the unacceptable work of acceptability requirements

Suppose we are considering whether it is okay for the government, in pursuit of legitimate public aims, to require one to bake a cake for a gay wedding when this goes against one’s religious convictions.  If a pretty strong version of religious tolerance is true, then the answer is no. And the same circumstance affects the shape of good reasoning toward the relevant conclusion in the following way: reasons like ‘this guy would be forced to act against his religious convictions if this proposal were implemented’ and ‘this guy has a religious conviction according to which it is a sin to be involved, in any way, in any marriage that is not between a man and a woman’ are to be given controlling weight, decisively weighing against the conclusion that it is okay for the government to thus coerce.  (This would be a fact about good reasoning, which we might well do privately, not a fact about how we should treat each other in deliberating together about what to do collectively.)

However the work of Estlund’s “acceptability requirements” seems to be something more like this:  in considering whether the government can coerce its citizens in such circumstances, we have to give controlling weight to such reasons as ‘that marriage between people of the same sex is wrong’ — even though such propositions are false!  And, similarly, due to folks having this sort of religious conviction, some true (and presumably objectively relevant and weighty) reasons in favor of the government coercion are not allowed to be used in political reasoning on the topic (e.g., ‘that refusal to provide such services on the basis of sexual preference is wrong’ and ‘that prohibiting such wrongs potentially is part of or promotes an important common good’ might get ruled out).  This is what “acceptability requirements” are supposed to do — and what political liberalism, as a theory that would plumb the depths of what political justification is and does, at least on Estlund’s telling.

But this seems crazy.  Even if we think, as I think we should, of the work of “acceptability requirements” in terms of circumstances of religious conviction changing some (rather obvious) facts about good reasoning about government coercion (as against what they would be if the principle of liberal tolerance were false) rather than in terms of “acceptability requirements” that somehow rule out some perfectly good reasons and rule in some pretty bad ones – I don’t see how we get the relevant normative result here regarding appropriate reasons and reasoning toward conclusions about government coercion (from the idea that X having religious conviction P rules out the permissibility of the government coercing X into acting against P).  But, as is rather usual, I have a strong result here and I’m worried that I’m missing something.

5 thoughts on “the unacceptable work of acceptability requirements

  1. I don’t think the second paragraph gets Estlund right. His view is not that truth is impermissible in political justification, but that truth is insufficient for political justification.

    I also don’t get the craziness involved in the opening example. Suppose I’m a baker, and believe, falsely, that homosexuality and gay marriage are both sins. You come in. You’re gay, you’re getting married, and you want me to bake a cake celebrating that marriage. I say no. I’m wrong, ex hypothesi, but how is it crazy to say that I have the right to control the terms of the contract? It’s my bakery, my stuff, and my labor. In general, owners get to control the terms of contracts involving their stuff. You don’t have a prior entitlement, independently of a consenting agreement, to a not-yet-made cake. And I am refusing consent to the agreement that would lead to the making of the cake. Even if I’m wrong to do this, the only controversial claim here is that owners are defeasibly permitted to do immoral things with the stuff they own. That is controversial, but it’s hardly crazy. If government steps in to demand that I make the cake, is it really crazy for me to invoke a normative stop sign that says, “Right or wrong, you can’t force me to bake a cake”? Even if we set aside strong libertarian scruples against paternalism and in favor of property rights, it’s not a general principle of law that you can force someone to do literally anything simply because their reasons for not doing that thing happen to be false.

    Dispatcher: 911, what is your emergency?
    Caller: Smith believes p. And p is false! He lives at 262 Main Street. And he is acting on the basis of that belief, too. I think it could be leading to a transaction, but I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.
    Dispatcher: OK, Units are en route. All available city units responding: false belief in the vicinity of 262 Main Street. Possible transaction in progress. Advise caution.
    Caller: I’m not totally sure, but I think he has some flour, eggs, and sugar with him.
    Dispatcher: All units: cake making in progress. I repeat: cake making in progress.

    Isn’t that crazy?


  2. The point is supposed to be that true, relevant reasons might be ruled out (and false reasons ruled in) – whether or not Estlund would endorse the as-an-example rulings-out and rulings-in suggested. Not that true propositions are impermissible.

    As your case makes clear, in the context of interpersonal deliberation, there is nothing crazy at all about giving reasons that are false/bad or not giving reasons that are true/good (your earlier point about reasons someone is simply ignorant of makes this point clearly, quite apart from the context being that of political deliberation). So what you say here makes perfect sense. But if we are considering whether the proposition ‘the government is permitted to coerce you into baking the cake in this sort of circumstance’ is true, it seems odd to be treating a bunch of relevant false propositions as if they were true or ignoring a bunch of relevant true propositions. In fact, crazy.

