Rights, Liberalism, Public Reason and Political Correctness
A lot happened to me this last couple of weeks. Jerry Gaus visited the National University of Singapore. Even though he is a libertarian and a Rawlsian, he challenged some of my deeper suppositions on a number of issues. I’ve also recently purchased Kingdoms of Amalur which is an awesome game and is sucking up my time. So of course I missed a couple of posts about the incredibly ignorant and misogynistic things that some politician said. Of course, some of our commenters, took the opportunity to be more than a bit obnoxious, going on about political correctness and other stuff. Meanwhile, Kyle Cupp has been doing a series of posts trying to show why natural rights is an absurd idea. Kyle’s more problematic idea, is not found in those posts, but in a slightly older one. Here is an excerpt:
Roberto de Mattei may be the Christianist par excellence, but he’s not entirely off base. He’s correct that error has no rights, so to speak, but wrong to conclude that the State shouldn’t therefore have the obligation of religious neutrality. The wisdom of separating of Church and State has its basis not on the supposed rights of error, but rather on 1) the principle that each person ought to seek the truth in her own way and in accordance with her own conscience (which may, in practice, mean a public, communal pursuit) and 2) the prudence of separating the power of priests and the power of princes.
True freedom is ordered toward the true and the good, as de Mattei rightly implies; however, while religious liberty may be best understood as the freedom to practice true religion, when the State takes a stand on what is and is not this true religion—and what in a religion is truth and what is error—it coercively sets the course for the pursuit of religious truth for those under its power, infringing their right and duty to seek truth in their own way.
The problematic part is where he says error has no rights. So, here is an opportunity for me to tie all this together in one post where I will try to give a brief account of why error has rights, why we should care about such rights, why that means that policies should be justifiable to others in terms of reasons that are accessible to them and why being politically correct is important. Much of the content in what follows I owe to discussions with Jerry Gaus. These are not original ideas on my part, but taken from his book: The Order of Public Reason.
The problem with comprehensive conceptions of the good
The basic model that I see Cupp operating under is the idea that there is some objective good life, and the correct scheme of rights and liberties is the one that leads to more people living this good and proper life. Under this model, there is nothing per se wrong with banning obscenity. Even if there are lots of grey areas and that we as humans are likely to make mistakes, if there is some clear cut case of obscenity, then it should be banned. It is not only the catholic-right who buy into such a framework, large swaths of the left do as well. Arguments about whether or not there should be a right to something often devolve into arguments as to whether it is morally right or wrong, whether it affects things that are genuinely valuable etc. However, even if there is an objectively good life, we face two problems. The first is that it is difficult to establish why any particular way of living is genuinely good on a philosophical basis. More relevantly, even if we could do the former, many people who we ordinarily think as competent to run their own lives disagree deeply as to what the good life consists of (or if there is any objectively good life in the first place). There is therefore a more immediate and practical problem that faces us. How can a pluralistic society exist? How can people with deeply contradictory views about what the good is come together and coordinate their actions on some common set of rules and standards? Note that the set of rules ad standards cannot diverge or else coordination cannot take place. For example, everyone has to agree on which side of the road to drive on or you’re going to risk head on collisions. Now one way is just to say: I’m right, they’re wrong so either convince everyone or find a way to come into power and put the right rules in place – other people and their wrong conceptions of the good be damned!
Society, cooperation and coercion
Intuitively, there seems to be something problematic about such coercion. If I were to just say coercion is intrinsically wrong, not only would I be begging the question, I would also be merely offering my own conception of the good in place of someone else. People with other conceptions of the good could just as well look askance at mine and ask why they should abide by rules that arise merely from my own conception of the good. Let me instead merely try to draw out what society is and how it relates to cooperation and coercion. This doesn’t say anything about whether we should regard others as full members of society.
Society, at the very least, is a system of coordination. In any functioning society, people, who even though they pursue radically different ends, can still interact with each other peaceably. There are few conflicts and where such arise, there are clear systems of adjudication. One society can be said to differ from another in that each society has its own set of basic institutions and norms. Society is more than just coordination. It is about cooperation as well, where cooperation is coordination for mutual benefit. When we look at the practice of eremetism, we see that people voluntarily leave society when they wish to give up a large slew of benefits for some reason (to make a political point, or to achieve enlightenment or closeness to God) or if they see no further benefit to staying in society. At the extreme, where people see no benefit to society, they will leave and that society at the least will cease to be. From the other side of the issue, when society deems a particular person too harmful to it, they try to forcibly remove him from society. He is banished, killed or sequestered in some far away place where he does not have much if any contact with society. When prison terms are over, we regard the ex-convict as rejoining society as though for a while he wasn’t. So, the idea that society is a system of mutual cooperation over time is one that seems uncontroversial.
Society, two kinds of coercion and public justification
What I want to do here is draw attention to two kinds of coercion. Consider the following situation:
You are at a bridge which is rather old and rickety and is barely holding together by a thread. It is so fragile that the next person to cross is likely to cause the bridge to collapse and the person to fall into the ravine below. You are in the midst of setting up a detour sign when you see your friend running towards the bridge. You try to call to him to stop but he says that he is in a hurry. He seems extremely agitated and in his current state is unlikely to listen to any entreaties. The only way to stop him is to tackle him and restrain him by force.
