Two coding projects

There are two coding projects that I’ve had on my mind for the last little while, bothering me like a loose tooth. Here they are:

  1. New strategies for the iterated prisoner’s dilemma in Netlogo. NetLogo allows you to model agent based interactions following the incentives set up in the PD scenario. The publicly available scenario has a limited number of strategies: defector, tit-for-tat, and so on. The strategies have limited memory capacity, so, e.g., you can have a tit-for-tat strategy, who responds to anyone who defected on them in the past by defecting. I’ve added a few more strategies.
    • What I need now is to add in two new strategies that are responsive to incentives: the ‘desperado’ and the ‘turncoat’. The idea is that the desperado cooperates unless they achieved a below-average payoff on the previous round, in which case they defect; and the turncoat does the opposite, defecting if they achieved an above-average payoff the previous round.
  2. Revisions to explanatory coherence. Thagard has created a model of explanatory coherence called ECHO, which is part of a set called COHERE and coded in LISP. The model is meant to capture the process of coherentist inference in scientific reasoning, with a unique accent on outputting theories that fit a certain threshold (approximating a particular vision of inference to the best explanation). There are several axioms that the model is meant to operationalize, among them the principles of symmetry, explanation, and analogy. They are as follows: (1) Symmetry: for any two propositions, the coherence of P1 with P2 implies the coherence of P2 with P1 – there is no such thing as a one-way coherence relationship. (2) Explanation: if a set of premises purportedly explain some conclusion, then the premises must cohere with the conclusion, and with each other. However (assuming these premises are co-hypotheses), as the number of premises goes up, the degree of coherence goes down – simplicity is better than complexity. (3) Analogy: for any two separate premise-conclusion pairs (P1-C1 and P2-C2), if the premises are alike (P1&P2), and the conclusions are alike (C1&C2), then they cohere.
    • The first problem I have with it is that it doesn’t run on modern Mac OS. I would like to have a version that can work.
    • More importantly, I’d like to have a version of ECHO that allows you to dial down the weight of these three principles. In other words, I want to see what theories pass the threshold for best explanation for reasoners who deny one or more of the three factors mentioned above (symmetry, explanation, and analogy).

On disaffiliation

Sometimes, I’m asked why I choose to list myself as an ‘independent scholar’ (associated only with the National Association for Independent Scholars). There’s good reason to be curious. Academically, there is a stigma around the label of ‘independent scholar’. (e.g., if you dig around a bit in philosophy, you find that some of the most famous of those who operate under the label make for some pretty odious company.) And it hardly helps out on the academic job market. So why would I disaffiliate? What’s the gossip?

I’m afraid the answer is rather mundane. Overall, I am pleased with my degree hosting institutions. And yet, I need access to a library or community to do my work. My affiliation just is whatever institution or community provides those scholarly resources. That access lapses when you are an alumni — understandably, since journals and databases are far from cheap. So the honest thing to fess up: I get by through Google, eBooks, Academia.edu, SSRN, and JStor’s free monthly articles.

I do not necessarily recommend this course of action to anybody who thinks they have a reasonable shot at securing academic employment. The stigma is real. But I do recommend honesty. For the job of the intellectual is to discover the truth and expose lies, and that project starts at home.

Bayes and law

I have not been posting very much lately, since I’ve been mostly concentrating my energy on writing a manuscript on the philosophy of the social sciences and with training for a paralegal license. However, I recently had the opportunity to share a few thoughts on subjective probabilities that I had been working on during the course of writing the book. https://www.linkedin.com/posts/activity-6704104726893510656-Xzxq

I have never tried doing a green screen presentation before, so it is a bit awkward in the “Tim and Eric” style. But the surreal aesthetic is now a familiar experience to all of us who have been using Zoom for the past 10 months, so hopefully it won’t distract from the main points of the presentation.

One summer day

This was the headline, one summer day last month. Do you remember? Where were you when you read it?

I was listening to some Canadians who came back from vacation in Dominican Republic talk about immigration and the need for countries to manage themselves appropriately. Factories used to store sugar cane, now they’re empty. Now it’s imported. Why’s that? Mystery.

