The Guy Who (You Didn’t Know) Made All This Possible (Part 2)

August 30, 2016

Richard Rorty once defined truth as “what your contemporaries will let you get away with,” and in a way this notion captures the pragmatic gist of John Rawls’ doctrine of public reason surveyed in part I of this post: the reasonableness of any political claim or assertion is determined by what “the public” finds reasonable. So you might think of “public reason” as conceptual proxy for what we as a society think is true or false, wise or foolish, fair or unfair. Rawls is not suggesting that truth itself is relative, as Rorty sometimes wants to say, but is rather explaining why adjudication of political discourse is conducted by Public Reason. The “overlapping consensus” constituting Public Reason is united by a common commitment to fairness. He thinks fairness is something we all want regardless of whether we’re outspoken about it or not. Crucially, on Rawls view, this shared understanding remains independent of any one philosophic, scientific, or religious viewpoint. “Public reason” is the name of the independent understanding we share in

I also alluded in part I to a couple of ramifications for Rawls’ doctrine of public reason: (i) that knowledge of distinctly political language — knowing the rules of play — is a requirement for participation in public discourse and (ii) that one must refrain from explicit appeal to a comprehensive doctrine unless terms are translated for public discourse. I’d like here to expand upon these implications by highlighting how Rawls’ account of Public Reason controls the terms of public discourse, and then conclude with a few pointed criticisms of his account.

The recurring challenge for someone holding a comprehensive doctrine is detecting the resonances and dissonances that one’s comprehensive doctrine shares with public reason. Suppose you identify as Christian and want the truths of Christianity to shape your life. And suppose further that this commitment has prompted you to take special interest, say, in contemporary immigration policy. For theological reasons you feel that immigrants deserve a place to dwell safely and to pursue their own flourishing. But you quickly discover that your theological rationale for securing a prudent naturalization process does not translate easily into the terms of political debate. You cannot say every human being has dignity because made in the image of God, because on Rawls’ account theological reasons are publicly inadmissible. What you have to do is explain how and why prudent naturalization comports with public reason’s ideals, which would mean explaining how and why prudent naturalization results in a fairer society.

It doesn’t matter that your charitable motivation is Christian in character, or that you wish to affirm the dignity of the person and act for their good, or even that you’d like to give families a place to belong without fear. Public reason is disinterested in love. It requires that you translate your charitable motivations into terms of social justice. Love the immigrant all you want, but to contribute to public discourse on the issue of immigration you are required to demonstrate the comparable fairness of your proposals. This is partly what I mean by “learning the rules of play.” Regardless of what you personally believe or how you feel, all political pronouncements have to be stated as public reason dictates.

But what happens when public reason becomes less and less knowledgeable of the religious traditions from which it arose? Or to put it another way, how are we to respond when it becomes apparent that public reason is religiously illiterate? These are much harder questions. In some cases it is not clear that specific faith commitments can be translated into terms of public reason at all. Take an example.

Suppose I were to claim, following Gilbert Meilander, that on the Christian account we may never seek euthanasia because our lives are not “ours” to dispense with as we please, but belong instead to Christ. That would be a profoundly theological ethic against euthanasia. But public reason will balk at the claim, and the euthanasia advocate will likewise stress the very opposite point: our lives are irrevocably ours to dispense with as we please, especially if we wish to avoid intense suffering. This impasse of whether we “own” ourselves or not is not politically remediable, not purely on Rawls’ terms anyway. Other argumentative strategies are available for the Christian, however, like showing euthanasia’s contradiction to the hippocratic oath of physicians, or highlighting the troubling expansion of eligibility standards in Europe, provided that such points finally reaffirmed the ideals of public reason. Thus there is a definite sense in which the ethical core of a comprehensive doctrine can remain fundamentally irreconcilable with public reason. In such cases public reason always prevails.

Let me turn now to that second ramification of not explicitly appealing to one’s comprehensive doctrine during public discourse. For Rawls, public reason is normative — it decides things — yet remains “freestanding” and religiously ambivalent. If a Christian, for example, wishes to participate in the public square, she will be heard and understood only if she speaks the language of public reason. But this raises again the natural question of whether the core tenets of Christianity are fully translatable for public address, and in turn to an even deeper question: should the Christian set the theological terms of their existence aside, or perhaps compromise them, in order to gain public hearing? Should anyone, irrespective of their comprehensive doctrine, be required to jettison the very terms of that doctrine in order to participate in political discourse? Plainly the answer to these questions is No.

