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More on Who Is In and Who Is Out of Public Reason

The Conversation
October 19, 2011

I want to respond briefly to Jerry Gaus’s “On the Ins and Outs of Public Reason.” In doing so, I will redouble my efforts to avoid even the appearance of that ultimate of dialectical wrongs, viz., having “metaphysical” commitments lurking somewhere in the background of one’s remarks.

Beyond my attempt to provide a reasonably sympathetic account of Jerry’s enormously complex and sophisticated—but certainly not “metaphysical”—system, there really are two basic suggestions within my response essay, “Peter Pan Strikes Back.”

The first suggestion was meant as something like a friendly amendment to Jerry’s project. My suggestion here was that a particularly plausible response to the radical diversity of goals and aspirations that we find among people is the resolution to eschew regimes that elevate any favored end to the status of a social outcome that the state is authorized to require individuals to serve. The fundamental alternative to such an outcome-mandating regime is a regime in which each agent is protected in the pursuit of her own goals and aspirations except insofar as she pursues those ends by means that preclude others from pursuing their own goals and aspirations.

If we take seriously the radical diversity that Jerry invokes, we will gravitate toward a legal order that proscribes such means rather than one that conscripts people into the service of ends they do not share. The point of the friendly suggestion was that a means-proscribing regime is qualitatively different from other forms of liberal regime and, hence, such a classical liberal regime seems to have a step up on other regimes that Jerry also places within the range of justice.

This is not to say that there is one unarguably best specification of those forbidden means. Still each candidate for a reasonable specification would define a position within the narrower range of classical liberal justice. So, classical liberalism will still have a leg up on other forms of liberalism.

Jerry’s response seems to be that my suggestion is good and well except that it does not point uniquely to classical liberalism because “the only shared end” that Rawls requires “is the end of justice.” Rawls can completely accommodate my suggestion and his liberalism is not classical; hence my suggestion does not establish a presumption on behalf of classical liberalism.

My response to this is that Rawls’s “end of justice” embodies strong demands for egalitarian outcomes with respect both to opportunity and income. Hence, that “end of justice” does constitute a demand that, despite their great diversity of goals and aspirations, everyone be required by the state to serve certain particular substantive ends.

Hence, Rawls’ non-classical liberalism is not a counterexample to my claim that only some species of classical liberal takes seriously the diversity that Jerry himself insists upon.

My second basic—and less philosophically friendly—suggestion was that it is much easier to see how Gaussian public reason will avoid validating really nasty activities—like the activities of a Grand Inquisitor—than to see how it will validate the suppression of those nasty activities. The prospective victims of the Inquisitor will exercise a veto against the validation of Inquisitorial endeavors. But won’t the Inquisitor all too symmetrically reasonably exercise a veto against the suppression of those activities?

The answer to the last question depends upon whether or not the Inquisitor really has reason—ultimately based upon his evaluative considerations—to favor his Inquisitorial activity. That turns out to be a very complicated matter within Gaus’s system. But it sure looks as though someone whose Inquisitorial project is at the core of his motivational structure will have reason (as Gaus understands it) to pursue that project. So that aspiring Inquisitor will exercise a veto against the suppression of that endeavor.

So I ask again a question like the ones I posed in my initial response. Is there any sense in which the prospective victims of the Inquisitor are more justified in suppressing the Inquisitor than the Inquisitor is justified in resisting that suppression and carrying on? I really think that Jerry gives no answer to this question in the final paragraph of “On the Ins and Outs of Public Reason.” For there he simply says that the prospective victims have their reasons to suppress the aspiring Inquisitor and hints that it is a matter of ongoing research whether the aspiring Inquisitor has reason to disfavor that suppression and to carry on.

But, first, isn’t it clear that the deeply committed Inquisitor does have reason to push on with his cherished endeavor? And, second, isn’t it clear that, on Gaus’s own understanding, as long as the committed Inquisitor does not really have reason to favor the suppression of Inquisitional activities those victims have no moral authority to protect themselves from the hot poker and the rack?

My good buddy Jerry does say that the prospective victims would know that the Inquisitor and his equally dedicated assistants were “not full members of [the victims’] moral community. But the Inquisitor and his buddies would also know that their unwilling victims are not full members of their Inquisitorial community.

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

  • Toleration and Fundamentalism: Comments on Gaus by Richard Arneson

    Richard Arneson rejects the analogy between religious and political toleration. In the latter, we are called to exercise reason, and we may well be justified in excluding from consideration those who hold unreasonable views. Indeed, given fully rational and fully informed interlocutors, agreement is inevitable, and there is no need for toleration at all. Gaus’s argument, while clever, is flawed. Arneson founds toleration on consequentialism: We tolerate even unreasonable beliefs because persecuting them has obviously bad results.

  • 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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