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Thursday, October 05, 2006

Religious People and Public Reason

Habermas's "Religion in the Public Sphere" is available here for download.  He is presenting it today at NYU.  Micah Schwartman -- an expert on "public reason" -- had this to say about the paper:

I've read the paper, and I find the central argument puzzling. Habermas seems to accept the objection that it's unduly burdensome, and even psychologically impossible, for religious believers to give sufficient public reasons for their political views (an argument developed by Kent Greenawalt in the 1980s, although his work isn't mentioned in the paper). But Habermas doesn't think it's unduly burdensome or psychologically impossible for citizens in modern democracies to recognize an "institutional translation proviso," requiring that public officials justify state action with sufficient public reason. That seems like a fairly complex epistemic/moral attitude to have formed for the religious believer who Habermas otherwise describes as having a "totalizing trait of a mode of believing that infuses the very pores of daily life" (8). But a couple pages later, he's saying that "all that is required here [to recognize the institutional proviso] is the epistemic ability to consider one's own faith reflexively from the outside and to relate it to secular views" (9-10). Maybe I'm missing something here, but I can't see why those with the epistemic capacity to view their own faith(s) reflexively, such that they accept the institutional proviso, would be simultaneously incapable of giving public reasons for their claims respecting the use of state power. That view seems both psychologically implausible and normatively unstable. If religious believers can't distinguish their religious claims from claims based on sufficient public reason, it's hard to see how (i) they can (psychologically?) accept the same distinction when drawn by public officials and (ii) acquiesce in the imposition of policies that conflict with their religious views.

Here's my response:

It has been some time since I revisted Political Liberalism -- and this is clearly one of your specialties so I'm inclined to defer to your judgment. But I did take Habermas to be adding something to the standard Rawlsian account. In the first place, the "institutional proviso" -- that religious people are free to offer religious reasons in the public political sphere and need employ no secular justification in public policy decisionmaking as long as they are willing to live under political officials who themselves will be constrained to offer only secular reasons -- does seem to be different, both psychologically and practically, from the Rawlsian proviso, which seems to require of religious people that they suspend religion in their first-order political judgments. I suppose it is just a matter of intuition here, but I think it is plausible to imagine that the religious person could tolerate (in a manner of speaking) a second-order secular constraint on public policymaking by their political leaders as long as they don't have to offer inauthentic reasons for their own political judgments. I can see why someone would think this distinction too subtle or unstable but it strikes me as both coherent and as something different from Rawls.

Any thoughts?  That citizens and leaders have to accept different roles and constraints on their reasons seems perfectly coherent to me -- and does seem to demand something less psychologically difficult from the religious.

Posted by Ethan Leib on October 5, 2006 at 11:57 AM in Article Spotlight | Permalink


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I wouldn’t claim to be an expert here ... but it's an interesting question what obligations officials and citizens have with respect to giving public justifications for state action. I think citizens do have some obligation to develop public reasons for their political views, although that isn't to say that their obligations are as demanding as those of, say, legislators or judges -- whose job, in part, is to give an account of their views and actions.

But even if citizens have less demanding duties of public justification, that isn’t to say they have no such duties. I think Habermas’ argument for the institutional proviso borders on incoherence. Unlike Michael Perry, who Rick quotes above, Habermas thinks it is morally incumbent on liberal states to give public justifications for the use of coercive power. (As he says, “Arguments for a more generously dimensioned political role for religion that are incompatible with the secular nature of the state should not be confused with justifiable objections to a secularist understanding of democracy and the rule of law" (6)). So some appeal to public reason is required on Habermas’ view. The question is whose responsibility it is to make it. Habermas (somewhat like Hart in this respect) thinks that the job of supplying such reasons falls solely on public officials. But he also says that religious believers must endorse this arrangement. That is, they have to accept that their religious claims will not be reflected by official state action. What’s more, when no public reason supports their views, the state will reject their claims as a proper basis for the use of its power.

