Does Democracy Exist?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

We tend to think of democracy as a set of governmental institutions. We see it as a political order characterized by open elections, constitutional constraints, the rule of law, freedom of speech, a free press, an independent judiciary, and so on. This makes good sense. These institutions indeed loom large in our political lives.

However, political institutions differ considerably from one purportedly democratic society to the next. Voting procedures, representation schemes, conceptions of free speech, and judicial arrangements are not uniform across societies that are widely regarded as democratic. In some of these countries, voting is required by law and military service is mandatory. In others, these acts are voluntary.  Some democratic countries have distinct speech restrictions, others have different and blurrier boundaries. And the ancient Athenians appointed their representatives to the Boule by lot, instead of by vote. Given these variations, how can these societies all be democracies?

This leads to the thought that although certain institutional forms are characteristic of democracies, democracy itself should be identified with the kind of society those institutions realize. We hence can see how two societies with distinct constitutions nevertheless can be democratic.

This prompts the obvious question: What kind of society is a democracy? Read more »

The Democratic Virtues of Skepticism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Skepticism is the view that knowledge is unattainable. It comes in varying strengths. In the strongest version, it is a thesis about all knowledge, the global denial that anyone has ever known anything. More commonly, though, skepticism is constrained. It is the denial of the possibility of knowledge of some specific kind. Moral skepticism, for example, is the view that there is no such thing as knowledge of right and wrong, good and bad. External world skepticism is the thesis that there could be no knowledge with respect to matters outside of one’s mind. You get the idea.

When you think about it, we’re all skeptics in at least some of these constrained senses. You’re likely a skeptic with respect to some kind of purported knowledge or other. And most folks think that being skeptical is a healthy attitude to have when people make striking claims. Still, skepticism gets a bad rap among philosophers. So much so that entire intellectual programs have been devised solely for the purpose of defeating the skeptic.

Yet there’s a virtue to skepticism, at least in its ancient varieties. And this virtue is both crucial to a healthy democracy and presently under attack in our politics.

The insight of the ancient skeptical tradition, exemplified in both the Academic and Pyrrhonian schools, is that intellectual humility is a virtue. It is not a weakness to admit you do not know, that you don’t have the answers. In fact, with this humility and the skills of inculcating it, we not only have the ability to cut through the bullshit of others, but also our own bullshit. Read more »

Democracy Can’t be Fixed

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Democracy is a precious social good. Not only is it necessary for legitimate government, in its absence other crucial social goods – liberty, autonomy, individuality, community, and the like – tend to spoil. It is often inferred from this that a perfectly realized democracy would be utopia, a fully just society of self-governing equals working together for their common good. The flip side of this idea is familiar: the political flaws of a society are ultimately due to its falling short of democracy. The thought runs that as democracy is necessary for securing the other most important social goods, any shortfall in the latter must be due to a deviation from the former. This is what led two of the most influential theorists of democracy of the past century, Jane Addams and John Dewey, to hold that the cure for democracy’s ill is always more and better democracy.

The Addams/Dewey view is committed to the further claim that democracy is an ideal that can be approximated, but never achieved. This addition reminds us that the utopia of a fully realized democracy is forever beyond our reach, an ongoing project of striving to more perfectly democratize our individual and collective lives.

This view is certainly attractive. Trouble lies, however, in making the democratic ideal concrete enough to serve as a guide to real-world politics without thereby deflating it of its ennobling character. Typically, as the ideal is made more explicit, one finds that it presumes capacities that go far beyond the capabilities of ordinary citizens. It turns out that democracy isn’t only out of our reach, it’s also not for us. Read more »

How Does Belief Polarization Work?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

We have noted previously that there are two different phenomena called “polarization.” The first, political polarization, refers to the ideological distance between opposing political parties. When it’s rampant, political rivals share no common ground, and thus cannot find a basis for cooperation. Political polarization certainly poses a problem for democracy. Yet belief polarization is perhaps even more troubling. It is the phenomenon by which interactions among likeminded people result in each adopting more radical versions of their views. In a slogan, interactions with likeminded others transform us into more extreme versions of ourselves.

