US Social Trust Has Fallen 23 Points Since 1964

Sorry for the hiatus. I keep doing podcasts and articles on other sites for Trust in a Polarized Age, and I don’t want to irritate my readers on social media with too much content. When I get done talking about the book so often, I’ll return to my regularly scheduled blogging.

Lots of people talk about the US decline in social trust. I do all the time. The data I use comes from the General Social Survey, which shows a drop of 46% in 1972 when it began to 31.5% in 2018, and the drop is fairly graduate. But the World Values Survey, taken every 4-6 years in the US, shows a 7 point decline between 1981 to 2017, and there’s no WVS survey between 1981 and 1998 that asks the standard trust question (“Can most people be trusted or can you never be too careful in dealing with people?”) in the US. Also, people sometimes say the WVS is done poorly. So I mostly ignore the WVS and go with the GSS.

However, foolishly, I didn’t realize the awesomely done American National Election Survey (ANES) asked the standard trust question,  starting in 1964. And it has a different pattern. Trust is around 55% in 1964, around 46% in 1972 (matching the GSS), and there’s a gradual decline, but for some reason 2000 and 2002 have social trust at 1964 levels. Then in 2008, trust plummets to just under 30%. Then they stopped asking the yes-no question and went to a five point scale in 2012 and 2016, and there are difficulties translating the 5-point scale (people can be trusted all the time, some of the time, none of the time, etc) into simple percentages. But it looks like trust remains quite low and maybe falls a bit further.

One reason it is cool to have both the GSS and the ANES is because the US was asking the trust question long before researchers were asking it all around the world. Some countries are just getting in the game in the 2000s, and no one but the US seems to have data before 1980.

I don’t know what’s going on, so I just plotted all the years we have data from any of the three surveys, and when I had multiple data points from one year, I just averaged them. From what I can tell, this is the only chart I’ve seen that plots social trust with an ANES-GSS-WVS average. And it is rather striking: a 23-point decline.

Now, other countries have great, big declines in social trust, but this is typically due to a major institutional transition from dictatorship to democracy (Spain, Chile, Romania, and Poland), or big increases, which typically follow periods of institutional stability (Germany and adjacent countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, and Switzerland). But the US hasn’t had anything like that level of institutional instability. So the US is an international outlier because we’ve had a sharp drop in social trust despite institutional stability. I think part of the reason for this is that political polarization, trust in government, and interpersonal trust are in a complex causal feedback loop, as I argue in the introduction to Trust in a Polarized Age.

So, here’s what I think is the most data-rich graph of where we stand (data). It is quite bad. Falls in social trust have big costs.

Political Liberals vs. Integralists: Where the Conflict Really Lies

I’d  like to return to my ongoing interest in anti-liberal doctrines, especially the new Catholic integralism. I think it might be worthwhile exploring how the political liberalism of John Rawls clashes with integralism, and attempt to make the criticism plausible. The integralists may still deride it, and how!, but it will serve for clarificatory purposes.

I now believe that the most central difference between Catholic integralism and Rawlsian political liberalism is their differing views of the rationality of moral disagreement. Political liberalism indeed presupposes that deep disagreement about the requirements of morality is natural to human beings; that it is the inevitable result of the free exercise of human reason. Catholic integralists deny this. People may disagree about morality, but that is because of sin—a failure, culpable or no—to receive the grace of God by way of the Catholic Church directly, and through political institutions partly governed by the Church. I think for the integralists, two members of an integralist society with a modest degree of natural and supernatural virtue will tend to agree about the requirements of the natural law for human behavior.

John Rawls

This is not what Rawlsians would consider the free exercise of human reason, of course, but it is the condition that integralists would regard as the freest, and indeed this points to another deep difference: about the nature of freedom. Rawls likes negative liberty, but he also likes positive liberty, and indeed is friendly to the idea of the freedom that is achieved by the use of reason. But the integralist will insist that the exercise of human reason is only truly free when it has been, at least to some extent, dusted off by the reception of the sacraments.

So, here’s one of Rawls’s first comments on integralist-type views. The theory of rational moral disagreement is in the driver’s seat and indeed necessitates the much-derided idea of the reasonable:

The advantage of staying within the reasonable is that there can be but one true comprehensive doctrine, though as we have seen, many reasonable ones. Once we accept the fact that reasonable pluralism is a permanent condition of public culture under free institutions, the idea of the reasonable is more suitable as part of the basis of public justification for a constitutional regime than the idea of moral truth. Holding a political conception as true, and for that reason alone the one suitable basis of public reason, is exclusive, even sectarian, and so likely to foster political division (129).

Notice the phrase bolded phrase: if reasonable pluralism is permanent, then we should abandon basing political order on the truth rather than the reasonable. If these social and epistemic conditions obtain, views like integralism are bound to be “exclusive, even sectarian, and so likely to foster political division.”

Rawls understood the rationale for integralist-type views. Here’s a passage where he understands why his view is seen as problematic:

I now turn to what to many is a basic difficulty with the idea of public reason, one that makes it seem paradoxical. They ask: why should citizens in discussing and voting on the most fundamental political questions honor the limits of public reason? How can it be either reasonable or rational, when basic matters are at stake, for citizens to appeal only to public conception of justice and not to the whole truth as they see it? Surely, the most fundamental questions should be settled by appealing to the most important truths, yet these may far transcend public reason! (216)

This is precisely what integralists say: it seems obvious that the most “fundamental questions” should be settled by appealing to “the most important truths.” And this might be a suitable basis for political order if not for the fact of reasonable pluralism.

Pope Leo XIII

Interestingly, Rawls associates recognizing the fact of reasonable pluralism as part of being a reasonable citizen, where a reasonable citizen is one who recognizes a moral requirement to propose reciprocal terms of social cooperation: ones that persons with a wide range of views about morality can all accept. The integralist also believes in reciprocity, but does not apply reciprocity to differences of moral opinion. This is why political life comes to be understood as the relation

… of friend or foe, to those of a particular religious or secular community or those who are not; or it may be a relentless struggle to win the world for the whole truth. (442)

And remarkably, Rawls admits the following:

Political liberalism does not engage those who think this way. The zeal to embody the whole truth in politics is incompatible with an idea of public reason that belongs with democratic citizenship. (442)

However, Rawls is mistaken in this passage about his aims: political liberalism does engage the integralist because it makes competing claims about the nature of moral reasoning.

Notice that this point is not lost on all Catholic theologians. To mention one example that will lead the integralist to permanently roll his eyes into the back of his head, consider John Courtney Murray’s remark about Dignitatis Humanae (the Declaration on Religious Freedom, 1965):

A longstanding ambiguity had finally been cleared up. The Church does not deal with the secular order in terms of a double standard—freedom for the Church when Catholics are in the minority, privilege for the Church and intolerance for others when Catholics are a majority.*

Here Murray shares a conception of reciprocity with Rawls because fairness includes fairness between moral perspectives. I think Murray tacitly accepts what Rawls make explicit: that people of good will and virtue can disagree about the requirements of morality, and so to be fair to all such persons, we must propose reciprocal terms of cooperation understood as terms that all can accept.

John Courtney Murray

So, this is where I think the divergence between political liberals and Catholic integralists begin: about the rationality of disagreement about the requirements of the natural law between persons of some reasonable degree of virtue.

How should this dispute be resolved? Well, I have quite a few thoughts about the matter, but that’s not the point of the post! The point of the post is that we should probably not ground the difference between the two views in terms of different philosophical anthropologies. You can hold many anthropological properties constant and still disagree about whether moral reasoning leads to dissensus or consensus.


*John Courtney Murray, “Religious Freedom,” in Abbott, ed., Documents of Vatican II, p. 673. See also the instructive discussion by Paul E. Sigmund, “Catholicism and Liberal Democracy,” in Catholicism and Liberalism: Contributions to American Public Philosophy, ed. R. Bruce Douglas and David Hollenbach, S.J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), especially pp. 233–239.

The Wounds of the Heart

The last two months have been challenging for me, hence my lack of blogging. They aren’t limited to losing my advisor. But what I have seen running throughout many of these challenges is a kind of a deep psychological that I will call wounds of the heart.

A wound of the heart is an emotional hurt that generates intense, seemingly unbearable psychic stress and that can create long-term damage to one’s personality due to overpowering negative moral emotions, like resentment and hatred, and that may last for the rest of one’s life. They are typically caused by some act by one’s close friends, family, or community. The wounded person believes the act signals that the offending group bears him or her bad will, and that the group does not love or support the wounded person in the way he or she had counted upon in the past. It can overwhelm the wounded person’s agency, leading them to lash out and creating a new harm, and perhaps wounding the hearts of others. When multiple parties to a relationship have wounds of the heart, that can spell the death of the relationship, even if the relationship continues pro forma.

One remarkable feature of wounds of the heart is that they can easily lead to false beliefs about the purported wounding individual or group, not merely that one’s family, friends, or community is corrupt or toxic, but that the group has been corrupt and toxic all along. We who are wounded revisit the wounding event, coming to a darker and darker reading of it, attributing worse and worse motives to those involved, all to comfort ourselves in a way that never quite works. In this way, a wound of the heart can trap the wounded person in beliefs that make healing impossible, even when the purported wounding party is in fact open to reconciliation and healing, and indeed yearns for it.

Healing wounds of the heart is an urgent moral task, in no small part because it can create new, negative character traits, and even break the unity of one’s soul and agency. But it is very difficult to begin the healing process. Usually the wounded person is so overwhelmed with hurt that he or she has had to close herself off emotionally in order to endure the hurt. Proposing to heal the wound is a psychic threat in itself because it creates the possibility of new hurt and pain. But without healing, things will only get worse, or they will settle at a level of harm that becomes too ingrained to heal.

