Interview by Richard Marshall
'Perhaps my main criticism of left-wing approaches to the open society is an inability and even disinterest in bringing religious people, especially religious conservatives, into the fold as holding reasonable perspectives. That’s one reason I greatly prefer Obama’s vision of the open society to those of many contemporary Democrats, since he spent a lot of time stressing the importance of building religious people into a free and diverse society, even if many religious people, I think understandably, were less impressed by his performance in office. The best person on this score among the 2020 candidates is Mayor Pete... Republicans, on the other hand, seem to have moved away from the open society entirely. Mitt Romney, in my view, was actually pretty good on supporting the open society, but Trump is focused expressly on building a closed society. So I think both the right and the left have become measurably worse in terms of their interest in building a truly open society in just the last eight years or so.'
'In general, the value of establishing and maintaining relations of trust is incredibly instrumentally valuable. The data show that social trust helps societies, among other things, to have effective legal systems, economic growth, and economic equality. I also think that social trust is central for being able to form relations of romantic love and friendship with a wide range of persons.'
'The problem with conceptions of justice forming the basis for organizing social institutions resembles the problems Rawlsians envision for basing society on conceptions of the good. Reasonable people disagree about which conception of the good is correct, and so imposing it on those who disagree will be a source of instability, and, in my view, distrust between those in power and those out of power. But if reasonable people can disagree about justice as deeply as they disagree about the good, then the same problems applies conceptions of justice.'
'Liberal societies assign rights to all persons that allow them to live in accord with their values and worldviews. That’s not always everyone’s first choice of political regime, but non-neutral, hegemonic regimes are typically regarded as worse by those out of power. In a hegemonic regime, relations of domination and suppression undermine the basis for trust.'
Kevin Vallier's focus is on how diverse people can cooperate despite their differences. He is especially interested in reconciliation in philosophy, politics, economics, and religion. Here he discusses liberal politics and religion, public reason liberalism, why religious groups don't like it, the 'aster argument', how public reason liberalism defeats the master argument, convergance liberalism and the Darwin wars, whether politics has to be a divisive as it currently is in the USA, Popper, Hayek and Rawls, Jerry Gaus, social trust, the importance of public morality, why legal rules need public justification, the problem of conceptions of justice forming the basis of social organisations, the role of constitutional rules, and why liberalism is the answer to contemporary culture wars.
3:16: What made you become a philosopher?
Kevin Vallier: From the time I was young, before I turned 10, I wanted to be a scientist, and then, when I understood the different kinds of scientists, I wanted to be a physicist. But once I got to college, I found physics boring, and metaphysics far more to my liking. I was fascinated in particular by the nature of consciousness and the existence of God. I was also pretty political in college, and I found that political philosophy naturally drew my interest, in tandem with my interests in economics. So philosophy was a way for me to pursue basically everything I was interested in and, well, just about everything I cared about growing up.
3:16: You’ve engaged with some of the most pressing political philosophical challenges of contemporary times. Let’s start with your engagement with the culture wars which seems to be very intense and divisive at the moment. You see liberalism as (cartoon version) the politics of agreeing to disagree but note that people of religious faith see it as a smokescreen for imposing secular values! The four horsemen – Dennett, Dawkins and the rest of the crew seem to personify this perspective. So first can you sketch for us what the non-secularist perspective looks like and why at first blush you think it has brought liberalism into the fray rather than solving it?
KV: One of the central ideas in the liberal tradition, at least at many points, is state neutrality. The state shouldn’t take sides in matters of ultimate import. I think a fairly common extension of this idea is that political officials and democratic citizens should also set aside sectarian commitments when engaged in political life, and that leads to the familiar claim that liberals support the “privatization” of religion, be that for good or ill. That’s one way that liberalism is said to be covertly secularist, by treating religion as something that citizens can just “take off” when they move into political life. Sometimes liberalism has been boldly secularist, especially continental liberalism, as opposed to the Anglo-American tradition, but that’s often motivated by anti-clericalism and deep concerns about established religion. That’s not a common liberal commitment anymore. So I think the predominant link between liberalism and secularism is through the idea of neutrality. This has made liberal political philosophy needlessly controversial since asking people to privatize their religious beliefs in general is burdensome, and seems to treat secular and religious citizens unequally.
My own take is that, while state coercion should only be deployed for non-sectarian ends, that does not imply that citizens should privatize religious belief. I also think state neutrality lends itself naturally to expansive religious exemptions. So I reject the move from state neutrality to citizen neutrality. I don’t think any of the arguments for it succeed. In fact, once you distinguish between insisting that state coercion be neutral, and insisting that citizens only engage in political activity based on non-sectarian considerations, it becomes pretty clear that you need a lot of argumentation to connect the two.
