Justice and Justifications: The Duty to Deliberate and the “Barrel of Reasons”

“I am not one of those who may be questioned about their Why. Do my experiences date from yesterday? It is a long time since I experienced the reasons for my opinions. Should I not have to be a barrel of memory, if I wanted to carry my reasons, too, about with me?” Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Lately it has come to my attention that some political theorists would rather not have to justify themselves all the time. Frankly, I’ve never met a philosopher who couldn’t give you ten arguments for his favorite breakfast cereal, let alone for important political decisions. Yet a certain stripe of liberal takes it to be a priori offensive that he might ever be coerced, even socially, to provide justifications for his political positions. A lot of this debate comes out of the deliberative politics discussion, especially the claims made by Gutmann and Thompson that while justifications are required of citizens in order to grease the wheels of institutional design and legitimate self-governance, only some reasons are acceptable.

The restriction on properly moral reasons, rather than on simply selfish preferences, is not obviously offensive. “Because I said so!” has long been taken as an unacceptable sort of reason, and even Catholics can agree that “Because the Pope said so!” isn’t the sort of reason likely to be persuasive to non-Catholics. Even the Pope provides reasons and justifications for his positions in his encyclicals, and it is the mark of a good, thoughtful Catholic to repeat these arguments rather than simply the conclusions. I take it to be the mark of any successful religion that you occasionally concern yourself with persuasion instead of simply inculcating your own youth with the faith through parental and pastoral domination.

So the real obstacle to deliberative duties, it seems, are the libertarians. If freedom is your main concern, then it makes sense that you would prefer not to instantiate a duty to deliberate even if this is in the service of your other liberties. Having to make arguments, as Nietzsche points out, may actually be something of a burden for your average assault-rifle toting survivalist nut-job. Or, I guess, for the exhumed remains of Robert Nozick’s dessicated corpse.

Now my response to this objection may well be a bit ‘prudential.’ (As my friend Steven Maloney argues.) I’m a prudent sort of fellow, though, so I’ve got little else to add. Real libertarian types tend to associate justice with freedom, and so they don’t take prudence as a sufficiently persuasive arguement: this is actually a good move on their part, since I’d say the same to them while supporting a distributive model of justice. But, as the saying goes, “Ought implies Can,” and if your model of the good/free society is plum impossible, you ought to shut up and write crappy science-fiction like your hero Robert Heinlein. And I think it is demonstrably the case that a society cannot survive without coercive measures, and that in fact the least coercive measures would be an enforceable duty to defend your positions. (It’s another thing to say that these defenses should be reasonable or should require reciprocity or mutual respect… but I’m getting there.

This argument is the same one I used to use on my Italian anarchist friends: when the government steps aside, organized criminals take up the slack. Whether it’s the Mafia or the Triads or Hamas, the mixture of corruption and humanitarianism is a lot closer than many think. The leap from mobster to politician is an easy one, and the coercive possibilities of the state must be limited in such a way to make the two identities radically incompossible. Berlusconi isn’t so bad so long as he doesn’t break people’s legs when they don’t pay their taxes.

So, if we’re stuck with the State, (and we are, damnit, because I said so if for no other reason!) then we should try to create a State whose coercions are the least offensive. History seems pretty clear on this: people who aren’t concerned with, say, consistency or rationality like to take power so they can enforce their particular brand of nonsense on the rest of us; whether it’s Papists or Levelers, Communists or Creationists, they’d all rather argue from a position of authority than from a position of reason. We can be most free if we apply the coercive powers of the State in order to assure that the only authority recognized by the majority of our citizens is that of reason. Once we’ve accomplished that, the only duty to justify oneself will be a duty derived from a shared understanding of the basic necessities of communication. At that point, people will laugh as hard when you cite the Bible as they do today when you cite medical research paid for by the tobacco companies.

2 thoughts on “Justice and Justifications: The Duty to Deliberate and the “Barrel of Reasons””

  1. In what sense is "an enforceable duty to defend your positions" enforceable? For something like this to be enforceable would seem to require a level of state intrusion that is totally unacceptable.

    Did you hear about this Irving fellow who was sentenced for 3 years in Austria for denying the Holocaust? Now, granted, I'm sure he had some set of reasons to cover his ass, so it's a slightly different issue. But, as offensive as Holocaust denial is, individuals should not be penalized–and certainly not imprisoned–for publishing such an opinion, reasoned or not.

    I don't see how giving reasons could be enforced w/o requiring some sort of restrictions on free speech. In fact, you seem to be advocating a position that would make a certain kind of silence unlawful.

    As someone who even opposes campus speech codes, I'd need to hear a lot more to be willing to countenance such a measure. Or am I just misunderstanding your position?

  2. Well, the Ackerman/Fishkin proposal for a national day of deliberation is one such attempt at coerced self-justification. I don't think the US could survive if we actually coerced the content of these self-justifications. Yet we would be free create educational institutions in rhetoric and informal logic to help people differentiate between good arguments and bad ones. Even a set of instructions during deliberation about what counts as a valid justification would seem to have some dubious, but desirable, coercive value. One of the grad students at PSU once proclaimed that she voted for Bush because he has an honest face. I kid you not.

    The Ackerman/Fishkin proposal is about getting electoral politics to at least achieve the level of thoughtfulness required of jury deliberations. That's not asking much.

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