Update: It appears that I've misrepresented Dr. Long's position in this post. With due apologies, please see the comments section for his clarification.
Congratulations are due to Jerry Gaus, my professor-to-be at Arizona, for winning the Gregory Kavka Prize in Political Philosophy for his essay, "On Justifying the Rights of the Moderns: a Case of Old Wine in New Bottles." In my perpetual state of playing catch-up, I'm only now reading the essay. And so far, I'm enjoying it a lot.
In this post, I wanted to hammer out some thoughts on a point that Dr. Gaus raises about reasonable pluralism about morality and justice. This point particularly caught my attention because of a conversation that I had with Roderick Long last summer about this exact subject, where Dr. Long expressed reservations about the idea that people could reasonably disagree about the demands of justice. If I recall correctly, he fully acknowledged that individuals disagree about what constitutes a good life or what values are worthy of pursuing, and that there is often no impartial way to proclaim one person's views to be "correct" or "better" than others' conflicting views. But I recall Dr. Long being skeptical of the idea that this sort of reasonable pluralism in views could extend to the realm of morality. He contended that where it can be perfectly reasonable to disagree about what constitutes "the good life," it is not reasonable to disagree about how others ought to be treated.
So it was with this backdrop that I wanted to discuss Dr. Gaus' arguments in "On Justifying the Rights of the Moderns." On page 94 of his essay, Gaus puts aside the idea that we can reasonably disagree on the kinds of normative considerations that are important in justifying moral claims, in order to focus on problems that arise when agree about these things. He points out, on pages 94-95, that even if we agree on what is morally relevant, we may still disagree on the relative importance of these different considerations.
If I understand him correctly, we might illustrate Gaus' point with the example I used in my essay on the rich victim problem. In that essay, I set up a scenario in which a poor guy, Jerry, needed to make a phone call in order to secure a life-changing job, but his own phone had been disabled by a fallen branch. The only way for him to get the job would be to break into his neighbor Lucy's house by smashing one of the windows in order to use her phone. But in the example, Lucy was incredibly wealthy, and while her windows were not of enormous importance to her, they were so expensive that Jerry would never be able to afford to replace them, even with his new job. The question I raised was whether Jerry would be justified in breaking in.
And in the paper, I argued that he would be. Jerry's need for the job, I took it, was of moral importance, as was Lucy's legitimate claim to her property. But I suggested that because it was critically important to Jerry to break the window, and because it would harm Lucy very little if he did so, that it would be morally permissible for Jerry to break in. But since writing that, I've spoken to a lot of people who disagree. Jerry ought not to break into Lucy's house, according to these people, even in his situation. Maybe, some of them concede, he would be justified in doing so to save his life or preserve some basic functioning, but in my story Jerry would have been fine if he hadn't been able to get the job, and so he had insufficient justification to break in.
I'll immediately point out that my argument in that paper is nowhere near as developed as it would need to be for me to go to battle on this point. I don't, for example, talk about what sort of compensation Jerry would owe (if any) even if he couldn't pay the full compensation. And that seems pretty important. But for our purposes, it'll only be important to note that in my paper, I posited a sort of "priority principle" about how moral claims should relate to each other, and other people disagreed with that priority principle even though they agreed on a basic level with my attribution of moral importance of both Jerry's need and Lucy's property claims.
This raises the possibility, which I interpret Dr. Gaus to be discussing in his paper, that perhaps even if we agree on what kinds of things have normative significance, there can still be reasonable pluralism about morality if we can reasonably disagree on priority principles.
But it seems like one would immediately want to say, "Well yes, there are disagreements about priority principles. But no one is denying it. No one is saying that there is no pluralism about morality; the issue would be whether or not that pluralism is reasonable. Someone like Dr. Long (if he wanted to maintain the position that you've attributed to him) would want to say that when people genuinely disagree about priority principles, it's because at least one of them is wrong." Accordingly, I'll need to provide some reason for thinking that pluralism about priority principles can be reasonable in order to settle this issue.
And here it is: I take it that the objects of our moral concern are seen as being valuable in themselves (otherwise, they would not directly be the objects of our moral concern; they would be means towards something else or "proxies" for the true objects of our moral concern). And yet, I take it that there is no objective or impartial way to determine just how valuable an end-in-itself is that would allow us to objectively or impartially compare its moral significance with other ends-in-themselves with any manner of precision (I don't claim that we can never make impartial inter-value comparisons, but only that there will almost necessarily be hazy areas -- the existence of reasonable pluralism does not entail that all pluralism is reasonable). If this is all true, then at least some reasonable pluralism about priority principles seems inevitable.