Religion, Rights Theory

Religious Toleration Generalized: A Quick Case for Public Reason Liberalism

I’m busy writing a book defending public reason liberalism, which explains my blogging hiatus. J can blog and write books at the same time; that has proven hard for me.

So I’ll take a break from book writing to offer you a quick argument for the view I defend in the book. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that there is a true moral principle that requires religious toleration. This means that all religions should be tolerated insofar as is possible. So we shouldn’t tolerate honor killings or child sacrifices, but in general, we should permit as much religious freedom as we can. I think that’s a pretty plausible candidate for a true moral principle.

But, of course, if there is such a principle of religious toleration, it cannot be a foundational moral principle, since it is hard to see why a foundational moral principle would single-out religion and give it special authority over and above other belief systems. So if we should tolerate religion, we should tolerate non-religious practices and people who have rich, non-religious conceptions of the good. So there is a broader principle of what we might call doctrine toleration, where we tolerate both religious and secular doctrines about the good life.

I would go a step further and argue that, if there is a true principle of doctrine toleration, we should include conceptions of justice along with conceptions of the religious or secular good. If so, then there is a mind-independently true principle that requires structuring social and political institutions so that they are not only neutral between religions and secular conceptions of the good, but between conceptions of justice like libertarianism and social democracy. Some conceptions of justice are genuinely beyond the pale, such as conceptions that allow for child sacrifice, torture, racism, etc. But most conceptions of justice are not. And the principle of doctrine toleration applies to them.

Public reason liberalism is a specification of the principle of doctrine toleration. It states that state coercion must be justifiable to each suitably qualified point of view (ruling out really rotten and irrational stuff), which includes religious and secular conceptions of the good as well as different conceptions of justice. This means that if libertarians attempt to coercively impose libertarianism on non-libertarianism, they violate the principle of doctrine toleration. It doesn’t mean that libertarianism is the wrong conception of justice, just that there are ways of pushing libertarianism that violate the principle. The same goes for Catholics who attempt to coercively impose Catholicism on non-Catholics, they violate the principle of doctrine toleration. It doesn’t mean that Catholicism is the wrong religion, just that there are ways of pushing Catholicism that violate the principle.

Public reason liberalism is based on recognizing symmetry between our toleration of religion, non-religious doctrines, and conceptions of justice.

The best argument against the principle of doctrine toleration is that it is incoherent. There are no institutions that are neutral among non-wicked doctrines about the good and justice. In other words, there is no way to establish moral relations between persons with significantly different points of view about morality, justice, etc. All that is left for us is to push our views onto each other, rendering political life a kind of war between necessarily opposed groups. Our political life cannot be mediated by a principle of doctrine toleration where we respect one another by respecting each person’s normative perspective.

Obviously, there’s much more to say, and I’m happy to talk about it with kind commenters. My book is a possibility proof against this objection; I try to show that the set of institutions compatible with the principle of doctrine toleration is not empty. Hence the title: Must Politics Be War? And my answer: No.

  • Jarrod Stewart

    Nice link, took a course by Gerald Gaus eight years ago and never thought the same way again.

  • Ben Kennedy

    “The best argument against the principle of doctrine toleration is that it is incoherent. There are no institutions that are neutral among non-wicked doctrines about the good and justice. In other words, there is no way to establish moral relations between persons with significantly different points of view about morality, justice, etc.”

    Fortunately, there is no need to do this in a robust sense. Everybody is already the star of their own movie of their life, and no two people are the same – that’s a given. So it all boils down to “cooperate, or defect?” Ultimately, nobody really cares why the other person cooperates, we just care that they do. I don’t care what your doctrine is, or your religious/moral beliefs, or your position on mind-independent truths, ultimately I just care whether we can cooperate to advance our mutual goals, or if are going to hit me on the head with a rock and take my stuff. At least, that is how our primitive monkey brains operate.

