The Later Rawls for Economists in 500 Words

I like economists, and I like trying to talk philosophy with them, even though they often find it boring and irritating. And they don’t like Rawls, but they tend to only know parts of A Theory of Justice. You know what part I mean – the rational choice stuff that they think is too simple and all wrong (and, honestly, isn’t the best).

What I’d like to do today is outline, in a simplistic and outrageously rough way, the later Rawls for economists, the Rawls I like most. Here’s the basic idea. In TJ, Rawls argued that people should be able to endorse complying with just institutions as good for them. But he later said he assumed too much agreement on the good life: people’s utility functions were modeled too similarly. So in Political Liberalism, Rawls lets peoples’ utility functions vary a lot. Now, these aren’t just any utility functions; they include the satisfaction one gets from getting one’s way morally and politically. So the utility functions contain moral commitments. Economists don’t like that, but utility analysis is pretty devoid of psychological content in itself, so there’s no reason it can’t be applied in the way I suggest.

Rawls’s goal, then, is to show that his conception of justice is a Pareto improvement vis-a-vis other conceptions of justice, especially illiberal ones, at least for the utility functions of a limited class of persons who are reasonable. Economists, you can understand reasonable people as those who play assurance games when they could play prisoner’s dilemmas.

So an overlapping consensus is just a bargaining point between people with heterogeneous utility functions, but among people who play assurance games, so the bargain can seem reciprocal and not based on mere threat advantage.

In short, a public justification for a law obtains when the law is an improvement in utility for each reasonable utility function and worse for none. Public justification is a Pareto concept.

Public reasoning, on the other hand, is about signaling. See, we might not know if some law or policy is publicly justified, so we need a way to convey that to others. Rawls thought we could talk in terms of shared values, or give arguments derived from what we agree on, and that way we could convince each other a public justification obtains. When a public justification obtains, it becomes common knowledge through signaling, and a publicity condition is met. Then people can see a point in complying with the relevant legal requirements. It is better for them to comply, they know it is better for others to comply, and they know that they and others are prepared to cooperate so long as others do.

The result is a well-ordered society, one where a conception of justice is stable, based on the moral considerations that comprise each person’s utility function. Reasonable people are often defined as prepared to comply with the rules, which is why Political Liberalism can be seen as a kind of ideal theory, for better or worse.

The Common Good Doesn’t Help Us Decide

Integralists and their fellow travelers continue to drive much online discussion in legal and political theory. They propose what many have proposed in the past, that social institutions be structured so as to promote the common good. They have a very specific conception of the common good, but most of the negative online responses to their proposal haven’t focused on their having the wrong conception of the common good, but on basing institutional structures on the common good of any variety.

There are two sources of skepticism. The most common objection is that there is no common good or we can’t know it, and so attempts to base institutions around the common good are really just masks for the will to power.

Another objection is pragmatic: power corrupts, and we shouldn’t empower political institutions in particular to promote the common good.

My preferred objection, advanced in Must Politics Be War?, is that, while we can know the common good, and in some cases think that political institutions could promote it, free, equal, and reasonable people disagree about what the common good is, and so imposing one view of the common good on others is likely to undermine the basis for social trust and respect for diverse persons in large-scale societies where people have come to trust each other.

But let’s suppose all these objections fail. Assume that there is a common good, we know what it is, we can overcome pragmatic objections, and that we should promote the true good even if some reasonable people are mistaken about it. Shouldn’t we then base society on the common good?

Perhaps. But a problem looms. The common good is supposed to be distinct from the aggregate good. It isn’t just the sum of the good of each person. This is how defenders of the common good avoid consequentialism and the perverse trade-offs that consequentialism allows. But that means there is some principle internal to the concept of the common good that forbids certain kinds of treatment of individual persons that would or could maximize the aggregate good.

In my view, those principles are grounded in the dignity of the person and the norms implicit in the kinds of relationships we want to have with other persons, in particular the moral relationships of love, friendship, and trust. These are what Jerry Gaus has called principle-grounded values. To be a good friend, and so to achieve the good of friendship, friends must be honest with one another. Honesty becomes a kind of deontic reason: if we value friendship, then we are prohibited from deceiving our friends, at least in the normal course of our friendship. So we can only get the teleological value if we follow the deontic principle.

