BDS, Rawls, and “the Reasonable”

I’m curious what readers think of this New York Times piece on opposition to the BDS movement by the philosopher Joseph Levine (U Mass, Amherst). I myself don’t have a single univocal view on BDS; I agree with some aspects of it, and disagree with others. But I agree with Levine’s criticisms of the anti-BDS movement, which strikes me as sinister, dishonest, and dangerous (in part for the reasons he gives). Given that basic agreement, however, what struck my eye was Levine’s use of and reliance on Rawls’s conceptions of pluralism, comprehensive doctrines, and “the reasonable” to make his case. Is it uncharitably anti-Rawlsian to say that Levine’s appeal to Rawls is a pointless fifth wheel that does no useful work in his argument?

I’ve read my fair share of Rawls, but have never seen the point of (or argument for) the Rawlsian claim that appeal to comprehensive doctrines in political argument–in the context of “public reason”–is “unreasonable” simply qua comprehensive or unshared-by- others. The examples of unreasonability that Levine adduces are indeed examples of unreasonability, not because they appeal to “comprehensive doctrines,” but because they involve fallacious appeals to authority, poison the well, and are underdetermined by argument. As far as I can see, neither comprehensiveness nor not-being-widely-shared-by-others explains their unreasonability. So Rawls aside, it’s not clear to me why comprehensiveness is invoked.

Actually, one of the problems here is that it’s never been clear to me what counts as a “comprehensive doctrine,” or (given the usual criteria) why comprehensive doctrines fail the strictures of public reason qua comprehensive. In practice, “comprehensive doctrine” nowadays just seems like a code word for “religion,” but despite my own irreligiosity, I don’t quite see why considerations drawn from religion ought ipso facto to be regarded as unreasonable. Levine:

For example, when arguing over possible legal restrictions on abortion, it isn’t legitimate within a democracy to appeal to religious principles that are not shared by all legitimate parties to the dispute.

I’m pro-choice, but I don’t buy this. What isn’t “legitimate”–in a democracy or anywhere else–is to produce a bad argument for the anti-abortion position, or any other position. But I don’t see the illegitimacy involved if (say) a Catholic anti-abortionist offers me a straightforwardly Thomist (i.e., theistic) argument against abortion, whether in a private or in a public setting.

He’d have his work cut out for him, to be sure. First, he’d have to convince me of the existence of God. Then he’d have to convince me of the truth of Thomist Catholicism. After a few days of argument, we’d presumably get to discussing the metaphysics of the person as conceived (so to speak) by Thomist Catholicism. A little while later, we might start discussing abortion.  By month’s end, I suppose, we’d conclude the argument, and I’d walk away from it, either convinced or unconvinced by whatever he said. Tedious, yes–but illegitimate? And even if tedious, how much more tedious than any argument on abortion with anyone taking any position, comprehensive or otherwise? It’s a tedious topic, like all things connected with children. Some things you can’t blame on religion.

Nor do I see why considerations draw from a religion are necessarily drawn from a “comprehensive doctrine.” It’s not obvious to me that (e.g.,) “Judaic reasons” are ipso facto unreasonable, or that Judaism is a comprehensive doctrine. Half of the problem with religion is that it’s not comprehensive. The Torah has no position on the problem of universals. Jesus never discusses the pros and cons of consequentialism–or deontology. The Qur’an has no theory of original appropriation. And so on. I mean, read as theorist, it isn’t hard to avoid the sense that God would have had trouble holding his own through the average graduate seminar, or arguing his way out of the average paper bag. What is obvious, by contrast, is the appalling fucking stupidity of appealing to a centuries-old book to justify contemporary claims to ownership or sovereignty over land inhabited by people who reject the book’s authority to pronounce on the topic. But that’d be true whether the book’s claims originated with God or with Zillow. And real estate brokers aside, no one thinks that the Gospel According to Zillow is a comprehensive doctrine.

Fallaciousness and underdetermination by argument are sufficient conditions for unreasonableness, especially when combined with obnoxious tendentiousness, hypocrisy, and a desire to violate the rights of others. But “being a consideration drawn from a comprehensive doctrine” is neither necessary nor sufficient for fallaciousness, for underdetermination by argument, or (it seems to me) for unreasonability. And “being a consideration drawn from a Rawlsian-reasonable doctrine” hardly inoculates a claim from a charge of unreasonability. I don’t mean to suggest that Rawls would or did deny either claim. I just mean to suggest that once you take both claims seriously, a lot of what he said about reasonability and comprehensive doctrines comes to seem otiose. Or so it seems to me.

I’d put it this way: the reasonability or unreasonability of a claim depends not on the comprehensiveness of the doctrine from which it’s drawn, but on the content of the doctrine and the quality of the arguments offered in favor of it. Suppose that some comprehensive doctrine happens to be true, or happens to approximate the truth better than its rivals. If so, considerations based on that doctrine may well be a priori reasonable and easily defended by a competent advocate; it seems plausible to think that true doctrines are reasonable because they’re true, and easily defended for the same reason. Truth could be a dialectical asset. The reverse may be true of false doctrines: the further the doctrine stands from truth, the less reasonable it may seem, and the harder to defend–whether it’s drawn from a comprehensive doctrine or not.

Once you take these facts on board, it seems churlish to discriminate against adherents of comprehensive doctrines–or to discriminate in favor of those who refuse on principle to make reference to them. A claim’s provenance is beside the point, as is its functional or structural role in some doctrine. Likewise irrelevant is whether or not people share it or find it familiar. After all, if being-shared were a necessary condition for arguments offered within the context of public reason, public reason would have to require a blanket commitment to xenophobia: the considerations offered by foreign and distant peoples are by definition not shared by those foreign and distant to them. So if you think comprehensive doctrines are bad, watch out for multicultural ones! It all seems a mess of reductios to me, a mess that can be avoided by bypassing the constraints of Rawlsian public reason altogether. Isn’t the relevant consideration whether or not a consideration is likely to be true? If so, why insist on working within Rawlsian meta-considerations about argument in the first place?

