Estlund Reading Group Chapter 2

Hi everyone, and welcome to the second week of our Estlund reading group where we’ll be discussing chapter 2, ‘Truth and Despotism’.

Summary

The chapter begins with a worry, expressed by Arendt, that appeals to truth in politics can be despotic. Saying something is true seems to foreclose any further debate or disagreement. Truth appears to be a conclusion we reach at the end of discussion or reasoning, and so if we base our politics around claims of truth, it looks as if we are saying no further discussion or reasoning is necessary – the answers have already been determined. But shouldn’t politics fundamentally be about discussion and debate? Arendt claimed that at least philosophical truths (as opposed to factual truths) have no place in politics because they will despotically foreclose dispute. I’m going to call this the despotism objection to truth in politics (my term not Estlund’s). There is, however, a very different sort of worry about truth in politics. On this view, the problem with appeals to truth in politics is not that they preclude disagreement or debate, but rather that they engender too much disagreement, or disagreement that is too fractious and divisive. It’s this kind of worry that might explain some political liberals’ belief that we ought abstain from appeals to truth in politics.

Philosophers who believe politics is essentially about contestation and disagreement argue both of these worries about truth are misguided. Citizens ought to bring their beliefs about truth into the political domain precisely because politics should be about contestation. What is despotic, on this view, is not citizens debating truth claims, but rather the Rawlsian attempt to bracket truth from politics and instead impose the pre-political truths of the philosopher as a constraint on political discourse. In short, citizens can and should appeal to the truth in politics, but theorists of politics should not.

Estlund claims, however, that this gets things almost exactly backwards. In order to justify our political arrangements we will have to make appeals to pre-political normative truths. But since, as Estlund will argue, a key pre-political truth is the thesis that political decisions must be acceptable to all qualified points of view, this will effectively constrain the appeals to truth that citizens can make in politics.

But perhaps there is a more straightforward way of dealing with the despotism objection? If there were no truths, or at least no normative truths, then the despotism objection would become irrelevant. This sceptical objection to truth could actually take one of two forms. It could take the form of non-cognitivism, which is to say that there are no mind-independent moral truths ‘out there’, rather moral claims are expressions of preference or emotion or whatever. But Estlund is quick to point out that this meta-ethical claim doesn’t conflict with a more minimal conception of truth, where it is true that X is F, if and only if X is F. Non-cognitivism is consistent with this view of truth, and this view of truth is all that is necessary to make normative claims about political institutions (e.g. it is true that this political institution is unjust, if and only if this political institution is unjust).  If the sceptical solution to the despotism objection is going to work, it will thus have to be a very radical form of scepticism which denies even the possibility of minimal truth about politics. Estlund labels this radical position political nihilism.

The difficulty with political nihilism is that it cuts too deep – it makes it impossible to judge any political system as better or worse than any other since nihilism declares there can be no truth of the matter about such things (not even in the minimal sense of truth). Despite this difficulty, Estlund claims Schumpeter, or at least Schumpeterians, embrace this position – they claim that there can be no objective truths about collective decisions, only the aggregation of individual preferences. And if Schumpeter embraces the view that there are no preference-independent standards for evaluating our institutions, Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem suggests that even the aggregation of preferences won’t yield a determinate standard of evaluation: the outcome of the aggregation can depend entirely on the method of aggregation selected, rather than the content of the preferences being aggregated.

Although they are in other ways very different, Estlund notes that both social choice theory and deliberative democracy tend to embrace the thesis that there are no prior normative standards by which our political processes can be evaluated – each claims to offer a purely procedural approach to political decision-making. Here Estlund flags an argument that will be made in chapter 4, namely, that attempts to ground democracy in purely procedural values (e.g. procedural fairness) are bound to be unsuccessful. Democratic procedures need to be evaluated by some prior, procedure-independent standards.

But since this will be the subject of chapter 4, Estlund turns his attention back to the despotism objection and questions whether it makes sense to say that moral truths can be despotic rulers in the way that persons can be despotic rulers. Surely there’s an important difference between being subject to a moral truth which you yourself did not will, as compared to being subject to some other person’s will? In the latter case we can always ask whether it is morally right or just to be subject to that person’s will, but in the former case this question appears incoherent – from what point of view could we ask whether it is “right” to be subject to the truths of morality? This seems to indicate that being “ruled” by a moral truth is not despotic or authoritarian in the way being ruled by another person certainly can be.

