Posts tagged: political liberalism

The Later Rawls for Economists in 500 Words

I like economists, and I like trying to talk philosophy with them, even though they often find it boring and irritating. And they don’t like Rawls, but they tend to only know parts of A Theory of Justice. You know what part I mean – the rational choice stuff that they think is too simple and all wrong (and, honestly, isn’t the best).

What I’d like to do today is outline, in a simplistic and outrageously rough way, the later Rawls for economists, the Rawls I like most. Here’s the basic idea. In TJ, Rawls argued that people should be able to endorse complying with just institutions as good for them. But he later said he assumed too much agreement on the good life: people’s utility functions were modeled too similarly. So in Political Liberalism, Rawls lets peoples’ utility functions vary a lot. Now, these aren’t just any utility functions; they include the satisfaction one gets from getting one’s way morally and politically. So the utility functions contain moral commitments. Economists don’t like that, but utility analysis is pretty devoid of psychological content in itself, so there’s no reason it can’t be applied in the way I suggest.

Rawls’s goal, then, is to show that his conception of justice is a Pareto improvement vis-a-vis other conceptions of justice, especially illiberal ones, at least for the utility functions of a limited class of persons who are reasonable. Economists, you can understand reasonable people as those who play assurance games when they could play prisoner’s dilemmas.

So an overlapping consensus is just a bargaining point between people with heterogeneous utility functions, but among people who play assurance games, so the bargain can seem reciprocal and not based on mere threat advantage.

In short, a public justification for a law obtains when the law is an improvement in utility for each reasonable utility function and worse for none. Public justification is a Pareto concept.

Public reasoning, on the other hand, is about signaling. See, we might not know if some law or policy is publicly justified, so we need a way to convey that to others. Rawls thought we could talk in terms of shared values, or give arguments derived from what we agree on, and that way we could convince each other a public justification obtains. When a public justification obtains, it becomes common knowledge through signaling, and a publicity condition is met. Then people can see a point in complying with the relevant legal requirements. It is better for them to comply, they know it is better for others to comply, and they know that they and others are prepared to cooperate so long as others do.

The result is a well-ordered society, one where a conception of justice is stable, based on the moral considerations that comprise each person’s utility function. Reasonable people are often defined as prepared to comply with the rules, which is why Political Liberalism can be seen as a kind of ideal theory, for better or worse.

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.

Are Liberal Regimes as Coercive as Integralist Regimes?

A week or so ago, Dave Atenasio published a nice reply to my post arguing that integralist regimes will have a hard time generating requisite levels of stability without lots of coercion. The piece is well-done, so check it out, but I’d like to jump right to the heart of the matter. I concede freely what integralists often say, which is that liberal regimes are coercive. My claim is that liberal regimes are less coercive in allowing a wider range of opinion to flourish. And if there is a natural tendency in the free use of practical reason for people to disagree, integralist regimes will therefore have to employ more coercion to achieve coordination around their comprehensive doctrine than liberal regimes, which are at least somewhat neutral on these matters, and much more than integralist regimes.

Atenasio argues that it’s just not clear whether integralist regimes are more coercive than liberal regimes, and then he proceeds to outline various ways in which liberal regimes are coercive and points out that the coerciveness of both liberal and integralist regimes, even construed as ideal types, come in degrees, and are based on a range of factors, the variety and magnitude of which will make it difficult to show definitively that liberal regimes are less coercive.

I’m pretty sympathetic to the idea that it is hard to determine which regimes and policies are more coercive than others. That’s a big point in my forthcoming book, A Liberal Democratic Peace: Creating Trust in Polarized Times, in Chapter 5. However, I don’t think we’re should be as skeptical as Atenasio believes. My argument begins with a ceteris paribus comparison between the two regime types following three restrictions on how the comparison should proceed.

First condition: I’m going to assume that liberal regimes and integralist regimes can have the same foreign policy and economic policy, within broad limits. So in comparing the two regimes, we can hold these policy classes constant. I know that integralist regimes will, on average, have a narrower band of economic policies, since liberal regimes can vary a lot in this regard, but let’s set that aside for the sake of argument.

So this means that the main comparison between the two regimes will be on social policy.

