The Idea of Public Reason Rejected

From this article in The New York Times. Michael, David, and I were making fun of Rawlsian public reason last night in our weekly philosophy discussion group, but then stuff like this comes down the pike, and you think, “Hey, we’re not denying that Rawls was addressing a real problem…”

The zeal to embody the whole truth in politics is incompatible with an idea of public reason that belongs with democratic citizenship.

–John Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” Collected Papers, p. 574.

Actually, strictly speaking, Rawlsian public reason doesn’t rule out the “conversation” in the video: the strictures of Rawlsian public reason only apply to “government officials and candidates for public office,” and mercifully, none of the parties to this conversation satisfy that description. But the longer you watch, the more plausible epistocracy starts to seem.

“Watch the whole thing,” as they say.  Treat it as an exercise in “toleration,” and see how far you get. I mean, hell, it’s not even two hours long.

5 thoughts on “The Idea of Public Reason Rejected

  1. I’m not so sure that the idea of public reason limits its restrictions to “government officials and candidates for public office” — given that the notion of political liberalism is supposed to lead us to avoid philosophical theorizing that appeals to comprehensive doctrines — but I don’t think it matters much. The idea of public reason clearly excludes the possibility of government and law implementing the principles and policies of the Black Hebrew Israelites. So it may not entail that the Black Hebrew Israelites should not go out in public and express their views or try to persuade people to accept them, but it does entail that the Black Hebrew Israelites’ controversial comprehensive doctrines cannot be the basis for anything that law or government does. How likely is it that the Black Hebrew Israelites will accept this bracketing of their own views? How reasonable would it be for them, in light of those views, to accept that bracketing? Perhaps Rawlsians will hesitate to include the Black Hebrew Israelites in the group of reasonable people or to include their doctrines in the list of controversial doctrines about which reasonable people may disagree. I certainly wouldn’t be inclined to describe them or their views as reasonable, and I’m more than comfortable with law and government appealing to political principles that exclude the views of the Black Hebrew Israelites and even firmly denounce them as false. The trouble with the idea of public reason as it figures in political liberalism, though, is just that there do not seem to be suitably non-comprehensive, non-controversial, or neutral grounds to so exclude them. It’s not enough that their views are minority views or that most people reject them (at least, Rawlsians as I understand them rightly do not suppose that unpopularity is the measure of unreasonableness). Of course in some sense we can exclude the Black Hebrew Israelites’ doctrines by appeal to principles that they themselves could accept, but only because anyone capable of reasoning could in principle accept any reasonable (or not so reasonable) view — we could all accept Nozickian libertarianism or Marxist communism. They cannot, I take it, accept the principles that exclude their view without abandoning their view — so if the criterion of acceptability is that people can accept a principle consistently with their controversial view, then the criterion is too weak to exclude the Black Hebrew Israelites. They cannot take seriously the proposal to bracket their controversial commitments without abandoning those commitments or modifying them so considerably as to count as exchanging them for different commitments. The political liberal should be troubled by this; I do not think we should be troubled by it, and that is one reason why I reject political liberalism.

    In a weaker version, the idea of public reason is a good one: if all it says is that we should avoid legislating issues on which there is deep and widespread disagreement, and that public officials should avoid appealing to principles on which there is similarly deep and widespread disagreement, then it does not lead us into the problem of excluding certain views on the basis of our own controversial principles while purporting to avoid appeal to controversial principles. The trouble arises when we insist on taking the bracketing strategy all the way down (or all the way up, I suppose, depending on our metaphors for principles) and applying the idea of public reason to itself. It is itself not immune to reasonable disagreement, but that is no reason to refuse to defend it or appeal to it; it is a reason to argue for it rather than simply appealing to it as though it were an incontestable truth or treating those who reject it as though they were ipso facto unreasonable and beyond the pale. One of the ironies of political liberalism is that it is supposed to be motivated by the desire to respect fellow citizens with whom we disagree deeply, but it instead ends up requiring us to say of many of them that they are not even sufficiently reasonable to take part in genuine discussion.