I try to cultivate a desire to heal the wounds of the heart I have played any role in, but those desires have always been frustrated. And the pain I’ve felt in my inability to heal those wounds is one of the reasons I became so interested in trust and reconciliation in the first place. But those I have wounded have refused to speak with me, or have insisted that I see the world in their way before any conversation can begin, even when that is a wholly unreasonable demand.

I also have my own wounds of the heart, ones that I struggle to heal every day with prayer and repentance. But they remain a never-ending source of grief and anger. I am not sure my wounds of the heart will heal in my lifetime. Until then, it is my responsibility to manage them, keep them in check, and to pray that God will give me the opportunity to heal and even reconcile despite them. It is essential for the health of my soul that I do this. This level of pain can overwhelm anyone, distort their personality, and cause staggering moral decline. Perhaps this has already happened to me, perhaps the damage is permanent, but today I am recommitting to soldiering on. May I be healed of my wounds of the heart, and may I play some role, however small, in healing the heart wounds of others.



Jerry Gaus: A Remembrance of His Character and His Work

We were supposed to meet up on Zoom on Wednesday night to talk and make life during COVID a bit easier.

But one month ago, Jerry Gaus, my teacher and friend, passed away.

I’d like to tell you about the man I knew. I will weave together personal and intellectual reflections, for what he thought and how he lived were one.

I. Meeting Jerry

I met Jerry in Fall 2006, during my second year as a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Arizona. My first year hadn’t been easy. My father and grandmother had died shortly before I began the program in 2005, and I had struggled to find my footing. By my second year, I had started to wonder whether I had what it takes to be a philosopher.

Jerry in 2006

That semester, Jerry taught a seminar on Contemporary Theories of Liberalism (based on his 2003 book by the same name). I remember the first day in the seminar room—the excitement of meeting the department’s new senior hire, hoping to connect with someone whose work I admired. Perhaps we’d strike up a friendship. Maybe he’d see something in me that others did not.

In walked a man with long gray hair, wearing a button-up Hawaiian shirt and jeans. (This was Jerry’s uniform and I seldom saw him wear anything different, in fifteen years.) He began by asking the students what we worked on. My friend Chris Freiman and I had a fancy for Aristotle at the time, and when we mentioned this, Jerry smiled, made a cross with his arms … and hissed with a wry grin.[i] This was the first of many times he would make me laugh, sometimes to the point of tears. I will try to give you a feel for his sense of humor by reproducing some of the photos on his website, hilariously named

Jerry did not really meet anyone’s expectations, but exceeded them. The philosophers who knew Jerry knew his comprehensive brilliance and extreme work ethic. He’s one of the only people I know that I would describe as a genius, and he was among the only geniuses I ever knew who made such a full use of his talents: reading deeply, writing carefully, investing heavily in graduate student after graduate student, designing new curricula, starting new programs, developing the national and international community in philosophy, politics, and economics, and so on. Everything he did was done with intellectual depth and passion.

His seminars were a good example; he would frequently teach new material that was guiding him into a new research program, but he had it mastered to the point where you had to read the material three times before class to keep up with his expectations. And then he’d write an article or book on the matter, and he was several steps ahead of even the other professors who sat in. Jerry was never boring, and never stayed in one place, intellectually. Always forward, always engaging other sets of ideas, always challenging himself to learn new tools. He had taught himself new skills frequently, most recently agent-based computer modeling to help him study complexity theory that will play a central role in his next book.

Jerry lecturing in 2014.

But he was more to me than an inspiring teacher. Jerry was merciful, generous, and kind, and in all honesty spared me from professional failure. Over the next five years, I would work closely with Jerry almost every weekday, if not in class, then in his office, or by email. He invested enormous time and energy into my development as a philosopher. My gratitude was profound and my admiration for him had no limit.

Jerry was a demanding advisor, to say the least. He would read my draft papers and fill them with criticisms—almost all of them decisively correct. I’d spend hours revising a paper, only to have him refill it with equally decisive objections. But the process of working through revision after revision was a crucible for me. The more I invested myself in the work of a graduate student, the more of his life he poured into mine. Our constant collaboration drew us closer together, despite the fact that Jerry was a private man. Twice I was overwhelmed with the briefest remarks that he was proud of my work, once after my dissertation defense, and another just last year. He didn’t say such things often, and so I treasure a few hard-earned words as high points in my professional life.

One of the most important things about Jerry is that he chose his friendships very carefully. He was not one to have shallow relationships or to seek out admirers. He was not aiming for academic celebrity. But he inspired intense love and devotion anyway.

I think I can explain how he did this because his corpus explains a lot about the man he was. I’ve spent a lot of time with his work, including work that stretched back into the 1980s. Running through all of it is a theme that few have noted. I’d like to share it with you. These reflections get into the details of his work, but I think you will find reflecting upon them worthwhile.

II. Ideology vs Relationship in Jerry’s Early and Middle Work (1990-2010)

One central theme from Jerry’s work (though not the only one) is the dangerous role that political ideology plays in the destruction of personal relationships. In his first book, Value and Justification (1990), Jerry developed analyses of how persons make value judgments, the nature of the moral emotions and the process of moral maturation. In combination with an account of the norms and goods of personal relationships, he developed an original contractualist moral and political theory, where the norms of moral and political life gain their authority from the fact that each person can see reason of her own to abide by those norms. Jerry argued that the idea of the social contract was natural to humankind because the social contract is a way in which human beings take the perspective of others into account. Our capacity to take the perspective of others into account is part of moral maturity, a form of Jean Piaget’s idea of decentering from our own perspective in deciding how to act. The trouble with so much philosophy is that it only develops moral theory from a kind of first-personal point of view, where we reason from our own perspective alone. The virtue of the great social contract theorists is that they saw how the clash of first-personal points of view placed considerable strain on the formation and maintenance of modern, large-scale cooperative social orders. They realized that we would have to learn to reason together. But Jerry insisted on a relatively optimistic view of human nature which holds that we have the moral equipment, so to speak, to overcome the authoritarianism of the pure first-person perspective and build others’ perspective into our own decision-making. Indeed, he argued that this process of decentering and integration of perspectives was a deep supposition of the kinds of love, friendship, and trust that we value most in life.

Value and Justification fell stillborn from the press. Few of the other social contract theorists paid it much attention, including John Rawls and Tim Scanlon, who would have profited from studying it. But it is extraordinary, and the research was trenchant and tireless (I once counted, and I think it has over seven hundred unique bibliographical entries). The contract theory in that book deserved every bit as much attention as the other contract views in circulation at that time, as Jaime Dreier indicated in his review of the book.[ii] And it was better grounded in the sciences than anything written in the three-hundred-and-fifty-year history of the social contract tradition.

This emphasis on public, social reasoning led to his next great work, Justificatory Liberalism, which was more focused on political philosophy and political institutions than Value and Justification (though the works are in some respects continuous, and can be profitably read as one comprehensive theory of morality and politics). Published in 1996, alongside his good friend Fred D’Agostino’s magisterial Free Public Reason, the “public reason” tradition received its highest level of precision and erudition. Yet too few knew.[iii] Justificatory Liberalism only started to receive careful attention in the mid-2000s, when Jonathan Quong and Micah Schwartzman rediscovered it as graduate students in Oxford. And once Jerry arrived at the University of Arizona, and started having graduate students there, we would write on topics therein. The book is one of intense clarity, insight, and care. It too fell by the wayside in mainstream political philosophy for a time. I know 1996 was late in Rawls’s life, but it’s a shame he couldn’t have engaged with it.

Fred (read Free Public Reason)

You’ll detect in these reflections a bit of regret that Jerry was doing incredible work without due accolades. But this regret wasn’t shared by Jerry himself. I never heard him complain about the reception of his work. He just kept writing on whatever interested him, advancing the field even if its leading and most influential figures barely acknowledged his existence. This was part of his nobility: he loved seeking the truth so much that he had little time for the social niceties of the profession.

That’s because what Jerry really valued in life was close personal relationships of friendship and love, and a fierce pursuit of truth in one’s professional life. Again, he saw complex ideological systems, prominent among philosophers, but also theologians, political scientists, and economists, as manifestations of unjustified pride and a desire to use these questionable systems of ideas to control, browbeat, and harm other people.

Along these lines, Jerry increasingly saw contemporary political philosophy as retrograde, in part because he was a deep student of political philosophy’s history prior to Rawls. Jerry’s very first book, The Modern Liberal Theory of Man (1983), surveyed liberal political thought from Mill to Rawls, covering T.H. Green, Bernard Bosanquet, L.T. Hobhouse, and John Dewey in between. Political philosophers today skip one hundred years of liberal thought in jumping from Mill to Rawls, but Jerry recognized that these “middle liberals” had genuine insights, and he admired how they tried to understand human institutions and the mind, not only moral principles. In some ways Jerry’s methodology of political philosophy was closer to that of the British idealists of the 19th and early 20th centuries (from Green, through Bosanquet, down to Michael Oakeshott and his mentor, John Chapman) than that of most contemporary political philosophers.

Jerry was a complex combination of naturalist and idealist; he thought the natural world is all there is, and yet once told me he was skeptical that there were any mind-independent truths. We now associate idealism with a kind of anti-scientific orientation, even a doorway to fascism, but that was not how many idealists conceived of their projects, particularly in the Anglophone world. For these idealists, the development of humanity and human societies had a deep rational seam that could be scientifically studied and grasped, and that could be used to help societies ascend to higher levels of self-understanding and reconciliation between its contending factions.

