The Tragedy of Truth

The following is a somewhat sketchy, programmatic attempt to combine some of my central beliefs about liberalism into a coherent whole. 

There are truths, I presume, in politics about what we ought to do. That is, there are certain ways how we ought to design our societies, how we should distribute rights, duties, resources and opportunities across people, which types of actions and behaviours we should prohibit and which permit, and so on; and these facts are so, to a large degree no matter whether we believe or desire them to be so, or whether many people believe them to be so, or whether democratic majorities decide them to be so.

Finding out these truths is difficult. What policies we ought to implement depends on a variety of normative and empirical facts which are hard to know, and the interaction of which is difficult and non-trivial. This reveals the first tragedy of truth in politics: we might fail to be right. We might find out that our societies have been deeply unjust and repugnant. When we look back at the patterns of sexist, racist, colonialist (etc.) injustices of almost all past societies, then we might even come to the shattering conclusion that our current way of organising our society is also highly likely to be unjust in some way, even if we do not know precisely how. This is the tragedy of truth for any non-relative view, any view which allows for the normative truth to seriously deviate from our current beliefs and conventions.

The Tragedy of Truth

But this is not even the main tragedy of truth. The other tragedy, the one I’ll be concerned with, is that there is no agreement on the truth. As so many recent political theory emphasises, politics happens under conditions of deep, lasting and serious disagreement. Even if we’re right, almost all political choices will turn out to be mistaken or unjust from someone’s point of view. So committing injustice is inevitable—in the sense that we’re committing injustice from someone’s point of view.

Disagreement exists of course in almost any field of human inquiry to various degrees. But I take it that there is a particular tragedy of truth in politics. Politics, in the sense relevant to us, is the realm of rules and social conventions which (i) are shared, (ii) govern all of us, and (iii) are enforced, or in some other way intricately linked to the exercise of political power. The last point is normally taken to be the important one. Political norms are enforced against dissenters, ultimately with force. This makes it particularly tragic if we cannot agree on their content.

Rejecting Tragedy

There are several unconvincing responses to the tragedy of truth. First, you might show yourself utterly unconcerned with the disagreements of others: what you ought to do, you might claim, is to uncompromisingly pursue the truth in all cases. If you think libertarianism is right, you should seek to bring about a libertarian society; if egalitarianism is right, an egalitarian society; and so on. This hard-nosed response is a philosophical strawman as I’ll argue in a moment, and I will suggest various ways in which we should respond to the disagreement of others.

Second, you might deny that the tragedy of truth exists, or you might try to talk down its scope. For example, you might insist that all the “reasonable” people share a core set of liberal beliefs, while more radical disagreements necessarily involve one party being “unreasonable”. For reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere, I do not find this at all a promising attempt. Roughly, there are reasonable libertarians, socialists, anarcho-capitalists, utilitarians, nationalists, globalists, … such that the tragedy of truth becomes unavoidable. Many liberals try to avoid the dilemma by stipulating a gerrymandered notion of “reasonable”, but these attempts at best relocate the problem.

Third, you might suggest that there is a libertarian or anarchist solution to the problem: where we face significant and reasonable disagreements, we should abstain from making any political choices at all. But this isn’t a solution to the tragedy of truth at all, because inactivity, or sticking with the status quo, is also unjust from someone’s point of view. In short, there is no morally neutral baseline we can fall back on in the face of the tragedy of truth.

A fourth response is to deny that there is truth in politics, and fall back on some type of relativism. This is a heavy price to pay for solving a moral dilemma. At any rate, it’s not even clear that relativism solves the problem, rather than restating it in some other way—the dilemma remains that every political choice is disagreeable to someone, where we read “disagreeable” in a more relativist sense. (So “tragedy of truth” might be a bit of a misnomer.)

Accepting Tragedy

Thus, I believe liberals—like everyone else—should accept that we face the tragedy of truth: that often, perhaps always, some people will disagree with our political choices, and often reasonably so (at least relative to any non-gerrymandered sense of “reasonable”). Whichever way we design our societies—including anarchy—some people will think it deeply unjust and repugnant.

