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The Perils of Public Reason

Peter Beinart, complaining about rightwing identity politics, makes the following claim:

It's fine if religion influences your moral values. But, when you make public arguments, you have to ground them--as much as possible--in reason and evidence, things that are accessible to people of different religions, or no religion at all. Otherwise, you can't persuade other people, and they can't persuade you. In a diverse democracy, there must be a common political language, and that language can't be theological.
This is basically a lay version of Rawls' "public reason" argument in political liberalism.

People are entitled to -- and, indeed bound to -- each have some thick so-called "comprehensive" beliefs about the world, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc. and it's only natural for these beliefs to inform your views on politics. Nevertheless, given that people disagree about these topics, and that resolution of these disagreements is not going to be forthcoming, there is an obligation to ground political arguments in shallower shared norms that are accessible to (almost) all belief systems that in contemporary life. As Julian Sanchez highlights here, the debate over gay marriage provides a useful illustration.

One form of argument against gay marriage goes like this: "marriage as defined in the Christian Bible is composed of a heterosexual couple, therefore it is wrong for the state to permit same-sex couples to marry." This is an explicitly religious -- explicitly Christian -- argument that you can't expect any non-Christian to endorse. Indeed, the form of reasoning is even distinctly Protestant Christian. Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and secular people might agree on the conclusion, but the form of reasoning is religious and neither does nor could have any force when directed toward a non-believer. This, according to Julian, Beinart, and many others, is not merely a bad (in the sense of unconvincing) kind of argument, but a bad (in the sense of morally wrong) form of argument to advance. There is a duty, the theory goes, to offer some "public reasons" against same-sex marriage. One example would be, "legalizing gay marriage will desacralize the institution, leading to a rise in divorce rates, a decline in marriage rates, and an increasing in the proportion of children raised in one-parent households, thus leading to bad outcomes for America's children."

You might find this argument unpersuasive either because you think it's empirical wrong, or because you think that the harms avoided by restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples are outweighed by the wrongs of discrimination. But as Beinart writes, the argument is grounded, "in reason and evidence, things that are accessible to people of different religions, or no religion at all." Maybe. On the other hand, one might think that people are, in fact, no better able to assess the accuracy of these sorts of grand, speculative empirical claims than they are to assess the inerrancy of the Bible. After all, what sort of conclusive evidence could really be offered for or against the empirical claim being made here? As we've seen when gay marriage opponents (notably Stanley Kurtz) try to make arguments of this sort, the results are terribly inconclusive. People who favor gay marriage invariably find the evidence questionable and the reasoning spurious -- a hash of confusions about correlations and causation, etc., etc., etc.

Worse, part of what makes the argument so unproductive is that it's suffused with a sense of bad faith on both sides. Jonathan Rauch has a book out called Gay Marriage : Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America. Andrew Sullivan has often (and David Brooks at least once) written in a similar vein, offering a "conservative case for gay marriage" stating that, in fact, gay marriage would strengthen the institution. Gay marriage detractors not only find these arguments unconvincing but, with good reason, suspect that Rauch and Sullivan are not exactly approaching this topic with an open mind. They think discrimination against gays and lesbians is wrong and that's the real reason they want to stop it. If you could convince Rauch that gay marriage was not, in fact, "good for straights" it's doubtful that he would change his mind. More to the point, it's doubtful that you could ever convince Rauch of this -- the empiricial evidence is bound to be murky and speculative, and he has a lot bound up with his side of the debate.

Now of course I agree with Rauch and Sullivan on this issue, so there's only a limited amount of casting of aspersions on them that I care to do. Instead, I'll turn the gun on myself -- I'm not even gay and I don't come anywhere close to approaching these questions with an open mind. I would be very, very, very, very reluctant to believe a Kurtz-style argument and it's just not possible to produce conclusive evidence for the sort of thing Kurtz wants to argue, so I will never be convinced by some empirical argument against gay marriage.

And, of course, this happens in part because I am totally unconvinced that the "public reason" arguments against gay marriage are being offered in good faith. I know perfectly well that people who oppose gay marriage do so overwhelmingly either out of religious conviction or simple prejudice. I also know that people understand that such arguments cannot be presented in elite media contexts and so forth and that, as Beinart writes, it's considered (even by people who haven't studied Political Liberalism) to be a kind of 'debate foul' to just pound the Bible. So they gone out into the world, searching around for a tolerable public reason argument that will reach their favored conclusion. But the motivating issue for (the vast majority of) these people isn't demographic shifts in Scandinavia, it's the religion stupid. As a result, I have little incentive to take the empirical arguments offered by the anti-gay folks, and as a result of that, they have little reason to bother to make their arguments convincing (since they know no one will be convinced no matter what) rather than simply providing a kind of "public reason" cover for their real agenda.

