, Harry worries that it potentially insults everyone from religious influences. As Harry says,

So in both systems we can expect that children of devoutly religious parents will, for the most part be attending schools where children of secular parents will not encounter them; all very well and good for those secular parents who are not interested in fostering their children’s independent judgment, but bad for their children, who need to encounter devout, seriously held, religious beliefs and practices embodied in their peers.  This is convenient for secular parents who want their children to be untainted by contact with religion (I know too many of those); but not good for anybody’s children.

So Harry advocates building religious schools into the public education system, as is frequently the case in countries other than the US (like Canada). Harry thinks that doing so has beneficial effects, such as helping to “moderate the materialist values that prevail in the US system.” Harry recognizes the constitutional barriers to this sort of system in the US, and in fact laments the way that the SCOTUS has interpreted the Establishment Clause so as to ban it.

Harry also speculates that if religious schools were so incorporated, most religious parents would be pretty happy and would do more to support the present public education system, and that, he thinks, would be a very good thing.

I admire Harry’s independent streak. It is one reason I have always found his work provocative and attractive, but the defense smacks too much of liberal perfectionism, where it is the job of the state to promote the true interests of all. I think most parents would agree that it is good for their children to encounter diversity in their education. But it is much more controversial whether the value of encountering diversity is sufficiently weighty to override the sorts of concerns that publicly justify a school choice system. Let’s suppose that Alvin and Dan support having their children encounter diversity but they care more about ensuring that their children have respectable beliefs on critically important evaluative matters. Alvin wants his children to be Christians and Dan wants his children to be atheists. Perhaps they worry that encountering too much diversity in the public school system could lead their children to water down their beliefs out of peer pressure and being subject to untoward influences. In that case, it is hard to see how many laws that compel Alvin and Dan to have their children encounter spiritual diversity could be publicly justified to them (Harry did not advocate coercive laws; however, he does suggest publicly funding religious schools, which is a form of secondary coercion – using coercively procured funds in ways that the taxed strongly oppose).

Perhaps there is a good liberal perfectionist argument that Alvin and Dan should not be permitted to have their way. But if we assume that public reason liberalism is true, it is hard to see how their demands are unreasonable. After all, they do care about diversity. They just care more about other things.

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