Low Trust Exacerbates Polarization

In my next book, A Liberal Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times, I develop what I call the distrust and divergence hypothesis, where political polarization and falling social and political trust are in a causal feedback loop. I suggest a number of causal connections between the two phenomena, but I thought I’d discuss a new paper someone sent me two weeks ago. Hans Pitlik and Martin Rode have found that “trusting people have a lower propensity to express support for extreme policies, leading to a general moderation of preferences in trusting societies” which allows for more consensus on critical reforms.

Here’s my basic guess as to what’s going on. When people distrust others, they’re much less likely to listen to them, and much more likely to be suspicious of consensus narratives in explaining certain kinds of events. That’s the connection between trust and conspiracy theorizing. If most people can’t be trusted, we probably shouldn’t believe what most people believe (of course, that’s fallacious reasoning, but it’s emotionally intuitive). But if we trust others, we don’t think they’re lying to us and we think their beliefs are probably well-grounded, and so when we trust others, we tend to modify our own points of view towards the conventional wisdom.

That’s not to say this pattern is especially good, but if we think people tend to be less reliable with respect to the political truth when they’ve epistemically isolated themselves from most other people, then we should worry about how low trust people form their beliefs vis-a-vis high trust people. And if we want to reduce polarization, we may want to pursue trust-increasing public policy.

My Recent Podcasts on Trust, Polarization, Liberalism, and Must Politics Be War?

In case you’re driving around and have a chance to listen to some podcasts, I recorded two in the last few weeks on The Philosophy Guy and The Curious Task. We talk about the book, but also a whole range of related issues, like the nature and sources of political polarization, the relationship between liberalism and ideology, the contribution to mistrust by the GOP, the relationship between classical liberalism and the cause of avoiding ideology, along with the challenges creating social trust. They’re fun. I cut a bit more loose than usual on both.

 

 

Build Big Philosophical Theories and Study Those Who Did

Jason Brennan wrote a nice reply to my defense of the great historical philosophers against Mike Huemer’s critique of them. I think the best way to respond is to outline two different ways of thinking about how to make progress in philosophy that I think roughly parallel how Brennan and I approach our own work. With those approaches laid out, I think we can explain why it strikes me as obvious that studying the great historical philosophers has value, and why Brennan is more skeptical.

I. Particularist and Coherentist Methods

As I see it, there are at least two ways to approach having true philosophical beliefs. One is a kind of go-it-alone strategy, where you simply try to determine what is true by looking at arguments, sorting through them, and believing accordingly. Big theories have worth, but they tend to distract us. Better to build small theories on different topics. On this picture, reading the history of philosophy has at most modest instrumental value, qualified by the danger of bias from being mentally trapped by these theories. Philosophers who pursue this more particularist strategy are thinking more like natural scientists do about the history of their own discipline. Why should physicists read Newton? Or Aristotle, for that matter? They shouldn’t, because their time is better spent working with contemporary methods, which are much better than old methods, at getting at the truth.

Another strategy is to build big philosophical theories that attempt to capture a much broader stretch of philosophical territory and work to see if certain puzzles can be resolved from within the view. Here the philosopher plays a part in building systems of thought in conjunction with others – past, present, and future. From this perspective, philosophical theorizing is a social endeavor; and it’s long-term, extending perhaps over centuries. The payoff is a coherent worldview that can provide powerful answers to the big questions. Many great systems of thought work this way, especially with followers of Aristotle, Aquinas, and Kant. Philosophers who approach progress in this way have a kind of coherentist strategy. From this perspective, studying the great philosophers and their systems of thought is conducive to philosophical truth in part to help you decide which social endeavor to join, and if not, at least to get a sense for how to build one’s own philosophical project.

It may well be that inhabiting a philosophical system and working out the results leads to some false beliefs. But for the coherentist, working within established frameworks is a better bet for discovering truth than doing one’s own thing.

