Religion in the public sphere:

Religious citizens & public reasons

posted by Cristina Lafont

I ended my last post with the following question: Is it possible to organize public deliberation in such a way that the right of democratic citizens to adopt their own cognitive stances is recognized without giving up on the democratic obligation to secure that only public reasons count in support of coercive policies with which all citizens must comply? I think that the possibility of an affirmative answer depends on how one interprets the rationale of this obligation. Rawls interprets it as an obligation to provide public reasons in support of each policy proposal citizens make in public debate, regardless of what their sincere beliefs happen to be in specific cases. Habermas interprets it as the obligation to translate into public reasons any religious reasons introduced in public debate, however implausible or foreign to the citizen’s own cognitive stance the latter reasons may be. In contradistinction to both, I think that the sense in which only public reasons count in support of coercive policies can be better explained by singling out these reasons as the only ones towards which no one can remain indifferent in their political advocacy.

According to this view, citizens who participate in political advocacy in the informal public sphere can appeal to any reasons they sincerely believe are in support of the policies they favor, provided that they are prepared to address any counterarguments based on public reasons that other citizens advance against such policies. Citizens do not have the obligation to provide public reasons or translations in terms of public reasons for each policy proposal they support or criticize, but they do have the obligation to address those reasons if they are challenged by others. Whenever citizens manage to cast their objections to a proposed policy in terms of public reasons generally acceptable to democratic citizens (i.e., reasons based on democratic ideas of citizens as free and equal, of society as a fair scheme of cooperation, etc.), those who defend it have the obligation to address these objections and to offer convincing reasons against them before such a coercive policy can be legitimately enforced. For example, citizens can publicly advocate for a ban on same-sex marriage on the basis of religious reasons against homosexuality, provided that they fulfill the correlative obligation of addressing any objections based on generally acceptable reasons that other citizens may advance against such policy. Whereas religious citizens may not feel compelled to address objections based, say, on the intrinsic value of homosexual forms of life or of cultural diversity that they may not share, they must feel compelled to address objections based on the political value of equal treatment that they do share. Unless next time around they are willing to accept unequal treatment themselves, they must come up with a convincing explanation of how is it that “separate but equal” is an acceptable policy as regards this group of citizens but not others. Similarly, secular citizens who participate in that debate do not have to open their minds to the possible truth of religious claims concerning the perversity of homosexuality. A perfectly appropriate way of taking the debate seriously is to offer counterarguments in order to show why the proposed policy is wrong, if they think it is. Objecting to the unequal treatment involved in denying the right of marriage to a group of citizens or appealing to anti-discrimination laws to justify opposition to this policy seem perfectly appropriate ways of participating in such a public debate. Of course, all citizens are free to engage each of the reasons introduced in public deliberation in its own terms. So, in the example just mentioned, citizens of other religious persuasions may disagree with the religious claims against homosexuality advanced by some citizens on the basis of, say, a different biblical reading. Thus they may engage in a debate on these issues too, and may end up convincing one side or the other to change their minds. But the point of this proposal is that no one has the obligation to engage in a way of thinking entirely foreign to their own cognitive stance to participate in public deliberation about coercive policies with which all citizens must comply.

