Sunday, June 15, 2008

Neutrality And Liberalism

University of Chicago Law and Ethics Professor Martha Nussbaum is a politically correct, multi-culti, world-government lefty who lives with fellow U. Chi. prof Cass Sunstein. She's a neo-Rawlsian, so it's no surprise her article titled "Reconsideration" in the June 11th NY Sun seconds and attempts to extend Rawls' Political Liberalism, published in 1993. But before tackling Nussbaum, a brief refresh on Rawls.

John Rawls is many progressives' pet philosopher. I've previously blogged about Rawls' most famous work, the 1971 essay A Theory of Justice. In Political Liberalism, Rawls attempted to refine his approach to include evangelical conservatives, a constituency largely unnoticed until the mid-1970s. David Peddle saw the book as Rawls':
attempt[] to draw citizens of diverse religious, moral and philosophical beliefs, what he calls comprehensive doctrines, into a consensus on a political conception of the basic constitution of liberal democracy and its principles of justice. What is challenging in the Rawlsian view is that it sees this consensus as itself resolutely non-comprehensive, comprised of publicly acceptable secular ideas. After its own lights the Rawlsian position tries to draw together the secular and the non-secular and to demonstrate the inclusive nature of the modern democratic state.
Worthy goals, to be sure. Proponents claim they represent "neutral," and thus universal, principles.

Professor Nussbaum agrees, arguing (in effect) that ethics are ethical only when not founded on ethics:
Rawls now urges that we must not attempt to ground political principles in any doctrines, whether metaphysical or epistemological or religious, that are controversial among the religious and secular views of life that reasonable citizens hold. So, for example, we would be ill advised to base our political principles on the idea of the immortal soul, or the idea of "self-evident" truth, since many citizens do not accept such ideas. We can, however, Rawls thinks, argue for political principles in a thinner way, using ethical notions that are not inseparable from controversial religious doctrines.

Political principles, so understood, will not be separate from the rest of what religious and secular citizens believe. Instead, they will constitute a realm of overlap among all the "comprehensive doctrines" in the envisaged society — at least all those that are "reasonable," by which Rawls means willing to respect the equal dignity of all citizens. Each religious or secular doctrine will accept the political principles, and the independent moral arguments that ground them, as one part or "module" in their overall view of life, though most at this point will connect them to deeper metaphysical ideas and arguments. At the same time, citizens will also endorse the political conception as the basis for a mutually respectful and reciprocal life with one another. Thus the public realm is a realm in which we join hands and talk a common language. A key part of what we say in that language is that we agree to allow one another plenty of space to pursue the rest of what our sense of life's meaning requires of us.
Wait a minute--I saw you palm that card. The joker is the word "reasonable;" Nussbaum, like Rawls, attempts to elevate modern liberalism through a constrained concept of tolerance. Each exclude from public debate competing comprehensive doctrines deemed "unreasonable".

The best-known example is Rawls' analysis of abortion:
He considers the ideal case of a well-ordered society in which a mature adult woman requests an abortion. He asserts that any reasonable balance of the political values of: “the due respect for human life, the ordered reproduction of political society over time, including the family, in some form, and finally the equality of women as equal citizens” requires that the woman has “a duly qualified right to decide whether or not to end her pregnancy during the first trimester”. However, here Rawls merely asserts the overriding political value of the equality of women, at least for the first trimester, and fails to show how this assertion might be convincing to proponents of the pro-life position.
In other words, abortion rights are reasonable principles, while abortion restrictions are castigated as "legislating morality". Having pocketed Roe v. Wade, Nussbaum's moved on to liberate legislation from "disgust" (fear of gays is her primary example).

I support Liberalism (in the capital "L" Classic Liberalism sense), including legal protection of personal privacy. But, contrary to Nussbaum's recent piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that's no reason to ignore the conduct, or lament the loss, of Eliot Spitzer. Nor does tolerance or libertarian morality necessarily demand legalization of same-sex marriage. Draining morality out of policy is impossible because the effort is itself the selection of a particular system of morals.