Under one description of the situation,
1. Your friend in fact values his life strongly and would not cross the bridge if doing so involved great risk to his life. However, because he is agitated, hie fails to see that the bridge is indeed too dangerous to cross. Perhaps if he was less in a hurry, he would see that it was indeed too dangerous and would not cross
Under an alternative description
2. Your friend is in fact suicidal and is in fact planning to jump off the bridge. Even were he in a calmer frame of mind, he would still try to cross because he wants to die.
Without going into the deep morality of coercion, one of the key ways in which coercion would be different in each case is that in the former, even though we coerce the person, we still regard him as having the minimal capacity to set the direction of his own life and carrying it out in some reasonable manner. In the latter situation, we think that his capacity to set the direction of his life is in fact flawed and in fact do not regard him as a fully cooperating member of society.
At the very least when it comes to psychopaths, such a judgment is the case. We do not regard psychopaths as people whose reason we can appeal to. Their behaviour can only be controlled by threats and incentives. Quite properly then, we do not regard psychopaths as reasonable. Neither are they properly full cooperating members of society. One way to perceive the original issue is whether people who fail to comprehend our reasons are adequately rational. The corollary is that when we advance claims on others which cannot be justified to them based on reason that they have access to, we fail to treat them as fully cooperating members of society. The implication is that full members of society only advance claims on each other that can be justified by reasons that all full members can accept/ make sense of/ have access to. Of course, any particular individual failure to accept a reason does not mean that such reasons are inaccessible. There is a delicate line to walk here in distinguishing between cases where a reason was accessible, but somehow was not given due consideration and cases where a reason is genuinely inaccessible to a person.
Proposal: Expanding the circle of the reasonable
All I have done so far is try to set up a framework with which to think about the claims we make on each other and the reasons we use to back up such claims. The more our reasons are based on conceptions of the good which are not shared with others, the more must be prepared to coercively back up our claims as others will be less likely to abide by claims for which they see no reason to abide by. This also means that we also see those who have to be coerced as less than adequately reasonable members of society. i.e. the circle of people whom we consider adequately reasonable is small. This doesn’t necessarily mean that such claims are therefore wrong. However, here, I propose (without making any claim as to the nature of the proposal) that we should expand that circle to include as many people as feasible. In a pluralistic society, this means that only a subset of our reasons are available to justify the claims we make on each other. When we expand our circle of who we count as adequately reasonable, we forego acting on some reasons that we find morally salient. Of course, the question comes up as to why anyone would even choose to do something like this?
Abstracting the situation as a prisoner’s dilemna*
What I present is perhaps, a partial solution to the problem. Let me lay out what seems to be a truism. Those claims that others make on us which are fully supported by the reasons that we do possess and are not undermined by reasons we possess will seem to us to have the most going for them. We are often fully prepared to accede to those claims. Those claims which are supported by reasons that we possess, but are also undermined or over-ridden by other reasons that we possess seem to have less going for them. Nevertheless, because they have some reasons that we think are important that support such claims, we think that they have at least something to them. Our readiness to comply with such claims is still greater than their readiness to comply with claims that are not in any way supported by reasons which we have access to. At the other end of the equation, we of course are going to see a situation where we can make any claim on others according to the reasons that we possess as a better situation, ceteris paribus, than one in which we have to restrict what kinds of claims we can make. And the limit where we cannot make any kinds of claims whatsoever on others is going to strike us as unacceptable. This gives us roughly four kinds of situations.
A – I only advance claims on others that they have support from their reasons. Others similarly only advance claims on me that are supported by reasons that I hold.
B – Others refrain from advancing claims on me that my reasons do not support, but I successfully advance claim on others that their reasons do not support.
C – I refrain from advancing claims on others for which they have no supporting reasons, but they advance claims on me which I find unreasonable (unsupported to any degree by reasons that I have)
D – I advance claims on others that they find unreasonable and others likewise advance claims on me that I find unreasonable.
Necessarily, we are going to prefer D > C and B > A.
A is of course always going to be preferrable to C.
Now, it could be possible that the reasons that we do share are really too weak and the reasons which I have private access to are the really strong ones and the kinds of duties that the claim imposes are not onerous at all. In such a case, D is preferrable to A. But as a matter of fact, this rarely occurs. What tends to be the case is that the burden imposed by a claim that I see as as unreasonable is greater than the burden imposed by the requirement to only advance claims that others can see as reasonable. Of course, depending on who the others in question are, the latter burden may increase as the shared basis of reasoning shrinks. But, at the same time, as the shared basis of reasoning shrinks, the kinds of claims they may advance on us can become wildly more onerous. Let us suppose that for a broad range of cases in the actual world A is preferrable to D. However, when we have B > A > D > C, we have a prisoner’s dilemna.
