Author Archives: Andrew Lister

Vallier Reading Group: Chapter 3

Chapter 2 set out the argument linking public justifiability with restraint, advanced the integrity and fairness objections to restraint, and criticized the stability argument for restraint. Later chapters will attempt to uncouple public justifiability from restraint by arguing for what I think of as an indirect convergence view.

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OPR V.14 Part 3: Resentment / Indignation vs. Authority

I summarized Section 14 in a separate post; here I want to raise a question about the reactive attitudes and authority claims that Gaus argues are essential parts of our ordinary moral practices. For the purposes of this post, I want to accept Gaus’s claim that recognition of sincere and conscientious disagreement has to undermine feelings of resentment and indignation at rule-violations. The question I want to ask is why in identifying the rules of social morality we must assent only to those rules that all members of the partly idealized public have sufficient reason to accept.

A rule that fails to meet this standard will be one that will not support the normal reactive attitudes with respect to all normal moral agents. But so what? Why is it crucial that all normal moral agents be subject to resentment and indignation for rule violations, to the point that it would be preferable not to have a rule at all, than to have a rule that (in virtue of being reasonably rejectable) would fail to license reactive attitudes with respect to even just one normal moral agent? Gaus’s answer, I think, is that our moral practices include not only reactive attitudes such as resentment and indignation, but prescriptions that claim to be authoritative. We express resentment and indignation as a prelude to issuing imperatives. But if someone doesn’t have sufficient reasons to endorse a rule, it would be wrong for us to order them to comply with it, which means that the rule would effectively not apply to them. But then we would not have a common set of rules of social morality; instead, we would have a parcellized set of rules covering the various overlapping bits of conflicting evaluative perspectives. Morality would not fulfill its function.

If this is the argument, I have two doubts. The first is that I’m still not clear that moral practices involve claims to authority, in the specific sense of authority of one person over another, authority to command compliance in face of disagreement, e.g. “Even though you don’t think you should ?, you should still ? simply because I am ordering you to ?.” Moral practice clearly involves expression of reactive attitudes and claims that others should respect the authority of morality, but these claims may simply be epistemic claims about what is right, rather than claims that others should defer to our judgment about what is right.

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OPR V.14 Part 2: Sincerity and Shared Reasons

I summarized Section 14 in a previous post; here I raise some critical points about the question of whether public justifiability should include a shared reasons requirement, and how this relates to sincerity in public deliberation.

Gaus rejects the requirement that deliberators deliberate in terms of shared reasons. To be a bona fide moral rule, a rule must be endorsed by each and every member of the appropriately (i.e. partly) idealized public, each based on the total set of reasons he or she accepts. “Mutual intelligibility” requires only that these personal evaluative standards pass some threshold of plausibility such that they can be generally recognized as genuine moral perspectives. But members of the public will still think that many of the reasons their fellows appeal to are bad reasons. They also think that this use of bad reasons for the assessment of moral rules is appropriate. In intellectual argument each will criticize the other for accepting bad reasons, and argue that others ought to change their views. When it comes to determining what count as valid moral rules, however, everyone accepts that each will assess proposed rules based on his or her own evaluative standards, and that rules will count as valid only if they meet with the unanimous approval from these diverse perspectives.

An alternate view would be that deliberators accept that they are to deliberate only on the basis of the reasons they share. What is wrong with the shared reasons view? Gaus’s answer in Section 14.4 (d) comes in the form of a response to Jon Quong’s argument for the shared reasons view. ((Jonathan Quong, Liberalism Without Perfection, OUP 2010, Chapter 9 “The Scope and Structure of Public Reason”)) Quong’s argument is based on the requirement that public reasoning be sincere. I will explain the dispute, then briefly argue that the underlying issue isn’t really about sincerity.

Insincere deliberation may be justified in some circumstances, but it is pro tanto morally bad because it makes public reasoning into a form of manipulation. If I argue that your beliefs commit you to supporting a particular proposal even when I don’t think they do, then I am not respecting your capacity for rational moral agency; I am treating you as a thing to be moved, not a person to be reasoned with. Conversely, sincerity in public reasoning expresses respect, helping to sustain civic friendship. Quong formulates the idea of sincerity in public justification in terms of three conditions, involving persons A(lf) and B(etty) and a proposal X.

