Mises Review

Understanding Liberal Democracy: Essays in Political Philosophy, by Nicholas Wolterstorff

The Mises Review

 Mises Review 18, No. 3 (Fall 2012)

By Nicholas Wolterstorff • Edited by Terence Cuneo
Oxford University Press, 2012, xii+ 385 pgs.

Most contemporary political philosophers, unfortunately, are not libertarians. Nicholas Wolterstorff, best known as a founder of “reformed epistemology” but a philosopher of extraordinary range, is no libertarian either — far from it. In the present collection of essays, though, he assails a vastly influential school of thought in a way that libertarians will find useful.

Ever since John Rawls published Political Liberalism in 1993, political philosophers have focused on “public reason.” This notion responds to a feature of contemporary politics difficult to deny: we have already drawn attention to it. In contemporary democracies, people disagree radically about what should be done politically. They operate from different philosophies, from what Rawls calls “comprehensive doctrines”; they have different “conceptions of the good.” Some people are religious and look to what they take to be God’s guidance on, e.g., abortion and same-sex marriage; others are atheists and want no part of alleged divine revelations. Some people think the state should mold people’s characters to promote virtue; others say this is none of the state’s business.

Faced with conflicts like this, what should be done? One alternative is that the supporters of a particular comprehensive doctrine should attempt to secure a majority for its views. Once they do that, they can ram through their program, regardless of the objections that come from those with other comprehensive doctrines. If you can convince most people that abortion is wrong, then you are free to pass laws that ban it.

Rawls and other supporters of public reason like Robert Audi disagree. They say that to act in the way just described is coercive and fails to show respect for those who hold different conceptions of the good.

Most if not all exclusivists [advocates of public reason] … say something to the effect that respect for one’s fellow citizens as free and equal requires that, before supporting a piece of proposed legislation, one offer or make available, to those one believes do not already have them, reasons for the legislation that they will or would regard as good ones … [an] alternative focuses on coercion. It is the coerciveness of legislation that makes reasons of the sort indicated required. A condition of a citizen’s properly supporting a piece of coercive legislation is … [that] one must offer or make available, to those one believes do not already have them, reasons that they do or would regard as justifying the coercive legislation. (pp. 12–3, emphasis in original)

In brief, you should put aside your own opinions about the good when you are dealing — as you inevitably must in a contemporary democracy like that of the United States — with those with conflicting opinions. Instead, you should confine yourself to arguments that others can accept as reasons. For example, if you oppose easy divorce because you think this practice contravenes what the Bible teaches about marriage, you should not rely on this view in debates about public legislation. People who reject belief in God will not regard the Bible’s claims as a reason for action at all. If you appeal exclusively to the Bible, you will be manifesting lack of respect for them and endeavoring to coerce them.1

It is easy to see why Wolterstorff would not like public reason. As already suggested, religious views have no place in public reason, though they are not the only sort of excluded views. This cannot sit well with Wolterstorff, who is a devout Christian and thinks that his religion is very much relevant to politics. He accordingly launches a counterattack: public reason shows much less respect for people than its advocates claim for it; and the view has consequences that are themselves coercive. His powerful arguments should interest libertarians because they weaken the appeal of one of libertarianism’s main rivals in political philosophy.

Wolterstorff notes that defenders of public reason do not in fact show respect for everyone’s comprehensive doctrine. It is only those deemed “reasonable” who have to be taken into account. If you hold a comprehensive doctrine that is not “reasonable,” then you are excluded: it is not necessary, in public argument, to offer you a reason that you would find acceptable.

Of course, the question arises, just what is a reasonable comprehensive doctrine, on this conception? It transpires that in essence it is one that accepts public reason. If you want to impose your comprehensive doctrine regardless of the opinions of those who reject it, you aren’t reasonable. Public reason is thus respectful and non-coercive — to those who accept its tenets. Those outside the “legitimation pool” of these accepters do not count.

