Toleration, Liberty

Moral Fanaticism and the Hope of Public Reason: A Reply to Flanigan

My friend and co-blogger, Jessica Flanigan, threw down the gauntlet last week over the truth of public reason liberalism, the popular version of liberal political theory that I used to argue against the contraception mandate. This is my reply.

Public reason liberalism (PRL) holds that a coercive law L is justified only if each person has sufficient reason to endorse L. When we coerce without justification, on this view, we are authoritarian, unreasonable and generally morally blameworthy.

Jess criticizes PRL on the grounds that it requires us to tolerate injustice. Given that reasonable people disagree about justice, PRL attempts to describe moral relations of legitimacy that can make law permissible even if many regard the law as less than fully just. But, Jess and others maintain, sometimes we are right about justice. What are we to do when others disagree? Sit back and accept injustice?! Hell no!

And of course, how could Jess be wrong? How could morality require us not to fight for justice as we see it? How could morality permit us to settle for anything less?

I. The Case of Religious Fanaticism

These are hard questions. To begin to answer them, I invite you to consider the following story.

Religious Fanaticism: Sixteenth century England is riven with religious pluralism, largely due to a theological dispute between Roman Catholics and Protestants. The citizenry is split down the middle, including Roman Catholic Mary and Protestant Martin. Mary and Martin are deeply convinced that theirs is the true theology. They believe the other preaches heresy and threatens to pollute the minds of the young, potentially damning them. Mary and Martin have argued in person and in print. They have begged and pleaded with each other to repent. They have even appealed to God. But the other side, for whatever reason, will not relent. Mary and Martin see no alternative to fighting for control of the state to forcibly suppress the other’s errors. They must fight. After all, eternal life hangs in the balance.

Enter John, a liberal. John preaches religious toleration. He asks both sides to allow the other to practice her religion freely. Only through toleration can we all get along on equal terms, John argues. But Mary and Martin are bewildered. Surely John knows what is at stake. How could he defend such a reckless policy? He is asking Mary and Martin to compromise with heresy when souls are on the line.

And of course, how could Mary and Martin be wrong? How could morality require them not to fight for the souls of their countrymen? How could morality permit them to settle for anything less?

II. The Case of Moral Fanaticism

Now let’s consider a parallel case. Moral Fanaticism replaces Catholic Mary and Protestant John with Libertarian Jess and Marxist Alex. We travel forward in time four centuries, to twenty-first century America.

Moral Fanaticism: Twenty-first century America is riven with ideological pluralism, due to a philosophical dispute between Right and Left. The citizenry is split down the middle, including Libertarian Jess and Marxist Alex. Jess and Alex are deeply convinced that theirs is the true ideology. They believe the other preaches injustice and threatens to pollute the minds of the young, potentially oppressing them. Jess and Alex have argued in person and in print. They have begged and pleaded with each other to change their minds. They have even appealed to higher philosophical authorities. But the other side, for whatever reason, will not relent. Jess and Alex see no alternative to fighting for control of the state to forcibly suppress the other’s errors. They must fight. After all, justice hangs in the balance.

Enter Jack, a liberal. Jack preaches moral toleration through the public use of reason. He asks both sides to allow the other to practice her ideology freely, only coercing one another when a public justification is available. Only through public reason can we all get along on equal terms, Jack argues. But Jess and Alex are bewildered. Surely Jack knows what is at stake. How could he defend such a reckless policy? He is asking Jess and Alex to compromise with injustice when the world is on the line.

And of course, how could Jess and Alex be wrong? How could morality require them not to fight for justice as they see it? How could morality permit them to settle for anything less?

III. The Paradox of Toleration

Most of you think that in Religious Fanaticism, John is right. While many of us share Mary and Martin’s theologies, we agree with John about politics and religion. But most of you probably think that in Moral Fanaticism, Jack is wrong.

I defend public reason liberalism because I can see no morally relevant difference between Religious Fanaticism and Moral Fanaticism. John and Jack’s recommendations initially seem strange, I admit. But this is only due to what philosophers call the paradox of toleration. Toleration seems crazy because by tolerating those who disagree with us, we permit massive disvalue to enter the world. Toleration seems morally required, but it also requires that we put up with what we consider immoral. Of course, we do not have to tolerate everything, but the moral imperative of toleration identifies a realm of immoral behavior that morality requires we permit.

In politics, PRL holds that regardless of our personal views about what morality requires, we can only use state coercion when other persons have sufficient reason to endorse it. We need not tolerate behavior which publicly justified law prohibits, but there is still a moral space for political toleration of those with divergent conceptions of justice.

Jess’s concerns about PRL are the historically standard reaction to the paradox of toleration. When it comes to justice, do what is right, the unjust be damned.

In light of the above, consider Jess’s claim:

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.

In my view, Jess has it backwards. We must often tolerate those who are wrong about justice, just as we must tolerate those with the wrong religious views. Toleration applies to those who are right and those who are wrong, pious and impious; otherwise it has no point.

Jess believes in toleration, so surely she thinks the paradox of toleration can be resolved. But if she does, then what is so strange about PRL, which as Rawls says, applies the principle of toleration to philosophy itself? The real problem, I take it, is that Jess has another interpretation of toleration. The argument we should be having is about the proper political philosophical expression of a commitment tolerance, not whether we should tolerate injustice.

I recognize that Jess raised other concerns, and I’m happy to address them. For one thing, I think fully informed and rational persons can disagree, due to the burdens of judgment. “Dan” made this point in the comments.

IV. Hope and Respect

But let me end on a more impassioned note. Consider Jess’s claim:

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

And this one:

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.

These statements are, to my mind, illustrations of moral fanaticism. But moral fanaticism is tragic. Deeply committed people of integrity must fight to control their society’s centers of power. Politics will always be war by other means, even in a libertarian society. PRLs believe that moral fanaticism is the counsel of despair. We must hope and aim for more. The project of PRL is to justify that hope by outlining a set of institutions that each person has reason to accept, despite their disagreements.

In the end, anti-PRLs tell us that we must look those who reject our conception of justice in the eye and say, “Sorry. I am right about justice. You are wrong. We have to fight. May the best one win.” The public reason liberal responds, “You are my moral equal. There must be another way.”

  • Javier Hidalgo

    is a big difference between people and policies. Jess will surely claim:

    We should refrain from persecuting people, even if
    they are wrong about justice.

    Why accept (i)? Well, the best theory of justice requires that
    we refrain from persecuting people, even if they disagree with us.


    But there is a gigantic difference between (i) and:

    (ii)           The state should refrain from implementing just policies
    and institutions if reasonable disagree with these policies.

    We should reject (ii). This does not mean that we should
    make the streets run red with the blood of innocents in order to implement just
    policies. But it does mean that, if people who are in fact right about justice get the
    chance, they should replace these policies and institutions with just ones,
    even though reasonable people disagree with them.

