research agenda: political philosophy

Two interrelated problems about democracy in a modern, pluralistic society are central to my ongoing research in political philosophy.  The first concerns the cognitive and epistemic status of John Rawls’s political liberalism and, specifically, the idea of reciprocity that forms the core of his idea of public reason and its place in deliberative democracy.  The second concerns conceptualizing the pluralistic, political ethos that must be expected of citizens of a well-functioning, diverse deliberative democracy, as well as the institutional mechanisms used to strengthen and secure it.

The first project starts with a central interpretive question about the cognitive status of John Rawls’s later philosophy:  Should we read his political liberalism as suggesting a historicist and contextualist revision of his Theory of Justice as advocated by Richard Rorty?  Or can we still read him as making universalistic and context-transcendent claims about democratic society and its liberal political conceptions of justice, even given Rawls’s affirmative disavowal of a claim to truth for his “freestanding,” political conception of justice in favor of “reasonableness”?  I think there is plenty of evidence that even in limiting the ambitions of his political conception to reasonableness rather than truth, Rawls nevertheless intends his claims of political justice to be objective and normatively binding.  Furthermore, I will argue that Jürgen Habermas is wrong in seeing Rawls ultimately rests the normative propriety of political liberalism merely on the nonpublic reasons found in citizens’ multifarious comprehensive worldviews.  Still, addressing these interpretive issues raises a deeper point: I intend to argue that Rawls was too hasty in ceding truth to comprehensive doctrines, and abdicating a potential, limited role for truth in the domain of the political.  Rawls’s claims to political reasonableness, I take it, are best read as at least implicitly lending his claims the cognitive and epistemic status of partial, incremental insight rather than exhaustive, metaphysical essence: they illuminate a limited, political part of, but do not claim to exhaust the whole of our understanding of the right answers.  I will argue that this is not far off from Rawls’s own intentions.

In particular, I believe that Rawls’s theory is actually committed to seeing, as autonomous politically moral insight, the criterion of reciprocity—i.e. the requirement that when citizens propose what they take as the most reasonable fair terms of social cooperation (in a political conception of justice), they must also reasonably think it at least reasonable for others to accept them, as free and equal citizens, and not as dominated, manipulated, or due to an inferior sociopolitical position.  I plan to argue that, based on Rawls’s own commitments, acting according to this criterion—i.e. being politically reciprocitous—is something that reasonable democratic citizens must understand each other to sincerely be able to do based on considerations of political reciprocity themselves (i.e. for its own sake), and not necessarily because of reasons stemming from their broader, disparate worldviews.  This point, in turn, can serve to deepen our understanding of the structure of a reasonable overlapping consensus as well as its relationship to public reason—i.e. how exactly are political conceptions of justice to be “embedded” into reasonable comprehensive doctrines in order to respect the idea of reciprocity undergirding democratic, political legitimacy and public reason.

In this final element, my first project dovetails nicely with my second.  The second project begins by engaging the substantive debate between Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls over the role of overlapping consensus in the latter’s theory: does it merely have a functional role of ensuring societal stability, as Habermas objects against Rawls, or is there a legitimate, further, cognitive or justificatory role for overlapping consensus to play in securing the rational acceptability of the family of political conceptions of justice that are to serve as the content of a democracy’s public reasoning?  I think Habermas is wrong to think that overlapping consensus serves a merely functional role of securing stability of a democratic regime.  Still, the genuine cognitive role overlapping consensus does play is not one of ensuring rational acceptability of the content of political conceptions of justice.  On the other hand, I think Rawls is wrong to hold that citizens merely take into account the existence of overlapping consensus by simply giving weight to the fact that each citizen has embedded a liberal political conception of justice in their comprehensive doctrines, without needing to look into the content each other’s doctrines.  Still, this peering into each other’s worldviews is not to assess the reasons proffered therein for a politically justificatory role.  Rather, this mutual inspecting of one’s fellow citizens’ comprehensive views has a distinctive cognitive role: ensuring that their commitment to this democratic society is embedded in the right way in their broader worldviews.  Overlapping consensus gives us insight into the character of our fellow citizens as well as the ethos of our political community: it allows us come to ensure that a commitment to a democratic society and its public reason is embedded properly in our fellow citizens’ worldviews, as a politically moral insight, and to thereby secure a relationship of civic trust among fellow citizens. 

Overlapping consensus is thus best construed as an ongoing inquiry into the integrity, authenticity, and sincerity of their commitment to democratic political reciprocity: it is a cognitive inquiry into the status of their commitment and one that has implications about the citizens’ view of their regime’s legitimacy as well as of the ethos of civic trust within their political community.  Beyond serving a stabilizing role, a strong civic community is a well-spring of politically moral insight, and the maintenance of communal bonds of trust can be cognitively assessed by citizens in terms of terms of the sincerity and integrity of their peers’ commitment to the mutual enterprise.  These are, of course, politically moral expectations on citizens rather than legal ones, which would trample on basic rights, but my research would continue by addressing the question of what sorts of institutional mechanisms can be legitimately used to foster a thin democratic ethos of civic trust.  Habermas is wrong to simply cede the motivational and ethical presuppositions of pluralistic deliberative democracy to a “rationalized lifeworld” or a form of ethical life that “meets it halfway”: more can be theorized about how democratic citizens can legitimately and non-coercively assess and strengthen democratic, political ethos, and about how the institutions of a democratic society can legitimately do likewise.  In particular, I will critically engage with Habermas’s suggestions about the reciprocal cognitive burdens those with monolithic, religious worldviews and those with more fragmented, secular outlooks must assume in a deliberative democratic society, and argue that defenders of modern democracy are best to open their minds to learning from religious communities in theorizing about how to build non-exclusive forms of civic community and democratic ethos rather than, as Habermas does, focusing solely on how religious citizens can contribute to political reasoning while maintaining their identities.  Charles Taylor, for instance, highlights the continued, modern importance of “the festive,” which can be put to use by democratic societies as a way to recognize, recollect, and celebrate the diverse elements of our pluralistic community and its multifarious worldviews and histories (a pluralistic, nonabsolute take on Hegel’s Absolute Spirit), and thus play a cognitive and community building role of mutual understanding and civic trust.
Further, I would also like to explore the role that systemic sources of distrust and mistreatment among citizens (ethnocentrism, racism, sectarianism, etc.) play in undermining democratic ethos and our presupposition of the legitimacy of deliberatively democratic outcomes.   Distrust and disparate treatment of others because of who they are rather than what they do, besides being morally pernicious in and of itself, undermines both the cognitive and the ethical bases of our best understandings of deliberative democracy.  Rather than leaving this issue to “non-ideal theory,” we must recognize that simply as a matter of realism, such unfortunate realities are always present in any pluralistic society, and thus that any realistic understanding of deliberative democracy must try to understand what legitimate institutional mechanisms can be leveraged against them.  I do not think that pluralistic democracies can remain institutionally neutral with regard to racists, sexists, and bigots out of concerns over freedom of speech: promulgating a pluralistic, democratic civics and civic education of mutual tolerance and understanding, e.g., is a legitimate institutional role for a democracy that is concerned to protect its own cognitive, ethical, and motivational presuppositions.