Unreasonable People

by Benjamin Studebaker

Many of the popular theories of justice claim that all “reasonable people” in a given circumstance would rationally agree to them, and therefore they are just. Rawls, for instance, claims that all reasonable people can readily agree to Rawls’ principles of justice (in order of priority: everyone has as much liberty as possible without infringing on the liberty of others, all people have equal access to opportunities, and inequality is only justifiable provided that it benefits the worst off–“maximin”) because he thinks all reasonable people readily acknowledge that all people are free and equal. This leaves a question open–who are the unreasonable people? Racists, sexists, ethnocentric people, all of those are obviously unreasonable under this theory, but what about conservative theorists? Are they unreasonable, and, if so, what does that mean for theories of justice?

It’s easy to understand why racists are unreasonable for Rawls. A racist does not readily agree to equal liberty and equal opportunity because a racist thinks that some people, by virtue of superior racial background, deserve more of these things than other people. There is no logical argument for that position–it is an invalid assertion. So Rawls excludes racists from the group of people who justify his theory by agreeing with it. They are “unreasonable”. Where does this stop, however?

Let’s look at a theorist who disagrees with Rawls but is not an obviously unreasonable person by the Rawlsian analysis–Robert Nozick. Nozick believes that property rights are virtually inviolate. If you acquire wealth, you deserve that wealth, and no one is entitled to take it from you. Rawls’ theory calls for redistribution in order to ensure equality of opportunity and in order to ensure that inequality is only permitted when it benefits the worst off. Nozick has explicitly declared redistribution unjust because of how it violates property rights. Nozick does not agree with Rawls’ principles of justice, but Nozick is also not a racist or something similarly obvious, and there are a great many people who more or less agree with Nozick’s position–libertarians, neoliberals, the economic far right. Not only do some people agree with Nozick, but people who, to some degree, agree with Nozick, routinely win elections in democratic countries and enact policies that are, as far as Rawls is concerned, unjust.

By Rawls’ theory, the Nozickians are unreasonable people–they do not agree to Rawls’ principles of justice, and all reasonable people according to Rawls agree with these principles. Furthermore, Rawls’ first principle, the one that grants everyone equal liberty, is also usually read to mean equal voting rights–democracy. This means that Rawls’ first principle creates a political system that allows people whom Rawls would consider to be unreasonable to periodically take over the government and negate his equality principles. Furthermore, the values at the core of Nozick’s thought–traditional virtues like work ethic and the traditional theory of justice where people should receive what they earn–are propagated in society both by the very traditional religious institutions the Rawlsians are permitting and as a natural reaction of some people to having their property taken from them via taxes to serve a communal purpose with which they may not agree. The society that Rawls would construct leads inevitably to large numbers of people with the Nozickian belief.

Now, I have made this sound like a problem for the left, but it is also true that this is also an issue for the Nozickians, because the inequality generated by Nozick’s theory of justice inevitably rubs some people the wrong way and leads to the creation of Rawlsians, who win elections in democratic societies from time to time and, when they do so, negate the principles of Nozick’s theory of justice just as the Nozickians negate Rawls.

Now, these are only two theories of justice–there are many, but all of them experience this same problem in democracy. There is in reality no universal agreement among all “reasonable people” on what is just. These theories can exclude those who object to them from the category of “reasonable”, but it doesn’t seem to be helping them much, because it’s not as if those supposedly unreasonable people can’t vote.

So if you actually believe in a comprehensive theory of justice of any kind, democracy is inevitably going to fail you, it will inevitably produce a state that you think is unjust sooner or later when the “unreasonable” faction wins the election. This leaves us with a question–if justice is important (and surely it is extremely important), why have we universally embraced a political system that is justice-rejecting? The answer most theorists will give us is that it is too hard to get enough people to agree to a single conception, so we retreat from the question of what is just and instead agree to a fair procedure in which all views are given equal standing regardless of their beliefs.

I do not have a problem with that, I willingly recognise that not everyone will agree with Rawls or Nozick or anyone else, nor should they–a society in which everyone’s ethical position is identical is not a free-thinking, innovative society. However, most of the people voting in our democracies are not people who have rationally considered the question of what the just society looks like. Many of us inherit our beliefs about justice from our parents, or pick them up from wider societal cues based on what ethical ideas are dominant in the place in which we grow up. Some of us are influenced by propaganda, or intuitionist, emotion-based moral views. Very few of us have read any substantial amount of moral or political philosophy on the subject or are familiar with or able to dissect these arguments.

So perhaps the theorists have gotten the notion of “reasonable people” all wrong. Perhaps instead of reasonable people being almost everyone, it is in fact almost no one. And perhaps instead of looking for total agreement, we should seek the majority view of this small group. Suppose a group of theorists were to vote for one among them to lead for a time based on their thoughts about justice, to present the opportunity for this individual to implement a comprehensive theory of justice across wider society. The dissenters within this small group would be permitted their dissent, and if the results proved undesirable, perhaps at the next meeting of these minds one of them would be chosen instead. People who have thought about justice would have the opportunity to actually try to find it and make it happen, to convince others through the example of the results that their theories were the correct ones. For thousands of years, people have proposed theories of justice and we have gone back and forth criticising them on abstract, theoretical grounds, with so few opportunities to find out how they would play in the real world. If we excluded the obvious injustices from the opportunity to be part of the experiment–the silencing of dissent, of religious belief, the elimination of the basic liberties–would we not have better prospects as people than we have under the present system in which two or more people whose primary virtue is that they are relatively inoffensive, compete for the votes of everyone on the basis of factually and theoretically deficient emotional appeals? Surely such prospects are worth pursuing, and sophiarchism is worth considering.