Liberals and sliding goalposts

Gerald Gaus
Gerald Gaus

Gerald Gaus is a liberal political philosopher. He’s the author of Justificatory Liberalism. Here’s the background info:

Modern political liberalism (from John Rawls onwards) is big on the concept of “justification.” Before you can bring a policy or idea into the public square and presume to use it in the creation of public policies, laws, etc, it has to be justified to other people. You shouldn’t impose upon people without justifying that imposition to them. Gaus – with a little help from Christopher Eberle – distinguished between several kinds of justification (Eberle helpfully came up with the terms).

1) Closed Justification. First there’s “closed” justification. In this approach (which resembles the approach of Rawls), a policy or idea is only properly justified if it’s acceptable in light of what another person already believes. It has to be compatible with their existing belief set. But this will never do, because some people believe crazy or terrible things (e.g. racists, solipsists etc), and we shouldn’t be forced to come up with policies acceptable to everyone’s beliefs. People hold beliefs based on ignorance, prejudice, faulty reasoning, and so forth. Gaus sums up his objection to this approach: “it loses its character as a liberal doctrine, for little, if anything, is the object of consensus among reasonable people.”

2) God’s Eye Justification. Then there’s “God’s eye” justification, where a policy or idea is justified just if it reflects the truth – the way things really are. The problem within a liberal context, of course, is that liberal approaches are supposed to be compatible with pluralism, where people don’t agree about what the facts really are.

3) Open Justification. Thirdly and most promisingly, Gaus proposed open justification. In open justification, you don’t have to show that your policy or idea is compatible with what a person already believes. In open justification, your policy or idea is justified if it is compatible with what another person’s beliefs about what types of thing count as evidence, combined with evidence and critique of their existing beliefs, would commit them to. In other words, if you propose a policy that presupposes a particular belief that your fellow citizen does not share, but which – were his beliefs against your view subjected to rigorous critique, and were his criteria of what counts as evidence brought to bear on the evidence for your position – he really should share, then your view is justified to him, whether he will admit it or not.

Elsewhere (in my PhD thesis), I summed open justification up like this:

Eberle is correct to describe Gaus’s approach as one that idealises away from what a person actually believes and desires and towards what they would hold if they were better informed, but it is absolutely crucial to Gaus that this idealisation is only moderate. While Gaus is willing to think of justification in terms of whether or not our policy would be justifiable to our fellow citizens once we have hypothetically attributed to them relevant information, Gaus does not want to hypothesise or idealise all the way to omniscience. What he has idealised to is to the facts and factors that a citizen would be persuaded of in light of what he considers to count as evidence or reasons. This is because those beliefs are the main features of a person’s current belief system that will be used to decide whether or not to accept new beliefs. Rather than simply ask what Alf does believe and desire and then restrict our advocacy of any policy to policies that are compatible with that – after all Alf might be ignorant, intellectually lazy, unduly biased or any number of other things – we should ask what Alf’s beliefs about what count as evidence should commit him to.

And for good measure, here’s an important clarification I also made:

Important to reiterate is the fact that open justification thus described does not require that all of our fellow citizens can bring themselves to accept the policy that we are advocating. Unanimity has nothing to do with it. In fact, a policy might be unanimously accepted, but not openly justified, since all the citizens who accept it might have good reasons not to accept it that they are unwilling or unable to face up to.

This is promising because it recognises an obligation on your part to respect those that you wish to be subject to your favoured policy, but it does not make you a slave to unreasonable stubbornness or ignorance.

OK, now the scene is set. I think there is at least one crucial flaw in this model of justification, but it would be off-topic for me to pursue that just now. Here’s where things get messy for the “justificatory liberal” when it comes to policies motivated by religious beliefs. It’s a standard feature of much modern political liberalism that policies that require religious justifications are ruled out as inappropriate for the public square. The justificatory liberal’s reasoning would be that such policies lack open justification, since religious beliefs themselves lack open justification. Even if the religious believer is justified in holding his beliefs, he cannot justify them to others in any way that satisfies liberal criteria.

But is this really true? Remember, in order for my policy or idea to be openly justified, I don’t have to successfully persuade everyone (or anyone) to accept it, or persuade them that it is openly justified. A policy or idea is openly justified to a person (i.e. my fellow citizen) if that person’s beliefs, subject to rigorous critique, combined with what they take to count as evidence, should lead them to accept my policy or idea. And certainly, many religious believers think they have met that criterion. Just consider the range of arguments for theism and for the truth of Christianity, for example. Now, you might not believe the conclusions of those arguments. Fine. But all this means is that you are at loggerheads with those religious believers over whether or not their ideas are openly justified. Argue with them about that if you must. And they, doubtless, will in the process seek to persuade you that they really have done their justificatory duty.

Now watch carefully as Gaus performs his acrobatic manoeuvre. Once again: Open justification is not the same thing as actual persuasion. This seemed clear when Gaus spelled out his improvement on Rawls, however in order to deflect a possible objection, his position momentarily switches from endorsing open justification to requiring actual persuasion itself, and he thus shifts the goalposts. Christopher Eberle proposes the following model of social engagement, a model he calls “the ideal of conscientious engagement”:

  1. Seek to arrive at a justification for L that is sound given one’s own system of beliefs and values;
  2. Refuse to endorse L if one does not have a good justification for it in one’s own systems of values and beliefs;
  3. Seek to convey to others one’s reasons for coercing them;
  4. Endeavor to arrive at a public justification for L – one that connects in the appropriate way to the beliefs and values of one’s fellow citizens;
  5. Pay attention to others’ objections to, and criticisms of, one’s reasons for coercing them and aim to learn from them;
  6. Refuse to endorse any L that violates the integrity of one’s fellow citizens.

[Source: Eberle, Religious Convictions in Liberal Politics, 104-105.]

Premise 4 is easily construed in a way that means that we should seek open justification for our policies and ideas, and try to persuade people of this justification. But Gerald Gaus will not allow this, if it means allowing policies that have a relitious rationale. He responds to premise 4, but when he does so he changes hats and ends up becoming John Rawls after all, abandoning open justification in favour of something much more demanding:

I confess that my intuitions about the requirements of respect are better expressed by Master Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” It is all very well to try to make me see your point, but if your point is one that I have no good justification to embrace, then in the end I am simply being subjected to your power, however well-intentioned and conscientious you may be.

[SOURCE, “Religious Convictions in Liberal Politics,” Philosophical Reviews]

It may well be that this is a response to Eberle, but what cannot be missed is just how much Gaus has raised the hurdle, or to use another appropriate sporting metaphor, he has shifted the goalposts. It appears that if a religious person does meet the criteria of open justification with respect to me (which does not require that I be successfully persuaded), the new goal quickly becomes successful persuasion that I have such a justification, which is not at all the same thing. In other words, even when religious people follow the liberal rules, the liberal still rules their policies and ideas out, on the grounds that the liberal just isn’t persuaded that those ideas are correct.

Why not just simplify the rules and say that religious ideas and policies that depend on them should be ruled out because liberal authors don’t accept those ideas?

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