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.