Sunday, December 09, 2007

Dogmatism and Political Illegitimacy

Suppose a faction rises to political power, and subsequently imposes their will without regard for the claims of others in society. This looks to be an abuse of power. Why? I'm tempted by the following answer: political legitimacy requires that the State be sufficiently responsive to reasons. If it were not relatively reliable, it would have no claim to authority, for legitimacy attaches only to procedures that have an appreciable tendency to generate substantively good outcomes. (Cf. Estlund on Epistemic Proceduralism and the analogy with the jury system.) But to be unreceptive to others' arguments is one obvious way to lack the requisite sensitivity to reasons. The closed-minded exercise of power is thus inherently illegitimate.

(It's worth noting that such illegitimacy can arise even in a democracy: the "tyranny of the majority" is a very real threat in a democratic society where first-order sectarianism commands greater loyalty than metapolitical values. So it is not enough for a polity to hold elections and empower the majority. Much depends on the manner in which this power is wielded. In particular, a legitimate democracy must be guided by a widespread commitment to pursue the common good in co-operation with all others who share this commitment.)

I think the problem with dogmatic sectarianism is not just epistemic, though. There also seems to me something important about the idea of civic respect, i.e. respect for the capacity of other agents to contribute to collective decision-making. I'd be curious to hear what readers make of the following argument (which I first offered in comments elsewhere):

1. (Legitimate) Politics is the collective endeavour of co-existence, i.e. deciding together how we are to live together.

2. Receptivity and civic respect are preconditions for this collective activity.

3. Dogmatism is inherently illegitimate in the political sphere.


  1. Since the State is the device conceived to mediate citizen's interactions, and defend their best interest through harmonization several claims (theoretically), and since a State draws on their citizens for their legitimacy, a State which disregards their citizens is an illegitimate State, and their citizens have the right to bring it down.

  2. To try to create some reflection here - what if I create a benign scenario.

    What if one day you hooked yourself up to a computer and suddenly found you had an IQ of 1400 and access to all the information on the internet. You are elected president of the world (or otherwise legitimately get power).

    You have a number of ideas regarding how to improve the earth and you start to instigate a few thousand of your best polices. You find that every time there is substantial opposition (in fact all the best of your ideas just were not feasible because of that opposition prior to you getting in charge) and every time you are right (usually you give everyone what they wanted and more).

    You start to realize that the debates are considerably slowing your ability to get people what they want (and it’s next to impossible to convince your opponents anyway) so you start cutting them short and not considering their position.

    Let’s also say that something very close to liberal anarchy is indeed feasible – in fact optimal. So your state almost entirely stays out of day to day affairs using just the tiniest tweaks to keep things on track (just totally irrespective of anyone else’s claims).

    Unlikely? Maybe - but your claim seems to be that it would be by it's nature illegitimate? Potentially mroe ilegitimate than lets say a government that just sat around doing nothing but considering peoples claims?

  3. I've long thought that the sole justification for democratic processes is epistemic (I really ought to write on that again, and make my position clearer).

    That said, I agree with the first half of your post, but not the second. That is, I'm not sure so of the intrinsic value of civic respect. The argument you present seems to me to be ambiguous.

    The first premise reads that politics is the collective endeavour of co-existence. But this might be read two ways:

    First, as to how we might *live* together: i.e. with purely survival in mind. On that reading, the argument is unsound, because receptivity and civic respect are not necessary conditions for this (they may, under some conditions, be helpful, but they are not necessary).

    Second, it might be read as how we *ought* to live together. But now the argument has other problems. For we need to know what the substantive content of this ought is: If it includes the claim that receptivity and civic respect are intrinsically valuable, the argument is question-begging (i.e. it says that we ought to live in a society that values receptivity and civic respect, therefore we ought to live in a society that values receptivity and civic respect). If it doesn't include this, then it's hard to see how the second premise is true.


  4. It seems to me that regarding the idea of "civic respect" you are asserting that moral obligations or virtues can attach to beliefs rather than to epistemic procedures. I vehemently disagree with this claim.

    In general I think that popular ethics, and less frequently philosophical ethics, go most wrong when they assert a moral obligation to hold some belief rather than to reach beliefs through valid epistemic processes. How does the assertion of a moral obligation to hold beliefs about the abilities, efforts, and intentions of one's fellow citizens differ from the assertion of an obligation to believe in the divinity of the king, the immobility of the Earth, or the superiority of one's race? It's not quite true that ALL of history's atrocities start with the mandating of beliefs, but it's close to true.

