The Role of Public Reason in the clash between LGBT advocates and true believers

Typically, we assume that our character traits must be consistent across all aspects of our lives. A devoted partner is also a loyal employee. The same person must also be a dedicated pet owner and a steadfast patron to their favorite establishments. In the real world, this is not how it works. We are not consistent across all domains. We are all “hypocrites”.

Often times we watch people in the spotlight fail to be “consistent”. Politicians that espouse religious doctrines find themselves caught in the crossfire when they violate a sacred doctrine. Their opponents eagerly tear down the “façade” while denouncing the perpetrator as a hypocrite. This approach is misguided since we are not the perfect wholes that we imagine.

Rather than consider these character inconsistencies as a weakness, Libby Newman believes this is what allows us to engage and cooperate with greater society. Newman explores how we can harness cognitive dissonance, or “domain-differentiation”, and use it as a tool to teach public reason. The pedagogy of public reason requires at least a dispositional commitment to engage with others different from yourself in order to find common ground. This discourse requires a foundation of civic friendship or mutual goodwill” (97). Newman considers the skills of civility, sincerity, and patience as necessary conditions for exercising public reason (95).

Our nuances of character allow us to push beyond a single doctrine in order to find this common ground. Newman believes that through domain-differentiation, we are able to include “true believers”, who often find themselves marginalized in our pluralistic society. True believers can preserve their worldviews while actively engaging in the political process[1]

I thought it was interesting how Welton says that some worldviews can only be described in faith-based terms.  Also, he mentions the boundary between secularism and religion is violated depending on if the society is pre or post-Enlightenment.


As she discusses liberalism and its justification, Newman reminds us of the role of “true believers” in a democratic society. She challenges us to embrace these sectors of society and not dismiss them as remainders whose beliefs cannot be incorporated into our system. In this sense, she builds upon and deviates from the work done by Rawles and Honig (15).

As a proponent of liberalism, she also reminds us that the true believers are not the only ones unwilling to compromise.

“Secularism has its own true believers – those unwilling to compromise with citizens of faith whose processes of ethical judgment they regard as little more than superstition. There is no monopoly on intransigence!” (21).

By engaging with persons of faith, we make our liberal society stronger, including members most prone to be excluded (27).

This exchange of ideas can sometimes be contentious, but this is okay. A tranquil society is not a success sign of liberalism, and possibly indicates the breakdown of democracy, and the path towards suppression and despotism. “Public reason welcomes moral argumentation as the basis for identifying shared values. It offers the possibility of more productive conflicts, rather than the elimination of conflict” [emphasis added] (17). Public reason is “consensus seeking”, not “consensus establishing” (77).

Libby also follows the lead of O’Neill who seeks the “possible consent of actual agents” as justification for liberalism and as a corollary for the pedagogy of public reason (32). This third road is an alternative to the empirical public justification and normative public justification which both are insufficient on their own (xvi) and eventually self-defeating (xvii).

To find “possible consent”, citizens must be trained and institutions must be formed. This implies an obligation for both the State and citizen. Citizens must be “active” agents in society. Institutions must be designed so that citizens can “offer or refuse consent” of the current arrangements. In essence, these institutions are helping citizens develop the “wherewithal” of public reason. Ultimately, these citizens are then later able to reason away the existence of the very same institutions that “developed” these skills (32). The cultivation process of “wherewithal” or “public reason” is an active one, which is not always in the best interests of the institutions that foster them (40).

As a premise for the pedagogy of public reason, we must assume that “people are the basic units of deliberation and responsibility”, even though this is not universally seen as a truth (37). The role of the State and its institutions is to create a favorable environment to encourage the development and continuation of the use of public reason (42).

Newman finds support for character domain-differentiation in all subfields of psychology, minus from personality psychologists (Chapter 3). We commit the fundamental attribution error when we express ourselves using “global” characteristic traits (46).

Ie: Mark donates a lot of money to build a new cathedral. Mark must be a generous and charitable man. When Mark’s child asks him to fund his missionary trip, Mark refuses.

Mark may be hypocritical, but this is the usual conclusion if we view character traits as existing in purely “global” terms. It would be most accurate to describe our character in situational terms using “…if…then..” scenarios (59). Furthermore, most individuals cannot “fully integrate” their moral character without assuming extreme costs that would be unbearable for most (69).

Newman also considers other researchers who take an agnostic approach towards character and virtues. Scholars like Vranas (2005) “suggest that people are neither good nor bad, but morally indeterminate, that is, capable of great harm or good, depending on the situation” (51). In addition, character and virtues are always evolving. “Both co-regulation and moral network theory suggest that development involves interaction  between internal and external forces in our lives – it is neither the case that we are independent of our surroundings, nor that we are completely determined by them (see also Johnson 1993, 134). Rather, through networks and feedback loops, we create information and settle upon commitments that are unique consequences of particular interactions and experiences” (55).

We also change depending on our environment, the places where we are and the people who surround us. Lev Vygotsky paints this phenomenon in a positive light, calling is the “zone of proximal development” (56). Vygostky shows how we can perform better when surrounded by individuals with stronger skills in a given area, even if this exposure is short-term.

To further complicate the analysis, individual construal is also necessary to comprehend our world (61). Each one of us derives different points from the same situation, fixating on some, while ignoring or forgetting others. This process is supported by our previous experience.

Our first moral code is adopted without conscious thought (73). This includes all methods of thinking, even if not considered “religious”. However, the pedagogy of public reason helps us challenge this initial foundation, ultimately to build a stronger structure (our ability to reason). At a minimum, it helps us better understand those with contrasting views.