Part of what makes belief polarization so disconcerting is its ubiquity. It has been extensively studied for more than 50 years, and found to be operative within groups of all kinds, formal and informal. Furthermore, belief polarization does not discriminate between different kinds of belief. Likeminded groups polarize regardless of whether they are discussing banal matters of fact, matters of personal taste, or questions about value. What’s more, the phenomenon operates regardless of the explicit point of the group’s discussion. Likeminded groups polarize when they are trying to decide an action that the group will take; and they polarize also when there is no specific decision to be reached. Finally, the phenomenon is prevalent regardless of group members’ nationality, race, gender, religion, economic status, and level of education.

Our widespread susceptibility to belief polarization raises the question of how it works. Two views immediately suggest themselves, the informational account and the comparison account. Read more »

Democracy and Ignorance

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Man-yelling-1Citizens in the United States generally cannot explain the fundamental workings of the Constitution, and cannot explicate the American jurisprudential tradition regarding the freedom of expression. Few citizens can recite the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment. Indeed, research routinely reveals stunningly high levels of ignorance regarding even the most basic facts about our government; citizens generally cannot distinguish the branches of government and cannot describe the division of power among them. Many of us would prove unable to pass the Civics Test required for naturalization. If there’s anything that one can know for sure about US citizens, it’s this: our political ignorance is nearly boundless.

We see an increase of concern about public ignorance around, and especially after, elections. From the losing party, the complaint is all too regularly that the voting populace was misled by a campaign, failed to appreciate an important fact, or was simply ignorant of what democracy is all about. Witness the Republican post-mortems this year in the United States in the wake of President Obama’s re-election. Mark Steyn at National Review Online darkly intones, “If this is the way America wants to go off the cliff, so be it.” Robert Stacy-McCain at The American Spectator puts it in the clearest terms by declaring, “The cretins and dimwits have become an effective governing majority.”

Public ignorance is disconcerting. But it also poses a serious challenge to democracy. According to the most popular theories of democracy, the government’s legitimacy depends upon the freely given and informed consent of its people. So democracy requires there to be regular free elections; such episodes are supposed to reveal the Popular Will, which provides government with clear directives for the exercise of power, thereby ensuring political legitimacy.

But if ignorance is as extensive as the data suggest (and losing parties comlain), elections could not possibly serve the function of expressing informed consent. Lacking adequate knowledge of how government works, citizens are unable correctly to assign responsibility to particular office holders for public policies enacted in their name, and consequently are unable to provide the necessary directives. That is, under conditions of widespread citizen ignorance, elections do not express the Popular Will; rather, they simply place some in office and remove others, willy-nilly. Elections, then, are exceedingly costly public events that achieve nothing more than what could be accomplished by a coin-toss.

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Civility and Public Reason

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

ArgueAccording to a prevailing conception among political theorists, part of what accounts for the legitimacy of democratic government and the bindingness of its laws is democracy’s commitment to public deliberation. Democracy is not merely a process of collective decision in which each adult citizen gets precisely one vote and the majority rules; after all, that an outcome was produced by a process of majoritarian equal voting provides only a weak reason to accept it. The crucial aspect of democracy is the process of public reasoning and deliberation that precedes the vote. The idea is that majoritarian equal voting procedures can produce a binding outcome only when they are engaged after citizens have had ample opportunity to reason and deliberate together about matters of public concern. We claimed in last month’s post that democracy is all about argument; this means that at democracy’s core is public deliberation.

