In this paper, I articulate and evaluate an important argument in support of the claim that citizens of a liberal democracy should not support coercive policies on the basis of a rationale they know other citizens reasonably reject. I conclude that that argument is unsuccessful. In particular, I argue that religious believers who support coercive public policies on the basis of religious convictions do not disrespect citizens who reasonably regard such religious convictions as false.
Somewhere near the heart of much contemporary liberal political theory is the claim that if the state restricts an agent's liberty, its restrictions should have some rationale that is defensible to each of those whose liberty is constrained. Liberals are committed to the "requirement that all aspects of the social order should either be made acceptable or be capable of being made acceptable to every last individual." But there are many kinds of claim which are particularly controversial, many about which we expect reasonable disagreement. Coercive policies should not be justified on the basis of such controversial grounds; rather, they should enjoy public justification. That coercive policy should enjoy public justification implies that political actors are subject to various principles of restraint, that is, that they should restrain themselves from supporting policies solely on the basis of excessively controversial grounds. The point of advocating restraint is to achieve a minimal moral conception, a core morality, which is rationally acceptable to all and which provides the ground rules for political association.
In what follows, I evaluate what I take to be the most compelling argument in support of restraint. For ease of exposition, I shall refer to this argument as the argument from respect. What is that argument?
First an informal formulation. Suppose that John supports some policy which has important consequences for the welfare of a certain type of animal, say, the spotted owl. Since spotted owls can suffer, and since they are conscious of their suffering, John should take into consideration the interests of the spotted owl; when determining whether or not to support logging in old growth forests, John should include in his moral calculus the suffering generated by the devastation of the spotted owl's natural habitat.
John's position regarding the propriety of logging in old growth forests doesn't just affect owls, of course; it also affects loggers like Mary. Mary, like John, must come to grips with the issues raised by the destruction of old growth forests. If John has respect for Mary, he will not ignore Mary's concerns. Respecting Mary as a person, in distinction merely to paying attention to Mary's interests, requires that John should be willing to explain to Mary why he thinks that the effects of the policy's implementation on Mary are warranted. That will involve presenting some rationale for the policy. But if John presents a rationale which John reasonably believes Mary reasonably rejects, he may as well not have articulated his rationale in the first place. If John explains his support for some policy by some rationale Mary reasonably rejects, he may have informed Mary of his intentions, he may have paid attention to Mary, but he has not respected her need to accept the coercive policies to which she is subject.
Now a somewhat more explicit rendition of the argument from respect.
(1) John ought to respect Mary's person.
(2) In order for John to respect Mary's person, John must respect Mary's autonomy.
(3) In order for John to respect Mary's autonomy, John ought to justify his actions to Mary.
(4) There is no relevant difference between being unwilling to provide those affected by some coercive policy with reasons to accept that policy and being unwilling to provide those affected by some coercive policy with a rationale that they can reasonably be expected to accept.
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