Response to Comments on Chapter 10

Thanks to Rebecca for the great summary and questions about this chapter, and to Jonathan and Ben for pitching in. The chapter proposes a way to combine, in broadly deliberative approach to democracy, a central role for an ideal deliberative situation with a similarly central place in democratic practice for activities other than deliberating. I suggest that an ideal deliberation can be used as a template by which to identify actual deviations. Where there are deviations that clearly insert power over reason in favor of a particular point of view, the epistemic core of my approach recommends efforts to restore the epistemic balance. Where this can’t be done by removing the skewing element of power, it can sometimes be done by injecting power on the other side of the question in a way that attempts to neutralize the first, skewing element. The thing to emphasize is that this will often be yet a further departure from the ideal deliberative situation. An abuse of power by a certain company or industry that tilts the political system in their favor might responsibly be answered by a boycott. A boycott is primarily an exercise of brute market power, and not a rational argument in response to the company’s view. I suggest that this is a way to keep deliberation in its place: central to the theory, less central to political practice.

Rebecca naturally wonders what kinds of exercises of brute power I would condone. The question is important because one of the great advantages of a contest of reasons is that, unlike a contest of powers, there is nothing to fear about an arms race. But a push often triggers a shove in return, and things can deteriorate from there. This (which I recognize is not a position that Rebecca’s takes) was a common reaction to Marcuse’s argument that speakers whose views are overrepresented as a result of a great imbalance of power might, on some occasions be permissibly silenced by picketing, heckling, or other kinds of obstruction. As I point out, civil disobedience, which is different in many ways from what I call countervailing deviations from ideal deliberation, shares with them the risk of triggering an escalation of the conflict. These are risks that must be weighed when either of these tactics are contemplated, but, just as hardly anyone condemns civil disobedience across the board, I don’t see this as a reason to think countervailing deviations are automatically to be condemned. In both cases we need theoretical foundations that constrain the use of these tactics in certain ways, even though a lot must be left up to the judgment of the agent.

In an article called, “Deliberation Down and Dirty,” (full citation in the bibliography) I look closely at one real example of sharp tactics that I think illustrates the kind of thing suggested by my account. I go on there to reflect briefly on the ladder of increasingly sharp departures from deliberative norms, from profanity, to obstruction of speakers, to civil disobedience, threats to property, and political violence that is dangerous to people. Nothing I say there settles the moral questions that will tend to arise when these things are considered. I merely observe that there are circumstances in which any of those tactics might be permissible. My account doesn’t give us those criteria, but proposes a framework in which non-ideal conditions do not automatically bring down the moral framework of civility. The more severe sorts of tactics are to be justified by only the more severe sorts of systemic breakdown. This is to be contrasted with a merely strategic approach in which one may use whatever tactics one thinks will bring about the truly best outcome. On my approach, a citizen may try to approximate the epistemic situation of a free deliberative situation, she must be prepared to lose here just as in a fair debate.

Beyond this it wouldn’t be useful for me to recommend specific tactics for specific cases, something that always depends on myriad circumstances specific to the moment. I should say, though, that of course there will often be moral constraints on these actions that come from elsewhere and not from considerations about the political system’s epistemic value. For example, some epistemically distorting power imbalance might be effectively countered by certain shrewd acts of theft or property damage, but those things might yet be wrong in that case for other reasons (while in some other cases they might be permissible).

Rebecca asks the general question, but also asks specifically what this approach has to say about the permissibility of lying in order to countervail some power imbalance in politics. This is a fascinating issue, and it is picked in Ben’s comment. Jonathan asks a similar question about insincerity.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that I pitch the question as one about what should be understood as the appropriate norms of civility, and so I mainly ask which sets of norms would be best. I assume for simplicity, then, that citizens should obey whatever the appropriate rules are. So I don’t conceive of an agent in a specific case asking which actions of hers might right the epistemic tilt she perceives. I see her as morally constrained by norms of civility even where these constraints might forbid her to do what would, as it happens, be most effective. A more complicated view would take up the question when even these norms are permissibly violated, but I don’t take that up.