Second condition: we can hold lots of social policy constant because the degree of coerciveness of these policies are somewhat independent to what is essentially different between integralist and liberal regimes. First,  and most controversially, I think we can hold abortion policy constant because, while liberal regimes tend to permit abortion, and while integralist regimes would seek to end it, nothing about a liberal regime forbids it from adopting pro-life legislation (here I disagree with Rawls that reasonable people have to be at least somewhat pro-choice). There is no inherent instability in a pro-life liberal constitutional order, as long as it is not suffused with a pro-choice ethos. But I admit that if you’re pro-life, there’s a way in which integralist regimes will tend to be less coercive, because they almost always will forbid people from coercing the unborn into an early grave. So if liberal regimes must be pro-choice, then that is a point in the integralist’s favor.

But there are other forms of coercion that go in the other direction, since integralist regimes will embrace far more legal moralism and paternalism, and liberal orders will tend to eschew those practices, so that’s a clear way in which liberalism will be less coercive.

Third restriction: I’m going to hold the degree of pluralism in the populace constant as well. Perhaps integralist regimes will create more Catholics (though they may generate a backlash (which is how integralist regimes created the Reformation, imo: they were too violent and repressed too much disagreement). If so, then integralist regimes will become less coercive because the populace will agree with the policies of the integralist state. But liberal regimes will also not be very coercive if everyone is Catholic. But if everyone is not Catholic, then integralism will be much more coercive than liberalism, and that seems to me pretty clear.

That’s because of the big essential constitutional difference between an integralist regime and a liberal regime: the integralist regime basically has no first amendment. There is no robust right to freedom of speech, press, or religion in an integralist regime. Speech that promulgates heresy and apostasy must be restricted. Publications that promulgate heresy and apostasy must be restricted. And, obviously, the state will use coercion to promote adherence to Catholic belief and practice, even against Protestants and, maybe, Orthodox Christians, not to mention Jews, Muslims, and atheists. There are limits on such coercion, as people cannot be forced to become Catholics against their will. But, if you have been validly baptized, even as an infant, and you decide to speak what you know to be heresy or you apostasize, you’re to be held criminal liable in accord with your level of guilt. So an integralist state can imprison and perhaps even execute recalcitrant heretics.

I recognize that some will want to reject one or more of the three restrictions. But they all seem fair to me. And if they are, it seems clear that integralist regimes will be much more coercive than a regime with first amendment-like protections. Perhaps with enough time and force, the transition to integralism will produce such resolute Catholics that most people won’t even want first amendment rights. But that claim seems in tension with what we see even in heavily Catholic countries. You see lots of disagreement about all kinds of things.

Is Integralism Unreasonable? Yes. Should Integralists Care? Well …

Micah Schwartzman and Jocelyn Wilson’s recent article on the unreasonableness of integralism led to much integralist criticism on Twitter, and even criticism from non-integralist Catholic conservatives. It’s important to recognize that Schwartzman and Wilson expressly state that they’re not trying to engage integralists on their own terms, but to use integralism as the paradigmatic case of an unreasonable doctrine in the Rawlsian sense.

In this post, I want to address whether integralists should care if they’re reasonable. I think there are some ways in which they should care, but it takes some effort to demonstrate. Let’s begin by quickly reviewing the Rawlsian account of reasonableness and asking whether integralists satisfy it.

I. Reasonableness

Very roughly, a person is reasonable in Rawls’s sense when they meet two conditions: (1) They are prepared to propose reciprocal terms of social cooperation, ones that can be endorsed by different worldviews and perspectives, and (2) they recognize the fact of reasonable pluralism, meaning they believe that the free exercise of practical reason leads naturally to disagreement about many important matters. In traditional political liberalism, disagreement primarily concerns the good rather than justice (though I argue in Must Politics Be War? that dissensus about justice runs just as deep).

II. Integralists are Unreasonable

Integralists deny both conditions. They are not prepared to offer mutually endorseable legal and political proposals because their first goal is to prose true, authentically good forms of social cooperation. Second, integralists seem to deny that the free use practical reason leads to dissensus, but rather that sin leads to disagreement and that it can be limited if practical reason is exposed to God’s grace in an integralist regime. So, Schwartzman and Wilson are correct. The paper succeeds on its own term.