II. Schmidtz and Gaus on System-Building

Both particularist and coherentist strategies have merit, and Brennan and I have chosen those two paths, perhaps in light of the examples set by our dissertation advisors (Dave Schmidtz for Brennan, Jerry Gaus for me). Schmidtz argues that philosophical theories are like maps, and many have readily detectable flaws. Accordingly, we should be hesitant to hold to any one theory too tightly, and should instead opt for pluralist approaches and addressing different problems in a more particularist manner. Here there is a central role for engaging work outside of the philosophy profession, since those professions make more progress and know more stuff.

Gaus is especially worried that any large philosophical system runs the risk of bias and ideology. But unlike Schmidtz, he thinks that the process of building big theories and working within larger frameworks has a greater payoff than the more particularist, pluralist approach. So long as philosophers are in conversation with scientists, building philosophical theories as a social enterprise is likely to be productive. Philosophical systems by themselves can become ideology, but large-scale interdisciplinary theory-building is worthwhile.

Brennan’s approach to philosophy is much more particularist, mine more coherentist. This has led Brennan to write a number of great books on quite different topics, despite having some underlying common themes. I have tended to work within the social contract tradition, and various dimensions of it: historical and contemporary, Rawlsian and Gausian, as well as putting the social contract tradition into conversation with the social sciences. These days I’ve been working at the intersection of social contract and social trust, which is a central endeavor in Must Politics Be War?

III. Particularist and Coherentist Approaches to Great Historical Philosophers

Particularists and coherentists will tend to disagree about the importance of the great historical philosophers for philosophical progress. History is more essential to the coherentist approach because the great philosophers created systems of thought that shed light on important questions. We cannot ourselves make much progress in a field without a deep familiarity with those systems of thought. If you think building big theories makes progress, then knowing the big theories, or at least some of them, will help you make progress. That’s at least so because they are good templates for building our own systems. But if you think building big theories is a bad way to make progress, then you’re view historical philosophers more like Brennan and Huemer.

I think it is almost impossible to know which strategy is better for making philosophical progress overall, and that it is up to each philosopher to choose a more particularist or coherentist approach. I prefer to work within big systems of thought, and I think I can contribute more to the field in that way. I don’t trust myself striking out on my own. That’s one reason I find studying the history of philosophy essential to my work as a philosopher, and I can see why Brennan has a different view.

But zooming out a bit, my sense is that philosophy needs both nimble particularists and patient coherentists, and so studying the history of philosophy is going to be essential for at least some strategies for making philosophical progress.

Great Philosophers as Architects: A Reply to Huemer

Philosopher Mike Huemer has recently blogged that most of the great philosophers make terrible arguments, and are great primarily because they turned out to be influential (this follows a previous post on history of philosophy, which I responded to as well). Mike received  pushback, including a comment from Roderick Long, which I wanted to explore a bit. Here’s Long:

When I think of the great philosophers, I imagine them as architects of ideas. They survey a series of intuitions and observations, show how they lead to certain puzzles, and then figure out ingenious new ways to organize these institutions and observations into coherent wholes that can solve the puzzles they identify. The great philosophers design great buildings and inspire new architectural styles that organize much of intellectual and social life.

Viewing philosophers as architects helps to see why they often offer bad arguments. They’re first and foremost focused on creating a coherent system of thought, in contrast to building clear argumentative connections between every different part of their conceptual structure, and many of those connections are a stretch. But even if the beams of their buildings crack and bend, it is worth repairing them. For if we can repair them, then something beautiful, elegant, and maybe even true will come into view; and those systems will help us share a vision of how the world can be organized and understood.

 

What Are the Romulans Afraid Of? [Picard Spoilers]

One of the interesting new mysteries in Star Trek: Picard is why Romulan culture is hostile to artificial intelligence, so hostile that the secret society within the Tal Shiar, the Zhat Vash, have had a vendetta against artificial life for thousands of years.

Why would this be? I’m not sure, but here are four possibilities:

(a) Romulans descend, at least in part, from artificial intelligence.

(b) Romulans once shared their civilization or home planet with artificial life which they destroyed in some horrible way, like genocide.

