Public Reason and Unreasonable Pluralism

Public Reason and Unreasonable Pluralism

In the context of castigating authors’ servile dedications to superiors, and dedicating his own (1757) Four Dissertations to his cousin the playwright John Home, David Hume offers ‘liberty of thought’ as an example of ‘true liberty.’ When I first read it, I thought he meant to discuss what we now know as ‘free speech,’ ‘academic freedom,’ or ‘religious liberty.’

However, what Hume goes on to describe is really something like mutual toleration, and in particular what we would now call civility among the educated. I quote: “the liberty of thought, which engaged men of letters, however different in their abstract opinions, to maintain a mutual friendship and regard; and never to quarrel about principles, while they agreed in inclinations and manners.”

This seems like an instance of agreeing to disagree about worldviews or metaphysics (‘abstract opinions’) while maintaining mutual intellectual friendship.[1] He goes on to claim that this kind of liberty has previously existed only in ancient times. He goes on to describe how Cicero (who Hume considers an academic skeptic) managed such civility with Brutus (a Stoic) and Atticus (an Epicurean).

Not to put too fine a point on it, Hume (writing in the middle of the eighteenth century) thinks that in an age of Christian monotheism no mutual toleration has really been possible thus far. This fits with a claim that he makes in section IX of the Natural History of Religion (1757) where he asserts that pagan societies are intrinsically more tolerant than monotheist ones because “by limiting the powers and functions of its deities, it naturally admits the gods of other sects and nations to a share of divinity, and renders all the various deities, as well as rites, ceremonies, or traditions, compatible with each other.

By contrast monotheism (which he calls ‘theism’) “supposes one sole deity, the perfection of reason and goodness, it should, if justly prosecuted, banish everything frivolous, unreasonable, or inhuman from religious worship, and set before men the most illustrious example, as well as the most commanding motives, of justice and benevolence.” Lurking in the background is also a concern that there will be interests (among clergy, factions, educated) who will promote intolerance.

While Hume also thinks the Dutch and English polities of his own age do practice some toleration in the sense of allowing considerable liberty of the press and some limited religious freedom, Hume clearly does not think he lives in an age of mutual toleration. He knows this from personal experience: religious bigots prevented his appointment at the University of Edinburgh.

In his obituary of Hume, “The Letter to Strahan” (1776), Adam Smith seems to allude to Hume’s ideal of ‘liberty of thought,’ when he writes, “Thus died our most excellent, and never to be forgotten friend; concerning whose philosophical opinions men will, no doubt, judge variously, every one approving, or condemning them, according as they happen to coincide or disagree with his own; but concerning whose character and conduct there can scarce be a difference of opinion.”

According to Smith, then, people should be able to agree to disagree over their world-views and appreciate each other’s good moral and sociable qualities. That is, this is a commitment to a form of pluralism in social life by avoiding or withdrawing from conflict over ultimate matters. Smith’s position is more hopeful than Hume’s. Hume, who is more elitist, does not really seem to believe that such mutual toleration is possible even among the learned. Smith argued for disestablishment and competition among different religions as a means to moderate the effects from religious disagreement.

Our age is, of course, different than theirs in lots of ways, not the least that in many parts of Europe and even the United States there are many more open religious skeptics and atheists. But as liberalism has developed as a political doctrine, and embraced ‘freedom of speech,’ it has actually come to agree with Hume’s underlying sense that no genuine true liberty in the public sphere is actually possible: that introducing worldviews tainted by religious metaphysics is rather dangerous.

At one pole we find the practice of Laïcité or radical secularism emanating from France. Such radical secularism basically vacates the public sphere from most religious expression and relegates it to the private sphere. In practice, this contrast is not so easy to draw and, when implemented, it often is either inconsistent or an excuse to be quite illiberal including the ban on wearing burkinis or other expressions of religious identity in public. In fact, because of such features I tend to think of Laïcité as republican and illiberal in character.