So, in sum, I think privatization is burdensome and unfair, and I don’t see those considerations rebuffed or overridden by arguments for privatization or deliberative “restraint.”
3:16: So what is public reason liberalism – and what’s its attitude to religion?
KV: Public reason liberalism combines traditional liberal commitments to freedom and equality with a constraint on the use of state power and coercion. That constraint is what we might call a public justification requirement. State power is only permissible when it can be justified to multiple reasonable points of view. The standard version of public reason liberalism, advanced by John Rawls and his followers, construes public justification in terms of certain kinds of moral reasons, namely shared or shareable reasons (and sometimes a weaker but related requirement of accessible reasons). That in turn implies that the political process shouldn’t generally be sensitive to unshared reasons. The law shouldn’t change very much depending on what unshared reasons people affirm. The law shouldn’t change very much depending on what unshared reasons people affirm. This leads public reason liberals to advocate varying degrees of restraint on unshared reasons, and since liberal societies tend to be religiously diverse, the restraint on unshared reasons becomes restraint on religious reasons (though also secular comprehensive reasons as well, but they don’t come up that much in politics). So the standard view is that religious reasoning is OK, and should be protected by constitutional restraints on state power, but that citizens and officials should focus on shared considerations when making important political decisions.
But, and I’ll get to this below, there’s a minority approach to public reason liberalism, defended most prominently by Jerry Gaus, where citizens may appeal to diverse, unshared reasons in their political lives, so long as the law is based on a kind of convergence of diverse reasons, that is, so long as the law can be justified to each reasonable person on their own terms. And on that view, the motivation for religious restraint collapses, since there’s no shared reasons requirement at any point in the justificatory process. The approach to religion on this “convergence” view is to allow for religious reasoning and advocacy at the citizen level, expansive religious exemptions, while insisting on the impermissibility of religiously-based state coercion.
3:16: Why don’t religious groups like public reason liberalism? What’s their ‘Master Argument’, as you call it?
KV: Religious groups don’t like public reason liberalism because they associate it with the shared reasons requirement, which they think implies privatization, which they, in turn, think is overly burdensome and unfair. My use of what I call the “Master Argument” is actually an argument for restraint, which moves from a public justification requirement to a principle of excluding unshared reasons from justifying laws, which, in turn, implies a principle of deliberative restraint on citizensrestraining them from appealing to unshared reasons in certain contexts. In my first book, Liberal Politics and Public Faith, I focus on blocking the first move of the Master Argument for restraint (though I think people can fruitfully block the second move), which the religious critics of public reason have tended to like, despite their tendency to reject public justification requirements entirely.
3:16: The public reason liberal defeats the Master Argument by drawing on a convergence conception of justificatory reasons rather than a consensus or shared reasons understanding of justificatory reasons? Can you explain this, why you think it superior to the consensus approach and how does it meet the challenge of a radical conception of idealization (where we assume all relevant citizens are perfectly rational and have all the salient info?
KV: Yes, the convergence conception holds, at least on my interpretation, that a much broader set of normative reasons can figure into the public justifications for laws or as defeaters for those laws. In particular, I allow all intelligible reasons to figure into public justifications. On this requirement, a reason is admissible into public justification so long as we can see the reason as a reason for the person who offers it given her evaluative standards. On this view, the atheist can see a Christian argument against abortion as intelligible, since it comports with the Christian’s commitment, even if the atheist rejects the Christian’s evaluative standards because of her commitment to divine revelation. But if a Muslim cites the New Testament as a basis for her politics, that’s not going to be intelligible.
3:16: So how does this convergence liberalism you’ve developed deal with religion and linked to that, public education where you might face, for example, a kind of Darwin wars scenario?
KV: The main effect of the convergence view is to introduce a lot more diversity into the political process, which in turns tends to restrict legitimate state power more than the consensus view. And so in cases where members of a common institution, like public schools, have diverse moral, religious, and political views, it becomes unclear what sort of agenda the school can have that isn’t defeated by some group’s intelligible reasons. I think this holds in some public schools with respect to teaching about human origins. Secular parents have defeater reasons for the teaching of intelligent design, whereas some religious parents have defeater reasons for teaching non-theistic natural selection as the only reasonable position. The result, in my view, is a mutual canceling out, and so parents must be given more liberty to select their child’s education, which is why I defend school vouchers based on the convergence conception. And now that religious citizens have lost the battle to teach even intelligent design side-by-side with non-theistic natural selection, they’ve focused their efforts on private schooling and home schooling. I think that’s an improvement.