    • Kevin Vallier

      I had hoped to preempt this reply by claiming that the fight was over “the control of the state.” 

  • Aeon Skoble

    There’s a lot to say here, but one thing right off the top of my head, I’m not sure MF and RF are analogous.  Religious toleration works because it’s possible for people to compossibly have different religious beliefs.  Mary and Martin believe each other to be heretics, but ultimately, WGAS, because God will deal with this trangression later. John is right because there doesn’t _have to_ be a fight.   But in your MF story, you’ve gone beyond “what people believe about their spiritual life” to “what people can legitimately force others to do at gunpoint (Sorry Matt!).”  It won’t help for Jack to say to Jess, “well, a little coercion is ok, because lots of people think it is, right?”  Her point is that all authority relations must be consensual.  It won’t really help for Jack to try to get Alex to liberalize, either, esp. on the grounds that many people think they should have some sphere of autonomy, because false consciouness/illusions/etc.  Between Mary and Martin, there’s not much you can do discursively, but since the beliefs are compossible, John is making a good move.  Between Jess and Alex, you should be able to show why Alex is mistaken, so Jack is (as real Jess noted) promoting injustice.   That we can hope for a modus vivendi  between Catholics and Protestants does not entail that we can, or should, look for a modus vivendi between libertarians and Marxists.

  • red_anonymous

    Jessica still has a point: you can’t just accept everything by toleration, you have to draw the line somewhere:

    Consider the case of Contrarian who doesn’t believe in negative rights and thinks that he should be able to kill others and/or steal their property when it suits him. Negative_rights_Kevin and Negative_rights_Jessica would say that Contrarian is being unreasonable and unjust and no legislation should take his opinions into account. Would PRL_Kevin say that we should be tolerant and not have laws protecting negative rights out of respect for Contrarian?It seems that you’re not disagreeing with Jessica in essence, you’re just disagreeing where to draw the line on toleration.

  • Mark LeBar

    I think red has an important point here. Sometimes there is not another way. The interesting questions, it seems to me are: (1) Is there a principled way to distinguish when there is, from when there is not, another way — one which doesn’t just give rise to an iterated version of the dispute between Jessica and Kevin? (2) Is there a way of construing what is at stake in a way which minimizes the degree and number of cases in which there is not another way? That would seem an answer worth having.

    • Kevin Vallier

      No public reason liberal has every claimed that there is always a better way. The point is merely that public reason liberalism disciplines people by requiring that they look for another way in cases where they ordinarily would not. That’s part of what it means to respect those who disagree with you. 

      As for your first question, I think folks like Rawls and Gaus provide a satisfying answer because they structure the idea of public justification in our shared ideas (Rawls) or our shared practices of holding responsible, blaming, etc (Gaus). The aim the systematic PRLs is to show that the standards of moral criticism are implicit in our social practices. I think that’s the way to answer (1) that avoids the iterated fight, by showing that the relevant critical standards for governing appropriate coercion are ones built into the structure of practical reason.

      • That just shifts the disagreement to one about what ‘the structure of practical reason’ is or, indeed, whether there is a single such structure.

  • I’m not sure it’s a good idea to come to a blog with “libertarian” in the title and then attempt to construct a case where one of two hypothetical extremists is labeled “Libertarian Jess.”  Also, hello?  Marxists are the most “reasonable” antagonists of libertarians? Really?

    I’d think an even better example would be, say, Rick Santorum who (despite your sympathy for government encroachment on Catholic Bishop’s “moral” sensibilities is absolutely and fanatically dedicated to acquiring the coercive power of government  in order to forcibly impose his, and his Catholic Bishop’s, religious, “moral,” and economic ideology in every American whether they agree with him or not.  Or how about George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, who continue to believe that if you can get your hands on government power then the right to swing your fist does not end at anyone else’s face and that it’s not only tolerable but laudable to use the power of government to a) enrich your cronies, b) impoverish the general populace, c) torture or kill your enemies, and d) to swing your fist as hard as you can even when the face you hit has nothing to do with whatever you’re angry about.  Or how about John McCain who, with his bare face hanging out, believes in universal conscription and the organization of municipalities and even businesses into structures resembling military hierarchies and who also believes that military action or threats thereof aren’t just the best but the only legitimate way for national governments to impose their will on other governments?

    Marxists, on the other hand, are approximately as relevant to contemporary public policy as Lyndon Larouche “libertarians,” i.e. effectively zero unless you have to walk past one of their pathetic little tables in an airport somewhere.

    In fact the only thing I can possibly see could lead you to match libertarians and marxists would be their shared believe in the withering away of the state!

    Oh, and that’s just my problem with your rhetorical choice!

    We began this argument with your contention about the priority of religious belief against not only the public good but public health and safety.  So let’s take another look at your canonical Religious Fanaticism case and alter it very slightly.  First let’s set it in the 21st Century.  Next, let’s switch characters so it’s Bureaucratically-Catholic Martin and Secularly-Protestant Mary who are at moral odds.  And finally lets posit that (as in your example and as Liberal John points out) Mary and Martin are doctrinally similar with one rather major schismatic difference.  Bureaucratically-Catholic Martin believes it’s morally imperative for Secularly-Protestant Mary’s autonomy to be arbitrarily limited, her access to safe, legal, and commonly-prescribed medical care to be arbitrarily restricted, and that she allow herself to be killed through medically-negligent homicide under certain circumstances while Secularly-Protestant Mary believes Bureaucratically-Catholic Martin should be forced to be disappointed that she instead chooses to exercise autonomy, to avail herself of safe, legal, and commonly-prescribed medical care, and to not die of deliberate medically-negligent homicide under any conditions.

    Oh wait, that’s no longer a medieval hypothetical, that’s the actual set of facts on the ground!  Let’s soldier on anyway.

    Your position, Kevin, is that there’s no, zero, none difference between the moral positions of Martin and Mary, and that therefore… Martin’s position should prevail even at the expense of Mary’s life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

    Let’s try this: it is my moral belief that any philosophical or ideological system that privileges members of one sect’s happiness over the happiness, and liberty, and life is in fact morally bankrupt no matter how elegantly the “p’s,” “q’s” and “PRL’s” line up on paper.  Because, seriously, no matter how “classical,” it’s not actually liberal to insist that not only onlookers but victims themselves permit restrictions on their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in order to safeguard not the life or liberty but the mere happiness of others.  No amount of sophistry’s going to make it that way either, Kevin.

    How about trying your whole hypothesis again with something where the stakes for opposing sides are more balanced — for instance how gun owners should be allowed to discharge firearms into crowds of non-threatening bystanders to make sure they work as advertised.



