The Ethics of Reasoning from Conjecture

In: Journal of Moral Philosophy

An important objection to political liberalism is that it provides no means by which to decide conflicts between public and non-public reasons. This article develops John Rawls’ idea of ‘reasoning from conjecture’ as one way to argue for a commitment to public reason. Reasoning from conjecture is a form of non-public justification that allows political liberals to reason from within the comprehensive views of at least some unreasonable citizens. After laying out the basic features of this form of non-public justification, this article responds to three objections based on concerns about insincerity, cultural imperialism, and the epistemic authority of those who reason from conjecture.

  • 5

    Rawls“Public Reason Revisited” p. 591.

  • 6

     See e.g. Andrew MarchIslam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for Overlapping Consensus (Oxford: Oxford University Press2009); Lucas Swaine “Demanding Deliberation: Political Liberalism and the Inclusion of Islam” Journal of Islamic Law and Culture 11 (2009) pp. 92-110; Joshua Cohen “Minimalism about Human Rights: The Most We Can Hope For?” Journal of Political Philosophy 12 (2004) pp. 190-213.

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  • 8

    Ibid. p. 592.

  • 9

    Ibid. p. 594.

  • 12

     See Thomas Nagel“Moral Conflict and Political Legitimacy,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 16 (1987) 215-240at p. 218.

  • 16

     See Rawls“Public Reason Revisited” pp. 578-79.

  • 21

    Ibid. p. 139. Gaus goes on to say in the next line: “Justifying your beliefs and principles to others does not involve simply giving others reasons they will accept but in some way advancing reasons you think are good reasons for them to accept.”

  • 23

    Robert Audi“The Separation of Church and State and the Obligations of Citizenship,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 18 (1989) 259-96at p. 282.

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  • 24

    Robert AudiReligious Convictions and Secular Reasons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press2000) p. 110.

  • 25

    Audi writes“[A]cknowledging that the relevant reasons do not motivate one might diminish whatever manipulative element the appeal to them implies.” See Robert Audi, “Religious Commitment and Secular Reason: A Reply to Professor Weithman,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 20 (1991) 66-7673.

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  • 26

    Audi“Religious Commitment and Secular Reason” p. 74.

  • 32

    Rawls“Public Reason Revisited” p. 590. He writes “The other [idea of toleration] is not purely political but expressed from within a religious or a nonreligious doctrine as when for example it was said above [on p. 590] that such are the limits God sets on our liberty. Saying this offers an example of what I call reasoning from conjecture.”

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  • 33

    Ibid. p. 590 n. 46.

  • 35

     See Khaled Abou El Fadl“The Place of Tolerance in Islam,” Boston Review (January 2002); Mohammed Fadel “The True the Good and the Reasonable: The Theological and Ethical Roots of Public Reason in Islamic Law” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 21 (2008): 5-69.

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  • 36

    Michael WalzerInterpretation and Social Criticism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press1987) p. 39 (original italics).

  • 38

    Abdullahi An-Na'im“The Rights of Women and International Law in the Muslim Context,” Whittier Law Review 9 (1987) 491-516at p. 501.

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  • 41

    GibbardWise Choices Apt Feelings (Oxford: Oxford University Press1990) p. 174. I should note here that Gibbard assumes that the speaker shares the norms of his audience. He writes “[A]uthority of this kind is contextual because it presupposes a context of shared norms” (p. 174 original emphasis). Gibbard does not consider the case of a speaker who claims contextual authority even though he does not share the norms of his audience. He refers instead to what he calls “Socratic influence.” This is when an audience does not accord the speaker authority but comes to accept what he or she says “not because the speaker accepts it but on the basis of things they were prone to accept anyway if they thought along certain lines … Socratic influence then can work by assertion so long as the assertions produce conviction solely by prodding listeners to work things out for themselves on the basis of what they already accept” (174). I do not know whether Gibbard would think of reasoning from conjecture as a form of contextual authority or Socratic influence. Perhaps it falls somewhere in between them. At any rate I have compared conjecture to contextual authority because they bear the structural resemblance of making moral demands based on reasoning from the audience’s perspective. Whether the audience accepts the speaker’s claim to contextual authority—that is whether it accepts that the conjecturer has reasoned properly from its perspective—is of course a separate issue and may well be a matter of contention.

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  • 43

    An-Na’im“Rights of Women” pp. 493 514.

  • 44

    Ibid. p. 515 (bracketed numbers added).

  • 45

    Joseph Raz“Morality as Interpretation,” Ethics 101 (1991) 392-405at p. 396.

  • 47

    GibbardWise Choices Apt Feelings p. 192.

  • 49

    As Stephen Macedo writes“Where, however, people disagree deeply about the way life should be lived, and in fact live very different lives reflecting these evaluative differences, it will be unreasonable to expect others to adopt our way of life in order for them to gain insight into the truths we believe that life discloses. Would we be willing to return the favor?” Stephen Macedo, “In Defense of Liberal Public Reason: Are Slavery and Abortion Hard Cases?” Natural Law and Public Reasoned. R.P. George and C. Wolfe (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press) pp. 11-50 at p. 26.

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