Tag Archives: Gaus

Vallier Reading Group: Chapter 1

I am happy to begin our reading group on Kevin Vallier’s new book, Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation. My thanks to Chad Van Schoelandt for organizing. In earlier reading groups, we have followed a standard format of summarizing a chapter and then raising some questions about it. In this post, I focus on Chapter 1, Public Reason Liberalism: Religion’s Child and King.


The liberal tradition is often accused of hostility toward religion. Because liberalism places constraints on the role of religious commitments in politics, it may seem to have a “secularist bias.” In this chapter, Vallier seeks to defend liberalism against this charge, or at least against the claim that liberalism is motivated by such bias or hostility. Vallier claims that liberalism has a “schizophrenic attitude” toward religion: on one hand, promoting religious liberty and diversity, but on the other, constraining the influence of religion in the political domain. But this attitude does not reflect hostility so much as a good faith effort to balance religious freedom with the demand for a legitimate and stable public authority. To develop this claim, this chapter describes the “source, ground, and structure of public reason liberalism” (10) and, by extension, the liberal tradition more generally.


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OPR VIII.22: The Authority of the State

Overview of §22

Chapter VIII of Gaus’ book is entitled “The Moral and Political Orders.” Appropriately enough, it takes up the topic of the relationship between the moral and the political order. Section 22 deals with the place of political authority in a broader story about moral authority. Section 23 discusses coercion in relation to moral and political authority.

Section 22 (“The Authority of the State”) begins by contrasting Gaus’ position with that of the social contract tradition. The latter, Gaus argues, holds that “There is no role for social morality as a distinct and independent source of moral authority” (p. 450). In order to reject this position, Gaus examines what he calls the “Comparative Procedural Justification Principle,” which states that “If the Members of the Public have available two procedures for selecting from the optimal eligible set, O and , and is itself publicly justifiable, while O is not, should be employed” (p. 450). This principle is weaker than the Procedural Justification Requirement, which he discusses earlier. The former, unlike the latter, does not demand a uniquely justified optimal principle; it just demands a publicly justifiable principle be used. Gaus agrees that certain institutional arrangements (basically, those of modern representative democracies) may be good ways to protect basic individual rights (p. 452). This is why “Constant included political rights among the rights of the moderns” (p. 452). But this is “insufficient to yield the justification of a system of governance,” because there are many possible institutional arrangements that might accomplish this goal (p. 455). Hence the Comparative Procedural Justification Principle “does not support political authority over informal social authority, for political authority too relies on informal social-moral authority—an evolution of a political-moral culture leading to the selection of one of a wide range of acceptable political systems” (p. 455).

Gaus then investigates the nature of political authority. Following Thomas Christiano, he distinguishes between three different ideas of political authority. The first, which Gaus endorses, recognizes that states have a blameless liberty to coerce people into obeying its rules. There are good reasons why reasonable people would endorse such rules. Any society will possess people who simply do not respond to moral rules (e.g., psychopaths). Such people can respond to strategic incentives, however, and so if the harms that violations of moral rules can produce are to be avoided, then the state ought to have permission to align incentives appropriately (through threats and, presumably, offers; p. 463). Second, the state has the ability to push people (i.e, through incentive alignment) to participate in a particular moral equilibrium. Gaus holds that in doing so, the state is doing more than just providing a focal point upon which people can coordinate. For “the authority of the state allows us to make the implicit claim that should there be controversy or uncertainty about our claim, there is an authoritative answer that we all have reason to endorse”—the answer provided by the state (p. 466). I’m not really clear on what Gaus is driving at here, but it seems to be a second-order claim that the dictates of the state in resolving conflicts about moral equilibria creates a distinct moral reason for endorsing the resolution. It’s not just that the equilibria would in fact be an equilibria, and that it seems to be the one everyone is moving (thanks to the state) to accept. In addition, there is a moral obligation to do what the state says when it tries to do this. Without this additional moral obligation, the state is serving merely as a focal point, for everyone except psychopaths unable to respond to moral reasons. The third notion of authority is the idea that states have a “right to rule” (p. 468). Gaus takes this idea to mean that when states create rules, people have obligations to the states themselves to obey them. Gaus rejects this idea, and claims that whatever obligations people have to obey moral rules is owed to their fellow citizens. This is compatible with my interpretation of Gaus’ second notion of political authority; one can believe both that it is morally wrong not to accept the moral equilibria generated by states, and that if I commit this moral wrong, I am wronging my fellow citizens, not the state itself.

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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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