  • Aeon Skoble

    Kevin- in your FB link, you summarized it thus: “Why do we think its ok to coerce others based on our ideology but not our religion?”   But I _don’t_ think it’s ok.   That’s why I prioritize liberty in the political sphere.  I don’t see how this maps on to public reason.  Reasonable people can disagree about the nature of the divine, but Mary and Martin _cannot_ compel each other to believe anything.  They can, of course compel each other to _do_ stuff, esp. if they have the power of the state backing them up.   Can reasonable people disagree about whether it’s ok for Bob to use Tom as a tool for Bob’s own advancement?  Without Tom’s consent?  On the one hand, I’m inclined to say no, that anyone who thinks it’s ok is unreasonable.  On the other hand, plenty of smart, educated, rational people think just this.  But I maintain it’s nevertheless wrong to do, and it’s the task (ok, a task) of political philosophy to show why that’s wrong.

    • Kevin Vallier

      The core question is whether we can converge on norms we each regard as fair from our own perspective, including common conceptions of what liberty consists in. It seems to me that if the answer is yes, then even libertarians must be willing to accept that their conception of liberty cannot always be justly imposed on others. For many libertarians, liberty rights are just property rights. But this is a highly controversial view. To insist that the libertarian scheme of rights be the law seems to be as authoritarian as similar demands by Marxists (as you mentioned in your first comment here). 

      Let me put it another way. The libertarian claims the moral authority to order people off her property. How can such authority claims be vindicated? The PRL answers in the Kantian way: authority claims are vindicated if they are self-legislated. But the traditional libertarian seems to have no story to tell.

      • “To insist that the libertarian scheme of rights be the law seems to be as authoritarian as similar demands by Marxists”

        We need to be careful here. If ‘authoritarian’ is pejorative, then it refers to impositions which overrule people’s legitimate liberties. There is nothing authoritarian (in this sense) in enforcing respect for people’s legitimate liberties. So the libertarian would say that imposing (legitimate) private property rights is not authoritarian.

        In a political debate, it is an open question what people’s legitimate liberties are. If, as we nice people suppose, everyone is entitled, in one way or another, to contribute to political debate, then it is authoritarian to silence anyone or to impose a particular view on people who disagree with it. But libertarians, who are usually staunch defenders of free speech, do not do that.

        When the libertarian orders someone off her property, she is not, as she sees it, interfering with anyone’s legitimate liberty. Further, she is not  attempting to prevent anyone from disputing her theory about what constitutes legitimate liberty. As she sees it, she is not being authoritarian in any way.

        If the law and its enforcers concur in her view of what constitutes legitimate liberty (a rare thing nowadays), she is lucky in being able to call on assistance to remove the trespasser. Otherwise she is stuffed and has to suffer what she sees as an authoritarian imposition.

        The fact that the libertarian cannot justify her theory about what is legitimate is not a serious  objection against her. No one can justify any theory, because to attempt to do so sets off on an infinite regress.

        Old rationalist philosophers tried to stop the regress with appeals to self-evidence. That was always comical because they disputed each other’s self-evident truths; but the idea was buried with the discovery of Russell’s paradox. Empiricist philosophers tried to stop the regress with appeals to experience; but that ship ran aground amid the problem of induction and the theory-laden nature of observation. Dogmatic theologians tried to stop the regress with appeals to Revelation; but they disagreed with each other over the interpretation of Revelation.

        In the light of all this, I regard it as a scandal that most philosophers still talk of justification, especially since we do not need and should not want justification. It is enough if we can criticise and test theories and rate them as better or worse, and if we can come up withn new theories which are better than the ones we currently have.

  • “Public reason liberalism (PRL) holds that a coercive law L is justified only if each person has sufficient reason to endorse L.”

    Kevin, I can’t even get by the premise you’re basing your argument on. I mean I understand what a coercive law is, but “sufficient reason” is quite vague. And by “each person” do you mean there can be no dissenters? Also, the word “person” in law is a whole bag of tricks in itself. Every church, corporation, trust, estate, partnership, etc. is considered to be a legal “person.”

    • Aeon Skoble

      This is another aspect that was troubling.  If _each person_ has sufficient reason to do x, why would we need coercion to bring x about?  I suspect the countermove is: “saying they have sufficient reason doesn’t mean they are actually motivated, it just means that under such-and-such ideal conditions, they’d see that they ought to assent to x.”  I’d argue that only respect for liberty passes that test, but I’m not even convinced it’s the right test.

      • That raises more doubts in my mind as to what Kevin means by “endorse.” Assuming we even pass the threshold of “sufficient reason,” is tacit or informed consent required “to endorse L.”

        Not sure if that was the point you were making, but this is what came to mind.

      • Joe J Grimm

        I think that this principle exists to solve collective action problems. This way if everyone agrees that it would be best if everyone did X even though individually it would be better to do Y they can use the state as a binding group contract.

        • 3cantuna

          Collective action problem has to be at least 99% myth, 99% of the time. Regardless in no way does it rationalize a state based binding contract– that happens to create a monopoly institution with permanent unchallengeable power.

    • Kevin Vallier

      The idea of a sufficient reason is perhaps one of the most important components of PRL. But a lot of work has been done on the topic. One standard holds that a reason is sufficient when it is shared. Another standard holds that a reason is sufficient when it is mutually accessible. I have argued that a reason is sufficient when it is (a) intelligible and (b) epistemically justified for the person who has it.

      The upshot is given that different belief and value affirmations will be justified for different people, they will end up with different justificatory reasons. This will, accordingly, make the public justification of laws relatively difficult, though not, in my view, impossible.

      • Hi Kevin,

        I appreciate that in a short blog post all sorts of complications have to be suppressed, but I think you need to say a little bit more here. Very often reasons pull in different directions, but the joint reasons for one case may still outweigh the joint reasons for a rival case. A reason that is shared or ‘mutually accessible’ (whatever that means) might be a reason that is overridden by another reason which is also shared or ‘mutually accessible,’ in which case it will not be a sufficient reason (presumably).

  • mysjkin

    What is a sufficient

    Kevin would like to change the conversation from justice to
    legitimacy: the question is not whether a law is just, but whether we can
    legitimately enforce it.


    Kevin suggests the following principle for deciding this
    question: a law can be coercively enforced only if each member of the public
    has sufficient reason to endorse the law.


    Jess can accept this principle. She might say: if a law is
    just, then all members of the public have sufficient reason to endorse the law.
    What other or better reason could there be?

    Kevin replies: well, we reasonably disagree
    about what is just. And it is impermissible to force others to comply with our
    beliefs in the face of their reasonable disagreement.