Now also thinking about the last moments of life of a little Salvadoran girl clutching her father as they washed along a Texas riverbank and what that was like. Maybe she was crying? Did she die first, or was it her dad? How much of what they swallowed was dirt? She must have loved him judging by the way her arm is around his shirt.

Put that out of mind. Think of responses to debate team at the other table. Tell them about structural adjustment programs? Export economies? Neomercantilism? It’s not called “corruption” if we benefit, just progress. And so on.

No; not in the mood. Could, but not in the mood for it. Don’t want to talk reasons. No hot takes and no I-statements and no performative gestures and curated consciousness raising. No realistic assessments of plans and trade-offs and no ironic comparisons to historical facts and no optimism about human rights or grim hope for eking out a future free from calamity. No analogies or metaphors and no using a dead girl and her dad on a riverbank as a metonym for climate crisis and effect on diasporas. Not right now. Right now just want to interrupt and vomit blood over the table, or break open a black hole in the floor or turn the sky into razor blades. Anything to bring you back to the reality that this is a horror, and any attempt to make sense of it is an attempt to look away. Anything other than horror is a lie.

Don’t look away from it. Don’t feel better. Don’t act and justify and rationalize and debate and worry and resolve to do better or assign blame. Don’t think about the reputational effects of a maudlin blog post. Just think about trying to scream because your dad is dead in your arms and you can’t breathe because your lungs are full of dirt.

A note on blog scholarship

Sometimes on this blog I post reading notes, and other times I post original research that draws on existing scholarship.

When I first started this blog, I thought that the right way of proceeding would be to cite sources in an impeccable and academic way, to prove I’ve done the work, and to let interested readers know how to pursue the research on their own. It is always possible that some readers are in need of a study guide for existing texts, and for them I am very pleased to provide whatever reasonable support I can. Presumably, many other academic bloggers feel the same way.

But as an online tutor, I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that there is a very real threat that students will plagiarize online materials without giving proper credit. This is a serious enough problem in academia itself, as even appropriately credentialed scholars will behave badly, but made all the worse in a neo-liberal context.

So, I am not in the habit of providing precise page citations in my original research. I will provide them only when I provide reading notes, just in case readers would benefit from a literary sherpa. But if you want precise citations for original research, you will have to ask, or offer a little push back in comments. That, anyway, is my policy going forward.

Legal arborism

One of the blawgers at Double Aspect, Leonid Sirota, asks if “living tree” constitutional theories can explain the grounds and consequences of their views in the context of jurisprudence in Canada. (Sirota and his co-bloggers seem to occupy an interesting intellectual space, being McGill educated, working abroad, but whose philosophical jurisprudence seems mainly influenced by the American tradition.) Laid against that background, he asks a bevy of questions, and invites some answers. I’ll give it a shot.

(Style note: because I’m tired of writing “living tree doctrine advocates” and its long-winded cognates, I’ll call this position legal arborism. And, full disclosure: my sense of the views of legal arborism in Canada are deeply influenced by a course I audited with Wil Waluchow at McMaster, and so are tilted in favor of his own living tree constitutionalism. His kindness, patience, and scholarly acumen have influenced me a great deal.)

To give you an idea of my own perspective, allow me to say a few words about my intellectual background. My research focus is on informal promulgation, or the publicity of law (understood as a phenomenon deserving of explanation by collective social epistemology). On the one hand, my views on the written/unwritten distinction, at least at the level of discernment or court interpretation, are something of a mixed bag; I don’t know if I would consider myself a legal arborist, if only because I am wary of having my intellectual life bewitched by the power of a metaphor. So, because I am a philosophical eccentric in this and other ways, I do not think I am a thoroughly disciplined advocate of the “living tree” doctrine, and my answers will likely be inadequate. That said, I see an awful lot of merit in the arborist’s point of view of common-law — so much so that I would be far more sympathetic to the legal arborist’s general conception of law than the depiction of law provided by originalists. So, I’m with the Ents.

“1) Do you think that the linguistic meaning of the constitutional text changes over time after its entrenchment?”

