Posts tagged: public reason

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.

Jerry Gaus (1952-2020): Constant Learning in a Complex World

Written By His Students

Jacob Barrett
Adam Gjesdal
Bill Glod
Keith Hankins
Brian Kogelmann
Ryan Muldoon
John Thrasher
Kevin Vallier
Chad Van Schoelandt

It is difficult to describe Jerry Gaus’s views and accomplishments in part because he was so prolific, having authored nine books comprising roughly 3,000 pages and more than a hundred published papers. Moreover, his work was wide-ranging and interdisciplinary. Jerry was critical of what he sometimes called “hedgehogosity,” the tendency for political philosophers to define themselves in terms of well-defined schools or even a single supreme value. In contrast to the hedgehog’s narrowness, consider how Jerry describes his work in The Order of Public Reason (2011, xiv–xv): “we will have to grapple with the insights of, among many others, Hobbes, Hume, Kant, Rousseau, J. S. Mill, T. H. Green, P. F. Strawson, Kurt Baier, S. I. Benn, R. M. Hare, F. A. Hayek, David Gauthier, Alan Gewirth, Kenneth Arrow, John Rawls, James Buchanan, and Amartya Sen. We will draw on game theory, experimental psychology, theories of emotion and reasoning, axiomatic social choice theory, constitutional political economy, Kantian moral philosophy, prescriptivism, and the concept of reason and how it relates to freedom in human affairs.”

Jerry (2011, xv) noted that his “work is often categorized under the ‘libertarian’ label since I argue that human freedom is terribly important, that coercive interferences infringe freedom and so must always be justified to the person who is being coerced.” He wrote this not to embrace a libertarian label, but to reject it, as Jerry stressed his concerns with coercion came from his friend and co-author Stanley Benn, an Australian Labor Democrat. Indeed, Jerry’s bête noire was political ideology of all kinds, including libertarianism, because adopting them detracts one from “the truth business,” as his advisor John Chapman taught him.

Jerry understood himself to be working in a tradition with an ongoing, active research agenda for a scholarly community, teaching us about the complexities of our social world, rather than looking for opportunities to reinforce our biased ways of understanding it. For this reason, we want to emphasize not merely Jerry’s accomplishments, like his major books, but also the ongoing projects and areas in which he played a pivotal role.

Public Reason

Jerry is best known for his work in the public reason tradition, particularly as he was the leading figure in what has come to be known as convergence liberalism. He had worked on the idea of public reason at the same time as Rawls was – during the 1980s. Jerry produced his first work in the area in 1990: Value and Justification.[i]

Throughout his career, Jerry was heavily influenced by the great social contract theorists – Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant – as well as contemporary theorists like Rawls and David Gauthier. From very early on, Jerry recognized that living in a complex social order required a kind of agreement amongst its members on the terms of social life. As he understood them, the social contract theorists recognized that engaging in moral reasoning about how to live from a purely first-personal point of view was bound to lead to destructive conflict. So, in a deep study of how humans make value judgments, the nature of the moral emotions and a theory of moral maturation, Jerry argued that we must come to move beyond the first-personal point of view and to integrate a social perspective into our individual perspectives. Only in this way can humans successfully cooperate with one another. Taking the perspective of others was also a pre-requisite for maintaining our personal relationships. Doing so is central to sustaining valuable relations of love, friendship, and trust. All relationships require that we follow certain kinds of rules and moral requirements that involve taking the perspective of others into account.

The doctrine of public reason is derived from Jerry’s account of personal values and the norms internal to personal relationships. We pursue public justifications for our shared rules of social life in order to ensure that the rules are acceptable to all, such that persons can related to one another by way of complying with those rules. Jerry would stress the importance of shared reasoning in helping us live together. Yet, even there, we find a role for pluralistic and diverse reasoning in formulating a justification for our moral demands on one another, though the theme was not as central as it would become in later work.

As Jerry was working on his next book, Justificatory Liberalism, he came to embrace more pluralistic forms of reasoning, allowing diverse reasoning to supplement shared reasoning more and more. In the terms of Jerry’s good friend and fellow public reason theorist, Fred D’Agostino, Jerry had moved away from the mainstream “consensus” model of public reason of expecting an agreement about which reasons could be appealed to in justifying social and political power and coercion, and supplanted it with a “convergence” view where diverse reasons could figure into the justification of coercive political power. Yet even here, Jerry adopted a principle of sincerity that required citizens to engage in shared reasons in justifying moral and political claims to one another.