(c) Romulans were created by a powerful artificial intelligence (but do not directly descend from them).

(d) Romulans once used artificial intelligence freely, but did horrific things with it.

There are problems with all of (a)-(d). I get why you’d like to hide (a) because it may raise questions in the minds of Romulans and non-Romulans whether the Romulans have real personhood/souls/meaning in life, etc. Perhaps Romulans couldn’t handle knowing they’re part machine. However, this seems like a secret that would be very hard to keep for a long time because it could potentially be detected in any Romulan body.

On the other hand, last night’s episode suggests Romulans are hard to assimilate, which might be because they are part AI, much as Data couldn’t be assimilated.

As for (b), the Romulans hideously oppressed the Remans for a very long time and seemed to feel no remorse, so it’s not clear why they’d need to hide that they’d defeated an AI race they shared the planet with. It might even be a point of pride.

(c) is probably not true because of the TNG episode “The Chase” where it is revealed that many of the major Alpha Quadrant species were created by an ancient precursor race that seems carbon-based. But perhaps an AI interfered with their history at some point. That might be taken to suggest that the Romulans were weak or fake in some way. But again, this seems unlikely.

On (d), the Romulans don’t seem like they’d be embarrassed they used AI super-weapons.

So, I’m not quite sure why the Romulans are afraid of AI for a reason that would need to be kept secret for so long. But my best guess is (a).

Mitt Romney Mixed Faith and Politics. Good for Him.

In a remarkable interview, Mitt Romney explains his reasons for voting to convict Trump, probably to his grave political detriment. I can’t see any advantage to his vote, so I believe what he says about his reasoning.

What I find especially fascinating about Romney’s decision is how he came to it. First, Romney tried to make sure he was weighing the evidence properly through constant prayer. He used an expressly religious practice in order to ensure he was more rational. Through prayer, Romney was able to debias, depolarize, and detribalize. And he had the humility to claim that he did not believe he knew God’s mind.

Interestingly, Romney did not vote for especially religious reasons. He voted based on what he regarded as the evidence. But he had religious reasons to take his vow to God seriously. And he had religious reasons to believe in providence: that in the end, if you do what is right, God will ensure that it works to the good. He trusted God that things would work out in the end. So Romney used religious reasons to drive him to make a more virtuous decision.

The typical secular progressive attitude towards religious motives in politics is one of reservation. That is partly because religious reasoning is often oversimplified to the case of voting for a policy because that’s what the Bible (supposedly) says. But note the complexity of Romney’s deliberations, how religious and secular considerations are interwoven and how they strengthen one another. This suggests that religious reasoning in political matters can be quite cognitively and emotionally subtle, and attempts to drive this kind of reasoning out of politics may come with real costs.

The big cost is that religious commitment can serve as a cross-cutting commitment that can be used to reduce political polarization. If people have sincere faith, then that may make them less likely to follow what is politically fashionable and pay more attention to the moral truth.

So sometimes allowing religion in politics is a good thing. And this is one case.

UPDATE: Amazingly, Trump said, “I don’t like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong.” That’s a progressive refrain.

The Best Version of Liberal Neutrality

Here I outline a version of liberal neutrality I find philosophically attractive. My approach begins by focusing on the moral considerations that lead us to care about neutrality, rather than analyzing the concept of neutrality as an ideal in itself. I then generate a principle of political justification that has those good-making features we want from a principle of neutrality. I think we will see that the principle is morally attractive.

I. Why Care About Neutrality?

Most contemporary liberals care about preventing government from promoting a particular conception of the good (and in some cases, a conception of the right) because they affirm four general claims: (i) persons have a dignity that merits respect, (ii) persons are naturally free and equal, (iii) persons have reasons for action determined by their deep commitments and values, and (iv) these reasons can systematically and reasonably diverge.

I’ve explored a number of these ideas elsewhere. I’ve explored (iv), namely the idea of reasonable pluralism, here and here. I’ve explored the meanings of (ii) and (iii) here. Claim (i) is a pretty obvious platitude.

