Friday, December 17, 2010

Virtue Epistemology and Democracy (Part 3)

I just returned from this conference in the UK which focused on the themes in this interesting book (hereafter referred to as DA).

I want to thank the conference organizers at Nottingham for inviting me to the conference, which I really enjoyed. And here I thought I would briefly outline the comments I made in my oral presentation at the conference (blog posts 1 and 2 detail some of the points addressed in the paper itself).

My paper explores an epistemic defence of democracy by employing a virtue epistemological analysis of knowledge and the stakes typically involved in good governance. But for my introductory remarks I thought it would be useful to spend a few minutes highlighting what I take to be the central disagreement between Estlund and myself, for I don't explicitly bring those disagreements to the fore in (at least the current version of) the paper.

Of all the questions and topics a political theorist or philosopher could ponder and reflect upon, why invest our time and energies in the topic of the epistemic virtues and vices of democracy?

I think pondering this question is useful because it makes explicit what we might call our intellectual “pre-commitments”. That is, the beliefs and assumptions that we bring to (and which lead us to engage in) the theoretical exercise. I suspect Estlund and I have different pre-commitments, and this might explain why we tackle different questions.

For Estlund, the key question he wants to answer in DA is: “How can democracy have some epistemic value in a way that could account for the degree of authority we think it should have?”

His answer is that (a) democracy has modest epistemic value (i.e. it is better than a coin flip), and (b) that democratic outcomes are legitimate and authoritarian in a purely procedural way.

I don't want to contest his answers to this central question; instead, what I want to contest is his making this particular question the central question to answer. Now contesting one's question is very different than contesting one's answer to a question. What are the criteria for determining which questions ought to be our central questions? I think this is a very interesting, and important, question to consider.

So what is wrong with making the minimalist epistemic defence of democracy (i.e. that democracy is better than a coin flip) our central concern? I have a few worries. By making this our central concern one frames the stakes of the debate in a problematic way. Firstly, doing this permits the artificial assumptions and constraints of the Condorcent Jury Theorem to shape the debate. So voting, the aggregation of preferences, and majority rule are then equated with democracy.

Secondly, this approach also concedes too much ground (when there is no empirical basis for conceding any ground) to the advocate of epistocracy.

Thirdly, and most importantly, this question does not make the cognitive capacities of intellectual agents the primary focus of evaluation. And I think this is a mistake if we want to examine the epistemic fitness of democracy. That is why I think virtue epistemology is a more useful starting position.

Instead of making the central question one about the minimalist epistemic case for democracy, I believe we should instead start with the more ambitious question: “How is democracy the best epistemic device available?”. Starting with this question will naturally lead us to ask (1) What is knowledge?, (2) What is democracy?, and (3) what is the relation between (1) and (2)?

Doing this will lead us in the direction I think we really need to go, which is to ask: What kinds of culture are most conducive to our realizing the intellectual virtues rather than vices?

That is an empirical question, and we should turn to the best available evidence we have to answer it.

To answer my proposed central question the theorist must attend to a diverse array of secondary questions. If we understand knowledge as “success from virtue or ability”, then we will want to ask:

(a) What is intellectual virtue, and how is it acquired?
(b) What is the relation between the intellectual and moral virtues?
(c) Why are humans so susceptible to intellectual vice?

There is a large volume of empirical data that can help aid us in thinking about the epistemic fitness of democracy. So we also want to ask:

(d) What does the historical evidence tell us about the epistemic benefits of democracy versus non-democratic forms of life?

(e) What does the empirical evidence tell us about the importance of diversity versus ability when it comes to complex problem-solving?

I don’t offer anything like a comprehensive answer to these questions in my paper, but I believe the most plausible answers to these questions all help point in the direction of revealing the epistemic advantages of democracy (understood in the Deweyan sense: as a mode of associated living).

All of these introductory comments then raise a fundamental methodological question for political philosophers and theorists: what is the aim of political theory or philosophy? What constitutes success and failure in normative theory? How do we measure progress in the field or a debate?

In the last chapter of DA Estlund outlines the value of what he calls “hopeless normative theory”. He claims that there can be intrinsic value in philosophical inquiry, if it is done well.

This perhaps touches on the largest disagreement that I with DA. Just to be clear, I don’t doubt that there is *some* value to such an intellectual exercise, but it is a *matter of proportionality* in terms of the how much value we ought to attribute to these activities.

We want many things from a theory of democracy and/or of justice. Where, in the big picture of things we want from a normative theory, ought we to place a theory's intrinsic intellectual value? For me it doesn't make the top 5 (indeed, it might not even make the top 10). I suspect some philosophers would place it in the top 5, perhaps even in the top position.

The critic might claim that the low value I place on the intrinsic value of normative theory is too hasty. They might argue that political philosophy would be much better off if we afforded it more room (not just some) for hopeless normative theory that offers nothing more than helping us sharpen our analytic skills and political concepts.

Perhaps that is so, maybe I am being too hasty [I am certainly open to that possibility].

But I’ll end by asking you to consider the following counterfactual test. Think of the political philosophers whose work we most admire in the canon: For me, this would include most heavy weights in the canon: for example, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Marx.

Now consider what their contributions to the field would have been if they were driven primarily by the intrinsic value of philosophical inquiry rather than a genuine desire to diagnosis the challenges of their times and provide some guidance to help us navigate through these challenges.

I think it is useful to make explicit what the intellectual pre-commitments of exemplar examples of political theorists were, for that might aid us in reflecting on what we think our own intellectual pre-commitments ought to be.

I doubt that few of us, including our students, are drawn to political philosophy and debates about justice and democracy because we are primarily concerned with the intrinsic value of reflecting on abstract political concepts. By making our intellectual pre-commitments more explicit, and open for debate, then I think we can have a fruitful discussion of how we determine which questions are, and are not, the central questions we should spend our time trying to answer in political philosophy (given the infinite list of possible questions we could invest our limited time and energy in trying to answer).