Saturday, October 23, 2010

Virtue Epistemology and Democracy (Part 1)

For the past month I have been busy working on completing a draft of a new paper on virtue epistemology and democracy. So I thought I would "float" a couple of the ideas I am developing in a series of blog posts here.

The literature on virtue epistemology has really taken off in the past few years. "Virtue epistemology" is the name given to theories that make intellectual agents and communities the primary source of epistemic value and the primary focus of epistemic evaluation(source). The main work that influences the argument I am developing is Zagzebski's Virtues of the Mind (and also Greco's Achieving Knowledge).

The attractive feature of virtue epistemology is that, much like virtue ethics, it places the primary emphasis on intellectual agents and communities. And so I think it would be fruitful to explore what virtue epistemology might have to offer political theorists in terms of offering an epistemic defence of (Deweyan) democracy.

So first, some context. The motivation for writing this paper comes from my interest in formulating a response to Estlund's excellent work Democratic Authority. Estlund argues that his goal is to show that “a concern for the quality of political decisions, properly constrained by other principles, supports democratic arrangements”(1). Let’s call this the central goal (CG) of Estlund’s book. His strategy for establishing CG is to argue (a) that democracy has modest epistemic value (i.e. it is better than a coin flip), and (b) that democratic outcomes are legitimate and authoritian in a purely procedural way, by advancing a proceduralist view called “epistemic proceduralism”.

For Estlund, the key question to answer is not “How is democracy the best epistemic device available?”, but rather “How can democracy have some epistemic value in a way that could account for the degree of authority we think it should have?” (7).

Contra Estlund, I believe the key question to answer is “How is democracy the best epistemic device available?”; and it is in answering this question that an attractive and plausible defence of the authority of democracy can be developed.

The strategy I propose for answering this question is a virtue-epistemological one. Adopting a virtue-epistemological approach to the issue of the “epistemic fitness” of democracy has, I believe, many distinct advantages.

In this paper I explore four distinct advantages:

1. because intellectual agents and communities are the primary focus of epistemic evaluation, virtue epistemology offers political theorists the opportunity to develop an epistemic defence of democracy that takes “realism” seriously (e.g. the cognitive limitations and biases of humans).

2. because virtue epistemology conceives of epistemology as a normative discipline, it builds normative criteria into the exercise of assessing the “epistemic fitness” of a political arrangement (e.g. democracy vs epistocracy).

3. by assessing the epistemic powers of democracy from a virtue-epistemological perspective, a more robust (Deweyan) conception of democracy needs to be employed and assessed than the “minimalist” conception employed by the Condorcet Jury Theorem defence.

4. adopting a virtue-epistemological approach provides the basis for an attractive way of linking the epistemic and authoritarian aspects of democracy.

I will have more to say about these points in future posts, but for now let me say something about the "realism" constraint (1).

Estlund eschews taking the constraints of realism too seriously, and comments that “Realism is a vague and dubious constraint when the question is a moral one, when the question at hand is what is right, or just, or legitimate” (15). But if the moral theory we begin from is a virtue-oriented theory, then the constraints of realism will not be viewed as dubious constraints. Quite the opposite. Grappling with these empirical considerations is central to the moral exercise as virtue ethics is a moral theory that is primarily concerned with “how one should live or what kind of person one should be rather than the question of how one should act” (Crisp, 23). One cannot determine how they should live, or what kind of person they should be, if one’s moral analysis does not take place against the background of the context of the realities of the society or world the agent inhabits. So a virtue ethics approach will be much more accommodating of “realism” and have some distinct benefits in terms of the kind of “aspirational theory” it yields.

What kinds of realism constraints do I think an epistemic defence of democracy should seriously consider? I address a variety of cognitive limitations and biases (e.g. our reliance on the availability heuristic, group polarization and prospection errors) which make it clear that the legacy of our Darwinian history is such that humans do not naturally excel in the intellectual virtues. These limitations and biases were good enough for us to ensure the continuity of the species (i.e. survival and reproduction), but we often come up well sort of intellectual excellence. That is the bad news.

The good news is that we have a plastic brain that can, in particular kinds of environments, realize epistemic excellence. And the key is to then figure out which kinds of environments are most conducive to our realizing intellectual virtue rather than vice. This is an empirical issue. And I believe the empirical evidence points us in the direction of--- democracy.

As I will explain in a future post, the conception of democracy I have in mind is not the "minimalist" conception employed by the Condorcet Jury Theorem. The kind of environment needed to help facilitate intellectual virtue is not the kind envisioned by equating democracy with just a form of government (i.e. majority rules). Rather, the kind of environment needed is, to quote Dewey, "a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience". More on this to follow.