    I think “doctrine toleration” is really better conceptualized as a specific type of “non-self toleration”, and without this principle, we would utterly fail as a species

    • Kevin Vallier

      I think we care what others believe at least because we want to be able to figure out whether we can trust them. If people are committed to public justification, then they’re going to turn out to be trustworthy as they’re not going to defect by imposing their view on you.

      • Ben Kennedy

        Public justification only breeds trust if people are committed to the same sense of justice. Isn’t the problem you are trying to solve precisely what happens when you don’t agree? You are making a lot of assumptions around justice conceptions that are “beyond the pale” or “rotten and irrational”. In modern society, the key debates seem to turn on the issues where one side thinks the other is beyond the pale of decency – at least according to my Facebook feed

        • Kevin Vallier

          I don’t agree with the first sentence. I think public justification isn’t centrally about justice, but rather in establishing certain valuable moral relations between persons when they disagree about justice. When our moral and legal conventions are publicly justified, they’re the basis for trust even when we disagree about justice.

          You’re absolutely right that drawing the boundary between what’s beyond the pale and what isn’t is a matter of practical political dispute. And it’s tricky theoretically as well. I spend a lot of time on it in my first book and will in my second. But I think it can be done.

    • Kate Jackson

      But wouldn’t this “cooperation” concept serve as some sort of ‘freestanding’ normative order…? (Galson’s term) at least so far as cooperation is to be negotiated on some sort of principled basis. the only other option is Kukathas’ notion of ‘political decisions’ that don’t purport to be anything. which — is scary. Because decisions that are made based upon no principles at all can end up… kinda arbitrary. the enemy of liberty, I should think.

      • Kevin Vallier

        I think the content of what becomes freestanding is much more variable than Rawls does. What matters for me, in the first instance, is the formulation of an overlapping consensus on certain common moral, legal, and constitutional rules, but emphatically not on a single conception of justice. So we have a moral basis for social order, but it’s a patchwork of spontaneously evolved moral rules rather than an overlap on a single conception of justice.

  • John Halstead

    Your theory does indeed imply that libertarianism is false, for libertarianism states that libertarianism may be coercively imposed on all, including non-libertarians. What it doesn’t say is that libertarians are permitted to use coercion to make people believe in libertarianism. But then, pace Rawls, libertarians never wanted to do that anyway, and neither did anyone else who believes a comprehensive theory of justice, such as utilitarians.

    Regarding your response to the incoherence point, it is obviously wrong to say that people should impose what they believe to be the true theory of justice, and no-one believes this. Rather, correctness people believe that the true theory of justice should be imposed, full stop. This doesn’t entail war in any sense. Also, your theory is clearly self-defeating… people may impose what they believe to be the correct theory of public reason liberalism (and there is disagreement about this). This leads to war. Your rationale commits you to the position that you cannot impose your own theory.

    • Kevin Vallier

      I don’t think any version of libertarianism I know implies that libertarianism must be imposed on non-libertarians. It’s just a view about how society ought to be organized, but there might be other moral principles that govern how we should get to such a society. The principle also rules out violating freedom of thought, since that requires coercion that cannot be publicly justified.

      So let’s push the analogy once more to help elucidate my point about politics as war or institutionalized aggression. Let’s replace disagreement about justice with disagreement about religion. In both cases, if both parties say “My way or else” and the other side does not acquiesce, there’s going to be violent conflict, either outside of political channels, or within them. That seems clear enough.

      As for the self-defeat objection, I don’t buy your formulation, but there is a formulation that worries me and I have an article responding to it coming out in American Philosophical Quarterly very soon. I can send you the piece if you like.

      • John Halstead

        Hey, thanks for the reply.

        Here is a popular version of right libertarianism: the state ought to coercively protect my justly earned private property. This will be imposed on all those who try to take my justly earned property, including non-libertarians, e.g. socialists, utilitarians, etc. In what way is this not imposing libertarianism on non-libertarians? In general, libertarianism simply requires the coercive imposition of a libertarian social system. It requires that the state impose this even on non-libertarians.

        I don’t see how your second paragraph responds to my criticism. I argued that this proposition:

        P1. People may impose what they believe to be the truth about justice on society.

        is different to:

        P2. People may impose the truth about justice on society.