    Jess: That’s a new and much more controversial principle. Also, disagreement itself is not
    relevant. If the water is poisoned, you have a reason not to drink it. Whether
    you disagree with me when I tell you that it is poisoned doesn’t affect that you
    have a sufficient reason not to drink it. Likewise, the fact that slavery is
    unjust explains why the Ancient Greeks shouldn’t have allowed the institution
    of slavery, even if they believed it was just.


    Problem is that there are two theories of reasons at work:

    The first kind of reason is
    subjectively grounded reason; the reasons that I have only if I have sufficient
    evidence supporting that reason. Whether the content of the reason is true or
    false is irrelevant to whether I have the reason in this sense. If I have no
    basis for believing that the water is poisonous, then in this sense of having a
    reason the fact that it is poisonous does not give me a reason not to drink it.

    The second kind of reason is more
    objective: I have a reason of this kind if it is true that I should have that
    reason. So, though I have no evidence that the water is poisonous the fact that
    the water is poisonous is a good reason not to drink it.


    Jess can maintain that the justice of a a law is sufficient
    reason for endorsing the law (so, members of the public have reason in the
    second, objective sense to endorse the law).

    Kevin can maintain that in the face
    of (reasonable) disagreement, we cannot appeal to the justice or injustice of a
    law when deciding whether to enforce it or not, but only to the reasons that members
    of the public in fact have (i.e. their reasons in the first, subjective sense)

    So, Jess is right, if we think of
    reasons in the objective sense. Kevin has an argument if we should think of
    reasons in the subjective sense.  


    • Kevin Vallier

      I think you’re right to track our differences to questions about whether objective or subjective reasons are justificatory. My claim, with Rawls, Habermas and Gaus, is that to coerce people based on objective reasons is authoritarian when, given well-informed, careful reasoning, people reject those reasons. 

      • good_in_theory

        What needs to be well informed and carefully reasoned?

        The rejection or the coercion?

        More specifically, does any rejection defeat a well-reasoned argument for coercion, or do only well reasoned rejections defeat well-reasoned arguments for coercion?

        • Kevin Vallier

          Both reasons to propose and reasons to reject are assessed at the same level of idealization (though actually there’s nothing in the theory itself that requires this; it’s just hard to motivate an asymmetric idealization). Basically, take your conception of epistemic justification and then test putative reasons in accord with it.

  • Marcus_V

    Does the simple idea of uncertainty never enter into this discussion?  I understand that fanatic implies one who (rightly or wrongly) has no doubt at all as to his ultimate correctness, but surely potential mediators, as non-fanatics, are not so blinkered. 

    I find myself in that mediative position quite frequently, and my defense always includes a component of necessary discovery through experimentation, a process hampered by a lack of tolerance.   

    • Agreed. The only reason we value liberty is because of uncertainty about pluralism: either there is no one correct conception of the good life, or there is one correct conception but we cannot figure out which one is the correct one. So, we  tolerate the two religious fanatics beliefs (but not their attempts to coerce each other) because we do not know with certainty which has the correct views, or even if there are correct views. If we knew with absolute certainty that Mary had the correct views and Martin the wrong, then  there would be no reason to object to Mary coercing Martin into living the correct kind of life. 

      • Uncertainty is not the only reason we value liberty. Another reason is difference: the best life for Martin might not be the best life for Mary. Yet another reason is the value of self-discovery. Even if we somehow know what is the best life for Martin, it is better that he tries to discover it for himself rather than that we impose it on him. And another reason we value liberty is for its own sake: being free is, at least for many of us, valuable in itself, since without it we cannot live the life of an independent person. There are other reasons for valuing it too: prosperity, growth of knowledge and such like.

        • Well, we can have some fun with this, if we want to get theoretical. If theoretically there was one and only one best way to live, and if theoretically we knew what it was, then no other way to live could be, by definition, better. The other ways of life could not, by definition, allow a better amount of freedom, independence, prosperity, growth, knowledge or chocolate cake. Accordingly, there would be no value in permitting individual experimentation — there would be nothing to discover because we would already know the best way of life. Of course there probably is not one best way to live, and even if there was, we have no way of knowing it. And therefore, we should value maximal liberty to achieve (or not achieve) prosperity, growth, knowledge and chocolate cake. 

          • Suppose that the one best way to live involves attempting to discover for oneself what it is. Then even if you and I know what is the one best way for each and every individual to live,  it would be objectionable for us to try to impose this on Martin, because such an attempt could not possibly succeed (it undermines itself).

            But, of course, there is no one best way to live (people are too different). And no one knows for certain what is the best way for himself to live. Each of us has to try to find that out. Even someone who feels very happy in the life he has chosen should from time to time wonder whether there is not a different life he would have liked better if only he had tried it. Even the most fulfilled people (comparatively speaking) go to their graves not knowing for sure whether they lived the best way.

          • Damien S.

            But in fact we don’t have any one best way to live, and have reason to think there can’t be, because of differing definitions of what’s good.  And differently lived lives don’t affect each other that much.  Similarly, we’ve discovered that different religions can co-exist, for all that some of them claim the stakes are infinitely high; even if one of them is right the consequences are beyond our measurement.

            But morality, especially on an axis dividing libertarians and Marxists,  is largely about how we treat other people and let ourselves be treated by others.  Conflict is built in, pluralism inherently problematic, and compromise often, well, compromised and flawed, an incoherent mishmash or average of policies that make sense in their own contexts and systems but not in a melange.

            E.g. pure libertarianism has a certain consistent logic to it, but mixing it with socialist amelioration can create lots of perverse incentives and moral hazards.  Obama’s stimulus was too small from the Keynesian via that recommends a stimulus at all and unnecessary or worthless from a neoclassical or Austrian view.  And we all know about Solomon’s baby.

        • Marcus_V

          Even if we somehow know what is the best life for Martin, it is better that he tries to discover it for himself rather than that we impose it on him.

          That’s an awfully strong claim, given absolute knowledge of what is the best life for Martin.  What if he tries to discover it and fails?  

          • How does the phrase go? Better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all (or not to be allowed to try at all).

            I don’t think it is a strong claim. Having your decisions about how to live made for you is not a life worthy of a (normal) human being. Better to screw it up in your own way than to do as your told by ‘people in the know.’

          • Hi Marcus,

            I just noticed your last sentence. Was that there originally?

            You are right, my sentence as it stands is self-contradictory. I should have put it this way: if we know what is the best life for Martin, we will know that it involves him trying to discover what is the best life for him and thus that it excludes our imposing a particular type of life upon him.

            Tony was making your point in his response to me, though less explicitly, so I missed it. But my second response to him avoided self-contradiction and says what I just said to you.

          • Danny, I do not actually disagree with you or your views on liberty. But, you are not playing within the bounds of my hypothetical, which assumes that there is one best way to live and that we know it with absolute certainty. If the best way for Martin to live is to go on a journey of self discovery (and we know this to be true), then he should not have  the “liberty” to go on that journey. Instead, he should be compelled to do so. 