But even if the direct analogy between the rule of moral truths and the rule of persons doesn’t hold up, it still might be the case that appeals to moral truth tend to produce authoritarian political regimes. Perhaps once we admit moral truths exist, and admit some people are surely more likely to know them than others, we must favour something like an epistocracy (see chapter 1)? Does this mean we face a choice between epistocracy on the one hand and a deep proceduralist denial of process-independent truths on the other?  Estlund clearly rejects this as a false choice, and he heaps particular scorn on theories of deliberative democracy that try to force this choice upon us. These deliberative democrats, Estlund points out, find themselves in a terrible ‘tangle’ of trying to explain why deliberation and collective reasoning should be so central if there are no procedure-independent normative truths to be discovered? Estlund argues that this tangle represents ‘an embarrassment for the dominant strand of deliberative democratic political philosophy’ (p. 30).

Since Estlund believes deliberative democrats are wrong to reject the idea of process-independent truths, he moves ahead to confront the case for epistocracy directly. This case relies on three tenets (p. 30):

(1) The Truth Tenet: There are truths about political decisions, at least in the minimal sense.

(2) The Knowledge Tenet: Some people possess better knowledge of these truths than others.

(3) The Authority Tenet: Superior knowledge of political truths is a warrant for having political authority.

Political nihilists try to undermine the case for epistocracy by denying (1), but Estlund has already rejected political nihilism as untenable. Many people might try to undermine the knowledge tenet, but Estlund believes (2) is very difficult to deny. (2) doesn’t implausibly assert that some people have perfect knowledge of truths, only superior knowledge relative to others. (2) also doesn’t require those with knowledge to be more virtuous than anyone else – so long as they are equally virtuous then their superior knowledge ought to be decisive. And, as Estlund points out, just because we are all moral equals doesn’t mean we will all be equally knowledgeable regarding what morality requires. There is, in brief, no good reason to deny (2).

Estlund’s strategy, of course, is to deny (3) on the grounds that it represents an instance of the expert/boss fallacy (see chapter 1). As he says, ‘even if there are true standards of better and worse political decisions, there may also be a true general acceptability criterion that brackets the use of the true standards’ (p. 33). Estlund endorses just such a standard whose rough version is: ‘no one has authority or legitimate coercive power over another without a justification that could be accepted by all qualified points of view’ (p. 33). I will call this Estlund’s qualified acceptability criterion (QAC). Though the QAC places limits on the use of true standards in politics, it does represent a pre-political normative truth about politics, and so represents the kind of claim that political nihilists reject.

Thought it might seem the QAC would block the move to epistocracy, Estlund points that things are not so simple. If we substitute ‘things that are acceptable to qualified points of view’ for the term ‘truth’ in the argument for epistocracy, the argument still looks valid since now the claim will be that there are some experts who have better knowledge of what meets the QAC, and those people, if the authority tenet is sound, then have warrant to rule. There is, however, a problem with this modification to the argument for epistocracy. The problem is that the so-called experts must be identifiable in a way that can itself pass the QAC. And one of Estlund’s central claims, of course, is that there is no way of identifying political experts in a way that can pass the QAC.  Estlund refers to this as the view that there can be no invidious comparisons between citizens with regard to their political wisdom that can avoid qualified objection.

The chapter concludes by addressing the worry that Estlund’s approach unfairly privileges the democratic principle of universal suffrage. It might seem suspicious to proceed as if universal suffrage is the norm, and only departures from that norm need to pass the QAC. Shouldn’t universal suffrage itself have to pass the QAC just like any other proposal? Estlund responds to this worry as follows. Arguments for epistocracy or other forms of invidious comparisons purport to establish a kind of authority or legitimacy that the democratic idea of universal suffrage does not. Invidious comparisons establish the formal and permanent rule of some people by others, and this alleged relationship of authority must pass the QAC. Of course it’s true that universal suffrage allows the majority to rule over the minority, but universal suffrage makes no claim that certain specific people are entitled to rule over others, and thus invidious comparisons face an additional justificatory burden that universal suffrage does not. Because of this difference, universal suffrage should find it easier to pass the QAC than theories involving invidious comparisons. Estlund also points out that though the QAC might appear to be a form of democracy, as it requires a kind of general acceptance, the QAC is not an actual process but rather a philosophical standard. Democracy, on the other hand, is ‘the actual collective authorization of laws and policies by the people subject to them’ (p. 38). Since no claims about actual political processes are built in to the QAC, adopting this standard does not necessarily favour a democratic process.

