On the Ins and Outs of Public Reason

Let me begin by expressing my deep appreciation to my three good friends, Richard Arneson, Eric Mack and Pete Boettke for thinking so deeply about my short essay, and offering such thoughtful reaction essays.[1] A number of fundamental issues were raised about the type of view I offer; as I know only too well, even beginning to adequately deal with these matters requires quite a long book. At this point, I shall simply try to carry on the conversation by addressing a few of the many important issues they have raised.

Before turning to more philosophical matters, let me briefly remark on a historical point. As Arneson rightly points out, the sort of view that I develop owes a great debt to John Rawls’s work—Arneson in particular points to Rawls’s later doctrine known as “political liberalism.” Mack also sees the view I am offering as “a recently blazed path.” My own understanding is that the type of account I am articulating extends much further back in the history of social and political philosophy. Rawls’s pathbreaking essays in the 1950s, as well as the contemporaneous work of Kurt Baier and Peter Strawson, have been key inspirations. And, crucially, as Boettke stresses, Hayek is a towering figure who showed us that free and beneficial social cooperation is structured by social-moral rules that have evolved in a social order. It is hard to overstress Boettke’s point that Rawls and Hayek are not, as so often depicted in contemporary philosophy, diametrical opponents (once again giving way to the “egalitarian-libertarian” frame), but involved in a common project of seeking to understand the nature of mutually cooperative practices among free and equal participants. Both stress the fundamental importance of the basic framework of rules and institutions. Going further back, many of the themes I develop are present in Hegelian thought about ethical life and the general will and, most importantly, the view derives from critical parts of the social contract tradition that have been almost entirely read out of it by most contemporary interpreters. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant all recognized that individual convictions about social morality and justice conflict, and (at least in normal circumstances) a free and mutually beneficial social life requires that we abjure private judgment and appeal to public reason about the requirements of interpersonal morality and justice.

The insight of the social contract theorists was that, when normal individuals reason as well as they can about justice, they disagree. As Hobbes put it in chapter V of Leviathan, in a dispute each individual sees her reason as right reason. In a typically Hobbesian understatement, he insisted that anyone who seeks to resolve a dispute by insisting that “I have the right answer because I’m convinced that I’ve thought things through correctly,” reveals her lack of reason by her very claim to it, and so is unsuited to human society. Our dispute issues from the conflict in the use of our reason—it cannot be resolved by appeal to the superiority of mine. Only a set of mutually acceptable rules and institutions can resolve our disputes in a way that acknowledges that we are only one among others who have an equal claim to decide what their obligations are.

Arneson, joined by many others, wonders whether there really can be rational disagreement. If people were fully rational, they would, it is thought, agree about the requirements of justice; so the disagreement must come from irrationality. This is a complex issue with which recently I have tried to deal.[2] One thing we must do, though, is to distinguish two views. One maintains that to say a person is rational simply is to say that she has got things right—as Arneson says, she “correctly perceives the reasons there are.” If one further supposes that there “are” the same reasons for all, then this correct perception must be the same for all (no perspectival differences in perception are allowed here). The claim that full rationality leads to agreement is thus simply deduced from the definitions about rationality and reasons. This is one philosophical theory of rationality, but it is not relevant to the worry about rational disagreement that was the pressing problem for philosophers of public reason from Hobbes to Rawls. Their problem—and our problem—is that using the powers of human reason the best we can, and even drawing on the best information available, we still disagree. As far as we can see, experts employing their human reason in magnificent ways (Arneson, Mack and Boettke) disagree about these matters.

Mack, for example, holds that classical liberalism is the obvious best response to reasonable disagreement. It alone, he says, seeks convergence only on means, and does not impose shared substantive ideals. But this, of course, is precisely what Rawls claims for his own view—the only shared end it requires is the end of justice. My good friend Eric’s metaphysical convictions notwithstanding, the twentieth century has shown considerable, and I think, quite reasonable, skepticism about a natural right to property. Certainly the history of twentieth century philosophy and, indeed, politics, reveals that the overwhelming majority of political philosophers, economists, and citizens have held that anything approaching a laissez-faire market system is unjustifiable to the disadvantaged. On the other hand, I think Boettke is entirely correct that we have compelling grounds for concluding that rules of private property are essential for living together in a peaceful and mutually beneficial way. But there is a wide range of reasonable views about what those rules should be. The rules of property are both the source of a mutually beneficial social life, and a source of social and moral disagreement. Different property practices—different rules of the game—are endorsed by different reasonable persons.

In most matters, reasonable disagreement is not a deep concern; we can agree to disagree, or decide not to believe anything until we concur. And nothing I say is a bar, as perhaps Mack thinks it is, to the essentially descriptive and intellectual project of moral philosophy that seeks to discover the moral truth. To be devoted to discovering the moral truth, and even to believe that one has arrived it, is not objectionably sectarian (in the end, one sect certainly could be right about the moral truth, as it may be about God’s will). But the practice of social morality is not the same as moral philosophy understood as the search for the truth (nor is the study of social morality a “meta” study of moral philosophy understood as the search for the moral truth; it is a different domain of inquiry, though it does refer to moral philosophy and has views about its relevance to a justified practice of social morality). In the practice of social morality and in politics we not only disagree, but we demand that others act justly (“I have a right! You must not do this! Stop!”) and we are very apt to coerce them when they do not. The role of social morality in our lives is to adjudicate our claims—the claims of people whose reason leads them to disagree about what their claims are. The real problem for real human social and moral life now arises: what are we to do? Let us think about three stages in answering this question.

