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The Unreasonables

Wednesday, September 29, 2004
I have been plowing through John Rawls lately for a paper I'm writing. One of his ideas is that liberalism is an overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines. To decode this jargon, Rawls means that liberalism (in the broad sense) does not have to appeal to any one philosophical position- you don't have to agree with a specific way of thinking. Instead, political liberalism is where the different philosophical traditions converge. Kant, Mill, Locke, etc. all would be willing to accept something like contemporary liberalism. They wouldn't find it entirely satisfactory, but it would do well enough. Even modern Catholicism and Protestantism have accepted the liberal state (again, broadly defined) as not only acceptable, but just.

(Just in case my philosophy professors are reading this, please don't lose your hair over my gross simplifications. I'm just summarizing!)

What I'd like to draw your attention to is an important word: reasonable. Rawls does not say that all comprehensive moral or religious doctrines would be willing to accept liberalism. Instead, only reasonable ones would. The implication is that unreasonable doctrines must be exiled from the public forum. Why? Because Rawls' definition of reasonableness is that people are willing to act fairly with others in the spirit of reciprocity: they don't intend to dominate, bully, deceive, or whatever. Reasonable people are willing to have a real discussion and entertain the arguments of someone else. Unreasonable people just assert their moral superiority and expect you to submit to their superior wisdom.

So what happens in a liberal regime if there are bunch of unreasonable people? A faction, let's say, that wants to impose its particular point of view on everyone else? Whose only political loyalty is to the interests of their own constituency, to the detriment of every other citizen? A group that believes the ends justify the means, and who quite simply don't believe in playing fair so much as winning?

I'm sure you know who I mean.

Rawls isn't entirely sure what to do about unreasonables. His theory assumes favorable circumstances- it's an ideal theory. In a crisis situation, where a substantial minority, or even a majority, are not willing to engage in honest political debate and respect the democratic process, Rawls can only throw up his hands. This is not a criticism of him or his theory- he is writing with a different problem in mind.

But the problem is one that deserves addressing. The question of how liberal regimes can deal with illiberal citizens trying to undermine it is a very old one. It was of particular import in the 1930's when Communists and Fascists were displacing democracies using elections and force, and there is some concern that religious fundamentalists might do the same thing now in places like Turkey or Algeria. One of the problems with holding election in Iraq is that a fair election would probably result in a theocratic, shiite chauvinist regime. Not exactly what the Shrub had in mind.

I'm afraid that there really is no clear answer. The liberals won in the 1940's against fascism because we were able to enlist nationalism to our aid, and in the 1950's and 1960's when we were able to deliver the economic goods and the communists weren't. But the broader political phenomenon has never really been confronted. Nationalism can just easily aid subversives, as it did in Weimar Germany. And our economy just isn't as successful as it was once was. In short, in the past we may have just been lucky.

So the question remains. How can we stop our own citizens from subverting democracy? How can we liberals deal with the unreasonables while remaining liberals?

I'm open to suggestions.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 5:02 PM
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