In order to introduce the other pole I first mention the American practice, inspired by Jefferson, who wrote in his famous (1802) letter to Danbury Baptists, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” From the middle of the twentieth century onward (since Everson vs. Board of Education) this has increasingly meant that governments at all levels were not allowed to offer privileges to religion in public life. As readers have surely noticed, the Supreme Court is withdrawing from that stance including in ways that are disturbing to vulnerable minorities.

I evoke the wall of separation here because in liberal political theory a version of this separation between church and state has come to be known as ‘public reason.’ It goes even further than Jefferson’s wall of separation, for “public reason requires that the moral or political rules that regulate our common life be, in some sense, justifiable or acceptable to all those persons over whom the rules purport to have authority.” In practice, this means that one has to put forward one’s justification or reasons for, say, moral or political rules and policy in a relatively neutral manner distinct from the underlying worldview (or abstract opinion) that may motivate it.

In addition to sharing an implied concern over the effects of introducing worldviews tainted by religious metaphysics into public life, Laïcité and public reason liberalism have three surprising features in common: first, where they are embraced they tend to unite relatively left-leaning and right-leaning theorists. So, for example, among public reason advocates one finds relatively classical liberal types (like the late Jerry Gauss and his student Kevin Vallier) and a relatively progressive one like John Rawls.

Second, and more important, both approaches imply or even demand considerable public self-censorship. Now in the context of Laïcité this is backed up by legal sanctions and public education. The influence of public reason can be juridical in character, but also manifests itself in a set of attitudes among the relatively educated.

Now, the public sphere’s radical secularism of Laïcité and the attempts at reaching an overlapping consensus facilitated by public reason are defended on a whole range of very sophisticated moral and theoretical grounds. Some of which seem irrefutable in light of the assumptions that drive the argument. But I started with Hume because what motivates Laïcité and public reason is something of his instinctive distrust of the ways fanaticism has its roots in our impossibly hard to dislodge commitments, mystical and theological faith, and ideologies.

In his obituary, Smith presents Hume joking about himself that his battle against “the prevailing systems of superstition” is never-ending, Sisyphean in character. Even Smith’s more optimistic alternative accepts that we will inevitably disagree. Both Hume and Smith presuppose the kind of pluralism that has become a sociological and theoretical commonplace. And lurking behind their arguments is an elitist, Platonic skepticism that in democratic public life opinion will predominate and truth will not rule. (Notice their use of ‘philosophical opinion” and “abstract opinion” in the quoted passages above.)

This underlying Platonic skepticism is the third feature Laïcité and public reason liberalism have in common. But they react to it differently. Radical secularism uses the mutually supporting authority of the state and science to impose truth on public life and thereby homogenize it. Whereas public reason tries to produce a reasonable public sphere by self-imposed norms and rules of deliberation. In fact, many public reason liberals are quite critical of the authoritarianism in French radical secularism.

Yet, in practice Laïcité and public reason liberalism facilitate a habit of devaluing certain kinds of criticisms, worldviews, and their critical spokespeople as ‘unreasonable,’ ‘backwards,’ and ‘uncivil’ and, thereby, unintentionally producing or reinforcing the very anger, fanaticism, and polarization they were meant to diffuse. Laïcité and public reason risk making enemies from some citizens. That is, from a political perspective they are somewhat and in some circumstances self-undermining. Yet, Smith’s apparent optimism about the effects of religious competition seems naïve.

Now within the history of liberalism, there have been alternative approaches. In his (1937) An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society, the public intellectual Walter Lippmann proposed what he later called a “reconstruction of liberalism.” The context of publication  was the Great Depression and the rise of totalitarianisms, and a general climate that liberal ideals were a thing of the past. His book was partially successful because after the second world war he inspired and influenced a new liberalism and neo-liberalism promoted in different ways by the Mont Pelerin Society and also Popper’s Open Society.

Now, the Harvard-educated Lippmann could be as elitist as the best of them (and compared to, say, Dewey he clearly was). But what he also recognized is that for liberalism to remain vital and vitalizing it needed to engage and allow itself to be confronted with unreasonable views and worldviews. In fact, he thought it was one of the mechanisms by which a democratic society could become more resilient. His underlying arguments for this position have Hegelian and Millian antecedents, but the roots are fundamentally Madisonian. I invite you to seek them out by reading his Good Society.