Over the next fifteen years, in the build-up to The Order of Public Reason, Jerry would increasingly stress the incompleteness of the social contract tradition. The difficulty with mainstream ideas of public reason is that they supposed a society could reach an agreement about principles of morality and justice. But it became a central theme of OPR that this was an unrealistic expectation. Jerry also stressed, in contrast to Justificatory Liberalism, that we could not rely on the political process alone in choosing between proposals that could only be “inconclusively” justified to all. Instead, we would have to appeal to social evolution in order to come upon concrete agreements. Kant and Rawls would have to join forces with Hume and Hayek. An “order of public reason” would not be a “deliberative democracy” that would narrow our disagreements to consensus, on reasons or on public policy; rather, it was a complex order of “social-moral rules” in which the political process played a central, but quite limited part.

Along the same lines, Jerry began to address religious reasoning more carefully, and moved away from the “privatization” approach. Once we allow for diverse reasoning, Jerry acknowledged, we must include the reasoning of people of faith. Jerry therefore was among the fairly narrow class of historical liberals who saw religious reasoning and religious discourse as source of social progress rather than social regression. Public reason must be pluralistic, diverse, and face up to indeterminacy and interminable disagreement; this put Jerry in a class almost by himself, such that his public reason project was an almost staggering departure from the rest of the ever-expanding public reason literature. The themes in The Order of Public Reason would receive the most uptake from his expanding number of graduate students, but his work on religion and politics was so distinctive that it attracted a great deal of attention, especially “The Roles of Religious Conviction in a Publicly Justified Polity” which was his most cited article.

By the end of his career, however, Jerry had come to worry that even his account in the book was insufficiently accommodative of moral diversity. People disagree not only about the inherent morality or justice of different rules, but also about how much they value reconciling with others or living together under publicly justified rules—and even about which others they seek to reconcile with. In “Self-organizing Moral Systems: Beyond Social Contract Theory” and The Open Society and its Complexities (forthcoming), he therefore began to investigate and model the conditions under which individuals who disagreed in all of these ways could nevertheless coordinate on publicly justified rules, rather than polarize or split apart.

Moral Psychology and Social Morality

Jerry would argue in The Order of Public Reason that moral philosophers had all too often expected to give a single analysis or explanation of all moral truths. But he thought it was critical to distinguish between the many different domains of the normative, and he tended to concern himself with one part of it – what Jerry called “social morality,” or the norms or rules of conduct that members of a society may hold one responsible for violating and punish for defecting.

The idea of “social morality” is central to The Order of Public Reason. Jerry credits the idea to philosophers like P.F Strawson, Kurt Baier, and David Gauthier. But its lineage extends at least as far back as the Scottish Enlightenment, to David Hume’s artificial virtues and Adam Smith’s rules of justice. Social morality is embodied in a shared system of interlocking descriptive and normative expectations that guide our social interactions. This system includes laws the state promulgates and coercively enforces. But it extends more deeply into the fabric of social life to include complex informal norms that are not coercively enforced by the state. We implicitly act on these informal norms when we walk down the street or make a purchase. What sustains these informal norms is not coercive enforcement but internalization and the reactive attitudes—for in violating them we become appropriate objects of guilt and resentment. These informal norms have much in common with Humean conventions. They are objects of something like common knowledge: a norm of walking on the right side of the street exists only if nearly everyone knows others expects them to walk on the right. And, like Humean conventions, these norms perform an important function in human life of making mutually beneficial cooperation possible.

After The Order of Public Reason, Jerry would develop his analysis of social morality. In “The Priority of Social Morality” and his forthcoming The Open Society and Its Complexities, he shows how work in evolutionary anthropology and behavioral and experimental economics substantiates the claim that norms of social morality form the basis of small-scale human social orders. His “On Dissing Public Reason: A Reply to David Enoch” takes pains to clarify how the idea of social morality is distinct from, and so ought not be conflated with, more “absolute” notions of morality and normativity, often presumed by philosophers in discussions of human rights. In “Moral Learning in the Open Society,” co-authored with Shaun Nichols, he provides experimental evidence that social morality includes a principle of natural liberty, which permits novel action types whenever they are not expressly (or implicitly, via clear analogy) prohibited by existing rules.

