Vinoth Ramachandra

Re-Visiting “Public Reason”

Posted on: October 25, 2020

The Sri Lankan parliament has just committed hara-kiri by giving powers to the President that make parliament itself irrelevant.

Such absurd acts of collective self-destruction seem to be rife all over the world. We are often our own worst enemies.

Around this time, every four years, I commiserate with my American friends over the pitiful choice they face when electing a President. One has to belong to the tiny class of the super-rich to be nominated by either party. Moreover, this is the only country I know of where a candidate who gets as many as three million votes less than his rival wins the election. Al Gore suffered the same fate when George Bush, Jr., was elected in 2000. What was a revolutionary Constitution in the 1780s has proved to be easily corruptible and unjust. Unsurprisingly, U.S Presidential elections have been gleefully held up by despots around the world as excuses for their own anti-democratic practices.

Let me now digress a bit before returning to the elections.

The eminent political thinker John Rawls (1921-2002) once proposed, controversially, that democratic civility requires us all to deliberate as citizens in a neutral, universal tongue. We are best guided, according to Rawls, by a “political conception of justice” that we can all endorse and by what he called a “public reason”, meaning that we only present concepts and arguments that other “reasonable” citizens find intelligible (even if they may disagree). If we try to introduce reasons grounded in our own worldviews and moral traditions (“comprehensive doctrines”) parts of these will not be translatable into reasons which people who do not share these worldviews and these traditions can grasp.

Clearly, since decisions about law or public policy in a pluralist, democratic polity have to command the consent of people holding a wide range of worldviews, merely quoting a particular religious authority- whether the Bible or the Qur’an or the Pope- will not be meaningful to others. But, then, nor will quoting Plato or Marx or Kant or, ironically, the Rawlsian form of political liberalism.

Rawls’ proposal was shot down from numerous quarters, including other liberal philosophers who pointed out its basically illiberal nature. It seemed to place too high a premium on harmony, and to aspire to an immunity from  contradiction and challenge. Much to his credit, Rawls, with characteristic humility, responded to his critics by diluting and amending his “public reason” proposal until his death. But that is another story and not the main point of this particular post.

What interests me is that Rawls was heavily influenced towards his original view by the heated debates over abortion following the Roe vs Wade case of 1973. He assumed that the argument against abortion was based on religious tradition. That may have been the case with Christian fundamentalist groups who simply quoted the Bible at others (although, interestingly, there is no solitary biblical text that can be used legitimately to outlaw abortion).

But, the moral argument against abortion is based on the simple facts of human embryology coupled with a commitment to the universality of human rights. And, in Western liberal societies that embrace whole-heartedly both science and human rights discourse, this is, in fact, a classic case of a “public reason” argument! It is why there are many atheists, too, who are opposed to abortion. (https://www.prolifehumanists.org/secular-case-against-abortion/)

The vast majority of us- all those who were not the products of monozygotic twinning (i.e., twinning from a single fertilized egg) – began our lives at conception. From a scientific point of view, there is no doubt at all concerning what the early embryo is. The early human embryo is not a “potential” human being, or a “pre” human being, but a new human being with a unique human genotype- the same self-directing human organism as the later child and adult. The changes from embryo to fetus to infant to adolescent to adult are simply changes in degrees of natural development.

Where moral reasoning enters is in the following argument. If we accept that human beings are intrinsically valuable and deserving of full moral respect by virtue of what they are as humans (as opposed to what they either possess or achieve), does it not follow that they are intrinsically valuable from the point at which they come into being?

Paradoxically, it is the “pro-choice” position that violates the standards of public reason. A “right to choose” is only meaningful if we specify what we are in fact choosing. And human beings have no “right” to choose who should live and who should die. We can only take the life of another human being in self-defence or to protect another life from murder.

Moreover, in patriarchal societies, aren’t women’s choices often controlled by men? Why, then, should a woman’s choice be the only consideration when it comes to abortion, as argued by extreme feminists? (I say “extreme”- for want of a better word- because not all feminists agree with this view and it does not follow logically from feminist principles).

