My last two posts have explained what I take to be Rawls’s philosophical project and the main errors in that project. Now I can state in a relatively straightforward fashion why I think libertarians should take Rawls seriously. I’ve explained why in earlier posts, but I weave them together here.

(1)   Historical Accomplishments – libertarians should appreciate Rawls’s great historical accomplishments. He played a major role in reviving political philosophy as a legitimate discipline in the 1960s and 1970s. Second, he saw the need for a systematic alternative to utilitarian politics. Finally, Rawls convinced a great many academics that Marxism was wrong to assert that social order was inevitably a story of conflict until the completion of revolution. One of Rawls’s great insights was that society is a cooperative venture for mutual gain.

(2)   Consequence-Sensitive Deontology – I have repeatedly stressed in my posts the importance of developing a non-utilitarian approach to justice that is nonetheless sensitive to consequences. Rawls helped contemporary moral philosophers see the need for such a theory.

(3)   Contractualism – contractualism is an attractive moral and political theory. And it provides an attractive foundation for liberalism based on the recognition that the norms of political life should be acceptable to all. Rawls was one of the first proponents of the view.

(4)   Institutionalism – Rawls saw that institutional conflicts raise a unique problem above and beyond questions of individual conduct. While Rawls used this point to motivate applying principles of justice primarily to society’s basic structure, allowing him to develop an account of social justice, libertarians also appreciate that moral and economic problems arise at higher levels of social organization. What libertarians can learn from Rawls is that one of these problems is a problem of justice, or so I (controversially) argued here.

(5)   Reasonable Pluralism – Rawls recognized that the free exercise of practical reason leads to systematic disagreement about matters of ultimate importance and that political theory must begin by recognizing this social predicament. Many libertarian theories fail to recognize this critical fact (I have called these mistaken views Enlightenment libertarianisms).

(6)   Public Justification – Respect for persons requires that all instances of coercion be subject to public justification. Rawls brought this idea into clearer focus than anyone in history up to that point. He also made possible Jerry Gaus’s classical liberal account of public reason in The Order of Public Reason, which one prominent review described as “the most complete and rigorous defense of classical liberalism” to date (Kindle version now only $16.50!).

(7)   Liberal Neutrality – Rawlsian political liberalism provides an attractive account of liberal neutrality. Libertarians have always stressed the importance of a non-perfectionist politics (even if they buy into a perfectionist political theory): it is not the business of the state to promote a particular conception of the good. Rawls provides us with a method of justifying such restraints on state power.

(8)   Respect for Religion – Rawls’s last work “The Ideal of Public Reason Revisited” (pdf here) reveals his most mature thoughts on the place of religion in liberal institutions. His view is far more tolerant and thoughtful than views of religion held by many libertarians, who cannot see religious belief and practice as a rational phenomenon. I think Rawls’s view can be marshaled to defend religious liberty, or so I argued here. I argue the same in more detail in my forthcoming book.

(9)   Liberalism – Rawls defended liberalism against all comers. He placed an enormous amount of weight on the importance of liberal liberties, arguing that they could not be sacrificed for any reason save to protect some from the others. Even if this is too strong, libertarians should be able to appreciate Rawls’s emphasis.

(10)  Neo-Rawlsian Libertarianism – Rawls’s work made possible classical liberal interpretations of his theory, some of which are philosophically persuasive. I have outlined my own preferred version here. John Tomasi has the most well-known account.

It won’t do to simply ignore or trash Rawls. Libertarians have a lot to learn from him.

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  • Ryan Long

    My objection to your point #3 is that its ultimate conclusion is a situation in which any immoral behavior can be deemed moral if it can be sufficiently rationalized. Every crook, criminal, and despot provides some kind of rationalization for their behavior.

    If your point is that the rationalization must be democratically approved within the social order, then this completely obliterates the rights of the moral minority. The majority might deem slavery to be acceptable, and any slave’s argument for the immorality of slavery would be deemed “unreasonable justification” for emancipation.

    This is just a short comment, but one that I hope is sufficient to highlight the problems of a “contractualist” view of morality.

    • Kevin Vallier

      I think that’s a fine objection to some kinds of contractualism, but not to constructivist forms that ground rationalization in evaluative standards implicit in the moral emotions, like resentment. We don’t simply rationalize behavior. Our moral reactions to infractions suppose that others have reason, on reflection, not to violate justified moral norms. This is all Gaus and Darwall, but I like their stuff, obviously.

      • Ryan Long

        I see.

        One additional question: Do you think Zimbardo’s work on Situationism is a compelling critique against what you’re saying? I.e., are the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram experiment good reasons to believe that situations can override certain kinds of moral reflection?

