A critique of public reason (II)

In the previous post I discussed the idea of public reason. In this one I offer a few modest rebukes. Though critical in aim, it is in the same political tradition, a sympathetic attempt to curate conditions for the flourishing of democracy. The post has three parts: first I say why public reason seems on the ropes to us today; and second, a reminder that since public reason was inclusive, not fanatical, it can help to meet the challenges of anomic life in our century. Third, I offer three notes on the relation between public reason and publicity. I suggest that, though Rawls can deal with these three complaints when taken as a corporate whole, the three points together leave a trail of breadcrumbs that point to a compelling objection to his conception of political justice.

*

Contemporary democratic debate is sharply polarized, and these divisions can be explained in a ‘whiz-bang’ vernacular. Mainstream political discourse is held in thrall by punchy defects — junk values, hot takes, echo chambers, alternative facts, fake news.

A diagnosis of our bimodal status is hard to avoid and easy to come by. People of conscience have both the means and motivation to revisit injustices previously hidden from public view. We now have the critical resources to think about the systematic effects of speech. They come in many flavors: individual bids to sneaky collective acts (e.g., dogwhistles), offenses with tacit collective force (e.g., micro-aggression), or plain old mindfucking (e.g., gaslighting). Social justice tempts us to take a stance of hypervigilance, where brinksmanship is the strategy most fit for political discourse. And with great vigilance comes great dissensus, as hard bargains delay the renegotiation of a social contract. Meanwhile, people without conscience have enormous power and wealth, having consolidated their holdings into the hands of the collective few. The enemies of freedom and equality have nowhere to hide, so operate in public and with impunity. And while they will eventually get their due, the lurking threat of global warming may undo us.

Which is all to say it is difficult for us to see the point of liberal justice. For much of the liberal imagination is directed to remedy injustices in a life of reasonable civic association. Some small bit of it — not much — is directed at the process of bargaining along the way. This is, I think, is not the fault of the liberal contractualist ideal. But it does feel that public reason is an adjunct to institutional justice, a peripheral platitude. At worst, a critic can say, political liberalism helped to distract us from public facts on common ground. It is worth asking whether the critic has got it right.

**

Public reasons are by and for the public good, and publicized. For Rawls, democratic institutions of governance are based on public reasons. As seen, Rawls argues that a reasonable person — that is, a responsible and responsive person — should participate in civic life by putting public reasons first. In contrast, non-public reasons characteristically belong to social associations of all sorts; they are by and for special interests or organizations, and/or done for the good of such interests (and/or offered behind closed doors). We said these reasons are public-facing, and potentially publicized, but are not public reasons.

It’s worth noting that Rawls is not a fanatic about public reason. That is, the mature Rawls thinks associative reasons are not excluded from conversation, regarding the constitutive requirements of a democratic form of government. For Rawls, following Solum, is aware that many advocates of public reason have associative — even religious — motives. He does not deny that comprehensive doctrines play a role in negotiating a social contract. Yet the important point is that associative reasons play second-fiddle to public ones. Comprehensive doctrines matter only if they provide motivation and support for public reason. So it trivially follows there are two kinds of associative reason: the public-facing and the private-facing. (He might not use those terms, but I think he would agree to the distinction.) In that idiom, we can say our political moment is explained in part by the rise of self-indulgent associative reason.

***

There are a bunch of places where you can take issue with the Rawlsian political programme. You can criticize the conception of justice on libertarian or communitarian grounds, or you can criticize the approach to political representation on republican ones, or you can criticize the ideal-theoretic aspects of the programme. Some socialists have impugned it for its lack of a class analysis, and some feminists have taken issue with the elimination of the family from the basic structure of society. All these points are cogent, and all of them have potential limitations. But, since I am grinding my own axes, I would like to highlight three complaints, as they are distinctively related to the ideal of publicity and associative reason.

