Toleration, Liberalism

A Defense of the Unreasonable

I really enjoyed Kevin’s recent discussion of the ‘contraception mandate,’ particularly because his posts highlight a deep and important divide in political philosophy that I think merits attention. Kevin sketches the following view about whether a law is justified:

“(The) principle of public justification (PPJ) …holds that a coercive law L is only justified if members of the public have sufficient reason to endorse L …(PPJ) is typically combined with the claim that freely reasoning individuals will tend to disagree rather than agree about life’s most important questions.”

As Kevin points out, Rawls and Gaus also affirm this principle. For simplicity, I will call this view political liberalism, though I recognize that there is disagreement within this camp and not all people who affirm it endorse Rawls’s view full-stop.

Political liberals hold that it is only permissible to coercively enforce a policy if those subjected to the policy have reasons to accept it given their public culture or commitments that they already affirm in their own religions or conceptions of the good. Of course we don’t need to consider everyone’s reasons, because some people just want to impose their religions or conceptions of the good on everyone else, those people aren’t looking for mutually acceptable rules that we can all live with. These people are called unreasonable (where this is meant as a technical term, but maybe also as a dig).

Importantly then, political liberals are not making an epistemic claim. That is, the idea is not that it’s hard to figure out the right policy so we should be especially wary of implementing policies that are deeply offensive to people. Political liberals do not think that the wisdom of the crowd is particularly likely to hit upon the right theory of justice. Nor is the idea that we should respect disagreement because the cost of enforcing a just policy is simply too high (though I think this is what motivated Rawls fwiw). Instead, the idea is that facts about the right policy depend on what reasonable people actually accept or reject.

While I truly admire all these philosophers’ work, I am not a political liberal. For one thing, I find Richard Arneson’s responses (PDF) persuasive. Responding to Gaus, Arneson points out that however we conceive of ‘reasonable citizens’ political liberals run into trouble:

  1. If we consider what policies an idealized, fully informed, reasonable, and rational person would accept, then the problem of disagreement disappears because such agents would all rightly perceive the principles that are in fact best supported by reasons.
  2. If we do not require full information, reasonableness, and rationality, the same considerations that entitle policymakers to discount the views of the grossly misinformed and unreasonable (wherever we draw this line) also tell in favor of discounting the views of reasonable citizens who are mistaken about what justice requires.

And so the politically liberal middle-ground between full idealization and actually consulting everyone seems untenable.

At this point the reply from political liberals tends to be that it is itself unreasonable to discount the problem of disagreement and go with (1). We all think we know the truth about what justice requires, they allege, but it’s wrong to impose that truth on people who disagree. If it’s unreasonable to choose a just policy over an unjust policy though others disagree, then I guess I am defending unreasonableness. Yet intuitively, this objection only succeeds against people who are in fact wrong about what justice requires. Since we aren’t all wrong, (or if we are, some are more right than others,) some of us are justified in behaving ‘unreasonably.’ To take a bizarre example from Gaus’s own work, it would not have been wrong to coercively prohibit genocidal warfare among Alaskan Eskimos even if, as Gaus claims, none of the Eskimos themselves in any way affirmed that genocide is wrong. Because of course, genocide is in fact wrong.

Further, as my friend Ryan Davis has recently argued (PDF), siding with the reasonable-but-mistaken against the just is still a form of taking sides. Political liberalism trades the ‘tyranny’ of the moral law for the tyranny of a mistaken-but-reasonable mob. Ryan writes:

“It is common for those individuals who control the organs of political power to insist that with their power comes an entitlement to coerce others, even to coerce others unjustly—so long as they stay within certain limits.  All too often, there is little we can do to stop them.  And even when we can stop them, the costs of doing so are often unbearable.  We may not be able to put an end to injustice itself, but we can at least expose it for what it is.”

Any time we accept anything less than justice out of respect for ‘reasonable disagreement’ we accept the coercive enforcement of an unjust policy.

Finally, I think that this account of reasons gets the direction of fit wrong between reasons and truth. Political liberals seem to think that a principle of justice depends on whether people think they have reasons to affirm or comply with it. Instead, I think that people should comply with a principle of justice if it is best supported by moral reasons. This doesn’t commit me to denying internalism about reasons or anything like that. It just commits me to the plausible view that we have better reasons to comply with certain principles. If a policy really is just, then that is a reason to adopt that policy whatever people might mistakenly think.

Now, notice that this didn’t get us very far. We still disagree about justice and I haven’t said anything here about what the true theory of justice requires. All I’ve tried to show is that whatever the truth is about justice, disagreement doesn’t undermine those truths. If justice requires a minimal state, the fact that a lot of people would find that disagreeable is no strike against the minimal state. If justice required communism, though I doubt it- same story.

So when we ask whether a policy is permissible, instead of asking whether any reasonable people might disagree, we should ask whether the policy is the right one. For example, the problem with the contraception mandate is not that a lot of reasonable Catholics think it’s wrong to use or provide contraception. If the mandate is unjust it is because either a) Catholics are right and it actually is wrong to provide and use contraception or b) employer-provided health care is unjust for some other reason, e.g. it violates liberty of contract. I think (b) is true, but then contraception is not unique in this respect.

To sum up, when we question the justice of any given policy, instead of pointing to people who loudly disagree, we should instead ask whether the policy is best supported by reasons.

