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