  1. Rawls says that political societies are communities ordered by reason in order to secure terms of cooperation. Ostensibly, those terms of cooperation are ones called ‘fair’. But you have to be an an agreeable political mood to agree with his formulation. That is, you’ve got to say there are good answers to collective problems, and/or that we are in a position to act on those good answers. So, for instance, someone in the pessimistic mood might think of political societies as the rule of alpha predators, whose rule is unrelated to reasoned claims of fair cooperation. Since those assumptions are needed to sustain a collective political will, it is always pertinent in politics to invite pessimists to be more reasonable. But anyway, this objection is not fatal, as there is no reason to think that Rawls’s liberalism is any worse off than anyone else in the face of pessimism. Even survivalists assume they can survive somehow; even libertarians need to trust the sanctity of voluntary contracts. Pessimism is political nihilism, and it does not discriminate between liberals anyone else.
  2. Rawls assumes that all nonpublic reasons are associative. But there is a third category — the category of private reasons. Rawls says “there is no such thing as private reason” (220 fn.7). If we put aside Wittgenstein’s nostrums about private rules. I do not know what he must mean, as he does not motivate that denunciation. Here is why. Suppose we were to follow Sissela Bok, in saying privacy is a personal claim of protected access to information. If so, then it sure looks to me like you can claim that you have special access to proprietary information, while potentially leaving your reasons unarticulated in public. The demand for candor is never ever comprehensive. e.g., when asked by government, “Are you gay?”, you can decline to answer the question, and also legitimately denounce it having been asked — and, most importantly for present purposes, you can legitimately leave your further reasons for exercising that discretion unarticulated if you so choose. That does not mean that no public reasons could be articulated, i.e., as it is unfair and inappropriate to force someone to out themselves. Nor does it mean that a political society can survive on the basis of private reasons alone. It is only to say that, yes indeed, there are such things as private reasons, just in case some of my reasons ever conceivably belong only to me. That being obvious, it is likely Rawls meant something else by private reason, but I do not know what it is, so leave the complaint at that.
  3. Rawls believes that the modern constitutional Court is exemplar of an institution of public reason. The Court is obliged to fit its rulings into the “higher law” of the political system — that is, to fair terms of cooperation — and in that sense the Court is more democratic than executive and legislature. But does it on peculiar legal grounds. So, Rawls’s expression, ‘higher law’, is a Thomistic turn of phrase, and it makes Rawls (himself raised Catholic) seem like he is a natural lawyer. Were that true, it would be disquieting for us with positivist sympathies. Luckily, though, this is not necessitated by the text, since Rawls could equally well be saying that there is an unwritten constitution (perhaps secondary rules of recognition), and this is not the same thing as natural law. Moreover, he explicitly calls himself a ‘dualist‘ about judicial review, which I read to mean, he straddles the line between unwritten and written law. The difference, it seems, is that the written constitution is expressed as a system of public reason interpreted through ordinary court procedures and interpreted as conventional expressions of the constitutional enactment as amended, while unwritten laws are interpretations done in due course that are at the very least public-facing associative reasons, if not fully public ones.

Taken in isolation, these criticisms only limit and constrain, if not augment, his overall view. (1) Yes, political liberalism cannot be defended to the pessimist, because the embers of conscience and solidarity cannot blaze in such sodden wood. But that is a persisting problem in politics from every angle and ideology. (2) Private reasons are vitally important in many contexts, and in public they are indistinguishable from fiat. Yet we can explicitly state in public reason there is a right to self-govern. So, we can accommodate and honor private reason from a public point of view. (3) The idea of legal dualism in judicial review is interesting, and plausible, and shared by others — but it looks to be a detail worth clarifying for legal philosophers, not itself an irremediable defect.

It is only when the critiques are considered as a set, that we get a potentially cogent objection to Rawlsian justice. Suppose (as one might say) private reason is constitutive of political liberty. If so, then our device of representation — the original position, for Rawls — should properly encode that ideal in its procedure. But perhaps political liberty does not have a place in the original position — at least, not in the way that equality is encoded in it, as a set of rules that are endorsed equally under equal ignorance. At present, the only sense that original citizens are free is they make a choice without coercion. But suppose, to truly honor the ideal of freedom, original citizens be given a choice in mood. It follows that we would need to consider whether reasonable people can decide to be pessimists — and then we should demonstrate that even originally positioned pessimists will follow A Theory of Justice. If one could make that argument, then that is all well and good; but if not, Rawlsian theory would need to consider how seriously it thinks of liberty as an ideal.

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