Posts tagged: disagreement

Political Liberals vs. Integralists: Where the Conflict Really Lies

I’d  like to return to my ongoing interest in anti-liberal doctrines, especially the new Catholic integralism. I think it might be worthwhile exploring how the political liberalism of John Rawls clashes with integralism, and attempt to make the criticism plausible. The integralists may still deride it, and how!, but it will serve for clarificatory purposes.

I now believe that the most central difference between Catholic integralism and Rawlsian political liberalism is their differing views of the rationality of moral disagreement. Political liberalism indeed presupposes that deep disagreement about the requirements of morality is natural to human beings; that it is the inevitable result of the free exercise of human reason. Catholic integralists deny this. People may disagree about morality, but that is because of sin—a failure, culpable or no—to receive the grace of God by way of the Catholic Church directly, and through political institutions partly governed by the Church. I think for the integralists, two members of an integralist society with a modest degree of natural and supernatural virtue will tend to agree about the requirements of the natural law for human behavior.

John Rawls

This is not what Rawlsians would consider the free exercise of human reason, of course, but it is the condition that integralists would regard as the freest, and indeed this points to another deep difference: about the nature of freedom. Rawls likes negative liberty, but he also likes positive liberty, and indeed is friendly to the idea of the freedom that is achieved by the use of reason. But the integralist will insist that the exercise of human reason is only truly free when it has been, at least to some extent, dusted off by the reception of the sacraments.

So, here’s one of Rawls’s first comments on integralist-type views. The theory of rational moral disagreement is in the driver’s seat and indeed necessitates the much-derided idea of the reasonable:

The advantage of staying within the reasonable is that there can be but one true comprehensive doctrine, though as we have seen, many reasonable ones. Once we accept the fact that reasonable pluralism is a permanent condition of public culture under free institutions, the idea of the reasonable is more suitable as part of the basis of public justification for a constitutional regime than the idea of moral truth. Holding a political conception as true, and for that reason alone the one suitable basis of public reason, is exclusive, even sectarian, and so likely to foster political division (129).

Notice the phrase bolded phrase: if reasonable pluralism is permanent, then we should abandon basing political order on the truth rather than the reasonable. If these social and epistemic conditions obtain, views like integralism are bound to be “exclusive, even sectarian, and so likely to foster political division.”

Rawls understood the rationale for integralist-type views. Here’s a passage where he understands why his view is seen as problematic:

I now turn to what to many is a basic difficulty with the idea of public reason, one that makes it seem paradoxical. They ask: why should citizens in discussing and voting on the most fundamental political questions honor the limits of public reason? How can it be either reasonable or rational, when basic matters are at stake, for citizens to appeal only to public conception of justice and not to the whole truth as they see it? Surely, the most fundamental questions should be settled by appealing to the most important truths, yet these may far transcend public reason! (216)

This is precisely what integralists say: it seems obvious that the most “fundamental questions” should be settled by appealing to “the most important truths.” And this might be a suitable basis for political order if not for the fact of reasonable pluralism.

Pope Leo XIII

Interestingly, Rawls associates recognizing the fact of reasonable pluralism as part of being a reasonable citizen, where a reasonable citizen is one who recognizes a moral requirement to propose reciprocal terms of social cooperation: ones that persons with a wide range of views about morality can all accept. The integralist also believes in reciprocity, but does not apply reciprocity to differences of moral opinion. This is why political life comes to be understood as the relation

… of friend or foe, to those of a particular religious or secular community or those who are not; or it may be a relentless struggle to win the world for the whole truth. (442)

And remarkably, Rawls admits the following:

Political liberalism does not engage those who think this way. The zeal to embody the whole truth in politics is incompatible with an idea of public reason that belongs with democratic citizenship. (442)

However, Rawls is mistaken in this passage about his aims: political liberalism does engage the integralist because it makes competing claims about the nature of moral reasoning.

Notice that this point is not lost on all Catholic theologians. To mention one example that will lead the integralist to permanently roll his eyes into the back of his head, consider John Courtney Murray’s remark about Dignitatis Humanae (the Declaration on Religious Freedom, 1965):

A longstanding ambiguity had finally been cleared up. The Church does not deal with the secular order in terms of a double standard—freedom for the Church when Catholics are in the minority, privilege for the Church and intolerance for others when Catholics are a majority.*

Here Murray shares a conception of reciprocity with Rawls because fairness includes fairness between moral perspectives. I think Murray tacitly accepts what Rawls make explicit: that people of good will and virtue can disagree about the requirements of morality, and so to be fair to all such persons, we must propose reciprocal terms of cooperation understood as terms that all can accept.

John Courtney Murray

So, this is where I think the divergence between political liberals and Catholic integralists begin: about the rationality of disagreement about the requirements of the natural law between persons of some reasonable degree of virtue.

How should this dispute be resolved? Well, I have quite a few thoughts about the matter, but that’s not the point of the post! The point of the post is that we should probably not ground the difference between the two views in terms of different philosophical anthropologies. You can hold many anthropological properties constant and still disagree about whether moral reasoning leads to dissensus or consensus.


*John Courtney Murray, “Religious Freedom,” in Abbott, ed., Documents of Vatican II, p. 673. See also the instructive discussion by Paul E. Sigmund, “Catholicism and Liberal Democracy,” in Catholicism and Liberalism: Contributions to American Public Philosophy, ed. R. Bruce Douglas and David Hollenbach, S.J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), especially pp. 233–239.

The Best Version of Liberal Neutrality

Here I outline a version of liberal neutrality I find philosophically attractive. My approach begins by focusing on the moral considerations that lead us to care about neutrality, rather than analyzing the concept of neutrality as an ideal in itself. I then generate a principle of political justification that has those good-making features we want from a principle of neutrality. I think we will see that the principle is morally attractive.