Estlund finishes by emphasizing that his theory aims to reconcile two fundamental ideas about democracy. The first is that political decisions can be better or worse, and thus at least part of the justification of our political institutions should depend on how well those institutions do in terms of making the right decisions. The second idea is that political institutions need to be justified in a way that is acceptable to all qualified points of view. Reconciling and defending these ideas sets the agenda for the rest of the book. A successful defence will need to confront and reject the purely procedural approaches to democracy, and will also require an explanation as to why the existence of procedure-independent moral truths does not lead to epistocratic conclusions.

Questions/Comments

1. I found myself in agreement with most of what Estlund has to say in this chapter. There were only two things that left me puzzled. The first is the issue of whether Estlund has privileged universal suffrage relative to other non-democratic theories. I confess I had some difficulty following Estlund’s argument here. The imagined objection, as I understand it, is this: universal suffrage should be on a par with all other proposed forms of political arrangement – it should have to pass the QAC just like any other proposal would. Universal suffrage cannot be the default position to which we retreat if nothing else can pass the QAC.  The basic question is thus: does Estlund believe universal suffrage can be the default position, and if so, doesn’t this arbitrarily privileged universal suffrage?

Estlund’s response is, I think, two-fold. On the one hand, he says ‘the argument of the book, taken as a whole, is that democracy can meet the burdens of justification incurred by proposals to subject some to the rule of others’ (p. 37). So it seems universal suffrage must pass the QAC like any other proposal. On the other hand, Estlund points to a disanalogy between universal suffrage and invidious comparisons. He claims that the latter theories make an extra claim about authority or legitimacy that universal suffrage does not, and so they face an extra justificatory burden.

First of all, I’m not sure whether this disanalogy really holds up. Both theories allow one group of people to rule over another (either the wise or the majority). It’s not clear to me why picking out the wise as the people with the warrant to rule raises any extra justificatory issues. Estlund seems to suggest that when we pick out the wise, we’re picking specific people to permanently rule over others in a way that we don’t with majority rule. But that needn’t be the case. Sometimes we know, with quite a high degree of certainty, who the majority on any given issue or set of issues are, and so if we institute a system of majority rule we are picking out some specific people to rule over others. Especially in societies divided by one major cleavage, where most political disputes turn on whether you belong to religion X or religion Y let’s say, it is very easy to predict that a system of majority rule is just a mechanism of handing authority to the majority religious group within that society.

But even if we set this worry about the disanalogy to one side, I still wasn’t sure what Estlund’s response to the basic question was. Estlund says that when the QAC is not met, the default position is one where there is an absence of authority or legitimacy (p. 37). A world where no one has authority over anyone else sounds like an anarchist world, or a (Hobbesian) world where everyone has the liberty to do what they can, but is vulnerable to the fact that everyone else has a similar carte blanche. I wasn’t sure whether Estlund meant that something like this would be the default situation if no political system (including majority rule) could pass the QAC?

2. The other small worry has to do with Estlund’s refusal, thus far, to be more specific about the content of ‘qualified points of view’. It seems to me that Estlund must, at some stage, offer a little more detail on this constituency since it plays such a crucial role in blocking the move to epistocracy. Without wanting to pre-empt discussion in later chapters, consider how somebody might object to Estlund’s position as stated thus far. Our critic says, ‘qualified persons or points of view are, whatever else they are, capable of distinguishing who the political experts are among us’.  This sounds like a pretty plausible description of one of the features a qualified person/point of view ought to have. Consider a different context. Surely one of the characteristics of a qualified political philosopher would be the capacity to recognize who the best political philosophers are, or at least to recognize who does good work in political philosophy and who is just a hack.  But if we define qualified points of view in this way with regard to recognizing political expertise, then Estlund cannot say that there will always be qualified objections to invidious comparisons. There will never be qualified objections, because our critic has stipulated that such objections are impossible.