(i) The confident sectarian answers: “There is no problem, for my reason is right reason, and so my moral philosophy has revealed the truth, and only it specifies justified demands; those not confirmed as best by my reason are bogus.” Arneson and Mack are clearly attracted to this, the quintessentially sectarian response. The academic study of moral philosophy sets itself up as the source of uniquely correct moral legislation for all. This is the target of my essay.

Arneson thinks that it is a “moral imperative” that those on the side of rationality and moral truth should prevail and rule others, though on consequentialist grounds he thinks this should be rule with a light hand. Mack appeals to moral truth to show that the classical liberal way of living together peacefully without ruling others is the uniquely correct one and it should be imposed. I believe that the costs of this sort of moral sectarianism are much too high. It assumes a moral authority over others and typically a license to coerce them granted by appeal to the self-confirmed superiority of one’s own reason; it fails to sustain the moral emotions and reactive attitudes characteristic of our moral practices; and it transforms social morality from a device for obtaining a freely ordered social life into a sectarian creed that aggravates conflict. Under its influence democratic politics becomes, as we have witnessed, a war between perceived good and evil.

(ii) So suppose that the maturing sectarian allows that there is at least a significant group of others who employ their reason in ways that are worthy of respect even if one believes they have “got it wrong.” (One remains convinced that one’s reason is right reason.) Once this group enters the scene so will the range of justice, for it is a characteristic of the most advanced reasoners that they have wide disagreements. Think of moral and political philosophers and the range of their views. (In contrast, most common folk are fairly conventional in most of their moral views.) Arneson is worried about having to accept the input of “the Christian fundamentalist” into justified morality (more on that much-maligned fellow anon), but most of the concessions to the range of justice are already made even if we impose high standards (say, Kohlberg stage five or six reasoning). All the views mentioned in my essay are already on the table, as are a wide variety of moral beliefs based on very sophisticated natural theology and reformed epistemology.

(iii) To be sure, at some point any public reason view must draw a line, determining that some person is not good willed (she just wants to kill, kill, kill!), or simply has no reason to endorse our social morality (perhaps she is a psychopath). Arneson and Mack press where to draw the line. As a preliminary, let me say that I do not think that we do best to start with hard cases, for there will always be hard lines to draw. Our first question in understanding our shared moral lives is how to live with those whom we see as obviously good-willed (they want a shared moral life with us) and rational enough to be fellow moral persons, with sane and intelligible (even if we think quite wrongheaded) moral views. If we can make headway on that problem, we will have made progress indeed, even if we have trouble drawing lines about who is in and who is out. One temptation that we must avoid at all cost is the notion that, if we must draw a line at some point, and if we will have trouble doing it, we might as well draw it around our favored sectarian doctrine. That is very much like saying that, since we cannot respect creeds that are devoted to virgin sacrifice and are uncertain about those that employ hallucinogens, we might as well only respect our own religion.

So where to draw the line? Is the belief that the Bible is the Word of God obviously nutty in a way that a philosopher’s appeal to natural rights, the realm of non-natural moral facts, or his “moral intuition” is not? All are about non-natural entities, and I confess significant problems making sense of any of them. The incredibly smart economist Ken Binmore reports that moral philosophy is overflowing with “Humpty-Dumpty reasoning” and that Kant’s corpus in particular is simply endless obscure prose that says nothing sensible.[3] Apparently the moral philosophers are out with the Christian fundamentalists. Our own views—even the views of very sophisticated reasoners—about what is “crazy” are all too often the result of our preexisting frames, our disputable suppositions, and our own cognitive and normative biases.

When we do dismiss someone as beyond the pale—that we simply cannot reason with her about our shared moral life—we ourselves incur great moral costs. If we cannot show that she has reasons to endorse moral rules, the excluded is in many ways outside our moral community. We cannot attribute to her reasons to comply (even should we think, on the basis of a metaphysical doctrine, that there are reasons that apply to her), and so the normal moral emotions and sentiments are undermined. Relations of trust are at best uncertain, and so mutually beneficial relations are jeopardized. Can we protect ourselves against the philosopher’s beloved case, one whose life is based around the thrill of murder and plunder, who has no sufficient reasons to think this is wrong, and so who feels no guilt or remorse? Of course we can, but surely she is an alien other. Are we convinced that, when it comes down to such an intractable conflict with those lacking good-will or reason that we have good reasons for what we do? From our own standpoint of course we can assure ourselves, but we should not suppose that we are giving her reasons, or sharing a social-moral life with her. Whether such people are much more than limiting cases, and what sort of reasons they may really have, is on ongoing research topic in moral psychology, but whatever the results we know that they are not full members of our moral community.


[1] My thanks to John Thrasher and Kevin Vallier for discussion of these matters.

[2] See my Order of Public Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), section 13.

[3]Ken Binmore, Natural Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. viii, 37.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.