Posts tagged: reasonable pluralism

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.

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.