In this light, the issue of specifically Rawlsian reasonableness strikes me as a red herring in discussing BDS, Zionism, Israel, and Palestine. You don’t need to appeal to Rawls to describe what’s wrong with a movement out to criminalize and demonize BDS. You just need to observe the movement and describe what you see.

This idea was put succinctly by Senator Chuck Schumer at the policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) in March, where he said, “Let us call out the B.D.S. movement for what it is. Let us delegitimize the delegitimizers by letting the world know when there is a double standard, whether they know it or not, they are actively participating in an anti-Semitic movement.”

It’s a claim more powerful in the assertion than in the proof. But you don’t need Rawls to demand proof, or to see that Chuck Schumer doesn’t have any.

Nor do you need Rawls to reject, say, Schumer’s Zionist appeals to the Torah:

“Now, let me tell you why — my view, why we don’t have peace. Because the fact of the matter is that too many Palestinians and too many Arabs do not want any Jewish state in the Middle East,” he said. “The view of Palestinians is simple: The Europeans treated the Jews badly, culminating in the Holocaust, and they gave them our land as compensation. Of course, we say it’s our land, the Torah says it, but they don’t believe in the Torah. So that’s the reason there is not peace. They invent other reasons, but they do not believe in a Jewish state, and that is why we, in America, must stand strong with Israel through thick and thin …”

It’s a little beside the point to demand a reason from someone who makes an “argument” like this–a legislator who makes no effort to offer a reason to accept his own view, while poisoning the well against the reasons you give for yours. But if you insist on getting a reason from a cretin of this sort, you just need to ask why the claims of the Torah ought to be believed, and then judge whatever reason he gives, assuming he gives one. What you need for that is a certain kind of patience, not the Collected Works of John Rawls.

The truth is, in a funny way, I agree with Schumer: there is no peace in Israel and Palestine precisely because people like him believe that God gave “us” the Land of Israel–where “us” excludes the people indigenous to that land, who are then expected to genuflect before the claims of somebody else’s deity while being accused of anti-Semitism for refusing to do so. Frankly, I’m gratified that Schumer said what he said out loud: it saves me the trouble of having to infer the claims he actually made from a disingenuous series of Rawls-inspired rationalizations designed to conceal them. What point would there be in demanding that Schumer re-translate the bullshit he believes into something more palatable than it is? Better bullshit taken straight than bullshit covered in Rawlsian frosting.

Throw out Levine’s appeals to Rawls, and you’re left with a better, more streamlined argument for what Levine wants to say. Leave the Rawls stuff in, and you’re left with a perfectly good argument unnecessarily cluttered with Rawlsian jargon. Maybe it’s unreasonable of me to put things that way. But it’s not as though you could make the accusation of unreasonability stick by identifying the comprehensive doctrine from which it derives.

Incidentally, for an excellent overall account of BDS and its fortunes, read this piece in The Guardian by Nathan Thrall. For a comprehensive (so to speak) account of the constitutionality of attempts to legislate against BDS, take a look at Lara Friedman’s work on the topic at the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Also worth reading on the same subject: stuff from the ACLU, and from the Center for Constitutional Rights. To the best of my knowledge, none of these authors invokes Rawls. And to the best of my knowledge, none of their arguments suffers in the least from their failure to do.

17 thoughts on “BDS, Rawls, and “the Reasonable”

  1. I’m with you on rejecting Rawlsian ‘political liberalism.’ I can’t be sure that I fully understand the idea, because in everything I’ve read defending it — by Rawls, Charles Larmore, and Martha Nussbaum — it’s seemed so problematic that I’ve always suspected I must be missing something. But I do have a few thoughts that might explain some of its appeal.

    First, one thing about the refusal to allow appeal to ‘comprehensive doctrines’ that your description above doesn’t get at is the idea that adherents of such doctrines can be and often are reasonable. The supposed fact that motivates rejection of appeals to comprehensive doctrines is reasonable pluralism. Very roughly, the idea is something like this: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, religious naturalists, and the like are all often reasonable in their adherence to their comprehensive views; but none of these is uniquely or pre-eminently reasonable; therefore to appeal in public reasoning — whether law, policy, or public deliberation — to principles endorsed by only some of these groups is itself unreasonable, because it disrespects those people by insisting that they accept principles that, though not unreasonable, are not rationally compelling. In order to properly respect citizens, law and government must appeal only to principles that all reasonable people can accept; since even reasonable comprehensive doctrines appeal to principles that reasonable people can reject, appeal to them fails to respect them as they deserve.

    Other rationales for Rawlsian political liberalism have been offered, but that’s an important part of the version that I know best, and it makes claims that your criticisms don’t directly address. It seems to me obvious, however, that your criticisms above point to a straightforward challenge to the view: no, dammit, not all ‘comprehensive doctrines,’ or at least not all appeals to ‘comprehensive doctrines’ are reasonable at all. It’s not that a belief that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews is reasonable but not rationally compelling; it’s that it’s not a reasonable belief at all, and we ought to reject appeals to it for that reason and not simply because other people don’t accept it.

    As a strategy for public discourse, the Rawlsian approach might actually be better than your more direct approach, but only if the Rawlsian approach were successful. If we’re arguing with people who really do believe that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews, it will probably be easier for us to sustain decent relations with those people if we can convince them merely that their view is not rationally compelling and therefore ought not to be the basis for law and policy than if we try to convince them that their view is just flat out unreasonable. As it happens, I think the Rawlsian approach has not been very successful in persuading anyone whose views it actually prohibits from public reason. One reason for this, it seems to me, is that, contrary at least to the strand of support that relies on the notion of respect for fellow citizens, it is not in fact much more respectful to many people who hold this or that comprehensive doctrine to tell them that they can’t appeal to it because it’s not uniquely reasonable than it is to tell them that they can’t appeal to it because it’s not reasonable. The deeper problem is that people who hold such views tend not to think that they’re just one reasonable option among many. So Rawlsian political liberalism is committed to fundamental disagreement with the views that it’s trying to avoid having to fight against.