        P2 is true, P1 is not. Contra what you suggest, P2 is a viable alternative to public reason liberalism and indeed was endorsed by almost all political philosophers until Rawls’ Political Liberalism. And P2 does not commit us to some sort of warlike society. It would be a surprise if it did: almost no-one believes in public reason liberalism and even those that do disagree about what it requires. And yet, we have managed to maintain a peaceful and tolerant society.

        • jdkolassa

          “Here is a popular version of right libertarianism: the state ought to coercively protect my justly earned private property. This will be imposed on all those who try to take my justly earned property, including non-libertarians, e.g. socialists, utilitarians, etc. In what way is this not imposing libertarianism on non-libertarians?”

          I never understand this argument. If your property is justly earned, how is defending it imposing on others? The ones doing the imposition are the ones trying to take your property away for their own uses. Nobody is “imposing” libertarianism on others, they’re merely protecting their own stuff.

          • John Halstead

            Imposition can be justified.

  • Rob Gressis

    It does seem that straight away your principle rules out two kinds of doctrines: (1) doctrines according to which there are no true moral principles; and (2) doctrines that deny the truth of doctrine-toleration.

    So, from (1) it would seem to follow that someone like Rorty or Nietzsche is wrong. I assume that there are lots of examples of (2) (revolutionary communism or radical Islam, maybe).

    If I’m right about any of the foregoing, is this a feature or a bug?

    Also: does Huemer’s view violate this doctrine? It seems, on the one hand, that there are lots of reasonable conceptions of the good life according to which the state is morally mandatory. But Huemer seems to think that establishing a state is immoral. Or maybe I have Huemer wrong?

    Regardless, I don’t know this public reason literature at all — just letting you know!

    • Kevin Vallier

      (1) A feature. (2) Regarding Huemer, it’s only a problem if he attempts to force anarchism on non-anarchists. But if Huemer wants a kind of global exemption from the state, perhaps a charter city for libertarians, then I think public reason liberalism validates his claim. But my view on the latter is totally idiosyncratic to my version of PRL, though I think it’s a great feature!

    • Kate Jackson

      this is a great point. And along with ruling out the Nietzcheans (which, I mean, may only amount to disgruntled suburban 18 year olds — ok, joke) it rules out people with a cognitive universe that doesn’t involve any sort of “concept of the good” or “justice” or “god” or whatever. Instead, it privileges those people who have *some* idea of the sunnum bonnum. What about the run of the mill joe who don’t care much at all? Why can’t he run his universe the way he likes (within the given constraints). It seems like back-door perfectionism, though of the plural open minded variety. Do you need to pass some sort of “sincerity test” before you’re allowed to self-govern according to those sincerely held beliefs?

      • Kevin Vallier

        The problem of the “joe” without a comprehensive doctrine is precisely why I focus on reasons rather than doctrines as the currency of public justification. Joe may not have doctrines, but he’s got intelligible reasons, and so he plays a role in public justification.

  • I guess the basic objection is that justice addresses precisely those things that necessarily involve coercion. If you and I disagree about property entitlements over a finite resource, then somebody’s view has to prevail. And if the loser wants to implement her own view, then force has to be used against her (or she becomes the winner and coerces the former winner). In contrast, if you and I have inconsistent beliefs about metaphysics, someone has to be wrong but no one has to be coerced.

    • martinbrock

      If you and I disagree about property entitlements over a finite resource, then somebody’s view has to prevail.

      If we’re discussing a particular resource, you’re right, but doctrine tolerance is not about conflict over a particular resource as much as it’s about conflict over a particular system of propriety. The conflict is not over who gets the resource. The conflict is over whose rule decides. The latter conflict can be resolved to the satisfaction of both parties to a conflict if both will accept a limited sphere of influence. My rule applies to these resources, and your rule applies to those resources. Conflict occurs only if one or both of us insists that our rule apply to all resources everywhere.