And so, after a very long-winded post, let me get to my point -- I'm far from convinced that the strictures of public reason are, in practice, a good thing. What Rawls wants us to do is to search in good faith for arguments grounded in public reason. If we can't find convincing arguments of this form we're supposed to accept that the other side is right (for political purposes) even while maintaining that we're still right (for non-politicial associational purposes) from within our comprehensive view. In practice, this position seems to be in a great deal of tension with human nature. Observant Jews in America are very clear on the difference between a religious belief and a political one -- no efforts from them to ban pork, and they don't like mandatory Sunday closing laws. But give them a country where they're no longer a tiny minority, and all the sudden we've got Saturday closing laws and attempts to restrict the availability of non-kosher food. Both sides of the gay marriage debate bat around speculative empirical arguments that no one on either side approaches with anything resembling an open mind.

One could go on. But since attention to the realities of human nature is supposed to be an important part of the political liberal scheme, I think this is a real problem.

November 19, 2004 | Permalink


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While I'm down with this argument, the response that I've been seeing in the blogosphere is that many of our nation's most important movements have been inherently religious in nature, and that the advocacy language was also religious in nature - the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the Abolition of slavery movement in the 1800s.

Anybody care to dispute whether these movements relied on religion or some more "public" reason to make their cases? I dunno.

Posted by: mikey | Nov 19, 2004 2:18:21 PM

You're absolutely right Matt, but try fitting it on a bumper sticker. This type of reasoning is too difficult (and too long)for many people to follow.

Posted by: tweez | Nov 19, 2004 2:27:20 PM

The idea that you can get anywhere but back to an axiom which must be either accepted or rejected on, essentially, faith by "public reason" ultimately relies on the idea that what should be is logically deducible from what observably is, which I think is the ultimate failing of relying solely on "public reason". As far as possible one should use it, so that one can have a productive discussion about whether the reasoning and analysis are sound. But ultimately, you can't argue with "public reason" for fundamental moral precepts. You either accept them or reject them, and ultimately much policy disagreement is going to rest on this level.

Posted by: cmdicely | Nov 19, 2004 2:29:03 PM

The "religious" right is not only incapable of critical thought, they actively discourage it. The human species evolved a tactic for dealing with people who behave this way. That tactic is laughter and ridicule. Every patriotic American should make fun of the fanatically fundementalists at every opportunity.

Posted by: ajm | Nov 19, 2004 2:42:35 PM

This goes right along with America's love of the mythical "Common Man," which Bush embodies. In this bizarro USA, education makes you dumb, enlightenment saps your morals, and questioning of the Sky God gets you ostracized.

Posted by: Alex | Nov 19, 2004 2:46:47 PM

That tactic is laughter and ridicule.

Well, it's easy to ridicule from a safe (or what would still seem like a safe) distance, like this guy does; but what about the poor souls who have to live under their heel now?

Posted by: abb1 | Nov 19, 2004 2:52:49 PM

I wish the Dems would read Rawls. A Rawlsian presidential candidate might be the ticket to fighting the religious right.

Posted by: Sera | Nov 19, 2004 2:53:18 PM

But Matt, Rawls argues that any conception tolerated in the political liberal scheme must be "reasonable." This is a basic requirement, as you well know.

Is it really that implausible that the "reasonable" sections of Christianity will be buoyed by political liberalism, thus removing the fundamental psychological disconnect you envision?

Yes, some people will be bigoted, but these people are "unreasonable" and outside the bounds of public reason.

All Rawls requires is that you offer good faith public arguments in favor of your policies, and if people reject them unreasonably or in bad faith, well...fuck'em.

Posted by: patrick | Nov 19, 2004 2:57:31 PM

Really interesting post, Matt.

I don't have too much time to give a lengthy response, but what this, in my mind, boils down to is a the whole 'live and let live' philosophy, which this country has in the past often strived for.

Someone may not like gay marriage because of their own personal religious beliefs, but not everyone in the country believes the way they do, even if they're of the same faith. So, instead of trying to weed through a complex plethora of differing religious points of view with the end-goal of making law by them, the best course of action would be to try and make the best secular law possible. And people of reasonable minds should be able to know and agree upon what makes the most sense in that regard.