    But one historical/cultural explanation for how this sort of view ever seemed plausible might be the predominantly Protestant character of religious thinking in the United States. After all, it’s from Protestants most especially that we hear ideas to the effect that religious belief is not something that we can arrive at or fully justify by reason, but only by an act of faith, understood as something supra-rational. Perhaps something like that is a part of most religious traditions, but fideism is primarily a Protestant phenomenon. Catholic thinkers, by contrast, have tended to think that while there are many important teachings that can only be known by faith, it can be shown to be rational to have that faith, even though faith itself requires something more than an act of rational judgment. Catholic thinkers have also tended to believe that many more important teachings are in fact knowable by reason without the aid of revelation. Within many strands of Protestantism, however, the idea is that the whole content of religious belief depends on faith and cannot be known by reason apart from revelation. If that’s the dominant understanding of religious belief — and Rawls’ own early Protestantism certainly seems to fit with it, though I haven’t read enough to know just what, if anything, he says about it, especially in his mature works — then it can begin to seem fairly innocuous to say that while a variety of rival religious beliefs are reasonable, none is rationally compelling. In fact, to say that would be simply to say what most thinkers in those religious traditions themselves said. It’s no more than a plausible hypothesis, but I suspect that assumptions like these played an important role in making Rawlsian political liberalism seem like something that religious believers could get on board with.

    It seems to me that many religious people in the US today in fact hold beliefs about the rational status of their religion that should make them pretty sympathetic to the Rawlsian picture. But many others do not. Most Catholic thinkers certainly do not. They hold, rather, that many important parts of the Church’s teaching can be known by reason unaided by any special revelation. This is one reason why I think your description of a hypothetical encounter with a Thomist is misleading; many and perhaps most Thomists hold that we can know, for instance, that abortion is unjust without any appeal to the existence, nature, or will of God, let alone any appeal to revealed truths about God. The notion that Catholics who argue against abortion in the public sphere are appealing to religious principles against their fellow citizens who do not share their religious faith is, at best, confused. In some suitably vague and amorphous sense of ‘religion,’ that’s what they’re doing, but in that same vague and amorphous sense, utilitarians and Kantians who argue against restrictions on abortion are doing the same thing. To their credit, some Rawlsian political liberals accept that many secular doctrines are comprehensive and therefore off-limits. But the arguments that Catholic thinkers actually give show how inadequate the whole notion of a ‘comprehensive doctrine’ is. Those arguments do not appeal to, and do not depend on, any supposedly revealed truths or on any supposed authority of the Church, scripture, or whatever; they appeal solely to grounds that are supposed to be available to all rational people. Those arguments, and that view, are of course parts of a broader view that we could reasonably call ‘comprehensive’ and that includes adherence to certain teachings of the Church on the basis of its supposed authority to transmit and teach truths revealed by God. Of course, Catholic thinkers disagree among themselves, and some argue that we can’t really know or have good reasons to believe these moral teachings apart from revelation. But that’s not the dominant view in the natural law tradition. So far as I can see, the Rawlsian concept of a ‘comprehensive doctrine’ makes no room for the kind of distinction that Christian natural law theorists make between what can and can’t be known apart from special revelation.

    I’ve no interest in defending Thomistic arguments against abortion, but it’s important to see that there is no good objection to them on the grounds that they appeal to religious principles that others do not accept. That can be true only in the same sense in which Mill’s utilitarianism appeals to religious principles that others do not accept, and if our concept of ‘religion’ stretches that far, it’s probably too flexible. In any case it would rule out pretty much any appeal to substantive moral claims. (This is one reason why I’ve been perplexed that Rawlsian political liberals are typically not libertarians; the attempt to rule out appeal to substantive moral claims on the grounds that not everyone accepts them seems like it most naturally leads in a very libertarian direction even if it is not most naturally motivated by libertarian sentiments.) It’s not just that there’s no obvious reason why we should rule out appeal to religious principles narrowly construed if they happen to be reasonable; it’s that Thomistic arguments appeal to religious principles only on a meaninglessly broad conception of ‘religion.’ The arguments don’t even presuppose or depend on theism, let alone on Christianity. Perhaps they seem plausible to some only on theistic and Christian assumptions, but that’s just not how their purported logic works.

    All that said, I think I might come down somewhere fairly close to Rawlsian political liberalism as a practical rather than theoretical matter. I do tend to think that there is a plurality of inconsistent religious views that reasonable people can hold (qua reasonable people, or at least qua not-unreasonable people), and I think law and policy should not presuppose the truth of any one of them. But that’s because that’s just how I judge the epistemic situation, not because I think there’s anything in principle wrong with appealing to controversial principles, or principles that are widely rejected, or whatever else is supposed to be involved in belonging to a comprehensive doctrine. As a pragmatic matter, it’s also obviously foolish to rest one’s case for law and policy on principles that are widely rejected, at least if successful persuasion of a large number of people is part of the goal. Perhaps we should go so far as to say that if a view or principle is sufficiently controversial, we should not rest our laws and policies on it because legitimate and stable government must secure the consent of at least many of the governed. But Rawlsian political liberalism seems to entail that we should not even attempt to persuade people in public discourse to adopt such views and principles. Whether or not it has that entailment depends, I guess, on what ‘public reason’ is, but why not allow people everywhere to appeal to as many arguments in favor of a view as they find reasonable?

    Charitably, I take the motivation behind Rawlsian political liberalism to be an attempt to find a way to agree on enough while acknowledging that reasonable people will continue to have deep disagreements on a number of important matters. That seems like an admirable goal, given the realistic alternatives. But I don’t find Rawlsian political liberalism a plausible or even wholly coherent way of attempting to achieve that goal. When it’s used instead as a reason to avoid offering legitimate criticisms of religious doctrines, it’s gone beyond uselessness or incoherence.