Philosophy, Politics, and Economics: The Gausian Method

Jerry was a champion of the PPE approach to understanding society and our place in it. Throughout all of his work, Jerry showed what we might call an “integrative approach” to PPE in action. This approach, which in some ways reaches back to the early political economists like David Hume and Adam Smith who were simultaneously philosophers, political theorists, and political economists. Indeed, the department that he chaired at the time of his death—The Department of Political Economy and Moral Sciences—illustrates this integrative, interdisciplinary focus in it name. Jerry also ran the Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law (PPEL) major at the University of Arizona. PPE education as well as research was a central concern for Jerry. The reason is simple. Jerry believed, rightly in our view, that important social, political, and moral problems, which also animated significant historical figures, can’t be understood, let alone answered, if they are viewed from a single disciplinary lens. To really make progress on the crucial questions of social life, we need the tools and complementary lenses that come from an integrated PPE approach. PPE also helps to mitigate what he thought was the tendency of political philosophy to become ideological.


Aside from his own work, his leadership in the burgeoning PPE movement, and his pedagogy, Jerry also did important work to make the world safe for PPE. An important step in this direction was the founding of the journal Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, which he edited with his good friend Fred D’Agostino to establish it as a premier venue for interdisciplinary work.  Alongside the journal, many other venues have since arisen to cultivate PPE research. One of these is the PPE Society, of which Jerry was an active participant. At the time of his death, Jerry was in the process of writing, with John Thrasher, a new textbook on the methods and theory of PPE for Princeton University Press (following up on the original edition, archived here). The aim of this book is to make it easier for anyone to teach PPE to undergraduates, opening up the possibilities for a more integrative and diverse approach to the social sciences and humanities.

Complexity and Ideal Theory

A central theme of much of Jerry’s later work is social complexity and its implications for political philosophy. Many believe that a conception of the ideally just society (“the ideal”) orients the pursuit of justice by serving as a long-term goal for reform. But in The Tyranny of the Ideal, Jerry draws on complexity theory to interrogate and cast doubt on this view. In the absence of complexity—roughly, interactions between different social elements—local improvements to our society would perfectly correlate with steps toward the ideal, so there would be no need to explicitly identify and pursue the ideal as a long-term goal. In the presence of complexity, this correlation breaks down, so there is a more obvious need to orient ourselves toward the ideal. But we now run into a serious epistemic difficulty: in general, we can be much less confident about the effects of more radical changes than more modest changes to complex systems. Whenever one is tempted to pursue one’s conception of the ideal, one therefore faces The Choice: should one pursue a relatively certain local improvement, or a far less certain ideal? Jerry argues that the only social-epistemic conditions under which we might be confident enough about ideal justice to responsibly opt for its pursuit would be found in an open, diversity-accommodating society in which widespread disagreements about justice would, ironically, render the pursuit of the ideal impossible. He therefore recommends that we give up on the ideal in favor of an Open Society that everybody sees as satisfactory though nonideal.

Jerry elaborates on this theme in his forthcoming book, The Open Society and its Complexities, which undertakes a Hayek-inspired investigation into the prospects of justification and governance in the Open Society. Standard moral theories and social contract models, Jerry argues, are ill-equipped to justify the rules of the Open Society, since they cannot accommodate its degree of “autocatalytic” diversity and complexity—whereby diversity begets complexity, which begets further diversity, and so on. Instead, justification must proceed from the bottom-up: from real individuals self-organizing around publicly justified rules.

But this need for emergent self-organization, Jerry claims, should not lead us to neglect the possibility and importance of governance. Due to social complexity, our ability to govern a social system decreases at larger scales and over longer time horizons, so rather than treating governance as a unitary phenomenon, we must carefully attend to different modes of governance. For example, while at the macro-level we are limited to setting “rules of the game” that facilitate self-organization, at the meso-level we may solve strategic dilemmas, and at the micro-level we may pursue particular policy goals. Yet complex systems are also characterized by “reflexivity”: the government is just one agent in the system, to which others respond, and to which the government must then respond in turn. Typically, then, governance is more effective when individuals willingly go along with the government, as occurs in the presence of public justification.

Jerry also worked through these issues in a number of relevant papers, including “Searching for the Ideal: The Fundamental Diversity Dilemma” (with Keith Hankins), “Political Philosophy as the Study of Complex Normative Systems,” “The Complexity of a Diverse Moral Order,” “Morality as a Complex Adaptive System: Rethinking Hayek’s Social Ethics,” and “What Might Democratic Self-governance in a Complex Social World Look Like?”

