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.

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