    • I agree with maybe 90% of that, and I’m guessing that much of the remaining “disagreement” can be explained away by misunderstandings produced by my newly-found desire to be brief when I post here. (One way of being brief, of course, is to fail to live up to promises to write, or to fail to write altogether. As an egoist, I make sure to keep the promises I make to myself, even when I violate the ones I make to others.)

      I agree on the first paragraph, but it prompts the question: have you read Kevin Vallier? I ask not because I have, but because he’s now the reigning expert on the topic.

      Everything you say in your second paragraph is true, and actually occurred to me as I wrote, since Levine himself alludes to the issue. But I avoided getting into the issue of reasonable versus non-reasonable comprehensive doctrines for two reasons. One is that I don’t think anyone but its adherents or sympathizers would regard Divine Command Zionism as a reasonable comprehensive doctrine; it’s obviously not reasonable, it’s not comprehensive, and it’s arguably not even a “doctrine.” But part of my point was that Levine’s use of Rawls was a fifth wheel in his argument. To the extent that reasonable pluralism provides the setting for Rawls’s argument, it’s a mystery why you’d drag Rawls into an argument about Divine Command Zionism. It’s actually a mystery why you would drag Rawls into any argument about Israel and Palestine, since the relevant issues there range far beyond the context Rawls took himself to be discussing. Rawlsians often conveniently seem to forget how parochial Rawlsian political philosophy is–by design.

      But the other reason is that the move from reasonable pluralism to rejection of comprehensive doctrines just seems to me to involve an misinference or a number of them. I don’t see any special connection between comprehensive doctrines (whether religious or secular) and acceptability to the principles that reasonable people can accept. Even if you agree that “In order to properly respect citizens, laws and government must appeal only to principles that all reasonable people can accept,” there is nothing about the principles of comprehensive doctrines that is harder for them to accept than the principles of any other kind of doctrine.

      The implication of the Rawlsian conception of public reason seems to be that the principles of comprehensive doctrines are harder for all to accept because those principles (a) are held by adherents who constitute a minority of the larger population, and (b) are constituents of comprehensive doctrines. But I don’t see why either thing explains why a principle should be more difficult to accept than any other principle. Take a doctrine “held” by many, and not part of any comprehensive doctrine. Couldn’t it be, on reflection, that such a doctrine is just as hard to accept as the reverse sort of doctrine? It becomes harder the more you demand a justification for it, whether accepted or not, or part of a comprehensive doctrine or not. You might discover, on reflection, that the doctrine’s being held by a lot of people concealed justificatory complexity that those supposed adherents were ignoring, at which point it “suddenly” becomes hard to accept the doctrine.

      Everybody accepts the presumption of innocence before guilt in criminal cases, or that searches and seizures ought to be reasonable, or a lot of other well-known legal maxims, but how many people understand what any of them means, or what justification there is for them? And how many jurors balk at the “accepted” meaning the minute they’re obliged to think about it? The exclusionary rule in criminal procedure is a classic example. “Everybody” accepts it. It’s part of no comprehensive doctrine. And yet it’s often very hard to swallow–a lot harder to swallow than a lot of doctrines with the reverse features. Why treat appeal to the exclusionary rule any differently than we treat appeal to divine revelation, natural law, the principle of utility, or eudaimonia as the final end of action? For that matter, why treat Mill’s methods of induction any differently than we treat his principle of utility? I see no convincing Rawlsian argument for making the relevant distinctions, and appeal to the rationale you sketch in your second paragraph doesn’t help (not that you accept it yourself).

      It’s telling, incidentally, that you (correctly) describe Rawls’s doctrine as one that requires respect for citizens. But not all political debates are debates among citizens. Sometimes they involve citizens and non-citizens. Suppose that the Americans are re-negotiating the Treaty of Fort Laramie with the Lakota and the Arapaho ca. 1868. Well, the latter aren’t citizens of the United States. Let’s say (unrealistically but ex hypothesi) that both parties are adherents of two different comprehensive doctrines. On the one hand, we can see why it would be counter-productive for agreement on the terms of the treaty to depend on both sides’ accepting the comprehensive doctrines of the other. But it strikes me as equally obvious that it’s counter-productive for one side to dictate to the other what principles are permissible in the discussion. It’s as though your first move, on coming to the negotiating table was to demand that the other side forget everything of importance to them, and get serious about the kind of treaty that anyone would find amenable, no matter who they were or what they believed.

      Rawlsians like to represent such situations in juridical terms, as though we had to agree on a set of “neutral” procedural principles as a condition of producing a fair agreement, where “neutral” means “neutral as between comprehensive doctrines.” That’s disputable enough as a characterization of legal principles in a judicial setting, but this hypothetical has the added problem of not taking place in a judicial setting. It’s not a constitutional convention, either. The clash between the parties’ comprehensive views is constitutive of the military clash that they’re trying to resolve through the would-be treaty. So it makes no sense to say, “Hey, let’s put aside our comprehensive disagreement, and just focus on some neutral principles that will facilitate our signing a treaty. I mean, we really need to get this over with, and get on with our lives, right?” The problem is not just that there are no such “neutral principles” (though there aren’t). The problem is that this way of approaching the task bypasses the very issues that explain the need for a treaty. In doing so, they appear to solve a practical problem at the price of ignoring the deeper normative problems that give rise to the practical problem. The result is a quid pro quo, not a genuine exemplification of justice.

      In the case of Israel/Palestine, this approach is characteristic of people who want the Palestinians to just begin every negotiation as though we had just entered the Year Zero and were starting the social world over from scratch. “Forget everything that’s important to you from the perspective of your comprehensive doctrine, and let’s just hammer out a peace treaty acceptable to everyone” is a losing proposition, but vaguely recognizable as having a Rawlsian pedigree.

      I agree with your third, fourth, and fifth paragraphs, and actually agree that my Thomist anti-abortion example was misleading.