  • Aeon Skoble

    Thank you for skillfully articulating this objection to PPJ.  I had been having trouble nailing down my dissatisfaction with it and this is very helpful.  One nitpick, though, why cede the term liberalism to proponents of PPJ? 

    • Jessica Flanigan

      I don’t intend to cede the term liberalism, I think of myself as a liberal. But political liberalism? 


    Ditto Aeon’s comment: well done. I am wondering about your thought regarding the following, which I believe is consistent with the overall theme of your post. Those influenced by Kant are inclined to believe that what entitles persons to respect is our autonomy or moral agency. If I understand it correctly, PPJ requires moral agents to accept the judgments of others as normatively binding under certain circumstances, even if they have what they consider to be valid reasons to reject them. This idea seems inconsistent with the essence of moral autonomy, which requires us to seek justice as we understand it. Therefore PPJ should be rejected by those who believe that “respect for persons” is founded on our moral autonomy. 

    • Jessica Flanigan

      I like that reconstruction, I’m a Kantian (as is Ryan), so maybe that explains my wariness about PPJ. On the other hand, Arneson is a consequentialist and he also rejects PPJ, I think anyone with a moral theory should reject PPJ because it says that the state is empowered to do a bunch of stuff that will violate rights or have bad consequences or whatever, as long as no one disagrees. 


        Thanks. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe you meant “reasonably disagrees” in your last sentence.

  • Even though my own views are more similar to Kevin’s, I think Jessica has highlighted an important tension in political liberalism and also highlighted the key difference between political liberalism (broadly construed) and the view that Jessica endorses (not sure a good name, maybe classical political philosophy). 

    Jessica is right that Kevin misdiagnoses the problem with the contraception mandate, it is clearly the limits on freedom of contract and choice, not the fact that it offends some Catholics. Furthermore, it is not at all clear that Catholic leaders are in fact reasonable most of the time. They seem to have no problem imposing their religion on others when the opportunity strikes and, as far as I can tell, Rick Santorum would ban contraception and make Catholic natural law the chief guide of his policy. 

    The problem with Kantian influenced political liberalism (Kevin, some Rawls, etc) is that it attempts to solve the problem of disagreement through idealizing away the disagreement, as Jessica mentioned. This version of contractual thinking uses the idealizing mechanism to find a point that meets the standard and then proclaims that point justified. If you are looking for a theory that give you an account of justice or the right in the traditional political philosophy way (what I think Jessica is looking for) you won’t find it with this process. The problem is the Kantian contractualists still talk about “justice” “morality” as if it is the same thing that others have talked about when it clearly is not.

    More Hobbesian contractarianism is closer to the mark on this point. The contractarians are almost all very skeptical about the traditional account of justice and morality and probably philosophy more generally. I am thinking of Gauthier, Harman, Buchanan, most of Gaus, and some of Rawls. For these thinkers, we are not using the contract mechanism to find out what is just, rather our only way of understanding justice is to think of it in terms that have been brought down to earth–basically what allows peaceful cooperation.

    The Kantian political liberals or public reason liberals or whatever want to have their cake and eat it to. They rightly point out that disagreement is important but instead of really finding ways of thinking about political and moral institutions in the face of disagreement, they look for a way to get agreement. This is, I think, a mirage. A consistent political liberalism would looks a lot more like contractarianism and would fully embrace the skepticism about justice and morality that critics have always been concerned about. A skepticism that one finds, for instance, in the work of Hayek and that he takes from Hume, Smith, and many others. 

    Kevin has his own reasons for not embracing skepticism of this form, but most other do not have those reasons. In a post-Darwin, post-Nietzsche, post Hayek world it is hard to see most traditional approaches to moral and political philosophy as being very well grounded. If we are interested in developing, as Gauthier was, a “moral theory for adults” I think we need to appreciate the radical shift that this will entail. I think many of the contractarians have and this is why I think that it functions as a third alternative between Kevin’s more Kantian inspired contratualism and classical political and moral philosophy. 

    • Jessica is right that Kevin misdiagnoses the problem with the contraception mandate, it is clearly the limits on freedom of contract and choice, not the fact that it offends some Catholics.
      This is mostly true, although it is so tiny a problem as to be hardly worth considering. The overwhelming incentives to tie health care to employment (rather than just giving people more wages and buying their own coverage) is also interfering with freedom of contract and choice — and does so far more substantially than the mandate does. 

      When coercive law B reduces the harms from coercive law A, coercive law B should be endorsed. This is a provisional endorsement, of course. Should A go away, then B would have to go a away as well. 

      The contraception mandate may not be good on its own, totally isolated from the real world context. But it doesn’t make any sense to evaluate policy that way. Context matters.

  • Dan

    I’m no fan of political conceptions of justice, but it actually strikes me as though there may be a way out for the political liberal in the face of Arneson’s dilemma between 1 and 2.

    The general strategy is to appeal to the idea that in certain domains, there is the possibility of disagreement between cognitively flawless agents; in other words, people can disagree (over certain classes of statements) without the root cause of that disagreement being ultimately sourced in some cognitive defect, or lack of information, or inferential error, etc, on the part of one of the participants. Some domains are certainly not like this: where there is disagreement over a decidable arithmetical claim, for instance, at least one of the disputants must exhibit one of these flaws. But some domains are arguably not like this, and if a case could be made that talk of “the good” is such a case, then it seems as though there’s a middle ground. We can then idealize enough to root out the views of the grossly informed and unreasonable (for surely, some disagreements about what the good consists in may be traced to factual error, cognitive biases, and so on); but this idealization nevertheless allows room for fully informed and reflective disagreement at the end of the day.

