Public Reason in Bad Faith

I’ve been meaning to comment on Matt’s skeptical post about public reason. In a nutshell, Matt worries that folks are offering arguments in publicly acceptable terms in “bad faith.” That is, they are motivated by their comprehensive views, which they know not everyone shares, and so they give an argument that is more broadly acceptable, even if they don’t really believe it.

Sez Matt:

. . . I am totally unconvinced that the “public reason” arguments against gay marriage are being offered in good faith. I know perfectly well that people who oppose gay marriage do so overwhelmingly either out of religious conviction or simple prejudice. I also know that people understand that such arguments cannot be presented in elite media contexts and so forth and that, as Beinart writes, it’s considered (even by people who haven’t studied Political Liberalism) to be a kind of ‘debate foul’ to just pound the Bible. So they gone out into the world, searching around for a tolerable public reason argument that will reach their favored conclusion. But the motivating issue for (the vast majority of) these people isn’t demographic shifts in Scandinavia, it’s the religion stupid. As a result, I have little incentive to take the empirical arguments offered by the anti-gay folks, and as a result of that, they have little reason to bother to make their arguments convincing (since they know no one will be convinced no matter what) rather than simply providing a kind of “public reason” cover for their real agenda.

I think Matt’s largely right as a matter of fact, but the relevance of Matt’s observation isn’t clear. Rawls is doing a bit of what he calls “ideal theory,” and although I don’t think Rawls conceives of ideal theory in the right way, it remains that norms of public reason are offered by Rawls as part of an ideal normative conception of a well-ordered society, and not as a description of actual norms of public discourse. The observation that people, as a matter of descriptive fact, offer public reasons in “bad faith” has the same standing as the observation that people, as a matter of descriptive fact, only grudgingly pay their taxes under the threat of sanction. That, of course, does not mean that it is okay for people to pay their taxes only grudgingly. It may be that they ought to recognize and be motivated by a duty of justice.

Rawls at one point talks about the way a society might move from a mere modus vivendi (a kind of truce or detente) to an order that is stable “for the right reasons,” i.e., because enough people have come to affirm a public conception of justice. Relatedly, we don’t just begin with full-fledged norms of public reason. These must develop over time. The fact that many folks recognize that some “arguments cannot be presented in elite media contexts and so forth and that, as Beinart writes, it’s considered (even by people who haven’t studied Political Liberalism) to be a kind of ‘debate foul’ to just pound the Bible” is a very important step on the path toward more widespread and robust norms of public reason.

I think we should consider it important to reinforce these norms, to make sure that people know what is an is not a debate foul. This is not something worth doing just for its own sake. For one thing, we need to do it so that we can have a debate at all, and not just the assertion and counter-assertion of incommensurable considerations. But mainly, we need to do it to reinforce the ideal of a pluralistic liberal order. We have to remind people, and keep reminding them, and keep reminding them, that we do not all agree on certain fundamental matters, and that therefore we should agree to refrain from using politics to impose our vision on others.

Now, I agree with Matt that the ideal of public reason is “in a great deal of tension with human nature.” I therefore don’t think that we can realize an order that is stable for the “right” Rawlsian reasons. The best we can hope for is some kind of modus vivendi. But this kind of stability need not be fragile. It can be fairly robust and self-equilibrating, and is quite worth having. It is unlikely that even most people will ever internalize norms of public reason. But if enough of the right kind of people do so, that can have a deeply positive effect on the neutrality and stability of our social order. So keep the faith.

More on Hayek/Rawls Fusionism

In a comment below, Julian reminds me of Hayek’s approving mention of Rawls’s method for thinking about principles of justice. This led me to look it up again. It’s in Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Volume 2: The Mirage of Social Justice, p. 100:

