Brink Lindsey ends his recent post with the following question, one that continues to plague political philosophy,
If liberal neutrality does have limits, where are they and how do you know them when you see them?
The point of this post is to briefly outline a version of liberal neutrality I find philosophically attractive, in light of Brink’s question. My approach begins, not by analyzing the concept of neutrality as an ideal in itself, but rather focusing on the considerations that lead us to worry about neutrality in the first place. I then attempt to generate a principle of political justification that has those good-making features we want from a principle of neutrality. The principle we will arrive at, I think, can vindicate institutional forms that do not employ coercion to impose one person’s conception of the good or right on another, treating all with equal respect.
I. Why Care About Neutrality?
Most contemporary liberals care about preventing government from promoting a particular conception of the good (and in some cases, a conception of the right) because they affirm four general claims: (i) persons have a dignity that merits respect, (ii) persons are naturally free and equal, (iii) persons’ have reasons for action determined by their present beliefs and valuings that are definitive and (iv) these reasons can systematically and justifiably diverge.
I’ve explored a number of these ideas elsewhere. I’ve explored (iv), namely the idea of reasonable pluralism, here and here. I’ve explored the meanings of (ii) and (iii) here. Claim (i) is a pretty obvious platitude.
Summing up, here’s the basic moral idea. The foremost moral imperative is to treat persons with respect, as ends in themselves. If persons are naturally free and equal, in the sense that no person is naturally the servant of another such that they have equal moral authority, then to respect them is to recognize their moral authority by not compelling them to act against their own best reasoning.
What are persons’ reasons? The liberal tradition has generally allowed that persons have very different reasons for action due to their differing valuing and beliefs. We don’t determine persons’ reasons for action apart from their most deeply held commitments. Thus, the reasons relevant to the justification of coercion are in some sense internal or psychologically accessible. They have their ground in persons’ actual motivations and commitments.
Finally, and due in part to reasonable pluralism, their affirmed reasons will systematically and broadly diverge. Therefore, if we are to respect persons, we can only coerce them when they have sufficient reason, from their own perspective, to comply with the law or policy on which the coercion is based.
So we care about neutrality because we care about respecting naturally free and equal persons who invariably have agent-relative, diverse reasons for action, which in turn requires that we only coerce them if they have sufficient reason of their own to comply. Otherwise we fail to treat persons as free and equal.
Yes, I’ve equated the idea of public justification and liberal neutrality (find a famous attempt here) but that’s because I think the idea of public justification provides the most attractive explanation of why we care about neutrality and a clear method of applying neutrality to institutions.
II. The Limits of Neutrality
So, given the foregoing, we can say that a nation-state is neutral in the liberal sense when it employs only publicly justified coercion. Policies are neutral when they are publicly justified. Laws need not be neutral in having equal effects or outcomes, so long as they are publicly justified. So the ideal of liberal neutrality permits the state to promote goods that all persons reasonably agree are goods (perhaps primary goods, though given reasonable pluralism, that scope is pretty limited).
The limits of liberal neutrality are few – it’s a radical and attractive principle. But its limits arise (a) when someone wishes to coerce without public justification and (b) when widespread agreement allows the state to promote goods that all are committed to. Technically, (b) is not a violation of neutrality, but it does violate the common interpretation of liberal neutrality where the state is not permitted to promote the common good at all. So long as promoting the common good is chastened by the restraints of public reason, its fine by me.
III. How Do We Discern the Limits of Neutrality?
We discern the limits of neutrality by determining whether laws and policies are publicly justified.
We do not have to be “neutral” between, say, publicly justified and publicly unjustified laws. Nor need the content of these laws necessarily treat all persons the same in all cases. Laws can be non-neutral in content despite being publicly justified (though I think neutral content and public justification will tend to go together since we give all views equal justificatory weight).
Determining what is justified to persons is not always an easy matter, however. There are well known problems with unstable survey data, data that varies depending on the way questions are framed. Similarly, it is hard to determine from present social practices that enjoy widespread recognition whether minorities have sufficient reason to endorse those practices.
In my view, evaluation via public reason should follow the whiner. When conflicts arise, and people start to complain, we should turn our gaze to their objections and scrutinize them. If we conclude that they have a strong, epistemically justified objection to a law or policy, they have a defeater for the law. Accordingly, we are obligated to reform or revoke the law if we care about treating others as free and equal (as we should).
I grant this is not a perfect formula, but it seems no more defective to me than alternative methods employed by other political theories.
I think the general idea of contractualist justification is the best explication of the moral point of view. And so I think that contractualist approaches to politics are the morally best approaches. As a result, if liberal neutrality is to be an attractive moral ideal, it should be interpreted in ways compatible with the idea of public reason. I go a bit stronger than this and define liberal neutrality in terms of which laws are publicly justified. I think doing so captures what is clear and attractive about liberal neutrality while abandoning what is often confusing and unnecessarily contentious.
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