Preliminary Note: As many of our readers may be aware, and as I am deeply saddened to report, Gerald (“Jerry”) Gaus (1952–2020) passed away last fall, as this symposium was still in development. I encourage our readers to read the touching tribute that Jerry’s many former students and mentees, including Ryan Muldoon, coauthored for the PPE Society in August 2020. We are fortunate that Jerry so generously agreed, as he always did whenever he was asked, to share his erudition, passion, and remarkably kind spirit with us in these pages.
Notwithstanding the marked difference in their answers, Ryan Muldoon wrestles with a similar question to the one that gripped John Rawls from Political Liberalism until his death: “How is it possible for there to exist over time a just and stable society of free and equal citizens, who remain profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?”1 In the several years since Muldoon published his book and this symposium has come to fruition, the domestic and global divisions that have troubled us all have only worsened, and categorically new ones have appeared on the scene. Anti-immigrant movements in the West have proliferated. Widespread protests and counterprotests have gripped American cities in the wake of the tragic killings of African American citizens, such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, at the hands of police officers. These demonstrations have further elucidated the depth of systemic racial injustice in the United States, but have also been the site of mutual enmity and violence among ideologically divided citizens. Amid global suffering throughout the COVID-19 pandemic have been bitter conflicts over various governments’ efforts at managing the virus’s spread, including locking down businesses, mandating masks, closing schools, and the manufacture and equitable distribution of vaccines. And finally, in the first week of a new year, violence erupted in the United States capital, as far-right conspiracy theorists and insurrectionists invaded the halls of Congress, fueled by claims of corruption and illegitimacy at the heart of their system of government.
It’s difficult to imagine a year that better vindicates the occasional doubt we see in Rawls’s work that such a stable and just society is possible at all, doubts with which Muldoon evidently sympathizes. At the heart of Muldoon’s book, however, is the claim that Rawlsian political liberalism provides an ineffective solution to social instability. Much of social contract theory from Locke through Rawls aims for institutions and dialogical practices that better harness, manage, or tolerate diversity. On the Rawlsian framework, we are encouraged to engage in political debate by reference to political values that we share (i.e., public reasons), rather than those that are unique to our separate religious and moral doctrines. Certain of our laws and distributional schemes must therefore be publicly justifiable. By justifying our political structure through public reasons only, we demonstrate to our differently minded neighbor that we: (a) respect her as a political equal, and (b) are committed to the socially cooperative arrangement that we share with her. Laudable as this might sound, this is a doomed attempt at achieving stability in an increasingly diverse climate, as something like toleration is (unfortunately) a paltry incentive for most citizens to welcome diversity and stably continue our joint democratic enterprise.
Two of the chief problems with the Rawlsian contract, Muldoon argues, are its substantial reliance on our (i.e., flesh-and-blood citizens’) sameness and our epistemic access to a complete (and final) theory of justice. These assumptions are not only unrealistic, but counterproductive. As other critics of the Rawlsian approach have argued, the extent of our shared political values might be too thin to supply innovative solutions to our deepest sources of conflict. Worse still, diverse citizens don’t even conceptualize the conflict itself in the same manner: they categorize the world differently through their myriad perspectives. Citizens occupying different perspectives have markedly different ontologies, procedures for evaluating situations of social import, and adeptness at solving different kinds of problems effectively. As two further and particularly important consequences, those who occupy different perspectives come with very different preference-orderings and, quite often, different skillsets. While this might make the problem of stability initially seem more intractable than the Rawlsian formulation, Muldoon contends that such radical differences provide the key to its solution.
A social contract model that fails to engage the whole of citizens’ diverse perspectives exacerbates several social harms and misses several social opportunities. Unless we better incentivize citizens to engage with and learn about one another’s deepest interests, there is limited opportunity to develop empathy, bargain with one another, or capitalize on our diverse, specialized skillsets. Under the current approach, we tend to isolate ourselves among like-minded citizens, and encounter only a superficial or caricatured version of those who are different.2 We are more likely to see members of other groups as threats in a zero-sum economy and less likely to realize the mutually advantageous social surplus that diverse and specialized societies produce. If instead we come to see our lives as enriched by others’ perspectives—which requires our encountering and even subsidizing them—we can encourage various communities to engage in small-scale social innovations akin to J. S. Mill’s notion of “experiments in living.” Those innovations or unique ways of living that bear fruit will gain traction outside of the communities that tried them, as Muldoon is optimistic that other perspectives will see widespread advantages that certain of these innovations bring. Muldoon likens this, on a smaller scale, to the comparative advantage that we clearly enjoy in developing complementary professional skillsets in those around us.