Is Steve and Rob getting married going to cause Mark and Sally to divorce? Probably not. Etc, etc. The arguments become much more simple. And the decisions much more clearly arrived at. Remember, not all Christians think that gay marriage is wrong, so it's not simply a 'Christian' issue, let alone a religious one. Religion is a problematic red herring, that's why there is a separation of church & state (for the time being, anyway).

The next time someone tries to use their religion (especially Christianity) in saying that they do not hate gay people, but are just supporting an amendment so that marriage can be protected, ask them why they aren't out in full-force for an amendment banning divorce. Funny how we've never heard a peep about that one. And it gets a lot more time in the Bible than does homosexuality.


Posted by: Matt (not MY) | Nov 19, 2004 3:06:52 PM

So, in short, "Public Reason" is only a good policy if there is a reasonable public?

I disagree.

While it is true, many of the arguments put forth are perniciously false but unfalsifiable, they change the nature of the debate. Not every blind follower is clued in to the subtleties of their leadership's tactics. As long as the clueless continue to hear, "Gay marriage makes baby Jesus cry", they will never yield. Goad their leaders into rational arguments, and many followers will only hear the sounds that Charlie Brown's teacher's used to make.

The object isn't to convince the majority that gay marriage is good for them. It is to make them not give a damn. Blacks had more success in the north not because us northern whites just loved black people, but because more of us didn't give enough of a damn to be actively racist.

Posted by: Njorl | Nov 19, 2004 3:13:54 PM

It's the arguments that you are willing to listen to that make you reasonable.

There ought to be no problem wiht listening to an unconvincing religious argument beyond the waste of time. Coming up with a more convincingly framed argument might help but if I can't then use the context to persuade my interlocutor it's just a wig on a pig.

As an example from above, if someone argues that gay marriage is a bad idea because it has bad effects on birth rates and I then demonstrate that that isn't the case or that some minor adjustment of policy would reverse that I want to know that my interlocutor will change his mind.

There seem to be two things going on here. Relgious arguments don't make for consensus building and may mean that people can't effectively speak to each other. The way to get over that is to abandon religious arguments, change their scope or recognise countervailing religious obligations. It is not to make disingenuous arguments.

Such things are unfortunately often demanded of politicians. Some respond half heartedly and end up getting accused of flip-flopping, others make a virtue out of it yielding double-speak.

Posted by: Jack | Nov 19, 2004 3:17:48 PM

Well, *I* oppose "gay marriage" for reasons of etymology. Geeze, people, it's bad enough that I have to refer to a faggot as "a bundle of sticks", and if I remark to somebody that they're looking particularly gay today, they'll punch me out. You have your way with this word, and ten years down the line married people will have to refer to themselves as "engaged in a long term heterosexual relationship involving emotional and economic aspects", or something equally long winded, to avoid folks thinking that they're shacking up with somebody of the same gender.

Hands off, in other words: This word is already taken, and we really do not care to let you ruin it. It's already GOT a perfectly satisfactory meaning, which doesn't involve two men, two women, or a man and a sheep.

Now, the women, at least they had the decency to pick a word from Greek mythology, instead of filching a modern word that people were already using. "Lesbian"; It works, and doesn't inconvenience anybody else.

I suggest you emulate them, and come up with some NEW word for what you want, or some old word that's been out of use for centuries. It will cause a lot fewer hard feelings in the long run.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Nov 19, 2004 3:30:23 PM

You guys on the left suffer from an inability to stop setting up straw men and then proclaiming them as THE ENTIRE justification for conservative belief.

Yes, a great many conservatives are religious, but that is not the sum total of their world view. Take the gay marriage debate, it is intellectually dishonest to say that the SOLE reason that conservatives oppose it it because of religious beliefs. Here's three common arguements against recognizing gay marriage that have nothing to do with religion:

- The issue is about the people getting to decide the definition of our important social institutions and conventions rather than the courts deciding for us.

- The traditional definition of marriage is based on a model to acheive the procreation of our species (Yes, Yes, Yes, there are exceptions - some couples can't or don't procreate ect...) that has thus far served civilization well.

- The traditional definition is based trying to create the optimal family environment with both male and female influence. (Yes, Yes, Yes, YES! - I know that people get divorced, and that gay couples are already allowed to adopt, and that some traditional marriages are horrendous on their children). It is not an infalible model, but it is not an irrational one either.

Those are exactly the state's arguments in the Goodridge case for example.

Now, fine - disagree with every syllable of those reasons. But don't say their not founded in reason and are the sole product of religious zealotry.