    One cost of this maneuver is that you have to do away with the idea of binding and external moral reasons (at least as such reasons pertain to “the correct” conception of the good); but this seems generally in line with the political liberal approach. A more serious problem (and this is where I get off-board) is how to stop this limited form of anti-realism spreading to the PPJ itself.

    • Guest

      A couple of points, Dan.

      You say:  “people can disagree (over certain classes of statements) without the
      root cause of that disagreement being ultimately sourced in some
      cognitive defect, or lack of information, or inferential error, etc, on
      the part of one of the participants. Some domains are certainly not like
      this: where there is disagreement over a decidable arithmetical claim,
      for instance, at least one of the disputants must exhibit one of these

      I disagree (reasonably). There are many disagreements over decidable arithmetical claims because mathematicians disagree over what is decidable. For instance, some arithmetical claims that are decidable in ZF set theory and not decidable in intuitionist mathematics. This disagreement comes about because the two sets of mathematicians disagree about which principles of inference are valid in mathematics. Reasonable disagreement is possible (and probably exists) in every domain of discourse (which is not to say that every disagreement is reasonable).

      You say: “A more serious problem…is how to stop this limited form of anti-realism spreading.”

      What has anti-realism got to do with it? The fact that people cannot agree on which propositions are true does not entail that no propositions are true. Admission of our fallibility does not consign us to idealism.

      • Ken S


        The example that Dan gave appears to be based on the law of non-contradiction, which both intuitionists and classical mathematicians agree holds true. Denying the use of this law brings you to paraconsistent logics, which may then bring up some technical issues with the idea of ‘domain’, because I’m not sure if you could reasonably make use of these logics in the sort of mathematics that many practicing mathematicians want to do.

        Also, I think in general anti-realism is closer to Dan’s description, that in some way there is no (knowable) independent reality in which all propositions we might like to settle would take unique truth values. It is not the statement that there is no truth at all, which looks like a possibly inconsistent statement (“There is no truth except this one” might work).

        • Hi Ken,

          Dan’s statement to which I objected is this: “where there is disagreement over a decidable arithmetical claim, for instance, at least one of the disputants must exhibit one of these [cognitive]  flaws.”

          It seems to me that intuitionism is a straightforward counterexample to this, since some propositions decidable in classical systems are not decidable in intuitionist ones.

          But paraconsistent logics are another counter-example. In classical systems a sentence is decidable if its negation entails p-and-not-p. In a paraconsistent system that need not be so.

          On the question of domains, paraconsistent logicians (at least some of them – Graham Priest, for instance) regard their logic as encompassing classical logic (the latter being a ‘special case’). On their view, then, there is an area of overlap (the same domain) in which classical logic and paraconsistent logic both hold. But they stil disagree with the classical logicians over what claims are decidable because the classical logicians affirm, while the paraconsistent logicians deny, that classic logic covers the whole field.

          I agree with you that anti-realism does not claim that there are no true propositions at all: I had misstated my point there. My point was this: the fact that we can always reasonably disagree, and often do, does nothing to show that there is no independent reality about which we are disagreeing. Even if we can never know the truth about morals, physics, logic, or whatever, that does not entail that there are no objective moral, physical, logical, etc, truths.

          Your formulation: “there is no (knowable) independent reality in which all propositions we might like to settle would take unique truth values” seems to me to run together epistemic and ontological issues.  This is common in discussions of anti-realism (I suspect Dummett is the source of it).  It is that common conflation that I was disentangling in my response to Dan and in the paragraph prior to this one.

          • Ken S


            I did miss your objection in my response, I do see the conflict now between the two schools of mathematics. This is very interesting to say the least! I don’t think it is entirely straightforward as an objection to Dan though, because you could still limit Dan’s ‘certain domains’ to a particular school of mathematics (that accepts non-contradiction) and a particular system of arithmetic, and a particular set of statements that have been deemed decidable. His statement was not a universal one so counterexamples do not apply. Also, this lack of context/generality was probably the root of my concern over domains… why should we consider different systems to have the same or overlapping domains in the first place?

            Your suspicions about my description of anti-realism may be correct. I have only read a small amount of Dummett and have not spent a lot of time reading about these issues in general. My interest in logic is probably more technical than philosophical overall. I may check out Priest’s writings related to domains soon.

          • Hi Ken,

            I don’t think you can limit Dan’s claim to a particular school, because it would eviscerate the claim. If the school is defined as one on which everyone agrees about what is decidable, then, sure enough, all in that school will agree on what is decidable. By definition, anyone who does not agree is not in that school, and so is outside of the scope of the claim. In short, the move you are making is ad hoc – but the sort of move that mathematicians often make (see Lakatos, ‘Proofs and Refutations’).

            We should consider theories of arithmetic to have the same domain because they are all talking about numbers.

            A nice place to start with Priest is this short paper:


            He also discusses the two issues I mention in my first two paragraphs.

            Best wishes

    • Danny Frederick

      The response to you from ‘Guest’ was actually from me. I don’t know what went wrong!


  • “I think (b) is true, but then contraception is not unique in this respect.”

    Thank you.  That was my big objection as well.  It’s ok to say you can’t mandate that employers provide insurance coverage, or insurance period, or anything period.  And it’s ok (but not necessarily liberal or libertarian) to say you can mandate that employers provide insurance or anything, period.  But you can’t reasonably say you can mandate insurance coverage of employees but not partial discrimination against certain classes of employee based on subjective, non-performance-related biases by the employer.