    I’m not sure how we should characterize the sort of acceptability-requirement-shaped reasoning that Estlund is suggesting is appropriate. Presumably, what I’m thinking about in considering an acceptable but false reason (that maybe it would be appropriate to give to the person if we were actually deliberating together) in the suggested sort of reasoning is something like ‘this is what the guy believes’ or ‘someone might believe this reasonable-enough thing’ (and maybe ‘how could I answer him in a way that he could accept?”). It is not crazy that the right sort of reasoning would go like this, but if so perhaps such reasoning is not given by simply following the evidence and cannot be captured by propositions (if true) making other propositions true or more likely to be true. Because then we seem to go to crazy-land. Wrong, though, to imply that Estlund is committed to going there. He just has to say something more about how good acceptability-requirement-shaped reasoning goes and why. I’m thinking that the relevant form of good reasoning is specified in terms of states, not contents or true propositions making other propositions true.


    • I think our discussion is foundering on which of the following we’re discussing:

      1. Estlund’s view on acceptability conditions, as laid out in Democratic Authority.
      2. The general idea behind acceptability conditions of the type Estlund favors.
      3. The right way of addressing issues like the ones under discussion, Estlund entirely aside.

      The claim I was making is that your criticisms don’t succeed against (1).

      Claim (2) is hard to discuss because it’s not clear how closely tied to Estlund’s actual view one has to stay–or can permissibly depart–in the discussion. So as I say “That’s not Estlund’s view,” your response is “I’m discussing an Estlund-type view, not the Estlund Token View.” But even so, in order to address the objection that relevant reasons are not ruled in or are ruled out, you have to deal with Estlund’s way of handling that sort of objection, which is to appeal to criminal procedure: criminal procedure fails to rule in and does rule out relevant reasons, both for epistemic and non-epistemic reasons; Estlund’s claim is that politics ought generally to be modeled on that (think the exclusionary rule, or other rules governing motions that permit or exclude evidence in criminal trials). I’m agnostic on that approach because I find the justification for things like the exclusionary rule at least as controversial as anything Estlund wants to defend, so I don’t think he can rely on it to make his case. But I think his view and views of the Estlundian type have more resources than your discussion lets on.

      But now, on (3). You say this:

      But if we are considering whether the proposition ‘the government is permitted to coerce you into baking the cake in this sort of circumstance’ is true, it seems odd to be treating a bunch of relevant false propositions as if they were true or ignoring a bunch of relevant true propositions. In fact, crazy.

      It is odd, or would be, but who really holds this position? It seems a straw man to me. Estlund doesn’t hold it, and I don’t see why you’d need to hold it if you held an Estlundian position. It’s not even clear to me that Rawls holds that; his view is not that crude.

      But to put Estlund and Rawls aside, what we need is a general (true) account of the proper use of force, something both Estlund and Rawls (and a lot of people) seem to resist, as though the topic itself were too broad, or vague, ill-defined to merit discussion. Whatever else is wrong with Rand (and Nozick, and Rothbard), I think they’re right to want to thematize this. Suppose you have an account of what force or coercion is (which Rand, Nozick, and Rothbard don’t really have, but suppose they did).

      Suppose we get a relatively neat, unified account of what it is. Then it becomes a legitimate question: ethically speaking, what are the justified/unjustified ways of deploying this thing, force? One sub-topic is going to be: can it ever be the case–is it ever true that–it is immoral to initiate the use of force in order to force someone to do otherwise than what they choose to do when what they choose to do is based on false beliefs and/or amounts to injustice? Suppose that it’s true that there are such contexts. Then that true claim will underwrite protections of false believers and/or unjust actors, which is how I think of the cake bakers in your example. Eventually, we’ll need an account of how to translate that true moral claim (or theory, or account, or whatever) into political theory, and then into law, and then into practice. It’s a long haul, but there’s nothing paradoxical about it.

      That said, it’s not the way Estlund or Rawls want to do things. My hypothesis is that they’re skeptical about the probable success of one or more of the steps involved. Either they think we can’t get a unified account, or they operate with an account that is too narrow to do the job, or they think that the job is too complex, or…whatever. So acceptability conditions become a simplifying proxy for that over-complicated task. My bottom line view is that Estlund-type acceptability conditions are not the right way to go, but more plausible than your criticisms would suggest. As I said when we were discussing it off-line, I think that Estlund’s responses to the “overinclusiveness objection” fail (pp. 44 and following).