New Diversity Theory

Jerry was the leading figure in what some have termed “The New Diversity Theory.”  Along with Fred D’Agostino, Jerry was an early advocate of the idea that fundamental moral diversity is not merely a problem to be managed, but a resource to be leveraged.  Diversity makes our social lives more complex, and stability more difficult to achieve, but it is also an engine for discovery and progress.  Diversity enables us to find better ways of living together, and adapt to new situations more readily, even as it invariably generates sources of conflict. Jerry thought that this was a necessary course correction for political philosophy.  Instead of abstracting away from our differences to examine an ideological project in its purest form, he thought we needed to understand and celebrate ways that very different people can live together and solve problems cooperatively. Indeed, exploring social diversity and its consequences is where we can find many of the most interesting problems in political philosophy and PPE.

This thinking is most evident in The Order of Public Reason, The Tyranny of the Ideal, and his final book, The Open Society and its Complexities, as well as papers such as “Between Discovery and Choice: The General Will in a Diverse Society”, “Searching for the Ideal: The Fundamental Diversity Dilemma” (with Keith Hankins), “The Complexity of a Diverse Moral Order”, and “Is Public Reason a Normalization Project? Deep Diversity and the Open Society.”

Just as important as his own contributions to the New Diversity Theory were his efforts to elevate others who were developing their own approaches to this project. Some, like Fred and Paul Dragos Aligica were already very established scholars, but Jerry went out of his way to bring attention to younger scholars, such as Ryan Muldoon, Michael Moehler, and Julian Müller.  He also trained a number of philosophers who have already established themselves as figures in this area, such as Chad Van Schoelandt, John Thrasher, Kevin Vallier, Keith Hankins, and Brian Kogelmann. Jacob Barrett, Adam Gjesdal, Phil Smolenski, Alex Motchoulski and Alex Schaefer are more recent students of Jerry working in this area.

In many ways, the New Diversity Theory is the culmination of themes in Jerry’s work, as the project is in essence a research program, a kind of new paradigm of political philosophy. The New Diversity Theory comes with new sets of interdisciplinary tools, new attitudes towards certain kinds of social phenomena, and different expectations about what philosophical reasoning can accomplish. It is our belief that the New Diversity Theory is one of the most promising avenues for new research in political philosophy.

History of Philosophy: The Social Contract Tradition

Jerry’s work on the New Diversity Theory colored the way he read the history of political thought. Political philosophy, he would tell his students, began with Hobbes. This is because Hobbes was concerned with the same set of problems that the New Diversity Theory takes as its focus. For many, this will be a surprise. Hobbes, we are all taught, is the theorist of self-interest, who teaches that human conflict is generated by humanity’s darker motives. Jerry did not like this reading. Instead of focusing on chapter thirteen of Leviathan, he spent much time analyzing chapter five, where Hobbes says that, due to the fallibility of human reason, “parties must by their own accord set up for right reason the reason of some arbitrator or judge.” In other words, the problem of conflicting private judgment, according to Hobbes, can only be solved with some kind of public reason. Jerry read Locke in a similar manner, where conflict arises from conflicting private judgment, and the solution is to set up some kind of public method of reasoning that allows persons to resolve their disputes, and live peacefully.

Jerry’s contributions to the history of the social contract tradition include: “Locke’s Liberal Theory of Public Reason,” “Public Reason Liberalism,” “Hobbes’s Challenge to Public Reason Liberalism,” and “Hobbesian Contractarianism, Orthodox and Revisionist.” Perhaps his most important contribution is the edited volume (with Piers Norris Turner) Public Reason in Political Philosophy: Classical Sources and Contemporary Commentaries. The idea of the volume is to show how the problem of diversity and conflicting moral judgment can be found not only in the social contract tradition, but in the work of other important historical figures, such as Hume, Hegel, Bentham, and Mill. And indeed, in that edited volume, Jerry located the idea of public reason in these early figures, making Rawls a more minor figure in the development of public reason liberalism.

Jerry thought that understanding the history of political philosophy was key to crafting its future and making progress on pressing questions. He frequently pushed his own research program forward by drawing on insights from a vast range of thinkers from the past, some of whom, like Hobbes, are well-known, but others, like T.H. Green (as Jerry explored in “Green’s Rights Recognition Thesis and Moral Internalism”), have been left behind.

