Thursday, April 15, 2004

Update (Regarding Liberal Reasoning)

Jay, writing at Moment, Linger On, has this to say about my recent post which mentioned Stephen Newman's article in Dissent defending Alabama Gov. Bob Riley's willingness to make public policy arguments via "comprehensive" religious or moral reasons, in contrast to "publicly accessible" secular ones:

"Newman and Fox are essentially talking about me and this doesn't jibe with my recollection of how I felt about this....In fact, I don't recall any criticism of Riley because he was motivated by his Christian beliefs rather than secular reasons. And apparently Newman doesn't either, because he provides exactly no evidence to support this in his article....Newman does nothing but set up a 'hostile secular liberal' strawman and then knock it down. And that's all he can do, because he completely misrepresents the position of secular Rawlsians like myself. We don't reject arguments for things that we agree with because they aren't public arguments but rather arguments for positions which can't be supported by any public reasons. This is not even a subtle distinction and I'm surprised that people of Newman's and Fox's intelligence and education fail to see it....[P]erhaps, in the abstract world of academia where Newman and Fox live, there are actually people who demand such secular purity. But in the real world, where I support real policy positions and want to see them implemented, I'm perfectly happy to work with people whose motivations are different than mine."

A couple of points before addressing the main issue. One, Newman made it pretty clear in the article that we was responding to an argument, not necessarily particular individuals who made that argument in this particular case. What he wrote was that "there is an influential trend in contemporary liberal political theory that requires us to regard Riley's biblically inspired case for tax reform with suspicion." This is undeniably true: consider Richard Rorty, Kent Greenawalt, Bruce Ackerman, and many more. Two, Jay is probably correct that there were not a great many "philosophically correct" liberal opponents to Riley's proposed reform of the tax code jumping down his throat for daring to suggest that such social justice is what Jesus would want--but then, on the other hand, there were more than a few social justice organizations that stayed out of the debate in Alabama, at least partly because they found the whole thing (why, an evangelical Republican using our language--imagine!) distasteful. While electoral politics and stereotypes probably had a lot to do with that, the fact that many of these organizations have long since become firmly entrenched in the secular liberal establishment was certainly a factor as well. So Jay, while correct, needs to consider who did not speak up as much as who did.

Jay's more important claim is that Newman and I misunderstand the Rawlsian position; that we are creating straw men. Obviously, in any work of political theory there is going to be some imagining going on; that's how you draw principles and ideas out of the quotidian. But that said, is he correct? Is it defensible to say that, according to Rawls, the only target of secular liberal ire is "arguments for positions which can't be supported by any public reasons" whatsoever, whereas anything that can be concurred with via "public reasoning" is acceptable? If so, what would that actually mean for argumentative practice?

Generally speaking, one might believe the Rawlsian standard is a good one; it allows, within limits, for the possibility of (as Jay puts it) "work[ing] with people whose motivations are different" from one's own on behalf of common concerns. And indeed, Newman endorses this: Rawls's doctrine of an "overlapping consensus" is not, in principle, what he (or I) criticize. What is of concern, however, is the sense (which Jay may or may not share) that such a consensus cannot, if it is to be anything more than a brief modus vivendi, be constructed out of one or any number of wholly unique comprehensive (and therefore "private" in classical liberal terminology) reasons; as Newman put it, according to Rawls "shared ends are insufficient to anchor the liberal polity; there must be shared justifications as well." Or as Rawls himself wrote in the introduction to the second edition of Political Liberalism: private/religious/comprehensive doctrines can be brought forward as part of the argument for particular public policies "provided that in due course public reasons, given by a reasonable political conception, are presented sufficient to support whatever the comprehensive doctrine are introduced to support." In other words, in the secular liberal version of the overlapping consensus, religious reasons like Riley's should only play a supplemental role; if they actually played a majoritarian or otherwise fundamentally persuasive role in the public's decisions, then conscientious liberals ought not support them. (Given this claim of Rawls's, it is not surprising to see him in the same essay struggling to justify as legitimate by his own lights the huge role played by plainly religious arguments in the success of abolitionism, or the civil rights movement.)

I choose to describe such acts of persuasion as "fundamental" because those are the sorts of arguments which are most put on the spot by liberal reasoning conducted in a Rawlsian vein: fundamentalist claims. I don't mean that category of doctrines usually described in American today as "fundamentalist" (though obviously many of those religious doctrines are relevant to the discussion here); I mean any comprehensive outlook that has both ethical and ontological dimensions. Sometimes those dimensions parallel the American experience closely enough that they can be accepted as "public" reasons without the slightest trouble (for example, the clearly comprehensive and in many ways religious claim that all human beings have fundamental "rights"); but frequently that isn't the case, such as when fundamentalists take on dominant cultural presumptions, whether in regards to sexual mores, market commodification, or any other rarely interrogated public phenomenon. Rawls's view of public reasoning requires such believers to do one of several things (here I am borrowing from the work of Andrew Murphy): change their comprehensive beliefs to fit the standard of publicity, lie, change the parameters of public debate through civil disobedience or other direct actions, or simply testify as their convictions and hope someone eventually comes along with (or they come up with) a secular rationale to cover for their previous, outlandish claims. While obviously there is something to each of these options, would it really be so hard to imagine that Rawls's conception of a "legitimate," freestanding, puntatively rational overlapping consensus, could be replaced by a more agonistic, context-based, dialogical and hermeneutical one--one which, rather than assuming the necessity of preventing the formation of democratic majorities using exclusive, comprehensive arguments, is open to the possibility that even people with fundamental disagreements (say, secularists and Christians in Alabama) could civilly engage in (in Kenneth Strike's words) "argumentative reciprocity"? Why not allow the overlapping consensus to emerge out of fundamental exchanges, even (perhaps Christian) fundamentalist exchanges, rather than previously accepted (and to a certain degree imposed) "public reasons," if that is what people find persuasive? Obviously there are matters of concern here; making agonistic civility into a reality, where persons and their arguments are accorded dignity because of their role in the discussion and not because of the category of their arguments, will involve a lot of trust, as well as constant boundary-drawing and redrawing. Many distrust this kind of expressivist approach, and to be sure it does lead one into sticky issues of establishment, dissent, minority rights, and so forth. But to dismiss such an approach simply because of the (often more perceived than real) difficulties involved is to minimize, perhaps marginalize or even undermine, right from the outset certain fundamental commitments and critiques (like, arguably, Bob Riley's), and that is something progressive thinkers ought to be reluctant to do. (As you might be guessing, I've written on this topic before.)

This isn't, I suppose, necessarily a response to Jay's basic concern--arguably, the procedural Rawlsian claim which Newman and I disagree with isn't fully present in any actual real-world debates, but only in the "abstract world of academia." If so, I can only plead guilty: I'm an academic. But to the extent that academics, and those educated by them, weigh in on debates in the real world, then it's worth thinking hard about the unstated categories within which secular debates (like debates about taxation) often operate.