The Determination of Privacy:
This is a provocative, original book, and Chapter Two is typical in arguing rationally for radical revisions in our ways of thinking.
In order to convince us of that the state is allowed—indeed, is obliged—to persuade us to have appropriate democratic views, Brettschneider needs to convince us that this won’t intrude on a private realm that should be free from intrusion by the state. He realizes that the very people who support democracy tend to want a space in which individuals are immune to government intervention, a space in which to develop their own values and live according to those. Democracy, after all, is supposed to empower the citizens within the democratic state, not the government, and so we resist even efforts aimed at our improvement when those seem too intrusive. There is a reason that George Orwell’s specter of Big Brother has been a vivid image for millions of people who have never read 1984. Even if Brettschneider is right that support for democracy requires an attitude of respect for fellow citizens, for believing in their rights to equal participation in civic life, he needs to convince us that there is there is an obligation for us to have this attitude when that is contrary to other beliefs that we have.
First, Brettschneider argues that privacy is a normative notion. That is, we do not discover a realm in which public interference is impermissible, so much as we decide what that realm should be. What is private is not a function of space (as in, the home) or personal attachment (the family, or other close relationships.) Rather, what is private depends on how one’s actions affect other people. If something you do has a sufficiently negative effect on other people, it is no longer private, no matter where it takes place, or the relationship you hold to those you are affecting:
On my view, the boundaries between public and private should not be determined in a manner that automatically considers all practices and beliefs in the family or civil society to be beyond criticism. Instead, the boundaries should be drawn by reference to what practices and beliefs are relevant to the ideal of free and equal citizenship.” (52)
Thought Itself as Public:
In itself, the idea that the state can legitimately intrude into the domestic (or whatever) sphere is not, for most of us, shocking. That actions in the home or family can be “potentially matters of public concern– regardless of what ‘spaces’ they occupy” (52) seems straightforward in a time when governmental intervention into spousal or child abuse in the home is seen as not only permissible but obligatory. And, the sorts of changes that Brettschneider supports in support of democratic values are not, as he stresses, to be brought about through coercion, as interventions to prevent child or spousal abuse are: no one is forced to take up appropriate democratic values. Indeed, Brettschneider stresses in this chapter that ideally, no government action whatsoever would be taken to instill proper democratic values: rather, it should be the individual citizen who voluntarily engages in reflective revision to order his beliefs in a way that is compatible with democratic values. Given all this, his suggestions about the necessary acceptance of democratic values may initially seem less than radical.
The reverse, though, is true. While laws today allow government intervention in the physical sphere of the home and the interpersonal sphere of the family, Brettschneider wants access to our minds. The objects of change here are not the citizen’s actions but his very thoughts. The citizen has an obligation, for Brettschneider, to change his way of thinking, to accord with the political philosophy espoused by the democratic state. This, certainly, is radical. One might think that the last bastion of privacy would be one’s own mind: that at least in his mental life a person would be free from obligations to others, not to mention the possibility of government intrusion. On the contrary, writes Brettschneider:
I defend the view that citizens in liberal democracy should engage in “reflective revision.” Citizens engage in reflective revision when they endorse the ideal of free and equal citizenship and appeal to it to evaluate more general beliefs. In some instances, if there is conflict between democratic values and a set of beliefs held by citizens, they should find a way to reflectively revise their beliefs in order to incorporate the ideal of free and equal citizenship. To the extent that public values might conflict with the existing worldview held by citizens, a political conception of free and equal citizenship requires reforming and changing existing beliefs. (52)
Brettschneider’s major task, then, and the thrust of both this chapter and the rest of the book, is to convince us that even thoughts can be publicly relevant; that this in turn means they are rightfully subject to evaluation as to how they do or don’t accord with public goals; and that we are justifiably held to be obligated to change our ideas when they don’t so accord. There is a caveat here: he does at one point (60-61) say that there are really two alternatives as to how reflective revision can work: complete revision of one’s values in accordance with what is entailed by democracy, and a partial revision, in which, in one’s heart of hearts, one may still oppose citizen equality, as long as all one’s actions (including speech) support those values. Even as he makes this concession, though, he argues that the person who goes through ‘partial” revision will have a hard row to hoe: living in a way where actions are constantly at variance with privately held values puts one in a position of “cognitive dissonance,” where one is, whether willingly or not, aware of a deep split in one’s life that is at best unnerving, and at worst fundamentally destructive of psychological integrity. So, here and elsewhere, the emphasis is on changing one’s ideas, the fact that we have an obligation to do that, and the fact that the government should use persuasion (but not coercion) to do that if it isn’t achieved through an individual’s own efforts.
In later chapters, Brettschneider will develop in detail the claim that it is permissible for the state to persuade us to change our ideas. First, however, he wants to use Chapter Two to pave the way for such intervention, by arguing that there is a an obligation on the part of the individual citizen to change his own ideas, if they are incompatible with democratic values. Arguing for the permissibility of state intrusion later will presumably be easier if we have already accepted that we have an obligation as citizens to change, and that the state is simply making us do what we already have an obligation to do.