Before leaving the subject [of ‘social’ or distributive justice, ideas that Hayek finds muddled and misleading] I want to point out once more that the recognition that in such combinations as ‘social’, ‘economic’, ‘distributive’ or ‘retributive’ justice the term ‘justice’ is wholly empty should not lead us to throw the baby out with the bath water. Not only as the basis of the legal rules of just conduct is the justice which the courts of justice administer exceedingly important; there unquestionably also exists a genuine problem of justice in connection with the deliberate design of political institutions, the problem to which Professor John Rawls has recently devoted an important book. [Vol 2 of LL&L was published in 1976.] The fact that I regret and regard as confusing is merely that in this connection he employs the term ‘social justice’. But I have no basic quarrel with an author who, before he proceeds to that problem, acknowledges that the task of selecting specific systems or distributions of desired things as just must be ‘abandoned as mistaken in principle, and it is, in any case, not capable of a definite answer. Rather the principles of justice define the crucial constraints which institutions and joint activities must satisfy if persons engaging in them are to have no complaints about them. If these constraints are satisfied, the resulting distribution, whatever it is, may be accepted as just (or at least not unjust).’ This is more or less what I have been trying to argue in this chapter.

The Rawls quote is from his essay “Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice” in Nomos IV, Justice, 1963, p. 102. Hayek follows up the citation in his as always illuminating footnotes thus:

. . . where the passage quoted is preceded by the statement that ‘It is the system of institutions which has to be judged and judged from a general point of view.’ I am not aware that Professor Rawls’ later more widely read work A Theory of Justice (Harvard, 1971) contains a comparatively clear statement of the main point, which may explain why this work seems often, but as it appears to me wrongly, top have been interpret support to socialist demands, e.g., by Daniel Bell, ‘On Meritocracy and Equality’, Public Interest, Autumn 1972, p. 72, who describes Rawls’ theory as ‘the most comprehensive effort in modern philosophy to justify a socialistic ethic.’

Hayek is right. Rawls, at least the early Rawls, seems to me to be nowhere near a socialist or even a continental-style social democrat. He strikes me as a fairly traditional classical liberal working to reconcile the contemporary game-theoretic conception of rational choice with traditional contractarian theorizing and Kant.

Hayek somewhat earlier cites another passage from the same Rawls Nomos essay (which I really must read!) that casts Rawls in a similar classical liberal light. Here’s Rawls:

If one assumes that law and government effectively act to keep markets competitive, resources fully employed, property and wealth widely distributed over time, and maintains a reasonable social minimum, then, if there is equality of opportunity, the resulting distribution will be just or at least not unjust. It will have resulted from the workings of a just system . . . a social minimum is simply a form of rational insurance and prudence.

Here, as in other places, Rawls seems to characterize the social minimum, the safety net, as the price the wealthier must prudently pay for the stability of the order from which they benefit. At other times, Rawls makes more of the idea of fairness-as-reciprocity as a core aspect of the sense of justice, and argues that the motivation to pay into the treasury to fund the safety net is not merely prudential, but is rooted in a more distinctively moral motivation. I think this is one of many instances where Rawls’s good, clear rat choice contractarianism comes into tension with his penchant for Kantian moral psychology.

My total baseless conjecture is that Rawls’s students and some colleagues, who were far to Rawls’s left politically, slowly drew him further left toward a more euro-style social democrat point of view. I’m told that Rawls was a model of intellectual openness, not at all dogmatic, which would make him especially prone to reciprocal influence from his interlocutors. Early Rawls’s quasi-positivist naturalism and classical contractarianism was discouraged by his milieu while his Kantianism, and especially his Kantian moral psychology, was encouraged. So he abandons the idea that the theory of justice is a part of the theory of rational choice.

Rawls’s students seem to be far more vehement in their opposition to Humean moral psychology than in their interest in the contractarian conception of a social order. They seem more interested in coming up with an arguments to the effect that we’re obliged to pay taxes even if we don’t want to (the claims of justice are rationally INESCAPABLE, dammit!) than in exploring the general nature of a theory that could justify something like taxation in terms of its role in maintaining a viable social order. They seem to have co-opted a lot of Rawls’s language, and methodological apparatus, but left most of his core contractarian logic behind.

So here’s my unanswerable question–get out your possible world telescopes: What does the late Rawls look like in a world in which he had folks like Nozick, Lomasky, and Schmidtz as his prominent students, rather than folks like, say, Scanlon, Cohen, Estlund, and Korsgaard? Does he look more like the Rawls that Hayek sees and likes?