Must Politics Be War? in 500 words

My recent book, Must Politics Be War? Restoring Our Trust in the Open Society, argues that liberal democratic order has the unique capacity to avoid a war-like politics. Here’s a summary of the problem and my solution.

The problem of political war: low social and political trust leads to a war-like politics. But high trust is generally infeasible in societies with diverse perspectives on moral matters.

Why? People disagree about what is of value and what morality requires, so it is hard for them to appear trustworthy to one another. What one person counts as trustworthy behavior, another may count as untrustworthy. And when people have deep evaluative disagreements, we tend to see rejection of our views as evidence of an intellectual and/or moral vice on the part of those who disagree.

How do we overcome distrust? By motivating socially trustworthy behavior, behavior that multiple perspectives can see as evidence that one another are trustworthy. Distrust is overcome, then, by observing, or being able to observe, social trustworthiness.

To get social trustworthiness, we need people to comply with social norms that all can see themselves and others are having reason of their own to endorse and internalize as their own. In this way, we need compliance with social norms that diverse perspectives can converge upon. A public justification requirement thus naturally arises from a concern to sustain trust among diverse perspectives. If we want trust in a diverse society, we need to ensure that the social norms to which we are all subject can be justified to each (somewhat idealized) members of the public.

The public justification requirement also applies to legal and constitutional norms. If we organize our legal and constitutional norms according to which norms are justified for each person, we can drive socially trustworthy behavior, which in turn can sustain trusting attitudes even in the face of deep evaluative disagreements.

However, in a diverse society, it is hard to publicly justify non-neutral laws and policies, since people who reject the laws and policies as violent impositions of alien values will have defeater reasons for those laws and policies. This means that the unjustifiably coerced will see no reason to be trustworthy with respect to those laws and policies, and so will disobey when they can get away with it.

Once we throw out all the non-neutral laws and policies, we will be left with a system of rights (civil, economic, and political) that protect a large measure of liberty for each individual or group to live their own lives in their own way. We will end up with an open society. For this reason, an open society has the unique capacity to sustain trust between diverse perspectives, rendering high levels of trust feasible even under diverse conditions, solving the problem of political war.

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