Here, then, is the puzzle: Habermas thinks that religious believers are epistemically and psychologically capable of understanding and complying with public reasons given by institutional actors. If they weren’t capable in this way, they would feel alienated from their society. In Rawls’ terms (quoted by Habermas), it would not be possible for “those of faith … to endorse a constitutional regime” (6). But if Habermas is right that, under modern conditions, religious believers can (and often do) adopt a reflexive attitude toward their beliefs – Rawls would probably have put this in terms of acknowledging the “burdens of judgment” – then I don’t see why he accepts the view that religious believers are psychologically incapable of engaging in public reason about their political demands on others.

Ethan’s response, as I understand it, is to say that the institutional proviso demands less of citizens, and that seems right. But the question is why we should demand less? As far as I can tell, Habermas’ answer is to combine a claim about what it’s fair to demand of religious believers (akin to Greenawalt’s argument in Religious Convictions and Political Choice) and what it’s possible to demand of them. (See p. 8 for Habermas' statement of the religious objection.) So we have two arguments:

1. On rereading the paper, I think Habermas relies mainly on the claim about fairness, or rather on the idea that religious believers should not have to relinquish the integrity of their identities to participate in political life. But, given the institutional proviso, they have to relinquish at least some of that (epistemic or psychological) integrity in order to accept that the state will only act on secular justifications. That is, they have to be willing to live under a state that doesn't recognize the validity of their religious claims (See p. 9). The question for Habermas is: how plausible is this view? Is it really more unfair to ask citizens to consider the views of those who don't share their faith when making political demands on them v. asking them to accept political arrangements based solely on reasons acceptable to those who don't share their faith? Furthermore, even if the institutional proviso is less demanding, is it normatively stable? For example, if enough religious believers vote their consciences and elect candidates who share their views, is it plausible to think that those candidates will then refrain from acting on those claims that aren’t supported by sufficient public reasons? And if the candidates act with restraint, will those who voted for them continue to support them out of respect for the institutional proviso? In other words, how robust is the second-order constraint that Habermas thinks is a defining feature of the liberal state? Although I’m not completely sure, I suspect that the answer to this question ultimately determines the matter.

2. As for the epistemic/psychological capability objection, as I've been arguing, I find Habermas' claim incoherent. Either religious believers can understand and accept public reasons or they can’t. If they can’t, then (by ought implies can), one can’t place on them a moral duty to provide such reasons. But if they can – as the institutional proviso seems to require – then psychological or epistemic capacity isn’t doing the work here.

Sorry for the length of this comment, but Habermas has presented an interesting turn on things, which seems worth discussing.

Posted by: Micah Schwartzman | Oct 5, 2006 10:54:01 PM

I think it's easier to understand the Habermasian "backing away" from the strict Rawlsian claim as a response to certain very challenging technological developments--basically, the possibility of humans genetically engineering themselves into something different than humanity. It's the same concern that led Michael Perry to quote Noam Chomsky to the effect that one needs a universalistic, natural law or philosophical-anthropological account of what it means to be human in order to critique that trend.

Extant philosophy *assumes* the basic contours of the human body and identity to be stable. I think Habermas is suggesting that only some sort of transcendent or metaphysical stance can ultimately affirm that stability. I get into this idea a bit more in my piece "Two Concepts of Immortality."

But perhaps I'm only trying to understand it in this way b/c I lack the patience to wade through the whole 1995 Rawls-Habermas exchange in JPhil!

Sorry for the hurried approach to this--I have to hop on a plane now.

Posted by: Frank Pasquale | Oct 5, 2006 3:08:28 PM

Ethan, what do you think of this claim, which appears in Michael Perry's recent book, "Under God?" (pp. 50-51): "[N]othing in the morality of liberal democracy forbids legislators or other policymakers to disfavor conduct on the basis of a religiously grounded moral belief just in virtue of the fact that the belief is religiously grounded. . . . [I]n a liberal democracy, it is altogether fitting -- it is altogether 'liberal' -- for religious believers to make political choices, including coercive choices -- choices to ban or require conduct -- on the basis of what is, for them, a religious claim: that each and every person is sacred, that all persons are subjects of justice."

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Oct 5, 2006 2:28:36 PM

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