I pose the questions in this way primarily to draw our attention a still larger, and perhaps even more decisive point: Public Reason is itself a comprehensive doctrine. It has a dogma, narrative, and ends just as longstanding religious traditions do. “The public,” as Rawls describes it, is endowed with a logic, or creed, that mimics other comprehensive doctrines. And on this point I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s short but memorable quip in his Kenyon College commencement address: everybody worships. Everyone bends the knee to something. Humans are worshipping creatures. As such, public reason and indeed the whole project of Social Justice that Rawls account typifies, is religious all the way down. The so-called secularist is as committed to his comprehensive doctrine as the Christian is to hers.

Public reason is an ideology. All political discourse must comport with it, and in determining the validity of a contribution it can weigh the merits only against what has already been judged true. Public reason is indistinguishable from the prevailing opinion, whatever that is. And because public reason is by definition self-validating, it is an ideology in the truest sense of the word; the inerrant authority on what is and isn’t politically correct. And it’s the ideological character of public reason coupled with its uncanny ability to resist falsificaiton that has lent it so much of its theoretical force. Rawls’ doctrine is elegant in theory, but when subjected to more concrete, granular examination it becomes practically untenable. To illustrate, one explanation for the rise of protest candidates this election season, arguably, is to view them as a revolt against the settled rule of public reason.

It is perhaps fitting at this point to speculate momentarily on just what it means to “be public” in the first place. When is it, exactly, that we are public? At what moment? The rather common assumption today is that being public means presenting oneself to a watching or reading audience of some kind, so that “public” just means not-private. But what are we then to make of the obvious disjuncts in publicity, like when someone who wishes to be public fails to gain an audience, or conversely, when the same person this time seeking an audience fails to acquire one? “Bad publicity,” too, is puzzling. The scope of publicity far surpasses our meagre intentions to capture or avoid it. The slipperiness of publicity is attributable in part to the mediated character of social life today. To the extent that “the public” is predominantly mediated, the terms of what counts as public and so according with public reason are often determined by those who control how their respective medium will disclose the very terms of reality and of ideas about it. As John Paul II reiterated in Aetatis Novae, modern media controls through the selection of language not only the way things will be thought, but even whether a thing will be thought at all. “The public” is us as we see ourselves through these mediums.

Rawls thought he was simply describing the way political society worked. What I’ve tried to show is that when Rawls’ doctrine of public reason moves from the descriptive–this is how political society works–to normative–this is how political society should work– it cannot live up to its own criteria. It’s unclear why we shouldn’t think of public reason as constituting a comprehensive doctrine, nor is it clear that we have a shared understanding of what “the public” represents. The very “authority” making public reason right and reasonable itself is questionable. Thus I think it is more fitting to speak of society as composed of many publics rather than of only one public. Rawls’ public is too speculative and mythic.

Now, I certainly do not mean to suggest that these ambiguities should somehow disallow or discourage the Christian from engaging public discourse. Civic participation is imperative. But we do not have to do it as we’ve always done it. Speaking more clearly and persuasively in public requires knowing better what a given public thinks. What are the claims and arguments? Why has it settled on these aims rather than others? Etc. In becoming better informed about the texture of public discourse we will begin to see — because of our commitment to a comprehensive doctrine (Christianity) — the false binaries that paralyze discussion of our most pressing political debates. We’ll also learn a great deal about the proper tone of discourse. In any case, the aim in public discourse can no longer be that of adapting commitments to comport with public rationality, but to challenge the very terms in which that rationality justifies itself. Public reason has its gods–let’s call them out!

Matthew Arbo

Matthew Arbo has a Ph.D. in ethics from the University of Edinburgh, currently serves as a research fellow in Christian Ethics at the ERLC, and has taught at Southeastern, Midwestern, and Southern Seminary in Christian Ethics and Public Theology. He has formerly held a bioethics fellowship at the Paul Ramsey … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24