* = I mean this definition to be stipulative. Note that this is independent of the question whether justice is purely procedural or partly substantive. One might – and arguably should – agree that just procedures (e.g. fair criminal trials) can occasionally yield unjust results, yet prioritize the former nonetheless.
Our pluralistic society is home to various conflicting conceptions of the good. This raises the problem: “How is it possible that there may exist over time a stable and just society of free and equal citizens profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?” [Rawls, PL] In order to render the competing theories compatible in practice, we must place strict limits on their public influence. In particular, we must together construct a neutral political sphere, in which these disagreements can be played out peacefully through processes that secure the allegiance of all. A tolerant social contract is of course instrumentally rational for the less powerful groups, who might otherwise be crushed in an all-out battle for dominion. But what shall we say of the powerful? If they could impose their will successfully, to achieve what they believe to be good, why should they refrain? On the assumption that your moral views are correct, why tolerate pluralism at all? Isn’t this effectively to tolerate immorality?
These are hoary old questions. Locke pointed out that coercion cannot reach one’s innermost convictions, so attempts to purify souls or eliminate thought-crime would be in vain. Still, many moral doctrines remain that are concerned with outward behaviour and this-worldly consequences. Here we might better adopt a Millian theme, and defend a pluralism of ideas and experiments of living as the most reliable route to truth and value available to such fallible creatures as ourselves. Of course, one cannot tolerate absolutely everything, or society would soon fall apart. But the preconditions for civil society – including laws against unprovoked violence, and so forth – should prove agreeable to every reasonable political agent, no matter their personal moral views. Even if we disagree about how best to live, still there should be a broad consensus on the minimalistic question of how to live together, i.e. what must be done in order to construct a viable society. Further, we may hope to secure consensus on how to deal with persisting disagreements in a fair and legitimate way – say through a liberal-democratic process that includes public deliberation and the free exchange of reasons.
At this point we may identify two contrasting political ideals. The dogmatist approaches the political arena with pre-defined objectives, and aims simply to see these implemented. On this view, the public sphere is a battleground, and political opponents are the enemy. Their objections are seen as obstacles to be overcome; dissent is to be quashed. The fallibilist, by contrast, approaches the political arena with a more open mind. She may have firm opinions, but she is committed to the possibility of revising them in face of recalcitrant evidence. On this view, public debate is a collaborative endeavour, in which citizens work together towards the common goal of discerning and implementing the common good. Objections and disagreements offered in good faith are to be welcomed as potential learning opportunities in the disinterested pursuit of truth. Again, even fallibilists might well expect others’ objections to be misguided, but the crucial point is that they allow for the contrary possibility, and so are committed to the invitation and fair assessment of opposing reasons – and hence to the possibility of changing their mind.
Fallibilism strikes me as by far the more attractive position of the two. The respect it affords to one’s fellow citizens seems especially admirable. It is also the more epistemically responsible, since we are rarely if ever justified in holding beliefs with absolute certainty. Importantly, upon recognizing our own fallibility, we are arguably obliged to continue moral inquiry and the challenging of our existing views – for it would be most irresponsible to coercively impose our views on others without first taking due care to ensure that we were not mistaken. We should thus seek to establish institutions for guiding political action, which can be recognized in the abstract – without presupposing any particular first-order views – as following reliable procedures for inquiry. The instituted process should, for instance, be responsive to reasons and as unbiased as possible. Given the deeply non-ideal nature of actual reality, it may be that democratic deliberation is the best available option. Without delving into any empirical details, I will simply assume that the admittedly sub-optimal procedures of Western liberal-democratic societies come close enough for our purposes.
This assumption is contestable, so let me offer a brief sketch of what to say if it turns out to be false – i.e. if our current political system is thoroughly corrupted and unreliable (as is plausibly the case for many countries in the developing world). In this case, I suggest that a citizen’s first priority must be the institution of an adequate political process. This may require, and hence justify, full-scale revolution. Procedural liberals should support this, so long as the revolution isn’t used to push in substantive first-order policies by radical (extra-procedural) means. Just institutions must be established first, and then any first-order proposals channeled through them. [If circumstances render this ideal impractical, say during a chaotic transition period, it could be approximated by imposing radical edicts of merely temporary duration that would be subject to procedural oversight and revision at the first available opportunity.]
I should emphasize that the concern here isn’t with legality per se. If a tyrant has the power to pass any laws they want, unbounded by procedural “checks and balances”, this still counts as ‘radicalism’ – in opposition to ‘liberalism’ – as I am using the terms. Also, note that democratic formalities may prove insufficient for procedural justice, if dissent is silenced in practice. Again, procedural liberals could consistently support the replacement of unjust procedures, even by force if necessary. So, assuming they succeed in setting up a legitimate system, we can now return to the question of whether it’s ever justifiable to violate it.
[To be continued...]