Summing up, here’s the basic moral idea behind neutrality. The foremost moral imperative is to treat persons with respect, as ends in themselves. If persons are naturally free and equal, in the sense that no person is naturally the servant of another, such that they have equal moral authority, then to respect them is to recognize their moral authority by not compelling them to act against their own best reasoning.

What are persons’ reasons? The liberal tradition has generally allowed that persons have very different reasons for action due to their differing valuing and beliefs. We don’t determine persons’ reasons for action apart from their most deeply held commitments. Thus, the reasons relevant to the justification of coercion are in some sense internal or psychologically accessible. They have their ground in persons’ actual motivations and commitments.

Finally, and due in part to reasonable pluralism, their affirmed reasons will systematically and broadly diverge. Therefore, if we are to respect persons, we can only coerce them when they have sufficient reason, from their own perspective, to comply with the law or policy on which the coercion is based.

So we care about neutrality because we care about respecting naturally free and equal persons who invariably have diverse reasons for action, which in turn requires that we only coerce them if they have sufficient reason of their own to comply. Otherwise we fail to treat persons as free and equal.

Yes, I’ve just equated the idea of public justification with liberal neutrality (find a well-known attempt here) but that’s because I think the idea of public justification provides the most attractive explanation of why we care about neutrality and a clear method of applying neutrality to institutions.

II. Setting Limits on Neutrality

So, given the foregoing, we can say that a nation-state is neutral in the public reason liberal sense when it employs only publicly justified coercion. Policies are neutral when they are justified to a wide range of evaluative perspectives. Laws need not be neutral in having equal effects or outcomes or taking no position on the substantive good. Instead, this ideal of liberal neutrality permits the state to promote goods that all persons reasonably agree are goods. That means we can promote the common good in ways that respect all as persons if the pursuit of the common good is constrained by what is publicly justified.

We do not have to be “neutral” between, say, publicly justified and publicly unjustified laws. Nor need the content of these laws necessarily treat all persons in the same way.

Determining what is justified to persons is not always an easy matter, however. There are well known problems with determining what most peoples believes, since the data that varies based on how questions are framed. Similarly, it is hard to determine from present social practices whether minorities have sufficient reason to endorse those practices, since they may be afraid to voice dissent.

In my view, evaluation via public reason should follow the complaint. When conflicts arise, and people start to complain, we should turn our gaze to their objections and scrutinize them. If we perceive that they have a strong, epistemically justified objection to a law or policy, we can conclude that they have a defeater for the law. Accordingly, we are obligated to reform or revoke the law if we care about treating others as free and equal (as we should).

III. Substitute Neutrality with Public Justification

Political neutrality is a vexed idea, so in my work, as noted, I just use a related idea of public justification, which I think has the attractions of neutrality with far fewer weaknesses. It also gives us a more precise method of determining which regimes are neutral in this more refined sense; I argue that liberal democratic welfare-state capitalism is uniquely neutral in large, diverse societies in Must Politics Be War?, but I have a detailed defense of the basis and content of public justification requirements that I like to think advances the literature, as well as Rawls and Gaus’s contributions to it.

Philosophy Makes Path-Dependent Progress

One of the most peculiar features of philosophy, much remarked upon, is that philosophy doesn’t seem to make progress. Not only that, we seem to return to the same views again and again. What explains this?

Philosophers disagree (as usual!), but I’d like to offer a hypothesis with two parts.

(1) Theory Space is Large. The space of plausible philosophical theories is very, very large perhaps because the space of reasons to believe as such is very, very large. As a result, progress in philosophy can go in so many different directions in principle.

(2) Arbitrary, but Real Progress. Consequently, non-rational factors like the social status of leading philosophers play a major role in determining the direction of philosophical progress, but these factors do not imply that there is no progress.

