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Private Reasons in the Public Square

photograph of crowd at town hall

The recent Dobbs decision induced a tidal wave of emotions and heated discourse from both sides of the political aisle as well as from all corners of the American cultural landscape. Some rejoiced that it’s a significant move towards establishing a society that upholds the sanctity of human life, while others mourned the loss of a basic liberty. The Dobbs ruling overturned the historic Roe v. Wade verdict, and it has the practical consequence of relegating decisions about the legality of abortion to individual states. Abortion access is no longer a constitutionally protected right, and thus where and when abortion is legal will be determined by the democratic process.

The legal battle at the state level over abortion rights will continue over the coming months and years, giving voters the chance to share their views. Many of these citizens take their most deeply held moral, religious, and philosophical commitments to have obvious implications for how they vote.

But should all of these types of reasons affect how one votes? If other citizens reject your religion or moral framework, should you still choose political policies based on it?

Political philosophers offer a range of responses to these questions. For simplicity’s sake, we can boil down the responses to two major camps. The first camp answers “no,” arguing that only reasons which are shared or shareable amongst all reasonable citizens can serve as the basis for one’s vote. This seems to rule out religious reasons, experience-based reasons, and reasons that are based on controversial moral and philosophical principles, as reasonable people can reject these. So what kinds of reasons are shareable amongst all reasonable citizens? Candidates for inclusion are general liberal ideals, such as a commitment to human equality, individual liberty, and freedom of conscience. Of course, what these general ideals imply for any specific policy measure (as well as how these reasons should be weighed against each other when they conflict) is unclear. Citizens can disagree about how to employ these shared reasons, but at least they are appealing to reasons that are accepted by their fellow reasonable citizens instead of forcing their privately held convictions on others.

The other camp of political philosophers answers “yes,” arguing that so long as one’s reasons are intelligible or understandable to others, they can be used in the public square. This approach lets in many more reasons than the shareable reasons standard. Even if one strongly opposes Catholicism, for example, it is nevertheless understandable why their Catholic neighbor would be motivated to vote according to church teaching against abortion rights. Given the neighbor’s faith commitments, it is intelligible why they vote pro-life. Similarly, even if one accepts the controversial claim that personhood begins at conception, it is easy enough to understand why other reasonable people reject this belief, given there is no consensus in the scientific or philosophical communities. This intelligibility standard will also allow for many citizens to appeal to personal experiences, as it is clear how such experiences might reasonably shape one’s political preferences, even if these experiences are not shared by all reasonable citizens.

Of course, one might notice a potential pitfall with the intelligibility standard. What if a citizen wishes to support a certain policy on the basis of deeply immoral grounds, such as racist or sexist reasons? Can the intelligibility standard keep out such reasons from public discourse?

Defenders of the intelligibility standard might respond that it is not intelligible how a reasonable person could hold such beliefs, blocking these reasons from the public square. Of course, there may also be disagreement over where exactly to draw this line of reasonableness. Advocates of the intelligibility standard hope that there is enough consensus to distinguish between reasonable belief systems (e.g., those of the major world religions and cultures) and unreasonable ones (e.g., those of racist sects and oppressive cults). Naturally, proponents of the shareable reasons standard tend to be dubious that such an intuitive line in the sand exists, doubling down on placing tight restrictions on the types of reasons that are acceptable in the public square.

What is the relevance of this shared vs. intelligible reasons distinction when it comes to the average citizen? Regardless of where one falls in the debate, it is clearly beneficial to reflect on our political beliefs. Appreciating the reasons of other thoughtful citizens can prompt us to take the following beneficial steps:

1. Recognize that your privately held belief system is not shared by every reasonable, well-intentioned citizen. Our political culture is constituted by a wide array of differing opinions about abortion and many other issues, and people often have good reasons for holding the viewpoints they do. Recognition of this empirical fact is a crucial starting point for improving our political climate and having constructive democratic debate.

2. Reflect on why your friends, neighbors, and co-workers might disagree with you on political issues. Morality and politics are complicated matters, and this is reflected by surveys which indicate the depth of disagreement amongst professional experts in these fields. Given this complexity, individuals should be open to potentially revising their previously held beliefs in light of new evidence.

3. Engage with those who do not share your belief system. Inter-group contact has been shown to decrease harmful political polarization. In the wake of the Dobbs decision, this looks like a willingness to engage with those on both the pro-choice and pro-life sides of the aisle.

Regardless of where they fall in the shared reasons versus intelligible reasons debate, citizens have a responsibility to recognize that their political opponents can be reasonable as well. Embracing this idea will lead to more productive democratic discourse surrounding difficult political issues like those bound up in the Dobbs ruling.