The arguments for this obligation on the part of the individual to think appropriately, though, are not entirely easy to follow. Brettschneider lists three reasons why the citizen ought to have views that are congruent with democracy:
1) The argument from democratic congruence: He gives the example of a father, who, in his role as public official, endorses equal funding for boys’ and girls’ sports, but in his domestic role as father, prevents his daughter from engaging in sports because he thinks she should concentrate exclusively on domestic chores. He questions “whether the father has sincerely endorsed the decision he is willing to make in public.” Given his failure to embrace these principles at home,
he denies in his personal decision the same values and arguments that he has endorsed publicly. If these are the right values to guide policy, and if they require equal funding because of the importance of sports to girls’ future citizenship, the father should also and endorse these principles at home. (56-57)
This seems to be an argument simply for rational consistency. The public official ought to hold only logically congruent beliefs (at least, when it comes to democratic values.) If it is the right thing to do generally, it is the right thing to do in his home as well.
2. The argument from interconnection: The second reason he condemns the father’s belief is apparently that it is harmful: “decisions by non-state actors have the potential to undermine their fellow citizens’ chances to attain real-life equal citizenship.” (57) The father’s decision, even in this sphere traditionally considered private, will have a serious impact on his daughter’s ability to attain equal citizenship. This harm is not only caused by public officials, but by private citizens: “A private citizen, for instance, would be wrong to vote for a similar ballot initiative guaranteeing equal access to sports on grounds of equal citizenship and then to deny his daughter the right to play out of a belief that she should be confined to domestic tasks.” (57)
3. The argument from public trust: Public officials need to follow through on their public commitments and pronouncements. They won’t be as effective in implementing a policy in which they don’t sincerely believe. The father in the imagined case, for example, “will not be able to write a sincerely persuasive letter as a school board member to the parents” to encourage them to sign their daughters up for sports., since he doesn’t really see a reason to follow them.
There is something of a problem with these arguments, in that they seem fairly limited in whom they address. Two of them 1)
Public justification requires that citizens in a democratic state should be committed to transforming these beliefs through reflective revision to make them consistent with public reason’s demand for equality. Although freedom of conscience is essential to value democracy, it should not cordon off the family as a protected “private” space exempt from the requirements of public reason. Beliefs and actions in the family can be publicly relevant, given that they can disempower women and girls to an extent that is inconsistent with the idea of equal citizenship” (62)
Citizens generally need to transform beliefs that do not accord the demand for equality. If the state is to be effective in teaching the values of democracy, it needs to reach the ordinary citizen as well as those few who serve in public office.
Argument (2), it is true, does not address only public officials. Rather, it speaks specifically to private citizens. Even there, though, there is some question as to whom the argument is supposed to be relevant. The example is one of a private citizen who has conflicting commitments: he votes for a ballot initiative in favor of equal access in sports, but prevents his daughter from taking advantage of this. The justification for his change to the preferred values of equal citizenship again seems to based on the need to erase a conflict. Indeed, Brettschneider says that “[c]oherent endorsement of democratic values requires that we revise our personal commitments to make them consistent with an ideal of free and equal citizenship.” (54) That is fine as far as it goes: reason does cry out against holding two conflicting values at the same time. The trouble is that many of the hate groups Brettschneider wants to address—the KKK, for example, which he uses (rightly) as an example of a group whose values clearly are contrary to equal citizenship—don’t seem to have this sort of internal conflict. The worst of the hate groups are perfectly consistent: they hate the idea of equal citizenship, and are not shy about saying so. Even on the minimal view where democracy means “one man one vote,” they’re against it, and certainly they’re against any view of democracy that would entail equal respect for all citizens. So, it will be hard to convict of them of any inconsistency in their beliefs.
I don’t think this is much of a problem. It’s fine with me if we say people have an obligation to change their beliefs just because their beliefs are wrong and harmful, and that in particular the state is justified in persuading them to change their views because their views are harmful to democracy. It does, though, mean there is a less of an internal motivation on the part of the citizen with anti-democratic views to change his ways. People do like to be consistent, since it eliminates the cognitive dissonance Brettschneider mentions—which should simply make them feel better– and perhaps because it insulates them from a certain sort of criticism. If their racist, sexist, etc. views are consistent, though, we lose one source of motivation for them to change. We cannot say “One must believe this if one accepts democracy, because it is entailed by the belief in democracy. If you think you have an idea of democracy that doesn’t entail this—that holds that only the competent should vote, and only white men are competent, for example—you haven’t really accepted democracy.” We will need other reasons to persuade them. For myself, I would be happy enough to change people’s minds through the use of non-rational means, through propaganda or whatever it may be called. Brettschneider, though, wants to respect their rationality, and engage them in argument. I don’t doubt that there are other arguments available to use to persuade the consistent racist he is wrong, but those are not as yet fully explained here. Since at the end of the chapter he does say that the ideal situation, where a citizen voluntarily revises his own ideas, is not likely to occur, and that we will thus need the state to use its persuasive powers to make this transformation happen, we will hope that the state is armed with arguments that will make this work on the groups whose ideas are most at odds with the standards of equal citizenship.