          • You know… that’s pretty much what the Amish do. Just sayin’…

          • Hi Tony,

            The claim that a person can be compelled to discover for himself the best way to live seems to me to be self-contradictory. I think the contradiction is camouflaged by your metaphor of a ‘journey of self-discovery.’ Of course, people can be compelled to go on journeys. But they cannot be compelled to discover things for themselves. They may be forced into a situation in which it is likely that they will embark on a process of discovering things for themselves. But if someone is steadfast in closing his mind to new possibilities, we cannot compel him to open his mind. This is not a merely practical impossibility, it is a logical or metaphysical one. Discovering things for oneself depends upon free will. Even if you could somehow implant ‘discoveries’ into someone’s mind, he would not have discovered them for himself.

            It seems to me that, for a rational being, the best life is one in which he discovers for himself what is the best life for him and lives that life. Any case in which he is compelled to live a particular kind of life therefore falls short of the best. And not just slightly, but drastically, because it involves the suppression of his rationality in regard to the things that matter most for him.

            To revert to your hypothetical supposition, if we knew with absolute certainty what is the best life for Martin, we would know that it is not a life that he can be compelled to live, so the thought that we can compel him to live the life that is best for himself is self-contradictory.

            Thanks for prompting me to spell this out. Some of my earlier formulations were woolly or confused.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Hi Danny,
            With your second paragraph you sound very much like a Nozick-style, natural rights theorist. Welcome to the team (I know you have probably held such views for a while; I am just happy to hear you express them!) 

          • In some ways, my views are very similar to Nozick’s in ASU (not in other books of his); in some ways they are very similar to Rothbard; in some ways they are very similar to Hayek. But I have my disagreements with each of those three.

            The inspiration for my second paragraph above comes more directly from Popper and Kant (or Popper’s twist of Kant). Of course, I have my disagreements with Popper, and more especially Kant, too.

            It’s a pleasure to be on the team.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I do not wish to quibble with a valued fellow team member, but Nozick may be mining the same Kantian gold. This is what he says at p. 500-1 of Phil Explanations:

            If your basic moral characteristic of being a value-seeking individual includes weighting values in free choice…then being responsive to this characteristic and to the originative value you possess will involve respecting your autonomy. Within this domain, it will be impermissible for others to force you away from the bad or less good towards the best; doing so would be anti-responsive to your capacity as a weighter of values Thereby is a right to personal liberty delineated.

          • Yes, the same thought is there, though not expressed in a way that I like.

            Feel free to quibble.

          • Continuing the spelling out, let me explain why I put ‘discoveries’ in quotation marks.

            Suppose we could implant into Martin’s mind a belief that the best life for him is to be a toilet-cleaner. He would not thereby have made a discovery about what is the best life for him. He might discover that he has that belief. If he does, it is up to him to evaluate the belief. Only once he has evaluated the belief and decided it is better than its alternatives has he made a discovery about what is the best life for him.

            If Martin has a closed mind and adheres dogmatically to some propositions inconsistent with the proposition that the best life for him is the life of a toilet-cleaner, then, when he discovers the implanted belief, he will evaluate it negatively and reject it. By implanting the belief, we have not opened his mind. We have just forced something into it that he will force out as soon as he becomes aware of it.

            Suppose Martin is not consciously aware of the implanted belief, but he starts to act on it (looking for vacancies for toilet-cleaners, for example). He has still made no discovery about what is the best life for him. He is just acting automatically, i.e., like an automaton. He does not know why he is doing what he is doing. Of course, this is an unlikely scenario, since Martin will have many views about the good life some of which may be inconsistent with taking a job as a toilet-cleaner, so he would question his behavioural inclinations and soon identify and expel the implanted belief.

          • Good responses. But I still think there is a bit of a dodge here. Under my hypothetical, there is one best conception of the good life (CGL) and we know what the best CGL is with absolute certainty. Your response is that the rightness of a CGL could depend on a person choosing that CGL over alternative. But this is just  importing your own CGL (which maximizes liberty and self discovery) into the hypothetical and making it superior to the hypothetically-defined best CGL. 

            This suffers from at least two problems. First, the best CGL is already the best. Therefore it already has the right amount of freedom in it. If adding more freedom could make it better, than it would not be the best CGL. Second, the liberty you are introducing is the freedom to choose the wrong CGL. There is no reason to permit people to choose the wrong CGL if we already know the best one. Everyone should follow the best one because  it is best.  

            I think the foregoing is what fanatics of all kinds would argue. For example an extremely literal follower of religion R might say: I already know that the best CGL is found in the Book of R, and that any CGL that does not follow the Book of R is by definition inferior. Therefore, there is no reason why society should entertain any dissent from R, because dissenters are necessarily living an inferior life pursuing an inferior CGL. 

            This view is all internally consistent for the adherent of R. If R knows the best CGL, and knows that all other CGLs are inferior, it logically follows that he can enforce R on others. My point is that the reason we demand tolerance and pluralism is that we cannot be sure either that there is a best CGL or that R is that best CGL. Because if we knew there was one best CGL, and R was it, we should all adhere to R. 

          • Those are good responses, too. But I still disagree.

            I was not importing any specific  CGL into the hypothetical. I maintained that any CGL is self-contradictory unless it includes the agent’s own discovery of the GL for him. So, I would say that the self-discovery component was already included in the hypothetical, on pain of self-contradiction. I offered a reason for thinking that.

            So, I agree that the best CGL is already the best. But I infer from that that it includes the agent’s discovery of the GL for him.

            It is true that freedom to discover the best involves freedom to fail to discover it. But someone who does not discover the best life for himself does not live the best life (though he may have tried to). Freedom to discover does not guarantee success in discovering.

            Even if we (you and I) know what the best life is for a person, there is still reason to let him choose an inferior one. From what I said above, it follows that, if we try to impose the best life on him, we cannot succeed.

            What if Martin knows what is the best life for himself but chooses a different one? Let him. He is being silly. But if we try to impose the best life on him, it will not be the best life. Of course, it might still be better than what he is about to do; but he is entitled to do that.

            From that last sentence you can see that I am not making the implausible claim that a freely chosen life is always superior to an imposed one. Some people make damn bad choices.

            Your fanatic is simply mistaken; but, of course, he cannot see it. I disagree when you say the fanatic’s view is internally consistent. It implies that the best life for a rational being is to have his rationality suppressed in the most important things. That is not a formal inconsistency (‘p & not-p’), at least not as it stands; but it is inconsistent in the way that ‘the ball is both red and not coloured’ is.

            Of course, I agree with you about the importance of our ignorance and fallibility for ethics and politics. But I think there are other important issues in regard to the question we are discussing.

