Thursday, November 18, 2010

Virtue Epistemology and Democracy (Part 2)

This post continues the ideas and themes outlined in this previous post.

Recall that virtue epistemology makes intellectual agents and communities the primary source of epistemic value and the primary focus of epistemic evaluation. Construing knowledge as "success from ability or virtue" thus provides the political theorist with an interesting way of approaching the topic of the epistemic virtues/vices of democracy. So one of the first issues to consider is: what is democracy?

The Condorcet Jury Theorem [1785], which is the most influential epistemic account of democracy, conceives of democracy as a system of majoritarian rule and it considers the action of voting as the primary political activity. Anderson succinctly summarizes the Condorcet Jury Theorem:

This theorem states that if voters (a) face two options, (b) vote independently of one another, (c) vote their judgment of what the right solution to the problem should be (i.e., they do not vote strategically), and (d) have, on average, a greater than 50% probability of being right, then, as the number of voters approaches infinity, the probability that the majority vote will yield the right answer approaches 1 (and rapidly approaches 1 even with modest numbers of voters). (Source)

The Condorcet Jury Theorem, with its fixation on voting and majority rule, does not provide us with a compelling basis on which to defend the epistemic virtues of democracy. Firstly, voters seldom face just two options. In a representative democracy voters typically vote for representatives (and only very seldom on referendum-style issues, and even then the choice might be greater than two). For countries that have more than two major political parties, this plurality of choices contravenes the artificial constraints of the Condorcet Jury Theorem.

Furthermore, even when two major political parties do dominate the political landscape the final options available to voters are themselves at least partly shaped and influenced by the democratic process itself. For example, in the case of a Presidential election, Democratic and Republican nominees must first win the support of their respective political parties before making it on the final Presidential ticket. And the policies and principles that nominees decide to run on will already be shaped in light of what the candidates believe reflect the priorities and concerns of their constituents. In other words, voters are not just given two options to vote between. Rather, the input of voters and party members (at least partly) determines what the available menu of options are to begin with. So actual democratic processes are much more complex and nuanced than the limited options presumed in the Condorcet Jury Theorem.

It is thus a mistake to make, as the Condorcet Jury Theorem does, the activity of placing one’s solitary vote the central focus of an assessment of the epistemic fitness of democracy. The Condorcet Jury Theorem treats democratic decision-making in a binary, synchronic fashion, as if the decision the citizenry makes at time T1 could be labelled as “the correct” or “the wrong” decision despite the fact that the circumstances facing the citizenry might alter significantly over time.

I believe virtue epistemology offers democratic theorists a novel way to broach the topic of the epistemic capacity of democracy without appealing to the impoverished and artificial assumptions of the Condorcet Jury Theorem. By making intellectual agents and communities the primary source of epistemic value and focus of epistemic evaluation, deliberative democrats are better positioned to bring to the fore the distinctive epistemic features of deliberative democracy.

Unlike the aggregative model of democracy, which conceives of the democratic process as a simple “show of hands” mechanism for aggregating individual preferences, deliberative democrats emphasis how participation in the democratic process is a transformative process. “Through the process of public discussion with a plurality of differently opinioned and situated others, people often gain new information, learn of different experiences of their collective problems, or find that their own initial opinions are founded on prejudice or ignorance, or that they have misunderstood the relation of their own interests to others” (Young 2000, 26).

Because democracy entails openness, inclusion, equality, accountability, etc., it fosters the habits of mind essential to wise decision-making; namely, the intellectual (as well as moral) virtues. Democratic decision-making can help guard against the dangers of prevalent cognitive limitations and biases because it helps facilitate the psychological continuity and connectedness necessary to overcome the availability heuristic, group polarization and prospection errors. By having many people “conversationally present” in central deliberative institutions (like Congress), as well as “imaginatively present” (Goodin, 2005) in our minds, the democratic polity puts itself in the favourable position of meeting the challenges of an unpredictable and often hostile world. Chance favours the open and connected mind.

Assessing the merits and demerits of redressing different kinds of risks to human flourishing, in the open and transparent forum of a political debate, for example, can help populations respond (in a more rational manner) to different harms and risks. Of course the political process might also exacerbate this problem, if politicians seeking election simply play on the irrational fears of the population vulnerable to the availability heuristic. So there is no guarantee that democratic outcomes will always lead to rational or reasonable outcomes. Much depends on the quality of the media in a democratic culture, the democratic education provided to the citizenry, etc. But the culture of democracy is one that helps perpetuate and cultivate the habits of mind necessary for intellectual virtue. And key aspects of democratic decision-making help guard against intellectual vice.

Firstly, democratic decisions are provisional. So even though irrational emotional responses might rule the day when deciding to implement X at time T1, this does not prevent society from reversing X at time T2, when cooler heads have had the time and opportunity to prevail. Furthermore, democratic decision-making is a forum for contestation, and thus the critics of X will do their best to reveal why policy X was unwise. If the case is compelling enough, then the earlier decision might be reversed. Thus a healthy democratic polity will promote the intellectual virtues of diligence and thoroughness, as well as the “detective’s virtues”. The decisions of political elites in a democracy (unlike an epistocracy) are not insulated from criticism from rival political parties, the free press, individual citizens, etc. Indeed, being open-minded, respectful of dissent, and questioning the reliability of one’s factual claims are an intricate part of democratic culture and institutions. They are the “democratic-method” for achieving phronesis.

In Democracy and Education John Dewey describes science as:

...that knowledge which is the outcome of methods of observation, reflection, and testing which are deliberately adopted to secure a settled, assured subject matter. It involves an intelligent and persistent endeavour to revise current beliefs so as to weed out what is erroneous, to add to their accuracy, and, above all, to give them such shape that the dependencies of the various facts upon one another may be as obvious as possible. (1916, 256)

Dewey goes on to say that “science marks the emancipation of mind from devotion to customary practices and makes possible the systematic pursuit of new ends. It is agency in progress” (1916, 261). Is there a parallel to be made between science and democracy? Would it be accurate to describe democracy itself as “emancipation from devotion to customary practices” and “agency in progress”? Dewey believed there was. In The Public and Its Problems he argued that the essential need is “the improvement of the methods and conditions of debate, discussion and persuasion” (1927, 208). And this improvement, he continued, “depends essentially upon freeing and perfecting the processes of inquiry and of dissemination of their conclusions”. Dewey believed that democracy was connected with the growth of the experimental method in the sciences, evolutionary ideas in the biological sciences, and the industrial re-organization (Dewey 1916, 5).

It is important to emphasize that, for Dewey, democracy was more than a form of government. It was the “name for a life of free and enriching communion” (1927, 184). And it is this "life of free and enriching communion" that ought, I believe, to be the focus on an epistemic evaluation of democracy.