III. But They Probably Shouldn’t Care

Now, should integralists care whether they are reasonable in the Rawlsian sense? The most straightforward answer is no, they shouldn’t. Why? Because integralists have a different conception of the person than Rawlsians do. Rawlsians draw their conception of the person from liberal democratic practice, and expressly refuse to go outside of it for the purposes of political philosophy, but integralists are trying to determine whether liberal democracy is a good idea in the most ultimate sense, and they think not. So in one way, the Rawlsian approach to personhood is a total non-starter for integralists. The two conceptions of the persons we not developed to serve they same purpose. It’s not even obvious that their conceptions of the persons are conceptions of the same concept.

Moreover, Rawls’s conception of the person (really, his conception of the citizen) holds that we have two moral powers – to form and pursue a conception of the good, and to develop and act upon our sense of justice. But integralists arguably think that persons have one ultimate moral power – to pursue the good and spurn evil (as Aquinas says in ST IaIIae 94, 2). There’s no separate faculty for motivating just action. Just action is wholly subsumed under our pursuit of our good. Rawlsians, in contrast, have a complex story about how we reach congruence between our two fundamental moral drives (actually, they have two, maybe three stories).

In this way, Rawlsians have a kind of “two wills” or “two affections” theory of practical reason, which is actually not exclusively modern, but has antecedents in Anselm (for two wills) and Scotus (for two affections).

For Rawlsians, then, our sense of justice is a fundamental part of practical reasoning. We can take the perspective of justice, understood in terms of fairness or reciprocity, and reason and act from it, and then we can ask a separate question about whether the perspective of justice can be reconciled with the perspective of the good. That’s not going to make much sense for the integralist.

IV. Or Should They?

But let’s do something Rawlsians don’t want to do. Let’s ask whether a two wills theory is true. If one can defend a two wills theory on metaphysical grounds, that would engage integralists on their own terms. And then they’d need to care about reasonableness, especially if the arguments are made from within the framework of Catholic Christianity.

I’m working on two papers right now that do just that, but it’s hard work.

Rawls, Political Liberty, and Freedom of Exit

In Political Liberalism, John Rawls revises his theory of justice by adopting a stronger position on the priority of political liberty, which includes not merely the right to vote but the right to participate in the electoral process, to run for office, and so on. He writes,

… we must take an important further step and treat the equal political liberties in a special way. This is done by including in the first principle of justice the guarantee that the political liberties, and only these liberties (emphasis mine), are secured by what I have called their ‘fair value.’ (Rawls 2005, 327)

Rawls’s argument, in his own words, is that “unless the fair value of these liberties is approximately preserved, just background institutions are unlikely to be either established or maintained.” To figure out how to pull this off, we can’t say much in advance, but “must advance by trial and error.”

Rawls does suggest that “one guideline for guaranteeing fair value seems to be to keep political parties independent of large concentrations of private economic and social power …” (328). But he declines to say more.

Rawls rejects some reasons for prioritizing political liberty, such as the claim that it is the best way to secure autonomy, since he recognizes some reasonable people will deny this. Instead, political liberties are “essential in order to establish just legislation and also to make sure that the fair political process specified by the constitution is open to everyone on a basis of rough equality.” (330)

I want to raise a difficulty for Rawls’s argument. Jason Brennan has recently argued, I think correctly, that Rawls’s arguments for specific rights don’t work, in part because they treat liberties asymmetrically in ways that cannot be justified. Let’s suppose Rawls can answer this generic challenge and see if he can avoid a more targeted objection.

Here’s the objection: all of Rawls’s arguments for a right to influence government applies not merely to voice mechanisms – voting and the like – but to exit mechanisms as well, such as a right to emigrate and free movement, rights to legal exemptions, rights to federal arrangements, and rights of secession. Ilya Somin aptly calls rights of freedom of movement “foot voting” because people are exercising liberty to shape political institutions by withdrawing from them, rather than participating in them. Both voice and exit mechanisms can greatly influence government behavior when people pursue them in large numbers.