So-called political liberalism is normally taken to be the claim that political institutions which are reasonably rejectable by some are necessarily wrong. If we read political liberalism that way, then it entails that we reliably face inevitable moral dilemmas, that is, situations in which we cannot avoid acting wrongly. The libertarian reasonably rejects socialist institutions; the socialist reasonably rejects the libertarian minimal state; either choice wrongs one of the two.

Perhaps some theorists will be happy to stomach the result that under many circumstances whatever political choice we make—again, including anarchism—is wrong. But I take it that most would reject this as an implausible result which reduces the position ad absurdum.

Modifying Political Liberalism

But there’s a weaker reading which avoids this implication. We sometimes face cases where we could either (i) act in ways that all (reasonable) people could agree with, or (ii) act in some other way which is superior from our point of view, but which not all (reasonable) people could agree with. According to the weaker reading of political liberalism, in such cases we should prefer (i) over (ii), or at least there is a serious presumption in favour of (i) over (ii). This claim acknowledges the tragedy of truth, while still giving a strong sense to the idea that imposing your beliefs is wrong.

(As a comparison, you might have a view which always forbids killing. But if there are situations where you cannot avoid killing, this commits you to the existence of moral dilemmas. So a more cautious formulation would suggest that it is wrong to kill if you can avoid it.)

In a slogan, political liberalism claims that it is wrong to impose your beliefs on others, at least where we can do so. I think the extent of situations where we can avoid doing so is quite small—acting in nonjustifiable ways is different from killing in this respect—but let’s put the issue aside. It’s clear that political liberalism is a distinct, and initially somewhat appealing, idea. There is something intuitive to the idea that we should act in ways that others could not reasonably reject.

Imposing Your Beliefs

Let’s move on to the idea of “imposing” one’s beliefs. Some misunderstandings must be avoided. First, if a liberal rules over a socialist and “imposes” their beliefs, this might give the misleading impression that the liberal literally forces the socialist to have certain beliefs. But this is not, of course, normally the case. What the liberal imposes on the socialist is a system of political institutions which implements her beliefs, and “imposing a belief” is shorthand for this more complicated relationship.

Second, paradigm cases of “imposing” one’s beliefs are cases of paternalist, moralistic or perfectionist policies—e.g., where the outdated sexual morals of a majority are imposed on a minority. Standard liberalism since Locke and Kant is quick to claim that these types of state interference are illegitimate. Instead, liberalism offers the vision of a moral universe in which each individual has a separate sphere of freedom in which they are free to do as they see fit. Liberalism thus opposes the claim that a societal consensus should be imposed on people in a wide variety of areas, such as their religious, cultural, sexual, social (etc.) choices.

But this is not the sense of “imposing one’s beliefs” which is currently at issue. The liberal—conservative debate is (roughly) a first-order political debate about the correct way to draw the scope of permissible state intervention—e.g., which way to draw the boundary between “public” and “private”, or whether certain types of perfectionist intervention are permissible. Liberals wish to draw narrow boundaries for permissible state intervention in this respect, while conservatives favour wider boundaries.

Our question, however, is a higher-order question, regarding imposing the liberal framework itself on non-liberals. (The debate doesn’t need to be framed as liberals vs non-liberals; the question might also concern imposing different types of liberal framework.)

As an example, a conservative might believe that the state should impose cultural and religious beliefs—e.g., make them part of the educational curriculum in public schools. Liberals insist on political rules which prohibit those policies. But while liberals resist belief-imposition in this sense, in the primary sense important to us liberals are imposing the liberal framework on the conservative.

To anticipate some of the later argument, I don’t think there is any terrible inconsistency involved in this combination of views. Liberals believe, on the one hand, that people’s autonomy and independence ought to be protected, but they are uncompromising in defending these values against those who wish to interfere. Opposing the imposition of religious and other beliefs does not commit us to any particular view regarding the more general sense of imposing one’s belief here at issue. Indeed, I suspect, much of the appeal of political liberalism rests on illegitimately transposing legitimate concerns from imposing one’s belief in the sense just discussed to the sense at issue. But I digress.

