Harm, Neutrality, or Truth: What Is the Basis of Liberalism?


Kevin Vallier’s recent book is a rich and rewarding attempt to reconcile people of faith with public reason liberalism.

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Consider two forms of liberalism. One, indebted to John Stuart Mill, takes the harm principle as its guarantor of liberty. Liberty is to be protected except when one person threatens harm to another. This form of liberalism leaves citizens lots to argue about: what is harm? What are the boundaries of those beings who need to be protected by the harm principle? In the second chapter of On Liberty, Mill famously argues that the boundaries for discussion of these and many other questions should be very wide indeed. Thus, opponents of abortion may think of themselves as Millian liberals: abortion, they argue, harms innocent human beings, the class of beings the state must protect above all others. So abortion should be prohibited.

Not only can they argue this, they can of course also vote in service of unborn human life, as citizens or legislators. And a judge could, consistent with constitutional principles in many nations including ours, judge the unborn to exist within the class of “persons” who are thus constitutionally protected.

All this is to say that Mill really gives us a principle governing state purposes: any state restriction of liberty should be in the service of peace and justice—preventing harm—understood as an interpersonal matter. The consequence is clear: a state acts outside its authority if it moves to restrict liberty in service to purposes that are not properly its own, such as the suppression of private vice or the determination of one true religion.

In the past fifty years, however, a second form of liberalism has eclipsed Mill’s: the liberalism of neutrality. According to this conception of liberalism, liberty and the value of persons are best protected when citizens, legislators, and judges abstract from their substantive conceptions of the good (and, by implication, harm) and strive for neutral considerations that can justify state coercion to all. The appropriate considerations justifying coercion must be available to all citizens, and all must be reasonably expected to agree with those considerations if they are to serve up appropriate grounds for state coercion.

In his recent book, Liberal Politics and Public Faith: Beyond Separation, Kevin Vallier dubs this “public reason liberalism.” This form of liberalism holds that public justification is necessary if coercion is to be justified, and that public justification is achieved only when “each member . . . of the public P has some sufficient reason(s) R to endorse L.”

Religion and Public Reason

Public reason liberalism has not been good either for religious citizens or for the pro-life cause, for similar reasons. Religious citizens think themselves seriously disadvantaged by an ideal of citizenship and lawmaking that requires the justifications for coercive laws to be ones with which all citizens could reasonably be expected to agree, and requires arguments and deliberation advanced in favor of such laws to meet this standard. For from one point of view, religious reasons will seem opaque to many, not reasons with which others can reasonably be expected to agree. They do not meet the standard of public reason.

Similarly, the conceptions of the person and the ethics of killing that are used to defend unborn human life might fail to meet the test of public reason. Some citizens will not agree that all human beings are entitled to full moral respect, or that all intentional killing of innocent human beings is a violation of full moral respect. So arguments along these lines are considered by some public reason liberals to be simply off the table. In the absence of such arguments, a permissive abortion regime is clearly the default.

Vallier’s stated purpose in his book is to show that in fact public reason liberalism is—or should be—much friendlier to religious voices, reasons, arguments, and deliberations. Vallier moves the idea of public reasons away from requiring reasons that are intelligible, accessible, and shareable to and by all citizens, to requiring only that they be intelligible. And intelligibility is obtained if citizen B can see that reason R is justified to citizen A from A’s own viewpoint.

Vallier’s complex argument for this is rooted in claims characteristic of public reason liberalism. Vallier holds that the modified view of public reasons better respects liberalism’s “foundational values” of respect for reasonable pluralism and respect for integrity than the more rigorous view does. Indeed, for the reasons given above, more exclusionary forms of public reason liberalism may be especially hazardous to the integrity of religious citizens, who are expected to check their religious reasons at the door to the public square. Their persons are thus divided, unnaturally, into public and private selves.

There are, it seems to me, four important upshots to this. The first is that religious citizens can engage in political deliberation in precisely the same ways that other citizens can, bringing their full array of reasons to bear on their political stances. There are almost no limits placed on religious citizens in their advocacy and political action, so long as their reasons are minimally intelligible: justified from their own points of view and not infected with gross errors of fact or reasoning.

The second is that justification for state coercion can be achieved in a somewhat more permissive way than on the Rawlsian model. Recall that each citizen must have sufficient reason to endorse L, a coercive law, if L is to be justified. But Vallierian public reason liberalism does not require that the reason(s) that go into justification be shared and mutually accessible; hence, it does not require that there be consensus on the underlying justification for a coercive law, only that there be convergence. This is a threshold that can be more easily met.