On Lippmann’s view, liberalism simultaneously endorses its own fundamental commitments and a commitment to a kind of unreasonable pluralism that reflects society’s true diversity.[2] Notice that here, too, there is lurking the Platonic skepticism I attributed to Hume, Adam Smith, radical secularism, and public reason liberalism. But rather than recoiling from its implications he, like Madison, embraces it. And he does so not from a naïve faith in the idea that the truth will win out. On the contrary, his earlier book (1922) Public Opinion—still a classic in political communication and political sociology—details all the ways in which strategic interests and technology conspire to keep the public sphere the realm of opinion rather than truth. He diagnosed the persistent recurrence of fake news long before the phrase was invented.

Unreasonable pluralism understands true liberty, including religious liberty, as the freedom for each of us as individuals to make political claims in whatever vernacular we choose, including religious and unreasonable ones. The idea is, in fact, healthier for political life and liberalism if, say, organized religions pursued the public, spiritual warfare of their choice.

Of course, at this point one may well wonder whether the polity can survive the lack of harmony that unreasonable pluralism presupposes. Here’s where Madisonianism enters in. Madison writes in Federalist 51, “by so contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places.” This is achieved by fracturing territorially and temporally the representation of the people (through federalism, bicameralism, staggered elections, and only partially overlapping constituencies, for example). Lippmann was much impressed by the temporal “architecture” we find in, as Elizabeth Cohen notes, in “every democratic state.”[3] As the political theorist Richard Bellamy has remarked on Madison’s insight, “different forms of representation mean that they are not treated as a homogeneous entity with a singular, all commanding will.”[4] For Lippmann the right constitutional structures could, thus, be made resilient in part through structuring open-ended and fierce political contestation in the right way.[5]

That is to say, a liberalism that embraces unreasonable pluralism, of course, risks the hegemony of illiberal political confluences. This is what Smith missed. But a well ordered Madisonian constitutional structure generates the conditions and political debates which allow individuals, in Bellamy’s summary, “to voice their concerns for themselves.”

Of course, Madison’s vision was imperfect in multiple ways, not the least on the question of slavery and women’s disenfranchisement. For present purposes it is especially significant that his constitution did not prevent an awful civil war. There are, after all, no guarantees in life. What we may call the Reconstruction constitution did not prevent Jim Crow nor, more topically, Trump’s attempted usurpation. No created thing is eternal. But it can be made more durable if the crises are used to learn and adapt.

Because of its embrace of markets, the development of science and technologies, and liberalism’s receptiveness to cultural (and religious) innovation, liberalism constantly invites society to voyage into the uncertain and unknown while trusting the intelligence of individuals to solve the challenges encountered. Lippmann thought we needed to embrace what I call ‘a spirit of adaptation’ alongside well designed institutions in order to mitigate the dangers involved.

[1] Confusingly for us, he goes on to use ‘science’ as one of the synonyms of ‘abstract opinion.’ I use ‘worldview and metaphysics’ in part because other examples of ‘abstract opinion’’ Hume goes on to offer are ‘love of paradoxes’ and the ancient philosophical systems.

[2] Eric Schliesser (2019 “Walter Lippmann: The prophet of liberalism and the road not taken.” Journal of Contextual Economics–Schmollers Jahrbuch 139.2-4: 349-364. Lippmann’s position anticipates Chantal Mouffe’s agonism to some degree, but their sensibilities are very different.

[3] Elizabeth F. Cohen The political value of time: Citizenship, duration, and democratic justice. Cambridge University Press, 2018, p. 2.

[4] Richard Bellamy “The Political Form of the Constitution: The Separation of Powers, Rights and Representative Democracy.” Political Studies 44 (1996): 436-456.

[5] Nick Cowen & Eric Schliesser “Novel externalities.” Public Choice (2023).

Featured image is Statute of David Hume