    But then some people are sufficiently unreasonable that it is not really worth taking part in genuine discussion with them. My impression of the folks in the video is that they are such people. We should not console ourselves with reminders of how small a group the Black Hebrew Israelites are, though; much of their style of reasoning, if it is really reasoning, is familiar Christian fundamentalist fare. They disagree about details, but when we peel away the veneer of historical conspiracy theory, many of their claims could have come almost verbatim from any of a much larger number of American religionists. The complaint that American law “give[s] faggots rights” even though “the Bible condemns homosexuality” is hardly the preserve of some lunatic fringe of folks with heterodox genealogical theories. People willing to make that sort of claim are not going to be persuaded to bracket their religious convictions in the name of Rawlsian public reason. Trying to convince them to do that would not just be pointless, but wrongheaded; if we’re going to try to convince them of anything, it should be that their views are unreasonable, not that they have some sort of grounds independent of the truth to bracket their convictions for certain purposes.


    • Well, I hadn’t meant to be defending public reason either last night (when I was making fun of it), or in the post, so I’ll leave that task to all the Rawlsians who read Policy of Truth, assuming that that isn’t a description of the null set. But the restriction I quote is a direct quotation from Rawls, who elaborates on it throughout section 1 of “Idea of Public Reason Revisited.”

      What he says on the subject is much clearer and more thorough than my jokes at his expense–or your comments–would suggest. I can’t quote the whole thing, but in his defense he says that the idea of public reason “has a definite structure, and if one or more of its aspects are ignored it can seem implausible, as it does when applied to the background culture” (p. 574). “It is imperative to realize that the idea of public reason does not apply to all political discussions of fundamental questions, but only to discussions of those questions in what I refer to as the public political forum” (p. 575). The latter phrase refers to judges, executive officials, and legislators, where that includes some of their staff. He then sits around for a few pages splitting hairs about who is included and who isn’t, with footnotes elaborating on the elaborations. He’s earnestly at pains to tell us that it doesn’t apply to “conversations” like the one in the video. I almost felt like apologizing to him at that point. “Look Jack, I get it: public reason is severely restricted; we were just joking around, man…”

      As for this,

      The idea of public reason clearly excludes the possibility of government and law implementing the principles and policies of the Black Hebrew Israelites.

      Well, yeah. I’d hate to confront the conception that didn’t! What political conception wouldn’t exclude that possibility?

      The rest of what you say about the Black Hebrew Israelites strikes me as dependent on a hugely over-charitable description of their views. It’s not just that their views are lacking in the usual measures of reasonability. The more accurate way of putting it is that their views are really fucking stupid–and offensively so. I know my share of Wahhabi fanatics, but not even a Wahhabi fanatic would say that the Native Americans were expropriated, enslaved, and subjected to mass killing–and justifiably so–because they worshiped eagles or totem poles. That’s literal Holocaust denial–arguably worse than the pro-Nazi kind because even pro-Nazi apologetics have a plausibility lacking in what the Black Hebrew Israelites are saying. (David Irving may be wrong and evil, but he makes more sense than them.)

      It’s not just that the claims are idiotic, though they’re that; nor is it that they either express or depend on the equivalent of Flat Earth Historiography, though there’s that. It’s that the ratio of fallacies to argumentation is bad enough to make listening to these people a complete waste of time (hence my attempt at humor about listening all the way through the video). If you were a legislator, and the BHI showed up at your office, you might give them maybe five or ten minutes of pro forma attention, whether out of politeness or protocol or whatever, but then you’d either have to kick them out or call security to have them thrown out. As a judge, you’d have to take their claims seriously if they came up in a legal case in which they had standing, but doing so would be a matter of bracketing most of their theological-historical-political beliefs, and just adjudicating whatever case you had before you on legal grounds. It’s hard to see how a legal case could require you to take the content of their distinctively theological (etc.) beliefs seriously, though I suppose you might have to take seriously the fact that they take those beliefs seriously.

