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Answering objections to “The Real Problem with Rawlsian Reasonableness” 5

June 24, 2019

3.5. Gaus’s failed reflexivity requirement
The final objection emerges from Gaus’s (1996) rejection of the reflexivity requirement. Like Quong but unlike Estlund, Gaus denies that the standard of reasonableness need be reflexive, i.e. meet its own standard. To that end, he gives a two-part reply: first, proponents of reflexivity are mistaken in thinking that the norm of public justification commits one to reflexivity; second, the requirement of reflexivity rests on a deeper philosophical confusion.
The mistake originates in the thought that avoiding “browbeat[ing] others into accepting our norms” means that each person must introspectively find the norm in question conclusively justified (Gaus 1996: 175). Imagine the following scenario: two persons (A and B) are engaged in the process of publicly justifying a norm N; A subscribes to a weak (agnostic) foundationalist epistemology and B to a strong (theist) foundationalist epistemology; A has made the case that A’s and B’s epistemologies commits or may commit B to N though B makes the case that her epistemology commits her to rejecting N. Between A’s beliefs i.) that B may nonculpably and reasonably reject N due to justified belief in her epistemology and ii.) that B’s epistemology commits or may commit her to N, there need be no tension (Gaus 1996: 176-7). If A may hold both beliefs simultaneously, then, from her perspective, the further requirement that B endorse N provides no additional support for the second belief. To maintain otherwise is to fuse what is justified and what is justifiable.
Shifting to the second part of Gaus’s (1996) reply, the proponent of reflexivity confuses two distinct ideas: 1.) A justifiably believes that N has been conclusively justified to B; 2.) A has conclusively justified to B that A has conclusively justified N to her (177-8). The proponent of reflexivity maintains that 1.) implies 2.) but Gaus demurs: “It is a philosophic confusion—perhaps the result of a quest to ground our justified beliefs in something outside of our own belief systems—to conclude that she can only be justified in holding [the first] if she is justified in holding [the second]” (177-8). Effectively, requiring reflexivity amounts to an endless regress and justificatory skepticism. With this skepticism comes, on Gaus’s diagnosis, “a consensus and populist notion of public reason” and an overemphasis on philosophical theories of liberalism rather than on principles of liberal political morality (178). Both that notion and the overemphasis are best avoided.

An adequate response to Gaus must thus answer one or both of these difficulties. In reply to the first, I would need to show either that the proponent of reflexivity is not committed to denying the conjunction of beliefs i.) and ii.) or that Gaus is wrong to assert that there is no tension between these. As it happens, Gaus’s position is plausible, so the reply must take the form that a proponent of reflexivity is not committed to denying the conjunction. Yet the proponent is hard-pressed to show how these beliefs fit together on the reflexive approach: the person’s internal or first-order epistemological belief is parasitic on her external or second-order epistemological belief. Put differently, those beliefs will be mutually sensitive and move in tandem. Consequently, an adequate response to Gaus must admit this conjunction all while finding some fault with the second part of his reply to the reflexivity requirement.
Regarding the second part, I would need to show either that proponents of reflexivity do not confuse two distinct ideas or that my own argument is not a version of the reflexivity requirement. Although Gaus’s contention is again plausible, there may be some room for pushback. For instance, it may be possible that the proponent does not maintain that idea 1.) implies idea 2.). Alternatively, it may be unclear whether the distinction between philosophical theories of liberalism and principles of liberal political morality is apt. If justification has some ethical substance (e.g. justification takes this form because it is just or fair to others) and justification can bear an unethical charge (e.g. epistemic injustice), then the reflexivity requirement may be less philosophical theory than substantive principle in its own right.
That said, since this reply alone is insufficient to overcome Gaus’s challenge, I grant that this challenge can withstand the reply and turn to the second tack suggested above, namely, showing that my argument is not an instance of the reflexivity requirement. The reflexivity requirement holds that, for any stretch of reasoning to which the standards for conclusive justification apply, the standards for conclusive justification apply also to the application of the standards for conclusive justification within that stretch of reasoning. My argument is not, however, of this type. Notably, it does not contend that all the standards for conclusive justification apply also to the application of those standards. This would amount to maintaining that Rawlsian reasonableness is itself unreasonable because it fails to instantiate both (A1) and (A2). Instead, I argue that Rawlsian reasonableness is internally inconsistent and potentially unstable within the well-ordered society. In other words, the citizen in the well-ordered society may find that the burdens of judgment lead her to make conflicting judgments about the strong formulation of (A1) and, consequently, about whether a particular exercise of theoretical or practical reason may be rejected under the aegis of the burdens.
Insofar as my critique of Rawls stops short of claiming that Rawlsian reasonableness, it does not represent a reflexivity requirement, however much one may outwardly resemble the other. That being said, one might still suspect that my answer is no answer at all, for my point about consistency does not merely resemble but, in truth, is a point about reflexivity. Even if it does not claim that Rawlsian reasonableness is itself unreasonable because it fails to instantiate both (A1) and (A2), it clearly maintains that it may fail to instantiate (A1) just because it instantiates (A2). Simply put, it is a partial or limited self-application, which may be sufficient to cast my argument as a reflexivity requirement, for all intents and purposes. At this point, it is worth asking whether tactics deployed against the previous objections might cross-apply to Gaus’s answer. For example, although Gaus is mistaken about the make-up of political liberalism’s justificatory pool (131-6), his criticism of the reflexivity requirement does not hinge on the nature of the justificatory pool’s members, as was the case for Quong and Estlund. All in all, more reflection is required to determine whether my argument escapes Gaus’s reply.

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