3:16: Now in your new book you again look at the divided USA political scene and ask the obvious question as to whether it has to be like this, and ever has been. You don’t agree with the likes of Foucault and David Enoch that there’s no way out of this do you? Liberalism again is the way out of it for you isn’t it? So is your approach a broadly Popperian perspective developing his idea of the Open Society? Before we look at the details can you give us your general perspective from which you develop your thoughts here, and why you think the challenge is for liberalism to articulate why moral peace in a diverse society is possible and can be maintained for the right reasons?
KV: Actually, the Popperian open society is a bit too much like the consensus view. There’s a lot of valuable focus on allowing for diversity, autonomy, and a stress on reason and science, but it’s not clear how religious people figure into Popper’s open society as naturally as they fit into the conceptions of an open society that you find in more religion-friendly 20th century liberals like F. A. Hayek and Rawls, especially by the end of Rawls’s career. So I see my project as trying to include a very broad range of evaluative perspectives in an open society.
Perhaps my main criticism of left-wing approaches to the open society is an inability and even disinterest in bringing religious people, especially religious conservatives, into the fold as holding reasonable perspectives. That’s one reason I greatly prefer Obama’s vision of the open society to those of many contemporary Democrats, since he spent a lot of time stressing the importance of building religious people into a free and diverse society, even if many religious people, I think understandably, were less impressed by his performance in office. The best person on this score among the 2020 candidates is Mayor Pete.
Republicans, on the other hand, seem to have moved away from the open society entirely. Mitt Romney, in my view, was actually pretty good on supporting the open society, but Trump is focused expressly on building a closed society. So I think both the right and the left have become measurably worse in terms of their interest in building a truly open society in just the last eight years or so.
The fundamental reason to build an open society is that it is a response to the worth of persons. Respecting each person’s perspective, in my view, is an implication of that common ideal. When we trend too far in a theocratic or secularist direction, we can lose sight of that ideal because we start to become suspicious of those who think differently from us.
Another reason I’m concerned about building an open society is because I think open societies are a lot more flexible and capable of maintaining social cooperation than closed societies. In particular, I think open societies are better at sustaining social trust between diverse perspectives, and after spending the last several years studying the empirical literature on trust, I've found that social trust is a very precious commodity. It allows us to achieve all kinds of social goods, from love and friendship, to building social capital, sustaining economic growth and economic equality, and a number of other things. So I think there are both deontological and teleological reasons to want to build an open society that includes lots of diverse perspectives.
3:16: As well as the venerable Popper, Rawls and Gaus are also important to your arguments aren’t they? Can you sketch for us what these two philosophers bring to the table?
KV: Very important. They’re the two prime influences on my work in liberal political theory. Both Rawls and Jerry (my dissertation advisor) started to construct public reason approaches in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Both are deeply committed to sustain social cooperation in the face of diversity and distrust, and both have a kind of contractarian approach to solving that challenge. So they both provide models for how diverse societies can remain stable against various kinds of challenges stemming from diversity and disagreement.
Rawls, of course, received more attention, but Jerry I think tends to be more careful, especially when it comes to the epistemic and social scientific dimensions on public reason views. Justificatory Liberalism is, in my view, miles ahead of Rawls in trying to make sense of what a public justification consists in. Of course, like most philosophers, I’m partial to my advisor, but lots of people familiar with Gaus and Rawls’s work feel similarly.
It’s also important to remember that Rawls was not the only person developing doctrines of public reason. Just to name a few: Habermas, Larmore, Gaus, D’Agostino, Benhabib, Ackerman, and, I think, even Gauthier. But, as usual in political philosophy, Rawls gets most of the credit. He has a way of becoming the only visible figure in the projects he pursued. The same was true with A Theory of Justice, which is wonderful and profound, but lots of other people were doing similarly cool stuff, like Harsanyi and (James) Buchanan and, in a sense, Baier and Strawson. I don’t mean to take away from Rawls, I just want to stress that he’s not alone.
Another thing Gaus does better than Rawls is insist on a very strong commitment to the inclusion of diverse perspectives. Rawls was quite good on including religious people, especially compared to other liberals in the past and present, but he didn’t respect political diversity very much. Conservatism is practically invisible in his work, and he says that libertarianism is just plain unreasonable.
3:16: You develop an account of social trust and show how it grounds what you call the mutual endorsement test. Can you sketch for us this account and how it supports the test?
KV: Here’s the basic line of argument of my new book, Must Politics Be War? Restoring Our Trust in the Open Society. In general, the value of establishing and maintaining relations of trust is incredibly instrumentally valuable. The data show that social trust helps societies, among other things, to have effective legal systems, economic growth, and economic equality. I also think that social trust is central for being able to form relations of romantic love and friendship with a wide range of persons.