As for ajm and abb1, for you to beleive that anyone who disagrees with your world view is an idiot who needs to be ridiculed just makes you so hoplessly arrogant and condescending that it makes me wonder how you could possible think you're any better than the racist sitting on his front porch in Mississippi stammering on about blacks being a mongrel race.

Posted by: MJ | Nov 19, 2004 3:37:41 PM

Interesting post, Matt.

I think there's a sub-issue that needs to be addressed, especially by proponents of gay marriage, namely the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of the state's power to define or restrict marriage. Although I doubt many proponents of gay marriage would disagree with the state's possession of this authority, I think they'd be better off making this belief more explicit, lest "persuadables" think that legalizing gay marriage is one step away from, say, allowing three person marriages, or marriages between children and adults.

Clearly one can think of reasons why the state ought to possess the authority to define marriage (to prevent those who can't give their consent from getting married, for instance, or to prevent marriages likely to result in genetically deformed children).

I think realistically it cannot be this authority that's at stake. Proponents of gay marriage really should be claiming (on the merits) that their relationships don't belong in the class of those legitimately excludable from civil recogntion. They shouldn't be arguing that there's no such thing as a legitimately excludable relationhsip.

Opponents of gay marriage, on the other hand, are bound to lose their case if they base their arguments solely on utilitarian grounds. They ought to simply say "homosexual bahavior is immoral, aberrant, etc., and the state ought not to sanction such relationships by changing the definition of marriage".

You imply that utilitarian/consequentialist arguments against gay marriage seem to be made in a half-hearted manner, because they're not made in good faith. I agree. The pink elephant in the room nobody's talking about on the anti side is public morality. Maybe it's different if one lives in Alabama or watches religious TV, but almost all the talking heads I see on TV who oppose gay marriage make almost exclusively utilitarian arguments in support of their positions. Perhaps the upholding of public morals is no longer a legitimate exercise in state government authority. It would sure seem so from the tepid, and ultimately losing arguments being put forth on the side opposed to gay marriage. Thus, I think if gay marriage proponents were wise, and in fact public morality reasoning is no longer tenable, they'd make their case largely using arguments about federalism. An anti gay marriage ammendment is never going to be enacted, though a constitutional ammendment version of the Defense of Marriage Act just might.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Nov 19, 2004 3:43:39 PM

matt- you're not gay?!?

hee-hee, just kidding. good post!

Posted by: travy | Nov 19, 2004 3:58:37 PM

Suppose A says, "I have a deep religious belief that you should cover your head in public." To which B replies, "Well, I have a deep religious belief that nobody should force anybody to cover their head." A and B have reached an impasse. That's the basic reason why non-rational arguments should stay out of policy debates.

If anyone says "I have a deep religious belief that X", anyone else can say "I have a deep religious belief that not-X." X might be anything..."gays have the right to get married" or "liquor stores should be closed on Sundays," or "We should sign the Kyoto treaty."... So whenever there's a difference of opinion over a policy, that impasse has to be broken. How? In a liberal democracy we out to settle things by appeal to reasons. A reason doesn't have to be a fact, it can be a preference or a moral precept. The only stricture is that it not appeal directly to faith.

Now suppose A says "I'd prefer that you cover your head." He just states his preference as basic. B says 'I'd prefer not to." A says "Well, I and 51% of the people in this great Democracy think you should cover up. So we're entitled to impose this law on you." B says "Why should your aesthetic preferences override my freedom?" A says "Because of the will of the majority." This discussion can go on indefinitely and maybe even reach some mutually enlightening conclusion without ever getting stuck on irreconcilable religious disagreements.

Posted by: Lindsay Beyerstein | Nov 19, 2004 4:06:34 PM

The three "points" raised by MJ are, of course, NOT founded in reason.

The first is merely a point about the method of achieving equality under law and so is meaningless, unless this were a debate about methodology.

The second requires some amount of quantification which the writer has not (and cannot) provide because it requires a comparison to a non-existant alternative that can be neither estimated nor simulated.

As for the third, the "optimal" arrangement has undergone evoluntionary change since the dawn of the species. The so-called nuclear family would not have seemed "optimal" even 200 years ago.

The writer seeks to oppose private contractual relationships with which he/she disagree. That is fine. When it comes to justification, the writer can either argue based on Sky God mumbo jumbo or argue based on being harmed by said relationship. The former, by definition, cannot be refuted. The latter cannot reasonably or meaningful be quantified except in the most vague terms.