    Had Kevin argued for all or nothing he’d have been on much firmer ground.  As he was arguing in favor of tolerance for capricious and potentially harmful discrimination against some but not all the result is… inconsistent.  And definitely not recognizably liberal nor, I clearly argue, recognizably libertarian.


  • good_in_theory

    This seems to be in line with my follow up response to Kevin’s second post.

    To be brief (my response in the other thread was decidedly not brief!), I drew the distinction as one between:

    i. reasons for ourselves (as individuals, or as individuals in agreement about the good life)


    ii. reasons for us (as a political community, or as individuals in disagreement about the good life)

    I then drew two different criteria for distinguishing complaints from objections (or, the morally sub-optimal from moral defeaters) tied to these two different kinds of reasons.  The first I took to be Kevin’s, the second was my own.

    i. Moral beliefs that are 

    a. sincere and 
    b. intense

    Under this criterion, the task of a PPJ is to judge whether beliefs are sincerely intense.  If an individual is honest and sufficiently indignant, then they earn the right to conscientious objector status.  As I argued, this incentivizes extremist, dogmatic beliefs.

    ii. Moral beliefs that are

    a.  reasonable (backed by good reasons for being seen as morally unreasonable and objectionable) and
    b. true (are actually morally unreasonable and objectionable)

    Under this criterion, as I see it this puts me at the dilemma you draw up between

    i.  good reasons that are mistaken (the tyranny of the reasonable but mistaken mob) and
    ii. the truth (the tyranny of the moral law)

    Here, however, I’d have to let my moral anti-realism shine through and side with Thrasymachus and Callicles- the moral law is simply the tyranny of the reasonable mob.

    But regardless of whether we are realists or anti-realists about the moral law, I think one can still distinguish, in practice, between 

    i. what (the reasonable mob decides) is the truth (is actually objectionable), 
    ii. what (the reasonable mob decides) are good reasons for disagreeing with the truth (good reasons for objecting), and 
    iii.what (the reasonable mob decides) are bad reasons for disagreeing with the truth (bad reasons for objecting).

    I would note that the universe of  ‘good reasons for objecting’ includes more than ‘that something is actually objectionable,’ so (i) is contained within but does not exhaust (ii), and this point is important.

    As I argued, this moves the project of public justification from coming up with sincere and intense beliefs to coming up with well reasoned and publicly intelligible beliefs about what is personally objectionable.

    This puts me in near perfect agreement with your final restatement:

    i. “When we question the justice of any given policy, instead of pointing to people who loudly disagree, we should instead ask whether the policy is best supported by [good] reasons [for objecting].”

    but not with how you put it just a paragraph up:

    ii. “So when we ask whether a policy is permissible, instead of asking whether any reasonable people might disagree, we should ask whether the policy is the right one.”

     This is because we are dealing with two different questions: 

    i. Are there ‘good reasons to object’ to a policy?
    ii. Is a policy ‘good/right/just’?

    As you note earlier, “If a policy really is just, then that is a [my emphasis] reason to adopt that policy whatever people might mistakenly think.”

    Conversely, if a policy really is unjust, then that is a reason (but not the only reason) to have a conscientious objection to that policy. 

    Or, as I put it above, something really being wrong is only one ‘reasonable reason’ in the ‘universe of reasonable reasons’ for objecting to a policy.

    • Jessica Flanigan

      So do you think that there can be moral progress? Doesn’t it make sense to say that in the past, when there was slavery for example, that a lot of people were mistaken about morality? One good reason to object to a policy is that it is wrong, there may be other reasons not to do it, reasons concerning stability for example, but to say that a policy is just just is to say that there is most moral reason to adopt it, and has nothing to do with disagreement. 

      • The fact that we observe moral progress historically is precisely what makes me skeptical about the existence of some absolute, objective, moral truth. And even if there is such a thing I don’t know how we can ever have confidence that our current understanding does, in fact, represent that truth.

        Another observation worth noting is that most, if not all, of what we consider moral progress isn’t so much a redefinition of the “rules” of morality so much as an expansion of the scope of agents to which we apply those rules. Expanding on your use of the classic example of slavery, we can note that there always existed rules that forbade taking certain classes of people into slavery. Ancient Hebrew law forbade taking fellow Hebrews into slavery while allowing it for members of neighboring tribes. Similarly, in pre-Civil War era America it was legal to own blacks or native Americans as slaves but not fellow Europeans. The rules of morality that perhaps originally would have only applied to members of one’s own family (and perhaps not even all of those!) have been progressively applied to people farther and farther from out immediate social circle to the point that now we can apply those principles to people we have not and will likely never meet halfway around the globe. Still other people are even looking to apply those rules to non-human actors, while others of us take seriously our moral obligations to future humans. (Yikes! That was a digression…)

        As to disagreement…  Is it just to coerce another person to accept your vision of moral truth? Isn’t that precisely what libertarians generally object to when applied to them? How is it different if that vision of moral truth has a libertarian cast to it and your neighbors disagree? Ultimately, is there any alternative to advocacy and persuasion while just “sucking it up” and living with some reasonably legitimate process like democracy in the meantime?

        •  Hi Rod,

          You say: “The fact that we observe moral progress historically is precisely what
          makes me skeptical about the existence of some absolute, objective,
          moral truth.”

