October 2011

In recent years, political philosophy has faced an embarrassment of riches. More and more, a range of plausible theories all compete with one another, and no one theory commands a consensus. Each of them is at least roughly liberal, yet there is no accord.

Professor Gerald Gaus, this month’s lead essayist, proposes to bring a measure of liberalism to philosophy itself, and to recognize that perhaps a range of different answers to these questions may each be sufficient to command at least practical support. He suggests, however, that actions in the sphere of politics are best justified on that fairly narrow range of reasons that are shared among all. This form politics, Gaus finds, is quite narrow, limited as he sees it to something much like Benjamin Constant’s liberty of the moderns — or, in other words, classical liberalism.

Has he found a path to consensus? Or will Gaus’s theory become yet another among many? The attempt is ambitious and has received a great deal of attention since the publication of his book The Order of Public Reason. To debate him, we’ve secured a panel of social theorists who will each offer their own perspectives. They are Richard Arneson of the University of California at San Diego, Eric Mack of Tulane University, and Peter Boettke of George Mason University. Discussion will continue throughout the month.


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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.