As background, note the fact of widespread first-order moral/political disagreement, which serves to motivate a liberal-procedural metapolitics. We need some way to adjudicate political conflicts, and reach collective decisions about what ought to be done. The best process will be the one that most reliably distinguishes good proposals from bad ones. I will assume that the liberal-democratic process is the best that is realistically available.
Thus, if the process is functioning adequately, we should find that it generally approves good proposals and rejects bad ones. This means that if you cannot rationally persuade your fellow citizens to your position, chances are that this is because you’re in error. Of course, we are engaged in a very high level of statistical abstraction here – in any particular case, there could be reasons that defeat the democratic presumption. For example, the populace might be demonstrably biased or ignorant in some crucial respect. But then, bringing this to their attention should, ideally, suffice to overcome it, unless we are to despair of our fellow citizens as fundamentally unreasonable. Still, the possibility must be granted that a small group of educated radicals might be in a manifestly better epistemic position than the general populace with regard to determining the common good. If they knew this to be so, could that justify radicalism?
The worry, of course, is that many other radical groups mistakenly believe themselves to be in such a position. They are subjectively every bit as certain in their “knowledge” as the correct group is. So the question remains how to distinguish them. However, it’s important to note that, in principle, the ability to distinguish the two situations need not hold symmetrically. Although the justified believer must be able to distinguish their position from that of being unjustified, the converse need not necessarily be the case. As Sosa writes:
Suppose I could now about as easily be dead, having barely escaped a potentially fatal accident. Obviously, we cannot distinguish being alive from being dead by believing oneself alive when alive, and dead when dead. But that is no obstacle to our knowing ourselves alive when alive.
Similarly, we may at times be so muddle-headed that we do not even realize it (for example while dreaming). But the possibility of overlooking such a deficit does nothing to undermine our introspective appreciation of wakeful clarity. As a general rule, our positive awareness of an introspective property is not threatened by the fact that we would be unaware of lacking the property. The full force of one’s actual awareness and appreciation suffices to guarantee that the property is really there. It’s no reflection on your actual situation if others (perhaps including your counterfactual selves or counterparts) are less discerning.
Perhaps the justified radical is in a similar position. She has a deep appreciation of the moral-political facts, we may suppose, and it’s not her fault that others lack such discernment. Even though others are in such a poor epistemic position that they don’t even realize it, this fact does not reflect on the epistemic situation of the fully-aware radical. She, at least, is in a position to tell the difference, even if the others aren’t.
But there are generally tests that one can do to confirm one’s positive awareness and clarity of thought. For example, it may help to focus one’s attention on the details of the property allegedly observed – presumably the deluded will find themselves unable to perform this feat, and thereby become aware of their deficit at last. So we should want to put our political beliefs to a similar ‘test’, which they should have no trouble passing if they’re really as self-evident as we believe. The justified radical will be able to specify the justificatory grounds of her proposals with clarity and logical rigour lacking in the attempts of her opponents. Others might offer justifications that they personally find equally convincing, but only because they are unaware of their flaws.
Are these two situations really subjectively discernible though, even asymmetrically? Is fine-grained epistemic justification, or complex rational insight, the kind of property that is open to introspective awareness? Or must the asymmetry argument be restricted in application to more black-and-white cases (e.g. death vs. life, or muddled dreaming vs. wakeful clarity)? Is it really true that moral justification is internally accessible, so that the phenomenal experience or subjective ‘what it is like’ quality of having justified moral-political beliefs is different in kind from what it is like to have prima facie defensible but ultimately unjustified beliefs on these topics? This seems implausible. So the subjective position of the radical – no matter how convinced they may feel that such-and-such is an intolerable moral outrage – is insufficient to justify coercive action. Their beliefs must pass a more objective test. Whatever test is appropriate here is presumably the test that should be instituted in the political system. So this leads us back to procedural liberalism.
Although there does seem to be a problem for radicalism here, it may not be purely epistemic in nature. After all, it seems reasonable to retain one’s political beliefs even in the face of democratic defeat. (On the view I defend, one must abide by the outcome of a just process, but one need not whole-heartedly agree with it.) We might explain this away by suggesting that the high stakes involved in political action demand more stringent justification than is required for mere belief. The differing prescriptions may also be grounded in a utilitarian fashion. Given the fallibility of mainstream opinion, the advancement of social knowledge might be best served by having individuals persist in trying to support their discredited views – even when this is individually “irrational” in the sense that any given dissenter is statistically unlikely to ultimately prove correct.* Such behaviour is at least collectively rational, so we have reason to support epistemic norms that would allow individuals to retain beliefs that are too ungrounded to serve as a basis for coercive action.
* = I've heard of similar defences of dogmatism by philosophers of science. Can anyone provide a reference here?
Anyway, I'd be very interested to hear what others think about (1) my extension of Sosa's asymmetry argument, and its application to political disagreements; and (2) the collectivist explanation for why we think it epistemically acceptable to hold on to democratically discredited beliefs. [Or (3) any other issues that arise from this discussion...]