          Does the fact that we make progress in physics/astronomy make you sceptical about the existence of absolute, objective physical truth? Copernicus – Kepler – Newton – Einstein: each contradicts but improves upon the one before it. I agree we may be sceptical about whether any of of those particular theories is true. But surely there is an objective truth of the matter, if only we could discover it.

          Why is morals different?

          • Damien S.

            Nothing about the change in morality looks like a process of discovery or progress.  The Golden Rule is older than Jesus (Hillel at least, probably much older.)  “Hey, let’s treat people nicely” is not a new idea.  Actually doing it is.  Democracy and equality aren’t novel ideas either.

          • The abolition of slavery looks like progress to me (see my comment on your post below).  Was it a discovery that slavery was wrong? It might sound strange to say so. People switched from one moral theory to another.  Was it a discovery that the earth moves? People switched from one astronomical theory to another one.  Of course, not every switch from one theory to another counts as a discovery. In science, it does so only if the new theory explains more than the old one.  When does theory change count as a discovery in moral matters? So far as I am aware, there is no satisfactory answer to that question – yet. It needs some work.

            The fact that an idea has been around for centuries does not prevent its latest manifestation from being a discovery. The idea that the earth goes around the sun was proposed by Aristarchus in the third century BC. But Newton’s version of the idea was a major discovery (one of the most successful scientific theories ever). Similarly, the modern and the ancient ideas of democracy are miles apart.

          • Damien S.

            Per my other post: people switched from Regency to Victorian to Modernist fashions.  Were there any discoveries involved?  (Well, somewhat, in making Modernist architecture physically possible.  But any that showed it was better?)  Art went from realism to Impressionism and Fauvism to abstraction, to simplify greatly.  Discoveries of technique along the way, but is modern art *better* and more complete, the way Einstein embraces Newton embraces Kepler?

            Given how rights for women and gays come and go, it looks a bit more like fashion than like  the progress of science and technology, appalling as it is to consider morality as a matter of fashion.  And it’s certainly deeper and slower than clothing fashions.  Though the sheer speed of the rise of gay marriage has more than a whiff of fashion, in the sense of mass change in preferences, influenced by other people’s preferences (as well as by greater exposure to gays and thus sympathy with them, seeing other people implement gay marriage without the word ending.)

          • I doubt that one fashion is objectively better than another; but I don’t rule it out entirely.

            The fact that theories come into and out of fashion does not imply that one theory is not better than another. Science is less fashionable now than it used to be, with many (even educated) people preferring New Age mysticism or post-modernist babble or religious fundamentalism. There is no law that the better opinion always wins out. This is true for every domain of investigation, including morals. Respect for private property is less popular now than it once was; but it is still a correct moral view (in my opinion).

            This goes back to the point I made earlier: we need to distinguish objectively better from what is currently in the ascendant.

          • good_in_theory

            It looks like progress from a particular moral community, given a particular view of the members of that community.  Perhaps, to Aristotle, it would look like we were letting millions or billions of natural slaves run around messing up their own lives and the lives of others – which is to say it would look like something quite unjust.

            As to “discovery,” I think it is important to separate discovery from invention.  You discover laws of combustion.  You invent automobiles.

            Some forms of progress involve the discovery of natural facts, others involve the invention of artifacts.  One can discover facts about artifacts, or discover facts while making and designing an artifact, but one must still invent, or design, the artifact.

            Of course there are plenty of cases where the distinction breaks down, but it’s a decent heuristic to start with.

          • Good question. Some philosophers of science frankly doubt that there’s an ultimate epistemic “bottom” to science. It seems to be just a  matter of discovering (inventing?) deeper levels of explanation that better describe reality but it’s not at all clear that science will ever be able to answer the ultimate question of “why does the universe work this way and not some other way?”

            In the case of morals it seems even worse to me. Science at least has something “out there” to test its theories against. You devise a theory and then run an experiment, perhaps in a particle accelerator, and see if the results match the prediction. What plays the corresponding role for moral investigation?

            Frankly, I think asking “What are the moral truths?” or “Do objective moral truths exist?” is to ask the wrong question, because it’s not at all clear to me that those questions are answerable. It’s like asking “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Better questions are “Why do we believe moral truths exist?”, “Why do we WANT to believe moral truths exist?”, and “Why do we feel that the moral ‘truths’ we accept are, in fact, true?”

            Finally, as interesting thought experiments to explore the concept of objective moral truth we can ask what other beings, in other circumstances, would hold as morals.


            Intelligent reptilians or insectoids that laid eggs and walked away rather than caring for live young.

            Beings who knew for a scientific fact that an afterlife in heaven awaited all who died regardless of their actions or circumstances. Ditto for objective knowledge of reincarnation.

            Beings who were immune to aging and disease and thus effectively immortal but nevertheless could be murdered or killed accidentally.

            Intelligent robots that could not feel pain (or could turn it off).

            Artificial intelligences that live only as “programs” inside powerful computers.

            What if we somehow discovered that WE were simulations running in some vast computer program?

            Yeah… I like sci-fi.

          • The question of deeper levels of reality and the question of objective truth are different questions. The physical/astronomical theories I mentioned disagree over quite superficial facts, like the motions of the planets. Copernicus thought they moved in circles + epicycles, Kepler thought they moved in ellipses, Newton thought they moved in an irregular motion reflecting the variety of forces on them, and Einstein thought they moved in a still more irregular motion depending on the contours of bendy space-time. I have referred to deeper levels here; but the point is that these theories disagree over facts which are, in principle, perceptible. Yet there is, I presume, an objective truth about what motions the planets actually have.