  5. Michael - I didn't take myself to be mandating any particular beliefs here. One ought to be disposed to co-operate with any others who are willing and able, but if your compatriots are neither then that certainly needs to be recognized!

    Genius - my claim is that the legitimate ruler must be responsive to reasons. So the question becomes: would the superbrain satisfy the counterfactual condition that if others were to have a legitimate complaint then he would recognize this and respond appropriately? If so, his actual shortcuts are perfectly responsible and legitimate on epistemic procedural grounds. (It also sounds like a situation where civic respect is not warranted, if we stipulate that others really aren't capable of contributing anything of value to the superbrain's deliberations.) Needless to say, I think our actual situation is rather different!

  6. Alex, I'm not sure I follow your objection. The thought behind my first premise is that politics concerns the collective version of the fundamental ethical question 'How to live?' -- hence: 'deciding together how we are to live together.' (So I guess that's in line with your second interpretation.) But I don't mean to say anything here about "the substantive content of this ought" -- that's a matter for first-order political deliberation. Still, there are certain preconditions that must be met in order for it to be possible for us to decide together anything at all. We must be capable of practical reasoning, for one thing (the 'decision' component). And we must be disposed to respect our fellow citizens (the 'together' component).

    Perhaps it is this part you find question-begging. An autocrat, for example, might be quite comfortable denying the first premise by claiming that legitimate politics could just as well be the unilateral endeavor of his deciding how everyone else is to live together. I guess that's a possible position, but it doesn't seem very attractive. Political theorists have usually granted that political legitimacy must somehow derive from the people as a whole. So I only mean to address those who will go along with me at least this far. I think this would include some who would not antecedently have granted my conclusion.

  7. Ah, sorry, I misread the first premise; I didn't notice that "together" appeared twice. Still, I think my criticism can be made good. You are certainly correct that your argument will only appeal to those who already endorse collective decision making.

    But even here there's a worry. Again, I run a dilemma: Is the aim to just collectively make decisions, or to collectively make *good* decisions?

    Under the former interpretation, the values you mention are not pre-conditions. One could collectively make decisions by having a shouting contest: Whoever shouts the loudest gets their way. This would be a collective (though competitive) pursuit, but obviously does not require anything like civic respect etc.

    That leaves the latter interpretation. Here we have a sub-dillema: Either we include "made in a civil manner" (or similar) in our definition of "good", or we do not.

    If we do, the argument begs the question because it assumes that our aim is to collectively make decisions that are made a civil manner. If we do not, then there's no guarantee (prior to substantive normative investigation) that civic respect etc. will be a requirement of idealised decision making. Let's imagine that by "good" we mean "maximises utility". It seems clear to me that collectively making decisions that maximise utility does not necessarily require civic respect. Perhaps utility is maximised by uncivil debate, where bigots are crushed under an iron fist, or whatever.

    There must be a more succinct way of phrasing this. How about: Collective decision making takes many forms, not all of which require civic respect. Claiming that the best form of collective decision making is one that requires civic respect requires that you already value civic respect. Otherwise there's no guarantee that civic respect will be a condition of the best form of decision making.

  8. That's interesting. I do think the aim in making decisions is always to make good decisions. But I wouldn't build procedural constraints (e.g. open-mindedness) into the very definition of a good decision. Rather, the idea is that these procedures are conducive to producing substantively good decisions. (Cf. the recommendation to open your eyes and look both ways before deciding to cross the road.)

    It's not absolutely guaranteed to yield the best possible outcome -- perhaps by some fluke one would do better to decide irrationally -- but wilfully blinding yourself to possible reasons or evidence does not, in general, seem like an advisable course of action.

  9. You sound quite correct, but I worry that your position has become much weaker (i.e. less committed, not less plausible!). What are you to say of those instances where substantively good decisions are clearly produced by ignoring those values you mention? If these values are purely instrumental, then they're obviously going to drop out of the picture as useless from time to time.

    In other words, isn't your commitment to those values now totally pragmatic? This isn't so bad - it's the view I want to push, though I suspect it has problems of its own.

  10. I'm coming late to the party here, I know, but reading your in-comment discussion with Alex, I wonder if you could consider this as making decisions that are acceptable to the most possible participants.

    Of course, such a definition is once again subject to the tyranny of the majority, but this at least appears to give stronger support to civic respect as a value.


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