As Jonathan notes, rules of (as I call it) “wide civility” permitting insincerity might have serious epistemic costs, and the same is true of rules permitting lying. If so, an epistemic approach is inclined to lean against them. It seems very unlikely that the best norms of wide civility would permit insincerity or lying just whenever that would be effective against some particular power imbalance, or even against imbalances that are themselves caused by insincerity or lying. The reason is the epistemic havoc this seems likely to risk. It is also possible that independent moral prohibitions on these things would be quite weighty. But I leave open the possibility that lying might be a permissible response to some political conditions in an effort to countervail some severe skewing of the epistemic situation by others. Suppose, for example, the owners of a mine schedule a public event to stir up anti-union sentiment in the community. Depending on the background conditions, might it not be permissible for pro-union activists to spread disinformation about the time and place of the event? It’s a reasonable question that is raised, but not answered, by my account.

Jonathan is certainly right that political action that is aimed at improving epistemic conditions might, if generally engaged in, make the epistemic situation only worse. Strategic public lying exhibits this danger nicely. I allow, as I say above, that lying might be forbidden on these grounds by the best norms of wide civility, and the moral weight of those norms versus the moral weight of other consideration is a further and complicated question.

Rebecca’s also asks a question about the definition of the ideal epistemic deliberation itself, which is whether differences in rational and rhetorical among individuals should be accounted for. The reason is that such difference might skew the results in favor of the gifted parties irrespective of the merits of the arguments. She anticipates two ways to respond to this danger. One is to define the ideal deliberation in such a way that there is not likely to be any such skewing. The other is to build the non-rational tactics that I consider for real politics right into the ideal deliberation itself. It is hard to know how to decide between these, but there is no question that the issue must be dealt with.

One consideration is this: the ideal deliberation is to be theorized in such a way that, other things equal, it will provide a useful template by which to identify deviations in actual practice. I’m not sure but I’m inclined to think that this favors an ideal deliberation in which acts of brute power are kept out. If they were present both there and in actual practice it would be all the harder to be sure that any actual instance of brute power is any deviation at all. So the question would be whether the issue can adequately be handled in the other way, without resort to countervailing deviations even in the ideal. Note that this approach also seems favored by the fact that the maldistribution of rhetorical and rational skills is plausibly seen as a deviation from the more ideal case in which they were equally distributed. So, as I see it, we could either define the ideal so that such skills were equally possessed by all, or possibly the weaker condition that any maldistribution is randomly distributed across all relevant issue spaces. That way it would have no skewing potential. Actual conditions could then be seen as deviating when it is evident that rhetorical or rational skill is unequally favoring one side of an issue—that is favoring them in a way not explained by any superior merits of their position.

Ben asks, does this account suggest that only holders of the disadvantaged view may engage in countervailing, or may third parties also do so? This is related to the questions about lying and sincerity. The account does not generally limit countervailing to the aggrieved parties, but certain kinds of countervailing, like lying or espousing views you don’t hold threaten epistemic damage that needs to be factored in. For these reasons tactics that we might label “non-misleading” will often have an advantage. But in those cases there’s no special permission or duty on the citizens who hold the aggrieved view. The countervailing action might be taken by others.

Finally, just for the record, I should clear up one confusion that is my fault and which surfaced in Rebecca’s summary. My discussion of vouchers and political equality is not meant as an application of my discussion of countervailing deviations. I had a hard time deciding where to place that discussion in the book, and I realize it is somewhat confusing to put it where I did. But it should be read as a self-contained section. It does however, share this much with the main concerns of the chapter: it illustrates another context in which it seems senseless to insist on conditions that especially resemble an ideal epistemic deliberation. Here the issue is equal procedural influence rather than power vs. reason, but they are instances of a general point: ideal deliberation is a useful part of the theory, but that does not at all mean that it ought to be approximated as closely as possible in practice. There is also this in common, that they can both be seen as applications of the problem of second-best. In the power vs. reason case: where the condition of equal power is violated on one side, there is no longer any reason to assume that is should not be violated on the other. In the equal procedural influence case: where the conditions guaranteeing unlimited time for all parties to speak is violated there is no longer any reason to assume that the condition guaranteeing equal access out to be maintained. But in both cases, the ideal conditions are not be allowed to fall like a house of cards, ending in outright battle. We need an account that scales the permissible deviations to the circumstances.

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