Sunday, October 22, 2006

Procedural Liberalism

Violent activism and “direct action”, even if illegal, may appear to be justified in the fight against grave injustices. I wish to argue, on the contrary, that such political vigilantism is generally not justified in a liberal-democratic society. This view derives from procedural liberalism, according to which the metapolitical level of due process has primacy over one’s first-order, substantive political ends.* As citizens, our first loyalty must be to upholding the liberal-democratic institutional order. Consequently, if one is in a sufficiently just and responsive democratic system then one is obliged to work within this system, rather than undermining it through radical action for the purpose of coercively implementing one’s first-order objectives – no matter how important they may seem.
* = 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...]


  1. I would largely agree with what you have written. But in reality there are very few people on the left who prioritize the sort of vigilantism you mention. People generally don't want a violent confrontation, and what usually happens is that those in power provoke this kind of reaction. Take Native Land claims for instance. The govt. has been dragging its feet for 100 years in some cases. Every possible obstruction and obfuscation is used, and then when the Native People get fed up and engaged in an armed take-over, the papers shout about how unreasonable they are. The unwillingness of those in power to compromise, to engage in consensus politics then creates a natural situation where a minority arises that says “To Hell with process and legality.” Part of the problem is that we lack certain necessary democratic structures to allow for consensus. For example, if communities controlled their development and resources and if major decisions in this regard were decided by referendum or town meeting, there would be few confrontations over logging, Walmart etc. Once again, confrontations arise because the developers or higher levels of government are ignoring the wishes of the majority in a community.

  2. While so far ( and I must stress so far, at this stage a descent into full blown facism wouldn's suprise me now) we have seen very little political violence in the US I wonder if the current political degeneration there* can be pinned to a decline in respect for and traditions of procedural liberalism. Right now liberals are being called traitors for their opinions, both parties barely fig leaf their attempts to stack the courts and torture and the suspension of torture have been "legalized" assuming the laws won't be found unconstitutional. I'm at an age when I'm just starting to build up my political world view. Anyway could you recomend some books on procedural liberalism?

    *- Voter suppression, decline of secularism, shameless attempts to put ideological hacks on the courts, the transformation of "liberal" into a dirty word, demoagugery, the abscence of constructive political dialogue, the replacement of the complexities political and ethical thought with slogans like "Tough on crime", the public completely losing touch with reality ( let's deport however many million illegal immigrants it is back to their homeland and build an enormous wall on our Mexican border!) Pork barrelling, dodgy corporate lobbying, the removal of due process etc.

  3. Alex - I hope to draw a sharp distinction between citizens (i.e. de facto members of society that are rationally autonomous and hence both deserving and capable of taking part in collective decisions) and the rest.

    "Proxy votes for animals and fetuses" is thus a straightforwardly substantive issue. "Votes for criminals and the mentally ill" will depend on whether the former are still properly considered members of society, and whether the latter are rationally autonomous. (Let me also add that I think there's more to democracy than voting -- the most important part, to my mind, is the public debate that preceeds it. A fair voting procedure is certainly necessary, but by no means sufficient, for procedural justice.)

    Tim - I haven't read much of Rawls (my lecturers always focused on his first-order egalitarianism and "maximin" principle, which I never thought very highly of), but his Political Liberalism might have more of a meta-political focus (e.g. "public reason", "overlapping consensus", etc.)? There's a lot of stuff on deliberative democracy out there, which I think is probably better, e.g. Robert Goodin's Reflective Democracy. (I also recommend Peter Levine's blog, which you can find on my blogroll!) Though I'm still pretty new to this whole field and haven't read much myself yet, so would certainly welcome any further suggestions from others...

  4. Oops, I forgot to address Alex's other questions:

    "Should we aggregate votes, or use a random democratic procedure where a vote is picked out a hat at random?"

    I haven't come across Taurek before. Can you summarize the argument for the latter procedure? (Intuitively, it seems unmotivated...)

    "Should we tally the actual votes of voters, or how they might vote in idealised conditions?"

    How can you tally non-actual votes? It seems like the real procedure there would involve giving some person or group the power to decide political issues based on their judgment of what the ideal result would be. That doesn't seem actually democratic in the slightest!

    "What are the limits to what people can vote in? (can a bigoted majority vote to have a minority used as slaves?)"

    Well, they must not vote to undermine the process itself, e.g. by depriving others of their democratic rights (as slavery presumably would involve). But imposing any purely first-order limits would seem inappropriate here.

    Anyway, I guess your point here is more general, in that there are tough questions about what constitutes a just process. I certainly agree with that. But I don't think it undermines the distinction between first-order and meta-political (or procedural) issues. In principle, we should be able to settle the question of what makes a just process, without needing to determine what outcomes would be just.

  5. That's fine -- so long as we can still distinguish substantive procedural issues from substantive first-order ones, I don't see that there's any problem for my position here? There will be some outcomes that are precluded on procedural grounds (e.g. an outcome involving disenfranchisement or slavery). But then that's simply to show that they are not purely first-order issues. None of that implies that there isn't also a recognizable class of first-order issues that aren't settled by procedural questions alone.

  6. What about non-violent disregard for laws one disagrees with if willing to pay the penalty if caught? I'm thinking of pot smoking as an example.

    If that's ok then what about tax evasion?

    If the violent/non-violent distinction is what determines whether it is permissible to just ignore bad laws, then why is that the correct distinction?

    The social right and economic left both want to regulate non-violent acts by consenting adults so by excluding such conduct from your principle are you not partly begging the question?

  7. Nigel, I'm lost, what are you responding to here? I discuss non-violent lawbreaking in my post on civil disobedience, but merely being "willing to pay the penalty if caught" does not satisfy the publicity requirement! Note that non-violence alone does not suffice to make lawbreaking permissible on my view.

  8. I don't think there's anything procedural about bombing abortion clinics. I say that the rights of non-citizens is a purely first-order issue. My newer post Exploring Proceduralism might help clarify my position.

  9. Political agency is the ability to take part in civic politics, i.e. collective deliberation and decisions. Civic (or political) respect just is the respecting of political agency, through a commitment to deliberate together in good faith, etc. Note that this should not be confused with showing moral respect through one's political actions -- that's a wholly different thing. Of course we can - and perhaps should - show moral respect for non-citizens through our political actions. But that's a first order issue: it's about the outcomes we should reach, not the processes by which we should reach them.

    Now, it's just not possible to deliberate with non-agents, as civic respect entails. So it's not that fetuses etc. are "less worthy" of political respect. It's that the suggestion is logically incoherent -- a category mistake -- like showing political respect to the number 7.

    Politics, as I see it, is fundamentally about citizens coming together to make collective decisions about the ordering of society. This leads unavoidably to the claim that the "political circle" is restricted to citizens alone. No-one else is any fundamental part of the process (if they were, then they would - almost by definition - be citizens too). Now, direct action is justified to remedy the unjust exclusion of some citizens from the process. But that's all. So long as all citizens have the opportunity to deliberate together in good faith, nothing else matters to the procedural liberal (qua procedural liberal -- no doubt they will have their peculiar first-order preferences too).

    I guess there remain technical details about procedural substance, e.g. how to aggregate votes, etc. But I'm not much interested in that. Some options may be inconsistent with good faith, in which case they're already ruled out. And of the remainder, any is legitimate: it can be treated like a first-order issue. I don't understand exactly how your idea of "proxy votes" is meant to work, but I guess it would fit in here as a non-fundamental issue that's up for civic debate.

    So, to clarify, I see now that what's really central to my view is perhaps not "process" per se, but more particularly, civic respect.


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