Paul Crider's Reviews > The Tyranny of the Ideal: Justice in a Diverse Society

The Tyranny of the Ideal by Gerald F. Gaus
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it was amazing
bookshelves: ethics, libertarianism, philosophy, social-science, liberalism

Gerald Gaus's Tyranny of the Ideal lays out a quite complex argument, much like his previous Order of Public Reason. But, also like that other work, it's immensely edifying and worth the effort. This review is as much my effort to collect my thoughts on the book as it is a proper review.

Gaus starts his discussion of ideal theory with the heroic and friendly assumption of a single worldview (or what he calls a perspective). If the world were simple and if we all agreed on a single perspective, then we could just incrementally increase justice until we reach utopia. But these world features, and our understanding of how these features map onto a comprehensive justice score (how principles of justice manifest in actual social contexts) interact with one another. For example, perhaps we can't just increase property rights to complete individual control without exception while holding everything else constant (like considerations of opportunity) because this might lock in a propertied oligarchy and serf class, a case of deeper injustice than the starting position. These interactions of social world features make the justice landscape rugged, with peaks and valleys on the path to utopia.

Diversity (even under a single perspective) can help us to navigate this rugged terrain. Individuals will still differ with one another about what features of the world are salient to justice and they will disagree about which social worlds are closer to one another, to our own society, and to utopia.
For example, two natural rights libertarians might have the same perspective, so they would evaluate the "total justice of a given society (say, the US) the same. But they might still disagree about which other societies are similar to the US based on what they find important about justice (is it strong property rights or an independent judiciary or the relative openness to immigrants)? These differences matter in terms of how to reform your society to get to utopia.

Gaus discusses how this diversity of understanding (even within one perspective) can help us avoid ravines in the justice landscape. Suppose we increase property rights protection until we can't increase them anymore without diminishing comprehensive justice. Then we "pass the baton" to another dimension, say the independent judiciary, and trudge up that vector until we can't go further without diminishing comprehensive justice again. Then we pass the baton to openness to immigrants, and so on, perhaps even circling around again to property rights protection, until we get to the peak of Mount Utopia.

But of course this has involved a simplifying assumption, namely that our differences (even under a single perspective) in how we understand the moral salience of different features of our society don't affect how we "score" the justice of our society. Of course our understanding of salient social features *does* affect those scores. Another simplification has come from imagining that we have some idea of where utopia is in the landscape. But unless we are very close to utopia, we likely have very little understanding of the social features of that world. More generally, it's most plausible to imagine we can understand the social world features of only those worlds closest to ours, with very similar institutions and social contexts. After all, it's difficult enough understand our own world! All this means that we can only optimize with any confidence within our "neighborhood". This leads to the possibility that we're optimizing in the direction of some local peak, and away from global utopia.

The lion in the room in this review and for the first 150 pages of the book is the brute fact that we don't share a single perspective, or anything close to it. The actual diversity of perspectives in play is staggering. We don't just disagree on abstract theories of justice. Our disagreements go even as deep as our ontologies. A New Atheist and an evangelical Christian don't even agree on the kinds of things that exist in the world (such as demons).

And yet we must get on and, surprisingly, we do in our own real world. In the second half of the book Gaus lays out the principles of a liberal society that take this deep diversity seriously. Such a society must have substantial agreement (or perhaps 'alignment' is a better word) on a public moral constitution, but can and should maintain differences on comprehensive theories of justice. The difference between the public moral constitution and a comprehensive justice perspective is that the former is socially created and consists of what a sufficient portion of the population have actually coordinated on (not explicitly "agreed" to). Its functional purpose is more for managing expectations rather than judging right and wrong.

Gaus argues that even if we can't agree on comprehensive justice perspectives, we can (and have) for the most part agree that living together in peace is better than living in isolation or in violent conflict, though some fringe perspectives who can't agree must unfortunately be coerced or excluded (Gaus in a throwaway line suggests the thought that coercion itself can be fully extinguished from society is absurd). And while we live together in the Open Society, we can continue to learn from each other. The discussion of the advantages of diversity within a perspective apply to some degree to an open society of diverse perspectives as well. Importantly, this dynamic works not by the one true theory winning adherents over others, but by exchange of ideas between perspectives. I learn from the good ideas of *other* perspectives how to improve my understanding of my own comprehensive worldview. Gaus demonstrates this with a discussion of the various amalgamations of theories one sees in the wild (bleeding heart libertarianism, market socialism, liberal feminism, etc). And one sees certain modular ideas do gain a greater presence in multiple perspectives (most perspectives now maintain the equal worth of individuals regardless of sex or race, regardless of the origins of those perspectives).

In summary, the quest for the ideal is an impossible misadventure, and the best we can do is maintain the conditions of an open society that are conducive to diverse people living together in peace. But even that more modest goal is something truly worthwhile. And as a bonus, it's even possible.
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Reading Progress

April 29, 2016 – Shelved
April 29, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
November 25, 2016 – Started Reading
December 12, 2016 – Shelved as: ethics
December 12, 2016 – Shelved as: philosophy
December 12, 2016 – Shelved as: libertarianism
December 12, 2016 – Shelved as: social-science
December 12, 2016 – Finished Reading
June 8, 2020 – Shelved as: liberalism

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