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Talking To and Talking At

As happens in many philosophical discussions (or, I suppose, simply in many discussions), we seemed to have ended up where we started. Eric Mack and Richard Arneson are essentially once again pressing their cases for what I have called sectarian political philosophies, arguing that we must appeal to moral truth, or the truth about reasons, and we must discount the reasoning of some (perhaps many) as insufficiently enlightened when deciding what a free moral order would look like. I confess that I wish we had been able to have a conversation about the central claim that a plausible analysis of justifiable moral practices in a diverse society can only provide a set of eligible options, or can at most identify a set of possible equilibria on which a moral order of free and reasonable people might converge, a topic that only Pete Boettke, an economist, took up (in very helpful ways indeed). Why is it, I can’t help but wonder, that moral and social philosophers are so averse to thinking of moral orders in terms of a self-sustaining equilibrium of diverse and reasonable persons? As I have stated several times in these exchanges, be as strict about the boundaries of the group of “reasonable persons” as is plausible, and these ideas are still relevant and, I believe, helpful and enlightening in a way that endless and fruitless efforts to construct ethical theories identifying the moral truth are not.

Let me first turn to Eric’s “Final Words” (which I hope is just an early installment in an ongoing exchange). He writes:

“If one is going to coerce another, one had better be justified in doing so. If one’s coercion will be performed under the aegis of a certain principle or moral rule, that principle or rule had better be justified. Let us suppose Alf is coercively suppressing Betty’s unprovoked killing of Alf. Alf had better be justified in his coercive suppression; the principle that unprovoked killing may be coercively suppressed had better be justified. We are all on board with these claims.”

Well, that we are all on board with the claim that coercive suppression had better be justified is, I think, critically ambiguous with regard to two very different senses of justification. Although we need not engage in justificatory discourse to act with justification, it helps to fix ideas to focus on the case of explicit justification through discourse. Towards the end of his great Theory of Justice, Rawls remarks that justification is argument addressed to those who disagree with us. This type of justification genuinely addresses others: it seeks to take what seems to be a controversial claim, and show that those who disagree with us have reasons that they can grasp to endorse it. This type of justification seeks to show that those who disagree with us can draw on considerations that they can see—either readily, or at least with not more deliberative effort than we can reasonably expect of them. When we share a moral practice with others and see them as our equal co-participants we address arguments to them. We talk to them.

Now as I have stressed, there will always come some point at which another simply is so alien, or so defective in her rationality or moral sensibility, that we cannot talk to her in the sense of addressing a justification to her. Then I must act with justification in another sense: I think things through and, considering my set of values, convictions, and so on, I may well conclude that the thing to do is to go ahead and coerce the other. Although in this case too I act “with justification,” the moral relations between the two of us are transformed. The moral sentiments are greatly impaired, as is my standing to hold the other morally (though perhaps not legally) responsible for what she has done. What I have stressed is that, as a matter of fact, we are in the midst of a moral practice in which justification genuinely addressed to others pertains, that it is an immensely valuable practice that sustains social cooperation and interpersonal relations of trust, and we should do our very best to ensure that we live up to it.

Mack, perhaps, will say that when he asserts that it is simply a truth that all are free and equal he is identifying “a reason that there is” which applies to the other, so he too is in a way “giving the other a reason,” or at least pointing one out. To me, this type of reason talk is not talking to a person, but at her. It is admitted that the other, given as much deliberation as we can expect from her, could not grasp why this is a reason, yet it is said that there really and truly is a reason that applies to her, that if she were fully rational (i.e., more like us) she could see as clearly as we do but, alas, this reason is now quite invisible to her. I know that many philosophers (and those who can see auras) talk this way, and I don’t suppose that there is great harm in it, but I tend to think that it is just better to fess up and admit that we are not really addressing ourselves to her at all, but are simply acting as we see fit. I can’t help but see the additional claim that of course there really “is” a reason that truly “applies” to her as obfuscating (“It’s not just me, it’s reason talking here, so pay attention!”). Contrast two teachers in a first-year economics course. One comes in and gives his advanced lectures on new developments in economic theory. The other begins by looking at some general principles of microeconomics, and trying to show her students how they make sense, and what the first derivations from them are. In neither case does everybody get the point right away, and some may never get it. But in the latter case the teacher is addressing herself to her students; in the former, talking at them. If, on top of that, the first teacher insists that they all have reasons to accept everything he says since there are good reasons for it, he is just covering up the fact that he is talking to satisfy himself.