In Jerry’s mind, uncovering the implicit rationality of complex cultures was an entirely scientific, secular enterprise. It also meant he had little time for traditional analytic metaphysics, which he saw as a thinly veiled successor to theology (though he thought analytic epistemology and rational choice theory terribly important). Jerry appreciated Rawls’s attempt to remain metaphysically neutral on many matters for this reason. Again, and again, Jerry tried to discourage our temptation to unmoor philosophical theorizing from real social practices, institutions, and the social sciences that helped us understand them. F.A. Hayek once said that any economist who is only an economist is not a good economist. Jerry thought the same about political philosophy: any political philosopher who is only a political philosopher is not a good political philosopher. His favorite parts of Rawls’s work were not the derivation of pure principles of justice, but his increasing, if hesitant, acceptance of pluralistic reasoning in the formation and maintenance of liberal democratic order. This was one reason he placed more stress on Political Liberalism relative to A Theory of Justice, in contrast to almost any Rawls scholar. Indeed, he very much enjoyed upsetting ideological Rawlsians!

Avoid *slavish* Rawlsianism

Indeed, after studying Rawls with Jerry for so many years, I came away with the sense that Political Liberalism is the more enduring and insightful work. Jerry often encouraged his students to rethink common narratives of research in the profession, and I think he was pleased when he helped others see through standard narratives because they were misleading and narrowed our ability to uncover new insight.[iv]

It was from these convictions that Jerry began to develop his own brand of “PPE” theorizing, bringing together philosophy, political science, and economics into a comprehensive study of social order. (Note that Jerry’s PhD is from Pittsburgh in Political Science, not Philosophy; have you ever known a better philosopher who lacked a PhD in the area?) And Jerry included morality in the idea of social order. Morality is a kind of tool that human beings had evolved to use to solve critical social problems and enable cooperation. Of course, morality was not developed self-consciously to solve these problems, like the wheel. It arrived long before and less consciously than that. But moral philosophy is at its best the study of moral order; and that necessitated going beyond philosophy into many other fields. This was why Jerry challenged his students to master interdisciplinary tools, in some cases to an extreme degree; in recent years, he has had his students complete complex proofs in social choice theory; and a few of his present students have been writing their own computer programs to generate agent-based models of social cooperation. With each passing year, his students grew in strength and intellectual reach.

True for his students!

III. Ideology vs Relationship in Jerry’s Later Work (2010-2020)

With time, Jerry would continue to contrast  the interpersonal, known, and free with the impersonal, unknown, and authoritarian. Jerry rejects a certain “man of system” approach to other human beings. This conviction manifested most clearly in his magnum opus, The Order of Public Reason, published in 2011. That book begins with the recognition that there is a unique domain of the normative that he called, following Kurt Baier and Peter Strawson, “social morality”—the recognized rules of social life that we use to direct each other’s conduct. He then added that our social morality can be authoritarian and oppressive, or it can be turned to serve as an extension of freedom and human relationships. He there developed a complex deontological moral psychology based on the most sophisticated research available in order to show that a large-scale, diverse society could have a truly non-authoritarian, free, and egalitarian morality.

Over the fifteen years since Justificatory Liberalism was published, Jerry had soured on traditional social contract theory, coming to believe that it was inherently indeterminate in that the social contract could not secure unanimous agreement on principles of justice and legitimacy. All worthwhile social contract theories must acknowledge the possibility of multiple solutions to our problems. Indeterminacy was inevitable.

The idea to embrace indeterminacy led to further insights. First, we would have to look to real social processes to help choose among the set of possible solutions. But which processes? Jerry argued that he had, in the past, relied too much on the democratic state to select among sets of laws and policies. We must now turn to Hume and Hayek to recognize that much of our moral and political order is the product of social evolution, and that our contractualist social morality could not be given a complete rational reconstruction. This was one of Hayek’s great insights – that much of our social order is spontaneous, if not the vast majority of it – and that its true rationale is often unknowable. Indeed, an attempt to impose a rational intellectual structure on society would risk destroying it. That was the great danger of socialism for Hayek; and that was the great danger of all political ideologies for Jerry, including libertarianism.

Jerry wasn’t quite a Hayekian; but by 2020, he was awfully close.

In the same book, Jerry fully embraced diverse and pluralistic reasoning, even allowing religious reasoning to play an intimate part of social life. Like Rawls, he did not think the free use of practical reason would lead to agreement on the good, though he had much more scientifically-informed reasons for reaching that conclusion. Indeed, in Contemporary Theories of Liberalism, he described the public reason project as a post-Enlightenment project, which requires that we admit that the exercise of pure reason will not solve the central problems of social life because we will limit ourselves to fewer opportunities to fruitfully cooperate and learn from one another. Political philosophers must embrace diverse reasoning and diverse perspectives, and expect agreement to be elusive. Yet diversity was not a danger to be contained, but a resource that can expand the value in our lives and our capacity to live together well. This work led to his New Diversity Theory, an idea he was still working out when he died. The New Diversity Theory was an attempt to use diversity as a resource to be leveraged as an engine for discovery and progress.

Jerry’s preoccupation with the dangers of ideology and homogeneous reasoning led to his next work, The Tyranny of the Ideal, published in 2016, where he offered an extensive argument that ideal theory in political philosophy can’t perform the roles philosophers traditionally assign to it. This is because we are cognitively incapable of determining how to arrive at our ideals unless we have an open society where people committed to diverse ideals can engage in experimentation. Jerry once told me he saw Mill as a “Saint” and this book was indeed his most Millian work. I’ll admit that the book depressed me, because I am a recovering ideology addict; I had to face the fact that I was guilty of the sin of epistemic arrogance that Jerry identified therein.

IV. Growing Up and Calming Down

But Jerry did not want us to suffer, nor did he want us to be sad. He wanted to bring us all down to Earth, to grow up a bit, to focus on the real relationships in our lives that mattered, the concrete relations of love, friendship, and trust that provided the real, stable meaning and worth in our lives. This was part of the fact that he enjoyed sharing his social life with his much younger graduate students than with well-established and high-status members of his field. He found us fresher, less ideological, and more energetic. We were all so honored that he found so much value in his friendships with us.

Just a few weeks ago, I received a draft of his next book, The Open Society and Its Complexities. In the manuscript, Jerry argues that the order of open societies is fundamentally complex, and not just complicated. A complicated system has many parts, but a complex system adds relations of causal feedback between those parts. This makes complex systems hard to understand and harder to predict. How, then, can friends of open societies ever hope to make sense of how to justify its central institutions like democracy and the market? You will one day be able to read the book to learn the answer.

We can see a central theme of Jerry’s work, running across decades of thought. Jerry often stressed the importance of peace and compromise.[v] But his love of truth and hatred of ideology made him a man of great principle and conviction. While he told others to be less confident in their attempts to remake society, what I call his “anti-ideal ideal” animated his personal life. Again, Jerry chose his friends carefully, and invested heavily when the opportunity arose. He was also a man who loved the simple things in life—a glass of wine, a baseball game, an old movie, a Wallace and Gromit film, a meal in New Orleans with students, and above all his wife and his daughter. Jerry hoped that humanity would come to see that what so many people find small and worthless actually makes life worthwhile. They are surely worth far more than the ridiculous castles in the air that we kill and die for.

Allow me to put a finer point on this. As an offshoot of his project, and in line with my own interest in religion, I had written an essay that tried to explore why all or nearly all complex societies have civil religion. Why all the pomp and circumstance, the coronations and inaugurations, the grand speeches and public prayers? Why ritual and song and dance? Why hero worship and the persecution of hated out-group members? I had come to wonder whether civil religion was an ineliminable feature of complex social orders.

Tucson Toros; he chose this picture for an interview with the New York Times.

Jerry had mixed feelings about the paper, in part because he didn’t want to believe that these practices were necessary to keep social order going, given the dangers they posed. In his response to me, he postulated an alternative civil religion for the American open society:


Jerry knew that we evolved as partly tribal beings, but hoped that we could channel our internecine tribalism into harmless bread and circuses, and then lead the best lives available to us. Jerry once told me that we are “just monkeys with bells and whistles” and bread and circuses and good relationships were the best we could do, for now. This was not something to lament, but something to embrace. Our bread and circuses are wonderful things, to be cherished, not downplayed.

When I think of him, I’ll recall this line from Gandalf in the movie adaptation of The Hobbit:

“Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love.”

Jerry warned us all, in both his work and personal life, that great concentrations of power, and the carefully spun political ideologies that legitimized them, will not keep the darkness at bay. They are part of the darkness. We must respond by appreciating the local and tangible, our relationships of love and friendship, the personal pursuit of truth. These things are our great weapons. “Bread and circuses” are normally used to refer to the trivial, but for Jerry they referred to what’s great. Baseball and beer. An old movie or novel. Wine with his wife, drinks with his daughter, food with his friends.

Jerry Gaus was my friend and teacher. His life was a message from which we can all profit, no matter what we believe. May we all acquire a bit more humility, and pay a bit more attention to the real, tangible relationships in our lives. I will honor Jerry by focusing more on those around me, loving my wife and my kids, slowing down to share moments with students and colleagues, correcting my own tendencies towards intellectual arrogance, and recommitting to pursuing the truth above all.

Goodbye, Jerry. I will miss you.

Me, Chad, and Jerry at a 2014 conference on my first book.


[i] Jerry did not greet the recent revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics with much enthusiasm, a point he noted in The Order of Public Reason. He thought teleological ethical theories miss critical aspects of moral life and moral psychology, so much so that they could not serve as a public basis for organizing large-scale social orders, the problem with which he was most concerned. The move back to Aristotle was likely to lead authoritarianism and inability of diverse persons to live together well.


[iii] Though here is a nice review:

[iv] Jerry had an ongoing commitment to ensuring commonly ignored figures were given their due. This extended to largely forgotten figures like T.H. Green and Bernard Bosanquet, to authors whose names are known but who are seldom read, like Stanley Benn (a close friend of his), Kurt Baier, Richard Hare, and Alan Gewirth, and social scientists whose work had philosophical implications, like Cristina Bicchieri and Elinor Ostrom.