        • Kevin Vallier

          They may in practice, but not with respect to what is actually justified. What is justified is a function of the reasons persons have, not just what they believe, but which values and beliefs they form with some degree of epistemic credence.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Why is this not incredibly patronizing? If not the individual, who gets to decide what values and beliefs are “formed with some degree of epistemic credence”? Wouldn’t those who first objected to slavery or other now-obviously-immoral institutions or laws have been thought to hold their views with insufficient “epistemic credence”? (whatever who have in mind by this term exactly)

          • Kevin Vallier

            It’s only patronizing if some special group were in charge of determining the relevant standard of epistemic credence and the extent to which people follow it. You could object, on public reason grounds, to having such a committee or group. I think we have public moral practices that evolve over time which give us a sense for when someone has engaged in, as Gaus says, a respectable amount of reasoning. It’s embedded in our practices of holding others responsible for moral infractions.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            “You could object, on public reason grounds, to having such a committee or group.” To whom am I objecting? If my objection is simply based on the undesirability of giving such a group this authority under objective moral standards, how does “public reason” differ from the traditional perspective? If my objection is addressed to someone or something, I don’t think you have solved the problem of decisions inconsistent with correct moral judgments.

          • Ryan Long

            I thought about this for a long time. “The reasons persons have, not just what they believe” is a very confusing statement to me. What reasons might a person have that are not expressed by that person’s belief? What is the key difference you’re driving at? What is the difference between my reasons and the reasons I believe that I have?

            If the answer comes down to an evaluation of epistemic credence, how do I know when I am credible? If I conclude X in one situation and Y in the other, how will I know whether X or Y are epistemically credible?

          • Kevin Vallier

            Such are the mysteries of epistemology! Theories of epistemic justification employed for an account of public justification are typically what we call “internalist.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justep-intext/#2

  • Fernando Teson

    Kevin: This is a good effort to rescue what is valuable in Rawls for libertarians. But, leaving aside that Rawls himself was unfair to classical liberalism, the deal breaker, for me, is the weakness of public-reason liberalism (I say this with enormous respect for Jerry Gaus’s work.) I guess I still hold the old-fashioned belief that political philosophy is about finding the best principles, the best justification (if any) of social coercion. I cannot accept that the task of philosophy is to find out what people agree on. People make all kinds of dubious factual and normative claims, and I would be much surprised if the overlapping consensus yielded anything close to the empirical or moral truth. In fact, public-reason liberalism seems to rest on the ad-populum fallacy: X’s truth is not increased by the fact that many people or majority believe that X is true. And I cannot see why I fail to treat an astrologer with respect when I tell him that his beliefs are bunk.

    • John Alexander

      It seems to me that we are treating people disrespectfully when we fail to tell them the truth about what we think about their beliefs. Avoiding doing so does not enable us to enter into a meaningful dialogue with those we disagree with to find some common ground, if such ground exists, for us to move forward cooperatively. I would also think that we would need agreement on what justifies social coercion or sanctioning if we are to have cooperation.

    • Kevin Vallier

      I suppose I think there are two valuable forms of moral inquiry. The former, a first-personal inquiry into moral truth, is a fine way to proceed for some forms of normativity. So I agree with you on that much. But there is another form of moral inquiry not based on mere consent or alien form of idealization that sees interpersonal moral demands as calling for a distinctively second-personal form of moral inquiry into whether our moral practices can be interpersonally justified. We can associate the former sort of inquiry with Plato, classical natural law theory, Cambridge Platonism, and early 20th century metaethics (Moore, Ross).

      The traditional problem with restricting social life to norms validated from the first-personal perspective is that we fundamentally disagree about objective moral requirements, which makes insisting on basing social life in these principles tantamount to insisting that people comply with our reason because we are correct! This, as Mill and Locke saw, is the logic of the persecutor.

      But if we acknowledge a second form of moral inquiry, into the public justification of moral and political claims, then we can see a way to form a moral community with persons who disagree about first-personal normative truth. Rawls shows us how to make that world possible. Your approach, I think, ultimately leads to illberal conclusions. Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant all saw the problem here. I think Hume and Smith did as well, and even Hegel and the British idealists and 20th century Kantian and Humean constructivists.

      Also, as I understand it, many public reason liberals based public justification on idealized acceptance because it is a proxy for the reasons persons have for particular actions, if not the reasons that “exist” in some more objective sense. If the standard of idealization is not alien, but say buried in our moral practices (like the sort of moral practice that allows us to demand the guy not cross Mill’s bad bridge because he lacks the relevant information), then I think it’s neither patronizing or excessively abstract.

      • Fernando Teson

        Interesting. I need to tthonk more about this. But I resist the suggestion that the non-public-reason method leads to illiberal conclusions. That depends on the specific views about the permissibility of state coercion. And I don’t need to remind you that Rawlsian PR liberals support many uses of state coercion that a non-PR libertarian would reject. Who is the persecutor here? The egalitarian who foists majoritarian decisions after public deliberation recommended by PR, or the libertarian who simply thinks that people should be left alone?