Here’s the main question then: is imposing one’s political beliefs always (or normally) wrong in cases where one can avoid doing so? The language of “imposing” already suggests, of course, that the answer is yes. A more neutral framing of the question would thus be whether it is always wrong to act on one’s non-shared political beliefs, that is, beliefs that other (reasonable) people disagree with concerning how our social order ought to be organised.

I’ll stick to the more radical formulation of “imposing” beliefs. I think that it is not always wrong to impose your beliefs. More controversially, it strikes me that there is not even a strong moral presumption against imposing your beliefs (in the sense described!), and that you even sometimes have a duty to do so.

Reasons not to Impose your Beliefs

I’ll start by describing various reasons—or rather, general sets of reasons—not to impose one’s beliefs on other people in cases of disagreement. The upshot of this section is to highlight some obvious ways in which we should accommodate the disagreements of others, and why simple, dogmatic demands for truth in politics—“the truth but nothing the truth!”—are usually mistaken.

Epistemic Reasons

Disagreement calls, first and foremost, for an epistemic response. As I have highlighted in a previous post, the fact that other people disagree with us on the merits of various policy proposals should lead us to significant doubts regarding the truth of our own political beliefs, especially if they demand particularly radical reorganisations of our society. Our political views are apt to be subject to various kinds of biases, especially self-serving bias: it is hard to see the political truth clearly and impartially. Many political beliefs will turn out to be rationalizations of our own self-interest. Moreover, our empathy and understanding for the injustices suffered by others is often radically limited. And even if we assumed that we could be more impartial, implementing the right policies also relies on hard-to-obtain empirical knowledge from the social sciences.

All this should lead you to be more cautious in your beliefs about justice. There is much more reason to be sceptical about our own political views than political philosophers generally recognise, I believe. So there are various points where you shouldn’t insist on the truth (as you see it), simply because you don’t have a particularly firm grip on what it is. But the scepticism demanded of us also has its limits. Even more sceptical, “moderated” libertarians and egalitarians will continue to hold deeply divergent views about justice, and there is no way to organise our society in ways which satisfies both.

Practical Reasons

A second response to the fact of deep disagreement are a host of practical responses. Philosophers like to talk about “disagreement”, which makes it sound like an academic dispute found in the seminar room. But disagreements are the more epistemic side of fundamental practical conflicts between people, reflected in conflicting interests, emotions, and actions. At their most extreme, these “disagreements” show themselves through deep-seated animosities, violence, and war.

From this background, we should take disagreements seriously because hopes to implement our own political views without the acceptance, or at least acquiescence, of many other people is impossible. Or more precisely, the moral costs of imposing our own view are often so high that, from the point of that view itself, we shouldn’t impose it even if we’re fully confident of its truth.

This means that, for purely practical reasons, we should seek to enter a modus vivendi with most other people. We should regulate our interactions with them according to a shared system of rules, and accept those rules even if we think they are not perfectly just, and even if we think they are moderately unjust in many cases—simply because the alternative is worse.

This is the purely practical reason why we should not generally insist on the truth. In modern, liberal, rich, largely pacified societies, it indeed seems that the long-term benefits of working together through a shared legal, democratic system outweigh any benefits of deviating from it. There is a broadly liberal consensus in most Western societies, even if there is vicious disagreement about the details of designing the liberal order. For most practical purposes, we can trust this system—of making rules through majority rule and by “public reason”, rather than by direct appeal to truths about justice—to deliver moderately decent results.

While I’ve called this set of reasons “practical”, we should thus not underestimate their strength and wide range. Indeed, I think that practical reasons can explain a large amount of the appeal of political liberalism. Paradoxically, avoiding a direct appeal to the truth in politics—or at least, deep, foundational, controversial truths—is often a good way to realise your favoured liberal ideas in the long run. (Compare this to the situation of the sophisticated consequentialist who follows Kantian morality in every-day life, as she believes following those rules to maximize utility in the long run.)

It is tempting to elevate this practical mind-set of avoiding appeals to the truth to a more fundamental moral principle. But this would be a mistake—as if the sophisticated consequentialist over time came to confuse deontological rules for genuine ground-level commitments of morality.