            I agree that we need a way of testing moral theories, otherwise all we have is appeals to intuition, and people’s intuitions reflect the theories they hold. It disappoints me that philosophers do not seem to have addressed this question. I am working (on and off – more off than on) on a proposal for testing moral theories against facts about human flourishing.

            The fact that a question is currently unanswerable does not mean that it is not a good question. The theory that matter is composed of tiny particles (atoms) that are undetectable by the senses goes back to the ancients. Back then, the question of whether it was true was unanswerable, because theory had not been developed sufficiently to create and build instruments which could detect such particles. But today,  the question has a positive answer. If a question is currently unanswerable, we need to do some more work.

            Your sci-fi examples are good. They illustrate the contention that moral theories must be related to the facts of life.

          • Damien S.

            Not all questions are testable or answerable.  Which is ‘better’, chocolate or ice cream?  You can have  a preference.  You can poll people to find an average preference.  But that’s not going to give you any traction for telling someone “you’re wrong, you shouldn’t like ice cream, chocolate is the tastiest dessert”.  You can also redefine the question to one of health, but that’s a different question.

            I think morality is more like aesthetics than science.  It’s ultimately a preference for or rejection of certain states of the world.  Unlike art, those states involve other people, so it’s rather more important.  But it’s still a matter of our aggregate preferences.  We can try modeling what we value: “happiness!  health and wealth!  freedom!  for the greatest number! for the worst off!” but as philosophers in their useful mode (questioning) find, there’s pretty much always some edge case that raises  problems with such definitions.  We can reflect on those and wonder if we should try to adjust or override our preferences, but if we decide not to, there’s nothing conceivable to tell us we’re wrong in doing so.

          • Not everyone thinks that matters of taste are purely subjective. There is a common idea that some people are connoisseurs and that non-connoisseurs can be educated to improve their tastes. Even the arch-subjectivist, Hume, conceded that there is something in this (see his ‘Of the Standard of Taste’).

            But few people (outside of economics and academic philosophy) think that morals are purely subjective. See the summary of psychological research here:

            Of course, it is not possible to prove that morality is objective. But if we can develop a way of testing moral theories that enables us to rate them as better or worse, we will at least have shown that morality is comparable to science (there is no way of proving that the physical world exists either).

          • Damien S.

            People not *thinking* morality is subjective doesn’t mean much to me. 🙂

            The big difference between art and morality is that we can freely agree to disagree on art without really bothering each other (apart from public presentation, like clothing and buildings).  Morality OTOH is largely about how we treat other people and  they treat us; thus conflict can’t be waved away, and the whole issue is of literally vital importance.

            People have been thinking about morality for over 2500 years.  What reason is there for continuing to think that such testing is possible?  Where would the tests come from?  What would they look like, or the results look like? The discovery of atoms, vs. the conception of them, was rooted in new tools and powers regarding the material world.

          • As I said earlier, theorists have not taken seriously the idea that moral theories should be tested against the facts. Popper is one of the few theorists (the only one I can think of) who suggested this, but his own proposal (compare theories according to their implications for human suffering) was insufficiently worked out. Until people address the question seriously, we cannot get even a half-decent answer. All I have at the moment is some ideas.

          • good_in_theory

            You might want to look at Moritz Schlick, if my memory serves.

          • No. Schlick reduces ethics to psychology, or perhaps social psychology. It becomes testable, but it ceases to be ethics.

          • good_in_theory

            The way I like to think of it is that our conception of what is factually true bounces back to us off the presumably durable and consistent material world (Humean skepticism not withstanding).

            But our conception of what is moral and just bounces back to us off the beliefs and intentions of an ever shifting and changing moral community.To “test” a theory of morality or justice is nothing other than to, in Jessica Flanigan’s words from her response to Brennan, conduct a sort of opinion poll, by bouncing things off the intentions and projects of the relevant community, which you can only know by asking them, not deducing them from their physical properties.

      • Damien S.

        I know someone who’s deeply skeptical of slavery’s presence or absence being about moral progress, vs. technological changes making it unprofitable.  I think he pushes too far, but it’s a viewpoint worth considering.  There’s also that classical slavery started as a way of handling POWs, and wasn’t as bad as American racial chattel slavery which could be seen as a unique moral nadir.  Women’s rights fluctuate a lot over history with little long-term trend, and the modern level can be seen as a result of washing machines and other home technology.

        Rod’s point is good too, that it may be less about progress in morality vs. change in the in-group/out-group demarcation of who morality applies to, from “your extended family” to “co-religionists” to “all sapient beings!”  And why those changes?  Change in ideas, somewhat, but also change in exposure; part of abolitionism was driven by newspapers and “look how much slavery sucks”.  Out of sight, out of mind, out of moral sphere.

        • Economists typically argue that slavery is unprofitable, whatever the state of technology, for reasons to do with incentives. If I remember right, Thomas Sowell argues this in his ‘Race and Economics,’ but the thought goes back at least to Adam Smith. However, even if slavery was abolished because slave-owners came to realise that they would be better off employing free people (I really doubt that myself – it wouldn’t have needed the guns of the Royal Navy), it would still amount to moral progress, just not brought about for a moral reason (doing the right thing but for the wrong reason – moral progress without moral worth, as  a Kantian might say).

