Mansfield Fox

Law student. Yankees fan. Massive fraggle. Just living the American dream.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Catholicism and Public Reason

So in Catholic Social Teaching on Monday, we discussed (inter alia) the subject of public reason (see also) and whether or not Catholic social teaching comports with it. Our conclusions - as always in law school - were somewhat indeterminate.

As the conversation progressed on this subject, I was struck by a growing sense that the real question was, "Who cares?"* By which I mean: public reason seems to me clearly a distinctively Liberal concept. Rawls proposes it as a device for helping a Liberal polity determine when it can or cannot make use of its coercive powers. But of course, Catholicism isn't a form of Liberalism. It's a separate, rival metaphysical system, one that lacks many of Liberalism's hang-ups about the use of the state's coercive powers. If Catholicism rejects Liberal anthropology, metaphysics, etc, why should it consider itself bound by Liberalism's public debate ethics, except insofar as doing so is practically useful for persuading non-Catholics that Her side should carry the day?

Which brings up the second "Who cares?" point: given that even in the United States - I think unquestionably the world's most Liberal country - the actual commitment of the populace to the strictures of public reason is basically paper-thin, is there any point in tailoring our arguments so they constitute valid public reasons? Take the gay marriage debate. I think there are arguments against gay marriage that satisfy the requirements of public reason, but I think it's clear that the most persuasive** argument, the one that actually gets the man on the street to vote for the state constitutional amendments, is the argument that gay marriage is somehow an affront to the "sanctity of marriage". Which, whatever it's degree of persuasiveness or truth, surely isn't a public reason, since it makes a pretty explicit and specific supernatural claim. And yet, it largely carries the day. The marketplace of ideas seems to impose little if any penalty on non-public reasons, so there doesn't seem to be much of a practical value for Catholics to adopt this mode of argument.

*And in a different sense than I ask "Who cares?" about all my other law school classes. This question actually signifies engagement with the material, rather than resigned acceptance of the pointlessness of the legal-education enterprise.
**My evidence? This is the argument that the politicians (as opposed to the National Review columnists) keep making.