Final Words (for now) on Liberalism, Reason, and Authority

I have really enjoyed and really benefited from this month’s Cato Unbound, “For a New Liberalism.” My only regret is that I have focused entirely on Jerry Gaus’s lead essay and Jerry’s responses to my responses and not taken up any of the very interesting ideas of my fellow respondents, Dick Arneson and Pete Boettke. Rather than try to make up for that lapse at this late point, I want to close my contribution with a brief statement of my understanding of the state of the disagreement between Jerry and myself. I hope to make clear to readers that there really is a nice, big, juicy, issue here.

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.

The crux of the dispute between Jerry and me is about exactly what sort of conditions need to be satisfied for Alf’s action or the principle or rule under which Alf acts to be justified. To put matters more precisely, the main dispute is about what sort of conditions have to be satisfied for Alf’s action or its governing principle or rule to be justified in a way that gives moral authority to Alf. Let’s proceed in terms of the justification of the principle under which Alf acts, namely, that unprovoked killing may be coercively suppressed.

Jerry holds that Alf will have moral authority to coerce Betty under the aegis of this principle only if this principle is justifiable to Betty, and it will be justifiable to Betty only if Betty has reason to accede to this principle. In addition and very importantly, Betty will have reason to accede to the principle only if good deliberation on Betty’s part would get Betty from her existing “evaluative considerations” (her goals, aspirations, commitments, and so on) to an affirmation of that reason.

According to Gaus, Betty can have reason to accede to that principle—and, hence, Alf can have moral authority to act under its aegis—even if Betty has not actually gone through the good deliberation that would get her from her evaluative considerations to the affirmation of that reason. Nevertheless, even though Alf’s moral authority does not depend upon Betty actually acceding to that principle on the basis of good deliberation from her evaluative considerations, Alf’s moral authority to coercively suppress Betty’s engagement in unprovoked killing must ultimately get its leverage from Betty’s evaluative considerations. If Betty’s evaluative considerations do not provide the basis for Betty’s acceding to that principle, Alf can have no moral authority to act upon that principle.

Suppose one thinks that there is reason for Betty not to engage in unprovoked killings. Different sorts of basis for there being such a reason can be offered. As I suggested in my initial response, one might think that the fact that other persons are free and equal moral persons provides each of us with reason not to engage in unprovoked killing. Alternatively, one might think that the reciprocal benefits from a ban on unprovoked killing provide each of us with reason not to engage in unprovoked killing. But notice that here I am speaking of there being reason for Betty to eschew unprovoked killing. I have not been speaking of Betty having reason in Gaus’s sense to forego killing. Indeed, it is easy to envision there being reason for Betty to eschew unprovoked killing (and to accede to the coercive suppression of such killing) without Betty having reason in Gaus’s sense to eschew unprovoked killing. For the roots for Betty acceding to that reason may not be growing within Betty’s evaluative considerations. (I think that Gaus himself allows that there could be reason for Betty to act or refrain from acting in a certain way without Betty having reason to act or refrain in that way.)

The crucial thing to note here is that there being reason for Betty to eschew unprovoked killing (or for her acceding to the principle that unprovoked killing may be coercively suppressed) is not dependent upon Betty’s evaluative considerations. I am not saying that the case for there being reason for Betty to eschew unprovoked killing has been presented here. I am saying that, if there is reason for Betty to avoid unprovoked killing, there being such reason does not itself depend upon Betty’s evaluative considerations. Recall, that this reason might depend on other people being free and equal moral persons. Or the reason might depend on reciprocal gains being available only among individuals who eschew unprovoked killing. Or so on.

Here, finally, is the possible payoff: Maybe Alf’s moral authority to suppress Betty’s unprovoked killing is grounded in there being reason for Betty to eschew such killing rather than in Betty having reason (in Gaus’s sense) to forgo such killing. Indeed, if there is reason for Betty to forgo unprovoked killing, perhaps we can even say that coercively suppressing that killing is justifiable to Betty; it is justifiable to her because there is reason for her—reason that applies to her—not to kill whether or not she has reason not to kill in Gaus’s sense.[1]

The central dispute between Gaus and myself is ultimately about whether (i) Alf’s moral authority to suppress Betty’s unprovoked killing rests on some normative truth that is not itself a function of Betty’s motivational structure—for example, that people should be treated in accord with their status as free and equal persons or that people should be treated in the ways that conduce to reciprocal gains—or (ii) Alf’s moral authority has to be rooted in Betty’s actual motivational makeup.

My claim against Gaus is that sometimes we can justify the coercive suppression of another agent’s conduct, such as Betty’s unprovoked killing or the Grand Inquisitor’s torturing, on the basis of there being reason for that agent to refrain from that conduct—even if that agent does not have reason in Gaus’s sense to refrain from that conduct. In the idiom of moral authority, one can have moral authority (albeit in a thinner sense than Jerry has in mind) to coercively suppress the conduct of another agent even if one’s moral leverage does not rest upon that agent’s motivational makeup.

The reason for my invoking agents like the Grand Inquisitor at earlier points in this conversation was—I now see—to suggest a general point about justified coercive action and moral authority for coercive action against certain sorts of nasty behavior. That general point is that such justified action and moral authority does not require the concurrence of the evaluative considerations of the agent who is subject to that coercion.

As I understand Gaus’s position, when a prospective victim of a nasty action sets out to justify morally his resistance to that action (or to justify his moral authority to resist that action), he has to ground his justification (or his authority) in the content of the nasty doer’s motivational repertoire. I believe that this is to look for the reason that morally justifies the resistance (and the authority of the resister) in the wrong place.

Of course, none of this is really the final word.


[1] On these issues see Steven Wall, “On Justificatory Liberalism,” Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, vol.9 (May 2010) 123-150 and Gaus’s responses to Wall in The Order of Public Reason.

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.