Teaching and Mentoring

While most people know Jerry through his publications, we want to conclude by noting his tremendous accomplishments as a teacher and mentor. The University of Arizona recognized Jerry’s excellence in this area with the university’s Award for Teaching and Mentoring in Graduate Education in 2015.

Jerry is famed for holding his students to exacting standards, while providing the students with extensive support to develop and meet those standards. His support and expectations impelled students to tremendous productivity, expeditious completion of the PhD program, and vibrant careers. Importantly, Jerry’s standards were exclusively those of scholarship and argumentative rigor, never demands on their research questions or conclusions. Central to Jerry’s approach to teaching was encouraging his students to explore the issues they saw as meriting exploration and to come to their own conclusions.

Jerry’s devotion to teaching manifested in many ways, including that he frequently taught graduate seminars as overloads beyond his teaching obligations.

Lastly, we’ll emphasize that Jerry approached philosophy as a cooperative venture. Some note that Jerry seemed to never reject an invitation to contribute to a collection. A major part of this was that when Jerry received such invitations, he often considered his graduate students and asked if they were interested in collaborating on the paper. These collaborations provided highly enjoyable and valuable opportunities to engage in the substantive issues and to learn the craft of writing. Likewise, deep discussions of philosophic problems frequently led to collaborations on important peer-reviewed articles.

In this way, the philosophic projects exemplify some of the core insights of Jerry’s philosophic views. New members of the community contribute to a cooperative surplus and the benefits are enhanced with increased perspectival diversity of the cooperators. We hope that you will see Jerry’s work as not merely providing incredible insights, though it certainly does that, but also as providing resources for ongoing research projects and a warm invitation to join in those explorations.




Gaus, Gerald. 1983. The Modern Liberal Theory of Man. New York: Palgrave.

———. 1990. Value and Justification: The Foundations of Liberal Theory. Cambridge University Press.

———. 1996. Justificatory Liberalism: An Essay on Epistemology and Political Theory. Oxford University Press.

———. 1999. Social Philosophy. Routledge.

———. 2000. Political Concepts and Political Theories. Westview Press.

———. 2003. Contemporary Theories of Liberalism: Public Reason as a Post-Enlightenment Project. Sage.

———. 2011. The Order of Public Reason: A Theory of Freedom and Morality in a Diverse and Bounded World. Cambridge University Press.

———. 2016. The Tyranny of the Ideal: Justice in a Diverse Society. Princeton University Press.

———. 2021 [expected] The Open Society and Its Complexities. Oxford University Press.

Turner, Piers Norris, and Gerald Gaus, eds. 2017. Public Reason in Political Philosophy: Classic Sources and Contemporary Commentaries. Routledge.


Articles Mentioned (see Gaus’s CV for much more)

“Green’s Rights Recognition Thesis and Moral Internalism.” British Journal of Politics and International Relations, vol. 7 (2005): pp. 5-17.

(with Kevin Vallier) “The Roles of Religious Conviction in a Publicly Justified Polity: The Implications of Convergence, Asymmetry and Political Institutions.” Philosophy & Social Criticism, vol. 35 (2009): pp. 51-76.

“Between Discovery and Choice: The General Will in a Diverse Society,” Contemporary Readings in Law and Social Justice, vol. 3 (2011): pp. 70-95.

“Hobbes’s Challenge to Public Reason Liberalism,” In Hobbes Today, edited by S.A. Lloyd. Cambridge University Press, 2013: pp. 155-177.

“Hobbesian Contractarianism, Orthodox and Revisionist.” In The Continuum Companion to Hobbes, edited by S.A. Lloyd. Bloomsbury, 2013: pp. 263-278.

“On Dissing Public Reason: A Reply to Enoch.” Ethics, vol. 125 (2015): pp. 1078-1095.

“Public Reason Liberalism.” In The Cambridge Companion to Liberalism, edited by Steve Wall. Cambridge University Press, 2015: pp. 112-40.

“Is Public Reason a Normalization Project? Deep Diversity and the Open Society.” Social Philosophy Today, vol. 33 (2017): pp. 27-55.

(with Shaun Nichols) “Moral Learning in the Open Society: The Theory and Practice of Natural Liberty.” Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 34 (2017): pp. 79-101.