This is a complex question. The question presumes that there is a distinction between linguistic and application meaning, or sentence vs. use meaning — usually captured by the distinction between semantics and pragmatics. But, as a commenter on that thread notes, many of us would dispute the application/linguistic meaning distinction, insofar as it is supposed to help us sort between two piles of content ascriptions that lawyers and judges would care about (i.e., concerning different kinds of legal effects, the constructive and the merely interpretive). And by ‘us’, I do not just mean legal arborists. I mean, ‘us’, as in virtually everyone who works in philosophy of language who was educated in the last half-century. Indeed, in my view, the best originalists don’t even follow through with the pragmatics/semantics distinction in their considered accounts. So, e.g., I’ve noted before that — aspirations to the contrary — Lawrence Solum’s “semantic” originalism is nothing of the kind, since it asks us to enrich communicative content (meaning, strict entailments) with cooperative implicatures when such are required by the method of triangulation. Solum calls it a semantic theory, but he is mis-stating (indeed, understating!) the powers of the actual theory that he advocates.

But this is easily fixed; a better presentation of the originalist argument is possible. Such an argument would either have to admit the pointlessness of appeals to textual purity, and confess that it invites relatively obvious widenings of the scope of the “semantic” theory (to include near-side pragmatics); or, it would have to advocate a Copernican revolution in semantic theory, forcing it to include extra-semantic elements; or, it would have to articulate the aims and motives behind the triangulationist method in extra-semantic terms, e.g., in terms of the political value of publicity. (FWIW, I think that in the long run the third option is the smarter move, though it would take an essay to state why.)

“2) Do you think that governing bodies should have a power to modify or override the communicative content of the constitutional text in response to changing circumstances and values?”

I think, to this question, the answer is an incorrigible ‘yes’, provided that we identify the right linguistic context that is responsible for the change in content. So, notice that there’s a difference between communicative content that changes because of a corresponding change in background conditions which affect the interpretation of statute or caselaw (i.e., related to global changes in perspective and fact), and a change in content that is merely determined by the intentions of the Court with respect to the proper aims of statute or caselaw.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the latter is faulty on broadly conservative grounds — because “activist judges”, etc, etc. Fine. It is nevertheless true to say that in the former context, an apparent change in linguistic meaning is both legitimate and hard to deny, even when we go about mere interpretation of what is said in the text. So, e.g., to take Waluchow’s example — in the infamous Persons case, the meaning of “person” is radically different in 1945 as opposed to 1845 because many substantial background assumptions have changed (e.g., about property ownership, theories of sexual psychology, etc.). Our global background conditions make it absurd to read “persons” as meaning “men” alone and pretend to be doing it in good faith. So, it is not just that the Privy Council found the caselaw disagreeable or unjust according to their personal moral convictions. It is that there has been a change in stable meaning, owing a change in the background of interpretation.

The best version of the originalist intuition rests on the idea that true expressions are stable, or built to last. So, there is at least one important difference between “2+2=4” and “The duck-rabbit illusion depicts a rabbit”: you can count on being able to get away with asserting (and assenting to) ‘two and two make four’ tomorrow, but you can’t count on being able to even assert or assent to “The duck-rabbit illusion depicts a rabbit” in the next breath, since a Gestalt shift can take it all away. The presumption of future ‘stickiness’, the idea that legal rules are going to be a going concern, is a truth-maker in law. Which is to say that legal truth implies stability, at both the level of meaning and the level of politics, and this stability across contexts helps to satisfy the need for presumptive guidance to private actors.

There are two kinds of things you have to say about the originalist’s attempt at assuring stability in this way. First, it must be noted, and emphasized, that cross-contextual meaning is itself deeply and richly dependent upon an array of assumptions or givens which give it content. This is true for both partial expressions and sentences. The very idea of a “quark” is unintelligible in the context of an epistemic community that lacks a rich set of judgments about the behavior of particle physics. The sentence, “I want to cut the sun” (John Searle’s example) is sufficiently strange as to be almost unintelligible, given that there are no feasible means (open to our current imagination) that would make that sentence true. Cross-contextual content depends on a network of beliefs, judgments, and capabilities, and any change in these implicit background conditions can lead to explicit changes in meaning. That just seems to be a fact about how meaning works. Significance wanders.

Second, where they get off track, at the level of politics, is the sense that the only factor which provides that stability is strict fidelity to fixed intentions of original speakers. But what they are actually seeking is equilibrium, and a sufficiently large change in context very well might demand a new equilibrium.