Regarding (1), it is plausible that philosophical theory space is very large, much like the class of mathematical theorems. Concept space is big, and theories that string them together to explain things is also going to be big. Further, philosophers have not only generated a huge range of views, the range of views advocated continues to grow. We’ve never run out of things to say, or found issues where we can’t find any interesting theories. People are always proposing some new, interesting thesis. If concept and argument space is very, very large, that makes sense.

Regarding (2), Why do we land in the particular spaces that we do? Why were so many of us logical positivists fifty years ago, and now we seem to be moving away from even basic philosophical naturalism?

Social Status. My sense is that philosophical discussion is driven in large part by the interests of the highest social status philosophers. I don’t know how to explain their interests, which are perhaps too personal to systematically theorize, but high status philosophers are able to drive discussion because they’re usually quite careful in developing frameworks for asking questions (rather than offering persuasive arguments). And they’re usually good at preparing graduate students to devote their lives, or much of their lives, to those questions. Given the rewards associated with publishing, and the ease with which graduate students can publish on questions where their high status advisors blaze a trail, as well as the benefits of being associated with high status persons, means that high status philosophers play an outsized role in what we discussion.

Historical Cues. Philosophers are also driven by social issues as they arise in history and culture, and those issues are in many respects random, and generally impossible to predict. Current events doesn’t change physics or biology much at all, but it does change philosophy a lot.

Science Envy. It has been quite common in the history of philosophy for philosophers to take their cues from scientists in how to formulate and address philosophical problems. This means that much of philosophical discussion is affected by scientific progress, and which sciences seem the most sturdy and progressive. But scientific progress is itself hard to predict and often occurs in unexpected paradigm shifts. That means philosophical theories are likely to be blown about by the progress of the sciences.

Popular Disgust. It has also been quite common in the history of philosophy for philosophers to approach the opinions of the masses with disgust (probably also because philosophers want to be high status, and so want to distinguish themselves from the masses, but also because the masses have easily refutable views). So philosophy is often reactive, generating discussions about views common in popular culture in order to distinguish themselves from popular culture.

Follow the Money. Philosophers have, for a very long time, depended on the patronage of non-philosophers, and this, I think, has shaped what philosophers talk about up to today (in many ways, these days our patrons are the general public and our students’ parents).

Unseriousness. For reasons I don’t quite understand, philosophers spend a lot of time dismissing some positions as unserious. This is often due to the fact that philosophers sense that their views are pretty bizarre and so are sensitive to the fact that they need to show that they’re sensible and not sophistical. And this is also in part due to science envy and popular disgust. Views held by scientists and rejected by the people will tend to influence philosophy more than other views. That’s one reason theism is low status in philosophy today. Atheism is common among leading scientists, and theism is common among the masses.

Counterfactual Philosophers. A huge amount of philosophical progress is determined by the personal idiosyncracies of the people who decide to become philosophers. Our field could be quite different if different philosophers, counterfactual philosophers, were part of the field. Have we any doubt philosophy would be different if the leading physicists had become philosophers instead?

Given all these factors, why think philosophy makes progress of any kind? Well, because people put forward inventive theories and other philosophers refute them, so we learn which views are erroneous. And periodically, there’s a new system of thought that organizes information in new and illuminating ways. So we come to know more than we knew before.

So we make philosophical progress, but because the space of concepts and arguments is so big, there is invariably path-dependence and speciation in the direction philosophy takes. But if I’m right, any progressive path is going to be determined by arbitrary factors, so we perhaps can’t be too upset about the particular arbitrary factors that drive us forward unless we think those factors are slowing progress down.

Are Liberal Regimes as Coercive as Integralist Regimes?

A week or so ago, Dave Atenasio published a nice reply to my post arguing that integralist regimes will have a hard time generating requisite levels of stability without lots of coercion. The piece is well-done, so check it out, but I’d like to jump right to the heart of the matter. I concede freely what integralists often say, which is that liberal regimes are coercive. My claim is that liberal regimes are less coercive in allowing a wider range of opinion to flourish. And if there is a natural tendency in the free use of practical reason for people to disagree, integralist regimes will therefore have to employ more coercion to achieve coordination around their comprehensive doctrine than liberal regimes, which are at least somewhat neutral on these matters, and much more than integralist regimes.

