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NDPR Discussion: Ryan Muldoon’s Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World: Beyond Tolerance

NDPR just posted a review by Michael Frazer of Ryan Muldoon’s recent book. We have invited both Ryan and Michael to discuss the review as they see fit, and we also invite interested readers to contribute any questions or comments they may have on either the book or the review here as well.

2 Responses to NDPR Discussion: Ryan Muldoon’s Social Contract Theory for a Diverse World: Beyond Tolerance

  1. Ryan Muldoon says:

    Let me start by saying thank you to PEA Soup for providing me the opportunity to respond to Michael Frazer, and thank you to Michael Frazer for taking the time to review the book and offer his thoughts on the view that I develop. I’m delighted that the book is getting some attention, and that the ideas in it are being discussed.

    As Frazer notes, my book aims to both demonstrate the positive value of diversity in political society and show how social contract theories, with a particular focus on the Rawlsian tradition, fail to adequately deal with the depth of diversity in real populations.

    Since “diversity” itself is a rather broad idea, in the book I focus on a notion of perspectival diversity. As I discuss in the introduction, I argue throughout the book that it is at best incomplete to characterize our political disagreements as merely about competing interests. That implies that we agree to the terms of the debate, and agree on how we see the world, and what we take to be the key elements of it. But there are both good theoretical reasons and empirical reasons to think that this is false. As Sen pointed out in his excellent “The Equality of What?,” when the libertarian and the egalitarian are disagreeing on the appropriate distribution of some good, they don’t merely have different preference profiles, they are arguing on rather different terms. Putting it in overly simplistic terms, the egalitarian is tracking material outcomes, while the libertarian is tracking negative liberties. When they have a distributional disagreement, they don’t just disagree about which outcome is best, but they disagree about how to characterize those outcomes at all. And this is an easy case in a toy example of reasonably constrained disagreement. When we think of real cases of political disputes about big things, like whether there is a right to health care and how that might be manifested by the basic structure, there are far more dimensions of value that we may want to track. Indeed, as I argue (amongst other places) on pages 49 and 81, we can fruitfully think of different perspectives as offering lower-dimensional projections of a higher-dimensional object. The world is massively complex, and there are only so many things we can track at once. Perspectives give us some purchase on the world, but by definition it means that we may be seeing rather different aspects of it.

    Perspectives, then, are logically prior to moral values, but certainly are going to shape which kinds of valuing are possible. I can’t value what I can’t see. Frazer suggests that this perspectival approach is akin to “alternative facts” (which at least as the expression has been used thus far in popular discourse, means “lies”). However, I think it is rather straightforward to see that how one categorizes the things in the world will shape the beliefs one can come to have about it. Importantly, as with the simple grocery store example that Frazer describes, each alternative perspective can still say perfectly true things of the world, but no single perspective can say all of the true things. Imagining that any of us has transparent epistemic access to the world, without having perspectivally-shaped understanding of what we are seeing, is simply epistemically suspect. As I discuss in the book, there is a large literature on theory-laden observation in science. There is robust evidence across a variety of domains where we have experts that take themselves to be neutrally assessing the evidence, and even there we find this theory-ladenness of observation shape their conclusions. This perspectival account helps make sense of that, while applying it to our political life.

    If we take this central account of perspectives seriously, then “view from nowhere” sorts of approaches – ones that require a neutral perspective from which to reason – become impossible. There is no neutral space of reasons from which to reason. Nor is there a straightforward way of claiming that one perspective is more “neutral” than another, without packing a great deal into one’s assumptions. Since liberalism is meant to remain at least broadly neutral, I argue that we need some new machinery to achieve a kind of neutrality of outputs without assuming a neutrality of inputs.