(with Keith Hankins) “Searching for the Ideal: The Fundamental Diversity Dilemma.” In Political Utopias, edited by Michael Weber and Kevin Vallier. Oxford University Press, 2017: pp. 175-201.

The Complexity of a Diverse Moral Order.” The Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy, vol. 16 (2018): pp. 645-779.

“Locke’s Liberal Theory of Public Reason.” In Public Reason in the History of Political Philosophy, edited by Piers Norris Turner and Gerald Gaus. Routledge, 2018: pp. 163-83.

“Political Philosophy as the Study of Complex Normative Systems.” Cosmos + Taxis, vol. 5 (2018): pp. 62-78.

“The Priority of Social Morality.” In Morality, Governance, and Social Institutions: Reflections on Russell Hardin, edited by Thomas Christiano, Ingrid Creppell and Jack Knight. Palgrave, 2018: pp. 23-57.

Self-organizing Moral Systems: Beyond Social Contract Theory.” Politics, Philosophy and Economics, vol. 17 (2018): pp. 119-147.

“Morality as a Complex Adaptive System: Rethinking Hayek’s Social Ethics.” The Oxford Handbook of Ethics and Economics, edited by Mark D. White. Oxford University Press, 2019: pp. 138-159.

“What Might Democratic Self-governance in a Complex Social World Look Like?”  56 San Diego Law Review, vol. 56 (2019): pp. 968-1012.

[i] This was his second book, coming nine years after a short study of six figures in the liberal tradition – J.S. Mill, T.H. Green, Bernard Bosanquet, L.T. Hobhouse, and John Rawls – called The Modern Liberal Theory of Man (1983).


Tribal Reasoning and Public Reasoning – Reply to Brennan and My Take on Achen and Bartels

Now that Bleeding Heart Libertarians has closed up shop, the BHL diaspora has begun. Jason Brennan, Chris Frieman, and Jess Flanigan – all friends – have started up a new blog with a different approach – 200-proof liberals. I recommend subscribing to it, though it is meant to have a very different rhetorical style than the BHL project.

J has posted a summary of a piece he has written criticizing public reason views for failing to grapple with what we know about political psychology, especially that people engage in post-hoc tribal reasoning in politics. But public reason liberalism, the dominant approach to legitimacy in political philosophy, supposes that people reason independently of their tribe, at least to some extent, such that clear rational commitments can be identified, and justifications for laws and policies can then be crafted in terms of those fairly stable reasons. So public reason liberalism is wrong because it depends on people having more stable rational commitments than they actually do.

Obviously I disagree with this argument, which Brennan has constructed by drawing on the new Achen and Bartels book in particular. Fortunately, I think the argument is good enough that I devote some time to it in my forthcoming book, Trust in a Polarized Age. Here I’m going to reproduce much of what I say there. But before I do, let me just say this. I think Americans these days tend to be more impressed by the irrationality of political behavior than Europeans. Many Europeans countries aren’t especially polarized, and some of these countries are very trusting, like the Nordic countries, and so I don’t think the trends J is pointing to are universal features of democratic polities. People are politically tribal to varying degrees, and the US is in a particularly but peculiarly bad place right now relative to some other democracies. So if we take an international perspective, I think the idea that politics is necessarily war looks less plausible even from 30,000 feet. OK, with that, here’s what I have to say about the main line of argument.

I summarize the Achen-Bartels view J appeals to in section I. So if you know the view, skip to section II.

I. Achen and Bartels’s Challenge.

The thesis of Achen and Bartels’s Democracy for Realists is that elections don’t produce responsive government. Instead, “voters, even the most informed voters, typically make choices not on the basis of policy preferences or ideology, but on the basis of who they are—their social identities.” The worry is that “if voting behavior primarily reflects and reinforces voters’ social loyalties, it is a mistake to suppose that elections result in popular control of public policy.” Instead, election outcomes are simply “erratic reflections of the current balance of partisan loyalties in a given political system.” I have already addressed the possibility of using small-scale deliberative bodies to reveal the preferences and reasons of citizens in chapter 7, but Achen and Bartels argue that empirical studies of these small political bodies “seem to be less relevant for understanding democratic politics on a national scale.” For the purposes of this section, I will assume that microcosmic deliberation cannot serve as a substitute for national elections.

