A Problem for Intellectual Pluralism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Cheering-concert-crowd-john-revitteDisagreement is a pervasive feature of our ordinary lives. We disagree with family members over what would make for a good Tuesday night dinner, with colleagues over how to solve some thorny problem, and with neighbors over whether the new highway off-ramp is a good or bad thing for the neighborhood. News stories are often about disagreements, and their online comments sections are sites where the disagreements may continue to be aired.

In some cases of disagreement, we may know more about the issue than the other person. And in some cases, the other person may know more. Call these asymmetric disagreements, and a regular thought is that in these cases, the less knowledgeable person ought to defer to the more. However, it's possible for there to be symmetric disagreements, where both sides are roughly as knowledgeable of and capable with the evidence on the issue. The individuals in these instances, then, are peers, at least epistemically.

In these symmetric cases, how should these peers view their own and their disagreeing interlocutors' commitments? By hypothesis, the two opposing views are based on the same evidence, so it's not that one can view one side as better informed or less knowledgeable than the other. And it seems dogmatic, or at least unfounded, to say that one just knows (without more evidence) that one's view is better off than one's opposition.

A background question to this matter is whether it's possible for a set of evidence to justify more than one view about an issue. One take on the question is that, given a set of evidence, there is only one attitude a person may take about it – one may accept a proposition as justified, one may reject it and hold its denial as justified by the evidence, or one may be justified only in suspending judgment on the matter. Of these three options, only one of them would be rationally responsible. Call this view the Uniqueness Thesis – that there is only one attitude that any set of evidence justifies.

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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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