      This is one reason why I think your description of a hypothetical encounter with a Thomist is misleading; many and perhaps most Thomists hold that we can know, for instance, that abortion is unjust without any appeal to the existence, nature, or will of God, let alone any appeal to revealed truths about God.

      I take your point. I hadn’t meant to imply that any Thomist argument against abortion would have to be a theistic one. My point was that it very well could be. A Thomist could claim that human law depends on natural law, and natural law depends on the eternal law, which itself depends on God’s existence. He could then say that the legitimacy of any human law, e.g., on abortion, ought ultimately to be judged by conformity to natural law, itself ultimately dependent on divine law, itself dependent on God’s existence. This may not be the best way of arguing, or the characteristic way in which Thomists actually argue; it probably isn’t best, and isn’t the usual approach I’ve encountered when talking to Thomists myself. But it’s a more-than-merely-conceivable Thomist argument.

      And my point was: call this argument as crude or implausible (or whatever) as you want; all the same, I wouldn’t exclude it from public discourse simply because it made reference to premises involving natural law, eternal law, or the existence of God. Maybe it’s not a good discursive strategy to argue this way, because arguments of this sort tend not to convince, but it isn’t a hard-and-fast Principle of Political Philosophy to insist that it’s unreasonable to argue in this way, not because the content of the argument is unreasonable, but because the argument follows from the principles of a comprehensive doctrine, Thomism. The reasonability or unreasonability of the argument has nothing to do with the comprehensiveness of the doctrine from which it derives.

      I agree with your last two paragraphs, but would just offer one friendly amendment:

      I do tend to think that there is a plurality of inconsistent religious views that reasonable people can hold (qua reasonable people, or at least qua not-unreasonable people), and I think law and policy should not presuppose the truth of any one of them.

      There is a plurality of inconsistent views that reasonable people can hold qua reasonable, religious and otherwise. The puzzle is why Rawlsians are, or Rawls-influenced discourse is, so fixated on the religious ones. I take it that this is the puzzle that animates some of Vallier’s work as well. I guess I just chafe under the requirement that in discussing any issue on which Rawlsian dogma impinges, I’m obliged (to paraphrase Nozick) to accept the Rawlsian framework, or explain why I don’t–in a context where no explanation counts as adequate until you’ve spent a few decades mastering the secondary literature. I haven’t mastered or even read it. I’ve just read enough of the primary text to cast doubt on the wisdom of venturing too far beyond it.


  2. I had a spare moment, and a spare thought on this general topic, so I thought I’d throw it out there.

    Though this is obviously not what Rawls actually says, in reading what he says on comprehensive doctrines, I’ve always thought that there was a different way of putting his point that cuts to the essence of what he’s trying to say. Think of it this way: Comprehensive doctrines in the relevant sense are foundationalist doctrines. Foundationalist doctrines have a two-part structure of foundation and superstructure, where the foundation asymmetrically supports the superstructure, which in turn is somehow “derived” from it. The defining idea is that “justification” reduces to epistemic justification, and epistemic justification itself reduces to asymmetric linear justification (p justifies q but not vice versa). Even if coherentist elements are involved, so that you get some sort of “foundherentism,” qua foundationalist, the coherentist elements play secondary role while the foundationalist ones are primary.

    So in justifying an institution–like the state, or redistribution, or warfare, or whatever–you ask first about the underlying ideology that would justify it, cashing that out in doxastic terms. You then distinguish foundation and superstructure, and either derive the superstructure from the foundation, or trace the superstructure back to the foundation, insisting on asymmetric linear justification all the while. (The contrast with the method of reflective equilibrium should be obvious.)

    Suppose that what Rawls calls “comprehensive doctrines” can, one way or aonther, all be modeled on this sort of foundationalist structure. I think Rawls’s tacit underlying claim is that foundationalisms are politically toxic, or perhaps that politicized foundationalisms are generally toxic. What’s toxic about them is the combination of reductionism and rigorism they involve: on a foundationalist account, nothing can be justified (including welfare-conducive institutions like government) unless we identify the beliefs behind it, then organize those beliefs into a two-tiered structure, then fit every belief without remainder into that structure. One worry you might have about these strictures is that they’re unrealistic or overly constraining. Put differently, you might regard them as inhuman. On top of that, they’re politically disruptive. On a foundationalist account, you can problematize just about any belief (including beliefs easily justified on a contextualist account) by setting it off on a justificatory regress, and taking the regress as far as it’ll go short of infinity: indeed, that’s arguably what foundationalism demands.

    So there’s a sense in which foundationalist conceptions of justification have no account of the distinctively political, or of a distinctively political conception of justification: there are no justificatory stopping points but The Foundations Themselves. But politics demands intermediate justificatory stopping points; it demands an arche or archai of its own that foundationalism can’t supply. So it’s one thing if people want, in private life, to hold themselves to crazy-ass foundationalist standards (a la Descartes’ Meditations). But when they hold others to them, political life suffers. Descartes’ Meditations applied to politics is a recipe for disaster.

    From this perspective, Lockean libertarianism is a paradigm example of a foundationalist politics. Self-ownership (or divine conferral of self-ownership) is the foundation, and the rest of the Lockean political apparatus is the superstructure. Locke’s empiricist epistemology implies that the whole structure can somehow be traced back to ideas whose basis can itself be traced back to sensory evidence plus reflection. (And Randian Objectivism has a similar structure.) Perhaps that explains why (Vallier aside) libertarians tend not to be enamored of Rawls’s account of reasonable pluralism, and vice versa. There is a real sense in which Locke’s politics is a kind of applied Cartesian epistemology.

    Obviously, I’m putting all of these words into Rawls’s mouth. He says none of this. But I think it’s a fair way of capturing what he does say, and perhaps a sharper and clearer way. Put this way (my way), I have a certain sympathy for what “Rawls” is “saying.” Less so for the way he actually puts things.