To see why the originalist approach to stability is misguided, let’s consider a parable. Suppose someone were to say: “I must build my home on solid ground.” That seems like a reasonable thing to say. Now suppose they encounter a man who has built a boat, and lives their life at sea. “That’s silly, you get knocked around a lot,” says the man who built their home on solid ground. Then a hurricane comes and washes the house away, while the boat (though battered) survives. Question: whose home was more stable? Answer: it depends on your context and background assumptions. The house on land was stable in one context, but the house on the sea was stable in another. With the predicted rise of the sea, the rule, ‘build your home on solid ground’, is not going to provide anything like the need for presumptive guidance to private actors.

J.S. Mill and the torch of the eternal garbage fire

Free speech has many false friends and straw-enemies. Some of those misapprehensions come from the land of freedom and milk and honey and stars and stripes and things. Some come from inside of the Canadian academy. Some call themselves leftist, some right-wing. The conversation, at present, is all a bit warped. But if you wanted to get things straight, you could also consult the classics if you wanted, right from the horses’s mouth — Mill’s On Liberty.

On Liberty is sometimes mischaracterized as a kind of free speech absolutism, i.e., for whom one cannot limit speech on the basis of content, and/or which is directed only at the proprieties of government intervention and not social justice among individuals. If it were those things, it would be boring and wrong. In fact, though, Mill’s argument has all sorts of nuances and compelling features that, at the very least, make it worthy of continued attention. His endorsement of freedom of speech is not absolutist, since the principle of liberty is a function of his harm principle. Hence, he does endorse limitations to speech, and does believe it is sometimes justifiable to sanction the speech of others. You just have to be sensitive to the qualifications.

The first two limitations on speech worth mentioning right off the bat, and which many people reading this already know:

a) Only applies in modern contexts and between adults. Mill’s defense of free speech is a point about how we ought to design modern political institutions and culture which are responsive to reason. For roughly the same reason, a parent can limit the speech of a child, since children are ostensibly not capable of rational conversation. Or so says the parenting manuals in Victorian era England, presumably.

b) Contextual limits. The defense of freedom of speech does not prevent us from limiting the speech of someone who is inciting of mob violence (e.g., the corn-seller’s case). Plausibly enough, the American Court offered the example of yelling fire in a crowded theater as speech that can be sanctioned. (Implausibly, this was done to justify government sanctions on wartime dissidents.)

So, with those caveats out of the way, the question is: “Can we, people living in relatively evolved political societies, and speaking in non-incitement contexts, ever sanction someone for the contents of their speech?”

The answer depends on who you are — a government or a private citizen. For governments, the answer is pretty much a flat ‘no’. A government needs to lay off imposing sanctions on individuals for the things that individuals say. Hence, Mill thinks that blasphemy laws, and even libel laws, are legislatively wrong. An interesting additional question is whether or not legal restrictions on hate speech — e.g., Canadian restrictions on hate propaganda — are directed at harms based on content or context. (FWIW, my inclination is to regard propaganda as essentially contextual in nature, and expressed hatred as intending incitement, and therefore to see it as analogous to the corn-seller’s case. But this seems to be a matter of interpretation, and reasonable people may interpret it differently.)

Some of the people who call themselves libertarians seem to think that freedom of speech only concerns governmental regulations, not interactions between private citizens. But this is not so; private citizens are obliged to respect freedom of speech as well. It is just that their internal calculations have to be a bit more nuanced.

Consider the fact that there are many kinds and qualities of bad effects that we can visit on others when we target them with speech:

Hurt vs. harm. Suppose there’s a difference between subjective hurt and objective harm. We can distinguish them as follows: an action produces subjective hurt when the act produces a negative effect on the patient, but only on the condition that the patient permits themselves to be hurt; while an action is an objective harm if the negative effect is visited on the patient irrespective of whether or not they recognize it. So, you can’t necessarily be held to account just because a person chooses to interpret a turn of phrase in a way that makes it appropriate to feel slighted. The idea is that you are not necessarily blameworthy if you happen to hurt someone’s feelings, so long as they are not otherwise worse for the wear. In contrast, there is a prohibition on intending to cause objective harm to others. So, e.g., even if libel laws make for bad governmental policy (according to Mill), private citizens are doing wrong if they lie about others and cause reputational damage.