Atenasio argues that it’s just not clear whether integralist regimes are more coercive than liberal regimes, and then he proceeds to outline various ways in which liberal regimes are coercive and points out that the coerciveness of both liberal and integralist regimes, even construed as ideal types, come in degrees, and are based on a range of factors, the variety and magnitude of which will make it difficult to show definitively that liberal regimes are less coercive.

I’m pretty sympathetic to the idea that it is hard to determine which regimes and policies are more coercive than others. That’s a big point in my forthcoming book, A Liberal Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times, in Chapter 5. However, I don’t think we’re should be as skeptical as Atenasio believes. My argument begins with a ceteris paribus comparison between the two regime types following three restrictions on how the comparison should proceed.

First condition: I’m going to assume that liberal regimes and integralist regimes can have the same foreign policy and economic policy, within broad limits. So in comparing the two regimes, we can hold these policy classes constant. I know that integralist regimes will, on average, have a narrower band of economic policies, since liberal regimes can vary a lot in this regard, but let’s set that aside for the sake of argument.

So this means that the main comparison between the two regimes will be on social policy.

Second condition: we can hold lots of social policy constant because the degree of coerciveness of these policies are somewhat independent to what is essentially different between integralist and liberal regimes. First,  and most controversially, I think we can hold abortion policy constant because, while liberal regimes tend to permit abortion, and while integralist regimes would seek to end it, nothing about a liberal regime forbids it from adopting pro-life legislation (here I disagree with Rawls that reasonable people have to be at least somewhat pro-choice). There is no inherent instability in a pro-life liberal constitutional order, as long as it is not suffused with a pro-choice ethos. But I admit that if you’re pro-life, there’s a way in which integralist regimes will tend to be less coercive, because they almost always will forbid people from coercing the unborn into an early grave. So if liberal regimes must be pro-choice, then that is a point in the integralist’s favor.

But there are other forms of coercion that go in the other direction, since integralist regimes will embrace far more legal moralism and paternalism, and liberal orders will tend to eschew those practices, so that’s a clear way in which liberalism will be less coercive.

Third restriction: I’m going to hold the degree of pluralism in the populace constant as well. Perhaps integralist regimes will create more Catholics (though they may generate a backlash (which is how integralist regimes created the Reformation, imo: they were too violent and repressed too much disagreement). If so, then integralist regimes will become less coercive because the populace will agree with the policies of the integralist state. But liberal regimes will also not be very coercive if everyone is Catholic. But if everyone is not Catholic, then integralism will be much more coercive than liberalism, and that seems to me pretty clear.

That’s because of the big essential constitutional difference between an integralist regime and a liberal regime: the integralist regime basically has no first amendment. There is no robust right to freedom of speech, press, or religion in an integralist regime. Speech that promulgates heresy and apostasy must be restricted. Publications that promulgate heresy and apostasy must be restricted. And, obviously, the state will use coercion to promote adherence to Catholic belief and practice, even against Protestants and, maybe, Orthodox Christians, not to mention Jews, Muslims, and atheists. There are limits on such coercion, as people cannot be forced to become Catholics against their will. But, if you have been validly baptized, even as an infant, and you decide to speak what you know to be heresy or you apostasize, you’re to be held criminal liable in accord with your level of guilt. So an integralist state can imprison and perhaps even execute recalcitrant heretics.

I recognize that some will want to reject one or more of the three restrictions. But they all seem fair to me. And if they are, it seems clear that integralist regimes will be much more coercive than a regime with first amendment-like protections. Perhaps with enough time and force, the transition to integralism will produce such resolute Catholics that most people won’t even want first amendment rights. But that claim seems in tension with what we see even in heavily Catholic countries. You see lots of disagreement about all kinds of things.

Are Some People Angry and Bitter by Nature?

One thing I’ve learned in observing failed attempts at reconciliation is that some people just don’t want to be reconciled with others. They would rather remain angry with them, or worse, to be bitter and contemptuous towards them.