I think the common good is itself a principle-grounded value. The common good is a kind of close social relation, and it is partly constituted by principles prohibiting treating others in certain ways even if doing so would result in more good. That means to fully specify the common good, we may have to articulate a series of rights claims. But we can’t appeal to the common good to ground those rights, since that would put the cart before the horse.

So I think the common good is not a master normative concept. It certainly has some of its own content, but we cannot fully specify the common good without reference to deontic constraints.

In Must Politics Be War? I argued that a principle of public justification captures the series of deontic reasons that we must be responsive to in order to maintain relations of social trust. But if we adopt a principle of public justification, then we must respect traditional liberal rights, because only liberal institutions can be publicly justified. I may be wrong about the details – I probably am! – but we must do that careful work before we can appeal to the common good. And so the common good doesn’t really help us to decide between liberal and non-liberal arrangements.

Against (Most) Religious Exemptions for Worshippers

I’m on record supporting a wide range of religious exemptions for all kinds of people. And I only sometimes oppose them. But I am now concerned, quite concerned, that demands for religious exemptions from lockdown policies risk imposing harms on others. When religious worshippers gather together in large numbers, they can easily spread the virus, and risk infecting hundreds and thousands of others.

In other posts, and some articles, I’ve outlined what I take to be the principles that license religious exemptions. I think religious exemptions from a law morally ought granted whenever the following four conditions are met:

(1) The law is endorsed by the subset of the population whose support makes the law democratically legitimate (something like a majority).

(2) The law places a substantial burden on the integrity or conscience of religious citizens (or secular citizens), or considerably sets back their fundamental interests.

(3) The exemption is feasible. Government can detect burdened citizens, exempt them without enormous costs, and typically root out fraudulent exemption claims.

(4) The exemption economizes on third party harms.

All of these principles are fairly straightforward (but if you want more clarification, see the post linked above). The key in this case is principle (4). On my view, religious exemptions can be restricted if they impose third-party harms or significant risks of third-party harms. The trouble for religious exemptions for large church gatherings is that, under current conditions, such gatherings impose risks of third-party harms because they create sites for transmission of COVID. By refusing to engage in social distancing, these worshippers put others at risk. Now, people of faith have extremely strong reason to worship, but they don’t necessarily have strong reason to worship in physical proximity to one another during a pandemic since they can worship in other ways, and the leaders of many religious organizations have created other ways for them to do so (such as drive-thru services and online services, both of which I have benefited from) and strictly directed them not to attend services in person.

So it is not clear to me that people of faith have sufficiently strong reasons to reject these restrictions because their faith does not require that they meet. So, strictly speaking, the restrictions are a substantial burden, but the risk of infecting people, at least in certain areas, is a much greater burden.

But here’s the trouble: we don’t know exactly how much risk we’re imposing on others by gathering to worship, but we have a much better sense of the concrete losses to churches and parishioners for not being able to worship. Churches, like any other institution, can lose money, but the bigger issue is that there’s an enormous loss in being isolated from fellow believers. So the challenge for covid policymakers is to try and figure out whether restrictions should be applied broadly or targeted by region.

I can see a case to be made that in certain sparsely populated parts of the country that the restrictions on church gathering be more modest, whereas in large cities, the rationale for restrictions is stronger. I’m not in a position to make those calls, of course, but I think the principles I’ve laid out are the right ones. In general, we default in favor of religious liberty, but when exemptions pose third-party harms and when the legal restrictions don’t strictly violate the conscience of adherents of the faith, restrictions on church gatherings can be justified rather straightforwardly.

Are Public Schools the Cause of Secularization?

Lyman Stone has just published a massive new article on secularization in the United States and much of Western Europe that’s worth a read. But I’ll summarize some of his key points since you may not want to read the whole sixty page piece. First, some choice quotes about where we stand.

I. Religiosity in the United States Over Time

Stone begins:

By any measure, religiosity in America is declining. As this report will show, since peaking in 1960s, the share of American adults attending any religious service in a typical week has fallen from 50% to 35%, while the share claimed as members by any religious body has fallen from over 75% to about 62%. Finally, the share of Americans who self-identify or report being affiliated with any religion has fallen from over 95% to around 75%.

However, 1960 really was a peak in American history:

At the dawn of the American republic in the 1780s, probably just a third of Americans were a member in any religious body, and just a fifth could be found at church on a given Sunday. [In some ways, the US is more religious today] than it was two centuries ago — and indeed at any point between 1750 and 1930.