      So yes, public reason brackets their beliefs, but so would any half-way plausible comprehensive doctrine, or just plain old common sense stripped of theoretical trappings. I don’t have as much experience with Christian fundamentalists as you do, but if their views are as dumb and offensive as the BHI’s, all I can say is that they deserve a similar fate. Some views have to be ignored, and these are it.

      That said, if the Black Hebrew Israelites refused consent to government in an idealized consent situation, and demanded to be left in a Lockean State of Nature free of obligations to the State, I’d be the first to give them what they said they wanted. And also the first to hold them to the agreement. “A covenant is a covenant, guys. Right?” No public reason for me.


      • Perhaps I’m just conflating the idea of public reason with political liberalism more generally. Or perhaps I’m mistakenly supposing that Rawlsians don’t regard their political philosophical writings as part of the public political forum.

        Obviously I’m not trying to argue that BHI views should be included in public discussion or taken seriously. My point is that a doctrine of political liberalism, consistently and self-referentially applied, will have trouble excluding views like theirs. This involves no charity to them at all, and the deeper problem has nothing to do with them in particular, but with the far more widespread — and far more ably defended — versions of views broadly like theirs. Perhaps these fellas would fail a test of reasonableness that didn’t measure reasonableness by failure to endorse views that political liberals regard as substantively reasonable, but a good number of people who could score pretty well on a non-tendentious measure of rationality nonetheless endorse views relevantly like theirs (e.g., the Bible condemns homosexuality, so our society, including its government and laws, should too). The point is not that these guys are reasonable and so we shouldn’t exclude their views; it’s not even really that excluding their views requires resources that are in fact subject to disagreement among reasonable people (though that is among the problems). It’s that there’s something utterly wrongheaded about refusing to reject these views by appeal to ideas subject to reasonable disagreement. The problem with these views is not that they seek to impose some controversial view on others; it’s that their view — and not just the most obviously ludicrous part of their view — is ridiculous. It is not objectionable for the same reasons that political liberalism would find Sartrean existentialists or Marxist perfectionists or postmodern Christians seeking to use the state as an instrument of their comprehensive views unreasonable. To refuse to appeal to truth against BHI and broadly similar views — even if only the truth about what is and isn’t a justified belief — is perverse. We should not hesitate to appeal to elements of our controversial ‘comprehensive views’ against ideas like these; we should join the many people who hold views different from our own but nonetheless concur in condemning things like BHI.

        This may be a point about the idea of political liberalism rather than the idea of public reason, but ultimately I do not really see why we should want public officials to avoid rejecting views like BHIs on the grounds that gay people are people with the dignity and rights of people rather than on the grounds that Biblical condemnations of homosexuality are inadmissible grounds for official action.


        • I wasn’t commenting on Rawlsian political liberalism as such, only on public reason. As a criticism of the idea of public reason, I think your criticism misses the mark.

          Or perhaps I’m mistakenly supposing that Rawlsians don’t regard their political philosophical writings as part of the public political forum.

          Rawls doesn’t regard such writing as part of the forum of public reason. In fact, he goes out of his way to insist that it’s “imperative to realize” that he doesn’t. The idea of public reason turns out to be a very narrow one modeled on the idea of procedure in a court room. It doesn’t apply to philosophical writing or discussion per se.

          I also don’t see the problem Rawls has in excluding the BHI from the scope of public reason.

          The trouble with the idea of public reason as it figures in political liberalism, though, is just that there do not seem to be suitably non-comprehensive, non-controversial, or neutral grounds to so exclude them.

          “Neutrality” is a red herring. In “The Priority of the Right and Ideas of the Good,” Rawls addresses the issue of neutrality and says that justice as fairness is not neutral in every sense in which that term is used in political philosophy, but only in a very specific sense with respect to comprehensive theories of the good. So we’d need to get into the textual weeds to figure out what sense is relevant here, but it seems to me all that Rawls needs to say is that the BHI’s political conception violates basic norms of justice on any plausible conception (which it does), and he’s home free. I’d need to see an argument for why he’s not entitled to say just that much. In any case, his view doesn’t require wholesale neutrality. Rawls is sophisticated enough of a writer as to have self-consciously dealt with criticisms like this ahead of time, and have a response. A criticism that doesn’t deal with what he has to say isn’t going to succeed.