All public reason liberals first declare that citizens of certain sorts are irrelevant to determining the permissibility of advocating in public and voting for some piece of legislation. … Rawls famously sets off to the side those who are not “reasonable,” these being those who do not endorse “the underlying ideas of citizens as free and equal persons and of society as a fair system of cooperation over time.” For those whose comprehensive doctrine leads them to be unreasonable in this way, Rawls declares that that doctrine is itself unreasonable. About such doctrines and those who hold them Rawls says that “Within political liberalism, nothing more need be said.” (p. 81, quoting Rawls)

Even for the favored few who make it into the legitimation pool, it is by no means always the case that they must be given reasons for laws that they in fact accept.

No public reason liberal holds that, having excluded certain sorts of citizens from the legitimation pool, we can now say that a condition of its being acceptable to advocate and vote for some proposed piece of legislation is that one judges that everyone who remains in the pool has a good and decisive reason … for believing that the legislation would be a good thing. There never is that degree of agreement; we can say in confidence that there never will be. It’s for this reason that public reason liberals all resort to speaking of what those in the legitimation pool would believe. (pp. 83–4)

In other words, if some people reject a law you propose, you assume that they would accept it, or at least think it reasonable, if they were better informed or thought about the issues more clearly. Is this not, Wolterstorff asks, a remarkably condescending view to take of one’s fellow citizens?2

If Wolterstorff rejects public reason, what has he to put in its place? He proposes “the equal right of citizens to full political voice” (p. 113). In this conception of liberal democracy, people may advocate3 laws for whatever reasons seem to them suitable; they are not bound by the restraints of public reason. If you have had a fair chance to state your case to the public, but the vote goes against you, then you have not been treated unfairly.

But what about the problems to which public reason theorists have pointed? What if the majority passes laws that seem to you to lack reason altogether? Must you accept these laws, simply because the majority backs them? Has Wolterstorff rejected public reason as not genuinely respectful of others, only to subject everyone to dominance by the majority of voters?

Wolterstorff is fully aware of this problem. He responds that majority rule, in his conception of equal political voice, is not untrammeled. Laws cannot violate people’s rights.

I [Wolterstorff] hold that it is not public reason and the Rawlsian duty of civility that lie at the heart of liberal democracy but the equal right to full political voice, this voice to be exercised within constitutional limits on the powers of government and within legal limits on the infringement by citizens on the rights of their fellow citizens to freely exercise their full political voice. (p. 125)

What are these rights that limit the majority? Wolterstorff does not offer a list of them, though it is safe to say that they include the “standard” list of civil liberties, such as freedom of the press and of religion. But what if, as libertarians think, these rights extend further — to include natural rights to property? What if they leave no scope at all for further public deliberation, except perhaps on details? Wolterstorff assumes without considering alternative arrangements that the key task of political philosophy today is to arrive at an acceptable account of liberal democracy. Libertarians will not be satisfied; but we can be grateful to Wolterstorff for his careful analysis of public reason.4

  • 1There is a difference of opinion among supporters of public reason. Some contend that you must confine all of your public arguments to those that meet the test of public reason. Others think that you can refer to your comprehensive doctrine, as long as you bring in arguments from public reason as well.
  • 2It would not be a good response to say that anyone who favors a position must by that fact think that he is correct and those who dissent mistaken. If you believe something, then you believe it to be true; but you need not hold that any rational and well-informed person would agree.
  • 3To my regret, Wolterstorff often uses the barbarism “advocate for” instead of “advocate.”
  • 4Wolterstorff in one essay offers an argument that people ought to accept the authority of the state. People have rights, this argument goes, and the state has an obligation to protect these rights. If the state has this obligation, then people have an obligation not to hinder the state in carrying out its proper task. This argument fails, for one reason, because of the gap between “not hindering” and “obeying” or “accepting the authority of.” If Wolterstorff has an obligation to deliver a lecture that he has promised to give, I may have an obligation not to disrupt his talk. But it does not follow that I am obligated to do what he asks to assist him. Wolterstorff says that “to the best of my knowledge no one has previously explored this way of accounting for the binding political authority of the state” (p. 6); but Randy Barnett offered a similar argument in Restoring the Lost Constitution (Princeton 2004). See my discussion and criticism in the Mises Review.


Gordon, David. Review of Understanding Liberal Democracy: Essays in Political Philosophy, by Nicholas Wolterstorff. The Mises Review 18, No. 3 (Fall 2012).


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