Part of Achen and Bartels’s argument is that citizens lack enough information and motivation to engage in retrospective voting, voting based on the past performance of political parties and candidates. In general, Achen and Bartels claim to cast “considerable doubt on the view that citizens can reliably form and act upon sensible retrospective judgments at election time.” Retrospective voting is complicated by three factors: low political knowledge, mistaken assessments of one’s own well-being, and a limited time horizon for economic accountability where citizens only attend to their economic condition in proximity to a national election.

Achen and Bartels embrace a group theory of politics. This means that “the primary sources of partisan loyalties and voting behavior … are social identities, group attachments, and myopic retrospections, not policy preferences or ideological principles.” This is so in part because extra information doesn’t make citizens more accurate; instead, “party identification colors the perceptions of the most politically informed citizens far more than the relatively less informed citizens.” Citizens are not generally responsive to information about political parties, candidates, and the like, but rather filter the information to empower their group and disempower out-groups.

Achen and Bartels think their research has profound implications for democratic theory. It leaves democratic theory “in a shambles” because all “the conventional defenses of democratic government are at odds with demonstrable, centrally important facts of life,” specifically human limitations in information and motivation.

II. Preliminary Difficulties

I think Achen and Bartels overstate their case. One reply is that voting based on group membership can be an informational shortcut insofar as one’s group allegiance leads one to support the candidates one’s reasons would lead one to support. For instance, if black Americans vote based on how leading black legislators tell them to vote, that may indeed be a reasonable heuristic that helps protect them from serious harms by more powerful social groups. Thus, voting based on group membership, while sometimes problematic, may not be irrational. We can only show that it is irrational if we can show that following the views of the leaders of one’s group leads one to embrace more objectionable policies than one might otherwise accept.

Second, Achen and Bartels need to argue that because we determine our policy preferences by group membership, those preferences are unjustified. But what makes our beliefs rational is not how they came about (the causes of the beliefs) but whether the beliefs are justified by good reasons at present (the sustaining justifications of the beliefs). Thus, to show that our political preferences are problematically arbitrary, it is not enough to show that the beliefs are caused by group membership; it has to be shown that the influence of group membership shows that political preferences are irrational. After all, most of our beliefs are heavily affected by all kinds of nonrational factors, but this fact does not by itself undermine the rationality of our beliefs. Achen and Bartels can reply that policy preferences and related beliefs change so erratically and quickly that it is hard to imagine that these beliefs could be justified while they’re held. Rational beliefs should be stabler, since the reasons to support various policies do not change erratically and quickly. However, if it turns out that making political judgments is very difficult even for highly rational agents, then the evidence we have might not force us to hold one position or even limit us to a handful. If we move between reasonable, incompatible beliefs, even unpredictably and quickly, then that may merely mean the issue at hand is hard to resolve, not that the public’s preferences are irrational. The point is that while the causes of a belief or position might be arbitrary and tribal, the belief or position might still be a reasonable one.

But the best way to answer Achen and Bartels is to examine how their arguments challenge particular approaches to justifying democracy. So, I will now address how their views might undermine my public-justification approach. The basic defense I offer is that Achen and Bartels at best show either that most people have bad reasons to support, or that most people have no reasons to support, whatever policies they support—that most people do not have genuinely justifying reasons. But neither claim is a good reason to abandon a public-justification approach.

III. Achen and Bartels vs. Public Reason – The Tracking Objection

The data that Achen and Bartels cite does not actually challenge my approach to the public justification of democracy as a whole. Instead, they at best can be used to argue that a right to participate in elections will not tend to produce publicly justified laws, but there might be other public justifications for democratic elections.

So, the refined challenge is that exposing law making to elections may yield fewer publicly justified laws and policies than rules that limit the range of laws and policies that elections affect. This suggests that a publicly justified polity should rely more heavily on epistocratic mechanisms to insulate the selection of political officials from direct citizen input.

Let us call laws and policies that depend in some direct way on electoral outcomes democratically exposed. Laws might be democratically exposed through referenda or in directly elected legislative bodies. Achen and Bartels’s arguments can be used to challenge my claim that democratically exposed laws and policies will track the reasons of moderately idealized agents (note to blog readers: I think the reasons that figure into public justification can be identified by asking what a moderately idealized version of persons would endorse, save with enough time and information to adequately reflect). This is because, given extreme group loyalty, democratic outcomes will be sensitive to arbitrary factors that undermine any connection to what moderately idealized agents support. Call this the tracking objection. What’s worse, the data suggests that many citizens may not have justificatory reasons at the right level of idealization because they have no settled views about what to support or oppose. Thus, democratically exposed laws and policies will tend to reflect arbitrary and biased preferences and group loyalties. Call this the bad reason objection.