In order to rebut this objection, it seems like Estlund is going to have to make some fairly thick claims about what it means for a point of view to be qualified, and offer an explanation as to why we should attach so much normative weight to these points of view.

I also wondered about the following, related, objection. Suppose we grant Estlund’s claim that, in the world as we know it, there will always be qualified objections to invidious comparisons. Isn’t this a contingent or path-dependent feature of our world? Isn’t this the result of the fact that we have not tried to develop educational institutions whose sole purpose is to train political experts? Imagine we did live in an (attempted) epistocracy, one where the brightest children in school were selected to attend elite institutions of higher education whose overriding aim was to prepare people to be wise political rulers. The selected children would be given extensive training in all those subjects that seem most pertinent to wise political rule: normative ethics, economics, social policy, political science, history etc… Once the education of these children is complete they would be given very rigorous tests and interviews. Only those who excelled would then be selected as political rulers. The rest of the population, knowing they will never be political rulers, are offered a wide range of educational options, but don’t spend nearly as many years studying and training the core political subjects, and so clearly lack the political expertise of their rulers. The whole system has been set up to identify and train wise rulers. In this institutional context, wouldn’t all qualified points of view have to agree that a clearly identifiable class of political experts do exist? If so, doesn’t this mean the objection to epistocracy is contingent on not living in a society that has designed epistocratic institutions? It seems like Estlund’s argument only kicks in after we’ve chosen our institutions, but it doesn’t have any principled objection to designing epistocratic educational institutions, and indeed maybe it ought to favour the design of such institutions. But this is surely not what he intends. I’m not saying that this sort of objection is decisive, largely because we need to know more about how Estlund wants to develop his account of qualified points of view. But I’m interested to know what Estlund’s response is to this line of argument.

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About Jonathan Quong

Jonathan Quong is a lecturer in political philosophy at the University of Manchester
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9 Responses to Estlund Reading Group Chapter 2

  1. Ben Saunders says:

    To begin with my thoughts on Jonathan’s questions/comments (which aren’t exactly answers):

    1) “it is very easy to predict that a system of majority rule is just a mechanism of handing authority to the majority religious group within that society”

    That’s something I’m very worried about. If majority rule amounts to permanent rule of one group over another, then I don’t think there’s anything democratic about it. Moreover, I think you could strengthen the point by noting that ‘the wise’ need not denote a fixed group either, but could be people who vary case by case – for we could submit medical matters to an epistocracy of doctors, town planning decisions to an epistocracy of town planners, etc. (Of course, budget trade-offs between hospitals and town planning might call for a different set of epistemic qualifications, but that would be yet a third group of experts, if there were any experts in such). So, I’m similarly slightly puzzled as to the status of universal, equal enfranchisement as a sort of default, although I suppose one could justify it contractually – e.g. as reasonable agreement, what all would accept behind the veil of ignorance, minimax relative concession, etc.

    2) The path-dependence of our lack of political experts.

    Another very good point, recalling all the training Plato prescribes for his Guardians. I think one could still raise qualified objections, however (drawing on some of what David has to say in ch.11). We hear plenty of controversy about educational achievement gaps according to sex, race, class, etc – not to mention supposed public school favoritism in Oxbridge. Presumably, any supposed meritocratic standard to select the ‘brightest and best’ for this political education would be open to similar controversy and qualified objection. Moreover, you might also argue that such a division will create divided ‘class’ (ruler vs. non-ruler) interests in society. The political experts need not, like Plato’s Guardians, be supremely virtuous or denied private benefits. Thus one may worry that they’ll use their knowledge to do what’s best for them rather than all – and, again, whether or not this is true, it seems a qualified objection.

    Like Jonathan, I’d like to hear more from David, or anyone else, on these points. I also had two of my own worries, sparked by Jonathan’s summary, however. I’m not sure whether these are problems with the book, Jonathan’s summary, or my understanding, so any clarification would be enlightening.

    3) “political decisions must be acceptable to all qualified points of view” [Jonathan’s paragraph 3]

    There’s more to come about qualified acceptability in the next chapter, but if this is right (and I don’t currently have my text in front of me) I’d misunderstood. I thought the qualified acceptability test only applied to something like ‘constitutional essentials’. That seems to be how it’s applied – democracy or majority rule must be acceptable to all qualified viewpoints. Is it (also) the case that democratic decision outcomes must be similarly acceptable to all? And does this amount to allowing potential for significant checks on democratic rule, e.g. supreme court review?