So we are less religious than we once were, but we’re far from a historical low. And we haven’t always been a stand-out, internationally. Between 1800 and 1950, the US was not especially religious relative to other countries, but it didn’t secularize as fast, which has made it exceptionally religious today.

Interestingly, our church attendance rates between 1930 and 1990 were really stable; the US fell from 62% to 59%. So in that sense, we didn’t grow much more secular over that period. A lot of our religiosity patterns are long-standing. I was also surprised to find this is true in other countries as well. In 1930, only 14% of Swedes went to church regularly, a figure that fell to just 11% by 1990.

We people of faith are down, but not out.

II. The Causes of Secularization

Stone doesn’t just present interesting data on religiosity. He also discusses the literature on the determinants of religiosity:

Research on determinants of religiosity has found two contrasting results. First, explicitly sectarian governance, such as having a state religion, tends to reduce religiosity, because it reduces the competitiveness and diversity of the religious marketplace. Second, expansions in government service provision and especially increasingly secularized control of education significantly drive secularization and can account for virtually the entire increase in secularization around the developed world. The decline in religiosity in American in America is not the product of a natural change in preferences, but an engineered outcome of clearly identifiable policy choices in the past.

Religiosity is determined early in life; Stone says that kids “raised without religion tend to become nonreligious adults, and vice versa.” And, fascinatingly, “[c]hildhood religiosity was heavily affected by government spending on education and, to a lesser degree, government spending on old-age pensions.” [I don’t know why the latter would decrease religiosity, but my guess is that less government spending on pensions means more religious grandparents living with their grandkids.] Similarly, “societies that spent more public money on education were less religious.”

It also seems to be true that having a religion monopolist reduces religiosity, which I think isn’t terribly surprising. Monopolies can be sluggish, and state monopolies most sluggish still.

Relatedly, here’s what didn’t matter.

Across many countries and a long time span, they found that higher educational attainment did not predict lower religiosity: More and less educated people were similarly religious. Nor did they find that industrialized, urban life reduces religiosity: A more urban and industrialized population was associated with greater religiosity. Theories that religion has declined because urbanization is hostile to religiosity–or because modern, educated people are inherently skeptical of religion–get no support in the actual historical record.

Worship styles don’t seem related to religiosity either. It’s unclear whether religious competition increases religiosity. In the US, more religious diversity means more religious volunteering, and more religiously diverse states have higher average rages of church attendance but the association is not that strong. On the other hand, sometimes religious competition leads to political changes, such as the Reformation generating the large secular states that played a role in secularization.

Also of interest is that attempts to discriminate in favor of certain branches of Christianity probably didn’t help, and arguably hurt. For instance, the tools that some religious people used against others (Protestants against Catholics) like Blaine Amendments are being used by secular legal elites against all religious schools.

III. Religion as a Club Good

Stone argues that religious affiliation occurs when a religious group offers club goods – services to members that can only be provided to members by the group as a whole. You can exclude people from a club good, so it’s not a public good, but the club has to work together to produce the relevant good. Historically, religious groups have provided all kinds of critical social services on the condition that members follow their rules, goods that are limited to members but can only be provided by a large group whose individual contributions may not matter much on their own.

An extensive social democratic state can compete with religious service provision, often successfully because the government can force people to purchase its services, and provide it to others without requiring anything of them. As a result, the social democratic state can generate a crowding out effect. As the elderly rely on state pensions, they rely less on their churches, and so play less of a role, contribute less time, don’t set examples of piety and devotion, etc. And as the government takes over more and more of education, children are less and less exposed to religious education and religious people.

Another connection is that marriage increases religiosity, but since education is delaying marriage, the effect is delayed.

Stone follows many others in arguing that churches that water down their requirements tend to perform worse than those that are more demanding. Churches grow, he argues, “when their members are deeply committed to them” but if there’s nothing to deeply commit to, there’s not much point.

IV. Increasing American Religiosity

If you think that, generally speaking, religiosity is good for persons as I do, these are lamentable trends. But if Stone is right, there are policy solutions to some of the problems. The main thing to do is to weaken the government’s role in education, expand voucher programs, support home schooling, and (Stone argues) make it easier to build churches and schools closer together.

Religious progressives, people of faith who favor an extensive welfare state, should be concerned. If the social democratic state functions as a kind of huge, unfair competitor to your religious group (because the state can provide services with force, whereas churches typically cannot, and on a massive scale), you may have to choose between your faith and your politics. Religious integralists should also not be especially pleased, since they favor religious monopoly.