    • I think I might be following the argument well enough to make a contribution that doesn’t just talk past you now, but let’s see. You write:

      “My worry is that the ruling-in/ruling-out that acceptability is supposed to do in private reasoning (not just with respect to the reasons one is to give to others in discourse) seems to apply to reasons themselves that are unacceptable to some relevant agents, not to the corresponding state (so, ‘according to God, marriage is only between a man and a woman’ is the sort of thing that gets ruled into my reasoning, not ‘this guy reasonably enough believes that, according to God, marriage is only between a man and a woman’).”

      That helps me see your worry more clearly. But I’m not sure it does or should arise for Estlund et al. As I’ve complained, he doesn’t give us much of an account of why we’re supposed to embrace these requirements. But it’s plausible enough that for political liberalism generally, the demand that we not appeal to certain sorts of theses in justifying our political proposals is grounded in respect. If so, then there’s no need to think of our opponents’ false or otherwise flawed beliefs entering into our reasoning. All that needs to enter into our reasoning is that these people believe such-and-such and that their beliefs are not disqualified in the relevant ways. In that respect, Estlund et al.’s account is analogous to respect for conscience. If I act out of respect for your conscience, the content of your beliefs does not serve as any sort of premise in my own reasoning. Rather, the fact that my proposal would require you to violate your conscience enters into my reasoning. I don’t give any weight to false premises or flawed reasoning; I give weight to your conscience. Estlund et al. otherwise depart from the respect for conscience model, focusing instead on the sorts of reasons that are appropriate to give to others in debate or discourse more broadly. But in this respect, the two sorts of account seem to be the same.

      Of course, Estlund et al. focus more on prohibiting appeals to certain sorts of justifications for coercive state policies than they do on the fact of coercion itself, and there’s supposed to be a sort of sensitivity to the reasonableness or reasonable acceptability of the proposals that we don’t find in more straightforward considerations of respect for conscience. But I don’t see why Estlund et al. should be taken to be committed to focusing on other people’s reasons rather than the states of the relevant agents. On their view, the content of those states matters in a way that it might not on a strict respect for conscience model (though even that model will have to be sensitive to content if it’s going to be plausible, in my view). But the content needs to enter in only insofar as it meets or fails to meet the criteria for qualified objection. Even if we suppose that what matters is that people could make qualified objections, and not that any in fact do, the reasons we would have to avoid appeals to certain theses — the considerations that would enter into our reasoning — would be facts about the states of qualified rejection that people could enter into; we need not take propositions like ‘God ordained that marriage be between one man and one woman’ as premises in our own reasoning.

      For whatever it’s worth, though, the impulse of Estlund’s acceptability requirements and of political liberalism more generally is to rule premises like that out, not to rule them in. If we believe the proponents of the view, the only reasons that get ruled in are ones that will be acceptable to us. The problem, if there is one, is that the requirements will demand that we rule out considerations that we sincerely believe are reasonable and true. To flip the example, it’s not that evangelical Christians have to reason on the premise that same-sex marriage is morally acceptable; it’s that they can’t appeal to the premise that it’s morally impermissible because God prohibits it. I of course am not a fan of this sort of approach — and I do suspect that its proponents tend to rule out only views that they do not believe anyway, rather than views that they believe — but I don’t see that it faces the problem you’re raising here, of leading us to treat false or unjustified claims on board as premises in our own reasoning.

      Hopefully I’m understanding you at least a little better this time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree but this stuff is just hard. My ultimate concern is (3), but via (1) and (2) but especially (2). My worry is that the ruling-in/ruling-out that acceptability is supposed to do in private reasoning (not just with respect to the reasons one is to give to others in discourse) seems to apply to reasons themselves that are unacceptable to some relevant agents, not to the corresponding state (so, ‘according to God, marriage is only between a man and a woman’ is the sort of thing that gets ruled into my reasoning, not ‘this guy reasonably enough believes that, according to God, marriage is only between a man and a woman’). It seems more plausible that Estlund would say that this reason, if acceptable and necessary to make the case, would be used, as if I believed it true, to convince a religious person of something that I had privately justified using different, better premises. But, again, Estlund wants acceptability standards to shape political justification itself (private reasoning) not just the strategies and ethics of discourse, convincing others, etc. So, though I don’t seriously think Estlund thinks that we should use bad/false (but acceptable) premises like ‘according to God, marriage is between man and woman’ in our private reasoning about whether the government is permitted to coercively enforce a law requiring Christian bakers to bake cakes for gay weddings, on a natural way of taking it seriously that acceptability applies to private reasoning, this is the result that we get.


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