Can Reason Bear Liberalism's Weight?

“All we ask is that law and policy be based upon reason.” So begins Ralph Hancock’s latest book, Responsibility of Reason: Theory and Practice in a Liberal-Democratic Age. This opening quote was actually delivered by a frustrated political scientist at an academic conference, who asserted “the authority of simple reason” against perceived rubes who doubt its truth or rather its efficacy for impartially reconciling competing claims within a pluralist democracy. The “reason” the political scientist is asserting is purportedly open to all denizens of liberal democracy. Hence his frustration with those who articulate shall we say thicker accounts of human action and purpose. The social scientist knows that his reason is neutral, inviting, fair; it is “simply opposed to mere opinion, to prejudice, and to the mother of all prejudices, revealed religion.” What don’t you people understand?

Hancock argues that reason cannot possibly bear the weight the modern rationalist wishes to place upon it. In this use of reason the modern rationalist is irresponsible and incapable of fully accounting for what reason can and cannot do. We are set up for failure because such neutral foundations for ordered liberty cannot help but lead to a deprivation of thinking about what is ultimately good. Liberal democracy is most at home, Hancock is arguing, when it acknowledges that reason must articulate an analogy between the order of the soul and the order of the polis. We can’t take a meat cleaver to human experience and exclude the parts that don’t neatly fit the liberal philosopher’s truncated articulation of reason.

Perhaps the most acute instance of this is Rawls’ “idea of public reason” that should guide all citizens as they debate “constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice.” Excluded are “comprehensive doctrines,” typically viewed as arguments formed by strong moral and religious convictions. As Peter Berkowitz noted in his essay “The Ambiguities of Rawls’s Influence” (link no longer available).

For while the purpose of public reasons is to specify principles for the conduct of public debate in a liberal state, it provides cover for the practice of advancing partisan political arguments as if they flowed from impartial reason. Taking one’s stand with reason rather than morality–especially a “reason” into which considerable moral and political content has already been poured–is a convenient way of being partial and judgmental while pretending to stand above the partisan fray.


John Rawls

Berkowitz highlights the ease with which Rawls equated public reason with support for abortion rights as an instance of what he describes as the sleight of hand that can easily be played by public reason’s disciples. In a debate utilizing public reason as the measuring device, Rawls could find no arguments from pr to enlist on behalf of the unborn. Rawls later retracted this claim, but its significance has never been lost.

Hancock’s claim about reason actually connects with the Rawls who at the end of his career wrote Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. Here, Rawls confronted liberalism’s freestanding proposition that we are free and equal beings. Can this notion, Rawls asks, be sustained apart from deep moral and metaphysical notions? Berkowitz points to Rawls ambiguity in his last written text about such a claim. Might it be true that “liberalism’s fundamental premise is not simply based on observation or given by reason or vindicated by being shared, might it also involve faith?” Rawls looks to Kant and sees a deeper foundation for Kant’s moral law than the facts of reason, which is where we first understand its claims. Reason requires us to recognize the moral law “as the supremely authoritative and regulative law for us,” but the moral law, Rawls observes, demands a greater justification if we are to maintain our devotion to it. Rawls argues in the Lectures:

[T]he significance Rawls gives to the moral law and our acting from it has an obvious religious aspect, and that his text occasionally has a devotional character.

What gives a view a religious aspect, I think, is that is has a conception of the world as a whole that presents it as in certain respects holy, or else as worthy of devotion and reverence. The everyday values of secular life must take a secondary place. If this is right, then what gives Kant’s view a religious aspect is the dominant place he gives to the moral law as it applies to us, and in striving to fashion in ourselves a firm good will, and in shaping our social world accordingly that alone qualifies us to be the final purpose of creation. Without this, our life in the world, and the world itself lose their meaning and point.

What Hancock calls the “rule of simple reason” and its impossibility is well illustrated by Rawls in the foregoing analysis. “A clear and distinct grasp” of significance and meaning of our existence “eludes our natural powers,” Hancock asserts. In short, reason asks questions that it really can’t answer without reference to “the way things are, of the nature of Being of what is highest or somehow ultimate.” What is good, what is right for human beings to pursue cannot be excluded from “shared and inherited understandings of ultimate purposes and laws and thus of the nature of things.” Toying with Locke, Hancock notes that if we are to make “reason our “only star or compass,” it would first be necessary to know what that can possibly mean.” Finally, if this is true, then politics is a practice of mediation and compromise recognizing and representing human excellence–man’s need to find the good–within a public sphere of freedom and responsibility to the goods of liberal democracy.