Tag Archives: Reading Group

Brettschneider Response to Quong on the Introduction and Chapter One of When the State Speaks

I would like to begin by thanking the contributors to Public Reason symposium for such careful summaries of the book and such thoughtful and probing questions. The discussions in the comments section have also been terrific and I am grateful to all who participated. I will begin to post responses now to participants, beginning with Jon Quong’s eloquent and lucid remarks on the introduction and chapter one of When the State Speaks, What Should it Say? (I note that due to vacation it might take me some time between some of my reply posts.)

Quong begins by outlining my ambition of avoiding both the dystopias of the Invasive State and the Hateful Society. He notes that I aim to do so by combining robust rights against coercion with “democratic persuasion.” The state engages in democratic persuasion when it combats hateful and discriminatory viewpoints by using its expressive capacities, including its spending power.

Quong asks why my opposition to hateful expression does not lead me to a more European rather than American approach to free speech. In Europe free speech is seen as a value but one that has to be balanced against other values. The European approach allows the state to use its coercive power to ban hateful expression, imprisoning people for their speech.

In contrast, my aim in the book is to defend the distinct American approach to free speech when it comes to rights against coercion. On my view, the state should follow the rule of “viewpoint neutrality” when it comes to its coercive power: it should not coercively ban any viewpoint as long as a speaker is not directly threatening a particular individual or group.

The mistake of the balancing conception is to think that the only way to recognize the values of liberty and equality is to trade them off. But value democracy proposes to respect those values simultaneously. We can pursue the transformation of illiberal beliefs while maintaining robust free speech commitments in the form of viewpoint neutrality.

One justification for limiting the right of free speech when it comes to hateful expression is that the liberal democratic state needs to “take its own side” by condemning viewpoints that are antithetical to the free and equal status of its citizens. But I argue that this can be done while protecting the right of free speech. The state can make clear its opposition and lack of complicity with hateful viewpoints by using its expressive capacity to condemn them and explain why they should be rejected.

According to the balancing conception, another rationale for coercively limiting hate speech is that it would make the society more stable by limiting views that might undermine liberal democracy. But to see the superiority of my approach over balancing, consider a world in which democratic persuasion was as successful in pushing back against hateful viewpoints as coercive punishment of those views. If there were a small-added advantage to protecting all viewpoints, this would recommend value democracy over its alternatives. But even if it were less successful, I maintain it can push back these views such that there is no risk of a collapse of democracy. Value democracy sufficiently answers what I call the “stability worry” about the Hateful Society.

But on my view the advantages of viewpoint neutrality to a democratic society are not small. They are significant such that even if democratic persuasion is successful in curtailing hateful viewpoints, but less effective than coercion, we should still pursue a path of protecting all viewpoints while engaging in democratic persuasion.

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Brettschneider Reading Group: Conclusion – Value Democracy at Home and Abroad

I’ve been appallingly remiss in fulfilling my duties this time around. In an effort to make good, I’ve spent several days poring over these excellent commentaries and discussions, as well as reacquainting myself with Corey’s wonderful book, which has taught me much about my own suspicions that the liberal’s paradox really isn’t much of a paradox at all.

The liberal-democratic state (broadly conceived) can take it’s own side in an argument, and we should be clear on when, how, and against whom it may permissibly do so. I share some of Sarah’s concerns about reflective revision; and I wonder, along with Jon and Simone and others, about the distinctiveness of coercion. Still, I think Corey’s careful elaboration of democratic persuasion is a powerful and attractive way to proceed.

Thankfully (for me) my task is less demanding than that executed so well by all of you in the preceding discussions. Corey’s concluding thoughts are appropriately tentative and cursory, inviting us to consider how his approach might fare beyond U.S. shores.

I share Corey’s optimism that democratic persuasion will fare reasonably well in that regard, although I want to introduce some possible complications, several of which have been hinted at, or stated outright, in preceding comments.

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Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’, Chapter 12, ‘Capabilities and Resources’

Chapter 12, Capabilities and Resources, begins with the well-known contrasts between capabilities (as what opportunities people actually have) and resourcist views. Sen then outlines four kinds of contingencies that figure importantly into the conversion of resources into the lives people can actually lead. These are: personal “heterogeneities,” differences in the physical environment, differences in the social climate, and differences in relational perspectives. Variations in the social climate refer to social structural differences—for example, the availability of publicly funded health care. Differences in “relational perspectives” refer to difference in social norms that may affect the need for resource expenditure to achieve desired goals; for example, in one society, the clothes required to command social respect may be far more expensive than in another. These types of contingencies may be interconnected; an example would be how a physical environment in which there is a great deal of snow interacts with mobility impairments in affecting how people can get around in society.Sen places particular emphasis on the interrelationship between disability and the opportunities provided by resources. He cites familiar data about the interrelationship between disability and poverty, and notes that much disability is preventable (e.g. disabilities that result from preventable infectious diseases such as polio or measles) and that this is a particularly important matter for social justice. Overall, Sen emphasizes both the conceptual and the normative importance of disability for theorizing about justice.