          As for classical slavery, there were rules against mistreating slaves in ancient Greece, but in ancient Rome I think the situation of slaves was (or could be) pretty dire.

          I am no historian, but I cannot believe that the position of women has not improved substantially.

          Increases in the scope of morality count as progress, too.

          • Damien S.

            Some economists argue that; others note slavery in the South was doing quite well, with rising prices and demand.

            I think Rome had rules too; of course, under old Roman law the paterfamilias had power of life or death over his own citizen family member, never mind slaves.  But you had frequent manumission, and the ability to save up to buy freedom.  As with the Greeks, or even the South, being a house or urban slave beat being a plantation slave really beat being a mine slave.

            The position of women has not improved monotonically over time.  Ancient Egyptian women seem to have had legal equality, apart from the highest government offices; they owned property and brought law suits and had government jobs.  Meanwhile I’ve seen snippets of the Babylonian and Assyrian codes, and they were progressively worse, not because they were earlier but because they were different cultures. 

            Athens was one of the more misognyist cultures in history, while Spartan women seem to have had it good.  Etruscan women have equal position in art, though we don’ t know much about their society.  Germanic and Celtic women seem to have been better off before they got Christianized.  Medieval women, well, there were set patterns and expectations, but there were also lots of exceptions; early modern Europe through the Victorians strengthened and formalized such restrictions. 

            Some colonial American women had the vote, then it got taken away from them.  Native American governance had a lot of “different but equal” about it, with formal roles for female political power; we might still compare unfavorably in 2012 with the old Iroquois in terms of  real political power for women.

            In the US, we had flappers and then Rosie the Riveter in the workforce… and then back to the home in the 1950s and take drugs because of the boredom, along with coverture and no recognition of marital rape and good luck getting a divorce.  In lots of “primitive” societies, divorce is as simple as the man coming home and finding his stuff outside the woman’s hut or tent.

            Like tolerance for homosexuality, women’s rights comes and goes.  We may be at or near a high point, but there’s been no steady march of progress.

          • Talk of moral progress can mean two things. It can mean that there is (objectively) better and worse in matters of morality. Or it can mean that ‘the only way is up’ in matters of morals. Like you, I find the latter idea absurd. But I do think that, on many important matters (though certainly not all), contemporary western societies are morally superior to others – though, obviously, still open to much improvement.

      • good_in_theory

        Hm, I probably shouldn’t spend too much time trying to come up with a full defense of my moral anti-realism, but I’ll say a few words to the topic.  That will go in I.  Then, I’ll address why I don’t think we need to settle the question of an objective morality in order to take up the distinction I’m offering in II.


        As a first point, if moral truths turn on nothing other than consensus, and if moral progress is nothing other than an expansion of the community of consensus (as suggested, perhaps, by Rod’s point), then it would seem to me that moral reasons will have everything to do with agreement.  I’d gesture here towards the moral anti-realism of Habermas’s discourse ethics in Truth and Justification  (recipient of much friendly critique in Maeve Cooke’s work, which pushes towards a moral realist model of discourse ethics).

        To gesture towards my view in how I currently conceive of it, I think of moral “truths” as a matter of invention and assent, not of discovery.  To use a distinction I need to investigate and consider further, moral truths are artifacts, not natural kinds.  They are a matter of authorial intention and their “essential” characteristics change with our intentions.  Nothing “is wrong,” rather, we invent reasons for “acting as if something was wrong” given our worldly purposes, just as nothing “is art” or “is a tool” separate from our ever shifting intentions.  

        Sometimes a rock is a tool and sometimes it’s just a rock.  Sometimes freedom is a moral purpose and sometimes it’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Or, it’s nothing at all, because we haven’t thought it up yet as a moral concept, though I suppose it might exist ‘naturally’ in a Hobbesian sense – as absence or presence of impediment.  But sometimes the presence of impediments “is good” and sometimes it “is bad”  That depends on our intentions.II.But I think not much hinges on the meta-ethical debate for the purposes of the point I want to make, which is more simply this:We can distinguish between things “being wrong” and “having good reasons to think something is wrong,” or, to put it differently, “being right about what is wrong,” and “having good reasons for being mistaken about what is wrong.”That’s true, I’d suggest, whether “what is wrong” is constant or variable over time and and across communities.  And even if we could know what is wrong in some authoritative way, we would still want to admit objector status for those who have good reasons for objecting from what is truly wrong.The main upshot of making the distinction, for me, is to move things from a concern with, in Kevin’s case, “what people really feel,” and in your case, “what is really true,” to a concern with what people have good reasons to believe.So in the case of the RCC and the CM, regardless of how strongly the RCC feels and whether or not the CM “is wrong,” the RCC has incredibly bad, and rationally inconsistent, reasons for objecting and asking for special treatment.  In light of that, sucks to them, as far as public justification goes.

  • “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

    – Bertrand Russell

    • Jessica Flanigan

      “an individual will constantly think himself in the right, whatever he does, and yet
      there is still such a thing as being in the right” – elizabeth anscombe

  • Maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t the political liberal’s response to Davis that the liberal principle of legitimacy just is one of the principles of justice, and that it has some lexical priority over other principles? One of the things just requires us not to do is to impose certain constraints upon others if they are reasonable and don’t have conclusive grounds to accept them. 

    • Jessica Flanigan

      I do agree that some PL’s say stuff like that, but I don’t think that’s the most plausible reconstruction of the view, because once legitimacy ‘just is’ a part of justice then now their theory of justice is just on par with all the other ones, why should I accept a theory of justice that has a built-in opinion poll? As I said above, I also think this theory of justice has problems making sense of moral progress, not that that’s a devastating objection.