    • Late getting back to the game, but I thought I’d write briefly that I’m not convinced that Rawls’ concerns are best understood this way (whether some or other Rawlsians’ concerns are best understood this way is a different question). It may be important to remember that Rawls came to regard his view in ToJ (or at least the first edition of ToJ) as itself a comprehensive doctrine. I’m not sure I understand him rightly on this point, but I take it that he thought the general view of ‘justice as fairness’ could still be defended politically rather than ‘metaphysically,’ but that he had himself not defended it that way in ToJ. This is important because ToJ contains all the business about reflective equilibrium and opposition to foundationalism that you make central to political liberalism. I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no connection, but only that the connection can’t be as tight as you seem to have suggested; the rejection of foundationalist moral epistemology might be a necessary condition for political liberalism, but it seems implausible to regard it as a driving force. After all, one might take the lesson of anti-foundationalism to be that we have to let more views into the dialectical debate, not that we should restrict the range of views to those which can secure overlapping consensus. Especially when we remember what goes on in part 3 of ToJ, it should be clear that ToJ rests its case for justice as fairness on claims that cannot plausibly be the objects of overlapping consensus. No doubt if we embrace a strong form of foundationalism and are not skeptics, we will have a hard time accepting political liberalism, because we will think that a uniquely reasonable set of moral claims follows deductively from self-evident foundational principles. But one can reject foundationalism and still hold a ‘comprehensive doctrine.’ I have never embraced Rawlsian political liberalism, but I have also not been a foundationalist for about as long as I’ve known what foundationalism is (I actually might be a kind of weak foundationalist now, but I think the resulting view is much closer to Rawlsian coherentism than to classical foundationalism, so I think the point still stands).

      I might be misunderstanding just how you see anti-foundationalism operating here, but I think sincere belief in reasonable pluralism is the real issue. I have a sincere belief in reasonable pluralism, so I certainly do not think that it should lead us to Rawlsian political liberalism. But I do think that’s the driving force behind it. Foundationalism might be one of the many things about which there is a reasonable plurality of incompatible views.

      I’m tired enough now that I’m no longer confident that I’m making any sense, so I’ll stop.


      • I’m yet later getting back to this party, but of course at PoT, there is no such thing as “late” unless one takes it to mean “dead”: every conversation here is open-ended and eternal.

        I hadn’t meant my comments as any more than suggestive, but I think they are suggested by what Rawls says in Political Liberalism about “basic structure as subject” (Lecture VII). Rawls describes his view as a specifically political conception of justice, to be contrasted with theories like utilitarianism and Nozick- or Rothbard-inspired libertarianism (“Lockean libertarianism”), which are not specifically political in his sense. A political conception adopts specifically political archai (“first principles”) that are justified on coherentist grounds, and are detached from any broader meta-ethical structure or considerations. They’re not subordinate to higher-order or superordinate meta-ethical or ethical principles. By contrast with that, what both utilitarianism and Lockean libertarianism have in common is that they are “completely general” theories (PL, p. 262). What Rawls means by this is what I was sketching out in my comment: his point is that both utilitarianism and Lockean libertarianism have meta-ethical (rather than specifically political) foundations, where those foundations drive the superstructure of the theory without the need to introduce autonomous political considerations.

        In other words, if you’re a utilitarian, you adopt the principle of utility on meta-ethical grounds (e.g., by adopting Mill’s proof of it in Utilitarianism), and you then let that (not specifically political) principle drive or determine the content of the rest of the normative theorizing you do, whether ethical or political. As Rawls conceives it, utilitarians just adopt the principle of utility and calculate what it demands in various contexts, accepting the implications regardless of the political consequences. If the principle of utility says that you create an overseas empire, well then: you create one. If it tells you to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki, then as long as your calculations are right, you bomb them. And so on. There is no intermediate principle of justice with content autonomous of the principle of utility that functions as intermediary between principle of utility and concrete political deliberation. There may be utilitarian principles of justice, of course, but the content of these principles is wholly determined by the principle of utility. (It’s not really clear to me that this is the view that Mill actually holds, but it’s what Rawls takes “utilitarianism” to hold.)

        Likewise, mutatis mutandis, for Lockean libertarianism. Lockean libertarianism starts with self-ownership (or God’s conferral of self-ownership on us) as a basic foundational principle. As Rawls reads it, the rest of the theory is driven or determined by this fundamental commitment. In that respect (though not necessarily in any other), Lockean libertarianism is structurally isomorphic to utilitarianism and differs from Rawlsian political liberalism. Lockean libertarian politics is simply the working-out, in a political context, of the implications of Lockean self-ownership. It “rejects the idea that special first principles are required for the basic structure” (PL, p. 262). “[I]t has no place for a special theory of justice for the basic structure” (PL, 265).

        What he says about utilitarianism and Lockean libertarianism applies, I think, to the other comprehensive doctrines he discusses. It’s not an explicit part of the contrast he draws between comprehensive moral conceptions and political conceptions of justice (PL, pp. 11-15), but if you read between the lines, I think he means that the contrast is clearest with respect to theories that have a foundationalist structure.

        Incidentally, one thing that gets confusing here is something I tried to discuss in my dissertation: there’s a distinction between foundationalism as a theory of epistemic justification, and foundationalism as an account of the meta-structure of a normative theory. The first says that every epistemically justified belief falls within a foundational/superstructural location within an agent’s cognitions. The second describes theories that have a foundational/superstructural structure whether or not they involve a commitment to foundationalism as a theory of epistemic justification. The two commitments can go together, but need not, and often do not. The problem is that they’re often run together. I think Rawls runs them together, and that makes some of what he has to say on the subject more than a little confusing.

        That said, I’m not disagreeing that reasonable pluralism is a major source of or motivation for Rawls’s views on comprehensive political doctrines. I think both considerations are operating.