To begin to realize such changes among the citizenry, Muldoon argues that we must first eschew the “impartial” epistemological standpoint he calls the View from Nowhere, which he associates with the likes of Rawls and Thomas Nagel, and the static political solutions that it produces. In its place, he encourages our adoption of his View from Everywhere, which (in the mold of Thomas Hobbes and David Gauthier) makes political decisions based on an aggregation of citizens’ various perspectives and permits dynamic solutions suitable to changing circumstances. While the panelists’ contributions and Muldoon’s replies will highlight some principles of justice and institutional changes that emerge out of the View from Everywhere, I will briefly elaborate on the bargaining process that stands at the center of it.
Bracketing perspectival differences, as one would do in the View from Nowhere, leads to a uniform scheme of rights, liberties, and public goods distributions. As much as this sounds precisely like something we want in the abstract, such a scheme is frequently unresponsive to citizens’ varied interests, as those occupying many perspectives are eager to concede certain of their rights or public goods in one area in order to enjoy a more extensive right or public good distribution in another. On the current approach, especially in the case of minority perspectives, the dominant vocabulary is sufficiently restrictive that certain citizens are unable to adequately articulate their dissatisfaction in public fora. For example, an adherent to traditional Lakota beliefs will place significantly greater weight on temporary, exclusive access to sacred land, such as a ritual space atop of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, than the right to evangelize in public places. She is also willing to make significant concessions regarding some other public good so that recreational climbing groups will halt their climbing activities near Devil’s Tower during important rituals. But since current constitutional jurisprudence cannot cognize such a bargaining process, nor incentivize the climbers to engage in one, the Lakota are stuck with a Free Exercise jurisprudence that generally favors the right to doxastic expression (e.g., proselytizing) over the right to performative rituals on sacred land. If indeed such scenarios are sufficiently common, we can recognize why Muldoon sees a perspective-blind model as one that inevitably ends in disappointment and enmity.
Muldoon’s bargaining model, by contrast, would allow for such perspective-specific innovations to our rights, liberties, and public good distributions. While this iteration might not work on a global scale, he cites the Belgian model—wherein rights for various cultural groups are managed locally to tailor them to local interests—as a version of this that has enjoyed some success. Muldoon is optimistic about bargaining because it does not require its participants to speak one another’s language, yet it incentivizes us to understand what the other wants. Since a proper bargain is more effective in optimizing each party’s interests than an a priori distribution scheme is, a bargaining model also provides a more reliably stable social glue than alternative approaches. At an institutional level, then, Muldoon imagines institutionalized mechanisms whereby various groups can: (1) State their interests and willingness to pay for the opportunity to produce a unique good or other social innovation; (2) Enjoy small-scale state funding for that new activity (a kind of experiment in living) where an adequate coalition supports it; and (3) Prove (or fail to prove) the merit of their ideas (or activities) such that they enjoy wider public support. Importantly, the public need not see themselves as endorsing each such experiment, as its sanctioning is not fixed, but they will certainly end up recognizing new solutions, interests, and self-conceptions that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Despite this optimism about this bargaining-and-experimentation process, Muldoon recognizes the need for two important constraints on such a bargaining-and-experimentation process. First, each party must be made better off by participating in the social bargain—where “better off” is cognizable from each perspective’s point of view—than they would be on an alternate model. Second, distributions should be proportionate to a group’s social contribution, such that each group benefits from the fruits of their efforts. With these caveats in mind, these conceptual and institutional changes will demonstrate the positive-sum game that more diverse societies provide and encourage citizens to subsidize social experimentation among their compatriots. In the end, as Muldoon succinctly puts it at the end of his book, what is offered is a model of the social contract centered around experimentation, discovery, and dynamism. While it is possible that some societies can’t be made to see the positive-sum game of greater diversity, and will need to separate, Muldoon demonstrates why he sees promise in his bargaining model for keeping us together.
This symposium is fortunate to have a panel with varying points of agreement with Muldoon’s project and critiques of it from a variety of philosophical traditions. True to the message of his project, the reader will notice that Muldoon’s replies to each panelist evidence his belief in the great enrichment that each of their perspectives provides. For my part, I would like to express my deep gratitude to Muldoon and each of the panelists for their deeply reflective contributions and for their extraordinary patience during the lengthy period that this symposium, for various reasons, hit roadblocks, delays, and hiatuses of all sorts. The fortunate byproduct of this lengthy development, however, is living proof that both Muldoon’s and each contributor’s concerns were remarkably prescient: both need for such a reimagining of the social contract, and the rationale behind the contributors’ varied criticisms, can be located in one or more of the recent conflicts mentioned at the beginning of this introduction.
