Public reason Notes for November 29

Main points

I began by revisiting the problem of religious belief. I claimed that Rawls has probably solved what I called the shallow problem but not what I called the deep one. (The handout [pdf] should make those terms clear).

Then I moved on to the main topic of the day: public reason.

Rawls holds that politics should stay within the bounds of what he calls “public reason”. That means that our political debates cannot involve beliefs and values that others could not reasonably accept.

We may take the political positions that we do for reasons that are not public, in the sense that most members of the public could reasonably accept them. But we must be able to express our political positions using ideas that are public, in that sense. And the state may not act for reasons that are not public, in that sense.

We then discussed three cases to see what it would be like if politics in this country followed Rawls’s suggestion. The cases were: teaching intelligent design in schools, the civil rights and abolitionist movements, and abortion.

A qualification

Before pressing on, I should qualify my characterization of Rawls’s position.

Rawls only claims that political debate concerning what he calls constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice should stay within the bounds of public reason.

At the same time, I don’t know that this qualification matters too much. The cases we discussed all seem to fall within one of those categories. Some of our cases concerned the relationship between church and state; others concerned whether some forms of human life have the same rights as citizens.

If we treat the second principle of justice as a basic part of justice, I would think that just about everything that bears on the economy would count.

What is political liberalism, again?

Political liberalism is a set of principles for politics. It extends all the way from an overlapping consensus to public reason. A genetic story may help to explain that remark.

The problem with the account of stability in A Theory of Justice led Rawls to the idea of an overlapping consensus. Instead of holding that stability required agreement on a particular set of ideas about what makes life good, he could instead say that a society could be stable so long as most of its “comprehensive moral doctrines” supported the same principles of justice.

But Rawls did not stop there. He believed that he had to add on several additional requirements. For instance, he insisted that the members of a society not only accept common principles of justice in an overlapping consensus. They had to accept them for “political” reasons as well. That is, they had to think of the principles of justice as being “freestanding”, meaning they could be explained and defended using only “political” beliefs and values. These, in turn, are beliefs and values that other members of the society could be reasonably expected to accept. So politics had to be bound by the limits of public reason too.

I think he should have stopped with the overlapping consensus. That would have solved the problem with A Theory of Justice in an elegant way. I don’t see that there is much to be gained from all the additional requirements. Plus, by adding them, it is harder to achieve an overlapping consensus. It’s one thing to get people to agree to a set of rules for their society. It’s another thing to get them to agree to a set of rules and to regard them as special “political” rules. It’s more difficult to secure agreement on A and B than it is to secure agreement on A alone.

Rawls, on the other hand, thinks that a society of people who stick by his requirements will have a deeper commitment to respecting one another in their political lives. They will also understand and accept the true nature of their political order.

Cases, cases

Here’s what I find interesting about these cases.

Intelligent design

Intelligent design doesn’t fit the mold. It isn’t a case where those who are motivated by religious reasons want to prevent others from holding or expressing different beliefs. On the contrary, what they are requesting is equal time for their beliefs.

Is there any way to disagree with them while remaining within the bounds of public reason? Can those who would rather not teach intelligent design in the schools explain why in terms that their opponents might reasonably accept?

I doubt it. I think the case against intelligent design amounts to saying that it depends on faith and revealed knowledge. That is, that it’s a religious doctrine. Given the state of the law in the US, that’s enough. The First Amendment to the constitution bans the establishment of religion.

But for the kind of thing Rawls is talking about, that’s not enough. Why should the religious accept this “constitutional essential?” Maybe their comprehensive moral doctrines commit them to a separation of church and state. But I doubt that’s true of those who are most keen on teaching intelligent design. So can we explain in terms that they would accept why the separation of church and state should be so strict that it excludes equal time for religious and secular views? I don’t think so.

That leads me to think that I don’t really put much stock in staying within the bounds of public reason.

Civil rights and abolitionists

These are the heroes of American liberalism. And yet, embarrassingly enough, they ran roughshod over the limits of public reason.

Rawls adds a qualification to accommodate them. But, I have to say, if you have to amend your view to admit the heroes, I think you’re already in trouble. Just my opinion.

Anyway, the qualification is that it’s OK to use religious beliefs in your political discussion if doing so strengthens the ideal of public reason in the long run.

I think that would create significant problems for defining what counts as belonging within public reason. For example, anti-abortion groups could well say that they’re the modern version of the abolitionists (in fact, they do say that). They’re using religious ideas in order to get us to recognize that we’re mistreating a huge class of people.

Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. It’s one of those things that will be settled historically. What I mean is, one side will win and write the story explaining how the progressive forces of history led to the future historians’ society.

But since that’s so, in my cynical opinion, we can’t use what Rawls says about public reason to say whether the anti-abortion movement’s use of religious rhetoric is out of bounds or not. So the “limits of public reason” are useless in this case. It seems to me.


Rawls proposes a balance of ‘public reasons’ that favor the right to abortion. He expresses doubts that abortion opponents could produce a similar balance of public reasons against abortion rights.

Yes, well, assertions are one thing, arguments are another. But, in fairness to him, that’s why it’s in footnotes. And he’s pretty clear about the conjectural nature of what he wrote.

Thomson, by contrast, goes for it. Her argument turns on a premise similar to Rawls’s liberal principle of legitimacy. Both of them think that the state can restrict liberty only on the basis of reasons that its citizens could not reasonably reject. Since those who want abortion rights can reasonably reject the Pope’s reasoning, she says, anti-abortion laws don’t pass the test.

But there are other principles too. One is that no one has the right to kill another person. Those who are opposed to abortion can reasonably reject the view that abortion does not kill another person.

So there is no “public” way of showing that either side is mistaken; Thomson concedes this. The question then is: why should we presume that liberty takes precedence?

You can make the bumper sticker argument: no one is compelled to use liberty that is provided to people in general. You could read Hart to see why that’s not a good argument. Or you could take seriously the anti-abortion movement’s comparison of themselves with the abolitionists. I suppose there could have been buggy stickers that said “Against slavery? Then don’t own one!”. But the abolitionists would have been forgiven for not being persuaded.

Backing it up

Finally, I would like to present some evidence to back up my tales.

First, here’s an interview with Diarmaid MacCulloch in which he describes finding the Protestant Reformation still going on in the US.

Second, I invite you to click on any page you get from a Google search on the Azusa Street Revival. It happened right here, it’s a very big deal, I (for one) am utterly in the dark about it, and it’s time for that to end.

Third, there really can be disagreements about whether the critter is a doggie or a horsie. In fact, there has been such a disagreement. It is related by my gracious correspondent, Ali. My correspondent, Ali

The other morning my friend and I were riding the 55 to work and I saw a dog standing perfectly still in Washington Park. Since it was standing perfectly still (which I found odd) I pointed it out to my friend who calmly told me that it was probably a horse.

I just thought you’d like to know that your situation came to life. She was clearly wrong (What would a very small horse be doing standing in Washington Park after all?), but I laughed hysterically for a good while.

In other words, listen to me and you will be prepared for all of life’s contingencies.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2006.
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