        • Your point about Rawls running two sorts of anti-foundationalism together is helpful. I’m not sure how right it is, but I think that’s in part because the Rawls of ToJ and the Rawls of PL might not agree even on the things that the empirical Rawls said that they do. For instance, I think it’s entirely plausible to read ToJ as defending a foundationalist normative theory in your sense, though of course the moral epistemology there is a thoroughgoing coherentist one: whether we identify the foundation as the conjunction of the greatest equal liberty principle and the difference principle or find it in the ideal of the person elaborated most fully in part 3 (because that ideal is supposed to be what makes the whole Original Position setup the appropriate way to think about justice), what we get look to me like principles that play a foundational role in the normative theory relative to the rest of the theory. Perhaps I’m not understanding what you mean by a foundational/superstructural structure correctly. But if I am, then justice as fairness seems to have that kind of structure, even though the justification for the theory is not supposed to be offered in a foundationalist way. Now of course, in PL — and elsewhere in work after ToJ — Rawls regards the original theory as metaphysical rather than political. But he also thinks that we should still endorse the principles once we embrace political liberalism. That leaves me confused about what he is and isn’t changing, and what that can have to do with foundationalism in any sense; if he thought that in PL he was rejecting his own earlier normative foundationalism, he couldn’t simply be conflating the two, but then, what exactly is supposed to be the difference between justice as fairness as a metaphysical conception and justice as fairness as a political one?

          No doubt the deepest source of trouble here is that I have not read PL closely. I couldn’t quite bring myself to. ToJ strikes me as deserving its reputation as one of the leading works of 20th century political philosophy, and well worth reading. His early stuff on political liberalism convinced me that the whole project was misconceived, and nothing I’ve seen from anyone else has convinced me that it’s worth reading 500 pages of a desperate attempt to avoid commitments to the truth of one’s political convictions when there are so many other interesting books I haven’t read yet. So I may just be confused in part because I’m only familiar with the less developed form of political liberalism.

          In any case, I am certainly moved by considerations about reasonable pluralism. But I don’t see how political liberalism, whether as Rawls developed it or as it’s formulated by Nussbaum, could be a viable way to address it. So however we might diagnose the problems with Rawls’ thinking, I think we’re agreed about the basics here.


          • and nothing I’ve seen from anyone else has convinced me that it’s worth reading 500 pages of a desperate attempt to avoid commitments to the truth of one’s political convictions when there are so many other interesting books I haven’t read yet

            Nothing? Not even how much fun it might be?


              • Believe it or not, I actually have read just about everything Rawls ever wrote, the only exception being his undergraduate thesis, which was too much even for me. (As I’m sure you know, his undergraduate thesis was A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith, a book I definitely intend to read sometime after I get through Aquinas on angelic interaction).

                Since it’s obvious that someone has to be blamed for this, I blame Michael Young. Michael and I had (and sort of still have) this informal philosophy discussion group, very loosely intended to re-live our experiences in the early Objectivist “movement,” which we pretentiously called “The McCormick-Taber Philosophy Seminar.” Besides Michael and me, it included the eminent ethicist Jason Raibley and the eminent Aristotle scholar Carrie-Ann Biondi.

                Anyway, one year, Michael got it into his head that we should all read Rawls’s Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, which we grudgingly did. This bizarrely induced me to decide to read all of Rawls, to get a “synoptic view” of the Rawlsian project. So I did. I trudged through every fucking word–the revised edition of Theory of Justice, the Collected Papers, Political Liberalism, the Lectures, Law of Peoples, everything. I still don’t really know why.

                But I came away from it all rather impressed–impressed, if nothing else, by the sheer scope of the Rawlsian endeavor and the sheer amount of productivity he invested in it. It was an education.

                In other words, size matters.

                Liked by 1 person

  3. I never got to Rawls, beyond what I learned from Nozick when his ASU was issued. But offhand it sounds like Rawls was a descendant of not only Kant, but the contra-Kant Dewey. These bits came to mind, Irfan, form an earlier, incomplete study of mine.
    Dewey thought the philosophers had been largely mistaken about what they were doing. They thought they were seeing into and reporting “ultimate reality, or the essential nature of things.” In fact they had been telling of “nature and life and society in terms of collective human desire and aspiration as these were determined by contemporary difficulties and struggles” (GPP10–11). I would say Dewey is straining what philosophy had been to force it into a mold of what he now—having turned from Hegelianism to Pragmatism—thought it should be.
    I notice that that conception of philosophy, and of ideas in general would tend towards dampening whatever responsibility for the present calamity an influential philosopher might bear on account of the influence of his ideas in bringing about the calamity. To the extent that a philosopher was a voice of what people in his culture already thought, perhaps inchoately, his responsibility would be mitigated. To the extent that the conscious aim of his thought was truth regardless of practical consequences, his moral responsibility for the present killing fields would be further mitigated. On the other hand, Dewey thought that philosophers looking for ultimate reasons in existence and locating them in super-sensory realms was a way of off-loading responsibility that would and should come from engaging in practical experimental philosophy (1910, 17–18). Though he does not say so explicitly, that would suggest that the intellectual irresponsibility of rationalistic and otherworldly philosophers is of practical, moral consequence.
    . . .
    Dewey’s 1915 effort to find philosophical roots of Germany’s disastrous attitudes and behavior in the sharp differences between the critical philosophy of Kant and his own philosophy of pragmatic experimentalism (or empiricism) goes overboard. Dewey thinks dangerous “the mental habitudes generated by attachment to a priori categories” (GPP 40), dangerous that “no moral, social, or political question is adequately discussed in Germany until the matter in hand has been properly deduced from an exhaustive determination of its fundamental Begriff [concept] or Wesen [essence]. Or if the material is too obviously empirical to allow of such deduction, it must at least be placed under its appropriate rational form” (GPP 41–42). It is plain that “the whole modern liberal social and political movement has allied itself with philosophical empiricism” (GPP 44). Think of Locke or Mill. “A hierarchically ordered and sub-ordered State will feel an affinity for a philosophy of fixed categories, while a flexible democratic society will, in its crude empiricism, exhibit loose ends” (GPP 44).
    By the way, Rawls was put into a coherent, neat scheme of jurisprudence by David A. J. Richards in his SEX, DRUGS, DEATH, AND THE LAW. I reviewed that in the 80’s, but by the end of that decade, I’d stopped studying political philosophy.