In a democracy, public deliberation is the activity in which citizens exchange reasons concerning which governmental policies should be instituted. This activity is necessary because democratic decision-making regularly takes place against a backdrop of disagreement, where different conceptions of public interest conflict. It is important to note that although reasoning always has consensus among its goals, democratic deliberation is aimed primarily at reconciling citizens to the central reality of politics, namely that in a society of free and equal individuals, no one can get everything he or she wants from politics. As democratic citizens, we disagree about which policies will best serve the public interest, and so, when democracy makes collective decisions, some of us will lose – our preferred policy will fail to win the requisite support. Yet democratic laws and decisions are prima facie binding on us all, even when they conflict with our individual judgments about what is best.

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Civility in Argument

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Statues - Arguing MenDemocratic politics is all about argument. Hence, with the US election season upon us, expect commentators from across the spectrum to begin offering familiar lamentations regarding the sorry state of our popular political discourse. Often these critiques express a yearning for a mostly fictitious past in which opposing candidates addressed their differences of opinion by means of calm and reasoned discussion rather than with attack-ads, smear campaigns, and dirty tricks. One popular way of posing the complaint is to say that in contemporary US politics, we have lost our collective sense of civility.

We all agree that civility in political argument is an increasingly scarce good. Yet it’s not clear precisely what civility is. On some accounts, civility is equivalent to conflict aversion; one is civil insofar as one is conciliatory and irenic in dealing with one’s political opponents. Civility in this sense seeks to deal with disagreement by disposing of it. Civility of this kind is little more than a call for compromise at the expense of one’s own commitments. Hence this kind of civility might be inconsistent with actually believing anything. To be sure, compromise among clashing viewpoints is frequently a fitting avenue to pursue once argument has reached an impasse. But when taken as a fundamental virtue of argument itself, compromise is vicious.

Another prevalent account of civility is focused on the tone one takes in arguing with one’s opponents. The thought is that when arguing, one must avoid overly hostile or antagonistic language. On this view, a paradigmatic case of incivility is name-calling and other forms of expression overtly aimed at belittling or insulting on one’s opponents. Now, there is no doubt that maintaining a civil tone when arguing is generally good policy. But a civil tone is not always required, and there are occasions where aggressive language is called for. Argument is a form of confrontation, one with words instead of weapons, and any norm that prevents argument from displaying the critical edges of disagreements undercuts what inspires the argument to begin with. Furthermore, it is possible to fail at proper argumentation and yet maintain a calm and respectful tone of voice. In fact, under certain circumstances, one patronizes one’s interlocutor precisely by sustaining one’s composure. If civility of tone has a purpose, it is to maintain conditions under which proper argument can commence; thus it is not itself a component of proper argument.

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Things You Cannot Believe

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. TalisseImagesCAV32H3R

Early in the 20th Century, the British philosopher G. E. Moore noticed that sentences of a certain form have a quite peculiar feature. Consider:

I believe it is Tuesday, but today is Monday.

Today is Monday, but I do not believe that.

I believe that today is Tuesday, but it’s not true that today is Tuesday.

These statements, when considered as first-personal assessments, instantiate what’s been called Moore’s Paradox. Taking ‘p’ as a variable standing for any well-formed declarative sentence, we can say that Moore’s Paradox is generated by any statement of the following form,

I believe that p, but not-p.

What is peculiar about statements of this kind is that although they may be true, you cannot believe them to be true in your own case. Although you may, indeed, be mistaken about what day today is, you cannot assess yourself as being mistaken about the day without undoing your belief about what day today is. When we assess one of our beliefs as false, we typically thereby dissolve the belief. Put otherwise, there are some truths that cannot be believed. That’s the paradox.

What are we to make of this? Philosophers have proposed various accounts of the significance of Moore’s Paradox. One clear implication is that beliefs are intrinsically truth-aiming. When one believes, one aims to believe what is true. This is why falsity is a decisive objection to a belief. When one finds oneself driven to affirm something that one regards as false, the language of belief no longer seems appropriate; one instead employs diagnostic terms, such as affliction, addiction, and delusion. We may say, then, that truth is the norm of belief.

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