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In Defense of Idealization in Public Reason


Contemporary public reason liberalism holds that coercion must be publicly justified to an idealized constituency. Coercion must be justified to all qualified points of view, not the points of view held by actual persons. Critics, in particular Nicholas Wolterstorff and David Enoch, have complained that idealization, by idealizing away what actual people accept, risks authoritarianism and disrespect by forcing people to comply with laws they in fact reject. I argue that idealization can withstand this criticism if it satisfies two conditions. First, the standards of idealization, such as the norms of rationality and information, must be grounded in the present commitments of the large majority of members of the public. Second, the standards of idealization must be moderate; that is, they cannot be used to attribute reasons to citizens that stray too far from their actual commitments.

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  1. I thank an anonymous referee for pressing me to clarify this detail of my main line of argument.

  2. The strictures on justificatory reasons do not suppose any form of reasons internalism. On a public reason view, a metaphysically external reason can be internally accessible.

  3. The more technical philosophical conception of hypothetical endorsement and consent allows for one to interpret hypothetical endorsement as justificatory devices. See D’Agostino et al. (2017).

  4. Or at least what real individuals claim they endorse, since what current individuals claim to endorse is surely corrupted by inferential errors and informational ignorance.

  5. Enoch (2015) claims that idealization is primarily driven by the aim of avoiding anarchism; I address his concern below.

  6. I say less here about the moral limits because objections to idealization are based on the epistemic component of reasonableness.

  7. Whether these considerations are too far removed depends on whether the grounding values suggest that closeness to the actual beliefs of citizens are important. For this point, I thank an anonymous referee.

  8. Eberle (2005) argues that moderate idealization necessarily involves unstable belief revisions that will lead to radical idealization. But Gaus’s account of moderate idealization prioritizes preserving a person’s central commitments, so our motivation to idealize some beliefs and commitments is driven by a motivation to preserve central beliefs and commitments, so the motivation for belief revision is in a sense self-limiting.

  9. An anonymous referee objects that not everyone shares or endorses our moral practice, and that public reason liberalism problematically leaves open how to treat such persons. This is an important point, but the purpose of this essay is to show that idealization for some large sub-set of real persons is unobjectionable; determining the precise scope of that subset will take us too far field.

  10. Objections to idealization seem to me greatly weakened if they apply to interpersonal moral demands rather than state coercion.

  11. This essay answers Enoch’s criticism of Gaus in Enoch (2013). If successful, Gausian idealization should be a counterexample to the generic critique of idealization in public reason found in Enoch (2015).

  12. This example does not commit me to the appropriateness of using political decision procedures in cases of disagreement; it serves solely to illustrate two distinct notions of moral authority.

  13. Notice, though, we are concerned only with whether we can validly morally criticize Alf for not teaching Khadija to read. There may be cases in which we might nonetheless be justified in coercing him to do so, since Gausian idealization is concerned first and foremost on moral demands.

  14. My concern with moral ignorance is whether John can permissibly hold a morally ignorant Reba responsible, whereas much of the moral ignorance literature focuses on whether the morally ignorant are blameworthy full stop.

  15. Reba’s action can be morally defective in other ways, however, say by being objectively wrong or having little moral worth.

  16. Here, again following my use of the term “idealization” throughout, I do not address the possibility of truth-based idealization, where persons can be idealized to see the moral truth. Enoch may be fine with such idealization, but it is not the form of idealization public reason liberals appeal to.

  17. Enoch (2015, 122) claims that idealization leads to anarchy because someone will have a defeater for any proposed rule. Gaus (2011, 368–370) argues that empty sets regarding the protection of our fundamental rights prevent persons from living in moral relations with one another, and that this is something moderately idealized agents will greatly lament. They should therefore allow themselves to be governed by rules that they find morally sub-optimal. They will disagree about which rules are best, but they will agree that some rules are better than no rule, avoiding anarchy. Also see Vallier (2014, pp. 130–134).


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I am grateful to Paul Billingham, Chris Eberle, David Enoch, Gerald Gaus, Charles Larmore, Blain Neufeld, Jonathan Quong, Chad Van Schoelandt, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and a number of other people for commenting on earlier drafts of this essay. The remaining errors are my own.

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Vallier, K. In Defense of Idealization in Public Reason. Erkenn 85, 1109–1128 (2020).

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