The tracking objection can be answered by conceding that citizens’ political preferences and behaviors can be affected by their group while insisting that political parties may nonetheless be good proxies for what moderately idealized versions of their members would support. One reason for this is fairly obvious: if citizens are committed to valuing what their in-group values, and their in-group is their political party, then what the parties favor is directly tied to what citizens favor. Thus, insofar as moderately idealized citizens are committed to their party’s success and effectiveness, their good reasons will be determined by what the parties favor. Compare a citizen’s commitment to the scientific community’s findings. If a person has the reason “Generally believe what the scientific community believes, because scientists are rational people, and I’m a rational person too” then that person has sufficient reason to defer to the findings of the scientific community. In the same way, if a person has the reason “Generally believe what my party believes,” then that person has sufficient reason to track what the party believes.

One might respond that moderately idealized agents will give less weight to the opinions of their group vis-à-vis good arguments for choosing policies and political officials. Moderately idealized agents will endorse laws and policies on the basis of decent information and arguments, and those determinations are unlikely to mirror what their group affirms. And yet, while this is so, many political issues are sufficiently complicated that boundedly rational agents will not be able to form opinions on all issues, so they may nonetheless want to use party or political group support as a heuristic. Along the same lines, parties are not always biased in favor of power and a desire for oppression. In many democratic societies, parties track political ideologies and the moral values of large swaths of the electorate. They also articulate platforms and arguments that are loosely responsive to evidence. So citizens may not act irrationally in embracing party platforms, and their endorsements may well track their justificatory reasons. Their motivation for adopting the party platform may be largely tribal, but they may yet have good reason to endorse that platform all the same.

A second objection is that, in societies with significant partisan divergence, especially when parties are more divergent than the general public, parties may be subject to greater biases than ordinary people. In that case, the heuristic “Generally believe what my party believes” may lead people to epistemically worse beliefs. Consequently, the heuristic may not help people’s opinions track their justificatory reasons but, rather, make them less likely to recognize what they have good reason to believe even by their own lights. But this leads into the bad reason objection.

IV. Achen and Bartels vs. Public Reason – The Bad Reason Objection

The bad reason objection says that, since people typically have tribal preferences, moderately idealized versions of tribal people will endorse not good reasons but reasons that we ordinarily would not want to have figure into public justification. They may, for instance, change their views on the appropriate foreign policy with respect to Russia based on the fact that President Trump says good things about Vladimir Putin. This implies that we should not base laws on the reasons that moderately idealized persons will typically, normally endorse.

I have two replies to this objection. First, even if many citizens have merely tribal reasons to support a coercive policy, that merely means at worst that we cannot have that policy. And if the law is not coercive, or if persons regard the process for selecting the law as legitimate, then we can permissibly impose the law on them because they are too flighty to have sound objections. We must of course ensure that the law is publicly justified for persons who do embrace good reasons. But the mere fact that most members of the public lack good reasons to favor or oppose many laws and policies does not make a public justification standard inappropriate. It just means that the public justification of the law depends primarily on the reasons of that minority of the public whose reasons should figure into public justifications.

Second, it is implausible to think that persons will have no good reasons at a moderate level of idealization simply because they exhibit arbitrary and easily altered preferences in the real world. Deliberative polls, for instance, often yield stable judgments, which even Jason Brennan acknowledges have promise. And deliberative polls are arguably proxies for moderate idealization since they subject opinions to critical scrutiny and proffer better information.

Moreover, plenty of empirical work in psychology demonstrates “value stability,” the empirical finding that the values that persons embrace are remarkably stable over the course of their lives. Thus, insofar as citizens can trace inferential routes from their stable values to their support of or opposition to particular laws and policies, there is a basis for ascribing good reasons to them because laws and policies can clearly advance or undermine their stable moral values.

For this reason, I conclude that a a public reason liberal case for democracy is not in shambles, despite Achen and Bartels’s important work. Their work does challenge the position I defend, but their objections can be answered. Perhaps in future work, Achen and Bartels, or other democratic theorists, will tease out the way in which their findings challenge public reason liberalism, but for now we can proceed without too much worry.

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.