    4) “Estlund notes that both social choice theory and deliberative democracy tend to embrace the thesis that there are no prior normative standards by which our political processes can be evaluated – each claims to offer a purely procedural approach to political decision-making”

    Does anyone seriously entertain the notion that any political decision is as good as any other? That had, for example, the Nazis put the Holocaust to a vote it wouldn’t matter whether or not it went ahead, provided that what was done reflected a majority of preferences? If anyone did, I’m not sure what I’d have to say to them. What I think is going on, however, is that many writers sharply distinguish good government (realizing substantive principles of justice) from democratic government (respecting the preferences of the people). If we care only about the former, then we could accept Platonic Guardians if we thought their rule would ensure the best results. Now, David wants to challenge this, effectively arguing that no specific epistocratic arrangements could pass the qualified acceptability test. (It’s all very well saying we want to be ruled by those who know the truth about justice, but no help in practice if we can’t agree who they are). He thinks that part of the justification of democracy has to appeal to the fact that it’s epistemically best out of those procedures that are acceptable to all qualified points of view – and this is what differentiates it from the also procedurally fair possibility of deciding randomly. Nonetheless, surely it’s misleading to characterize his opponents (the social choice/deliberative democrat* people) as denying that there are normative standards prior to the democratic procedure? I’d have thought they only want to deny the relevance of such to democracy.

    *I admit, what I’ve said here may be more my reconstruction though. I don’t know much about Habermas, but some of what I have heard suggests he might want to say norms are produced by the constructive procedure of the ideal speech situation – but in so far as this differs from an actual democratic decision situation, doesn’t it still impose prior normative standards on the latter?

  2. Hi Ben,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. First, I should say that you are right – you caught me again being a little sloppy in my summary. I should not have said ‘political decisions’. David refers to the QAC (at least in these early chapters) as a test that alleged relations of authority or legitimacy must meet, not a test that each political decision must meet. Maybe it was something like a Freudian slip on my part since I do believe that all our political decisions ought to be held to something this standard, but I didn’t mean to attribute this position to David.

    Two further quick comments. I’m not too persuaded by your suggestions as to how qualified objections might still arise in a society with epistocratic educational institutions. Your suggestions rely on non-ideal assumptions (e.g. a society’s unjust past or present class system, or sexism, or the worry that the rulers might act unjustly). While these are valid concerns once we move to non-ideal theory, they don’t provide any principled reasons to oppose such epistocratic institutions.

    Finally, I happen to think David’s characterization of at least some deliberative democrats is fair. Some deliberative democrats, particularly of the Habermasian variety, have been heavily critical of Rawls precisely because Rawls’ political liberalism places pre-political normative constraints on the process of deliberation – crudely speaking, it makes certain liberal principles prior to democratic autonomy. These deliberative democrats argue that the process cannot be constrained by any prior normative principles other than those necessary to the process itself. Habermas’s ideal speech situation does not produce any principles that constrain real political discussions since no one person can know what would be agreed in the ideal speech situation. The speech situation just offers the ideal model for our own deliberative institutions.

  3. I too am interested in Jonathan’s question about why the default is equal authority, rather than no authority, and the issue of whether the QAC begs the question in favour of democracy. The problem seems to be that both epistocracy and democracy are subject to reasonable (i.e. qualified) objections. So why does democracy win? David’s claim is that the advantage universal suffrage has over invidious comparisons must derive from the QAC itself (paraphrase of p.37). Here’s one way to interpret this claim, and the ensuing discussion on p.37, but I’m not sure if it’s what David intends.

    Suppose there are no qualified objections to having a common rule of conduct on some matter. Now we need a decision procedure. There are reasonable objections to both epistocracy and democracy. But ALL coercive power has to be justified by the special “no qualified objections” standard, and in the epistocratic set-up, there is extra coercive authority, over and above that implicit in there being a collective rule all have to follow. Not only is there a common rule, but some get input into what this rule will be, while others don’t. Given that there are no qualified objections to having a common rule, any deviation from equal say in determining what this rule will be should also have to meet the “no qualified objections” requirement, because not only are we each subject to all, some are subject to others. So what we have here is a presumption in favour of equal authority given that there is no qualified objection to lodging the authority over the conduct in question with the collectivity. I don’t think this is begging the question, because the argument can proceed from first premises about the justification of coercion (thinking of Gaus’s arguments about public justification here). But it does rely on the premise that in the absence of conclusive justification (i.e. if there are qualified objections), the collectivity cannot impose a common rule of conduct. Depending how one spells out the qualified objection criterion, this starting point may severely limit the scope of collective authority and undermine the possibility of a democratic society, even if democracy wins within the limited sphere permitted for collective decision-making.