Pretending otherwise is as foolish as squaring the circle. As Norm Geras recognizes, the Rawls/Nussbaum approach is itself a value judgment, not some indifferent, and therefore universal, philosophy:
[I]f we understand 'the equal dignity of all citizens' in a way compatible with what political liberalism is thought to entail, that is not a framework neutral as between the various metaphysical and social doctrines, religious and secular, that rub shoulders in the public domain.. . . Liberalism is better as a political framework, not because it is neutral (as between competing outlooks), but because it is better. It needs to be argued and fought for on that basis.
Taking Geras a step further, I support process Liberalism: the rule of law aspires to create a neutral procedure through which the public can express its choices largely (though not entirely) without regard to the electorate's morals or motivations. Most current liberals hate that.

I call myself a neo-con. But if reverence for neutral process is Liberal, so be it.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

"I saw you palm that card..."

I am SO stealing that line. It is a beautiful image of what is happening in so much progressive discussion.

(I'll give credit."

Carl said...


I stole the line from Heinlein; I think it's from Time Enough for Love.

OBloodyHell said...

FWIW, after looking at your Sunday School link, I agree that the first two of three are Unconstitutional, and I yield to your knowledge of the Law as currently interpreted that the third is Constitutional, but I really believe that blue laws are inherently unconstitutional. At the very least, they threaten to violate the right to peaceably assemble. If I (and others) choose to do so at a place which charges me (nominally) for the privilege, that's none of The State's business.

Further, I suppose it's debatable as to the exact clause which might be used to deny it, blue laws are a pernicious idea in the sense that they are an unnecessary and unfounded Tyranny of the Majority: "You aren't the boss of me!"

In other words, what is being regulated does not need to be regulated by The State, certainly not to the degree in question. It cannot be justified by any semi-universal social benefit.

Finally, it is also an unjust taking by the government, for the reason that they are depriving, without adequate cause, the business owner of the full use of their property, esp. in the form of potential income. Employees who choose to work are also losing, in that they are denied the opportunity to earn wages when they choose and how they choose, as long as said work does not cause clear and inarguable harm to others.

I tend towards libertarian-anarchy: As much government as we must have to maintain order, as little as possible to maintain freedom.

OBloodyHell said...

Re: False middle:

Others agree that growth's the key to reducing poverty

LOL, yet they define "poverty" as anyone whose income is less than one half of the median income for the population group.

This sets "poverty" at a relativistic location which denies the effective possiblity that no one in a society is actually living in a rational concept of "poverty". In real fact, depending on the exact normal curve, typically a fifth to a quarter of the population will -- *inherently* -- lie underneath that boundary at any given time.

They could all have 8000 sq-ft mansions with a 52" HDTV & surround sound in every room (including the walk-in closets), pools, tennis courts, and a 5 car garage with a Hummer, a Lambourghini, a Mercedez Hammer, and (pick two) in the other garages -- and STILL they'd be living "in poverty" because everyone else had even more.

Hence, that's an absolutely assinine definition of "poverty": Poverty is when you do without clothes, shoes, or healthcare because if you bought those then you could not eat or pay the rent. Poverty is when you go hungry at night because you don't have enough money for food.

Poverty is when you're sleeping on a park bench -- not because you're nuts and need to be institutionalized but because you really, really can't find work even though you have talent and training.

If you're spending $125 on Reeboks, you aren't impoverished.
If you have a 32" flat panel at home, you aren't impoverished.

There are, in fact, people living in poverty. Most of the ones living underneath the "poverty line" as defined by the Fed are NOT thus encumbered.

Carl said...


Regulation of commerce does not normally interfere with the First Amendment--one can still assemble in a liquor store on Sunday, as long as the cash register's not plugged in. The distinction I was attempting to draw with regard to blue laws is that legislation with multiple motivations is constitutional if at least one plausible motivation is constitutional. See Crawford v. Marion County Election Bd, Nos. 07-21 and 07-25, Section V (April 28, 2008).