  1. A reasonably believes he is justified in endorsing X,
  2. A reasonably believes that B is justified in endorsing X (…)
  3. A may only… offer arguments in favour of X to B that he reasonably believes B would be justified in accepting. ((Gaus cites the first two of these conditions on 288. All my quotes from Quong are from Chapter 9 of from Liberalism Without Perfection ))

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OPR V.14 Modeling Public Justification

This post provides an overview of Section 14 and explains the relationship of this section with previous sections; I make some critical comments in separate posts linked below. I hope I haven’t gone overboard, in terms of the total length of the posts, but section 14 is important because it lays the groundwork for Jerry’s conception of public justification. At the same time, it is the conclusion of the previous 100 or so pages of argument about the moral emotions. So I want to summarize the main claims of section 14, but also explain how they follow from earlier sections. And of course I have some questions and criticisms.


Section 14 defines the “Basic Principle of Public Justification” (BPPJ) and lays out “the deliberative model” that specifies the principle. The BPPJ provides a necessary condition for a moral imperative to be authoritative. The assumption is that an imperative “?” is made in a particular context C based on a rule L. The condition is (1) that each normal moral agent has sufficient reasons to internalize L and hold that L requires ? in circumstances C, and (2) that moral agents do generally conform to L.

The BPPJ provides a rule-based standard for assessing particular moral demands in context, and so has as one of its components a criterion for determining when a rule counts as a bona fide moral rule; each and every normal moral agent must have sufficient reasons to internalize the rule. The idea of a normal moral agent (NMA) has figured in Gaus’s earlier discussions of moral psychology. A person is a moral agent if they have the capacity to understand and care about following social rules for its own sake; such an agent is normal if they have the cognitive capacities of a fully-functioning but still boundedly-rational human being. Thus some people do not qualify as NMAs, either due to lack of cognitive capacity (young children, severe mental disabilities) or lack of ability to internalize rules (young children, psychopaths). The reasons an NMA “has” are not the reasons there truly are, nor simply the reasons that agent thinks she has. On the one hand, Gaus argues that there is no point in saying that I “have” a reason if it is completely inaccessible to me, given my epistemic situation. On the other hand, he accepts that I have a reason not to cross the bridge in front of me even if I don’t think I have such a reason, if a reasonable amount of investigation and reflection would reveal the bridge to be unsafe (234-6). The reasons a NMA has are thus the reasons she would have if she engaged in a respectable amount of good reasoning based on what she currently believes (summarizing 250). ((For doubts about the idea that we have reasons that we would recognize if we deliberated more, see Alexander Moon’s comment to the previous installment of the discussion group))

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Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’, Chapter 10, ‘Realization, Consequences and Agency’

In this chapter Sen explains in more detail the idea of a “realization-focused” approach to justice.  As discussed in earlier posts, Sen’s book is organized around a contrast between “transcendental institutionalism” and “realization-focused comparison” (p.7).  Earlier chapters dealt with the transcendental – comparative contrast.  This chapter explores the rule – realization contrast.  I will begin by reviewing what the Introduction (Ch.1) had to say about this issue.  Sen’s general point was that justice must be concerned with the lives people end up leading, the experiences and development of capacities that these lives involve, not just the institutions and rules within which people make choices.  He also made two more specific points about this realization-focused approach, one about liberty, the other about responsibility and agency, both of which can be framed as responses to objections.   read more...

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Estlund Reading Group Chapter 5

In the previous chapter, David showed that procedural fairness could not by itself justify democracy. According to “fair proceduralism”, a law that is the outcome of a democratic vote is legitimate because everyone had an equal role in determining the outcome, regardless of whether it is good or just by other standards. Yet since a coin flip also provides equal input, fair proceduralism must incorporate some substantive value, such as the principle that outcomes should be positively sensitive to voter preferences.

Chapter 5 confronts a possible response to this argument, a response based on a partial concession. Yes, we have to appeal to substantive values to justify democracy, but we can do so with respect to the intrinsic characteristics of decision-procedures, without making any claims about their tendency to yield good decisions or (incidentally) to generate other desirable outcomes. We thus avoid any substantive assessment of political decisions / outcomes (except for endorsing the preservation of democracy, which is an outcome, but the outcome that consists in the continued functioning of our intrinsically-valued procedure). David calls this position “intrinsic democratic proceduralism” (86). The chapter criticizes 3 versions of this doctrine: Habermas, Cohen, and Waldron.

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