  • I think part of Kevin’s point is that in a liberal, free society it is persuasion not force that is supposed to decide these questions. Instead of forcing everyone to be Catholic or Muslim or whatever, we allow everyone to try to make a case for their religion freely. The paradoxical result is that by tolerating religion and making persuasion rather than force rule, religion is arguably healthier and more diverse in America than anywhere else. Of course, to believers in the one true faith, this is troubling, but to freedom lovers this should be encouraging.

    Similarly, rather than try to impose one conception of the good on everyone, we should recognize that we are profoundly ignorant about what constitues the good (if there is such a thing at all). Instead of trying to impose values and ways of life on others, we should create a framework where, as much as possible, we can leave questions about how one should live one’s life up to them. Persuasion and experimentation not force will be the standard. 

    Of course, this requires institutional arrangements that protect the liberty to experiment and persuade and the question of which institutions do that best is an important one. Libertarians who care about freedom and not merely about being right, should stop talking about justice and the good and truth and whatever and start focusing on how to construct and maintain institutions that preserve and generate freedom. Ultimately, I think that is the real power of the contract centered approach that public reason liberalism is a mutation of. 

    • “The paradoxical result is that by tolerating religion and making persuasion rather than force rule, religion is arguably healthier and more diverse in America than anywhere else. Of course, to believers in the one true faith, this is troubling, but to freedom lovers this should be encouraging.”

      I think it’s fair to say that many, if not most, religions teach their believers that they’re following “the one true faith,” and after this belief is accepted, we then proceed to build a life around it, and invest quite a bit of ourselves in that life, so we tend not to let go of our beliefs easily, or even to allow them to be slightly modified.

      So, in other words, here’s a hat tip to everyone involved in this blog who’s subjecting their beliefs to scrutiny.

      It’s no accident that (based on Locke’s “Letters Concerning Toleration”) the First Amendment contains BOTH: (1) rights supporting freedom of speech (maximum opportunity to have our views scrutinized), and (2) rights to block the state from favoring one religion over another.

  • Jessica Flanigan

    Moral fanaticism is a pretty charged label, but what is gained by it? I don’t think that people who are wrong about justice should be persecuted for their beliefs, I only say that their mistaken judgments ought not dictate policy. 

    Similarly, it was wrong to persecute Galileo because he argued that the earth revolved around the sun, but it also would have been similarly wrong to persecute the Catholic believers who reasonably disagreed with him given their epistemic situation. Nevertheless, clearly Galileo was right, so if the sate or some other authority had to take sides on the issue (and idk why it would, but say it did) it should side with the truth even if most reasonable people disagreed. 

    Now, what if the mistaken resist and insist on an unjust policy? Does justice then require war with the mistaken as Kevin suggests? Of course not, sometimes justice on-balance, or other consequence-based considerations, or prudential considerations will require that states accept some injustice, that doesn’t change the fact that it would be better to enforce the just policy absent those other considerations, which PL’s deny. 

    Similarly, reasonable disagreement doesn’t mean that there is not a right answer, but it may tell in favor of a kind of caution or moral prudence. Disagreement ::may:: indicate to us that we could be wrong, (though not always). But this is an epistemic claim. If we could overcome the epistemic hurdle of knowing what justice requires we should do what justice requires even if people disagree. 

    PL’s do not argue that we must tolerate injustice for solely epistemic or prudential reasons, though these are the reasons that Kevin relies on to give his examples intuitive appeal. Instead, PL’s are making a moral argument that we ought to accept injustice when reasonable people disagree even if we can overcome the aforementioned epistemic or prudential hurdles. 

    It doesn’t seem like the right term to call my claim that states should enforce policies that are supported by reasons “moral fanaticism,” but if we’re gonna go with that label I wonder what it is that makes PL any less fanatical. Insofar as PL ::requires:: that policy reflects reasonable disagreement it’s taking just as strong a stand on which policy we ought to impose on everyone. PL just takes its stand on the side of injustice, and in my view, ‘immoral fanaticism’ is even worse.  

    • Kevin Vallier

      (1) I stand by the use of the term moral fanaticism. One impression I got from your first post, and from the commenters, is that PRLs seem to have themselves upset for no reason. Its just not that big of a deal to coerce people on the true conception of justice. I decided that in this post I needed to demonstrate the social and moral costs of building institutions on the “true” view. As I said in the post, I know that you believe in toleration. But the implication of the view you defend seems to me essentially authoritarian, regardless of all the pragmatic and epistemic cautionary notes (and that goes for some of the commenters too). In the end, on your view, if we know what justice is, we should not let others stand in our way when it comes to policy-making. That seems to me in essence the claim of the fanatic – my way or the highway.

      (2) You say: “PL’s do not argue that we must tolerate injustice for solely epistemic or prudential reasons, though these are the reasons that Kevin relies on to give his examples intuitive appeal.” I don’t see this at all. The intuitive appeal is based on the fact that Mary and Martin act on the wrong reasons. They act in a morally objectionable way because they believe they are entitled to use state power to coerce one another simply based on the fact that they are correct. As Rawls says, “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.” (PL, 129)

      (3) But here’s the most important point: what do you think about my core claim, namely that PRL’s asking people not to impose their view of justice on one another is no more strange than generic principles of toleration? I was trying to change the terms of the argument, to show that in fact we both believe that people are often required to tolerate unjust and immoral behavior on the part of others even if they are clearly in the right and even if they could successfully use coercion to eliminate the unjust and immoral behavior. I say we do better to argue about the proper interpretation of the idea of toleration. 

      Or do you still maintain that if (a) James is a government official, (b) he has the correct view about justice, (c) he is justified in believing as much, (d) and pragmatic considerations are not an issue, that (e) James is generally justified in using state power to coerce others into compliance?

      • 3cantuna

        Yet, what is this “public” in public reasoning if not an arbitrary, authoritarian even, demarcation?  Are we all in this together, humanity in totality?  Or can public reason be contrasted to a neighboring society where “private” reason prevails? 

        • good_in_theory

          Do you have a point?  What non-arbitrary, authoritarian even, demarcation do you have in mind for demarcating what is reasonable?

          • 3cantuna

            Sorry, I forgot that only GIT asks the questions ‘roun here.

            Really though, back when I had some formal schooling, I was asked to read Habermas. I concluded that his concept of public sphere did not appreciate the value of privately competing entities in the process of social cooperation. Hence my question about “public”.  What does public mean to you? What is the price of foregoing private relationships for public in this process of “public reasoning”?  Is it worth it from X point of views? 

            Is it unreasonable to allow some folks to carry on in a public reason process and others to deliberate in a privately contracted sphere?  The two societies would then be separated by respect for underlying property or, question mark, underlying reasons to reject inter-socialization.  A dilemma?

