Civility and Public Reason

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

ArgueAccording to a prevailing conception among political theorists, part of what accounts for the legitimacy of democratic government and the bindingness of its laws is democracy’s commitment to public deliberation. Democracy is not merely a process of collective decision in which each adult citizen gets precisely one vote and the majority rules; after all, that an outcome was produced by a process of majoritarian equal voting provides only a weak reason to accept it. The crucial aspect of democracy is the process of public reasoning and deliberation that precedes the vote. The idea is that majoritarian equal voting procedures can produce a binding outcome only when they are engaged after citizens have had ample opportunity to reason and deliberate together about matters of public concern. We claimed in last month’s post that democracy is all about argument; this means that at democracy’s core is public deliberation.

In a democracy, public deliberation is the activity in which citizens exchange reasons concerning which governmental policies should be instituted. This activity is necessary because democratic decision-making regularly takes place against a backdrop of disagreement, where different conceptions of public interest conflict. It is important to note that although reasoning always has consensus among its goals, democratic deliberation is aimed primarily at reconciling citizens to the central reality of politics, namely that in a society of free and equal individuals, no one can get everything he or she wants from politics. As democratic citizens, we disagree about which policies will best serve the public interest, and so, when democracy makes collective decisions, some of us will lose – our preferred policy will fail to win the requisite support. Yet democratic laws and decisions are prima facie binding on us all, even when they conflict with our individual judgments about what is best.

Public deliberation is that component of the democratic process in which citizens show each other respect: When democracy decides, some will win, and others will lose, but everyone has the opportunity in advance of the voting to present reasons and arguments in favor of their preferred outcome and against its competitors. Even though democracy requires each of us to live under some laws and policies that we individually oppose, we nonetheless can see ourselves as something more than mere subjects; because we each are able to contribute to the deliberation leading up to the vote, we can see ourselves as authors of the laws and policies that result, even when our individual judgment opposes those results. In short, public deliberation enables us to see democratic policies as justified even in cases where we individually think them mistaken. We cannot require unanimity in a society of free and equal citizens, but we can nonetheless respect each other by resolving to live together under only those laws and policies that can be justified. Public deliberation is the means for exhibiting this kind of respect.

Given that the public deliberation is supposed to manifest respect among citizens who disagree, there are a few desiderata that processes of public deliberation must satisfy. The most obvious is egalitarianism. Those who affirm a view about the public good must be open to questions and challenges from any quarter; every citizen has the right not only to assert views, but also to voice objections. “Because I said so” and “you don’t count” are never valid moves in public deliberation. This leads naturally to an additional feature of proper public deliberation, namely, reasonableness. If processes of affirming views and voicing objections are going to manifest respect among citizens, then when gets exchanged must be reasons rather than threats, commands, and insults. At the very least, this means that public deliberators must argue in accordance with basic rules of critical thinking and proper inference. But reasonableness also requires that citizens exchange reasons of a certain kind. More specifically, in order to be reasonable, public deliberation must be conducted by means of reasons that are themselves public. Public reasons are those reasons that are recognizable as reasons by democratic citizens as such. They are reasons that could be acknowledged from the perspective of any democratic citizen, rather than only from the perspective of some individual perspective or other. Accordingly, in public deliberation, citizens must reason from a public perspective rather than from the perspective of their individual moral or religious convictions. Just as “Because I said so” does not count as a reason in public deliberation, neither does “Because my church says so.”

Here’s why. We noted above that the main function of public deliberation is not to prove that one’s views about the public good are true, but rather to show one’s fellow citizens that one’s views about the public good are justifiable. And to show one’s fellow citizens that one’s views about the public good are justifiable is to show that they are justifiable to them. In order to show that one’s views about the public good are justifiable to your fellow citizens, one must articulate the case for one’s views in terms that do not presuppose one’s own particular moral, metaphysical, or religious commitments. For your fellow citizen may reject these commitments without thereby disqualifying themselves for democratic citizenship.

An example will help. Imagine a fellow citizen affirming that the state ought to prohibit same-sex marriage because God forbids homosexuality. Here, what has been offered is a reason that could count as a reason only for those who hold certain religious convictions. But free and equal citizens of a democratic society are not required to have any religious convictions at all. So the justification proposed fails to show that the position is justifiable. Contrast this with the case of a fellow citizen who affirms that that the state ought to prohibit same-sex marriage because permitting it would weaken the stability of the family, thereby weakening the most basic institution of all human society. Social stability is a concern for democratic citizens as such. Accordingly, in response, a critic will challenge the claim that allowing same-sex marriage will undermine the stability of the family, and thus social stability overall. But the important thing is that the social stability argument proposes a reason of the right kind. Those who support same-sex marriage cannot simply say in response, “Who cares about social stability?” They instead need to engage with the reasons offered by the same-sex marriage opponent. To be sure, we are confident that the social stability argument against same-sex marriage falls short, but that is a different matter from what is now at issue, namely, which reasons are properly public.

We may say that public reasons are of the kind that cannot be dismissed as irrelevant or unintelligible by democratic citizens. Thus there is a fundamental difference between a reason such as “The Bible forbids it” and “Equality requires it.” One who dismisses the former does not thereby disqualify himself for democratic citizenship; one who dismisses the latter does. Accordingly, a group of citizens that insists on a public policy that can be supported only by means of nonpublic reasons thereby shows disrespect for their fellow citizens. Put otherwise, to affirm a public policy that cannot be supported by public reasons is in effect to say to one’s fellow citizens “Because I said so.” And that’s to deny that one’s fellow citizens are one’s equals. That’s disrespectful.

Indeed, it’s uncivil. The moral core of democracy consists in the project of enabling citizens to live together socially as equals, despite the fact that they disagree deeply about fundamental moral and religious matters. This democratic moral vision can be realized only when citizens recognize a duty to respect each other as fellow citizens, equal sharers in political power. This respect requires citizens to recognize what John Rawls called the duty of civility, which is the duty to offer one’s fellow citizens public reasons when deliberating with them about the public good. Knowing that deliberation occurs against the backdrop of deep disagreement, we must on the one hand be willing to recognize the diversity of religious, philosophical, and ethical commitments available to democratic citizens. On the other hand, we must be able to explain the basis for any policy we advocate with reasons we can expect any of those diverse individuals to endorse as consistent with their status as a fellow free and equal citizen. That’s the tightrope of democratic justification. Democratic deliberation, then, requires us to argue from a public perspective.

Accordingly, we see that civility is indeed all about being respectful. But the relevant kind of respect is not that of the calm tone and cool demeanor. The respect proper to democratic citizens has to do with the ways in which we acknowledge our fundamental equality as sharers in self-government. And this is in turn a matter of whether we reason together even when our reasons conflict.