  4. Paul Vickery says:

    Continuing on the previous post: why invidious comparisons face an extra justificatory burden.

    I think this argument can be understood by comparing it to the individual case and looking at it as a claim about political groups. The norm (default position) in an individual case is that the individual rules herself. We need an extra argument to justify others exercising authority over that individual, (for example, we have such an argument in the case of the parenting of children). Similarly, in a group situation, collective decision-making among members is the default position. I don’t think this argument makes any claims about the details: unanimous consent vs majority rule vs elected representatives, all of these fit the default of a single group exercising authority over itself. If society is broken into two or more political groups (epistocrats and commoners; nobles and serfs; men and women), we would need an additional argument to show why one group has authority over the other. Democracy does not divide society into any groups where one rules over another but retains the default position of a single group.

  5. Hi Andrew and Paul,
     
    Andrew: I like the idea you’re proposing, but I’m not confident that it works. The key move is the claim that ‘in the epistocratic set-up, there is extra coercive authority’. I don’t really see why there is more coercive authority involved in an epistocracy than in a regular majority rule situation. A decision will be taken about some issue that we grant requires a collective solution. But just because we’ve agreed some issue needs a common solution doesn’t automatically imply that the default mechanism of choosing that solution is majority rule. If that’s right, why would a decision-making procedure which follows the will of the majority be any less coercive than one which follows the will of the wise? Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but I don’t see the extra level of coercion. I think departures from universal suffrage might seem more coercive only if we already assume that universal suffrage is the norm, but we can’t just assume that on your proposed line of reasoning – it needs to be shown.
     
    Paul: You suggest that we should think about things using an analogy with an individual case. In the case of a single individual the default position is that the individual rules themselves – departures from this need to meet the QAC. You then suggest democracy has the same structure: the default position is that the democratic constituency rules itself (via universal suffrage) and departures need to meet the QAC.  But doesn’t the principle at the individual level rather undermine the case you’re trying to make at the group level? Surely they can’t both be default positions? How did the group get authority over the individual? If each individual rules themselves in the absence of good reasons to the contrary, then democracy cannot be a default position.
     
    Just to be clear, in my comments I tried to express the fact that I wasn’t sure whether David thinks universal suffrage is on all fours with any other political proposal, or whether he thinks it occupies some kind of privileged or default position. I know David says that the book’s argument, as a whole, is meant to show that democracy can meet the justificatory burden of the QAC, but he also seems to think that universal suffrage doesn’t have as much work to do in meeting this burden as other approaches, and this latter claim is the one I’m a bit puzzled by.

  6. Ben Saunders says:

    Just to follow-up Jonathan’s reply to Paul: It’s not clear to me that epistocracy splits society in two in an objectionable way. It would be true if the weightings were such that there was one privileged group who could decide what to do against all others. If we simply gave all university graduates (or PhDs) two votes, however, that deviates from the supposed default of equality, but without obviously creating ‘ruling’ and ‘ruled’ classes.

    Of course, one quick objection might be that either: a) All (or almost all) the epistocrats will think the same, in which case we probably ought to go with their opinion, or b) the ‘wise’ will disagree as much as anyone else, suggesting wisdom is pretty useless after all.

  7. Piers Turner says:

    Just a quick comment on Paul’s suggestion. On page 37, David writes "Democracy involves some ruling others." So whatever the merits of the suggestion, it doesn’t seem like David has in mind the idea of, as you write, "single group exercising authority over itself." I tend to think Jonathan has a good point here and look forward to David’s reply.

  8. I’ve posted some responses to this thread up to this point, but since it’s longish again it’s a post instead of a comment. 

  9. For those who might be silently following: the discussion of this chapter has, since Friday, moved over to my Post, “Response to comments on Chapter 2.”

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