[v] Though lately I think he thought I’d been getting a bit too impressed by peace and wrote a paper emphasizing the importance of social conflict for social advancement. That’s one theme in The Open Society and Its Complexities.

Jerry Gaus (1952-2020): Constant Learning in a Complex World

Written By His Students

Jacob Barrett
Adam Gjesdal
Bill Glod
Keith Hankins
Brian Kogelmann
Ryan Muldoon
John Thrasher
Kevin Vallier
Chad Van Schoelandt

It is difficult to describe Jerry Gaus’s views and accomplishments in part because he was so prolific, having authored nine books comprising roughly 3,000 pages and more than a hundred published papers. Moreover, his work was wide-ranging and interdisciplinary. Jerry was critical of what he sometimes called “hedgehogosity,” the tendency for political philosophers to define themselves in terms of well-defined schools or even a single supreme value. In contrast to the hedgehog’s narrowness, consider how Jerry describes his work in The Order of Public Reason (2011, xiv–xv): “we will have to grapple with the insights of, among many others, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Rousseau, J. S. Mill, T. H. Green, P. F. Strawson, Kurt Baier, S. I. Benn, R. M. Hare, F. A. Hayek, David Gauthier, Alan Gewirth, Kenneth Arrow, John Rawls, James Buchanan, and Amartya Sen. We will draw on game theory, experimental psychology, theories of emotion and reasoning, axiomatic social choice theory, constitutional political economy, Kantian moral philosophy, prescriptivism, and the concept of reason and how it relates to freedom in human affairs.”

Jerry (2011, xv) noted that his “work is often categorized under the ‘libertarian’ label since I argue that human freedom is terribly important, that coercive interferences infringe freedom and so must always be justified to the person who is being coerced.” He wrote this not to embrace a libertarian label, but to reject it, as Jerry stressed his concerns with coercion came from his friend and co-author Stanley Benn, an Australian Labor Democrat. Indeed, Jerry’s bête noire was political ideology of all kinds, including libertarianism, because adopting them detracts one from “the truth business,” as his advisor John Chapman taught him.

Jerry understood himself to be working in a tradition with an ongoing, active research agenda for a scholarly community, teaching us about the complexities of our social world, rather than looking for opportunities to reinforce our biased ways of understanding it. For this reason, we want to emphasize not merely Jerry’s accomplishments, like his major books, but also the ongoing projects and areas in which he played a pivotal role.

Public Reason

Jerry is best known for his work in the public reason tradition, particularly as he was the leading figure in what has come to be known as convergence liberalism. He had worked on the idea of public reason at the same time as Rawls was – during the 1980s. Jerry produced his first work in the area in 1990: Value and Justification.[i]

Throughout his career, Jerry was heavily influenced by the great social contract theorists – Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant – as well as contemporary theorists like Rawls and David Gauthier. From very early on, Jerry recognized that living in a complex social order required a kind of agreement amongst its members on the terms of social life. As he understood them, the social contract theorists recognized that engaging in moral reasoning about how to live from a purely first-personal point of view was bound to lead to destructive conflict. So, in a deep study of how humans make value judgments, the nature of the moral emotions and a theory of moral maturation, Jerry argued that we must come to move beyond the first-personal point of view and to integrate a social perspective into our individual perspectives. Only in this way can humans successfully cooperate with one another. Taking the perspective of others was also a pre-requisite for maintaining our personal relationships. Doing so is central to sustaining valuable relations of love, friendship, and trust. All relationships require that we follow certain kinds of rules and moral requirements that involve taking the perspective of others into account.

The doctrine of public reason is derived from Jerry’s account of personal values and the norms internal to personal relationships. We pursue public justifications for our shared rules of social life in order to ensure that the rules are acceptable to all, such that persons can related to one another by way of complying with those rules. Jerry would stress the importance of shared reasoning in helping us live together. Yet, even there, we find a role for pluralistic and diverse reasoning in formulating a justification for our moral demands on one another, though the theme was not as central as it would become in later work.

As Jerry was working on his next book, Justificatory Liberalism, he came to embrace more pluralistic forms of reasoning, allowing diverse reasoning to supplement shared reasoning more and more. In the terms of Jerry’s good friend and fellow public reason theorist, Fred D’Agostino, Jerry had moved away from the mainstream “consensus” model of public reason of expecting an agreement about which reasons could be appealed to in justifying social and political power and coercion, and supplanted it with a “convergence” view where diverse reasons could figure into the justification of coercive political power. Yet even here, Jerry adopted a principle of sincerity that required citizens to engage in shared reasons in justifying moral and political claims to one another.

Over the next fifteen years, in the build-up to The Order of Public Reason, Jerry would increasingly stress the incompleteness of the social contract tradition. The difficulty with mainstream ideas of public reason is that they supposed a society could reach an agreement about principles of morality and justice. But it became a central theme of OPR that this was an unrealistic expectation. Jerry also stressed, in contrast to Justificatory Liberalism, that we could not rely on the political process alone in choosing between proposals that could only be “inconclusively” justified to all. Instead, we would have to appeal to social evolution in order to come upon concrete agreements. Kant and Rawls would have to join forces with Hume and Hayek. An “order of public reason” would not be a “deliberative democracy” that would narrow our disagreements to consensus, on reasons or on public policy; rather, it was a complex order of “social-moral rules” in which the political process played a central, but quite limited part.

Along the same lines, Jerry began to address religious reasoning more carefully, and moved away from the “privatization” approach. Once we allow for diverse reasoning, Jerry acknowledged, we must include the reasoning of people of faith. Jerry therefore was among the fairly narrow class of historical liberals who saw religious reasoning and religious discourse as source of social progress rather than social regression. Public reason must be pluralistic, diverse, and face up to indeterminacy and interminable disagreement; this put Jerry in a class almost by himself, such that his public reason project was an almost staggering departure from the rest of the ever-expanding public reason literature. The themes in The Order of Public Reason would receive the most uptake from his expanding number of graduate students, but his work on religion and politics was so distinctive that it attracted a great deal of attention, especially “The Roles of Religious Conviction in a Publicly Justified Polity” which was his most cited article.

By the end of his career, however, Jerry had come to worry that even his account in the book was insufficiently accommodative of moral diversity. People disagree not only about the inherent morality or justice of different rules, but also about how much they value reconciling with others or living together under publicly justified rules—and even about which others they seek to reconcile with. In “Self-organizing Moral Systems: Beyond Social Contract Theory” and The Open Society and its Complexities (forthcoming), he therefore began to investigate and model the conditions under which individuals who disagreed in all of these ways could nevertheless coordinate on publicly justified rules, rather than polarize or split apart.

Moral Psychology and Social Morality

Jerry would argue in The Order of Public Reason that moral philosophers had all too often expected to give a single analysis or explanation of all moral truths. But he thought it was critical to distinguish between the many different domains of the normative, and he tended to concern himself with one part of it – what Jerry called “social morality,” or the norms or rules of conduct that members of a society may hold one responsible for violating and punish for defecting.

The idea of “social morality” is central to The Order of Public Reason. Jerry credits the idea to philosophers like P.F Strawson, Kurt Baier, and David Gauthier. But its lineage extends at least as far back as the Scottish Enlightenment, to David Hume’s artificial virtues and Adam Smith’s rules of justice. Social morality is embodied in a shared system of interlocking descriptive and normative expectations that guide our social interactions. This system includes laws the state promulgates and coercively enforces. But it extends more deeply into the fabric of social life to include complex informal norms that are not coercively enforced by the state. We implicitly act on these informal norms when we walk down the street or make a purchase. What sustains these informal norms is not coercive enforcement but internalization and the reactive attitudes—for in violating them we become appropriate objects of guilt and resentment. These informal norms have much in common with Humean conventions. They are objects of something like common knowledge: a norm of walking on the right side of the street exists only if nearly everyone knows others expects them to walk on the right. And, like Humean conventions, these norms perform an important function in human life of making mutually beneficial cooperation possible.

After The Order of Public Reason, Jerry would develop his analysis of social morality. In “The Priority of Social Morality” and his forthcoming The Open Society and Its Complexities, he shows how work in evolutionary anthropology and behavioral and experimental economics substantiates the claim that norms of social morality form the basis of small-scale human social orders. His “On Dissing Public Reason: A Reply to David Enoch” takes pains to clarify how the idea of social morality is distinct from, and so ought not be conflated with, more “absolute” notions of morality and normativity, often presumed by philosophers in discussions of human rights. In “Moral Learning in the Open Society,” co-authored with Shaun Nichols, he provides experimental evidence that social morality includes a principle of natural liberty, which permits novel action types whenever they are not expressly (or implicitly, via clear analogy) prohibited by existing rules.

Philosophy, Politics, and Economics: The Gausian Method

Jerry was a champion of the PPE approach to understanding society and our place in it. Throughout all of his work, Jerry showed what we might call an “integrative approach” to PPE in action. This approach, which in some ways reaches back to the early political economists like David Hume and Adam Smith who were simultaneously philosophers, political theorists, and political economists. Indeed, the department that he chaired at the time of his death—The Department of Political Economy and Moral Sciences—illustrates this integrative, interdisciplinary focus in it name. Jerry also ran the Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law (PPEL) major at the University of Arizona. PPE education as well as research was a central concern for Jerry. The reason is simple. Jerry believed, rightly in our view, that important social, political, and moral problems, which also animated significant historical figures, can’t be understood, let alone answered, if they are viewed from a single disciplinary lens. To really make progress on the crucial questions of social life, we need the tools and complementary lenses that come from an integrated PPE approach. PPE also helps to mitigate what he thought was the tendency of political philosophy to become ideological.