I find it easy to be angry and bitter with others; and I experience contempt regularly. But I am exhausted by these feelings. I’ve rather not have them; they drag down my soul.

But I’ve realized that not everyone is this way. And I wonder whether it is just a feature of the psychology of some people that they naturally experience negative emotions towards others. They just default to being angry, bitter, or contemptuous, and they have to work hard to get out of those states. I think many people find setting angry, bitterness, and contempt aside as a greater burden than letting those feelings continue.

Typically I think that people feel these negative emotions because of some kind of pain they have experienced, and that healing is too much to bear or perhaps it is impossible to address the original cause because the people who caused those feelings is out of the person’s life. And perhaps in the meanwhile these emotional states start to feel natural. People internalize anger, bitterness, and contempt so much that it becomes part of their identity, perhaps even a central part of their careers.

So the negative emotions aren’t natural; they have environmental causes, such that very few people experience those emotions unprovoked.

But I think my worldview has been too rosy on the matter. I’m now tempted by the view that some people are by nature extremely receptive to these negative attitudes.

One of the big five personality traits is neuroticism, and neuroticism tends to give rise to lots of negative emotions. Most people don’t feel these emotions by default, but people high in neuroticism are easily pushed into those negative emotional states. So while they are always angry, bitter, and contemptuous, there really are environmental causes, and without those causes, they wouldn’t have those emotional states. That means when you meet someone high in neuroticism whose environmental contains routine provocations, they will just seem angry, bitter, and contemptuous all the time.

So maybe habitually angry and bitter people are high in neuroticism and their social environment constantly provokes them into negative emotional states.

But what’s your experience? Do you know people who are just angry and bitter and hateful people? Or do you generally suppose that they have been hurt, such that almost no one is naturally in an angry or bitter state?

Is Integralism Unreasonable? Yes. Should Integralists Care? Well …

Micah Schwartzman and Jocelyn Wilson’s recent article on the unreasonableness of integralism led to much integralist criticism on Twitter, and even criticism from non-integralist Catholic conservatives. It’s important to recognize that Schwartzman and Wilson expressly state that they’re not trying to engage integralists on their own terms, but to use integralism as the paradigmatic case of an unreasonable doctrine in the Rawlsian sense.

In this post, I want to address whether integralists should care if they’re reasonable. I think there are some ways in which they should care, but it takes some effort to demonstrate. Let’s begin by quickly reviewing the Rawlsian account of reasonableness and asking whether integralists satisfy it.

I. Reasonableness

Very roughly, a person is reasonable in Rawls’s sense when they meet two conditions: (1) They are prepared to propose reciprocal terms of social cooperation, ones that can be endorsed by different worldviews and perspectives, and (2) they recognize the fact of reasonable pluralism, meaning they believe that the free exercise of practical reason leads naturally to disagreement about many important matters. In traditional political liberalism, disagreement primarily concerns the good rather than justice (though I argue in Must Politics Be War? that dissensus about justice runs just as deep).

II. Integralists are Unreasonable

Integralists deny both conditions. They are not prepared to offer mutually endorseable legal and political proposals because their first goal is to prose true, authentically good forms of social cooperation. Second, integralists seem to deny that the free use practical reason leads to dissensus, but rather that sin leads to disagreement and that it can be limited if practical reason is exposed to God’s grace in an integralist regime. So, Schwartzman and Wilson are correct. The paper succeeds on its own term.

III. But They Probably Shouldn’t Care

Now, should integralists care whether they are reasonable in the Rawlsian sense? The most straightforward answer is no, they shouldn’t. Why? Because integralists have a different conception of the person than Rawlsians do. Rawlsians draw their conception of the person from liberal democratic practice, and expressly refuse to go outside of it for the purposes of political philosophy, but integralists are trying to determine whether liberal democracy is a good idea in the most ultimate sense, and they think not. So in one way, the Rawlsian approach to personhood is a total non-starter for integralists. The two conceptions of the persons we not developed to serve they same purpose. It’s not even obvious that their conceptions of the persons are conceptions of the same concept.

