Epistemological Pluralism, Cognitive Liberalism & Authentic Choice

Originally published in Comparative Philosophy, Vol. VII, No. 2 (Fall 2016)

Print version available here.


In “Perfectionist Liberalism and Political Liberalism,” Martha Nussbaum (2011) persuasively argues that political liberalism is superior to its perfectionist cousin. However, her critique of perfectionism also problematizes Rawls’ account of political liberalism—particularly as it relates to his account of “reasonableness” vis a vis comprehensive doctrines (CDs) and life plans (LPs). In response, Nussbaum attempts to refine Rawls’ account to make it more inclusive—however, her alternative conception of political liberalism may actually be more parochial than that of Rawls, and seems to rest uneasily atop a series of profound contradictions. Yet, if we render her position more consistent, while the inclusivity problem is largely addressed, the normative force of political liberalism seems to be severely undermined—especially in contexts which are not already predisposed towards liberal ideologies, systems and institutions.

This dilemma arises out of the brute reality that, in many instances, there is not a clean correspondence between promoting the will (or even the interests) of a given population and advancing liberal practices and institutions therein. In the event of such a conflict, the internal logic of political liberalism seems to not only allow, but to mandate, deference to the former—even if the resultant society exceeds the bounds of liberalism, per se.


What is the Proper Basis for Liberalism?

Nussbaum begins by drawing a distinction between political and perfectionist strains of liberalism. As she sees it, the primary difference between these interpretations is how the central principle(s) are derived and justified: be they pluralists or monists, perfectionists have a definitive vision of the Good which individuals and governments must universally strive to promote and/or maximize. In virtue of this, she argues, perfectionism tends to be predicated on bold metaphysical premises on which political liberals can, and often try to, take (ostensibly) agnostic positions.

Nussbaum identifies Raz as a perfectionist par excellance: throughout his work, he identifies autonomy as his central value[1]–insisting the role of the state is to create space for agents to exercise and refine their free agency. Raz is also a pluralist, declaring the doctrine to be independently true but contingently significant: pluralism has value in virtue of autonomy. Nussbaum’s interpretation of Raz is as follows: the ultimate value of autonomy when paired with the objective truth of pluralism leads (inevitably) to liberalism as the optimal means of mitigating incompatible, yet rational, comprehensive doctrines and life plans.

Nussbaum sees two major problems here: Raz’s assertion of autonomy as the ultimate value and his claims about the objective truth of pluralism.[2] Both of these claims seem highly controversial. In fact, as is apparent from their own counter-models, many of Raz’s fellow perfectionists would reject autonomy as the ultimate value, or reject his claims about pluralism’s independent truth (or else, its contingent/subordinate value). Bentham, for instance, famously decried the notion of natural rights as “nonsense upon stilts,” holding that liberty, autonomy, etc. are instrumentally rather than intrinsically valuable (insofar as they prove useful in maximizing the good). He was also a monist about the good: pleasure (or the avoidance of its inverse, pain) is the marker by which we deem an act to be right or wrong. So, Bentham, while a perfectionist, would reject both of Raz’s central theses. And beyond the sphere of perfectionist liberalism, or liberalism in general, the supposed universality of these premises seems even more suspect.

Nussbaum believes that doctrines such as these cannot plausibly serve as the foundation for liberalism because many, perhaps most, would outright reject them; moreover, they may simply be false: if one must embrace Raz’s stratified pluralism as an axiom in order to justify liberalism, it is going to be virtually impossible to establish or promote liberal systems and institutions (especially outside of Western contexts, but even therein). This dilemma is particularly salient when it comes to justifying state coercion or demands for sacrifice: if difficult/controversial policies or states of affairs can only be substantiated by means of an even more problematic explanation, the most intelligent response for those most affected would likely be to reject or resist whatever is being imposed upon them.