Aside from his own work, his leadership in the burgeoning PPE movement, and his pedagogy, Jerry also did important work to make the world safe for PPE. An important step in this direction was the founding of the journal Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, which he edited with his good friend Fred D’Agostino to establish it as a premier venue for interdisciplinary work.  Alongside the journal, many other venues have since arisen to cultivate PPE research. One of these is the PPE Society, of which Jerry was an active participant. At the time of his death, Jerry was in the process of writing, with John Thrasher, a new textbook on the methods and theory of PPE for Princeton University Press (following up on the original edition, archived here). The aim of this book is to make it easier for anyone to teach PPE to undergraduates, opening up the possibilities for a more integrative and diverse approach to the social sciences and humanities.

Complexity and Ideal Theory

A central theme of much of Jerry’s later work is social complexity and its implications for political philosophy. Many believe that a conception of the ideally just society (“the ideal”) orients the pursuit of justice by serving as a long-term goal for reform. But in The Tyranny of the Ideal, Jerry draws on complexity theory to interrogate and cast doubt on this view. In the absence of complexity—roughly, interactions between different social elements—local improvements to our society would perfectly correlate with steps toward the ideal, so there would be no need to explicitly identify and pursue the ideal as a long-term goal. In the presence of complexity, this correlation breaks down, so there is a more obvious need to orient ourselves toward the ideal. But we now run into a serious epistemic difficulty: in general, we can be much less confident about the effects of more radical changes than more modest changes to complex systems. Whenever one is tempted to pursue one’s conception of the ideal, one therefore faces The Choice: should one pursue a relatively certain local improvement, or a far less certain ideal? Jerry argues that the only social-epistemic conditions under which we might be confident enough about ideal justice to responsibly opt for its pursuit would be found in an open, diversity-accommodating society in which widespread disagreements about justice would, ironically, render the pursuit of the ideal impossible. He therefore recommends that we give up on the ideal in favor of an Open Society that everybody sees as satisfactory though nonideal.

Jerry elaborates on this theme in his forthcoming book, The Open Society and its Complexities, which undertakes a Hayek-inspired investigation into the prospects of justification and governance in the Open Society. Standard moral theories and social contract models, Jerry argues, are ill-equipped to justify the rules of the Open Society, since they cannot accommodate its degree of “autocatalytic” diversity and complexity—whereby diversity begets complexity, which begets further diversity, and so on. Instead, justification must proceed from the bottom-up: from real individuals self-organizing around publicly justified rules.

But this need for emergent self-organization, Jerry claims, should not lead us to neglect the possibility and importance of governance. Due to social complexity, our ability to govern a social system decreases at larger scales and over longer time horizons, so rather than treating governance as a unitary phenomenon, we must carefully attend to different modes of governance. For example, while at the macro-level we are limited to setting “rules of the game” that facilitate self-organization, at the meso-level we may solve strategic dilemmas, and at the micro-level we may pursue particular policy goals. Yet complex systems are also characterized by “reflexivity”: the government is just one agent in the system, to which others respond, and to which the government must then respond in turn. Typically, then, governance is more effective when individuals willingly go along with the government, as occurs in the presence of public justification.

Jerry also worked through these issues in a number of relevant papers, including “Searching for the Ideal: The Fundamental Diversity Dilemma” (with Keith Hankins), “Political Philosophy as the Study of Complex Normative Systems,” “The Complexity of a Diverse Moral Order,” “Morality as a Complex Adaptive System: Rethinking Hayek’s Social Ethics,” and “What Might Democratic Self-governance in a Complex Social World Look Like?”

New Diversity Theory

Jerry was the leading figure in what some have termed “The New Diversity Theory.”  Along with Fred D’Agostino, Jerry was an early advocate of the idea that fundamental moral diversity is not merely a problem to be managed, but a resource to be leveraged.  Diversity makes our social lives more complex, and stability more difficult to achieve, but it is also an engine for discovery and progress.  Diversity enables us to find better ways of living together, and adapt to new situations more readily, even as it invariably generates sources of conflict. Jerry thought that this was a necessary course correction for political philosophy.  Instead of abstracting away from our differences to examine an ideological project in its purest form, he thought we needed to understand and celebrate ways that very different people can live together and solve problems cooperatively. Indeed, exploring social diversity and its consequences is where we can find many of the most interesting problems in political philosophy and PPE.

This thinking is most evident in The Order of Public Reason, The Tyranny of the Ideal, and his final book, The Open Society and its Complexities, as well as papers such as “Between Discovery and Choice: The General Will in a Diverse Society”, “Searching for the Ideal: The Fundamental Diversity Dilemma” (with Keith Hankins), “The Complexity of a Diverse Moral Order”, and “Is Public Reason a Normalization Project? Deep Diversity and the Open Society.”

Just as important as his own contributions to the New Diversity Theory were his efforts to elevate others who were developing their own approaches to this project. Some, like Fred and Paul Dragos Aligica were already very established scholars, but Jerry went out of his way to bring attention to younger scholars, such as Ryan Muldoon, Michael Moehler, and Julian Müller.  He also trained a number of philosophers who have already established themselves as figures in this area, such as Chad Van Schoelandt, John Thrasher, Kevin Vallier, Keith Hankins, and Brian Kogelmann. Jacob Barrett, Adam Gjesdal, Phil Smolenski, Alex Motchoulski and Alex Schaefer are more recent students of Jerry working in this area.

In many ways, the New Diversity Theory is the culmination of themes in Jerry’s work, as the project is in essence a research program, a kind of new paradigm of political philosophy. The New Diversity Theory comes with new sets of interdisciplinary tools, new attitudes towards certain kinds of social phenomena, and different expectations about what philosophical reasoning can accomplish. It is our belief that the New Diversity Theory is one of the most promising avenues for new research in political philosophy.

History of Philosophy: The Social Contract Tradition

Jerry’s work on the New Diversity Theory colored the way he read the history of political thought. Political philosophy, he would tell his students, began with Hobbes. This is because Hobbes was concerned with the same set of problems that the New Diversity Theory takes as its focus. For many, this will be a surprise. Hobbes, we are all taught, is the theorist of self-interest, who teaches that human conflict is generated by humanity’s darker motives. Jerry did not like this reading. Instead of focusing on chapter thirteen of Leviathan, he spent much time analyzing chapter five, where Hobbes says that, due to the fallibility of human reason, “parties must by their own accord set up for right reason the reason of some arbitrator or judge.” In other words, the problem of conflicting private judgment, according to Hobbes, can only be solved with some kind of public reason. Jerry read Locke in a similar manner, where conflict arises from conflicting private judgment, and the solution is to set up some kind of public method of reasoning that allows persons to resolve their disputes, and live peacefully.

Jerry’s contributions to the history of the social contract tradition include: “Locke’s Liberal Theory of Public Reason,” “Public Reason Liberalism,” “Hobbes’s Challenge to Public Reason Liberalism,” and “Hobbesian Contractarianism, Orthodox and Revisionist.” Perhaps his most important contribution is the edited volume (with Piers Norris Turner) Public Reason in Political Philosophy: Classical Sources and Contemporary Commentaries. The idea of the volume is to show how the problem of diversity and conflicting moral judgment can be found not only in the social contract tradition, but in the work of other important historical figures, such as Hume, Hegel, Bentham, and Mill. And indeed, in that edited volume, Jerry located the idea of public reason in these early figures, making Rawls a more minor figure in the development of public reason liberalism.

Jerry thought that understanding the history of political philosophy was key to crafting its future and making progress on pressing questions. He frequently pushed his own research program forward by drawing on insights from a vast range of thinkers from the past, some of whom, like Hobbes, are well-known, but others, like T.H. Green (as Jerry explored in “Green’s Rights Recognition Thesis and Moral Internalism”), have been left behind.

Teaching and Mentoring

While most people know Jerry through his publications, we want to conclude by noting his tremendous accomplishments as a teacher and mentor. The University of Arizona recognized Jerry’s excellence in this area with the university’s Award for Teaching and Mentoring in Graduate Education in 2015.

Jerry is famed for holding his students to exacting standards, while providing the students with extensive support to develop and meet those standards. His support and expectations impelled students to tremendous productivity, expeditious completion of the PhD program, and vibrant careers. Importantly, Jerry’s standards were exclusively those of scholarship and argumentative rigor, never demands on their research questions or conclusions. Central to Jerry’s approach to teaching was encouraging his students to explore the issues they saw as meriting exploration and to come to their own conclusions.

Jerry’s devotion to teaching manifested in many ways, including that he frequently taught graduate seminars as overloads beyond his teaching obligations.

Lastly, we’ll emphasize that Jerry approached philosophy as a cooperative venture. Some note that Jerry seemed to never reject an invitation to contribute to a collection. A major part of this was that when Jerry received such invitations, he often considered his graduate students and asked if they were interested in collaborating on the paper. These collaborations provided highly enjoyable and valuable opportunities to engage in the substantive issues and to learn the craft of writing. Likewise, deep discussions of philosophic problems frequently led to collaborations on important peer-reviewed articles.

In this way, the philosophic projects exemplify some of the core insights of Jerry’s philosophic views. New members of the community contribute to a cooperative surplus and the benefits are enhanced with increased perspectival diversity of the cooperators. We hope that you will see Jerry’s work as not merely providing incredible insights, though it certainly does that, but also as providing resources for ongoing research projects and a warm invitation to join in those explorations.




Gaus, Gerald. 1983. The Modern Liberal Theory of Man. New York: Palgrave.

———. 1990. Value and Justification: The Foundations of Liberal Theory. Cambridge University Press.

———. 1996. Justificatory Liberalism: An Essay on Epistemology and Political Theory. Oxford University Press.