However, establishing the value of trust is not enough to motivate and sustain it. This is so for two reasons. First, there’s a social dilemma, where we can benefit from trust without being trustworthy ourselves. Second, what justifies and motivates trust is the belief that those we trust are trustworthy. So to manage the social dilemma, we need to establish that persons have duties to one another that incentivize trustworthy behavior based on respect for the worth of others. These duties needn’t be especially strong, just powerful enough to counter our temptation to take advantage of those who have placed their trust in us.
The two duties I focus on are our duties to be trustworthy to those who trust us by following shared social norms (Cristina Bicchieri plays a big role here, both in defining social norms, and in showing that trustworthiness is itself a social norm) and our duties to limit our practice of accountability to persons that we think are culpable for violating shared social norms. In the latter case, when we hold other accountable for culpable violations, they will often feel both guilt and shame for violations, rather than indignation that others are holding them accountable unjustly. This will also motivate people to be trustworthy, to avoid the guilt and shame present when other members of their community hold them accountable for moral violations.
But there are exculpatory conditions for these duties. In both cases, when someone has a deeply entrenched conviction that a social norm is incompatible with their deep commitments and values, we typically both excuse them from complying with the norm and decline to hold them accountable for violations. I often use the case of the Amish violating social norms that govern transportation. We excuse them for using horse and buggies that inconvenience motorists all the time because we know that their objections to the use of automobiles is entrenched and sincere. So they do not see their trustworthiness as impugned by their failure to follow traffic norms, nor do we, and we also decline to hold them accountable for violations.
The public justification requirement arises as a test to determine when complying with a social norm is compatible our deep commitments and values and when it isn’t. If a norm is publicly justified, that means it is justified for each member of the public for her own reasons. When a social norm is publicly justified, that means each person sees compliance with it as compatible based on her deep commitments and values, and so the duties of trustworthiness and accountability relations are rendered appropriate for all members of the public. Thus, publicly justified moral rules activate the relevant deontic motives for trustworthy behavior, which engenders trusting attitudes among members of the public, including those with fundamentally different personal ideals and comprehensive doctrines. So we can sustain trust between persons with diverse perspectives if our shared social norms are publicly justified, and otherwise not. Thus, an order of publicly justified social norms (and legal and constitutional norms as subsets of social norms) has the unique capacity to incentivize trustworthiness, and so to sustain trusting attitudes. Thus, insofar as we value maintaining a system of social trust, then sustaining it, and improving it, will involve seeking out shared norms that are publicly justified.
This is, admittedly, a complex argument. But I’m convinced that simpler, more familiar arguments fail.
3:16: Why do you think that public morality alone can secure the goods of social trust and respect for persons, telic and deontic value respectively? Are there no other values that can do this? What happens if you meet a Nietzschean, for example, who flatly says she doesn’t believe morals exist? Is liberalism then in trouble with these people, even if others can be convinced?
KV: Public morality has to be supplemented and repaired by the legal and constitutional orders, but when we combine publicly justified moral, legal, and constitutional norms, they’re normally sufficient to motivate trusting attitudes.
However, my story merely establishes that persons will ordinarily be trustworthy with respect to publicly justified moral norms, which means that trusters have to care about responding properly to the evidence that others are trustworthy. They might ignore the evidence. In that case, you have to show that trust can be generated by other factors. That project forms the sequel to Must Politics Be War?, where I work through reams of trust data from political science and economics to show that liberal democratic institutions also maintain trust among ordinary folks, warts and all.
Of course, any political order is going to have malcontents, people that cannot be satisfied, and have to be restrained in some way. That’s part of the function of the Rawlsian conception of reasonableness. I think the Rawlsian approach places far too many people beyond the pale to have a truly open society (I think libertarians and conservatives are generally reasonable!). So I adopt a much broader and more deflationary approach to reasonableness than Rawlsians do, but their general point is correct. So I’m content to say that the Nietzschean is simply unreasonable because she is uninterested in maintaining shared terms of social cooperation. Liberalism is in practical trouble if you have lots of Nietzscheans of the vulgar sort you describe, but even real world Nietzscheans don’t behave in this way (and often do not read Nietzsche this way either).
3:16: Why do you think legal rules need public justification? How should they be justified and how big a duty do they impose on citizens to obey the law?