    • I haven’t read enough of Dewey to comment intelligently, except to say that there is a certain similarity between Rawls and your characterization of Dewey, but I don’t know how far it goes. The one and only work of Dewey’s that I’ve read is his short monograph Experience and Education (1938). The only reason I read it is that for one reason or another, I was saddled with having to teach Philosophy of Education, something I didn’t want to do, and the Dewey text was part of the syllabus I inherited from someone else. I went in prejudiced against it, but came out changed for the better by it: the book convinced me to make my pedagogical methods more pragmatic and experiential than they’d previously been, which I regard as an improvement. So while I’ve heard-tell about the version of Dewey you describe, it’s evidently not the part of Dewey I’m familiar with–not that I’m familiar with very much.


    • Actually, one thing I’d say without having read the relevant part of Dewey is just that it strikes me as deeply implausible to try “to find the philosophical roots of Germany’s disastrous attitudes and behavior” by hunting through Kant. It’s just prima facie implausible, maybe even ridiculous, to think that you could explain, say, Germany’s entry into World War I, or its insistence on prosecuting the war to its end, by reflecting on Kaiser Wilhelm’s or Hindenburg’s or Ludendorf’s implicit commitment to the Transcendental Dialectic. The distance between the two things is just too obvious, and too big, to permit the one thing to explain the other.

      I can’t be sure that that’s what Dewey has in mind, but if it is, that really seems preposterous–as preposterous as Leonard Peikoff’s apparently kindred effort to explain the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich by analogous means. Having recently re-read The Ominous Parallels while reading more conventional historiography on the rise of the Nazis, I’m flabbergasted at what Peikoff tries to do in that book–how weak his explanation is, how cavalier he is in dealing with rival explanations, and how much moral blackmail he uses to conceal both facts. I can’t imagine that Dewey is as bad as that, but in general, the approach strikes me as very dubious.


      • Oh yes, that’s what Dewey had in his sites to do. And when the Nazi’s came to power and started another war, Dewey dusted off his old 1915 essay, adapted it a bit to fold in the Nazi’s, and put it out there again. A couple of German-American philosophers disputed his story. I wanted to report on all that and Peikoff’s try in this area in the future installments of my study. Peikoff got going, maybe 25 years Dewey’s WWII paper, with trying to again put together a story along those lines, though skipping any such story about WWI and going just to the Nazis and how that all ended. One thing I wanted to learn was how the story told in terms of the Experimental Pragmatist would differ from the story told by the Objectivist. But I got derailed by some other studies and serialized essays on some other topic. It is still possible I’ll finish my account of the two American tales of German Philosophers from Kant on, mainly Kant, to the subsequent social catastrophes in Germany. But at the earliest, that would be after 2023, when I hope to have completed my book (which does not deal with any political philosophy). I agree that the burden, very stiff burden of proof was on Dewey and on Peikoff.

        Robert Campbell knows some Spencer and talk of connection to the Nazi calamity, if I recall correctly. Near the end of Robert J. Richards’ book on Haeckel, he mentions a book by Richard Weikart, FROM DARWIN TO HITLER. He notes as well that sort of story in biological thought influencing and bearing significant responsibility for the rise of the Nazis also from Stephen Gould and from Daniel Gasman. Richards has some wisdom on that sort of thing. I continue to add books to my personal library on areas I may never get back to. One waiting unstudied from 2017 is a collection of essays edited by Zuckert and Kreines under the title HEGEL ON PHILOSOPHY IN HISTORY.

        I say 2013 because that’s when I’ll be 75, so I’m trying to get the book done by then. Although, even if I arrive to that year with book done and mind still capable, it’s possible I’d be churning out papers on further developments from the work set out in the book, and nothing political or historical. Or maybe, at last, I’d try to stop, try writing more poetry and finally reading so much of the great fiction I never had time for these decades of nonfiction writing and study.

        Liked by 1 person

          • Also, 2023, not 2013. Good night. Hope Robert does no get hit badly with the playout of Florence. We’re glad the playout has shifted from us to farther south. Ethics too has its dismal side. We were in a cab from downtown on Lake Shore Drive many years ago, when we saw a lot of smoke coming from our neighborhood. I said the commonplace “I sure hope that’s not our place.” It was not, rather it was the grocery store around the corner from us. So in the years since then I like to ask people if that is selfish to hope that way when you know perfectly well that if it’s not your place burning, it’s someone else’s. So far, they’ve said I’m morally in the clear, whatever about the selfishness.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I wouldn’t worry about it. If someone’s place is burning, and you didn’t torch it, I don’t see how it can be wrong to hope that it’s not your place.

              Of course, sometimes karma makes an appearance and makes you wonder. I spent a lifetime passing by calamities and saying, “I’m glad that’s not me”–until my house burned down. I’m not superstitious but…it did seem like condign justice, somehow, for all the unsavory wishing of bad things on others. I remember getting a call to the effect that our place was on fire, then driving there thinking that surely the fire couldn’t be very big, because after all, places where I live don’t just burn down.

              When we got to our street, the whole block was cordoned off, and my first reaction was inwardly to chide the fire department for shutting down the whole block for “such a small, inconsequential fire.” But when we got to our building, I remember thinking that things looked so very odd, especially for “such a small, inconsequential fire”: something was missing. When I saw the Red Cross waiting for us, I knew we were in trouble.

              Fact is, whenever I see or read about a fire, I still say either “Glad it’s not our place,” or “Hope it’s not our place.” The difference is that whenever I make the turn for our street, a part of me wonders whether the house will actually be there. So far, so good.

              Liked by 1 person

  4. Not quite what Levine was talking about, but obviously related:

    How much Rawls does anyone need to question the Education Department’s equation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, or to question the wisdom of Kenneth Marcus’s pursuing this case against Rutgers? And how would an appeal to Rawls’s conception of reasonable pluralism or public reason help on either front?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s