Judge Richard Posner has been guest-blogging over at Brian Leiter’s site. In his first post, he expresses a not-quite-completely general moral skepticism:
much or even most morality seems based, rather, on instinct, emotion, custom, history, politics, or ideology, rather than on widely shared social goals….Are there really compelling reasons for these unarguable tenets of the current American moral code? One can give reasons for them, but would they be anything more than rationalizations? They have causes, that history, sociology, or psychology might elucidate, but causes are not reasons.
One might think that this is a prelude to a sweeping condemnation of the American moral code – most of it is based on instinct, emotion, custom, etc. and should be replaced by a code that is better grounded. But this is not what Posner is up to. His target is not a specific code that he thinks is not up to snuff, but rather a certain way of thinking about morality itself.
Posner introduces his post by identifying himself as an atheist, but immediately claims, “You cannot convince a religious person that there is no God, because he does not share your premises, for example that only science delivers truths. There is no fruitful debating of God’s existence.” There is every reason to believe that he holds the same position with respect to moral beliefs – since there are no “compelling reasons” for the “unarguable tenets” of morality, there is no fruitful debating morality, either.
It would seem to follow that moral and political philosophers are just wasting their time. And, indeed, in his second post, he writes the following:
the sort of political discussion in which political philosophers, law professors, and other intellectuals engage is neither educative nor edifying; I also think it is largely inconsequential, and I am grateful for that fact. I think that what moves people in deciding between candidates and platforms and so on certainly includes facts (such as the collapse of communism—a tremendous fact), as well as a variety of “nonrational” factors, such as whom you like to hang out with—I think that’s extremely important in the choice of a political party to affiliate with. When a brilliant philosopher like Rawls gets down to the policy level and talks about abortion and campaign financing and the like, you recognize a perfectly conventional liberal and you begin to wonder whether his philosophy isn’t just elaborate window dressing for standard left liberalism.
This strikes me as an odd and revealing passage. Let’s start at the end. The suggestion clearly is that when we see where Rawls stands at the “policy level”, the mask comes off and we see that the entire structure is a mere rationalization – “elaborate window dressing” – for what Rawls was interested in all along – defending a right to abortion and campaign finance reform, and other such policies. But would these suspicions have been any different if Rawls wound up opposing abortion and supporting libertarian economic policies? Of course not – arguments to those conclusions would have been mere rationalization, too, since we already know that there are no compelling reasons for moral beliefs and that what actually moves people are “‘nonrational’ factors, such as whom you like to hang out with.”
The key here is to focus on the idea of a compelling reason. On the one hand, this might mean a reason that would actually move people to accept a conclusion, regardless of what else they believe. A compelling reason to accept abortion rights would move people like an irresistible force to a certain conclusion, regardless of their initial beliefs. Posner doubts there are such things, and that is why political philosophy is “largely inconsequential” – people, in fact, are moved not by arguments and reasons but by other things. That is why recognizing the philosopher’s “elaborate window dressing” renders the argument inconsequential.
But Rawls’s approach to moral reflection – and what he would count as a compelling reason – is quite different. Moral reflection is not about devising arguments to get other people to switch over to the position that you already hold. It is to help you figure out where you should be. This is the idea of reflective equilibrium – something, I should point out, is not part of the more recent “political conception” of justice, but has been an explicit part of Rawls’s theory since A Theory of Justice was first published more than 30 years ago.
Rawls’s working assumption is that the moral terrain is extremely complicated and that each of us has a not-altogether-coherent set of beliefs, doubts, principles, and hunches at all levels of generality from concrete judgments to abstract ideals. (Many – most – of them certainly derive from what Posner would call “‘nonrational’ factors”.) We’re quite sure that slavery is unjust, but the extent of permissible economic inequality is not at all obvious; it’s easy to say that all people should be treated with respect (an abstract principle), but it may not be so clear whether permitting pornography offends this ideal (a more concrete application); maybe we waiver back on forth on euthanasia; and on and on. If all of our beliefs and judgments were completely coherent and we had a high level of confidence in them, there would be nothing to need for reflective equilibrium. At that point, if others had different judgments, we would be in something like the position that Posner imagines – little point in trying to argue, there would be nothing to do in a democracy except to vote.
But if we are in the position that Rawls imagines – with many internal conflicts and uncertainties – this opens up room for another project: trying to get our moral beliefs right. In pursuing that goal, it makes sense to try to construct arguments from our most secure beliefs (what Rawls calls “provisional fixed points”) to conclusions regarding issues we are much less certain about. (The fixed points are provisional because even they are not in principle immune from possible revision.) In this context, a compelling argument is not one that could move anyone like an irresistible force, but rather one that we judge to provide good support for its conclusion – valid inferences from premises we have a high degree of confidence in.
Posner positions himself as a hard-nosed realist, describing how people actually behave in contrast to philosophers’ idealizations. Philosophers, he suggests, who want to turn politics into an “academic seminar” are condescending to ordinary people who are unable to defend their political preferences “in debate with their intellectual superiors.” But it’s hard to imagine a more condescending attitude than one that doesn’t leave room for moral reflection and reconsideration – one that assumes that people are programmed by their environment, for example. No political theory I know of claims that people are perfectly rational and consistent and certain of their positions. On the contrary, for Rawls, it is our inconsistencies and uncertainties that gets the project of moral reflection going in the first place. To exclude the possibility of ethical reflection and progress is unwarranted. And if there is such a possibility, why shouldn’t we ourselves take the opportunity to reflect on our beliefs, with the hope of clarifying where we are (initially) confused or at a loss, in the hopes of getting it right?
Perhaps Posner doesn’t mean to reject the possibility of such a project for those who are less than supremely confident in the coherence and accuracy of their moral judgments. Maybe it’s only that he finds that project “neither educative nor edifying.” What could be more irrelevant and boring than watching someone else straighten out her inconsistencies and uncertainties, especially if you don’t share her provisional fixed points? On the other hand, if you do share her provisional fixed points, and are yourself struggling to reach reflective equilibrium, such an exercise might be very helpful. I should note that the provisional fixed points that Rawls emphasizes are, in fact, widely shared. (He mentions as examples “that religious intolerance and racial discrimination are unjust”; he never argues from a right to abortion or the necessity of campaign finance reform.) But there’s no doubt that a person who believes that members of a different religion or race are subhuman will not find Rawls’s arguments compelling. That, of course, is not Posner’s position. My suspicion is that Posner would find the arguments that “political philosophers, law professors, and other intellectuals” make to be edifying only if they really were compelling in the first sense above. But no argument could ever be like that – “A conception of justice cannot be deduced from self-evident premises or conditions on principles.” (TJ, rev. ed., p.19) Posner would not be the first self-styled pragmatist to adopt that position based on a disappointed backlash upon realizing that reason cannot generate arguments that compel.
One final twist. Rawls’s approach to ethical reflection is fundamentally first-personal – it asks what principles I should accept rather than how can I convince someone else to believe what I already know. From this point of view, a compelling reason is one that I judge that I should accept – one that I believe is a good one – not one that I predict will, in fact, move me or someone else. Rawls agrees that, in general, ethical reflection and justification can only profitably be addressed to those who share certain premises. But Rawls is interested in basic social justice, rather than a comprehensive ethical theory. And it is because of this that the first-personal point of view becomes first-personal plural. But, alas, a discussion of that point, which would be necessary to answer Posner’s rejection of “deliberative democracy” (and would take us into the land of Political Liberalism), will have to wait for another post….
fn1. Posner does not use the word “condescending” – that is Richard Rorty’s term for Posner’s philosophical opponents, in comments on this post by David Velleman.