The remainder of the chapter is devoted to criticizing Rawlsian primary goods and Dworkinian hypothetical insurance markets. Sen commends Rawls for paying attention to “special needs,” but contends that the Rawlsian structure mistakenly downplays human difference. Pace Rawls, human variations in conversion capacities should not be seen as derivative matters for attention at the legislative stage. Rather, in Sen’s view they are ubiquitous to how social structures should be organized and analyzed. Sen recognizes that the capabilities approach will not be able to give a complete or even a linear ordering of social states, but contends that it directs us to make the important comparisons about justice.

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Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’ (Chapter 9, ‘Plurality of Impartial Reasons’)

This chapter continues in the vein of the preceding ones by using Rawls as a foil in order to lay out some general concepts that presumably will be developed in the second half of the book.  Accordingly, many of my concerns end up being somewhat duplicative with those raised in earlier comments: namely, that Sen has failed (so far) to really lay out a plan for thinking through justice in a rigorous fashion and that he has a strangely shallow reading of Rawls.Sen begins the chapter by referencing the arguments in chapter 8 about the possibility for rational reasons to take forms that different from the model of purely egoistic actors.  Given that there was no comment on that chapter people might like to take up those questions though I doubt many will find his claims there to be particularly controversial.

The goal of this chapter seems to be the need to reconcile the plurality of impartial reasons (the fact that two people might makes completely opposite choices, without either being irrational) with the need to desire to articulate some standard of objectivity.  In situations where multiple decisions may be rational, how may we still make judgments about what course of action is just? In Rawlsian terms, he is interested here in what it would be reasonable to ask of people, not just what they might rationally choose for themselves.  This is an important effort, and something that has been sorely missing from the book so far.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this chapter really takes us very far down that road.

I am skeptical for two reasons. First, I find the distinction between contractualism and contractarianism to be far less clear than he asserts.  To the extent that the two are dissimilar, I don’t see the value added by Scanlon’s approach that can’t be found elsewhere.  Second, even if we were to accept that significant differences exist between Rawls and Scanlon they seem to be more a matter of the sphere of emphasis.  Scanlon’s approach appears designed to produce judgments about what it would be just to morally ask of someone, while Rawls is more concerned with the question of how to build a politically viable and normatively acceptable basic structure.  Clearly, it is difficult if not impossible to fully detach moral and political philosophy but it would also be a mistake to treat them as synonymous.

On the first point, I find Sen’s characterization of the parties who have standing in the original position to be slightly off.  To me, this reflects a larger problem with the book, that Sen insists on treating the original position literally rather than accepting Rawls’ insistence that it should be understood only a device of representation.  If the original position is understood as a means of thinking through what sorts of exclusions or impositions we ought to be willing to allow, then I find it hard to distinguish this from contractualism.  Yes, it retains a commitment to “advantage-based reasoning” but it does so by insisting that justification must operate under the burden of ignorance about particular position.  To lump this in with other theories guided by a sense of rational advantage doesn’t seem all that helpful.  It is accurate, but not particularly illuminating.

At this point, I will admit to knowing very little about Scanlon’s work, so my statements here are based on Sen’s reading.  I’d welcome comments from those who are more familiar with contractualism, who might be able to elaborate on distinctions that are not clear to me in Sen’s text.  That said, Sen’s efforts to distinguish Scanlon’s approach promise more than they deliver.  To the extent that he does establish are differences, I find it difficult to see how they generate much purchase.

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Sen Reading Group Schedule Note

Dear Public Reasoners,

As some of you may have noticed already, the comment for chapter 8 has not been posted yet.  I regret that I did not notice this myself until today (I have been preoccupied with some unexpected difficulties over the past month, which have made my visits to this blog rather sporadic).

In addition, the commentator for chapter 12 has had to withdraw from the group.  Please contact me if you are interested in stepping in and commenting on chapter 12 (which is scheduled to be posted on May 17).

My own view is that we should continue on schedule despite these developments.  Consequently, if possible, the comment on chapter 9 should be posted on Monday (April  26).  If the comment on chapter 8 is posted later, that should be fine. read more...

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Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’ (Chapter 5, Impartiality and Objectivity)

In this chapter, Sen weaves together three different lines of thought: Wollstonecraft’s critique of Burke, impartiality as a minimalist basis for evaluative objectivity, and the role of convention in the relations among facts and values.

1. Sen identifies two features of objectivity. First, our evaluative language must give us the ability to communicate our beliefs to one another, and second, those beliefs must involve commitment to sufficiently overlapping standards to allow us to debate their correctness. But, as Wittgenstein learned from Gramsci and Sraffa, the common ground required for such communication and engagement is always dependent upon linguistic and social conventions.

Out of this intersection of objectivity and convention, Sen identifies a “dual task” for social reformers. They must communicate using language, imagery, and rules grounded in existing social practice and values. But within those confines, they must find the critical distance needed to advocate change.

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