December 22, 2005

THE SECOND FACE (via Mike Daley):

Religion in the Public Square: A Textbook Case (Joseph Knippenberg, 12/21/05, The American Enterprise)

One of the great debates in contemporary legal and political theory is how various participants in a liberal and pluralistic political order should make their arguments. One of the most prominent arguments, advanced by the late Harvard philosophy professor John Rawls and his followers, calls for everyone who wishes to participate in the public square to make use of “public reason,” articulating positions in such a way as in principle to be accessible to everyone. In other words, to be entitled to participate in the public debate, I have to be prepared to offer arguments that depend, not upon a revelation given “only” to me, but upon reasons that are intelligible to our “unaided reason” (I’m tempted to say “to the reason God gave us”). If I can’t offer such reasons, so the argument goes, if I rely upon a faith that I share only with my fellow churchgoers, then my position can’t be admitted into the debate. I’m not entitled to win the argument because, in effect, my victory would mean that an essentially and exclusively religious position would gain the force of law. If my voice is motivated by what some would call an “irrational animus,” it must be marginalized, lest I use it to oppress others. If I can’t in principle persuade by an appeal to reason, then I can’t be permitted to participate in the debate.

It's a standard that, of course, delegitimizes the Declaration and Constitution and so is literally anti-American.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 22, 2005 12:00 AM

Way back when when I was taking a course on Rawls in the early 70's, this was one of the most entertaining points to attack.

An obvious angle comes from Rawls' own use of made-up myth, as in the myth of original position, a sort of reworked Tibetan Book of the Dead.

The "religious" positions which Rawls would exclude from public discourse, from the perspective of that discourse, as distinct from the perspective of the believer, are expressions of the mos maiorum. As such, they are entitled to great weight, as the cheap defense of rationality and order, analogous to Burke's identification of aristocratic military traditions as the cheap defense of nations.

The specter of Stalinism lies just beneath the surface of Rawls' thought. Without the gentle forse of myth, values require the steel of state coercion for enforcement, and Rawls and his deciples freely admit this.

From there is is obvious that state oppression to enforce values in the absence of myth diminishers the lives of all members of society, if no other way that by the economic cost of stultifying oppression.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 22, 2005 1:15 PM

I don't see what's wrong with Rawls in this case. If, for instance, the majority accept the basic premise of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" then arguments based on those are based on "public reason". I don't see the delegitimization of the Declaration nor the Constitution on this standard.

One thing I noticed in the quoted material is the switch from things known "only to myself" to ideas embraced by large swaths, if not majorities, of the population. I am not familiar enough with Rawls to know if that bait & switch is his or Knippenberg's.

The real problem with allowing "revelatory" arguments in the public sphere is that they are irreconcilable, permitting no compromise or even debate. This is not the case for widely supported or even just well understood religions or belief systems, particularly ones with a long history.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at December 22, 2005 5:33 PM


The basic premise is that those rights are a gift from God.

Posted by: oj at December 22, 2005 5:54 PM

A.O.G. It is most telling that issues discussed in the Knippenberg article focus on homosexuality. The application of the Rawlsian marginalization of the mos maiorum has been to posit that the traditional, core values of our civilization are "irrational" throwbacks from the days of the "Patriarchate," (Ye holy Patriarchs and Prophets, pray for us!) and thus are simply inadmissible. Now this is bad history and bad anthropology, but remember, truth means less than nothing to these people.

The point remains that the choice is between Big Father and Big Brother, and for the Rawls gang, Big Brother will do just fine.

Posted by: Lou Gots at December 22, 2005 10:28 PM