Acts vs. facts. Mill notices that there’s a difference between objective harms related to (a) the statement of facts about the target, and (b) objective harms delivered through the act of speech. For an example of the first kind of harm: by calling a thief “thief”, you might end up causing the thief harm, in a sense; but the harm issues from the facts, not from the act of talking about it. And it is fine to do someone objective harm just by reporting accurately on the vile things they’ve said or done. If a pizza guru says, “I hate gay people”, then I can tell ordinary decent folks what the pizza guru said, and they can boycott him. And if a whistleblower says, “My organization is killing people with drones”, and they can prove it, then that speech is permissible, too, and so they ought not be sanctioned by the government.

On the other hand, you cannot just go around sanctioning people for saying things you don’t like, causing them objective harm through the creative powers of speech. That is, you shouldn’t engage in “vituperative” speech: by which he seems to mean gratuitous vilification, heckling and shaming, character assassination, and so on. He argues that the mischief that arises from these sorts of conversational bludgeons “is greatest when they are employed against the comparatively defenceless; and whatever unfair advantage can be derived by any opinion from this mode of asserting it, accrues almost exclusively to received opinions. The worst offence of this kind which can be committed by a polemic is to stigmatise those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men.” Instead, you should engage in the “real morality of public discussion“, which is to say, you should engage in good faith: “giving merited honour to every one, whatever opinion he may hold, who has calmness to see and honesty to state what his opponents and their opinions really are, exaggerating nothing to their discredit, keeping nothing back which tells, or can be supposed to tell, in their favour.” In other words, you should not contribute to the ongoing eternal garbage-fire of life on Twitter.

But, once those speech acts are taken off the table, is there any kind of speech left? Is all of our discourse turned into anodyne or inert? No — you are only barred from intending objective harm on the basis of the speech acts independently of the facts, i.e., through vituperative speech. Everything apart from that is fair game. You can speak falsely, and can hurt feelings. What you can’t do is engage in bad faith.

At any rate, this was my reading of Mill. Maybe you have your own interpretation. Either way, I think it is well worth revisiting his essays every so often, because it rewards close reading.

Why can’t I will a desire?

In this quick post, I’ll try to answer the question: why can’t we always form our desires at will and on command? So, for example, why is it I can’t will myself into wanting to do exercise, or wanting to grade a stack of papers, or into wanting to apply for that job at the box factory? After some brief deductive navelgazing, I’ll suggest that it might be possible to desire on command, though only if the agent has unsophisticated beliefs about their own agency.

Following the Davidsonian tradition, I’ll suppose that reasons are belief-desire pairs, and also suppose that an intention is a reason for action with an appropriate causal role in making the action. (Maybe this is a wrong account of action in general, because folk psychology sucks, etc. But for the sake of the present argument, I’ll assume it’s good enough for clear cases, and allow that a fuller account can be presented with a richer functional/causal vocabulary.) From this model, it follows that, for me to be able to will a desire, I’ll have to desire the desire, and believe I can effect the first-order desire.

Suppose we could causally effect desires in this way as a general capacity; what would the world look like if we could? Well, it would follow that akrasia would be impossible. For any time you failed to do a thing, it would always owe to your failure to want to do the thing. And that forbearance is not a weakness of will so much as a willful rejection of a live option. This is not our world, since akrasia does exist. So we do not have that general capacity.

But why not? What’s the holdup?

Assuming the Davidsonian model, there are three potential points of failure. Either (a) desires are not effective in making desires, or (b) beliefs are not effective in making desires, (c) there’s something about the relation between beliefs and desires that is not effective in making desires.

The failure to generate desire does not issue from the fact that genuine second-order desires cannot effect first-order desires. We fall in and out of love with our enthusiasms all the time, e.g., through emotion work and gratitude. It is both possible, and routine, for us to voluntarily adjust the intensity of a desire, by considering its relation to previously existing desires. And this is a special case of being able to will a desire, just in case willing is a belief-desire pair, which we assumed it is. Sometimes, a second-order desire is indeed sufficient to sustain a first-order one.