Personal Reasons

So we have some derivative moral reasons to accommodate the disagreements of others. But there also some non-derivative moral reasons to do so. A first set of such reasons I’ll call personal reasons. What I have in mind are cases where I have some special, personal relationship with the people I would impose on.

Let’s start with an anecdote. An acquaintance of mine worked in a German nursing home, where he struck a friendship with one of its inhabitants, whom we can call Hans. Hans repeatedly asked whether they could sing the Horst-Wessel-Lied, the Nazi party anthem, before bedtime. There are lots of reasons not to sing the anthem. But my friend knew what singing the anthem meant to Hans, about whom he cared deeply. He eventually agreed to sing it, on the condition that they also sing the socialist fighting song “The Internationale”.

Put otherwise, there were personal reasons to ignore otherwise perfectly good first-order reasons not to sing the Horst-Wessel-Lied. In some situations, we care more—and perhaps should care more—about finding a rule which others can agree with, rather than getting the rule itself right.

Could there be an equivalent of this situation in the political realm such that personal bonds permit us to accommodate the beliefs of others, even though we think their beliefs wrong-headed and even repugnant? Perhaps we can imagine this to be the case for small and tight-knit societies. In such societies, it might be more important that we do things in some collectively unanimous way, rather than trying to “get things right”.

But even if such personal reasons exist in some cases, they do not give us a general reason not to impose our beliefs on others. Indeed, as soon as the interests of third parties are concerned, it is not clear whether we’re still permitted to prioritise personal reasons. Assume that singing the Horst-Wessel-Lied will be overheard by a neighbour, a Nazi victim, to whom hearing the song is deeply disturbing. It seems that in this case it would be wrong to sing the Horst-Wessel-Lied, or at least it would be wrong to give unquestioned priority to the importance of friendship with Hans.

Moral Reasons

There is a fourth set of reasons to accommodate disagreement which are already acknowledged in many legal systems. I’m thinking here of rights that liberals tend to assign to outsiders, objectors and minorities.

Think of the right of conscientious objectors. We think that such objectors shouldn’t be required to serve in the military, even if we think that such military service would be required of them as a matter of fairness, that there is an underlying communal duty to serve, that the war we fight is important and just—in short: even if we think the objectors to be mistaken in their moral beliefs. So we allow individuals to opt out of (what we think) a genuine requirement.

Historically, these types of exceptions tend to cluster around religious minorities. It is unlikely to think that these types of exceptions have their origin in merely practical considerations (though many could be explained that way). Rather, many of these exceptions are based on the elusive idea of a right to “conscience”: that forcing people to act against their conscience, even where their conscience is based on mistaken moral beliefs, would be a horrible wrong done to independent, autonomous individuals. It is on this distinctly moral basis that we should allow conscientious objectors to avoid military service.

The larger point in our context is that our political theory might itself have various objections to imposing our beliefs on others, and this is true of liberalism in particular. However, the mileage we get out of this strategy is limited. That is, even if one accepts these common-sensical restrictions on “imposing” your beliefs (which I do), they do not get you to any type of general moral requirement not to impose your beliefs.

Let’s note some relevant limitations. First, in the cases of conscientious objections considered here it’s unclear whether we care about the disagreement itself, or rather the effect that acting against the disagreement has on the individual. We care about the autonomy, or (non-)alienation, or well-being of the individual. But then it’s not the disagreement itself which we care about.

I suspect that we allow these types of opt-out cases only because (i) they concern a tiny sliver of dissenting individuals, (ii) who would be greatly taken aback by having a certain collective rule enforced on them, (iii) a rule which is generally taken to involve “high stakes” for the individual, and (iv) where the costs of granting those individuals opt-outs are negligible (e.g., there are enough other soldiers).

These rules, then, are rather narrow in their scope of application. They do not amount to a moral requirement to systematically accommodate any disagreeing opinion, but are more plausibly seen as ways to blunt some of the sharpest edges of having a shared system of rules.

