conscience-violating reasons: from the ethics of discourse to good reasoning

Here’s another interpretation of how (what Estlund characterizes as) the central thesis of political liberalism might go.

The reasons that favor permission to coerce A but that are not acceptable to A (due to their violating A’s conscience), unlike the other good reasons that favor it being permitted to coerce A, are not part of (they are irrelevant to) one being in a position to make a good case to A that would also be acceptable to A. The screening-off here would not be part of what determines the shape of the relevant good reasoning about the relevant permission to coerce itself, but it would determine the reasons or bits of reasoning (that are part of one’s good reasoning) that factor into meeting the condition that is crucial for the permission to exist (the condition of one at least being in a position to make an acceptable case to A, if not actually making it).

We might think of this condition as like the condition of A granting permission in cases where that is how permission gets generated. The crucial condition is one that concerns respecting the agency and reasoning of A.

This idea has the makings of the right sort of “bridge principle” connecting acceptable and unacceptable reason-giving in discourse about whether P to private reasoning about whether P (for relevant values of ‘P’). Reasons that are unacceptable to A (or that it is unacceptable for one to give A) are reasons irrelevant to one being in a position to make an acceptable case to A. The bridge here is not to good or appropriate reasoning per se but only to defining that part of good or appropriate reasoning that allows one to meet the condition that would generate the permission to coerce A in the relevant context (with respect to government and laws, etc.).

On this picture, we are in an odd position with regard to good but unacceptable reasons that we have favoring it being permitted to coerce A in relevant ways: they favor the relevant permission to coerce, but, at least given the context, they are not part of any set of reasons the having and giving of which bear the special relation to A’s agency and reasoning that generates the permission (and without which permission cannot be generated, at least in the relevant sort of case).

I doubt that this sort of bridge principle – even if we add stuff, as I think we plausibly can, to account for bad/false but acceptable reasons – gives Estlund all that he wants to get or thinks he can get. But I’m not sure.

3 thoughts on “conscience-violating reasons: from the ethics of discourse to good reasoning

  1. I think I work in a rather different framework than Roderick, but I concur.

    One thought in the post that I find somewhat odd is that it is the reasons that favor coercing a person that violate her conscience, rather than the act that it is purportedly justified to coerce her to do. A concern to respect the conscience of others consists, it seems to me, in a concern not to demand that they do things that they sincerely and deeply judge that they should not do. It is just this feature of the concern that leads me to think it quite different from the concerns that drive Estlund. Those latter concerns have to do centrally with the sorts of reasons that I can appropriately offer to others; hence the role that norms of appropriate discourse play in the account. In principle, one might take there to be some deep and important connection between the two sorts of concern — perhaps it is because reasons of a certain sort cannot move a person, so that I will be committed either to coercing him or allowing him to act otherwise, that I should not offer him reasons of that sort, or something like that. But they’re rather different sorts of concern, and can arise independently. One might think, for instance, that we should restrict public argument to generally acceptable premises (on whatever criteria of ‘generally acceptable’) even when coercion is not at issue except very indirectly; perhaps we should not appeal to highly contestable moral and metaphysical theses in defending pro-choice policies any more than in defending pro-life policies, for instance. More to the point, one might think that there are no principled limits on the kinds of reasons we can rightly offer to a person, and yet that we should refrain from coercing them to act or refrain from acting in certain ways out of respect for conscience.

    So these are different considerations, however they might be related. But the more you write on the topic, the more I begin to suspect that the whole framework is needlessly complex and convoluted. I’m having trouble navigating the different layers and levels of reasoning and reason-giving, so I might just be misunderstanding something. But I can’t see why we should embrace a framework in which it makes sense to talk about reasons that favor coercing a person but that are irrelevant because that person does not accept them; if he accepted them, I wouldn’t need to coerce him (at least not in any non-Khawajan conception of coercion), and if his non-acceptance tells decisively against my coercion, then it’s not clear that they favor coercion at all, as opposed to favoring him doing the thing that I am not permitted to coerce him to do. I ordinarily embrace reasons-centered talk, but I wonder whether it’s generating some confusion here, at least on my part if not in introducing unnecessary ambiguities. But my current feeling is that if we have to get so convoluted even to criticize his framework in the way I think you’re doing, that’s just more evidence that it’s not a promising one.

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  2. Thanks, David (and Roderick), for wading through some rather convoluted prose and well-in-the-weeds material. This stuff is hard and hard to get clear on – I think I could have done a better job, but I think even a good clear treatment is going to be a bit dense. I’m trying to take seriously the idea – supposedly central to political liberalism, at least as Estlund thinks of it – that acceptability conditions do their work in private reasoning as well as in the pragmatics/ethics of discourse. I’m not sure what he means or could plausibly mean. Maybe I’ll try to take another, better and clearer wack at this at a later date…


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