            Hans Hoppe, also up on Habermas, reasons that property is inherently necessary for the avoidance of conflict and the pitfalls of moral relativism. If public reasoning always must result in painful compromises that more individuated property could solve– then one should choose private property over public discourse.

          • good_in_theory

            Ok, but I still don’t understand what private reason is, or what it would mean for a society to carry on only through ‘private reason’ or ‘private property’. 

            If you have read Habermas, then perhaps you are already familiar with the definition of the relevant public as the community of those affected (of course, one must qualify this with ‘sufficiently’ affected, opening up the same problems with something being ‘sufficiently’ reasonable.)

            If there is a respect for underlying property, or a respect for underlying reasons to reject inter-socialization, then public reason is at work in establishing respect for property or the limited scope of inter-socialization, and thus for demarcating the boundary at which one need not justify themselves to anyone.

            As to the public reasoning/individuated property split, I’m unclear on how one could even have ‘individuated property’ without ‘public discourse.’

            Individuated property implies a right to exercise coercion.  Coercing others without justification strikes me as ‘arbitrary and authoritarian’.  Property authoritarianism probably shouldn’t be confused with property rights.

          • 3cantuna

            If there is public reason, why not private?  Yet it would seem difficult to truly parcel out which is which in all cases. Feudal holdings demonstrate the unclarity. But then the same would hold for “public”.

            How could public discourse take place without displacing private property. If there is coercion bound up in private holding– why would that problem, if it is one, necessitate the coercion inherent in public discourse. PD denies private property unless somehow it is later on decided to be OK. How can it even serve sustaining life– that needs oxygen and nourishment now?  PD may start more conflict than solve.

          • good_in_theory

            Public discourse makes a claim on the displacement of individual possession and use (it doesn’t actually displace them, you need force for that.)  I don’t see how it displaces ‘private property’.

            Possession and use certainly precede public discourse, but an effective right to possession and a right of use (i.e. property) can’t.

            Rights may certainly exist without discourse, but those rights must be communicated in order to be effective.  You can’t expect anyone to respect what they can’t perceive.  

            A right by dint of work is only realizable insofar as the work is recognizable.  And of course, even if I can recognize it, nothing tells me whether or not I should take the sort of relation you established with a thing as an exclusive one.

            Even cats and dogs realize they have to communicate publicly in order to claim control over something – that’s why they piss on things.

          • 3cantuna

            So there is a difference between chatting over the fence about what to do about the apple tree that is part in your yard, part in mine, and parliamentary argumentation. You may say that the former is public discourse– but I say it is private:  and social nonetheless. Parliamentary debate, or democracy at work, implies a forced public:  is that really social?

            Maybe this dialectic you are helping to flesh out is not as productive as accepting property as inherent because of its necessity to life and warding off conflict. Besides, Habermas on balance meant public discourse more in line with liberal democracy, not market based property.  Maybe he wanted people to belive that creating such a government mandated public sphere would wipe history clean so that justice would result going forward. But doesn’t that ignore how such a sphere is created? It would be absurd to claim that merely because private property has controversy in just definition that democracy is the answer. Democracy cannot sustain life.

      • Jessica Flanigan

        If the correct view of justice says he ought to. I am pretty sure that the correct view of justice only requires us to coerce people into compliance when the state ::must:: decided one way or another, and that it includes a lot of space for toleration. As I understand it toleration is a principle of justice, meaning that there are moral reasons in favor of tolerating people who are mistaken, trying to make the case to them that they are mistaken maybe, but refraining from persecuting people for their beliefs. 

        Let’s take your view from below that you think (as I do) that justice requires that justice requires fully non-prohibitive drug policies but some people will disagree reasonably and will have ‘defeaters’ because of that disagreement. The way I hear that is that now terminally ill patients, poor people who cannot afford to obtain a prescription, and recreational users who are sent to jail are all being coerced by a policy that is unjust, just because some people who disagree are mistaken about justice. This is why PPL is tragic (to use your term,) the government uses its coercive power to violate the rights of people who are not mistaken on the basis of the wrong view of justice. 

        • Hi Jessica,

          I would like to put your point another way. Here goes.

          It is not unjust or authoritarian to impose the requirements of the correct theory of justice. People will always disagree about what the correct theory of justice is. In the absence of agreement, it is better that one theory of justice prevails rather than none. It would be better if it were the correct theory that did. That cannot be guaranteed. Each of us is entitled, perhaps bound, to try to see that what we take to be the correct theory of justice is the one that prevails. We do this through persuasion. If the theory of justice that prevails is not the one we take to be correct, we abide, more or less, with the one that prevails while we continue our argument to get the correct theory in its place.

          Or is that my view rather than yours?

          • Fantastic! You’ve just described (more or less) modern western democracies.

            Can we now discuss how to improve what we have instead of wasting bandwidth on extremist theories like anarchism?

          • What if we think the correct theory of justice happens to be anarchistic? Then the question of how to improve what we have becomes the question of how to move in a more anarchistic direction.

          • If that’s your view, then you should certainly attempt to persuade others to your view. But I was under the impression that “anarchism” was a political theory rather than a theory of justice. Anarchism would rule out a lot of what you described in your post that I was replying to.

          • There are different kinds of anarchism. Some are theories of justice according to which, to put it crudely, coercion is unjust, the state involves coercion, therefore the state is unjust and should be abolished. I am not sure that any anarchistic view is correct, but I do find ‘natural rights’ views of the anarchistic kind appealing.

            But I am not in favour of violence, so I think we should try to bring about change in an anarchistic direction through peaceful means. However, I don’t hold out much hope of success, so we should try to enjoy the ride and not get too upset about the injustices, waste and madness of politics.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            For what its worth, this pretty much corresponds to my understanding of Jessica’s position.

      • Larry Holt

        Does PRL suffer intrinsically from endorsement of the status quo?

        Consider the following: in mid-twentieth century America, small-c conservative Adam believes that people should only marry within their given race, in accordance with the laws of the nation. Small-l liberal Alice argues that the law is in fact coercive; nevertheless, Big-l Liberal James argues that Alice’s eradication would merely replace one coercion with another, and thus PRL allows for such disagreements.

        Take it easy on me, I just have a bachelor’s.


    You say: “These statements are, to my mind, illustrations of moral fanaticism. But moral fanaticism is tragic. Deeply committed people of integrity must fight to control their society’s centers of power. Politics will always be war by other means, even in a libertarian society.” I believe this is deeply confused.

    Litigants “fight” in a courtroom, but there is nothing “tragic” about it–it is a very imperfect, but nevertheless acceptable way of resolving disputes. A far better way than resorting to violence. In this country, political parties “fight” every two years, but this fighting doesn’t commit us to civil war. I wish to “fight” for my moral beliefs, even if I am a minority of one, but this doesn’t mean I am willing to kill those who disagree with me. It seems that you are arguing that if we reject PL we are doomed to “tragic” conflict, but this is entirely unfounded.