KV: Legal rules derive their public justification from the way in which they supplement and improve the mere moral order. We can imagine a kind of state of nature scenario that I call a legal state of nature, a society ordered by moral norms alone; no shared legal norms exist. That social order is going to have a lot of problems, and so members of the public will be able to see the need for a legal system to solve those problems. Thus, the public justification for law consists in its supplementary role to the moral order. The reason laws need public justification is that they generally share an important feature with moral norms, which are the relations of accountability and authority they establish. We typically think we can demand that others follow social norms, and we treat most legal norms similarly.
3:16: Why do you say that a constrained role for a theory of justice along the lines you’ve discussed helps avoid the 'politics is war' scenario – and where does the notion of ‘Primary Rights’ fit in with this?
KV: The problem with conceptions of justice forming the basis for organizing social institutions resembles the problems Rawlsians envision for basing society on conceptions of the good. Reasonable people disagree about which conception of the good is correct, and so imposing it on those who disagree will be a source of instability, and, in my view, distrust between those in power and those out of power. But if reasonable people can disagree about justice as deeply as they disagree about the good, then the same problems applies conceptions of justice. Primary rights are meant to function in a parallel way to Rawlsian primary goods. They’re rights anyone with a rational conception of the good (and of justice) would want for themselves and would be prepared to extend to others on reciprocal terms. And insofar as primary rights are publicly justified, they will serve as the primary bases for trusting political officials and political institutions. When officials and institutions protect primary rights, we can collectively trust those institutions, and otherwise not.
3:16: And what is the role of constitutional rules in justifying political order? Should they be justified in the same kind of way as the legal rules are?
KV: Constitutional rules are justified in a parallel way to legal rules. Constitutional rules supplement the moral and legal orders, and are publicly justified as supplements. We can envision a scenario related to the legal state of nature - a state of mere law - where we have moral and legal norms, but no norms governing how to change the law. That social order will have fewer problems than the legal state of nature, but we will still be able to see the need for institutions governing which laws are in effect and being able to change those laws in ways that all can accept.
3:16: So how do you think we should best understand the complex cooperative behaviour of mass societies such as ours and how do we ensure we get stability for the right reasons? After all, fascists and totalitarians can get stability.
KV: What we want is, as Rawlsians might say, trust for the right reasons. Totalitarians can generate some trust through propaganda and they can get some stability through mass violence. But that trust tends to be pretty fragile, and totalitarian societies tend to have, well, almost always have, lower social trust than open societies. This is so for a number of reasons, such as that the trust engendered is not a free response to the observed trustworthiness of others, but due to lies and propaganda that people can often see as such. On top of that, totalitarian societies often employ forms of social control that can be trust-undermining especially the institution of secret police. Towards the end of the fall of the Berlin Wall, as many as 5% of East Germans were members of the secret police. If you knew that 1 in 20 of people you met could report on your and ruin your life, that might undermine your ability to trust others. And indeed, to this day, East Germans have lower social trust than West Germans.
3:16: As a take home then, can you summarise why you think liberalism as you’ve understood it is the way to go for modern complex mass societies to function and why you don’t think the current culture wars and politics as war scenarios that seem to be playing out are inevitable. Can you also speculate as to whether, even if you’re right, the schisms and divisions have become too entrenched and eroded too much for liberalism to take hold again any time soon?
KV: Liberal societies assign rights to all persons that allow them to live in accord with their values and worldviews. That’s not always everyone’s first choice of political regime, but non-neutral, hegemonic regimes are typically regarded as worse by those out of power. In a hegemonic regime, relations of domination and suppression undermine the basis for trust. The hegemon can’t trust the subverted group to abide by the norms it imposes, since the subverted group sees no good reason to abide by them other than fear. So when the hegemon isn’t looking, noncompliance will be a problem (and it will be a problem when they are looking too). Similarly, the subverted group can’t trust the hegemon because they see the hegemon as imposing alien norms and values. So liberalism, by imposing a system of equal rights that allow each person or group to live out their own values, is going to be a higher trust social and political system than hegemonic, non-neutral regimes.
I think that our current problems result from failures to be liberal enough. When societies become too unequal, when political systems fail to function well, when markets cease to produce broad-based growth, and when polarized publics start to reject democratic norms, trust tends to fall. But if our goal is to restore trust, then we have to repair these liberal institutions by making them more consistent with fundamental liberal values.
3:16: And for the readers here at 3:16, are there five books you can recommend that will take us further into your philosophical world?
John Rawls, Political Liberalism
Jerry Gaus, The Order of Public Reason
F. A. Hayek, Rules and Order
James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent
Eleonore Stump, Wandering in Darkness
Aquinas, Summa Theologica
Locke, Two Treatises of Government
Rousseau, The Social Contract
Hegel, The Philosophy of Right
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is biding his time.
End Times Series: the index of interviewees