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.