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Toleration and Fundamentalism: Comments on Gaus

In recent brilliant work, exemplified by his essay “The Range of Justice,” Gerald Gaus argues provocatively that virtually all current theorists of justice from libertarians to conservatives and beyond are sectarian in that they propose imposing their favored view of justice on others who reasonably disagree. Instead theorists should be asking, given that reasonable people are locked in intractable disagreements about justice, what is a sensible and fair response to this predicament? The answer is that we should seek a basis for living together on which all reasonable people, from their diverse perspectives, can agree. This is essentially the doctrine of political liberalism propounded by John Rawls. Gaus’s considerable achievement is to state Rawls’s idea more rigorously and in a way that frees it from the baggage of liberal ideology that Rawls had loaded on top of it, thus obscuring its appeal.

Political liberalism is presented as a generalization of the idea of religious toleration. Just as the state ought to be neutral on religion, by the same logic, the state ought to be neutral on controversial ideas of justice.

This analogy, however, is flawed The basis of religious toleration has nothing to do with the thought that, when regarded from the right impartial epistemic perspective, all religious views are equally rational and worthy of belief. Do you really believe that fundamentalist Christianity is a rational doctrine that makes a serious claim on our belief? The bumper sticker says, “God said it. I believe it.” That is pretty much the end of the story for the fundamentalist. He takes a particular book, a favored version of the Christian Bible, to be the privileged repository of God’s instructions for humanity as to how to live. The background assumption is that God, being all-powerful and so on, has a unique legitimate authority to issue those instructions, and that he happens to have done so here. God’s commands constitute what we ought to do, and a literal reading of the words of the Bible reveals God’s commands.

In my view, the reasons that a just state should extend religious freedom to fundamentalist Christians, to all other religious adherents, and to nonadherents has nothing to do with the epistemic credentials of their doctrines. Religious toleration is a sound policy because suppression of religious belief under just about any circumstances we are likely to encounter will do far more harm than good. The reasonably expectable consequences of persecution are uncontroversially bad.

Back to Gaus. He says the aim of political liberalism is to determine how “free and equal persons with deep and enduring disagreements might all come to endorse a social and political order.” But free and equal persons vary enormously in the degree to which they are rational (able to think straight, without cognitive error), well-informed (have correct empirical beliefs relevant to choice of action and policy), and have humane sensibility (are concerned to treat others fairly and to take due consideration of their good). All of these considerations are relevant to the question, should your views be influencing the basic principles that are going to govern the social order. If fundamentalist Christians are among the free and equal persons, all of whom play equal roles in shaping the principles we should live by, then those principles are overwhelmingly likely to be defective from the standpoint of justice according to any rational construal of the idea of justice.

The trick, then, is to filter the set of persons who are to figure in the theoretical construction that determines the legitimate basis for government and policy, the content of public reason. We are to consider “good-willed reasonable and rational people” (I am quoting Gaus again). I take it that the good-willed according to political liberalism are those who are willing not to be sectarian and to live by principles everyone can accept. This is already a controversial stipulation, but let that pass.

Who are the “reasonable and rational”? If a reasonable and rational person is a perfectly rational agent who correctly perceives the reasons there are, and correctly gauges the true relative weight of each reason, and correctly integrates the lot of them to determine what is to be done, the political liberalism problem disappears. Fully reasonable and rational people do not disagree. (This does not entail they agree on one unique doctrine; there might be more than one doctrine that is tied for best, and there might be limited commensurability, so that some doctrines are neither better nor worse than one another nor equally good. But they agree on the normative truth, however complex or disjunctive that may be.) If on the other hand the reasonable and rational persons are those who are sort of rational or rational enough, and who manifest clear thinking at some threshold acceptable level, then the question becomes: Why should people prone to error and false belief be allowed in the set of theoretical determiners of what is right and wrong, of what are the legitimate principles that fix what we owe to one another? After all, if I am below the threshold acceptable level, then when you impose on me on the basis of moral principles I do not accept, the thing to say to me is that you are not treating me wrongly or disrespectfully. You are treating me according to principles I would accept if I were fully rational. But this is the correct response to anyone who is less than fully reasonable and rational, and who claims to be mistreated when people act in ways that affect him according to principles that he does not accept after careful consideration. If the principles on which the others are acting are principles the dissenter would accept if he were thinking straight and fully informed, he has no valid complaint.

This response to Gaus might seem hopelessly abstract and otherworldly when we consider our actual limited epistemic position. None of us is perfectly rational and none of us knows what a fully reasonable and rational agent would think. Moreover, our empirical beliefs are gappy; we lack the correct theory of everything.