Third, the convergence view allows a much greater role to be played by what Vallier calls “intelligible defeaters.” Recall that the neutrality requirement screens out many reasons from public deliberation and lawmaking, such as those arising from religious beliefs. Those reasons are not only not available to make law, they are also seemingly unavailable to justify an adjustment to laws that run afoul of these religious beliefs. Thus, opposition to the HHS mandate requiring that Catholic institutions such as hospitals and universities provide free contraceptives to their employees can seem, to consensus public reason liberals, like it is out of bounds. Insofar as it arises from a sectarian standpoint, it gives no reason for adjusting general laws.

For Vallier, by contrast, if a citizen has an intelligible defeater for a law, it is impermissible that she be coerced by that law; it must either be repealed or reformed. So it seems that Vallier would favor fairly extensive accommodations for religious citizens.

Fourth, Vallier argues at length in the final chapter of the book that our current system of public education is simply incompatible with the form of public reason liberalism he has been defending. Many citizens have intelligible defeating reasons for the rather extensive coercion that the current system applies. Vallier follows Mill in advocating a school choice approach in which parents use tax breaks or vouchers to send their children to schools of which they approve.

The Denial of Truth

I am very sympathetic to Vallier’s discussion in this chapter, particularly his claim that the consensus-based approach “simply overrides religious considerations” in its quest to “unapologetically mold children into consensus liberal citizens.” This aim of contemporary liberalism has long seemed noxiously statist to me, and I applaud Vallier for making an argument for school choice from within the parameters of public reason liberalism.

I similarly applaud his efforts to open up deliberative space for religious citizens contrary to the demands for neutrality made by consensus public reason liberalism. Vallier rehearses two of the most important arguments made on behalf of religious citizens against neutrality. One to which I have already alluded is the argument from integrity: religious citizens who feel bound by their religious principles to argue on the basis of those principles are forced by consensus public reason liberalism to “split their identity,” contrary to their deepest identity-forming principles. The second argument is the argument from fairness: as Vallier puts it, religious persons can have only a second-class citizenship when they, but not others, are required to bracket their reasons.

Vallier also discusses a third objection, which is that religious-reason-giving has not been adequately shown to be so seriously divisive in a liberal democratic order as to justify restrictions. He briefly mentions a fourth objection, the “Denial of Truth Objection,” which “challenges public reason on the grounds that it seems mistaken to require the citizen to avoid stating claims of truth as truth.” Vallier gives this objection somewhat short shrift, because he thinks “its normative force is entirely derived from the integrity objection.” This is not implausible: the connections between truth-telling and integrity run deep, as I have argued elsewhere.

But I believe there is more to this objection than Vallier acknowledges. Vallier writes,

The denial of truth objection typically targets Rawlsian political liberalism, which many believe requires that citizens not appeal to their truth claims in public life. But Rawls permits truth claims so long as the fact that citizens’ claims are true is not used as a justification for coercion. . . . His point is that citizens’ truth claims do not ground political authority over others, even if those claims are correct.

This thought seems to me to be approaching the heart of public reason liberalism: it is not truth as such that is at the heart of acceptable lawmaking, governance, and responsible citizenship, but a notion of justification that is at least partially detached from truth. By contrast, I think that our political judgments, lawmaking, and deliberations about the most important matters should precisely be aimed at, and guided by truth.

What, after all, can be more to the point where abortion is under discussion, than the truths about human beings and human rights that are ignored by a permissive abortion regime? Yet, where the focus is entirely on justification, we can expect there will be “intelligible defeaters”—reasons for objecting that are justified from some agents’ points of view—that make restrictive abortion laws impermissible.

Vallier himself suggests this line of argument, saying that although citizens may advocate abortion restrictions “even if such restrictions are defeated . . . legislators may not.” In a footnote he asserts that he assumes that “abortion restrictions cannot be publicly justified only for the sake of the argument,” and directs the reader to another footnote where he writes that if fetuses are persons, then they will have defeaters for laws that imperil them; so the controversy about whether fetuses are persons must be settled.

But on Vallier’s conception of justification, some citizens will surely have defeaters for claims about fetal personhood. So how can restrictive abortion laws legitimately coerce them? The case simply cannot be settled by asking who has defeaters, but by asking who is right, whose account is true. I think something similar is the case where religious accommodations are concerned: it is true claims about the good of religion that justify accommodation, not intelligible defeaters offered from the point of view of religious citizens.

Still, although Vallier’s consensus public reason liberalism is insufficiently attuned and attentive to these deep roots of the Denial of Truth Objection, his book represents the richest and most rewarding attempt I know of to reconcile people of faith with public reason liberalism.

Christopher O. Tollefsen is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. He is the author of Lying and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, 2014).

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