      • Roderick T. long

        This, as Mill and Locke saw, is the logic of the persecutor.

        Except it’s their own position. Mill’s politics are based on utilitarianism; Locke’s on natural law. They were not, thank goodness, public-reason liberals.

        • Kevin Vallier

          Obviously you can see a particular attitude or approach is problematic and miss that your own views imply or suggest said attitudes or approaches. What’s more, I think Locke is a public reason forerunner, given how deeply and rationally disputable he thought natural law claims were.

          And people have debated quite a bit about how to prioritize Mill’s seemingly in tension utilitarian and liberal commitments. Mill’s argumentative strategy in On Liberty is very much in a public reason style, even if Utilitarianism is not. I grant, though, that Mill was a perfectionist liberal at heart. Nobody’s perfect, not even “Jack.”

          • Roderick T. long

            I guess Mill took Matthew 5:48 more seriously than Rawls did.

    • Damien S.

      Me, I think the quest for absolute moral truth is astrological…

  • Roderick T. long

    Agree on 1, 2, and 9. Disagree on 3, 5, 6, and 7. Mixed on 4, 8, and 10. But I’ve said nice things about Rawls here: http://praxeology.net/unblog12-02.htm#04

    • Kevin Vallier

      Yes, you’re actually nice to him.

    • Irfan Khawaja

      I wonder if more could be said about (2). Is the claim that Rawls was, in fact, a deontologist who happened to be sensitive to consequences? Or is it that he self-consciously developed a form of deontology that reconciled a commitment to deontology with consequence-sensitivity? I often hear people ascribing some version of (2) to Rawls, but it’s not clear to me where one goes in Rawls to find a discussion of it.

      • Kevin Vallier

        I think it’s the latter. He’s clear that a consequence-insensitive deontology is crazy and says as much in part to assume other moral philosophers that they can give up consequentialism without giving up concern for consequences. Rawls was highly, self-consciously, trying to construct a plausible political alternative to utilitarianism.

        • Irfan Khawaja

          Fair enough. I guess the issue turns on the conception of “priority” at work in “Priority of the Right and Ideas of the Good,” but I find his argument there obscure.

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    As I am not well grounded in philosophy, (but learning all the time) I cannot make many observations except to say that your point 5, reasonable pluralism is very appropriate. We are unlikely to ever create a Libertarian state here on earth the way that many of us have dreamed of. But any set of good arguments which we can make that bring us nearer our goal is for the good.
    Only by laying the philosophical groundwork can you move hearts and minds and people.
    One thing I can say with some certitude. The ideas which have moved politics in most of the world for the last few generations are just about played out. People no longer trust in the old ways and are looking for new ideas.

    • jdkolassa

      “The ideas which have moved politics in most of the world for the last few generations are just about played out. People no longer trust in the old ways and are looking for new ideas.”

      I don’t think anyone can really question this. Social democracy, in particular, is going the way of the dodo and I suspect the generation that follows mine will have nothing to do with it.

      • Damien S.

        “Social democracy, in particular, is going the way of the dodo”

        What’s your evidence for that?

        • jdkolassa

          Part of it is simple demographic and economic realities. There isn’t the capital to continue the fund these social democratic programs. Witness the collapse of the social democratic model in Europe as as case study.

          But part of it is also growing resentment, especially amongst the younger folk, towards the social democratic model. Granted, this is more of an American thing than a European one, and it small today, but it is growing. In Europe it mostly takes the form of hostility towards the out-group, i.e., foreigners; in America it is mostly “just leave us the hell alone.”

          Note that I’m not including as “social democratic” models that are broadly classical liberal/libertarian but with, say, a basic income or a thin welfare veneer on them. Those are more properly described as market democratic, like John Tomasi’s “Free Market Fairness.”

          • Damien S.

            What collapse? I don’t see any. There’s austerity-driven erosion of programs in the euro peripheral countries, but that’s a marker of the bad design and flaws of the eurozone, and externally imposed policies. Countries not caught up in the crisis are showing no such withdrawal.

            I don’t see this resentment, either. Can you point to polls or something?

            Conversely, more and more countries move to universal health care, including the US, and states within the US. Young adult Americans are friendlier to the word ‘socialist’ than their elders (I have seen polls on that.)

          • Les Kyle Nearhood

            If you cannot see the comming financial implosion at our unsustainable spending then you need to rethink your positions.

          • jdkolassa

            What austerity? I don’t see any. There’s fear-driven tax increases throughout the Euro, but I don’t see any spending cuts or genuine, actual cutbacks going on.

            Looks to me like you’re unaware of what is actually happening in the world. You should go find out.

            http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com

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