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.


  • Jason Brennan Posted August 18, 2020 12:49 pm

    TO be fair, I think public reason achieves peace by crushing its enemies and demanding they submit, not by finding compromise. That’s the point of these posts. PRL looks like another partisan theory rather than a theory which overcomes partisanship. Every move a PRL makes in favor of saying they cross the aisle can be made by pretty much every other theory.

  • Irfan Khawaja Posted August 21, 2020 6:08 pm

    I think Brennan’s account of the therapist analogy involves a confusion. Here’s what he says:

    “It is instead more like a very opinionated therapist. Imagine two spouses aren’t getting along because one wants to raise the kids Randian and the other wants to raise them Marxist. The therapist instead tries to convince them that the reasonable, respectable position is…the therapist’s own favored way of parenting. And then, no matter which parents the therapist deals with, the therapist recommends basically the same methods every time. Here, it seems like the therapist simply has a substantive view of parenting. They say, “We should compromise” but mean “You should agree with me.””

    All therapists are “opinionated.” That’s not an objection. And every therapist thinks that the best way to resolve a dispute is the therapist’s own. That’s trivially true. But the therapist need not urge his own conception of parenting on the disputing parents; he can instead urge a different conception of dispute adjudication, one that neither of them has so far adopted, but that is his own contribution.

    A methodologically consistent therapist will of course recommend “the same methods” all the time. That’s just what methodological consistency is. But ideally, what he does is to adopt a higher-order perspective on the dispute than a conception of parenting. He adopts as a hypothesis that the dispute about parenting is rooted in failures of communication, and addresses those, hoping that the attempt to deal with the higher-order issue enables the clients to resolve their own first-order issue.

    Brennan’s picture of therapy is misleading. Therapists aren’t negotiators, mediators, or arbitrators. What they do is sui generis. I don’t know how much that helps the advocate of public reason, but at least it clarifies what therapy aims to achieve.

    Given this, saying “you should compromise” is perfectly compatible with saying “you should agree with me.” The compromise and the agreement operate at different levels, and take different objects.

    In any case, setting the dispute up as one between a Randian and a Marxist parent is tendentious. It’s unlikely that any therapist could work productively with a couple like that. They probably need divorce attorneys, not a therapist. And let’s hope they have a lot of money, because absent a promise of gigantic remuneration, I doubt any divorce attorney would want to take this case.

    I’m a little skeptical of Kevin’s analysis of negotiations over matters of warfare, but basically agree with his analysis of therapy. That said, I’m not a big fan of public reason myself, so I have some sympathy for some of what Brennan is saying.

  • Irfan Khawaja Posted August 22, 2020 11:46 am

    It occurs to me in retrospect that a competent therapist would probably ask these parents why they insist that their children be raised in conformity with such crude ideological designations as “Randian” and “Marxist.” Neither Rand nor Marx had anything useful to say about children, so an opening therapeutic difficulty is why any parents would insist on raising their kids in this way. Therapeutically, that would be the first question to ask.

    Is this approach opinionated on the part of the therapist? Yes.

    Is the therapist suggesting that the parents abandon their own approach to parenting and adopt his? In a sense yes, in a sense no. He’s suggesting that they reject a crudely ideological approach and come up with something subtler. It doesn’t follow that he’s giving them first-order prescriptive advice about exactly how they should be raised.

    Would the therapist use this same approach in relevantly similar circumstances? Sure.

    Does the therapist have a substantive view of parenting? Yes.
    Is he employing it in therapy? Yes.

    Is any of this objectionable? No.

    In this case, the therapist is telling he parents to compromise, but to do so only after adjusting their conception of parenting so as to make a compromise feasible (if that’s at all possible). The idea that an unreconstructed Randian could sit down with an unreconstructed Marxist and hammer out a modus vivendi on parenting is preposterous. No competent therapist would attempt such an assignment for any amount of money.

    You can’t deploy a tendentious version of an analogy and hope to get any truth-tracking mileage out of it. What you’ll get instead is rhetoric that superficially sounds clever but bears no significant relation to the reality it’s intended to capture.

    In discussing therapists and therapy, it helps, by the way, not to have described them as people too dumb to get a high score on the MCATs. It’s unsurprising to me that a person who describes clinical psychologists this way (as Brennan did on my blog a few years ago) would then adopt a dumb conception of therapy to match. But if you assume that clinical psychologists are actually pretty good at what they do, and work hard to get that way, then you have to describe the therapeutic enterprise accordingly. It can’t be treated as a mere rhetorical set piece in an argument about public reason.

  • Irfan Khawaja Posted August 22, 2020 11:49 am

    Sorry, in the third paragraph of my last comment, I meant to say that it doesn’t follow that the therapist is giving the parents first-order advice on how the kids should be raised.

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