          Non-controversiality strikes me as another red herring. I don’t think Rawls claims anywhere that his view is non-controversial. There’s no index entry to “contvoersiality” or “non-controversiality” anywhere in his Collected Papers or the Revised Ed of Theory of Justice, and Rawls is a notoriously good indexer: if he wanted to say it, and meant it, he’d likely have said it and indexed it, but as far as I know, he does neither.

          That leaves comprehensiveness, but I don’t see why you’d need recourse to a comprehensive doctrine to exclude the kind of stupidity that BHI is advocating. The problems with their views are not exactly subtle. They’re glaringly idiotic. Unless you need to invoke a comprehensive view to exclude the glaringly idiotic, I don’t see that Rawlsians are going to have trouble excluding BHI. And I don’t see the argument for that view.

          So I don’t see that you’ve made out this claim:

          My point is that a doctrine of political liberalism, consistently and self-referentially applied, will have trouble excluding views like theirs.

          I raised the issue of overcharity because my point is: the stupider a view is, the easier it is to exclude it; given how stupid the BHI view is, it shouldn’t be that hard to exclude it. The less someone says in defense of a really stupid view, the less philosophical machinery is required to shoot it down (or exclude it). But when someone arbitrarily asserts all-out fucking nonsense, it’s hard to see why anyone needs to invoke a full scale comprehensive doctrone to shoot it down or exclude it. A bit of textbook logic and a bit of common sense should do the trick. And surely Rawls is entitled to the use of those things. So I don’t see the trouble that Rawlsians would have in excluding views like BHI’s. You seem to be over-estimating what’s required to exclude a view as dumb as theirs.

          The plausibility in Rawls’s conception of public reason can be seen (as he himself says) by reflecting on courtroom procedure. If a person is on trial for bank robbery, there are procedures in place for confining the “conversation” to relatively narrow legal issues. As Estlund (legitimately) argues in Democratic Authority, that can mean bracketing the truth for the purposes of the trial (e.g., as when a truth would be demonstrated by way of evidence that was improperly acquired, hence excluded). Whatever the merits of doing so in other discursive contexts, a trial is not the place to discuss fundamental questions about the nature of property, and a defendant who insisted on doing so could be stopped from doing so as disrupting the trial.

          This is not a commentary on the legitimacy of the questions that might be asked in a philosophical discussion about property, or the merits of any of the answers to those question, true or false, comprehensive or not. It’s a commentary on the mismatch between trials and philosophical dialectic of a comprehensive nature. A criminal trial in a Thomist regime might take a similar view: a defendant who refused to take an oath because he found oaths meta-ethically suspect would have to be ignored on that issue. There is no inconsistency involved in saying, “Those are legitimate questions, but this is not the place to discuss them. They may even be legitimate questions about the underlying justification of the proceedings of this court, but this is still not the place to discuss them.”

          For better or worse, Rawls thinks that the courtroom analogy carries over to public reason as such. I’m not a Rawlsian, so I haven’t been literally defending Rawls or public reason here. My point is, he has plenty of resources to handle the most common criticisms made of his view, and your criticisms strike me as either strawmen or red herrings. To make them out, you’d need to address the versions of the responses he’s already made to them. Generally, he has responses in place.

          The question is whether the courtroom analogy can do as much work as he wants it to, not whether he’s guilty of some clear-cut incoherence. There is nothing perverse or incoherent about conducting a criminal trial by bracketing truth-as-correspondence for procedural reasons. It happens every day, thousands of times a day, and has a well-worn rationale: evidence acquired in violation of procedural norms is excluded from the trial, even in cases where the evidence in question demonstrates the truth or falsity of some proposition central to the case. If contraband is discovered in violation of the Fourth Amendment, then the truth “contraband was present at such and such location” is treated as though it had never been established. It’s one thing to ask whether that’s the best way of conducting a trial–many people find it outrageous–but it’s not obviously incoherent. (Estlund’s discussion is illuminating, Democratic Authority, pp. 59-60.)