True enough, but the same point holds in our actual epistemic circumstances. Although I may not be able to tell when I am making mistakes, and although I may correctly see that you are falling short of perfect rationality, and although we may both end up firmly adhering to opposed beliefs about what is right and fair, it still might be the case that your view is better than mine—better reasoned and so far as anyone can tell, more likely to be correct or close to correct as the matter would be judged from an ideally rational and informed perspective. If so, it is not wrong, in fact it is morally imperative, that your view should prevail and not mine, and when people act toward me on the basis of moral views that are better reasoned and more likely to be correct than mine, even if none of us can be certain about where moral truth lies, they are not acting wrongly and not mistreating me (so far as we can tell). Again, I have no valid complaint. In other words, in our actual circumstances, in modern societies now, we are all in the position of the Christian fundamentalists—the only exception being the person or set of persons that is getting it right about practical reason as best we can tell.

The position we have reached is that the ideal of a society of fully reasonable and rational people disagreeing about what is right and just and agreeing to seek principles they can all accept is strictly incoherent. Reasonable and rational people when fully informed will not disagree. (If reason is inconclusive on some issue, and any one of twenty views is equally good, they will all converge on that opinion.) The issue of what to do when reasonable and rational people disagree is a nonstarter. If people disagree when confronting the same set of facts, at least some of them are not being fully reasonable, and the solution is that they should govern their affairs by whatever principles are best supported by reasons.

At this point I should probably lay my sectarian cards on the table. Who is getting it right? I do not know. We see through a glass darkly. There is a strong simple idea that should probably command allegiance, which is that rationality is maximizing. Rationality is not leaving money on the sidewalk when the money could be used to advance useful goals and the action of picking it up is costless. Rationality is taking effective steps to achieve worthy goals to the maximal extent. With a plurality of worthy goals, rationality is maximizing an appropriately weighted sum of them. (A momentary pleasure is a worthy goal and a lifelong rich friendship is a worthy goal but the second appropriately gets greater weight than the first.) Which goals are worthy of pursuit? Any plausible answers ultimately turn out to be characterizations of, or components of, good lives for people. And some sort of impartiality constraint (the details are messy and controversial) is rationally irresistible: my good counts no more and no less than yours, and more good is better than less, and (here’s a genuinely controversial claim) benefits matter more, the worse off the individuals who get them. What about human rights, and moral constraints, and options and personal prerogatives to live as one chooses? These are all supremely important, at the level of policy, as means to bring about good outcomes, good outcomes being fixed by the consequentialist standard just sketched. (See the writings of John Stuart Mill for some constructive filling out of very important details.) Beyond that, things get messy. Consequentialism is a work in progress.

There are arguments that support the claims made in the previous paragraph, but I am not yet fully convinced that consequentialism as just characterized is supported by better reasons all things considered than certain plausible rival views. What I am sure of is that there are better and worse reasons and that the views that at the end of the day are better supported by reasons should guide (maybe very indirectly, as direct guidance may be counterproductive) individual action, public policy, and choice of institutions. That makes me a sectarian in Gaus’s terms. Whatever principles, if any, free and equal “rational enough” persons would all endorse as a basis for living together will surely diverge wildly from the principles that are, so far as can now be known, best supported by reasons. Given the choice between political liberalism and sectarianism, we should all be sectarians in search of the best doctrine.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Range of Justice (or, How to Retrieve Liberal Sectual Tolerance) by Gerald Gaus

    In his lead essay, Gerald Gaus argues that today’s political philosophy is a confused jumble of opposing factions with little prospect of consensus. He then proposes a way out of this “crisis of credibility”: We should recognize that there may be a range of institutions, each of which suffices to win our assent given the benefits that accrue from agreeing to any of them. Just as liberalism is a response to religious sectarianism, it can also be a response to philosophical sectarianism.

Response Essays

  • Peter Pan Strikes Back by Eric Mack

    Eric Mack argues that while classical liberalism seems to be a part of Gaus’s “range of justice,” its focus on prohibiting certain methods of attaining one’s goals will always render it unacceptable to some members of society. For all that, the prohibition of certain means, with very few restrictions on individuals’ chosen ends, makes the classical liberal position distinct from many other mere political sects. As a further problem, focusing on a range of justice whose member theories can potentially be found agreeable by free and equal moral persons may simply push the whole question back to a deeper level: Who then gets a place at the public reason table with the grownups? Are those agents who don’t come to the public reason table subject to any of the principles of justice?

  • Living Better Together by Peter J. Boettke

    Peter J. Boettke likens Gaus’s argument to the work of Friedrich Hayek and James Buchanan in political economy and public choice. He argues that property rights are integral to any generalized liberal system; without them, and without the means of increasing economic wealth through the market process, society will devolve into a fight over resources. Private property is thus a part of the basic framework of any liberal society.

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