      But once the PL is pushing this as the line, we are right back where we started disagreeing about what justice requires (utilitarianism? opinion poll? respect and rights?) and then my point still stands because now the thing that matters is which theory of justice is best supported by reasons, not which one people can accept. Take an analogy, utilitarians must argue that their theory of justice is best supported by reasons, not that their theory of justice would best promote utility! Similarly, PL’s on this view must show that their theory of justice (with legitimacy as part of it) is best supported by reasons, not that no one has conclusive grounds to reject it. 

      What I really think is going on is that justice doesn’t allow much policymaking, and a lot of government action is unjust for that reason, and people disagree or reject policies because they rightly see that government doesn’t have the moral authority to impose it on them, but that would be true whether they disagreed or lot. 

      Take my favorite example of pharmaceutical regulation. Prohibitive drug policies are unjust despite the fact that the FDA is enormously popular and a lot of people not only accept medical paternalism but would reject a less prohibitive system. The problem with prohibitive policies is that they are unjust, nothing to do with whether people like them or not.

      • Sure. It may be unjust that the state regulates what substances you can ingest. And you may chafe at the paternalism that displays. On the other  hand is it just to peddle dangerous, addictive, or simply useless pharms for the sake of profit? Which injustice is greater and/or more harmful?

        Libertarians seem to believe that government exists just to fuck with you because it can. The reality is that regulations and the agencies that go with that, e.g. FDA, OSHA, EPA, etc., were responses to very real injuries and injustices that were occurring in the absence of regulation. Injuries and injustices that were not being corrected by the “free market” precisely because they were the perfectly predictable result of the free unregulated market. People act in their own self-interest and that will all too often advantage the less scrupulous among us.

        And, yes, I’m well aware of the warnings of public choice theory. But that’s not an automatic defeater. Public oversight and scrutiny helps a lot as does not filling important posts with industry insiders like Republicans and libertarians prefer. And sometimes the cure may very well be worse than the disease but that’s a case-by-case thing.

        • purple_platypus

           If I can just nitpick this post (the bulk of which I agree with), I don’t see how pushing heroin or selling snake oil is *unjust* per se. It’s harmful, it’s reflective of a bad character, it’s morally problematic in any number of ways but I don’t see injustice as particularly one of them.

          The main problem here is that libertarians characteristically think justice has some sort of lexical priority over other moral values (highly dubious) or just IS the whole of morality (clearly wrong) or at least the whole of political morality. Almost everyone else holds that justice can be outweighed by other moral concerns, but say that to a libertarian and they look at you like a little bird just popped out of your forehead on a spring.

  • Ryan

    I do like the view you present better, although I think some
    people hold the other version.  But I
    still have never really figured out the view you present.  For one thing, why should the principle of
    legitimacy have any priority to other principles of justice?  Most things I think are unjust I think are a
    really big deal.  But I don’t get why
    people have a right to being given a justification at all, let alone why that
    right should be more important than other justice based claims.  Take Jess’s use of the Eskimos case.  If someone wants to murder a person, I don’t
    think they have a right to be told by me or anybody else why they can’t do
    that.  I think it’s ok just to stop
    them.  Why doesn’t all of justice work
    that way?  And finally, if people do have
    a right to being given some reason for why justice is the way it is, why isn’t
    the corresponding obligation altogether satisfied by telling them the truth
    about what justice requires?  If the
    reason we give them is true and they still don’t accept it, why isn’t that
    their problem?  Probably this is just to
    say that I agree with Jess’s last point.

  • Fernando Teson

    Good post, Jessica, I largely agree. I would add one thing. Not only many people are wrong about what justice requires: they are wrong about the empirical truth, that is, about facts and theories, both social and natural. For example, someone who sincerely believes that nations are better off producing everything they need instead of trading is not entitled to the label “reasonable dissenter.”

    • I think it would depend upon why they believed it.  For instance, suppose that they were familiar with the usual economic analyses. Suppose that they had identified problems to which these analyses lead, and which the elements of these analyses could not be used to resolve. Suppose, further, that they had come up with a novel and neat solution to these theoretical problems. In working out this solution, they then find that it entails that,  surprisingly, nations are better off producing everything they need instead of trading. Under such circumstances, their belief in that last proposition would be a reasonable belief. A false one, we may think. But surely a reasonable one.

      • Fernando Teson

        Fair enough, Danny. That person, however, does not exist in ACTUAL public deliberation. He may exist in an economics seminar. If I may, I would direct you to our discussion in PIncione and Tesón, Rational Choice and Political Deliberation (Cambridge U. P., 2006)

  • CautiousFan

    I’d have several roadblocks to a real-world acceptance of the concept that laws must
    only be reasonable.  First, public choice theory has taught us, quite conclusively, that our public officials are self-interested just like the rest of us.  Replacing politicians with scientist doesn’t solve this problem.  So a real-world application seems to be impossible because the “reasonability” of the decision makers is flawed.  Secondly, I’d find the application of this principle terrifying.  In it’s day, eugenics was seen as a reasonable application of science.  This concept places the burden on the individual to prove the concept is unreasonable which is fraught with dangers.  Modernism, a deep trust in the
    reasonability of man, died with the great wars, and I hope it stays that way.  Better a world where economic and political power resides in the individual, as a concept of natural rights suggests.

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