    • Kevin Vallier

      Let’s take a “fight” in this context to refer to attempts to co-opt state power to coerce others in accord with your conception of justice. The PRL says that we can only do so permissibly when each person has sufficient reason to endorse the coercion in question. To deny PRL is to deny that there is such a constraint on the use of coercion. What is tragic about a world in which we do not attempt public justification is that there will be coercive laws that some good and reasonable people will simply have to put up with despite the fact that they take themselves to have good reason to reject the coercion. They will have to be satisfied with living in a world in which the coercive use of law is in some sense alien to them. They will not be a law to themselves.

      • Mark Friedman

        Your original post said this: “Mary and Martin see no alternative to fighting for control of the state to forcibly suppress the other’s errors. They must fight. After all, eternal life hangs in the balance” (my emphasis). Unless I am very much mistaken, this is a claim that non-PRLs have no recourse but to violence.

        I pointed out that litigation and respresentative democracy are examples of practical means of non-violent dispute resolution that do not employ the PRL logic. I see nothing in your response that actually addresses my point. Instead, you have shifted to the claim that as a theoretical matter, PRL is less coercive because people will not be subject to force if they have “sufficient reason” for objecting to legislation.

        I continue to be puzzled regarding why you think PRL has the anti-coercion moral high ground. If an aversion to the use of political force is your primary concern, you should be an anarcho-capitalist since this theory would dismantle the state (the most ubiquitous and dangerous source of coercion), and require all private exchanges to be of a purely voluntary nature.  In contrast, you would accept state coercion unless someone (politicians, philosopher/kings, the majority?) decides (in their infinite wisdom) that a party has “sufficient” reason to object.

        So, the state will be morally entitled to coerce those whom it concludes have insufficient reason to object to a particular policy. This would, I suspect, have included early abolutionists, feminists, and animal-rights activists since those people were obviously crazy. As should be clear from the CM thread, not only are there insoluble line drawing problems here, but the potential for massive abuse by the state should be obvious. 

        • good_in_theory

          If an aversion to the use of political force is your primary concern, you should be an anarcho-capitalist since this theory would dismantle the state”

          But I don’t think that’s the primary concern – the concern is to find the grounds upon which coercion can be exercised, because it must be exercised within a just society.  As such, dreaming of a world without coercion is a little beside the point.

          But I don’t see how litigation and democracy avoid anything.  They just defer the problem.  If someone objects to a democratic or legal decision, then you are back at square one.

          • MARK D. FRIEDMAN

            Great. Now please re-read everything I said immediately after the part you quoted (and see Jess’s comment above). As for “avoding anything,” I was specifically responding to Kevin’s point. And, representative democracy can potentially defer political violence forever, which rebuts Kevin’s argument that non-PLRs have no alternatve to violent confict.

          • good_in_theory

            Representative democracy defers political violence forever by  either (A). establishing public consensus around democratic decision making as the only legitimation procedure in town or (B). coercing people who try to circumvent the process.

            It’s unclear to me how that actually ends up deferring political violence.

            Maybe I just run public reason liberalism together with law and representative democracy. My background in the topic is lots and lots of Habermas so that probably explains it. There, legal discourses and legislative/policy discourses are just practically constrained versions of a PPJ (the discourse principle).

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Hi G.I.T.,
            Thanks for the response. I would make a complete fool out of myself trying to discuss Harbermas with you, so please forgive me for not going down that road. On the topic of the connection between representative democracy and political violence, I would say first that clearly not all are created equal. Some, tyrannies of the majority, only exist because they have institutionalized violence against the minority, so I am definitely not claiming that these can continue indefinitely w/o the widespread use of force.

            On the other hand, some are governed at least to a minimum degree by the rule of law, in Hayek’s sense. Here, the participants may logically conclude that they are better off, all things considered, trying to achieve justice from within–by the political process or through the courts. I don’t think this implies that the participants must recognize their state as legitimate, i.e. that they are morally obliged to follow its rules, just that the use of violence in opposition is too costly in many respects.

  • Ryan

    I am glad Kevin is taking up this issue!  My question to him: Is there any policy that you think is required by justice, but you think we have most all-things-considered reason not to adopt (because other reasonable people disagree with it, or whatever other reason)?  

    • Kevin Vallier

      Yes, at least ten. I would prefer for drug use to be entirely unregulated (on grounds of justice), but I think many people have defeaters for property rights so extensive as to rule out some regulations. I would prefer to entirely decentralize the provision of social services (on grounds of justice), but I think many people have defeaters for local provision. I would prefer to turn more public good provision over to the market (on grounds of justice) than many of my reasonable fellow citizens. 

      I could go on, but let me make a deeper point instead. When I came to accept PRL, I mourned the fact that I could not in good conscience fight for unadulterated justice as I saw it. But accepting this stricture seemed to me a simple matter of growing up. I do not always get my way, nor do I have the right to demand it, even when (and perhaps especially when) it comes to matters as important as religion and politics. I see myself as having given something up in accepting the bounds of public reason. I can see that people want to resist this sacrifice, and I understand it. 

      Forgive me, but I’d like to quote Gaus here: “Once we take seriously the perspectives of all, we must find that some of our cherished aspirations no longer ground the range of authority over others many of us would claim — claims that are advanced only to make our fellow citizens better people and the world a better place. No wonder the liberal demand continues to rankle.” (Gaus,,  208)

      That’s what you see in many of the comments above.

      • Ryan

        This is a very good and principled answer, I think.  Here is my take on how we might differ.  You see PRL as having a kind of deontic forcefulness and justice as being something that would be great if we could satisfy it, but not required in the same strict way as PRL.  I see justice as having a kind of deontic forcefulness and PRL as something that would be great if we could satisfy it (because, as you rightly point out, it would be good to have cooperative relationships with others, I suppose).  But we share the idea that there is a real conflict: Something worthwhile is given up on either side.  So it seems to me that a good way to proceed is to investigate whose claims are more important: the person who has a claim to being treated justly, or the person who has a claim to receiving a satisfactory reason for what the state is doing.  It is interesting to me that though we come down differently on that matter, we seem to agree that the answer will have a kind uniformity.  That is, I think justice will more or less always be more important than PRL (in conflict cases), and you think PRL will more or less always be more important than justice (in conflict cases).  An alternative picture would say that justice is sometimes more important, and PRL is sometimes more important.  I suppose actually you could also hold a version of that moderate alternative.  Anyway thanks again; I liked your post and discussion.

        • Kevin Vallier

          A nice assessment. Books like Political Liberalism and The Order of Public Reason can be read as attempts to explain why we should prioritize PRL over justice, because its required by deeper normative commitments and social needs.

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