    To do this, I propose a three-stage approach to the social contract. The first stage, which I call “the view from everywhere,” seeks to find cross-perspectival convergence of beliefs. I rely on a modified version of the Condorcet Jury Theorem to determine where we have suitably-robust convergence such that we can treat those agreements as fixed points in a social contract. This differs from the Rawlsian overlapping consensus in a few ways – most notably by requiring that beliefs be endorsed for different reasons, not merely allowing for it. I also leave open the possibility that there will not be substantial convergence sufficient to ground a social contract. The second stage is, as Frazer notes, a bargaining stage. This is a bargain over rights, as constrained by the fixed points determined in the previous stage. Bargains are used here rather than some form of consensus precisely because bargains can accommodate multiple perspectives rather straightforwardly, whereas (as I have argued) Rawlsian public reason approaches have a much harder time. My motivation for using bargains, as I argued in the text, is to do more to empower minority positions that would otherwise have difficulty expressing their views in a “neutral” space of reasons. Once a bargain is reached and the social contract is determined, we have a final stage that is meant to allow for a broad range of experiments in living, as constrained by the contract. These experiments not only offer social information about the nature and value of the experiments themselves, but also about the design of the social contract. This evidence is then used when we iterate the procedure again. By returning to the view from everywhere, we can, by our own lights, reassess where we find a convergence of views. In this way, the social contract process is meant to indefinitely iterate, rather than pick out a social contract once and for all.

    Where I see a process that allows societies to determine the basic structure that best suits them, and can adapt to changing circumstances, Frazer apparently sees a crass violation of research ethics – one “unsuited to the development of principles of justice.” I think this might be the clearest instance of where Frazer and I have starkly different views, and so it might be worth having a discussion. As I discuss in the book in a few places, all social contract theories are really experiments. They are just not presented as such. Though couched in the language of universal principles, we find that social contract theories are responses in part to local, not universal, problems. Hobbes was interested a social contract that would avoid something like the English Civil Wars. Locke developed a social contract view that simultaneously served as a justification for the Glorious Revolution. (In fact, Hume’s opening criticism of Locke in Of the Original Contract was that Locke was blatantly being a political partisan, thus weakening the quality of his philosophical reasoning.) Rousseau wanted a contract that was responsive to the vast inequalities generated by the private property system. Rawls developed a view assuming a manufacturing economy, with mostly closed borders, where a core consideration was a distributive one. Each argued for a contract that was a once-and-for-all agreement amongst its members, all couched in universal principles. All were brilliant, and made important contributions to social contract theory and liberal theory. But all were clearly offering an experiment from first principles. Since all of these contract theories look rather different from each other, we might question the degree to which any of them successfully got their universal principles, or how those are best encoded in a basic structure, correct. Not only this, each contract theorist, and their various defenders, seem quite confident that they can predict how the basic structure they suggest will in fact shape societies that adopt it. These are two enormously heroic epistemic assumptions.

    An important aspect of my approach is to break out of this mode of doing political philosophy. I don’t know what the best social contract is, nor do I have reason to believe that there is a single best contract for all societies. Even if I could articulate one, I have no reason to think that I know how it would in fact work with a real (or even ideal!) population. Societies are complex adaptive systems. Imagining that we can predict how any particular set of rules will affect such systems is an act of hubris. So, rather than suppose that I can do so, or that any collection of humans could, I allow the social contract to be reconsidered as people find out how their attempts to adjust it worked, or as new situations arise.

    A connected theme in my work is re-orienting political philosophy away from a static consideration of ideal end states, and toward a dynamic consideration of how change should happen. Economists long ago moved away from focusing on the “final” shape of the economy – the “stationary state.” Once they say the enormity of the changes brought on by the industrial revolution, they broadly abandoned the idea that there would be such a state. Political philosophers have yet to make this transition. The social landscape has changed dramatically for a variety of reasons, and liberal societies have had a history of “discovering” new rights that were supposedly there all along. Maybe a better way of characterizing it is that we pick new rights that we would like for ourselves, as we come to find new situations or as marginalized groups gain more voice in the political process. I’ve aimed to develop a procedure for how we can do this in diverse societies while respecting an account of political equality. In fact, the procedure I’ve outlined is meant to explicitly handle some of the concerns that Frazer has about unequal power and potential sources of undue coercion.