As a prerequisite of compromise, there must be a least some shared criteria. When we cannot think beyond our own ideas and listen to contrary ones, our “moral utterances are little more than statements of unfounded preference. Attempts to dress up these utterances as appeals to objective moral standards are merely manipulative efforts to induce others to share our unfounded preferences” (quote of Alasadir MacIntyre on page 73).

Commitment to public reason is essential for the development of a vibrant, liberal society. Newman traces Rawls’ argument for how instrumental commitment becomes principled commitment. Once actors realize liberalism can be used to their advantage, they become stakeholders in the system. Their initial self-motivated commitment matures to a principled commitment, believing in public reason as an end to its own. This is similar to Adam’s Smith argument of the invisible hand establishing temporary equilibriums to balance actions, desires, and resources.

Newman does not think we should expect all members in society to adopt a principled commitment to public reason. This is where she suggests an intermediary step between simple instrumental commitment and principled commitment. Newman calls this dispositional commitment.

“A dispositional commitment allows individuals to adopt the habits of public reason in a way that grants the everyday benefits of social cooperation and political deliberation (beyond simple political entrée and power) without requiring a larger dogmatic commitment to public reason” (78). Sometimes promoting dispositional commitments to public reason may be our best bet. It certainly is when there is a risk of excluding “true believers” (79).

Newman offers this alternative even though the “integralist position” of true believers may be exaggerated (82). Efforts to integrate character traits and moral values across all domains run up against limits, an important one being the differentiated nature of our minds (86). Another limit is the principal of noncontradiction, which we must accept if we settle on an integralist position instead of domain-differentiation.

In a separate post, I will use a specific contention point to highlight the need for public reason in contemporary society. The recent Scotus decision from the Supreme Court was seen as the victory for the LGBT movement over religious conservative groups. I argue now that there is a danger for the LGBT movement to push too hard and in effect violate the religious liberties of others. What the LGBT community needs to do now is step back and redefine itself.

I next will predict an eventual schism within the LGBT community. This fault line will occur between the “hardliners” and the younger generation who seeks complete integration into larger society. Younger members seek not just the advantages of marriage, but also its obligations. They will be worried about the image they portray to society. Most importantly, they will seek to distinguish the “right to marry” from “sexual liberty”.  Eventually this will mean the demise of symbols such as the rainbow flag and organizations that have exclusively LGBT objectives.

This post appears here.

Libby Newman’s book is Liberalism in Practice the Psychology and Pedagogy of Public Reason. Here is the summary from the MIT Press. I was also very fortunate to have Newman as a professor as the University of Pittsburgh in 2009.

[1] Michael Welton's article on Jurgen Habermas discusses how some worldviews can only be described in faith-based terms.  Habermas considers this an undue burden on religious communities in post-Enlightenment societies.  In pre-Enlightenment societies, it is the secularists that are unduly burdened by having to express their findings in non-secular terms.

Specialization and the Lost Art of Public Reason

In order to teach public reason, students should have an engaging classroom experience. They should have to defend their views and learn to master multiple domains.

Cláudio Amir Dalbosco argues that the increased specialization and “technification” of our curriculums are making students think less about the collective experience, social cooperation, common good, and public defense.   Even though we need students with this type of training, it does not serve our society well if it does not have a solid base in the social sciences. With a purely technical educational training, graduates are not necessarily taught solidarity and are unable to find common ground with others from different backgrounds. The lack of critical thinking and imaginative skills can effectively prevent them from becoming good “universal citizens”. In this critique, I will consider “universal students” in a national context (United States).

Without the ability to critically analyze their surroundings, there is a regression to the average (pressão do pares) and the blind submission to authority (submissão cega à autoridade). Dalbosco considers these two obstacles for a functioning democracy. Their absence eventually lead to the incapacity to think and the lack of responsibility to act.

As we seek consensus through productive conflicts, we learn public reason through a dispositional or principled commitment. This result is not a luxury, but rather a necessity for a democratic society. As we debate, we learn of our own vulnerability no matter how well learned we are in a given area. As Socrates stated “the only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing”. This realization puts in check our own arrogance and diminishes the probability of an individual seeking an authoritarian resolution.

Dalbosco says this skill can be learned through a “cosmopolitan” education. This is similar to Newman’s idea of an education that teaches “public reason”. Dalbosco thinks that the lessons learned from a cosmopolitan education and challenge doctrines from traditional education which are based on the idea that a good citizen blindly obeys traditions and prefers unconditional subordination to critical examination and debate.

To be fair, some of the main ideas from both authors also have major divergences. This is mostly due to their backgrounds. The “cosmopolitan” education is mainly highlights the goal for Brazilians to be globally conscious. As expected, there is added emphasis on foreign language acquisition alongside pragmatism. This is what makes Brazilians natural arbitrators in the geopolitical arena.

One novelty that Dalbosco discusses is an additional advantage of language learning and translation. This is the humbling experience one has when translating from one language to another. The more you know, the more you question, the more you hesitate, and in turn, the more nuanced your answers. This leads to a greater respect for the language learning process.

These ideas will be explored in more depth here.

English version: College Education and the challenges of shaping for a democratic citizenship

O texto em português: Educação superior e os desafios da formação para a cidadania democrática


One response to “The Role of Public Reason in the clash between LGBT advocates and true believers

  1. Pingback: Alienating and Marginalizing Evangelicals and “True Believers”: nuancing the LGBT argument and reaching its natural limits | peterabraldes

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