Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Epistemic Argument against Vigilantism

I'm currently working on an essay that develops the arguments against political vigilantism initially presented in my post on 'the ethics of activism'. In this post I want to focus on the Epistemic Principle: No matter how awful X seems to you, if you can't rationally convince your fellow citizens then you're probably wrong about it, and so have no business engaging in coercion.

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...]


  1. In practice wouldn't this mean that people had no business trying to do anything about slavery? After all even at the point of the American civil war (which was fought for a multitude of reasons) it doesn't appear that a majority were convinced.

    It's interesting you're taking the stance you are since I typically tend to attribute that stance to Libertarians.

    It seems that in practice there are multitudes of bad behaviors of limiting civil rights where one can't convince a majority of the population.

  2. I wouldn't want to conflate coercive vigilantism with "anything". Opponents of slavery should of course advocate their position with all the rational force they can muster. If the debate is taking place within the context of appropriately deliberative institutions, they should be able to convince others to abandon indefensible positions. I'm assuming that most citizens are not fundamentally unreasonable. Otherwise, deliberative democracy is hopeless, and we should shift to some other process instead. But whatever the best process, it's that which we ought to abide by.

    If you still think there are counterexamples, it'd be especially helpful if you could trace the error back into my arguments to pinpoint precisely where you think they go wrong...?

    P.S. I'm actually sympathetic to some aspects of libertarianism. I'd just want to make sure it has a proper utilitarian foundation, not a deontological one. This may require tweaking certain aspects of it, like property rights.

  3. On the reference to the philosophy of science.

    The name that springs most quickly to mind is Imre Lakatos. Lakatos thought that a "research programme" in science should be allowed to persist, even if it is not very healthy and needs to make lots of ad hoc assumptions to stay alive. As he puts it: "...a degenerating problemshift is no more a sufficient reason to eliminate a research programme than some old-fashioned 'refutation' of a Kuhnian 'crisis.'" ("Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes," in Lakatos, Musgrave, "Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge", p.155). The problem with Lakatos is that he never worked out how to know when this process should end ie. where we should stop giving the "research programme" (Lakatos's term) the benefit of the doubt. Larry Laudan gave a more sophisticated account. You can find this in his book "Progress and its Problems" (Routledge, 1977). On pp.106-113 he gives some reasons for pursuing a "research tradition" even when it has been (in one of Laudan's sense) discredited. If you look there you will also find some mention of Feyerabend, who wrote: "...it is advisable to let one's inclinations go against reason IN ANY CIRCUMSTANCES [in lieu of italics], for science may profit from it." ("Against Method", 1975, p.175)

    There may be a little difficulty in drawing a full analogy between the science case and the social case, though. This is because philosophers of science, including Lakatos and Laudan, have tended to work with a "two-teir" view of science, which they took from Kuhn. So when they talk about counter-rationally pursuing some idea, the "idea" in question is usually some sort of large, overarching set of theories (a "paradigm") rather than individual theories themselves. The obvious analogy to a scientific “paradigm” is, I suppose, a “metapolitical theory.” But I am not sure if you want to advocate the counter-rational pursuit of a metapolitical theory. The kind of “radicalism” you have in mind, as a candidate for counter-rational pursuit, looks to be radicalism about first-order political beliefs, not metapolitical beliefs.

    (Incidentally, I disagree a little with this urge to draw a rigid distinction between "paradigms" and "theories.")

    I hope that’s helpful.

  4. "I'm assuming that most citizens are not fundamentally unreasonable. Otherwise, deliberative democracy is hopeless, and we should shift to some other process instead. "

    I don't see how that follows. Couldn't most citizens often be unreasonable yet democracy still be the best option? If one demands of democracy that it arrive always at the truth then perhaps one is simply demanding too much of it.

  5. Richard,

    You say "...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."

    This seems clearly right (unless you accept the view that citizens are fundamentally unreasonable, which I certainly don't), and so long as "the process" really is functioning adequately, I think your epistemic argument goes through.

    But consider this case: The process isn't functioning adequately, but most people believe that it is. The reason that the process isn't functioning adequately is that there are both formal and informal obstacles in place that prevent certain political views, which cover a fairly wide range, from getting a fair hearing, or even any hearing at all. The question is does the fact that most people believe that the process is functioning adequately evidence that those who believe it isn't are in error. It seems to me that it is not, since those who believe that the system is flawed think that it is the very flaws that they believe they can point to that make it the case that most people believe that the system is not flawed.

    In a case such as this I can see an objection to your epistemic argument as well. At least some of those who believe that the system is flawed come to that belief because they have encountered the kinds of obstacles that I described above in attempting to gain a hearing for unpopular views. These attempts, it seems to me, puts them in a better epistemic position than those who have never attempted to put forward such a view, since it is easy to fail to see obstacles that are never encountered in one's own conduct. If I'm right that those who have encountered such obstacles are in a better epistemic position than those who haven't, then it seems they at least might have a justification for some sorts of extra-procedural activism aimed at changing the existing procedures.

    Despite my desire to defend the possibility of justified radical activism, I do think much actual activism is unjustified, and that activists would do much better to defend their views and debate their opponents within established procedural frameworks (see my post entitled Free Speech and the Campus Left at the latest Philosophers' Carnival). There are some situations, however, in which the procedures themselves are flawed, and in which the only way to remedy things is to violate those procedures, even if the majority believes them to be functioning properly.

  6. Hi Brian, I think I agree with all of that. I guess the next challenge is to develop a meta-procedure that will help us to reliably determine which procedural criticisms are on target! (Is this possible? Can the criticized procedure itself be trusted to identify its own flaws? If so, we might get a nice "bootstrapping" effect, of continual procedural improvement. If not, it's hard to see what general policy should be endorsed here...)

