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Talking To, Talking At: Some Further Words

The Conversation
October 31, 2011

I’m sorry that Jerry Gaus thinks that we have merely been going around in a circle, because I have the sense that quite a bit of progress has been made in bringing into sharper focus some of the critical features of Gaus’s New Liberalism. I guess what I see as sharper focus Jerry sees as mere harping on the same misguided point. I want to use the next few paragraphs to continue to make explicit part of what is at stake between Gaus and those he describes as sectarian political philosophers. And I hope that this will not seem like harping on the same point—guided or misguided.

In my previously final installment, I focused on the distinction between there being a reason for agent Betty desisting from a nasty action she envisions performing and Betty having reason (in Gaus’s sense) to desist from that action. Recall that for Betty to have reason to desist (in Gaus’s sense) it must be true that there is a basis within Betty’s existing evaluative considerations (her existing goals, aspirations, commitments) for Betty’s desisting—even if Betty does not currently see or acknowledge that basis. Betty has reason to desist if and only if good deliberation on her part would take her from her evaluative considerations to the decision to desist. According Gaus, another agent, Alf, can be justified (in the relevant sense) in demanding that Betty desist from the nasty action, only if Betty has reason to desist.

In that last installment I asserted (but hardly argued for) the contrary view that Alf can be justified in demanding that Betty desist from the nasty action if there is reason for Betty desisting; it is not necessary that Betty have reason (in Gaus’s sense) to desist for Alf to have moral authority to demand that Betty desist. Gaus’s response to this is that for Alf to cite a reason for Betty to desist rather than a reason that Betty has (in Gaus’s sense) to desist is for Alf merely to talk at her rather than talk to her.

Why does Gaus think that expressing to Betty a reason for Betty to desist is merely talking at Betty and not to her? I think the answer is that Gaus does not think that anyone can ever be given (presented with) a reason. Or more precisely, a person cannot be given (or presented with) a reason she does not already have. Betty cannot be given a reason in the sense of having her attention drawn to a consideration on behalf of or against an action that is not already among her evaluative considerations. As I understand Gaus, Betty can only be given a reason in the sense that her attention may be drawn to some consideration which is already among her evaluative considerations. For Gaus, all deliberation is about detecting elements of one’s current evaluative considerations and drawing out the implications of those considerations (in conjunction with the relevant factual premises). Hence, as Gaus sees it, purporting to cite a reason for Betty desisting which Betty does not at that point have is just to engage in a bit of intimidation; it is not to address Betty at all.

My contrary view is that people can be presented with reasons which are not already residing within their evaluative considerations; contrary to Gaus, deliberation includes judging whether to bring into one’s motivational structure a consideration which is not already there. (Gaus’s examples of putting before people considerations that they cannot possibly grasp are not fair examples to deploy against the view that people can bring some considerations on behalf of or against certain conduct into their motivational structure.) That is why I see presenting Betty with a reason for her desisting—which reason she does not at that point have (in Gaus’s sense)—as an instance of addressing her and not merely talking at her. The progress for me in this discussion is seeing (among other things) how much of the dispute between Gaus and sectarian political philosophers turns on these disputes about practical reason and deliberation.

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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