Both types of liberty can be “essential in order to establish just legislation” and to ensure that the political process is one of “rough equality.” In many cases, the threat of exit pressures governments to improve more than the threat of losing votes. And if people were freer to move between countries, that pressure would arguably increase.

So Rawls’s arguments seem to ground both democratic rights and exit rights. If so, the institutional implications of Rawls’s arguments in Political Liberalism change, even if we stick to ideal theory, and even if we restrict the range of reasonable pluralism to conceptions of the good (once you relax ideal theory assumptions somewhat, and extend reasonable pluralism more broadly, I think the case for exit rights grows even stronger). It will be important to decentralize government, and ease freedom of movement, perhaps even with subsidies.

Here are some potential replies.

  1. Exit and Voice Mechanisms Compete: as Hirschman pointed out long ago, the more people exit an institution, the less effective voice mechanisms become, at least some of the time. If people can leave, why should they invest in improving the institution rather than leave it? So perhaps we need to restrict exit rights in order to improve voice rights. In reply, I’d point out you can make a parallel argument in the other direction: if you restrict exit, you make exit less effective, so this isn’t a reason to prioritize voice over exit, and certainly not to prioritize it as much as Rawls does.
  2. Voice is More Effective than Exit: one might argue that democratic voting is a more effective means of communicating dissatisfaction and the general will of the people than exit mechanisms. I think Somin has shown this just isn’t so by drawing standard rational choice theory to explain political ignorance (following a long line of political scientists). Democratic voting isn’t as responsive to legislative changes as one might hope. Exit mechanisms, on the other hand, often convey more information (since it is odd to expressively exit rather than expressively vote) and deprive governments of more power.
  3. Exit Mechanisms are More Biased in Favor of the Rich Against the Poor:  it may seem that the rich have a relatively easier time exiting than the poor vis-a-vis voting than the poor. But Rawls knows that the rich can dominate democracy too, and so ideal regimes will restrict the influence of the rich. Why not think that ideal regimes can similarly restrict the influence of richer exiters? The government could also equalize opportunities for the poor and rich to exit with redistributive taxation, say granting the poor subsidies to move across the country, or to push for decentralization, or even to leave the country.

There are other potential replies, but these are enough for now to get my general point across.

 

Diversity Destabilizes Integralism

In my last post, I distinguished between ideal and non-ideal theory in Catholic integralism, in part to lay the groundwork to criticize integralism. My aim is to do so judiciously. People are often so horrified by integralism that they dismiss it with derision and insult. I want to do better.

Here I want to develop a difficulty for integralist ideal theory, the account of how integralist institutions will work once in place, under favorable conditions. I will focus on whether integralist institutions will furnish political goods like political stability.

One problem for integralist stability is that John Rawls posed for all perfectionist regimes in Political Liberalism. Rawls claims out that the free exercise of practical reason tends to lead to deep disagreement about fundamental matters. He called this the “fact of reasonable pluralism,” which we can understand as a state of society with deep disagreement about matters of ultimate import among sincere, informed people of good will. Rawls also thought that deep diversity of belief was the natural consequence of the free use of practical reasoning.

Rawls thought reasonable pluralism resulted from what he called the “burdens of judgment” or factors that plague moral and political judgment that make such judgments difficult, and so subject to contestation. I think Rawls’s account of the burdens of judgment is too narrow, so in Must Politics Be War?, I also draw on Hayek’s theory of cognition to further explain the naturalness of deep disagreement. Many disagreements originate in the diverse, dispersed nature of information, information that bears on our practical application of moral principles, and even the formulation of those principles in the first place. So deep disagreement is both inevitable and non-culpable. Much disagreement is due to sin, but far from all.

Now, if Rawls and Hayek are correct, the integralist state will have to use a great deal of coercion to contain disagreement. If it does not, then people will develop deep convictions that are incompatible with integralism, which will lead them to attempt to undermine the integralist regime through active and/or passive resistance. To stop this, the integralist state will probably have to adopt measures along the lines of the Chinese state, such as massive coercion of the young through education, the suppression of competing doctrines like Protestantism and Islam, and massive, coordinated restrictions on information.