          Rawls has an analogous view about public reason as such, construed very narrowly as the discourse of public officials acting in their public capacity. Wrongheaded, maybe. Incoherent and perverse? Not obvious.


          • Right. As I said, if we’re taking the idea of public reason as a much narrower notion than political liberalism more generally, then most of my objections will not apply to it. I still worry that you’re clinging to the most obviously absurd portions of BHI’s ideas and ignoring the fact that there are extremely sophisticated defenders of some of their narrower claims — such as that governments ought to inscribe biblical condemnations of homosexuality into law — and I wonder whether you’re underestimating the extent to which adequately rejecting claims of that sort requires appeal to principles that the idea of public reason is supposed to exclude (though I imagine we’d have to figure out just what counts as a comprehensive view and what doesn’t, which strikes me as not worth the trouble). You and I can happily agree that an idea like that is idiotic nonsense, but let’s not kid ourselves — for very many people in very many times and places, it has seemed more than plausibly just to legally prohibit homosexual acts and/or for the law to enforce biblical commandments, and such ideas cannot be said to “violate basic norms of justice on any plausible conception” except in a sense of ‘plausible’ on which plausibility is relative to the people to whom something appears plausible — and what appears plausible to us is in part a function of what we take to be true, even if it’s only the truth about what is reasonable.

            Whatever we’re to say about all that, though, I’ve obviously been overestimating the overlap between the idea of public reason and the idea of political liberalism.

            Still, it’s worth wondering even about that narrower notion of public reason, and just what it would exclude. Conservatives often (reasonably, in my view) object to Anthony Kennedy’s claim, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” In one respect it seems like this is exactly the sort of thing Rawlsians want to affirm; everybody should be free to work out their own comprehensive views and not have other such views foisted on them. But it’s hard to see how a claim like Kennedy’s, if it means anything at all, could be defended without appeal to some sort of comprehensive view. At the very least, it seems to explicitly contradict a whole lot of intelligent, thoughtful people’s ideas about liberty, rights, existence, meaning, the universe, and a whole lot else. I’m not sure whether I have a comprehensive view of anything, but I don’t regard Kennedy’s claim as plausible, and unless I’m supposed to interpret it so blandly as to deprive it of any argumentative value — e.g., that respect for liberty demands that nobody should try to coerce anyone into believing this or that about questions concerning the ultimate meaning of life — I’m pretty sure it contradicts anything I can imagine myself believing. Is it acceptable for public officials to explicitly contradict my own reasonable comprehensive views? Does doing so count as appealing to a comprehensive view? Even if not, why prohibit appeals to reasonable comprehensive views if we allow rejections of them? (This isn’t to suggest that the overall decision of Planned Parenthood v. Casey is suspect on Rawlsian grounds or any other grounds; it’s a question about the sort of appeal made in that particular part of Kennedy’s reasoning, not the about the overall legal reasoning of his decision, about which I cannot pretend to be fully competent to judge in any case). I appreciate that Rawlsians may have elaborate answers to objections like these, but I don’t think that’s a good reason for me not to raise them (on a blog, of all places) — theists have elaborate answers to every objection you’ve ever thought of to theism, but that’s not a reason for you not to raise your objections.

            Again, I concede that I’ve wrongly extended my gripes about the idea of political liberalism to the idea of public reason. What’s left over is some doubt about just what the idea of public reason is supposed to exclude and why, and whether the answer to that question can come in the form of any substantive general principles rather than highly context-specific, pragmatic limitations. I readily agree that there are many topics of reasonable disagreement on which public officials should avoid taking a stand one way or another (I am, after all, a liberal of some sort or other, even on my worst days). I’m skeptical that there’s any general account of what sorts of things they should avoid that is not itself subject to reasonable disagreement. I’m happy to accept that reasonable people will disagree about this; the Rawlsian strategy strikes me as a futile attempt to identify a theoretical starting-point on which all reasonable people can agree.


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