The Reading Room
Acceptance, Rejection, and Otters
In Chapter 4 of my book, I explore a subtle but important distinction between a person having decisive reason to accept or endorse some view (“acceptability”) versus lacking decisive reason to reject it (“rejectability”). I have in mind conflicting views, none of which are clearly right or wrong, that may be used by states or private entities as justification for legal or social coercion.
For instance, suppose you are neither committed to accepting the view that you should give 5% of your annual income to sea otter preservation, nor are you committed to rejecting this view. There could be many factors explaining your epistemic condition. You love otters but think perhaps you should give the money to another cause. Or, you’re uncertain whether there are any effective otter charities. Or, you’ve never heard of otters and so wouldn’t know which way to lean.
Suppose the federal government then passes a law requiring a 5% otter tax for everyone in its jurisdiction, regardless of their views on otters. Many of us would find this law unwelcome since any liberal account worth its salt should be concerned with judgment substitution. That is, here the coercer is effectively telling putatively equal coercees that their views matter little in evaluating whether such a law should even exist, which hardly sounds liberal or democratic.
Suppose instead the government takes a rejectability approach: it exempts only those with decisive reason to reject rationales for an otter tax, but requires everyone else to pay it. Members of the We Hate Otters Club are pleased at being left off the hook (for what they consider an “otterly” lost cause). This situation seems less objectionable, but it’s plausible that a significant number of people would still regard the tax as unjustified, insofar as they, well, also lack decisive reason to endorse funding otter causes.
Would we all come to accept lots of things we don’t currently accept, if given the chance? Probably, but we don’t know what. We face significant epistemic costs in exploring the unknown and deciding what to believe and pursue. We also often face these costs in conditions of radical uncertainty, where we don’t even necessarily know where we should be looking. Obviously the contingencies of our specific contexts will also shape the way in which we come to form our beliefs and values. Rejectability shares concerns about judgment substitution insofar as it opposes coercing people based on views they already have decisive reason to reject. But then the question is why we should only draw the line there and not extend it to cases where a person lacks decisive reason to endorse some item. My book explores these matters in greater detail.
Leaving aside these concerns for now, perhaps the most pernicious risk of rejectability is a society that discourages widespread Millian experiments in living and their attendant benefits, such as learning from others’ successes and failures. Suppose a bunch of laws restricted most of our freedom to experiment with hallucinogens, on the grounds that most of us are not setting out to be the next Timothy Leary. Such restrictions would potentially deprive others of vast swaths of information about mind-altering drugs’ benefits and risks. If you don’t like this example, substitute something different, such as the effects of potential restrictions on entrepreneurship or free exchange that rejectability might allow. Coercion based on rejectability forestalls people’s freedom to act in ways that may, or may not, lead them one day to have decisive reasons to endorse the matters they do not (yet?) accept.
Skeptics might contend that acceptability is so demanding a justificatory standard that it could not support the coercive institutions needed to realize a liberal structure in the first place. Without the flexibility of only requiring a lack of decisive reason to reject something, diverse persons may never be able to coordinate on certain vital rules protecting each of them, and we are left trapped in Hobbesian war.
One response to this empirical question is simply to see what would happen. Perhaps the lesson is that anarchy of some sort is the only eligible outcome, given lack of coordination otherwise. Maybe even a liberal state cannot be justified on acceptability grounds. Not liking that outcome isn’t enough by itself to dismiss acceptability. Perhaps we aren’t meant to have political or territorial states but instead other forms of governance more amenable to diverse persons’ normative commitments.
A second response is more interesting. I propose that (almost) all of us do, in fact, have decisive reason to endorse a scheme of liberal rights and principles that can support a basic structure. However, I must show this work on another occasion.