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Can Epistemology Justify Liberal Democracy?

  • Jul 10, 2014 · 7:00 PM

This topic is about discourse and beliefs, both ours and theirs. The heart of the question goes back to Plato’s Republic when the question of whether epistemic competence is needed for a successful liberal democracy, or should all citizens participate in the process. Most philosophers since Plato have also fretted about unfettered civic participation. Our founders also considered the issue and set educational objectives in the founding documents that defined our country’s governing principles.

Robert Talisse ( has attempted to construct a formal argument for liberal (egalitarian and inclusive) democracy based on an epistemological basis, rather than moral grounds. These arguments, by going beyond the traditional discussion on this issue and addressing a number of subsidiary issues in more specificity, potentially create a much more interesting target for discussion. From a review of Democracy and Moral Conflict (R Talisse, 2009):

     “Why democracy? Most often this question is met with an appeal to some decidedly moral value, such as equality, liberty, dignity or even peace. But in contemporary democratic societies, there is deep disagreement and conflict about the precise nature and relative worth of these values. And when democracy votes, some of those who lose will see the prevailing outcome as not merely disappointing, but morally intolerable. How should citizens react when confronted with a democratic result that they regard as intolerable? Should they revolt, or instead pursue democratic means of social change? In this book, Robert Talisse argues that each of us has reasons to uphold democracy - even when it makes serious moral errors - and that these reasons are rooted in our most fundamental epistemic commitments. His original and compelling study will be of interest to a wide range of readers in political philosophy and political theory.”

The Critics

Of course no philosopher can go unchallenged, so the following is constructed from a journal article (“Epistemic Perfectionism and Liberal Democracy”, JT Kelley and K. Ahlstrom-Vu, Social Philosophy Today, Vol. 29 - Civic Virtues, Divided Societies, and Democratic Dilemmas, 2013) critiquing Talisse’s arguments on liberalism and democracy.

     “Abstract: Robert Talisse’s recent attempt to justify liberal democracy in epistemic terms is in many ways a breath of fresh air. However, in the present paper we argue that his defense faces two inter-related problems. The first problem pertains to his defense of liberalism, and owes to the fact that a commitment to the folk-epistemological norms in terms of which he makes his case does not commit one to partaking in liberal institutions (e.g., discourse and choice principles and protocols, equality of epistemic capabilities, and inclusion). Consequently, our (alleged) commitment to the relevant epistemic norms does not justify liberal democracy. The second problem pertains to his defense of democracy. The problem is that, if Talisse provides what we take to be the most plausible response to the first problem, framed in terms of his acceptance of a form of epistemic perfectionism, he is able to maintain his commitment to liberal institutions, but at the price of leaving democracy behind in favor of what we will refer to as a liberal epistocracy.”

The study of folk epistemology focuses on epistemic evaluations that people actually make and on the processes that produce them. It is a descriptive research project on the beliefs and intuitions people have about knowledge, truth, reasons and other epistemic notions, as well as a research project on the psychological and cognitive processes that sustain them. We use the term “folk epistemology” to specify that the scope of this notion is not just epistemology as traditionally understood by philosophers, but the epistemology that reflects how people make epistemic evaluations. The term “folk psychology”, as the cognitive ability to ascribe intentions, beliefs and desires to others, was discussed in a previous session.

Talisse recognizes the need to address Rawl’s problem of plurality of reasonable, yet incompatible, fundamental moral commitments. This recognition is part of the “inclusion” principle noted later. Talisse’s strategy to justify liberal democracy in the face of this obstacle is to reject the concept that the justification must be based on moral bases because he finds it impossible for all citizens to accept this plurality. He proposes to base the argument on epistemic principles, which he argues are universally accepted. These principles collectively constitute a universally accepted “folk epistemology”:

(1) To believe some proposition, p, is to hold that p is true.
(2) To hold that p is true is generally to hold that the best reasons support p.
(3) To hold that p is supported by the best reasons is to hold that p is assertable.
(4) To assert that p is to enter into a special process of reason exchange.
(5) To exchange in social processes of reason exchange is to at least implicitly adopt certain cognitive and dispositional norms related to one’s epistemic character.

Epistemic character refers to being a proper believer, or proper epistemic agent, who, when representing the foregoing, will adopt certain norms relating to epistemic character that require us to “play fair” in exchanges by being earnest, precise, and explicit, using clear terms; and avoiding obfuscation, equivocation, and sophism.

Proper believing requires a social context in which reasons can be freely exchanged, compared, criticized, and challenged.

Proper believing requires familiar democratic institutions to be in place…freedoms of speech, assembly, association and press; protection of critics; etc…. and acknowledgement of each other as equal participants – epistemic peers. Our earlier session on epistemic injustice noted the role of traditional prejudices in discounting one’s comments and undermining the speaker’s (interlocutor’s) credibility because of association with an unpopular group, thus excluding those arguments from the discourse.

First Problem: Talisse’s Commitment to Liberalism

The commitment has to do with openness to ideas and challenge and inclusiveness of those we could consider peers.

Even with general acceptance of the five “folk epistemology” principles
epistemological disagreements will arise because of epistemological diversity:

   a. views on how truths attained – news sources, statistical sources, , personal fact searches, fact checking, how deeply one challenges one’s self.

  b. what constitutes reasons – conventional wisdom, cherry-picked statistics, slanted statistics, assumptions; source of normativity.

c. with whom one can reasonably be expected to exchange reasons (undertake reason exchange) - equal treatment of peers, epistemic injustice.

These diversities will result in widely accepted truths, sources, or participants which will lead to various forms of irrationality and epistemic corruption, and there will be no guarantee that they are universally accepted. One can have 95% shared values and be deadlocked on 5%; even just one issue.

Second Problem: Talisse’s Commitment to Democracy

A functioning democracy requires a forum for public dialogue and deliberation and a mechanism enabling citizens to make collective decisions. In answer to criticisms/challenges in First Problem– he can deny there should be any diversity in a, b, and c by declaring those who reject liberal practices are in error. His denial suggests that there is a liberal epistocracy, or rule by the wise.
Our [universal] epistemic commitment to having true beliefs obliges us to accept a particular set of norms for belief, justification, and assertion, and these norms leave no rational room for rejection of liberal practices - openness and inclusion. This leads to an appeal to coercion to align those declared in error to comply with prescriptions derived from the approved beliefs. This final step sacrifices democracy in order to secure our epistemic agency. That is, our commitment to proper belief and epistemic agency might demand society abandon political self-determination in order to improve the character of of public deliberation. If democratic decisions undermine the liberal conditions of openness and exchange needed for deliberation, society might require that we remove political issues from control of the peers and prevent a polity from ruling itself.

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  • Carolyn

    hmmmm, lack of facts........emotion.....tickle the ears. Universal ongoings from day one, is it not.

    1 · July 10, 2014

    • Stan


      July 10, 2014

  • Stan

    While visiting Turkey a few years, the people I was staying with (upper class, educated + worldly) were complaining that many 'silver tongued' right winged extremist politicians were garnering positions of office by swaying the uneducated, impoverished lower class [who were voting by 'emotion' rather than considering the consequences], and thereby turning back the clock on hard won 'more centrist' social progress and reforms ... the peril [?] or value [?] of 1 person 1 vote.

    July 10, 2014

  • Carolyn

    so as we may strive towards objectivity, we often find it in conflict with our personal morality and subject to an imposing environment.

    July 9, 2014

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