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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

When Moralities Collide

Daniel Little:

Rawls on political liberalism, by Daniel Little: Long after the transformative impact Rawls brought to social and political philosophy..., Rawls continued to wrestle with ... how a just society ought to encompass major disagreements among its citizens about values and "conceptions of the good;" and much of his thinking is reflected in his 1993 collection of essays, Political Liberalism. Here is how he formulates the central problem:

A modern democratic society is characterized not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines. No one of these doctrines is affirmed by citizens generally. Nor should one expect that in the foreseeable future one of them, or some other reasonable doctrine, will ever be affirmed by all, or nearly all, citizens. Political liberalism assumes that, for political purposes, a plurality of reasonable yet incompatible comprehensive doctrines is the normal result of the exercise of human reason within the framework of the free institutions of a constitutional democratic regime. Political liberalism also supposes that a reasonable comprehensive doctrine does not reject the essentials of a democratic regime. (xvi)

... How in the context of this pluralism of important value systems, is it possible for a modern society to nonetheless possess the features of civility and stability that we would desire?...

One prior thought we may have had about a liberal society is that the state establishes no more than a neutral system of law... So the liberal state is a neutral state -- one that gives no privilege to one conception of the good over another.

Neutrality is certainly part of the ideal of a liberal state; but it isn't quite enough. The reason is that some conceptions of the good and the right require the intervention of the state for enforcement. If the Alpha group believe that fetal stem cells are nascent human beings and therefore should never be used for the purpose of scientific research, while the Beta group believe that fetal stem cells are no more than useful compounds of organic molecules that can relieve human misery; then both sides of the debate want to prevail through legislation -- either to prohibit stem cell research or to permit stem cell research. Each side sees its position as being driven by a moral imperative -- and therefore not to be compromised without an unacceptable loss of moral integrity...

To overcome this contradiction, neutrality is not enough. We need to add a commitment to democratic, constitutional procedures as being the moral trump card when it comes to legislation about areas of conflict based on fundamental disagreements about the right and the good. Essentially this comes down to a second-order commitment that every citizen needs to share: When policy issues arise that lead to profound disagreement among blocs of citizens, the right solution is ... arrived at through legitimate democratic processes. In other words, all citizens need to put their commitment to legitimate democratic procedures ahead of their commitment to a particular conception of the good and the right. Democratic values supersede religious, political, and moral convictions when there is no choice but to legislate an issue. ...

Rawls captures this conundrum with the idea of toleration: the idea that citizens must tolerate and respect the strongly-held convictions of their fellow citizens, even while participating in a political process that leads to legislation that is inconsistent with those convictions. This means that if the Alphas prevail through the political process, the Betas need to accept the outcome as morally legitimate -- even though it contradicts their own firmly held moral convictions. But why would one accept the moral necessity of toleration? Doesn't this mean sacrificing one's own moral convictions to the will of a contrary majority? And doesn't this imply that one's own convictions are tentative and conditional?

The answer seems to go along something like these lines. When one is a member of a society, one recognizes the inevitable fact of ... fundamental pluralism... The citizen is asked to take a ... perspective ... that there is disagreement about these matters, and the only defensible process for resolving the issue is the democratic process in which each person's reasons count as much as every other person's. ...

So -- what is a political liberal, according to Rawls? It seems to boil down to this. It is a moral individual who has his/her own conception of the good...; who recognizes nonetheless that he/she is a member of a polity that is fundamentally plural when it comes to conceptions of the good; who recognizes that there is no basis for insisting on privilege for one's own conception of the good; and who recognizes the moral legitimacy of constitutional democratic procedures when it is necessary to decide among policies that involve conflicting conceptions of the good. It is a person who puts civic commitment to constitutional democratic processes ahead of one's one fundamental convictions when necessary. And it is a person who is fully committed to ensuring the neutrality of the state across fundamental convictions. ...

We can now give a fairly simple explication of illiberal thinking as well. It is moral, religious, or political fundamentalism -- the idea that one's own moral convictions are so compelling that no democratic process could legitimately override them. It is the idea that the individual has a persistent right to oppose the state when the state's actions are inconsistent with one's own moral convictions. It is authoritarian -- it endorses the idea that one's own group or party has the right to override the majority's will when the state contradicts one's fundamental convictions. And it is, of course, a position that is fundamentally disrespectful of democracy and of the equal dignity and worth of one's fellow citizens.

I think the last paragraph captures what has happened to the political process in the last several decades, particularly on the right. There is a group who believe that their moral convictions stand above the democratic process, and hence they do not honor it. This is the point that Krugman has been trying to make. When one side does not believe the democratic process has the moral authority to resolve fundamental issues, the idea that you can negotiate with the other side in a bipartisan manner within the democratic process is foolhardy. The other side simply will not respect the process. Instead, the opposition will do everything it can to subvert it. We've seen this in action on a variety of issues lately, even in Congress where the need to respect the outcome of the democratic process ought to be well understood.

There is no halfway, and there is no resolution once the commitment to the democratic process -- including an agreement to accept and respect the outcome -- has been abandoned. And it isn't just issues like abortion, gay marriage, and religion in the schools where this is happening. The list now includes items such as taxation, health care, and, it seems, the mere election of someone on the other side of the fence.

But to me the real question is why so many people have stopped believing that the state has the authority to be the arbiter of last resort in a pluralistic society. Has the process become so captured by wealth and power that people do not trust it to produce an equitable resolution process? To use the term from above, has neutrality been lost? Is it due to a loss of trust in government that can be traced to Vietnam and then Nixon? Has the right's attack on government, particularly since Reagan, been all too successful? I'm not sure I know the answer to this question, but something does seem to have changed.

    Posted by on Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 01:17 AM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  Comments (76)


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