———. 1999. Social Philosophy. Routledge.

———. 2000. Political Concepts and Political Theories. Westview Press.

———. 2003. Contemporary Theories of Liberalism: Public Reason as a Post-Enlightenment Project. Sage.

———. 2011. The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World. Cambridge University Press.

———. 2016. The Tyranny of the Ideal: Justice in a Diverse Society. Princeton University Press.

———. 2021 [expected] The Open Society and Its Complexities. Oxford University Press.

Turner, Piers Norris, and Gerald Gaus, eds. 2017. Public Reason in Political Philosophy: Classic Sources and Contemporary Commentaries. Routledge.


Articles Mentioned (see Gaus’s CV for much more)

“Green’s Rights Recognition Thesis and Moral Internalism.” British Journal of Politics and International Relations, vol. 7 (2005): pp. 5-17.

(with Kevin Vallier) “The Roles of Religious Conviction in a Publicly Justified Polity: The Implications of Convergence, Asymmetry and Political Institutions.” Philosophy & Social Criticism, vol. 35 (2009): pp. 51-76.

“Between Discovery and Choice: The General Will in a Diverse Society,” Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice, vol. 3 (2011): pp. 70-95.

“Hobbes’s Challenge to Public Reason Liberalism,” In Hobbes Today, edited by S.A. Lloyd. Cambridge University Press, 2013: pp. 155-177.

“Hobbesian Contractarianism, Orthodox and Revisionist.” In The Continuum Companion to Hobbes, edited by S.A. Lloyd. Bloomsbury, 2013: pp. 263-278.

“On Dissing Public Reason: A Reply to Enoch.” Ethics, vol. 125 (2015): pp. 1078-1095.

“Public Reason Liberalism.” In The Cambridge Companion to Liberalism, edited by Steve Wall. Cambridge University Press, 2015: pp. 112-40.

“Is Public Reason a Normalization Project? Deep Diversity and the Open Society.” Social Philosophy Today, vol. 33 (2017): pp. 27-55.

(with Shaun Nichols) “Moral Learning in the Open Society: The Theory and Practice of Natural Liberty.” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 34 (2017): pp. 79-101.

(with Keith Hankins) “Searching for the Ideal: The Fundamental Diversity Dilemma.” In Political Utopias, edited by Michael Weber and Kevin Vallier. Oxford University Press, 2017: pp. 175-201.

The Complexity of a Diverse Moral Order.” The Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy, vol. 16 (2018): pp. 645-779.

“Locke’s Liberal Theory of Public Reason.” In Public Reason in the History of Political Philosophy, edited by Piers Norris Turner and Gerald Gaus. Routledge, 2018: pp. 163-83.

“Political Philosophy as the Study of Complex Normative Systems.” Cosmos + Taxis, vol. 5 (2018): pp. 62-78.

“The Priority of Social Morality.” In Morality, Governance, and Social Institutions: Reflections on Russell Hardin, edited by Thomas Christiano, Ingrid Creppell and Jack Knight. Palgrave, 2018: pp. 23-57.

Self-organizing Moral Systems: Beyond Social Contract Theory.” Politics, Philosophy and Economics, vol. 17 (2018): pp. 119-147.

“Morality as a Complex Adaptive System: Rethinking Hayek’s Social Ethics.” The Oxford Handbook of Ethics and Economics, edited by Mark D. White. Oxford University Press, 2019: pp. 138-159.

“What Might Democratic Self-governance in a Complex Social World Look Like?”  56 San Diego Law Review, vol. 56 (2019): pp. 968-1012.

[i] This was his second book, coming nine years after a short study of six figures in the liberal tradition – J.S. Mill, T.H. Green, Bernard Bosanquet, L.T. Hobhouse, and John Rawls – called The Modern Liberal Theory of Man (1983).


Is Everyone Doing Second-Order Moral Theory? They Can Try.

A common theme in Jason’s blog posts on public reason (in response to some of my own) is that public reason liberals aren’t alone in trying to do a kind of second-order moral theory – resolving conflicts between people with substantive and conflicting moral views. As Chris Freiman puts it, “One need not be a public reason liberal to care about resolving conflicts in mutually acceptable ways.”

I. PRLs Develop Criteria for Second-Order Moral Theories

Public reason liberals have understood this point for a while. Indeed, in Justice as Fairness, Rawls is arguing against second-order utilitarianism, not first-order utilitarianism (which he says is part of moral philosophy rather than “moral theory”). Restricted utilitarianism in particular (average utility with a floor, constrained by first principle liberties) is a serious alternative to Rawls’s view, on Rawls’s own accounting. And my view is that Restricted Utility is obviously superior to Rawls’s justice as fairness. And indeed, based on Rawls’s criterion in Political Liberalism. I’m pretty sure that it is a reasonable view.

The key, as Chris notes, is that in second-order moral theory, we are trying to satisfy a mutual acceptability requirement (which I call a public justification). What I’d add is that there are criteria that a successful second-order moral theory must meet. PRLs appeal to a host of considerations to try an argue that their second-order approach has the right structure, such as stability and civic friendship. The way this usually goes is to inquire into human moral or political psychology in order to figure out what sort of principles or rules can be mutually acceptable in a sustained way. Then a mutual acceptability requirement is grounded in an account of our psychology. There are three big theories on offer: for Rawls, we look into our conception of the person, citizen, and society; for Habermas, we look into the norms of dialogue and communication, and for Gaus, we look into our practice of moral responsibility and the moral emotions.

The point is that public reason liberals have a method or several methods for how to do second-order moral theory, and they think that, say, fascist principles can’t meet the relevant criteria.

In my view, the problem with Rawls is that he doesn’t do hard empirical work of figuring out what kinds of norms and principles would satisfy our real moral psychologies. He speculates. Habermas is better because he appeals to sociology and communication theory for help, as well as some interesting moral psychology. But Gaus is the best because he takes the social science the most seriously. Indeed, after rereading The Order of Public Reason again in prep for a grad seminar, I think Gaus is just head and shoulders above the other two in this regard. (Yes, yes, Gaus was my advisor, but still.)

II. My Meager Trust-Based Contribution

I am small fry public reason guy. But in two of my books (Must Politics Be War? and the forthcoming sequel Trust in a Polarized Age) I have arguments that a particular kind of public justification requirement is essential to get people with diverse perspectives to be trustworthy in each other’s eyes. Only when we have mutually acceptable norms can we all have reason from our own perspective to follow common rules, which enable us to identify each other’s behavior as trustworthy because we can all follow the same rules from our own diverse convictions. I take justice pluralism (reasonable disagreement about justice) seriously enough that I don’t think any public conception of justice is going to be stable or uncontroversial enough to serve as the public basis for resolving our first-order moral disputes. Instead, I focus on a range of basic rights, like freedom of association, private property, and democracy. If I had to choose from the standard options, restricted utility is the way to go. Indeed, I’d maximize average utility over very long time periods, a bit like Tyler Cowen in Stubborn Attachments.

But I don’t stop with justice pluralism. Instead of hand-waiving about the costs of foregoing public justification, I argue that the costs can actually be approximated by looking at the kinds of value that social and political trust provide, in particular the instrumental value they provide, as documented in the empirical trust literature. If I’m right, this will be among the first attempts to show what foregoing public justification actually costs. And then, in principle, we ought to be able to measure the trust-generating properties of different second-order moral principles for organizing diverse orders where people disagree about first-order moral issues.

III. Succeeding at Second-Order Moral Theory

So, I think now I’m at least directly responding to J in his own eyes. If everyone is doing second-order moral theory, or could if they wanted, they will have to meet certain standards because second-order moral theory like an acceptability requirement to perform the role the theory is supposed to perform. Fascism will be terrible at that. Justice as fairness won’t be very good at it. Restricted utility is attractive. But a fragmented, rights-based approach is probably best.

Brennan’s War, Public Reason’s Peace

Imagine you’re in a tough marriage. You disagree with your spouse about many issues of great importance, like how to raise the kids, how to spend money, and so on. Imagine that, after all your efforts, you just can’t agree. But you don’t want to get divorced. The goods of life together are too great, and divorce would be messy, costly, and probably not make either party any happier. So you decide to go to a marriage therapist. The marriage therapist is another human being, just like you, and has her own parochial concerns, just like you, and she is a member of a profession which disagrees pretty seriously about the best and most effective forms of marriage therapy.

The therapist helps you to see that your arguments aren’t going anywhere and that you’re going to have to find some way to get along before the relationship is destroyed and your concern for one another is depleted. The therapist offers you compromises, ways of living where you don’t have to resent one another, where your hurt and pain can be brought into a manageable state, even if you have to readjust your expectations for having a good marriage. Eventually you find a way you can live together. You’re disappointed. You mourn the marriage you always wanted, but you continue to live your life with the one you love.

Now imagine that you’re a peace negotiator in a bloody and brutal war. The two sides can’t seem to conquer one another, and they’re nearly to the point of exhaustion. You represent one side, and you meet with the negotiator on the other side. The two of you have a strong bias, but you also recognize that peace is the best path forward. Of course, you start off by offering different kinds of peace treaties, and indeed hail from different schools of thought in military negotiation. But eventually you’re able to hit on a peace agreement that will stick and allow people to get on with life. An equilibrium that is not optimal from anyone’s point of view, but that everyone can accept.

There is nothing at all confusing or hypocritical or dishonest about these jobs. Being a therapist or a treaty negotiator builds on our capacity to take the perspective of others and come to some resolution of our disputes, which we do all the time. Of course, we all have our biases, and of course we may not have the best theory of resolving marital or martial conflicts. But at least we’re trying. There is a role in any culture for peace-makers, and we usually have lots of institutions devoted precisely to that task.