Moreover, Rawls’s conception of the person (really, his conception of the citizen) holds that we have two moral powers – to form and pursue a conception of the good, and to develop and act upon our sense of justice. But integralists arguably think that persons have one ultimate moral power – to pursue the good and spurn evil (as Aquinas says in ST IaIIae 94, 2). There’s no separate faculty for motivating just action. Just action is wholly subsumed under our pursuit of our good. Rawlsians, in contrast, have a complex story about how we reach congruence between our two fundamental moral drives (actually, they have two, maybe three stories).

In this way, Rawlsians have a kind of “two wills” or “two affections” theory of practical reason, which is actually not exclusively modern, but has antecedents in Anselm (for two wills) and Scotus (for two affections).

For Rawlsians, then, our sense of justice is a fundamental part of practical reasoning. We can take the perspective of justice, understood in terms of fairness or reciprocity, and reason and act from it, and then we can ask a separate question about whether the perspective of justice can be reconciled with the perspective of the good. That’s not going to make much sense for the integralist.

IV. Or Should They?

But let’s do something Rawlsians don’t want to do. Let’s ask whether a two wills theory is true. If one can defend a two wills theory on metaphysical grounds, that would engage integralists on their own terms. And then they’d need to care about reasonableness, especially if the arguments are made from within the framework of Catholic Christianity.

I’m working on two papers right now that do just that, but it’s hard work.

My Review of Bob Talisse’s Overdoing Democracy

I recently reviewed Bob Talisse’s important new book, Overdoing Democracy, in an online journal, Erraticus, which is open access. Do take a look. The book is good, and it is both inexpensive and well-written. So if you’re interested in the subject, I recommend the book strongly.

Bob’s basic thesis is that American democracy is hurt by the fact that many people are extending democratic debates into too many parts of social life, creating unhealthy and destructive “political saturation.” I agree with his diagnosis, which is well-defended, but Bob tries to avoid giving concrete solutions to avoid taking a side in our democratic disputes, as well as foregoing explaining some of the mechanisms that have led to political saturation, both of which have some benefits, but also some costs.

An excerpt from my review:

I also thought the prescriptive part of the book would have profited from a discussion of why we’re seeing so much political saturation. I see two reasons Talisse doesn’t discuss: (1) that governments have power over a huge range of activities that they did not always have, and (2) that secularization is destroying the main source of cross-cutting identities—religious faith. It might be that societies will be tempted to overdo democracy when they want government to engage in a wide range of activities. Government is force, and so some will invariably wield it against others. Expanded states may mean expanded conflicts, even if one of our conflicts is over how extensive the state ought to be. And it might be that, with the decline of religious faith, we simply have fewer things that we place ultimate value on.

You don’t have to be a religious conservative to think these two phenomena will lead us to overdo democracy. It is not an especially partisan thought that the temptation to overdo democracy will continue unless we limit government’s power over our lives more than we do at present, since that will lower the stakes of politics. Nor is it expressly factional to think that we’re going to be tempted to overdo democracy if we lack compelling comprehensive doctrines that prioritize non-political values. This is true in particular because a relatively less religious society will tend to have more people with ideological commitments because—I think, plausibly—political ideology is the religion of modernity.

I recognize my recommendations will invite people to see the red tribe. Religion and limited government are unfortunately seen as red rather than blue values. But this is a mistake. Decentralizing and limiting the federal government will enable some parts of the country to better pursue a social democratic agenda. And allowing for more religious activity doesn’t necessarily mean more conservative Christians. There are liberal Christians, especially in marginalized communities.

So I think when we try to explore what it would take to stop overdoing democracy, we must look at solutions that may risk tempting our interlocutors to think that we’re in the red tribe or the blue tribe. But such an inquiry is necessary anyway. And without this inquiry, Overdoing Democracy struck me as incomplete. But that does not detract from the overall value of this excellent book, and is something that Talisse can explore in other work.