Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Why Isn't Public Justification Trivial and Easy to Satisfy?

 The public justification principle, central to public reason liberalism:

The Public Justification Principle (PJP): A coercive law L is justified in a public P if and only if each member i of P has sufficient reason(s) Ri to endorse L.

A billion contradictory and incompatible papers have been written trying to flesh this idea out. After all, it leaves open all of these questions, which Vallier lists:

    1. What makes a reason “sufficient”?
    2. How fine-grained is the specification by L of the conduct which is permitted or prohibited for members of the public?
    3. What types of justificatory reasons R do we recognize?
    4. How are the parties to public justificatory arguments idealized?
    5. What is the scope of the public?
    6. What are the modalities of public justification? Or: by which process is public justification achieved?
    7. Must we publicly justify anything other than coercion?
I often wonder, though, why isn't PJP easy to satisfy.

Consider this dialogue:

Utilitarian: We should do X.

PRL: Nuh-uh. Some people disagree.

U: Lots of people disagree about lots of things. For instance, I think PRL is a terrible, vacuous theory and the entire corpus of work has been a distraction.

PRL: Well, we can't force people to do X unless we can justify it to them!

U: Uh, I guess so. But I did justify it. Here you go, here is a philosophy book justifying my normative theory and here are 600 econ papers proving X works. What else could you possibly need?

PRL: But that's not accessible to everyone!

U: What do you mean? Like they don't have copies of the books and papers? I can't recall any law ever being passed where the government first sent out all the papers and books proving the law works to the people.

PRL: No, I mean they might not understand the reasons.

U: Okay, I rewrote it everything at an eighth-grade reading level. Are we good? I mean, surely you don't mean to say that a coercive law is justifiable only we can explain it at an even lower reading level. Maybe some justified laws are a bit complicated, no?

PRL: Ok, no, I mean that the people upon whom the law will be imposed have to be able to accept the reasons behind it.

U: But now you're just gain-saying me. As I said, here are the papers justifying the law. Here. Right here. Look. You can't keep invoking PRL and the mere possibility of reasonable disagreement. If you have a substantive disagreement, name it. 

PRL: You see, people might have good objections you haven't defeated.

U: Well, do they? What's are the objections? These books and papers are pretty thorough and we answer every major and minor objection we've seen in the press and elsewhere. It seems like instead of saying people might have a disagreement or objection, you should simply say that reason the law isn't justified is that there is in fact an important objection. Tell us what the objection is, and then let's see if we can overcome it.

PRL: Ok, but some people don't agree with your argument.

U: Are you saying mere disagreement renders the law illegitimate? Like if the Nazi disagrees with...

PRL: No, only reasonable disagreement.

U: What makes someone reasonable?

PRL: That they accept my theory.

U: So, if, say Robert Nozick rejects property-owning democracy because of the reasons offered in ASU, does that render it wrong? Also, why can't I say, as you do, that laws have to be justified to reasonable people, but then just say only utilitarians are reasonable people? Why can't Nazis say that a person is reasonable if and only if they Nazis? It seems like you jump back and forth between platitudes about reasonableness (accepting evidence, processing evidence in a scientific way, etc.) and substantive commitment to your parochial theory, as it suits you. Which is it? I mean, utilitarians are all about giving reasons for their actions, and we make our reasons clear. When Singer explains why eating meat is wrong, he justifies it on the basis of widely accepted premises all people other than sociopaths share, while when Rawls tries to justify his theory, he mostly cites obscure ideas and half-baked arguments which apparently no one understands. (After all, if you all have to spend 2,000 papers+ trying to decode his work, it's apparently not accessible.)

PRL: No, no, no. Nozick isn't reasonable. Utilitarians aren't reasonable. Nazis aren't reasonable. 

U: Uh, hmmm, ok. But back to X. I've given a sound argument, based on clear and almost universally accepted premises, in favor of X. I've done all the work showing that X works and that all the objections I could think of against X are bad. What more could you ask for?

PRL: You have to add "...and therefore all reasonable people could accept X" and then I guess we're good. 

U: But what work does that do? What more does that add?

PRL: It helps me keep my job.