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.

Apples, Potatoes, Politics: One of these things doesn’t belong

Take the group of things we call ‘apples’. Let’s not get too technical, but merely admit that we mostly know what that word entails, and that we can therefore select members of the group from non-members when we go to the grocery store. We know not to put a potato on an elementary teacher’s desk, for instance, unless she is a French teacher, in which case the potato would serve as a joke: “pomme de terre” ha ha.

What group does this grouping itself belong to? The word ‘apples’ belongs to a number of hierarchically related linguistic groups: nouns, words, etc. Apples themselves belong to a number of hierarchically related biological groups: fruits, plants, things, etc. The sound apples bridges the gap, since it belongs to a special group of sounds called phonemes (meaningful sounds) and then from there bridges off through the physical group to join apples in the realm of things.

In one sense, this is the materialist/idealist problem in a nutshell. Boring, eh? It gets interesting again when we admit that none of these groups belongs to itself, except language. That is, the linguistic construction ‘thing’ is not itself a thing: it’s an idea or somesuch. But the linguistic construction ‘language’ is linguistic. It’s a set to which the set itself belongs. I think that’s cool, but it’s still not very interesting.

When I go around talking about politics, though, I’m actually making a lot of claims regarding this kind of set theory. I talk about the Democrats and the Republicans and I call myself a political philosopher. There’s this French cat named Alain Badiou, however, who disagrees. “That’s not politics,” he argues. It’s partisan wrangling for management of state institutions. Yet if American and European political parties have succeeded in identifying that partisan wrangling with politics tout court, if we’ve come to believe that they supply the only viable modes of political action and devote all our energies to partisan elections, than the set of politics has beeen covered over, replaced. It’s as if we’ve all begun to think of potatos when someone says ‘apples.’ A good trick… and in fact, it’s a political trick. In essence, (and this is a bit more of another Frenchie, Jacques Ranciere) the political set is made up of tricks like this: setting the viable actions and restricting the terms of debate. “Tax relief” instead of “tax cuts.” “Saving Social Security” vs. “fixing the entitlements system.” “Gay marriage” vs. “equal rights.” That’s politics.

The Dems and Reps have been such good politicians that we forget to pay attention to politics, which would maybe be something like campaign finance reform (remember that?) or voting rights for felons, or the institutional requirements of capitalism like the status of regulation as a ‘taking,’ or the relationship between public goods and private property, or the role of common citizens in the habituation of their children. The parties engage each other in these debates, and so a few thousand people spell out the basic shape of the political landscape, and then stage these massive PR campaigns for bipartisan representation as a governmental form. Politically, we’re all of us vegetarians: we’ve stopped thinking that the meat of politics is healthy for regular folks to consume, and left it to the policy wonks and party strategists.

Do you need set theory to say that? I dunno, but the right has made a lot of progress by publicizing their understanding of the true nature of politics amongst the party faithful. That’s the whole liberal media bias meme in a nutshell: demonstrating the various attempts to set the terms of a debate on the part of the left. (I’m thinking of the absurdly named “No Spin Zone.”) Maybe we could use a bit of that, ourselves.