No General Duty to Accommodate

Let’s take these reasons to accommodate the disagreement of others together. If we encounter the political (as opposed to social, religious, etc.) disagreements of others, then we should often not insist on the truth, for various epistemic, practical and moral reasons. So we should often acquiesce to rules, conventions and institutions we disagree with, and we should abstain from enforcing rules against others even if we think they have mistaken moral beliefs.

But while these responses go a long way towards a general strategy of accommodating the disagreement of others, they don’t go all the way. It remains possible that sometimes we should impose our beliefs on others—that we sometimes ought to act decisively in the face of the tragedy of truth. What precisely the set of situations are in which we should do so is a difficult question, and one which needs to be filled in by a much more substantive theory.

Political Liberalism

We can now turn to “political” or “justificatory” liberalism, or rather, the family of views described by that label. As outlined, I think an underlying idea which is shared by almost all political liberals is that it is wrong to impose your beliefs on others—at least on reasonable others—that is, to act in ways that they could not “reasonably accept”. So this is a view which, in some central sense, requires us to accommodate the beliefs of others. Even if this wouldn’t cover the whole range of disagreements—racist, sexist (etc.) interlocutors would still be beyond the pale—it would amount to a much more general moral requirement not to impose our beliefs on others.

There are several ways to criticize political liberalism. One is to argue that the supposed dividing line between reasonable and unreasonable disagreements cannot be drawn in a way that isn’t (i) gerrymandered, and (ii) delivers the kind of results which political liberals usually want from the notion. Without going into detail, clearing this first hurdle is surprisingly difficult, and I do not think it can be done convincingly.

A second line of objection which I’ll also not pursue is that political liberalism must also, at some fundamental point, insist on its own truth. Political liberals claim that we ought not to impose our beliefs in certain cases, while perfectionist liberals will demand that we do, perhaps even that justice requires us to do so. In those cases, political liberalism cannot avoid to insist on its own truth—remember that no appeal to a neutral “baseline” is available.

I think both these problems are damning, and undermine whatever appeal there is to the position. Besides that, let me mention some other reasons to be sceptical of political liberalism’s moral appeal which are less commonly noticed.

Bait and Switch

A first suspicion is that political liberalism is in many respects a bait-and-switch operation. That is, its central ideas and concepts are easily confused for other ideas with much greater appeal.

Some of these confusions I have previously outlined. First, liberals are against imposing their beliefs in many other realms—such as religion or sexual morality. But even though liberals are for these kinds of first-order neutrality, nothing thereby commits them to the higher-order neutrality that political liberalism demands. Second, I have claimed that we are used to various practical reasons to accommodate the disagreements of others; that it is useful to have a “neutralist” mind-set in politics. This is easily elevated to a more fundamental commitment. Third, I acknowledged that there are various scope-restricted principles which ask us to accommodate disagreements in some cases. It’s easy to invalidly stipulate from these cases to a more general prohibition on imposing one’s beliefs.

In other words, there are several convincing moral grounds why we might care about disagreements which it is then natural to mistake for a more general moral requirement. But I think that nothing, on closer inspection, supports this inference. The same point applies to much of the rhetoric of political liberalism which I’ll note in passing. Take the demand that political institutions be “justified to” everyone. There are many ways to read this demand which are morally convincing, but perfectly compatible with denying political liberalism.

First, you might accept that political institutions should be justified to people in a broadly Hobbesian, self-interested way: everyone ought to benefit in some way from them, relative to some sense of “benefit”. Second, the language of “justification to” can be read to express various deontological or contractualist ideas—e.g., that political institutions must be justified with regard to each individual, and that certain collectivist or consequentialist justifications for the state are insufficient. Third, that we ought to justify ourselves to others might express the idea that we must have evidence and reasons available for our policy choices, that the state has a duty to engage its citizens in rational dialogue, listen to their concerns, and so on.

Similar remarks apply if you reconstruct the position in terms of what people “could reasonably accept” or “could not reasonably reject”. I suspect—at least, I can report my own experience—that much of this rhetoric is a bait and switch: this moral language is appealing because it seems to express various fundamental, convincing liberal commitments; but the actual position switches to something which is much more controversial, and less intuitively convincing.