I. Why Care About Neutrality?

Most contemporary liberals care about preventing government from promoting a particular conception of the good (and in some cases, a conception of the right) because they affirm four general claims: (i) persons have a dignity that merits respect, (ii) persons are naturally free and equal, (iii) persons have reasons for action determined by their deep commitments and values, and (iv) these reasons can systematically and reasonably diverge.

I’ve explored a number of these ideas elsewhere. I’ve explored (iv), namely the idea of reasonable pluralism, here and here. I’ve explored the meanings of (ii) and (iii) here. Claim (i) is a pretty obvious platitude.

Summing up, here’s the basic moral idea behind neutrality. The foremost moral imperative is to treat persons with respect, as ends in themselves. If persons are naturally free and equal, in the sense that no person is naturally the servant of another, such that they have equal moral authority, then to respect them is to recognize their moral authority by not compelling them to act against their own best reasoning.

What are persons’ reasons? The liberal tradition has generally allowed that persons have very different reasons for action due to their differing valuing and beliefs. We don’t determine persons’ reasons for action apart from their most deeply held commitments. Thus, the reasons relevant to the justification of coercion are in some sense internal or psychologically accessible. They have their ground in persons’ actual motivations and commitments.

Finally, and due in part to reasonable pluralism, their affirmed reasons will systematically and broadly diverge. Therefore, if we are to respect persons, we can only coerce them when they have sufficient reason, from their own perspective, to comply with the law or policy on which the coercion is based.

So we care about neutrality because we care about respecting naturally free and equal persons who invariably have diverse reasons for action, which in turn requires that we only coerce them if they have sufficient reason of their own to comply. Otherwise we fail to treat persons as free and equal.

Yes, I’ve just equated the idea of public justification with liberal neutrality (find a well-known attempt here) but that’s because I think the idea of public justification provides the most attractive explanation of why we care about neutrality and a clear method of applying neutrality to institutions.

II. Setting Limits on Neutrality

So, given the foregoing, we can say that a nation-state is neutral in the public reason liberal sense when it employs only publicly justified coercion. Policies are neutral when they are justified to a wide range of evaluative perspectives. Laws need not be neutral in having equal effects or outcomes or taking no position on the substantive good. Instead, this ideal of liberal neutrality permits the state to promote goods that all persons reasonably agree are goods. That means we can promote the common good in ways that respect all as persons if the pursuit of the common good is constrained by what is publicly justified.

We do not have to be “neutral” between, say, publicly justified and publicly unjustified laws. Nor need the content of these laws necessarily treat all persons in the same way.

Determining what is justified to persons is not always an easy matter, however. There are well known problems with determining what most peoples believes, since the data that varies based on how questions are framed. Similarly, it is hard to determine from present social practices whether minorities have sufficient reason to endorse those practices, since they may be afraid to voice dissent.

In my view, evaluation via public reason should follow the complaint. When conflicts arise, and people start to complain, we should turn our gaze to their objections and scrutinize them. If we perceive that they have a strong, epistemically justified objection to a law or policy, we can conclude that they have a defeater for the law. Accordingly, we are obligated to reform or revoke the law if we care about treating others as free and equal (as we should).

III. Substitute Neutrality with Public Justification

Political neutrality is a vexed idea, so in my work, as noted, I just use a related idea of public justification, which I think has the attractions of neutrality with far fewer weaknesses. It also gives us a more precise method of determining which regimes are neutral in this more refined sense; I argue that liberal democratic welfare-state capitalism is uniquely neutral in large, diverse societies in Must Politics Be War?, but I have a detailed defense of the basis and content of public justification requirements that I like to think advances the literature, as well as Rawls and Gaus’s contributions to it.

Why Do We Disagree So Much? Maybe the Space of Reasons is Extremely Populous

The point of this blog is to try and reconcile people with different perspectives, and that is bound up with analyzing the nature and sources of disagreement. I’ve written on the topic in Must Politics Be War? as well as in shorter essays, but I usually focus on epistemic reasons we disagree, such as limits of our cognition. But what if there is also a metaphysical explanation? What if we disagree so much not merely because of our cognitive limitations but due to the character of the space of reasons (specifically reasons to believe propositions)? What if there are unfathomably many reasons to believe things?

To see why this matters, suppose that the space of reasons to believe propositions is extremely populous. If so, then different people can detect wildly different samples of the space of reasons even if they are perfectly rational. And they will tend to emphasize reasons that they can locate from their position in the space of reasons. From each starting point, good inference can lead in an a staggering number of directions. If so, then disagreement is virtually certain even among perfectly rational and very informed agents. There are just too many reasons for belief for any normal rational agent to grasp. They are even less capable of unifying these reasons into doctrines, worldviews, and complex plans of action.

On analogy, imagine that it is your responsibility to chart the stars, and you’re really, really good at it. But then you learn that there are trillions and trillions of stars, and that other star charters start at different points in the galaxy. So you try to summarize the gargantuan number of stars with generalizations that look entirely reasonable from your point of view. You postulate constellations, or at least use them as heuristics to plot the relationship of stars to one another. But then you learn of star charters in other parts of the galaxy and that they see other stars, and so draw different connections between the stars. Should we expect star charters on different planets, and even star charters on the same planet, to generate the same constellations? Of course not. In fact, it’d be crazy to expect that they would without communicating with one another. The reason is that there are simply too many plausible ways to string things together.

What if disagreement is like that? How should we respond? Perhaps with wonder, humility, and a lot more charity.