    Frazer suggests that perhaps a better approach would be focused on a moral commitment to reciprocity. Toward the end of his review, he cites a passage from page 2 of my book, framing it thusly: “There is no denying that this moral commitment to reciprocity is in some sense a liberal one, and that anyone who shares it is already on the road to political liberalism. Muldoon rejects such an approach as unrealistic.” My concern here is mostly that the passage he cites has nothing to do with anything about moral reciprocity whatsoever. Instead, the passage is about the assumption of a continual narrowing of the scope and consequence of political disagreement in the literature – tracing a history from Hobbes to Locke to Rawls to Quong. To more substantively reply to Frazer on this point, I might point him to page 91 of the book, where I make clear that my goal is not to pre-assume a moral commitment to reciprocity, but instead design a procedure that is designed to foster such commitments.

    I fully appreciate some of Frazer’s considerations of how adding in additional non-ideal aspects of the world may make the task I set for myself all the most difficult. Certainly, people who are “epistemically irresponsible, prudentially myopic, and preeminently concerned with signaling loyalty to various identity groups” may push for a social contract that I myself wouldn’t like very much. But these same people would, for instance, cause problems for a Rawlsian society as well. Perhaps not in the formation of the basic structure, since non-ideal agents don’t determine those for Rawls, but surely in the stability of such a society, as if they were to pose problems for cooperation on my account they would surely pose problems for Rawls, who assumes a much richer moral commitment to social cooperation than I do. I’d be interested to see an argument about why a transition toward more non-ideal circumstances does more damage to my view than the far more idealized views that I have argued against.

    While I don’t think that diversity is the summum bonum of politics, I do think that diversity is far more valuable than many political philosophers realize. It is not merely a problem to be managed, but a resource to be drawn from. The view that I defend in my book develops machinery that demonstrates the value of diversity, and shows where some limits might be.

  2. Thank you, Ryan, both for your thorough response to my review of your book and for your book itself. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to respond to every one the important points in this post.

    I will say that you have correctly identified what I think it our single most important point of disagreement: the idea of justice as a trajectory, via a series of iterated socially contracts, versus the idea of justice as a universal ideal.

    There are many reasons why I think we need to hold on to the notion of justice as a universal ideal. For one thing, this is how justice-talk works in normal political discourse. How can we make sense of the claim that the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice, if justice is reduced to nothing more than the arc itself?

    More importantly, like Mill and Shklar, I think we need certain basic human interests guaranteed protection by a system of liberal rights, regardless of the social context. Of course, that leaves open the question of what those particular rights should be, a question that is still far from settled in all its particulars.

    Imagining what hypothetical agents under certain specified conditions would agree to is one very powerful tool, among others, for helping to answer that question. But the answer has nothing to do with what actual agents agree to in actual circumstances; individual rights must be secured from the vicissitudes of popular whim. The danger of social contract theorizing is that we will confuse what kind of agreements matter morally for what purposes.

    The appearance that justice itself changes with the times probably stems from the fact that particular social contexts make some forms of injustice more salient. The history of political thought is a story of transhistorically-valid insights that were uncovered due, at least in part, to features of an author’s historical context. We can tell a Hegelian story in which this process ends in absolute knowledge, but it’s more likely that it will never culminate in a moment of such certainty.

    Regardless, we need to carefully distinguish the logic from discovery from the logic of justification. What makes a theory of justice correct is not that it solves the particular social problems of its time, but that it helps answer what human needs are always deserving of protection.

    This is why reparations for past injustice and theories of transitional justice are so important; justice itself hasn’t changed, only our knowledge of what it has always required of us. What humility requires is not that we abandon the quest for universal principles of justice, only that we are prepared to acknowledge that we may now be committing myriad injustices without realizing it.