And, what if a mother chose to abort a female baby because males are more acceptable in her society? This is indeed the case in India, and Indian law now criminalises what it labels “female feticide”. This is, however, morally incoherent.  The worth of the unborn child lies no longer in her humanity but in her sex. Such a law discriminates against the unborn male child, assuming it to be less than fully human while the female child is intrinsically valuable.

Note: My arguments here have to do with the moral case against abortion. I accept that the legal issue is more complicated as it involves personal and social situations which vary from country to country and in which we have to balance the rights of the unborn child with other considerations. Although we may disagree about the legal solution (and I have dealt with this elsewhere), surely the moral worth of the unborn child can never be ignored or disputed by Rawls’ “reasonable” citizens. Abortion can also never be a “quick fix” that replaces sex education, access to reliable contraception, holding men accountable for pregnancies and providing economic help and psychological counselling to pregnant women who need them.

Now let’s return to the U.S elections next week. I cannot understand how any sensible person can want four more years of Trump/Pence. Admittedly, Biden is a pillar of the establishment and undistinguished as a politician despite many years in politics. Harris is an obvious token woman/minority figure.

But, fundamentalist Christians who are supporting Trump on the single-issue of restricting abortion (not global warming, racism, poverty, gun violence and the host of other national and global challenges) are doomed to be disappointed. They don’t appear to have learned from the way Republican candidates, from Reagan to Bush Jr., all claimed to be “born-again” around about election time and cynically manipulated the religious right with promises about abortion that they never kept.

To such sincere but utterly misguided folk, I say: Would it not be more reasonable to vote for a President who will work to restore civility and decency to American public life and with whom one can then engage in rational debate on abortion and every other moral question?

4 Responses to "Re-Visiting “Public Reason”"

Dear Vinoth, I am from Australia.
I wonder if you have ever heard of the very right wing self appointed Council For National Policy? It features all of the usual right wing suspects and groupings.
Check out the new book by Anne Nelson titled Shadow Network – Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. It is previewed on the Bill Moyers website.

No, I didn’t know about this. The linking of Big Mammon, Big Tech and the Religious Right is awful- and frightening. But I do think that Amy Barrat is unfairly vilified by so-called ‘progressives”. She seems a very intelligent, likeable and basically fair person and she may well surprise those on the right and the left.

Dear Vinoth,
A good proportion of Christians are willing to overlook Trump’s character in favor of his policies which lend support to Christian values (abortion etc.). This distinction between character and policy is ironic, especially coming from Christians. Because we cannot do the same for the God we worship. There is no such thing as God’s character which is different from his ‘public policy’. The very essence of God reaches out to all creation. The Old Testament also seems to distinguish clearly between God-fearing leaders (Moses, Daniel, David) and those who do not (Saul, Jeroboam) while also pointing out the mistakes of those who followed God (Moses, David, Hezekiah).

It is even more ironic because Joe Biden has pitched this election as a battle for the soul of America because Trump has brought the nation down a dark and divisive path. It is essentially a question of character, and therefore a Christian question. If Biden wins, it would be interpreted as a national judgement on Trump’s character and leadership. In other words, a largely non-Christian population would have judged Trump to have fallen short – while many Christians readily overlooked it. That is quite troubling to me.

I wonder if American Christians can claim to have set a model for Christians in other parts of the world when it comes to making choices in democratic processes.

You are right to feel troubled. The parts of the American church that you describe are an embarrassment to the cause of the Gospel in the US and worldwide. Yet they are the ones who market their products (books, videos, online theology courses) globally. The irony, apart from what you have pointed out, is that the people who offer to teach others “leadership” courses are very poor examples of leadership in their own societies. Which American leader, whether in politics, business, or the Church would we ever dream of following?

But you should also be troubled by the fact these products are swalowed wholesale by so many gullible Indians, Africans and others? Why is this?

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