Before I continue, let me concede a point Vermeule often makes: liberal regimes themselves use propaganda and are massively coercive. I’m not denying that. But integralism requires more propaganda and more coercion than liberal regimes because liberal regimes just don’t have to be as persuasive as integralist regimes to stay stable. Liberal regimes, for instance, don’t require great uniformity in matters of faith. That’s part of the reason that liberal democratic regimes are as stable as they are, because they can accommodate reasonable pluralism more effectively. And that’s the reason integralist states have often used a great deal of control over speech, press, and religion.

Importantly, Rawls was not merely concerned with stability, but rather “stability for the right reasons” where a regime stabilizes itself without massive, Chinese-like controls. A just regime should somehow generate its own, unforced support. That’s surely a nice feature of a regime, since I think even integralists will concede that it is better to achieve stability freely than with large-scale social control. So integralist states might be stable in that they don’t collapse, but they preserve stability through less than morally ideal means.

So the difficulty for integralism is its capacity to sustain stability in morally appropriate ways even under favorable conditions, given the fact of reasonable pluralism.

Here I can imagine three kinds of responses.

  1. Embrace Coercion: integralists can accept the fact of reasonable pluralism, but simply fight against it. Massive coercion is both feasible and justified.
  2. Identify Theological Sources of Stability: Thomas Pink has argued that integralist regimes will not only appeal to massive coercion, they will help fallen people to see the moral truth. A society that is built around grace-conferring institutions will more ably identify the natural law, and perhaps the natural law is intrinsically compelling once it is grasped by a relatively uncorrupted intellect. So perhaps once integralism is established, grace will help to stabilize it without massive coercion.
  3. Deny Reasonable Pluralism: maybe reasonable pluralism isn’t the natural result of the free exercise of practical reason. Perhaps, instead, reasonable pluralism is the product of liberal regimes, which decline to give people any guidance in deciding on how to live, save to suppress certain traditional religious approaches. After all, one might argue, liberal societies contain social forces that seem to exacerbate disagreement. An integralist regime will tend to contain it (perhaps because of factors 1 and 2).

Integralists will likely combine these three replies into a single strategy for answering the challenge of reasonable pluralism. But I’m skeptical of each reply. Here’s why.

First, violence is undesirable for lots of reasons, not merely that it harms people physically and psychologically but because it can frequently be used in ways that do not treat others with the respect that they are due as beings created in God’s image. Embracing massive coercion is therefore a great cost. The cost can be limited by insisting that integralist regimes aren’t that much more coercive than liberal regimes, but I think it is fairly clear that integralism depends on more uniformity of belief than liberalism. And I think one can push for a less coercive liberalism (as I have in Liberal Politics and Public Faith and Must Politics Be War?).

Second, it’s not clear that grace will help people to agree about the natural law because Christians have disagreed about all kinds of moral claims throughout Christian history. So exposure to grace does not seem to lead to a large amount of agreement. This is especially true in political matters, since sincere, informed Christians seem to have adopted just about every conceivable political view. I grant that there is a narrower range of disagreement among Roman Catholics, but political disagreements are still very broad. You have Catholic Marxists, anarchists, fascists, socialists, capitalists, and on and on. And indeed, the Reformation broke out on the Catholic integralist’s watch, so you might think too much imposes uniformity may only contain disagreement until it boils over.

Finally, my sense from the little bit of history I do know is that societies seem to look much more homogeneous from the outside than from the inside. We formulate vague pictures of regimes as agreeing on most things, but when you look into the actual history of political regimes, they contain all kinds of disputes, and many such disputes appear to be entirely sincere. Even integralist empires like the Byzantine Empire were subject to considerable disagreements of various kinds, though admittedly they seem to be narrower than our disagreements today.

But surely part of our disagreements are due to factors other than liberalism. For instance, greater levels of education lead more people to careful reflection on their values. And mass communication makes it possible for people to develop their own ideas at length and to disagree with others. Further, societies are much larger today than in the past, and more people may tend to mean more sources of disagreement.

So, in sum, integralist ideal theory faces the challenge of diversity of belief.

These challenges will arise in a different way in integralist non-ideal theory, but more on that in future posts.