The failure to generate desire is, at least on first glance, not a function of a problem in causal effectiveness of belief-desire pairings. After all, by hypothesis, all intentions involve such pairings, and so must have the potential for action-success. There is, perhaps, something special about the case of willing a desire that prevents it from being willed. But it is unclear to me how I could better understand those limitations just by looking at the nature of reasons. If it were obvious, the question never would have come up in the first place.

So, since second-order desires sometimes do compel first-order desires, the obstacle must be found in the causal effectiveness of beliefs, either when treated as standalone mental happenings, or in their contribution to reasons.

What distinguishes belief from other representations with mind-to-world direction of fit is that it is truth-apt. And non-truth-apt representations of the world — e.g., intuitions — really do have causal efficacy in making desires. Hence, the difficulty that many of us actual humans seem to have in distinguishing the cognitive contents of intuitions from those of gut feelings.

So, one might think that the problem is that belief is oriented towards truth, as truth-directedness is not fit for ordering our sentiments. Why might that be? Well, I think truth has at least two features: it (a) indicates that the sentence has a referent, and (b) its claims are ostensibly built to last. However, (a) I see no issue in treating desires as referents. We think about desires as objects of propositions all the time. (b) So maybe the problem is in the presumption of standing. i.e., if we were able to will a desire, then it would presume that we also have a belief in our ability to effect a desire, and so, a judgment that our ability to effect a desire will be built to last. But if we ever suffer from akrasia, and remember it, then those judgments are unlikely to survive much scrutiny.

Suppose that account is correct. The upshot is that it might be generally possible to will a desire, but one has to have extremely unsophisticated (or deluded) beliefs about one’s own self-mastery to do it.

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.

Publicity, associative reasons, and legal systems (I)

John Rawls was the best kind of programmatic philosopher. This was not a guy whose output could be reduced to a single thought-experiment or evocative illustration; you can’t appreciate him as a philosopher unless you can see his systematic design. But that’s got a downside. The thing is, when you’re a programmatic philosopher, a lot of your output can be difficult for others to follow. Everyone understands a view best when they can see contrasts, objections, and alternatives, yet the programmatic philosopher’s prose is often impassively self-referential. So, for instance, when Rawls talks about reason, then you’d better be alert to the special ways that he defines the terms elsewhere; and woe be to the reader who thinks they can deduce the meaning of any single one of these concepts {“reasonable”, “public reason”, “acceptable”} from the others. (Meaning: intellectually accountable, common reason for the commons, and accords with convictions under wide equilibrium, respectively.)

So, I think it’s easiest to appreciate the best parts of Rawls’ theory of justice once we accept his broader political vernacular, but also to extend his analytical tools in ways which let us articulate conceptions of political justice that he does not accept. I have an ulterior motive for wanting to contrast his approach to justice to others, since I am interested in how theory of justice relates to general jurisprudence and legal theory as such, which means I’m obliged to do a compare-and-contrast exercise between different incommensurate moral and legal theories.

So here’s the shtick. I assume you’ve basically got the idea of Rawls’s theory of justice under your belt. Now, in the next few posts I’m going to tell a dogmatic story about how legal systems are best understood in terms of non-public reasons. To do that, I’ll use Rawls’s seminal “The Idea of Public Reason” (in Political Liberalism) as reference point. The story unfolds in three chapters. First, in this post, I’m first going to offer a sympathetic rereading of Rawls’s idea of public reason in a way that makes the most sense of the idea of publicity. My aim is to do justice to the attenuated sense in which associative reasons are publicized. In the next post I’ll compare Rawls’s theory of justice to a charitable rereading of Thomism. Then I’ll conclude by offering a few idiosyncratic complaints about the Rawlsian outlook.

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Public reason is the expression of a modern liberal political conception of justice, and since liberalism is a relatively new political phenomenon, public reason is a newcomer on the historical scene. In contrast, associative (“social”) reason is as old as rocks, and an enduring feature of societies, i.e., communities structured by status. Because associative reason is more common, it is easier to understand public reason in contrast to it, rather than vice-versa. Associative reason is the clearer concept of the two, easier to grasp as the historical rule than as the exception. (I will use the term ‘associative reason’ here, which is my own term, not his. Instead, Rawls prefers the term ‘social’ or ‘nonpublic’ reason. I do not join him in his usage because the very idea definition of the social is contestable, and his formulation of ‘nonpublic’ reason is something I will take issue with later.)