    • Kate Jackson

      YES. Reaume’s essay on the state forced to intervene into church doctrine to solve run of the mill property disputes is a great example of this.

    • Kevin Vallier

      To solve this problem, I have to show that there are at least some thin norms of justice that idealized persons will converge upon once they realize they face conditions of justice pluralism. That means that there must exist some scheme of rights that all regard as better than no authoritative scheme of rights, but not necessarily as morally optimal. If there is such a scheme, then those rights will specify part (just a part) of the content of public justice and so can serve to resolve disputes about the rest. This is all part of Chapter 4 of the book I’m writing now. I think everyone is going to want “primary rights” or rights anyone would want regardless of their conception of the good or justice and would be willing to extend to others on the same terms.

      • If you give me a place to stand, I can use a lever to move the earth. And if you let me idealize my agents, I can solve all political problems. But idealized consent and actual consent are not the same thing.

        • Kevin Vallier

          Introducing idealization doesn’t mean introducing radical idealization where you can replace any beliefs you like. I have accounts of idealization in my first book and the book I’m writing now. Second, accounts of idealization in public reason aren’t meant to be substitutes for actual consent, and they’re not hypothetical consent theories either. Public reason views tell us what reasons we have, and that’s where its normativity comes from.

          • How do you constrain idealization? If I have the right theory of Justice, why wouldn’t an idealized version of you agree with me?

          • Kevin Vallier

            Moderate idealization – you don’t give agents all information and perfect processing ability, but you give them enough to be epistemically exemplary agents of their kind – boundedly rational beings.

          • Then I think you still have the same problem. There is no reason to think that the conceptions of justice arrived at by moderately idealized agents are can consistently be realizes. That implies someone is coerced in a way they think (reasonably) is unjust.

      • j_m_h

        Maybe a difference can of worms here but I’m wondering about the
        thin norms of justice” and “must exist some scheme or rights” linkage to accomplish your goal. Am I reading that correctly?

        I suppose casting the requirement as a rights structure makes sense but I’m just wonding if it requires that both/all sides recognize the rights as being support by some underlying judicial norm as opposed to a more pragmatic coordination/violence cost minimizing basis.

  • j_m_h

    I think I’d distile the issue to Frost’s view: “Good fenses make good neighbors” and the effort is all about figuring out just what a good fense is in this context.
    What’s not said, but I suspect rather true, is that bad fenses will result in poor relationships among neighbors and be as much a cause of dispute and violence as is intollerance about how we individually, or as groups – religion, social view on justace… – choose to live.

    • hgfalling

      Frost was criticizing that view, btw.

      • j_m_h

        But I agree with his neighbor so….

  • murali284

    Hi Kevin, this is a bit of a continuation of our conversation in melbourne and pertains to the post here:

    One way of demarcating between the domain of justice and the good is look at what the enforceable duties are. Working backwards, you favour some kind of poly-centric order within a particular political community. At the very minimum each sub-community must respect freedom of exit at least vis a vis enforcement of norms which cannot be justified to the person who might be otherwised coerced. More plausibly there may very well be some basic liberal-ish minimum of liberties that each political sub community is to secure, and presumably the coercion that is threatened against political sub-communities that do not comply is justifiable to all qualified points of view (however we want to cash that out. I haven’t finished reading the stuff you sent me yet so that discussion can be postponed till later). Whatever this minimum is, isn’t that set your conception of justice and everything else your conception of the good. i.e. at the end of the day your picture still provides no pluralism about conceptions of justice because the only enforceable norms anywhere are the bare liberal minimum (whatever that may be). Everything else is just about the good. Enforceable only by explicit consent and contract. But this picture doesn’t seem in principle different from the Rawlsian one in which there is explicitly only one conception of justice but a great many conceptions of the good. How do you spell out the difference? Or to put it differently, I’m not seeing the pluralism about justice.

    • IOW, the sphere of justice is definitionally the sphere in which inconsistent conceptions cannot be mutually realized. If they can, then you are talking about the good.

      No doubt you could divide things up some other way, but there would still be some irreducible area in which force has to prevail.