    Clark - perhaps alternatives (e.g. letting radicals decide when to override the majority) would be even worse. But then that just goes to show that we should stick with democratic procedures after all, doesn't it?

    My point is basically this: we should act according to whatever decision procedure (rules or guidelines) would prove globally optimal. To violate those rules is necessarily irrational: whatever replacement decision procedure you would employ is, by definition, worse than the globally optimal one.

    Mike - very helpful, thanks!

  7. just to devils advocate,
    If we cannot trust ourselves not to know what is true how can we trust that our actions will achieve our aims?*

    ie If trying not to harm others will cause harm to others then we should try to harm them. You have removed the easy defence that you do know what is true.

    *sounds like your argument against pascal's wager!


  8. Richard, but there appears to be a dichotomy at work here. Why can't one have a democracy wherein force is used to implement changes that many would not approve of? That kind of democracy may well be the best of all possible worlds. It would certainly allow for dealing with things like slavery or the US civil rights movement. (I'm here thinking of say famous events in Alabama)

    I can understand your earlier comment of asking where in your argument things are wrong. But maybe it's the physicist in me, but I think looking at the results of a conclusion is a valid way to critique an argument.

    It seems what is helpful is to have democratically thought out principles whose implementation might not be agreed upon democratically. And that is what I think happened with slavery and other civil rights battles. We democratically agree upon basic principles. However once those principles are enshrined significant minorities or even majorities may not like the implications of those principles. (Say equal schooling for minorities) But the state, it seems, would in such cases have the right to use violence or the threat of violence to enforce these principles.

    Turning directly to your argument, I'll put up some thoughts at my blog so I don't end up with an overly long comment here.

  9. Hi Alex, thanks for comments.

    1) You consider the negligible disvalue of being a vegetarian when omnivorism is permissible, but neglect the much larger disvalue of forcing people to so act. I'll discuss such "civic disrespect" (/moral paternalism) more in a future post.

    2) You ask: 'Why can't the best process be "abide by democracy except from when you're very sure that it's wrong"?' My answer: this wouldn't rule out any terrorism whatsoever. Every fundamentalist is "very sure" of their own, um, 'moral clarity'. The high frequency of misplaced subjective certainty is precisely why I demand a more objective epistemic test. (I discuss this in more detail in the main post.)

    3) For that matter, why not stop with simple "truth"? The problem is that people dispute what is true or justified, so such external facts are not available as guides to action. If moral guidelines are to be any use, they must appeal only to the evidence that we actually have access to.

    Clark - thanks for your response. I agree with you about civil disobedience directed at education rather than harrassment. (Again, I plan a future post to discuss this in more detail.) I should also clarify that the political process may have non-majoritarian aspects to it, e.g. judicial oversight and enforcement of constitutional rights, etc. I fully support that. The federal government's "sending troops to Alabama to ensure integration of schools" is not vigilantism, as I understand it. (On the contrary, it was the rebelling racist majorities who were violating the broad democratic process there!)

  10. Alex that's a compelling argument - why is this principle only applied to politics? Consider how few Americans believe in evolution despite a reasonable amount of education on it.

    I was trying to find that Plato quote attacking the reasonableness of the masses, but couldn't. I've been pretty skeptical of any epistemic appeal to the masses ever since I first encountered Plato as a freshman.

  11. haha - I have ben skeptical of the intelligence of the masses as soon as I met any of them.


  12. Clark: a good quote of that sort is in the "Crito" , near the start.

    CRITO. But do you see, Socrates, that the opinion of the many must be regarded, as is evident in your own case, because they can do the very greatest evil to anyone who has lost their good opinion?

    SOCRATES. I only wish, Crito, that they could; for then they could also do the greatest good, and that would be well. But the truth is, that they can do neither good nor evil: they cannot make a man wise or make him foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance.

    Incidentally, I find Plato quite interesting on the general topic of vigilantism. Socrates was the victim of a kind of state vigilantism. And, despite the fact that he knew the state's view was wrong (ie. that he, Socrates, was doing everyone a good, not a harm), and despite all his strictures against submitting to the view of the majority, he chose not to escape; and he did this wholly for the sake of maintaining the political structure which, in the Republic, he is so determined to get rid of.

    It is also interesting that, in the same dialogue that he refuses to believe anything that other people say, he is quite willing to believe what a “fair woman” told him in a vision. ie. that the ship from Delos will be late.

  13. Alex/Clark: For one thing, the scientific method presumably provides a more reliable process for empirical inquiry than democratic procedures would. But there's no equivalent method for normative inquiry. Secondly, if a lone scientist -- no matter how brilliant -- cannot rationally convince others of their claims, then in fact I think they probably ARE mistaken! But it's okay for people to have unjustified beliefs, so long as they don't try to coercively impose them on others. (I discussed this a bit in the main post.) That's why politics is different.

    "You defended yourself against him by suggesting that any alternative would obviously be worse. I'm suggesting that this response is weak, given that there's the obvious alternative that I mentioned."

    But I was suggesting that your "obvious alternative" was also obviously worse. (Maybe I'm still misunderstanding the dialectic here?)

    "If you are right, how could we ever know which beliefs were justified and which weren't? Some way to assess justifiability must be available to us, otherwise we're stuck in a very radical sort of scepticism."

    That's a worry! I guess if I'm going to give such epistemic weight to social consensus, then I should also grant that process justificatory powers too? But I really need to think more about this...

  14. I think that the above argument should probably be formulated in some manner that doesn't translate into a justification of Pascal's Wager through substitution of the appropriate terms.


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