Again, it is hard to know how prevalent this mistake is. Still, I suspect it is one factor in bestowing on political liberalism a certain moral appeal it doesn’t necessarily have.

What’s different about beliefs?

Let’s turn to some more heavy-hitting objections. As I emphasised above, it strikes me that there is a difference between first-order neutrality and the higher-order neutrality that political liberalism demands. How can this asymmetry be explained?

Let’s start with classic liberal foundations. We ought to respect autonomy, the choices that individuals make for themselves. We should respect that individuals choose their own religion, job, sexual partners, and so on. We think this important ultimately such that individuals are free to create and give meaning to their own lives. The non-consensual interference of others, even if it might be good for us, is an obstacle to this pursuit.

We can guess from these foundations why liberals favour various first-order rights and freedoms for individuals. It is tempting to expand this line of argument to a duty to accommodate the beliefs of others. For example, we ought to respect others as autonomous reasoners, and that is why we ought not to impose our beliefs on them.

But on closer inspection, there are more disanalogies than analogies. First, note that the second type of argument is concerned with respecting your beliefs, rather than your autonomy. It is not immediately clear, however, to what degree we must respect beliefs. Demands that we ought to respect someone’s beliefs—e.g., religious objection to serving in war—strike me as shorthand that we ought to respect the commitments, lifestyles and autonomous choices which those beliefs reflect. Living under political arrangement which you reject is perfectly compatible with respecting your choices in these other senses.

A second observation is that, when we accommodate the beliefs of others, many of these beliefs are other-regarding. The content of these beliefs concerns how we should design the political institutions we’re all subject to. So if we accommodate conservative beliefs about the proper public/private boundary, this will not only affect conservatives’ lives, but everyone’s lives. This is true even where we think of intra-liberal disagreements. A feminist might have a different way of drawing the public/private boundary then (say) a Lockean liberal. If the feminist accommodates Lockean liberal beliefs—for example, by excluding the family as an appropriate concern for political institutions—this change does not merely affect Lockean liberals.

Indeed, we here see the contours of a quite fundamental trade-off. To the degree that we accommodate the beliefs of others, we must make choices which are inferior in other respects. In the given example, a feminist has the choice between (i) giving greater weight to the justified demands of women—as she sees them—insofar as drawing the public/private boundary is concerned, and (ii) giving greater weight to an alternative, conservative view (she thinks mistaken) which wishes to draw this boundary in a very different way.

This only shows, of course, that there is a trade-off between (roughly) first-order substantive reasons and second-order reasons to accommodate the beliefs of others, not how we should resolve the trade-off. I can here merely report that I find it very hard to see why reasons of type (ii) should generally outweigh reasons of type (i); indeed, beyond some special cases, I find it difficult to see how they ever could.

The feminism—conservatism disagreement might be able to bring this intuition home. The feminist I’m imagining believes that the “personal is political”—i.e., that is appropriate and even mandatory that political institutions take an interest in certain seemingly “private”, intra-family matters. This result is based, I presume, on a careful consideration of the various moral and practical demands of different parties. In doing so, we already take into account various liberal reasons not to intervene in family matters.


Here’s one line of objection. I mentioned that we assign rights to individuals to allow them to create meaning in their own lives. We might jump on this idea to suggest that we should also respect the beliefs of others. After all, living in a political society under rules that one finds deeply objectionable is alienating. It might pose a serious obstacle to attempts to live our own lives.

There’s definitely something to this objection. Living as an atheist in a theocracy, or as a theocrat in an avowedly secular state, or as a socialist under laissez-faire capitalism, can be deeply troubling and alienating. But there are also several doubts about this idea. First, alienation is certainly undesirable, but a general right to live in non-alienating social conditions would be very wide-ranging and demanding, and strikes me as implausible.

What remains of the idea is that we should blunt the harshest edges of alienation that some individuals experience. But no general demand to accommodate the beliefs of others follows from this. The intuition can be accounted for entirely in terms of classic liberal rights, e.g., rights to conscientious objection or free association, as I’ve highlighted previously.

