Liberalism, polarization, and the aggregation problem

Synthese 203 (1):1-21 (2023)
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Successful public justification of coercive policy in liberal societies relies on a solution to what I call the aggregation problem. Without a method of weighing and balancing shared reasons that is acceptable to all, no genuine consensus on the acceptability of a political principle or policy is possible. This is a serious problem for theories of liberalism that rely on public justification or public reason that has largely been ignored. I show the seriousness of this problem by using an example from contemporary politics, abortion policy. Within the context of abortion policy, I consider three approaches to the aggregation problem and argue that none of them offers a promising solution. This result, I argue, generalizes beyond abortion policy and poses a problem for the entire project of public reason liberalism. Even in an idealized society where all deliberate from a shared standpoint, it may not always be possible to find a policy all citizens regard as acceptable: not because there is a diversity of reasons, but because there is no uncontroversial method of weighing and aggregating reasons. This doesn’t mean public reason is useless, though. Instead of being a standard for justifying coercive policy, I argue public reason should be seen as a procedural tool for managing and mitigating the inescapable political conflicts that will inevitably arise in a pluralistic democratic society.



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Adam Gjesdal
Chapman University

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