Arnold Farr applauds Muldoon’s project as an attempt to meet the diverse world as we find it, but worries that Muldoon encourages a limited, whitewashed form of diversity. Farr compellingly argues that Muldoon fails to address the circumstances that lead to the formation of various perspectives, and their interests, in the first place. First, his bargaining mechanism does not distinguish between those demands that are simply in pursuit of that perspective’s interests, and those that are needed as a corrective to past oppression. Second, some groups are simply the product of past oppression (and perhaps those who are most marginalized can claim no group at all). Demands in each category ought not be treated the same, as correcting past injustice is a necessary precondition to there being an equal bargaining table. He leaves room, of course, for the possibility that such distinctions could be built into the contours of the kind of process that Muldoon intends. Moreover, Farr worries that the capitalist mechanisms at the heart of Muldoon’s project will fail to produce the sort of empathy that he suspects it will, as there is much evidence from the history of capital-driven behaviors to suggest the contrary.
Fred D’Agostino shares Farr’s skepticism regarding the rosy consequences that Muldoon predicts for his bargaining process, in large part because of the antipathy various would-be bargainers feel, from within their perspectives, toward one another. The great challenge of Muldoon’s bargaining model is to create conditions that could foster attitudes among the myriad perspectives that are sufficiently conciliatory to want to bargain. Though D’Agostino agrees with Muldoon that everyone would be better off were they to embrace diversity, perhaps including the bargaining and experimentation mechanisms Muldoon proposes, the notion of “better off” that is at work throughout the book is perspective-dependent, not perspectiveless nor universal. Thus, what would be needed for certain of Muldoon’s central mechanisms to demonstrate the positive-sum game of diverse economy—and D’Agostino directs the reader to p. 91 especially for the book’s methodological turn—is for citizens to first be willing to set aside those elements of their perspectives that give rise to such antipathies. Despite his skepticism about the ultimate success of Muldoon’s central argument, however, D’Agostino is emphatic that Muldoon’s project is in several senses on the right track.
Cynthia Stark provides a compelling articulation of the dilemma all social contract theorists face. As one option, they may constrain the inquiry to what principles citizens would hypothetically accept if only they met this or that moral qualification, as Rawls (and more recently, Jonathan Quong) by only including “reasonable” and “rational” persons in what Marilyn Friedman has aptly dubbed the “legitimation pool.”3 This buys moral normativity for the resulting principles at the cost of its excluding the interests of numerous flesh-and-blood citizens. Or alternatively, they may base the contract on the actual agreement of real and diverse persons, which buys actual acceptance at the cost of moral justification. Since Muldoon opts for the latter, Stark contends, the bargainers in his model have prudential reasons (i.e., realizing their maximal advantage) to agree to the terms, but not moral justification.
Gerald Gaus describes himself as a “fellow-traveler” with Muldoon because, among other reasons, his later work similarly aims at a “new diversity theory” and he concurs with Muldoon that we find agreeable terms of social cooperation through an evolutionary, bottom-up process (which Gaus develops most comprehensively in his Order of Public Reason), rather than through ideal theory. Nonetheless, Gaus offers several criticisms that he takes to be “intramural.” First, Gaus worries that one of the claims to which Muldoon is committed—which he deems the Master Epistemic Principle—is a controversial principle that is not widely shared and likely favorable to the intelligentsia (which is very much the opposite of what Muldoon intends). Second, Gaus questions the bright line that Muldoon draws between discovery and justification-based social contract models. Certain of the metaphors for discovery that Muldoon employs depend on the explorers agreeing (to some extent) on the landscape to be explored, and what counts as a discovery, which is precisely what is lacking in society comprised of radically diverse perspectives. The necessity of such a common landscape, the precise terms of which were to be settled by “you and me” trying to locate our shared political values, is precisely what Rawls was after. Thus, Gaus contends that Muldoon somewhat misconstrues Rawls on this point and, for this reason, misses an important sense in which justification must be primary. Ultimately, however, Gaus believes that Muldoon’s core point is the right one: the task of political philosophy is not for a moral philosopher to lay out the right blueprint for just terms of social cooperation, but perhaps to conceive a process through which we might discover those terms we can all live with.
John Rawls, Political Liberalism, expanded ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 4.↩
For recent discussions of such phenomena, see Robert Talisse, Overdoing Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2019) and C. Thi Nguyen, “Echo Chambers and Epistemic Bubbles,” Episteme 17.2 (2020) 141–60.↩
See Marilyn Friedman, “John Rawls and the Political Coercion of Unreasonable People,” in The Idea of a Political Liberalism, ed. Victoria Davion and Clark Wolf (Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 16–33, at 16.↩