The classic solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemna and Norms
As a matter of fact, we know that B and C are not Nash equilibrium. If we are at B, others can start advancing unreasonable (to me) claims against me and thus move us to D. Similarly, from C, I can start advancing unreasonable (to them) claims against others and thus move to D. A situation at A can be moved to D via B or C depending on who defects first. However, we rarely find Bs or Cs in the world. We often find a lot of Ds. But we also find a fair number of A’s. How can that be? Computer simulations have shown that a Nash equilibrium of A can develop if participants used a tit for tat strategy to cooperate unless the person playing defected in his previous move against someone who did not defect. Implementing requires people to build up a reputation and requires close monitoring. Unfortunately, this is neither very effective nor particularly scalable either. Elinor Ostrom’s work on collective action problems is very salient here. What Ostrom found was that many societies and communities were able to maintain their position at A via norms. Norms evoke certain reactive attitudes when they are in effect. People feel guilty when they violate the norm, they are resentful of others and blame them when those others violate said norm. Norms are actually a lot more scalable. What makes Norms effective? Well, one of the things that makes norms effective is the idea of standing. When I internalise a norm, I realise that I cannot make a claim on others to abide by a norm unless I have standing to do so and I do not have standing unless I abide by those norms. Another thing that makes norms stable is that the community refuses to play the game with people who they know have not adopted the norm. i.e. norms are a better signal than reputation. We can therefore see how a society which has already put into place cooperative norms not develop into a B or C situation.
A meta-Norm of Public Justification.
Let us go back to matter at hand: When we are trying to propose norms and standards that everyone is to live by and we want to treat everyone as far as we can as beings amenable to reasons. When we do this, we are going to have to give up on proposing norms or standards that are supported only by reasons that others find incomprehensible. We know that living in a society where everyone has adopted such a meta-norm will be preferrable according to our own conception of the good than living in a society where there is no such meta-norm. Bonus points if you can find space for such a meta-norm for within your own conception of the good. Are the prospects of developing and establishing such a norm limited? Not necessarily. We are already half-way there. We already feel resentful of people who make claims on us that we do not find to be supported by reasons that we can understand. All that is really left is to feel guilty when we make such claims on others. One useful observation is that as societies integrate into the global market order, the way their members play ultimatum games converge to a 50-50 split. Communities which exhibit less integration and fewer market interactions can play in radically different ways. As people trade with one another, they start seeing one another as equals to be respected rather than to be pushed into compliance with some set of norms. If the fairness norm is catching, then we have hope of coming to a basis by which we can establish the meta-norm of public justification.
Can Public Reason yield Rights?
I want to address this rather briefly just for the sake of completeness. After all, if we cannot get a set of rules out of public reason, then it would be problematic. The answer is a bit complicated. Society probably won’t just converge to one particular set of social norms and stay there. What Gaus imagines is a multiple equilibria model. There will be multiple acceptable systems and society will remain in a flux between all these acceptable systems. However, this family of acceptable systems itself will be stable and robust and resemble each other more than other unacceptable systems. Can we get a rough idea as to what such systems will be like? Yes. Even if we are not aware of the actual public reasons that will justify a system in any one society, we can do for social norms what micro-economics does for market interactions.
As a rough idea about where to start, we can observe that the social norms that will be converged on are those that are acceptable to everyone. A device that can select such norms is an initial contract situation. i.e. there is some social contract theory which will deliver the goods. Keep in mind that the social norms must be acceptable to everyone (except the psychotic) and not just some or a majority. This means that there must be some device that prevents the choosing parties from knowing who they will end up as. Also note that this is a system that will be generated by shared reasons. So, we subtract beliefs that divide us. The parties who end up making the initial choice will therefore not have any beliefs about controversial matters, but will instead know that they may end up having those beliefs. i.e. Not just any social contract device, but one with a veil of ignorance will yield the kind of principles that people will converge to.
Extending to Political Correctness
When people rail against political correctness, the kinds of reasons that they give kind of parallels the objections given when people resist public reason. When it comes to public reason, as we have seen, saying that my claim is justified by what is objectively good and true does not cut it if no one else but you and your narrow circle of compatriots is able to apprehend the good. Similarly, we must be circumspect when we talk about sensitive issues. We don’t get closer to the truth by starting flame wars. So, if we want to have productive discussions, we have to take the trouble to spell out exactly what we mean and be extremely careful to show how we are not being bigots. At the same time the guys on the other side should not use the word bigot too loosely. As a matter of convention, bigot is a word that characterises a person who has a really horrible character flaw. Using it in ways that refer to the more common ways all of us pre-judge everything to some extent does not quite convey the valence attached to the word. Trying to reduce the valence attached to the word is not necessarily a good idea either, as not only do we have existing terms for the milder thing, we don’t want to provide cover for the more horrible thing either. We engage in discussions because we, perhaps optimistically, hope that our interlocutors are sufficiently capable of understanding what we say and following the argument. If we don’t offer each other the basic minimum of respect that we owe to people who are able to understand and perhaps even change their mind when they read what we write, why are we writing in the first place?
*Is it spelled dilemma or dilemna?