As I have argued elsewhere, the most plausible mainstream theories of law in the Western canon have all held that law is necessarily promulgated to be law. Publicity is a criterion for legal validity. Suppose that’s so. It follows that, if associative reason is a legal universal, then we should expect it to be public in some sense or other. And indeed it is universal, in the minimal sense that every reason to adopt a policy that is open to view in public discourse is at least an associative reason as opposed to a private reason. A potential for contradiction lurks here, since associative reason is not ‘public reason’ by definition, but is public. But the air of paradox is resolved by noticing the equivocation at work in the word ‘public’. Associative reasons are not public in Rawls’s sense of ‘public reason’, since Rawls’s use of the phrase concentrates only on reasons that are public qua public — i.e., those reasons for policy that are aimed at achieving a reasonable overlapping consensus among the free and equal citizenry. That is why Rawls thinks that associative reasons do not play a just role in legitimate democratic institutions — they are not public in the maximal sense of being common reason for the commons. In this, Rawls is articulating a model of legitimacy as consent of the governed analogous to other well-known social contract theorists — e.g., Rousseau’s sense that civic participation should be aimed at the general will.

I hope you’ll let me rehearse the idea of public reason one more time, because it’s especially important to a guy like me who cares about the importance of publicity to legal theory. Rawls tells us that the aim of public reason is to establish the constitutive features of a democratic system, especially those features related to political and legal standing of free and equal citizens. His way of speaking entails that public reason is public in the pure sense of being reasons directed at the commons, and not in the mere sense of just being public-facing, i.e., mere attempts to resolve collective action problems. In Rawls’s theory of justice, a public reason is an attempt to arrange our plans in a way that is conceived of through the original position — i.e., a device of representation where hypothetical future participants of a society establish the principles of the political order they would like to live in despite being ignorant of their own rank and status in the future order. It is not just reason open to view, but reason that happens in the commons for the commons.

Yet, although we can distinguish between publicity and public reason, we should not ignore the relationship between the two concepts. For Rawls — and for many of us — strong, justifiable rationales are a part of public reason. This is a point that Rawls makes explicitly in his astute formulation of the publicity condition elsewhere in Political Liberalism (Ch.2, s.4). (If we are feeling especially Whiggish, we might even go so far as to say that the teleological point of publicity is to, eventually, recommend that we adopt public reason as a model of legitimacy, and hence that honoring the ideal of publicity in tyrannies shall eventually bend politics towards the cause of democracy, though these speculations are not ones that I am eager to endorse.)

A final word, ending the setup of the discussion of public and associative reason. When we are thinking about political affairs, we are generally interested in two major topics, which are the requirements of practical justice and epistemic justice. Practical justice is made up of a statement of (a) basic rights in principle (i.e., an articulation of the sense in which citizens are free and equal), and (b) the assurance of means to use those rights in practice (i.e., equity and matters of distributive justice). Public reason is political in the sense that it is directed at the basic structure of society, i.e., the society’s main social, political, and economic institutions, conceived of as a single system of cooperation. Epistemic justice sets guidelines for inquiry, e.g., rules of evidence and process at trial and by police. Because these considerations mark off constitutional essentials, they must be justifiable to all citizens with different ideas about how to live the good life.

Well, suppose that’s all good. It certainly seems like an intuitive characterization of justice, as it correctly characterizes the operations of legal systems as we know them as creatures directed to the cause of justice.

It follows that, if the question of what public reason requires of us is pursued sincerely — i.e., by checking off hypothetical opinions of real people in hypothetical situations — then the sense that the basic constitution of the regime is justified will depend on facts we can refer to about how people think about the implicit contract that binds them. Since those facts are known or intuitively knowable, they are accessible; and since they are accessible, they are publicized. In which case, public reason will get away with satisfying the publicity condition “on the cheap”. In contrast, if a legal regime goes about publicity through associative reason, then it will require an activist spirit, swimming upstream against the currents of a community’s considered sense of fair play.