For the overwhelming number of cases, because we share a moral order with others who are sufficiently reasonable and good-willed, when we invoke morality to stop them from what they are doing we can address considerations to them. I noted in an earlier post that we should distinguish the analysis of a justified moral practice (a practice in which persons can talk to each other and sustain the rich personal relations that this allows for) from what we might call “moral philosophy strictly understood,” which applies highly controversial methods of inquiry to arrive at accounts of the reasons that there really are, what rights we really have, and what the moral truth really is. As Professor Arneson rightly says, there is in principle no more reason to worry about disagreement in moral philosophy than there is in science (though I must confess to being considerably less sanguine than is he about the Enlightenment’s conviction that, just as we are led to agreement in science, we will be led to agreement in philosophy. How many scientists think Plato got it pretty much right?). The worry arises not when a person constructs “his” theory (and I note that very often philosophers use the possessive when talking about the theories they accept, probably because given the number of adherents they are akin to personal possessions), but when he employs his theory as the basis of asserting an authority to instruct others how to live, and to hold them responsible for failing to submit. It is here, I think, that we must turn from moral philosophy to the analysis of what moral practices can be confirmed by justification addressed to others, by taking our activity as a form of talking to them rather than at them.

So to whom do we talk? To the “fundamentalist?” I am convinced that we run real intellectual and moral dangers in stereotyping the alien other, be he “the Christian fundamentalist” or “the Muslim.” We should be exceedingly wary of discussing that of which we academic philosophers are largely ignorant in general terms that blur together very different types of people. Like the rest of us, Christian fundamentalists are a diverse bunch, and they overwhelmingly affirm the basic social and political norms by which we live. If we must discuss a caricature, let us consider another sort of unreasonable person, whom we are more apt to find around the table in a philosophy department and who publishes in our refereed journals—the unreasonable environmentalist. Like Christians, environmentalists come in all types, but consider one who firmly believes that the earth has the property of “intrinsic value,” that this value is so important that it overrides any requirements of human life and, indeed, she is not interested in living with others on terms that they can see reasons for, but is, rather, convinced that the earth would be better without humans, and if she could she would take steps to rid the planet of this parasitic species. If we keep on filling in this story—she has converted herself into having a view of others that is consistent with all these convictions—it looks very much like there is no way to include such a person within our moral practice of genuine reason-giving. We simply cannot talk to her in justifying a common moral order.

To be included in a moral practice among equals that involves justification qua reason-giving, a person must have a strong recognizable interest in living with others in moral and social relations, must have a value system that is intelligible to the rest of us in the sense that we can see what she takes as reasons are at least relevant considerations to the question at hand, whose values fall within the recognizably normal range (for example, we can leave out of account monomaniacs devoted to counting blades of grass, compulsives, and so on), and who have sufficient reasoning powers to participate in our practices of moral blame, criticism, exhortation, and justification. That they have made silly mistakes does not exclude them—we certainly would not wish to deny admittance to act utilitarians or Scientologists, for we can still talk with them about acceptable and unacceptable ways of ordering our shared social world. Our moral practice—recall I am not talking about our moral philosophies—is a popular practice in which the vast majority of our fellows are bona fide participants who can be given reasons, even though we adamantly disagree with much of what they believe. That, I take it, is the great liberal insight. So we have indeed come back to the beginning, for I am still convinced that the urgent philosophical task is to reflect on the range of social-moral practices that are not oppressive and authoritarian, and so can be sustained by a free society of moral persons.

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.

The Conversation