Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Public Reason Liberalism Is Not the Great Savior

 Kevin Vallier writes this in response to my recent posts. Gonna post the whole thing. Emphasis added.

Imagine you’re in a tough marriage. You disagree with your spouse about many issues of great importance, like how to raise the kids, how to spend money, and so on. Imagine that, after all your efforts, you just can’t agree. But you don’t want to get divorced. The goods of life together are too great, and divorce would be messy, costly, and probably not make either party any happier. So you decide to go to a marriage therapist. The marriage therapist is another human being, just like you, and has her own parochial concerns, just like you, and she is a member of a profession which disagrees pretty seriously about the best and most effective forms of marriage therapy.

The therapist helps you to see that your arguments aren’t going anywhere and that you’re going to have to find some way to get along before the relationship is destroyed and your concern for one another is depleted. The therapist offers you compromises, ways of living where you don’t have to resent one another, where your hurt and pain can be brought into a manageable state, even if you have to readjust your expectations for having a good marriage. Eventually you find a way you can live together. You’re disappointed. You mourn the marriage you always wanted, but you continue to live your life with the one you love.

Now imagine that you’re a peace negotiator in a bloody and brutal war. The two sides can’t seem to conquer one another, and they’re nearly to the point of exhaustion. You represent one side, and you meet with the negotiator on the other side. The two of you have a strong bias, but you also recognize that peace is the best path forward. Of course, you start off by offering different kinds of peace treaties, and indeed hail from different schools of thought in military negotiation. But eventually you’re able to hit on a peace agreement that will stick and allow people to get on with life. An equilibrium that is not optimal from anyone’s point of view, but that everyone can accept.

There is nothing at all confusing or hypocritical or dishonest about these jobs. Being a therapist or a treaty negotiator builds on our capacity to take the perspective of others and come to some resolution of our disputes, which we do all the time. Of course, we all have our biases, and of course we may not have the best theory of resolving marital or martial conflicts. But at least we’re trying. There is a role in any culture for peace-makers, and we usually have lots of institutions devoted precisely to that task.

For whatever reason, Jason Brennan thinks that any political philosophy that tries to play this role in ideological conflict isn’t just wrong. It’s bullshit and wastes the profession’s time.

It is revealing that, in his most recent post, Brennan actually identifies two roles that approximate the relationships I’ve described: constitutional interpretation and biblical interpretation. People have fought quite a bit about what the constitution means, and so people develop theories of what the constitution means in order to resolve disputes. Of course, their theories are imperfect, but this meta-discourse is better than having everyone operate on their own private judgment about what the constitution means or not having a constitution at all. Similarly, biblical interpretation is a gigantic part of how Christians, Jews, etc. figure out how to associate with one another and worship together; they choose (not often enough) to engage one another in respectful dialogue rather than just declaring everyone who disagrees with them heretics. Brennan is suspicious of both practices on the grounds that they just ratify what the interpreter already believed, but I don’t see any reason to think this extreme degree of suspicion is warranted.

There is nothing more fake, hypocritical, or dumb about what the public reason liberal is trying to do than what the therapist or the treaty negotiator is trying to do. Brennan’s alternative seems to be just to duke it out and hope you win. I think the alternative of pursuing public justification is the better way to go.

I appreciate Vallier's patience with me, and I want to note that what I like about Vallier's work is that he's genuinely trying to make the project work. Some public reason liberals weaponize the theory to dismiss others without argument. Vallier is actually trying to make the theory inclusive.

But that said, I don't think he's taking the criticisms seriously, or he seems to miss the point. As you can see above, public reason liberals can conceive of themselves as being like negotiators or therapists trying to solve conflicts. Of course they can. But so can fascists, utilitarians, deontological liberals, deontological libertarians, consequentialist virtue theorists, and so on, also care about cooperation and resolving conflicts and also offer theories about how to to do so. Just like the public reason liberals, they can accept that reasonable people disagree, and can offer various kinds of principles for compromising. Just like the public reason liberals, they can be more inclusive or more exclusionary. They can load up their principles or have less restricted versions of them. 

There is indeed nothing dumb about what the public reason liberal is trying to do in the abstract. What's mean about public reason liberals is that they incorrectly and unfairly think they're the only ones trying to do it. Everyone is trying to do it. And, just as public reason liberals try to get compromise by getting everyone to agree to their preferred set of values, that's what utilitarians and others do. It's nothing special. It's simply another parochial theory, and its theory of compromise and dispute resolution is simply another parochial theory like everyone else's. 

Indeed, I'm worried public reason liberalism is especially bad when it comes to this stuff. Imagine you and your spouse have very serious substantive complaints. Or imagine you and the warring enemy have serious and substantive complaints. What you'd want is a negotiator or therapist who addresses and resolves these complaints. You wouldn't someone who just shouts out big concepts like "compromise", "reasonable", "fair", "cooperative", "reciprocate!" and whatnot, and then tells you you're behaving badly if you don't then accept the therapist's or negotiators' preferred solution. (I'm borrowing the ideas in this last paragraph from someone else who might not want me to post their name here.)

Further, with the marriage example, what if there is actually a true answer to how to raise the kids? Or spend the money? For example, your spouse says he doesn't want to permit your gay son to date other boys. You think he's a homophobic bigot. What should you do? Well, your spouse is wrong and acting badly, so he should concede your side entirely. The compromise should be: you win and he loses.

Same with war: If you are not fighting a just war, stop fighting. It's that easy. As for uncertainty, that;'s easy too: You should not kill people unless you are very sure they have it coming, etc. If you think you might be justified, you almost certainly aren't. Pessimistic induction, after all.