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.”