Thursday, January 15, 2015

New Paper on Virtue Epistemology and Democracy (Work in Progress #1)

I am currently writing a commissioned article (for OUP's Oxford Handbook on Virtue) on virtue epistemology and democracy. In this first blog post I want to briefly outline the basic framing of the exercise, at least as I have it worked out so far.

Very General Frame: virtue ethics has a PR problem when it comes to democracy. It is typically associated with anti-democratic ideals, and its main historical proponents (namely Plato and Aristotle) criticized democracy. This article aspires to show how the virtue ethicist’s focus on what kind of person we should be can yield valuable insights for democratic theory.

More Specific Frame: Integrating insights from the Ancient Greeks (e.g. concerning virtue, eudaimonia and democracy), John Dewey and recent work in virtue epistemology, I argue that an account of democracy which conceives of democracy as an “inquiry-based mode of social existence” can overcome three common objections typically raised against democracy. These three objections are:

The Irrationality Objection (Downs)- why bother voting, or even learning about politics, considering your one vote will incur a certain cost on you for no (likely) benefit?

The Autonomy Objection (Wolff): democracy violates moral autonomy. The latter requires us to take responsibility for making the final decisions about what to do. Both representative democracy and majoritarian democracy violate our moral autonomy.

The Objection from Epistocracy (Plato/Mill): democracy is rule by the ignorant. A better political system would ensure those with expertise (for Plato this is philosophers) govern or, in the case of JS Mill, have more votes.

What all three of these objections to democracy share is they tend to equate democracy with a political system of majority rule voting. But this is a very narrow, and superficial, understanding of democracy. The original Greek meaning of democracy is- "the collective capacity of a public to make good things happen in the public realm". This understanding of democracy lends itself well to a virtue epistemological analysis of democracy, for virtue epistemologists define knowledge as ‘success from ability’ (Greco, 2010, p. 3) or ‘a state of cognitive contact with reality arising out of acts of intellectual virtue’ (Zagzebski, 1996, p. 270).

In the bulk of the paper I then proceed to formulate a virtue ethics defence of democracy (understood not as a form of government, but as "a life of free and enriching communion” (Dewey)). This defence emphasizes the importance of the "intellectual virtues" cultivated and refined by the democratic way of life. If successful, this account of democracy yields an account that explains how living a democratic life is rational, autonomous and conducive to creating knowledge. This is still very provisional and subject to revision as I still have a few months of work left on the paper and will no doubt be tweaking the main conclusions further.

Comments on the blog are closed, but I will post this on FB as well and friends are welcome to make FB comments pertaining to suggested readings, obvious mistakes I'm making!, demolishing objections I must address, etc.