I presume the writer is exceedingly risk averse, in which case the vaguest quantifications are sufficient. I also presume that the hypothetical Mississippi racist would consider themselves conservative.

Posted by: SavageView | Nov 19, 2004 4:13:42 PM

You get the same kind of impasses in political discussions that outwardly seem to adhere to the constraints of public reason. Arguments based on a utilitarian, greatest-good, concepts of social justice sound like magical thinking to libertarian minded people, with the view that social justice is created when distributions are governed by the free transactions of consenting adults.

Both sides view the others points of view much like the practicioners of different religions, and the common ground is actually hard to find.

Posted by: wetzel | Nov 19, 2004 4:18:39 PM



Its public policy not the search for categorical imperatives.

Posted by: MJ | Nov 19, 2004 4:24:01 PM


I think you are circling around an important point, in that religion is in now way unique as a source of moral precepts that brook no further justification.

And, in fact, the unchallengable moral precept one person holds that happens to be part of their "religion" may exactly identical to the one another person holds as part of a non-religious belief system. And neither really allows further debate directly (of course, one can debate other relate moral principles, particularly what you might call "meta-moral" principles, that is, moral principles that govern what to do when other fundamental moral principles clash within a society. But those "meta-moral" principles are not special, and just as likely to end up in an impasse -- heck, the idea that when there is a clash of fundamental principles, the one that agrees with the Bible wins is fairly common, as is the idea that when there is a clash, the one that agrees with the speaker in question wins).

Posted by: cmdicely | Nov 19, 2004 4:29:49 PM

Is it the case that fundamental moral beliefs are so immutable, as this discussion seems to be assuming? Sure, for some folks, this might be true - you may never be able to convince an extreme member of the religious right that gay marriage should be permitted. Yet there might be folks on the margin, who have strong religious beliefs, but are open to persuasion. Reason might alter their beliefs, or at least affect how much weight they give them. Many surveys, for example, indicate that views about gay rights are profoundly affected by whether one personally knows someone who is gay. If so, this suggests that there might be folks out there who are persuadable, despite strongly held religious beliefs. My experience is that, for many people, moral beliefs can be quite complex, and aren't quite as reductionistic as this discussion suggests.

If so, then a requirement that public arguments be grounded in reason can play an important role on the margin. On the other hand, a fatalistic view that others are unconvinceable eliminates that possibility, discouraging engagement and increasing polarization.

Posted by: Joe D. | Nov 19, 2004 4:43:18 PM

You know, there IS a public reason argument conservatives use to oppose "gay marriage", and they don't make a secret of it.

It's a fundamental point in conservative thinking, that society embodies more knowlege about what works than we know, that we may not understand WHY a particular social institution is the way it is, but we change it at our risk.

Think of it as a combination of a belief in social evolution, and the precautionary principle.

On "gay marriage", conservatives note that there have been no, that's zip, zero, nada, known societies where marriage included two men, or two women. Sure, there's polygamy, a man and several women. There's polyandry, a woman and several men. And both these varients have their origins, and their serious costs. But both have in common with traditional marriage that there's a mix of genders.

In conservative thinking, ignoring this historical fact is damn reckless. We might not know WHAT the consequences of recognizing "gay marriage" would be, but odds are there ARE consequences, and juding by the lack of any historical examples, they're probably pretty severe.

And that's an argument which doesn't rely on religion, folks. It's a "public reason" argument, and one that ought to give pause.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Nov 19, 2004 5:00:09 PM

Is it the case that fundamental moral beliefs are so immutable, as this discussion seems to be assuming?

I'm not assuming they are immutable, I am saying that they are not subject to rational debate because fundamental precepts are, by definition, not the products of deductive reasoning that can be shown to be erroneous, but the starting points for that reasoning. Sure, you can persuade, by means other than strict reasoning, someone that a different set of starting principles is aesthetically preferable, or otherwise change their mind on fundamental ways, but that is not, strictly speaking, a product of reason, public or otherwise.

Posted by: cmdicely | Nov 19, 2004 5:12:57 PM

MJ: typicallyrightwingbullshit. So you are welcome to go to hell, beotch.

Posted by: SavageView | Nov 19, 2004 5:15:18 PM

On "gay marriage", conservatives note that there have been no, that's zip, zero, nada, known societies where marriage included two men, or two women.

This is, of course, factually incorrect if by "men" you are referring to "biologically male adult humans", since there are known past societies where marriages were allowed between biological males where one was socially considered female.

Posted by: cmdicely | Nov 19, 2004 5:15:41 PM

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