The Religious Fundamentalist and Nonsectarian Liberalism

I’m not sure how Professor Gaus’s nonsectarian liberal methods would deal with my religious fundamentalist. Consider a favorable case. Over a stretch of time a stable majority of voters in a democratic society brings about the enactment of a pretty good set of laws. They are consistent and coherent. In various ways they are deeply offensive to the fundamentalist. For example, they do not enforce the Biblical doctrine that homosexuality is sinful. Rather they require that if you operate a business, your hiring procedures may not discriminate against job applicants on the basis of sex or race or religious affiliation or sexual orientation. The fundamentalist appeals to political liberalism to show that the laws are illegitimate because they are justifiable only by principles that he reasonably rejects. In my view, this complaint is not justified, because the fundamentalist’s way of arriving at his political judgments is not reasonable enough.

In contrast, consider an unfavorable case. Over a stretch of time a stable majority of voters in a democratic society brings about the enactment of a set of laws based on a fundamentalist Christian viewpoint. The laws distinguish between heterosexuality and homosexuality on the basis of this Christian doctrine. Some citizens complain that the laws are unjust because they fail to accord, to a good enough extent, with the moral reasons there are that determine the content of ideally just state policies. In my view, this complaint may well be justified. Even though people who disagree all appeal to what is reasonable by their lights to justify their proposed public policies, and even though no one has a monopoly on good reasons, we are all fallible, and it is very hard to see whether one’s judgment that one is in the right is soundly based, nonetheless there is such a thing as being in the right and there are many situations in which some people have the better argument and, from the standpoint of justice, it is better if their view prevails and is enforced.

Gaus objects that it is to no avail to appeal to the idea that there are objectively better and worse reasons. Appeal to “the reasons there are” is beside the point, because no one is in an epistemic position to say definitively what these are. We imperfect and fallible human reasoners inevitably have partial and somewhat distorted understandings of what is good and true and right. So you cannot win the moral right to use state power to carry out your favored ideology by saying “my view is true.”

The problem is that the burdens of epistemic judgment to which he is appealing apply in the mathematical and empirical realm just as much as in the moral realm. We are fallible, we make mistakes, we suffer from various forms of proclivities toward cognitive error, self-deception, rationalization, and the like. This is all true, but does not prevent its also being true that at any given time, some people do better at mathematical and empirical reasoning and inquiry than others, and we do better to bring it about that in choosing personal courses of action and public policy we follow the best guidance available. (We tend to use the honorific word “science” as a label for whatever set of procedures are the best we have at present for carrying out mathematical and empirical inquiry in a way that is best calculated to arrive at truth and avoid error.)

The comparison suggests a further point that is controversial but (in my view) sensible. Mathematical and empirical inquiry is hard, and we do better by deferring to experts. Moral inquiry is also hard, and we do better by deferring to experts. A democratic society will end up with better or worse policies depending on the good sense of the voters in their choices of experts upon whom to rely.

Many will balk at talk of moral experts on the grounds that empirical science has been spectacularly successful while moral science is in a shaky state. I agree that moral science is in a shaky state, but I deny that this eliminates the reasonableness of reliance on moral expertise and the claim that there are moral experts. One might compare the state of normative and evaluative and moral theorizing today to the state of natural science in the fourteenth century. Our scientific theories then were not very good, but there were still better and worse ways of going about empirical inquiry, and people who were doing it better and people who were doing it worse. The former deserved the deference of nonexperts.

Gaus may well object that the example of the Christian fundamentalist is a red herring. The relevant point is that the supposed moral experts disagree all over the map. So the advice to defer to moral experts is a nonstarter. I would respond that in so far as we really have no decisive reasons to embrace one rather than another of several moral views—utilitarianism, Lockean libertarianism, prioritarianism, and so on—we have no decisive reason to object to a government that consistently and steadily adheres to any one of the moral doctrines that is in the set of doctrines that might well be true for all we now know. This latitudinarianism only goes so far, and does not extend to having any good reason to accept as might-be-true-for-all-we-know a whole host of moral and religious worldviews that today contend for political influence. I would add that when it comes to real-world choices among policies, there is a lot of convergence among the policy recommendations of the genuinely reasonable moral principles when these are combined with epistemically responsible assertions about the empirical facts that bear on choice of public policy.

So maybe the main locus of disagreement between Gaus and me hinges on the best way to interpret the weasel word “reasonable.” Who qualifies as reasonable or reasonable enough? What are the reasonable-seeming views that according to our best current thinking might turn out to be true and are not decisively inferior to rival views, and so right now legitimately could be the basis for the public policies that a government enforces? I suspect that we would agree on drawing the line so that the Christian fundamentalist does not qualify, and the hard question is where exactly to draw the line.

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.