This problem is not unique to Raz—virtually any perfectionist account of liberalism will run up against this barrier. Nussbaum views this as the central defect in perfectionism: these visions can only be really justified if and when agents share the (typically idiosyncratic) convictions of various perfectionist thinkers. If one or more fundamental (often highly objectionable) premises fails, the entire system more-or-less collapses in upon itself.

Of course, a perfectionist may claim that their systems are not rendered false simply because they cannot gain traction with those who reject critical axioms. After all, if they have successfully seized upon an objective truth, it would remain true even if no one believed it. However, the sheer level of disagreement in the literature suggests that most perfectionists have not stumbled upon universal truths—most, if not all, of them must be wrong in various ways and to varying degrees; in fact, most of them must be guilty of radical errors.

In any case, Nussbaum’s argument is more pragmatic than metaphysical: Even in the (inconceivable) event that some perfectionist succeeded in defining a system which would be objectively optimal in all contexts—it will have a difficult time ever getting adopted, successfully implemented, or remaining viable unless enough of the public can be brought on board—that is, absent a level of coercion which the relevant ideology may, itself, prohibit (or “on the ground” realities may prevent). However, this consensus seems unlikely if the justification for these systems and institutions hinges on idiosyncratic and highly-objectionable premises, regardless of their truth-values (if determinable at all). Accordingly, if it is to have any hope at universality in practice, liberalism needs to be grounded in some other way.

Enter Rawls. In his Political Liberalism he proposes a “free standing” justification based on minimal overlapping consensus.[3] Nussbaum believes that an advantage of this consensus-building approach is that citizens will have a greater stake in the principles thereby derived due to the role they, themselves, played in establishing them (ditto with regards to the resultant social systems and institutions). These attachments, which would arise organically in political approaches to liberalism, would be largely absent in “top-down” perfectionist approaches. Accordingly, Nussbaum suspects that systems and institutions derived from political liberalism will be more widely-adopted and stable over time.

However, while she believes the political approach is the right way to respond to the shortcomings of perfectionism, Nussbaum argues that controversial (and superfluous) claims sneak into Rawls’ conception and may undermine his project on several levels.


Defining the Debate

As Nussbaum sees it, what is at stake in the discussion between herself and Rawls is how to evaluate comprehensive doctrines and life plans—more specifically, how to mitigate “reasonable disagreement” in pluralistic societies. This question has two major components:

  1. How should a society define which comprehensive doctrines (CDs) and life plans (LPs) are reasonable or unreasonable in order to enjoin the former and resist the latter?


  1. How should the state navigate “reasonable” disagreements between its citizens, or between citizens and the state, given finite resources and conflicting agendas?

Nussbaum’s analysis is primarily dedicated to the former, more foundational, question—albeit with implications for the latter, both obvious and subtle.

A further critical distinction concerns who is evaluating these CDs and LPs: is it a question of how individuals within a society should evaluate/define their own CDs/LPs? Or how the state should define, restrict, or encourage options for citizens? Here, Nussbaum is concerned with the latter, although there will be substantial overlap–especially insofar as the state’s actions exert profound influence over individuals and their reasoning.

As she sees it, the most essential problem with Rawls’ conception is that, at various points in Political Liberalism (and other works) he seems to conflate “reasonableness” and “rationality.” Moreover, while he takes care to draw a distinction between rationality as a personal human capacity and “public rationality” which governs civil participation and institutions, Nussbaum demonstrates that this differentiation also frequently grows fuzzy—becoming especially problematic in those instances where the distinction between “reasonableness” and “rationality” is similarly unclear. There is a sense in which Nussbaum’s task, therefore, is twofold:

  1. To underscore that public rationality may legitimately include apparently “irrational” views because…
  2. These positions may nonetheless be “reasonable.”

Here, “reasonableness” refers to ethical legitimacy, contrasted to “rationality” which denotes soundness (logical, epistemological). While Nussbaum believes that “reasonableness” and “rationality” often (perhaps typically) travel together, there will also be many cases in which an action, belief, etc. may be “reasonable” but not “rational” (or vice-versa).

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