For whatever reason, Jason Brennan thinks that any political philosophy that tries to play this role in ideological conflict isn’t just wrong. It’s bullshit and wastes the profession’s time.

It is revealing that, in his most recent post, Brennan actually identifies two roles that approximate the relationships I’ve described: constitutional interpretation and biblical interpretation. People have fought quite a bit about what the constitution means, and so people develop theories of what the constitution means in order to resolve disputes. Of course, their theories are imperfect, but this meta-discourse is better than having everyone operate on their own private judgment about what the constitution means or not having a constitution at all. Similarly, biblical interpretation is a gigantic part of how Christians, Jews, etc. figure out how to associate with one another and worship together; they choose (not often enough) to engage one another in respectful dialogue rather than just declaring everyone who disagrees with them heretics. Brennan is suspicious of both practices on the grounds that they just ratify what the interpreter already believed, but I don’t see any reason to think this extreme degree of suspicion is warranted.

There is nothing more fake, hypocritical, or dumb about what the public reason liberal is trying to do than what the therapist or the treaty negotiator is trying to do. Brennan’s alternative seems to be just to duke it out and hope you win. I think the alternative of pursuing public justification is the better way to go.

Public Justification is Not Redundant: A Dialogue

Over at 200-proof liberals, Jason Brennan offers another criticism of public reason liberalism. Central to public reason liberalism(s) is that idea of a public justification, a justification for a law or policy that is perspective-relative rather than truth-relative. It is a justification to persons as they see things, and not a justification that is necessarily sound and definitive. This means that some objectively good policies can’t be publicly justified because they’re not consistent with a wide range of moral perspectives; it also means that some objectively bad policies can be publicly justified because they are consistent with a wide range of moral perspectives. However, Brennan seems to think that any plausible account of public justification should tend to track sound justifications. If sound justifications exist, that can be made obvious to reflective perspectives; so what is publicly justified can be dispensed with in favor of what is justified based on the best or sound considerations.

The mistake here is missing the importance of some common constraints on how we characterize the reasons people have to endorse certain laws and policies. Public reason liberals appeal to idealized reasons not to make persons be reasonable, but to give an account of people’s reasons that is true to their values without being subject to gross ignorance or bias (or at least, that’s how I see the public reason project). Public reason is after all not agreement, but rational justification that respects diversity of opinion.

Public reason liberals assume that diversity of opinion on many social and political issues will persist even after a lot of reasoning. I remember Dave Schmidtz once commenting on Jerry Gaus’s The Order of Public Reason in a seminar, describing Jerry’s theory of idealization as what we would agree to do once it became blindingly obvious that we were never going to agree about what to do about some substantive disagreement. The point here, I think, is that idealization will still leave us with disagreements about whether there is a sound justification or two for a policy, even if there exists a sound argument in favor of the policy or against it. Public justification will not always track what is soundly justified as a result.

With that, let me revise Brennan’s conversation to cover two cases: 1. where a utilitarian defender of a policy is able to answer objections to the satisfaction of moral, reflective perspectives, and then 2. a case where, after extended reasoning, someone has an objection. I’m usually boring, so I try to be funny here, but I bet I fail. I’m not as clever as Brennan is.

Utilitarian: We should do X.

Public Reason Liberal: No. Some people disagree, even after significant reflection.

U: Lots of people disagree about lots of things. For instance, I think PRL is a terrible, vacuous theory and the entire corpus of work has been a distraction.

PRL: Yeah, you’re a wee bit over the top on this issue. But as you know, your view permits actions that are strongly at variance with what most people think is moral. We PRLs think that one kind of constraint on pursuing maximum value is that coercion must be justified to those who are coerced. That’s a way of manifesting respect for persons.

U: Oh, you want a justification? Here you go, here is a philosophy book justifying my normative theory and here are 600 econ papers proving X works. What else could you possibly need?

PRL: [to audience] Objections? Nobody? This looks like pretty good evidence. It seems like the case for this policy is pretty clear to everyone. Kantian Contingent?

Kantian Contingent: we’re good. The utilitarian got the right policy for the wrong reasons, but hey, that’s pretty cool considering who we’re dealing with.

PRL: OK, I checked, and no one seems to have any objections, so you win. The policy is publicly justified!

U: [Receives Rawls Badge] Sweet!

Hobbits: Wait, we don’t get it. We don’t have economics degrees, so we can’t follow the evidence and we don’t have much time. Too much philosophy makes one late for dinner.

PRL: Wait a minute, U, we need to make sure that everyone has a sound deliberative route to see the case for the policy, and the Hobbits are having trouble.

U: Fine, I’ll simplify things and offload what I can’t simplify onto people the Hobbits regard as experts. Are we good?

PRL: Hobbits?

Hobbits: yeah, U did a pretty good job.

Sackville-Baggins: we don’t get it

Other Hobbits: we knew it

PRL: Damn it, everyone is ready to go. Sorry, U, but it’s no longer clear everyone can see the rationale.

U: smh I hate these Sackville-Bagginses so f-ing much. Hooligans in disguise, I tell you. What don’t you agree?

Sackville-Baggins: [conversing with themselves, obnoxiously] Kantian Contingent? We need your help.

Kantian Contingent: Sure! Nothing like a long-winded inquiry into whether we know anything that will end in obvious failure!

[Sackville-Bagginses and Kantian Contingent take forever]
S-Bs and Kantians Together: after much consideration, we have identified a defeater reason showing that, for the S-Bs, U’s proposed policy is inferior to having no policy governing the matter at hand. While the objections to U’s policy have been largely answered, we nonetheless have found that it places undue burdens on some.

PRL: well, U, looks like they’re not going to be convinced. And they really gave it ago. The Hobbits even enlisted the Kantians’ help. Time to pack it in and go to the bar. Oh, and please hand me your Rawls badge and your gun before you leave.

U: Go to hell. I’m buying a guitar.

What’s Actually Wrong With Divine Command Theory?

I’m not a divine command theorist, but the position is far more serious than moral philosophers think. One reason for this is that most moral philosophers don’t take theism seriously, and so they treat divine command theory dismissively without realizing that there might be plausible versions of it. Think about it: divine command theory is the only moral theory we teach based on a reading that wasn’t written by someone who held some version of the view. What we do instead is assume that Socrates refuted an entire tradition of ethical thought many centuries before the first versions of the view started getting worked out in a serious way. Why don’t we at least read Duns Scotus or contemporary divine command theorists, like Robert Adams and John Hare? Why don’t we at least read them in conjunction with the Euthyphro? Do we treat any other moral theory so badly?

The truth is that divine command theory has problems, but in my view, they are no more serious or devastating than objections to other ethical traditions. Indeed, if you read Adams’s Finite and Infinite Goods, you’ll be pretty embarrassed by how shoddily you have treated the view. Here’s some reasons why.

A standard toy model of divine command theory (DCT) says that right and wrong are fixed or determined by God’s commands.

X is wrong if and only if God forbids X.

X is right if and only if God permits or requires X.

The common response is that God could command something horrible, and that wouldn’t make it right, but divine command theory implies that it would be right, so divine command theory is wrong.

Here’s a contemporary, fairly standard way of avoiding this simple objection: pay a bit more attention to the kind of being God is. God, say many theists, is perfectly good. Indeed, God may be the form of the Good, or goodness itself. There’s a lot of ethical content in the idea of the good, so much so that many ethical theories, like consequentialism and virtue ethics, rely upon the good to generate the right. So why can’t DCT do likewise? Here’s a better model of divine command theory:

X is wrong if and only if a perfectly good and loving God forbids X.

X is right if and only if a perfectly good and loving God permits or requires X.

With this view, we prevent excess divine caprice in determining moral requirements by drawing on a prior notion of goodness. A good and loving God would never command someone to torture an innocent child or to rape someone.

The retort is simple: it looks like the prior idea of the good is doing all the interesting work in determining right and wrong. Perhaps divine commands, then, are redundant. And yet, that isn’t considered a satisfactory response to consequentialism, that the good is doing all the work. The key to consequentialism is to marry the idea of the good to some kind of other fundamental feature of a good ethical theory, like that the good is to be maximized. The key to divine command theory is to marry the idea of the good to another feature of a good ethical theory, that our obligations have a kind of social character. They obtain between agents. This idea is at the heart of contractarianism and contractualism, so why can’t divine command theorists avail themselves of it? For something to be obligatory, it can’t just be that a good God wants it to be obligatory; we need a divine action, a published directive, in order for the obligation to obtain. So our obligations derive from the combination of the idea of the good and the idea of obligations being social commands or directives.

And now we’ve skirted the Ethics 101 objections to DCT. Most philosophers who teach intro ethics can’t get this far in the dialectic, which is a dereliction of duty.

So what’s actually wrong with DCT? The SEP entry, written by Mark Murphy, discusses some good objections, and Murphy’s book, God and Moral Law, discusses a few really powerful ones. One of the points he makes there is, and this is a rough approximation, that DCT doesn’t allow facts human nature do enough work in explaining the moral requirements that apply to us. To see the issue, just compare the toy model DCT to eudaimonist virtue ethics, where seemingly all the moral facts depend on facts about our nature. God will take our natures into account in deciding what to command, to be sure, but you might want facts about human nature to be wrong-makers in themselves, rather than by proxy.

Here’s my personal issue. I agree with many in contemporary normative ethics that inter-human obligation has an intrinsically social character in that our obligations obtain in virtue of the kinds of relationships we want to have with others. DCT at least recognizes that our obligations must be explained by some social relationship. The problem with DCT is that it explains our obligations to one another with the wrong social relationship. John’s obligation to Reba obtains in virtue of the social character of John’s relationship with Reba, not John’s relationship with God. It’s an explanatory mismatch. You don’t explain a moral relation between A and B by appealing to an independent moral relation between A and C. Better to simply advocate some form of contractarianism or contractualism for these kinds of obligations.