A Rationalist Liberalism

Let’s think about the psychological, moral and political attitudes of liberals who do not accept a general moral prohibition against imposing one’s beliefs. Those liberals accept that sometimes we should not accommodate the disagreements of others, even after we have taken into account the epistemic, practical and moral accommodations that we should grant to others, and even if we think the disagreement of others reasonable. These liberals insist that some ways of organising our society are such fundamental, non-negotiable parts of justice that no disagreement should sway us from giving up those commitments. We are permitted, at the extreme, to force others to adhere and abide by those rules of justice, or at least not to interfere with them, once persuasion and compromise have come to an end.

There are many possible misrepresentations of the attitude underlying this kind of liberalism. The liberals who wish to “impose” their views are easily described as arrogant, dogmatic, undemocratic and disrespectful. Liberals like to see themselves as embodying the virtues opposite to these vices. Here’s not the place to develop a full-scale sketch of an alternative liberalism which can answer these charges. But here are some hints as to why such an alternative liberalism—call it rationalist liberalism—might not be so unpalatable after all.

First, as I’ve argued, rationalist liberalism acknowledges several types of reasons to accommodate the disagreement of others. It is compatible with a great degree of epistemic humility and practical tolerance in the face of disagreement. I’ve even hinted that a genuine rationalist might accept a version of political liberalism as a practical rule of thumb in modern, Western societies. I suspect that many of the objections against rationalist kinds of liberalism are based on a strawman version of what such a liberalism would look like.

Second, rationalist liberalism is still a kind of liberalism. That is, at its core are claims about the rights and duties of the individual, about their freedom, autonomy, desert, needs, and what-have-you. It is compatible with, and is likely to include, various anti-paternalist and anti-perfectionist commitments. Indeed, liberalism of this kind is just what liberalism looked like for most of its history—call it Enlightenment rationalism.

Take Kant. Kant is what we would now call a “comprehensive” liberal—his philosophy has deep metaphysical and moral foundations. But in his political philosophy, Kant commits to wide-ranging anti-paternalist and anti-perfectionist principles. The Kantian liberal state sets a framework of legal rules, but it does not get involved in how individuals set ends for themselves and pursue their own projects. So in Kantian liberalism, we ought to respect people’s independent, autonomous lives in some crucial respect. However, there is no meta-requirement that we must respect people’s opinion about functions of the state. Because the liberal state grants its citizens the appropriate mix of rights and liberties, it is ipso facto “justifiable to” everyone, though not in the sense that political liberals wish for.

Rationalist liberals need not enjoy imposing their beliefs. They can see it, as I have suggested in the beginning, as a tragedy of a kind: it’s epistemically and morally troubling that our disagreements about justice are so deep and irresolvable. Other things being equal, we might wish for social choices in which we can avoid this conflict. However, we should also see that the tragedy of truth is a by-product of favouring a free, liberal society.

Concluding Remarks

Back to the beginning then. Any political view, liberalism included, faces two tragedies of truth: first, as political believers, we could be mistaken in our beliefs. And more tragically, I argued, we can often not avoid imposing our beliefs on others in the political realm. We should often epistemically, practically and morally temper our political demands in the face of disagreements—but in some cases, I argued, we ultimately need to face the tragedy and act. And there’s a wide range of cases where it doesn’t strike me as wrong to “impose” our beliefs—where, perhaps, we even have a duty to do so.

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  1. […] pose a philosophical problem to the legitimacy of our institutions. (This brings us back to the tragedy of truth I’ve outlined […]

  2. […] politics that Gaus imagines are precisely of the kind that try to avoid the tragedy of truth about which I have written previously. I think this view is mistaken: you can’t and shouldn’t […]

  3. […] Srinivasan connects the issue back to Greek tragedy (and in turn captures much better what the tragedy of truth could be that I vaguely hinted at). She argues convincingly that the Greeks were much more tolerant […]

  4. […] this in a slightly pretentious slogan, no single mind can capture the truth. A second observation I have stressed is that people strongly, deeply and reasonably disagree about the truth. Even where we do think we […]

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