To the extent that this proposal accepts the neutrality of the state and the inclusion of religious reasons in deliberations in the informal public sphere, it is similar to the Rawlsian and the Habermasian proposal. But it differs from theirs in important ways. It differs from the Habermasian proposal insofar as the requirement of accountability imposes an additional obligation: citizens who actively participate in political advocacy have the right to offer exclusively religious reasons in support of the policies they favor, provided that they fulfill the correlative obligation of addressing counterarguments that other citizens advance against such policies that are based on public reasons generally acceptable to everyone. But precisely because this proposal recognizes that citizens cannot take an instrumental attitude towards their own beliefs or cognitive stances in order to choose what reasons they find convincing and what reasons they do not, it does not impose constraints on the epistemic stances (toward religions, science, etc.) that are appropriate for democratic discourse, as the Habermasian proposal does. The accountability proviso entailed in this proposal is perfectly compatible with letting democratic citizens adopt whatever epistemic stance they actually have when they participate in political advocacy. It is at this point that it differs significantly from the Rawlsian proposal as well. Although the accountability proviso is similar in spirit to the Rawlsian proviso, it is based on an interpersonal interpretation of the obligation in question. By interpreting accountability in interpersonal instead of intrapersonal terms, it can avoid some of the objections that the Rawlsian proviso faces. Whereas it seems at best infeasible and at worst disingenuous to ask religious citizens to come up with nonreligious reasons in support of the policies they favor, regardless of what their sincere beliefs happen to be in each specific case, it does seem both feasible and legitimate to ask them to address any counterarguments other citizens offer against these policies that are based on public reasons generally acceptable to everyone. Since religious citizens, as much as any other citizens, are only obligated to address counterarguments based on reasons generally acceptable to everyone, they are perfectly capable of understanding them without being cognitively dishonest. But since the challenge is driven by those who offer the counterarguments, religious citizens do not have to artificially generate a foreign or insincere way of thinking in support of the policies they favor. This task is fulfilled by those who oppose such policies on the basis of their sincere beliefs. All that religious (as well as nonreligious) citizens have to do is to come up with convincing reasons to show why these counterarguments are wrong, if they think they are. Only the outcome of such a debate would allow citizens to know what their considered political convictions should be. Democratic citizens cannot determine in advance of actual public deliberation the reasons upon which their political decisions ought to be based. In order to be legitimate, their decisions ought to be based on those reasons that have survived the scrutiny of political deliberation in the public sphere.

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2 Responses to “Religious citizens & public reasons”

  1. avatar Christopher Eberle says:

    It seems to me that the position on religion and public reasons that Professor Lafont develops in this post is almost entirely correct. Citizens may support coercive policies on whatever grounds –religious or secular – that they sincerely and responsibly take to be compelling, so long as they open themselves up to the critical insights of their compatriots. No citizen who supports a coercive law, on whatever basis, is free to ignore the critical insights of his or her fellow citizens, if for no other reason than that proper humility requires us to recognize that others – even those who inhabit a mindset we regard as alien – might have something to teach us about the normative propriety of that coercive law. Of course, a citizen might permissibly persist in supporting some coercive law even solely on religious grounds even after sincere and competent attention to the critical insights of others. This seems a sensible view and close to the one articulated in Professor Lafont’s post.

    It seems to me, however, that Professor Lafont construes a citizen’s obligation to subject her own views to criticism in an unnecessarily crimped manner. If she is correct, citizens do not have any obligation “to engage in a way of thinking entirely foreign to their own cognitive stance.” Most particularly, secular citizens don’t need to take seriously religious criticisms of their secular views, nor do religious citizens have an obligation to respond to secular criticisms of their religious views. Citizens, whether religious or secular, have an obligation to respond only to those reasons that are cast “in terms of public reasons generally acceptable to democratic citizens (i.e., reasons based on democratic ideas of citizens as free and equal, of society as a fair scheme of cooperation, etc.” But this vestigial appeal to public reason strikes me as distracting and unmotivated.

    Distracting: many, many of us are extremely suspicious of the notion of a public reason. (Professor Lafont’s brief explication is little comfort.) We doubt that there are any public reasons – not reasons of the sort that can do the kind of work they are typically conscripted to do. Any view, therefore, that places any serious reliance on ‘public reason’ is therefore immediately suspect.

    Unmotivated: if we accept Professor Lafont’s claim that citizens have an obligation to respond to criticisms of their reasons for their favored coercive policies, but we deny, with Professor Lafont, that citizens have an obligation “to engage in a way of thinking entirely foreign to their own cognitive stance,” we don’t get an obligation to take seriously criticism cast in terms of ‘public reason.’ Given those two claims, we get a requirement that citizens take seriously criticisms that articulate well enough with their parochial (religious or secular) perspective to leverage that citizen from her existing commitments to some others. For Christians, Utilitarians, Kantians, Muslims, Hindus, Scientologists, agnostics, etc. different reasons will turn the trick. But there needn’t be any kind of ‘public reason’ that is “generally acceptable” and that all have to take seriously.

    Best, it seems to me, to lay public reason to rest. What would be lost should we do so?

  2. avatar Michael Perry says:

    This is a follow up to Chris Eberle’s comment. Readers interested in the issues addressed by Christina Lafont and Chris Eberle should turn to the latter’s superb book (if they haven’t already): Christopher Eberle, Religious Conviction in Liberal Politics (Cambridge University Press 2002). To engage these issues without first engaging Eberle’s book is, well, misguided.

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