There might be a way to combine theism and contractualism, but in this post I’m just trying to get people to take DCT a bit more seriously, and present an objection that I think works when it is fleshed out.


Eastern Orthodoxy as Evidence for Catholic Integralism

I’m in the odd position of being a liberal and an Eastern Orthodox Christian. Eastern Orthodoxy is the least liberal of the strands of Christian thought, and indeed is the Christian Church friendliest to monarchy and a heavy mixing of church and state. In my attempts to engage Catholic integralism as both a Christian and a liberal, I have often reflected on what we might call Orthodox integralism, a view that the state should recognize the truth of the Christian faith as taught by the Orthodox Church, not the Catholic Church, and that the church and state should cooperate, but through national patriarchs rather than the Pope. It’s a different model of church-state governance than the integralist model, but it arguably predates the integralist model by several centuries. It was the Byzantine Emperors who called the original ecumenical councils, not the Roman Pontiffs. Popes in the first millennium seldom had the power they did after the schism and the subsequent Gregorian Reforms, which considerably increased papal power, as the Pope became the leader of an increasingly distinctive Latin Christendom without other historical patriarchal thrones as competing centers of ecclesiastical power. So if Christians really want to mix church and state again, there are different kinds of integration.

On top of this, I now think Catholics integralists must pay some respects to Orthodox integralism, not only because of the Orthodox model’s prominence in Church tradition, but because Catholics, including integralists, tend to think that the Orthodox have valid sacraments, especially a true Eucharist and valid confession. Orthodox priests are validly ordained, even if the orders are not “licit” because Orthodox priests are not in submission to the Pope (and indeed, tend to regard the Pope as a heresiarch). In contrast to Protestants, then, Catholics think the Orthodox have the means of grace.

Here’s a novel implication of the Catholic integralist position: when Orthodox mix church and state, they are capable of establishing a “graced” nation-state, even if the mixture of church and state is sub-optimal from a Catholic point of view. Remember that a key feature of integralism is that only a graced state can exercise the coercive power of the state in such a way as to help a society recognize the content of the natural moral law, which should help to stabilize such a regime based on an ongoing agreement about what the natural law requires.

This suggests that we can evaluate the integralist prediction that graced states more effectively coordinate (impose?) agreement on a Christian moral code than liberal states by looking at the history of Orthodox integralist regimes, the prime case being Russia, but also Greece, Romania, etc. Now, it is critical to remember that the Soviets ruthlessly oppressed and murdered Orthodox Christians for decades, so they are a Church still reemerging from one of the most monstrous captivities in the history of Christianity. But it is notable that people in Orthodox countries are often more socially conservative, and so more in line with natural law as integralists see it, than people in Roman Catholic countries, and in some ways prouder of it. Russia is an integralist state. It prioritizes the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin is a member and has used state funds to build tens of thousands of churches and monasteries and has supported a massive growth in the number of Orthodox seminaries and priests. Indeed, he is arguably one of the most successful integralist rulers in history. He is a bloody, murderous dictator, but so was Justinian and most of the Byzantine Emperors that Church tradition sometimes lauds.

So I think the Catholic integralist must say that the Russian state is a partially graced state. It is imperfectly graced because it is not in submission to the Pope, but it is graced because the Russian Orthodox Church has valid sacraments, and is united with the Russian state in a way that American Catholic integralists can only dream of.

This suggests to me that the “successes” of Orthodox states in maintaining traditional Christian moral views on social issues should be seen as partial evidence in favor of integralism. Orthodox integralist states are highly imperfect, but they are graced all the same, and so we can get a sense for how integralism might work by looking at those states.

Perhaps, then, Catholic integralists should look upon the Putin regime with some fondness, and even tout its religious successes.

Does this make Catholic integralism more or less plausible? I’ll let you decide.

Lamenting Grandstanding and Stopping It

I’ve just finished reading Grandstanding by my friends Brandon Warmke and Justin Tosi. It’s a marvelous little book and is both well-written and well-argued. I did find myself a bit saddened by the book because I tend to think I ought to do all I can to attribute good motives to others, even if I end up having some falsely nice beliefs about them. But Brandon and Justin have convinced me that I need to rethink that. I need to downgrade my opinion of the moral worth of human behavior.

One reason I try to think well of others is because thinking poorly of others can often lead to broken relationships, and needlessly broken relationships. Brandon and Justin argue persuasively that we shouldn’t accuse people of grandstanding because it generally won’t do much good. But now I’m worried I’m bound to do less good because I now find myself generally thinking more poorly of others. I feel more suspicious, and less committed to bringing people together. How can we bring people together when much of their behavior is driven by base motives, motives that they often do not recognize, or would refuse to admit to were they to realize it?

One thing I have learned in my life, especially as of late, is that reconciliation is a two-way street. However open you are to reconciliation, and however much you desire it, and indeed however much you offer the chance to heal with those you are divided from, you may still be turned down. Things are worse in cases of grandstanding, since you’re dealing with people you don’t even really have a relationship with and will probably never meet. How on Earth can we hope to develop and sustain things like relationships of civic friendship and solidarity if our public actions are aimed at something other than agreement, persuasion, and/or the common good?

The most obvious thing to do is to stop your own grandstanding. You remove some cruelty, condescension, deception, and self-deception from the world. In some cases, that is all you can do.

You can also stop rewarding others for grandstanding, though without openly accusing them of doing so. That can play some small role as well.

But I also wonder if there isn’t an additional duty or at least good one can do by trying to create social media environments that do not reward grandstanding, such as private groups on Facebook dedicated to valued, common tasks, like close professional networks dedicated to improving one another’s work, or committing to meeting in person with people more often, where grandstanding is often easier to identify and discourage. Finding organizations with a common task that people have to contribute to with effort can lead people to invest their efforts in activities other than grandstanding.

But I admit, these are very small things we can do to improve public discourse and avoid the pain, hurt, and division so often found in these sites of social interaction. But if all you can do is a little, a little is all you can do. To micro-reconciliation!

Avoid Cancel Culture Because You Don’t Know Why People Disagree With You

One of the important features of cancel norms is that cancelation is a punishment. The “cancelers” aren’t in the business of simply shutting down a line of argument, or silencing a publicized view. The goal is to make the person less influential by penalizing them for violating some kind of norm (often a new and controversial norm that exists within sub-groups, but not outside of them). Once we see that cancellation is punitive, we have a method of morally evaluating it, for a punishment is only appropriate when a norm violation is culpable. If someone violates a norm by advocating a view that is out of bounds morally speaking, but they are not culpable, then attacking them, trying to harm them financially, or something of that sort is immoral. It’s a form of brow-beating and authoritarianism. Cancelation is only legitimate if the person has engaged in some kind of moral failing for which he or she is morally responsible.

Now, what is the ratio of apt cancelations to total cancelations? What percentage of canceled persons were culpable for the norm they were canceled for violating? I think that’s hard to determine because I think it is hard for cancelers to know why the “cancelee” is violating the relevant norm, and so how culpable the cancelee is.

I think this is because the reasons that others disagree with us are frequently unclear. There are both epistemic and metaphysical reasons that people  deeply disagree that will often absolve them of culpability for what they believe. The epistemic reasons, following both John Rawls and F.A. Hayek, are that many social and political issues are challenging, and involve complex assumptions that we are frequently unaware of. Consider, for instance, the metaphysics of gender. I’m a philosopher, indeed a value theorist, and I just don’t know how to settle certain currently controversial topics, like the metaphysics of gender. I find it very difficult to say not only which views are true or false, but which views only a morally flawed person could hold. And so it seems to me that people, generally speaking, should not be canceled because of their position on the metaphysics of gender. It’s a hard issue.

I also affirm the broader point: I usually don’t know why people believe what they believe because their life experience and thought processes differ greatly from my own. I’m not in a position to judge that someone believes something false because of some kind of moral vice. So I’m hesitant to cancel anyone for a view that they hold, even views that strike me as odious.

Perhaps I’m really weird in this regard. I have a diverse range of friends on Facebook, many of whom have unfriended one another on social issues. I enjoy sitting back and encountering diverse views, even ones I think are crazy, and, in a few cases, views that I think are probably evil. But again, I am usually not in a position to determine whether I should blame people for the position that they hold.

Maybe the cancelers are just really good at discerning moral vice in persons who defend the positions that merit cancelation. Perhaps they have enough insight that they can see that anyone, anywhere who holds a certain position simply must be at fault to such a degree that they should pay crippling social costs.

I’m prepared to grant that some people are good at this in day-to-day life where they know someone well and interact with them a lot, like family or friends. But on social media, we usually know very little about those we interact with. This is especially true on Twitter because the expression of ideas is highly truncated, and so seldom represents a person’s full position and relays only the smallest bit of content about how they think.

So I doubt that most cancelers are in a position to determine that canceled persons are culpable for their beliefs. And if the cancelers are not in a position to determine the culpability of others, it seems obviously wrong to cancel people.

I think the Harper’s Letter demonstrates the reality of cancel culture and widespread shaming for expressing certain kinds of opinions. And I morally condemn cancelation unless the cancelee is reasonably thought to hold the forbidden position based on some kind of moral vice, rather than an innocent mistake. And I morally condemn cancelation in general because I think we are seldom in a position to determine why people hold the positions that they do, especially on Twitter.

Open up the range of expressible opinion. Fight views you hate with arguments, but be wary of canceling others. It often indicates a lack of epistemic humility.

It helps even more to remember that human beings were placed on this earth to love one another, and that the primary factor that makes a life go well is how loving a person is. Canceling others, I think, is bad for the soul, and makes the canceler’s life go worse. Of course, I know this last point is controversial, but it is true!