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Who Rules?

Interview by Richard Marshall.


‘If your political decisions will affect (and even coerce) the prospects and choices of others, why should you get to do that even if you’re not good at it? Plato’s challenge is powerful.’

David Estlund has been teaching moral and political philosophy at Brown since 1991. He previously taught at University of California, Irvine, and has spent fellowship years at the Program in Ethics at Harvard and at Australian National University. His research interests center around liberalism, justice, and especially democracy. He is editor of the collection, Democracy (Blackwell, 2002) and the author of Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework (Princeton, 2008). He is at work on a book to be called Utopophobia, on questions of realism and idealization in political philosophy.Here he discusses democracy, how to decide who should rule, procedural fairness, epistocracy, on whether political philosophy ought to be practical, legitimacy and authority, truth and politics, Hannah Arendt’s views, the issues of the political liberal view of the fund of public reason, Cass R. Sunstein’s Infotopia, whether human nature limits political philosophy, how to frame the philosophical issues of inequality, the role of self-interest in democracy and what he sees as some currents of contemporary political philosophy. With an vain fool like Trump on the political stage in America and racist bigots and know-nothings voting all over the world it’s a good time to ponder the wisdom of the political systems that allow this to happen. Here’s the man to cover the ground …

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

David Estlund: I guess I’ll interpret the question as partly about motives, and partly about my path and the help I’ve received. Because that’s how you become a philosopher. There is a kind of precipitating event. In my last year of high school (Class of 1976, Waukesha South) I was in a small music theory class. Art and music were my main things at that time, and the teacher was one of those teachers who sees the largeness of his profession and who engaged students on ideas of all kinds. He remarked on a drawing that was displayed in a hallway with some others from an art class, and asked me in class something like, “What is art?” The next hour is a bit of a blur in my memory since I didn’t have names for all of the topics that we covered: beauty, interpretation, objectivity, and so on. I recognized them as things I’d often thought about, and when we were leaving he attached the word “philosophy” to them. I made a mental note: find more of that. The teacher was Jim Machan, who I lost touch with after high school. Through Facebook I recently got a message to him conveying the difference that those sixty minutes made in my life.

Lots of young people come across philosophical questions even if they don’t name them that way, and I’d been one of them: “how do I know I won’t wake out of this moment and find it was a dream?” (I didn’t get to the cogito.) “How is infinite space possible, but what’s the alternative?” “If there’s no god (as I always suspected, despite some light liberal protestant training) how could there be right or wrong?” I didn’t talk a lot about those things, and never saw them as a particular kind of thing, and so that word “philosophy” gave me a clue about how to find out more. So in my first semester at University of Wisconsin-Madison I took Philosophy 101, Intro, (with Andy Levine, and a sensitive TA, Joe Johnson). I was and stayed an art major as an undergrad, but gradually discovered a possible path to being a philosopher. I was eventually welcomed and encouraged in the grad program there.

I started in aesthetics, and gravitated toward ethics, some philosophy of mind, and then I specialized in political philosophy for my dissertation (democracy). I had gotten quite political, organizing against draft registration and some other things, and that contributed to my choosing political philosophy. I was lucky that the affordable state university an hour from home had (and has) an excellent philosophy department. There was an easy, respectful ethos of collaboration among grad students and faculty in my experience, and devoted teachers, including my advisor Haskell Fain, Andy Levine, Dennis Stampe, Terry Penner, Mark Singer, Elliot Sober, Berent Enç. All men, I know, but of course there were almost no women in the department. I enjoyed getting to know and talk with Claudia Card just a little, but I never really worked with her. I had come into contact with Jerry Cohen who visited UW in my last undergrad year, and because of his encouragement over the next several years, I spent a term at Oxford while writing my dissertation (completely informally, just a library card) in fall (Michaelmas) 1985, where he took me under his wing a little.

I don’t know the point at which you “become” a philosopher, but it became a profession for me when I got a 1-year job at UC Irvine in 1986, which turned into a tenure track line the next year. The department at Irvine was super supportive (philosophically, I was engaged a lot with Gary Watson, the late Greg Kavka, Rachel Cohon, and Gerry Santas among others). I left for Brown in 1991, got tenure there two years later, and have happily been there ever since. Jaegwon Kim, Dan Brock, Jamie Dreier, and Martha Nussbaum were my main interlocutors in those first couple of years. In listing all those names from undergraduate to tenure, I’m not just telling you who my philosophical friends have been (who cares?), but acknowledging some of the folks who helped me climb on board.


3:AM: You’ve defended democracy from the attack that it is the rule of the know-nothings with what you call ‘epistemic proceduralism.’ Before we look at your defence could you say something about the attack. On the face of it it does seem mad that experts aren’t the people we go to to govern. After all, we wouldn’t want a non-expert dentist, so why not use the same approach to dealing with problems of government? What’s the problem with just ensuring that decisions being made are good decisions by handing power over to the experts?

DE: That’s exactly the question that motivated my work on democracy (as you know), and of course it’s the ancient challenge to democracy stemming from Plato. I didn’t find the modern idea very satisfying—that we could answer that challenge by pointing to a right of the people to rule themselves. That would have the advantage of explaining why the people get to rule even if they aren’t good at it. The right to rule oneself individually doesn’t seem (to us moderns) to depend on whether we’d be good at it, so this might seem like an extension. But the analogy with a (say, Millian) right to self-rule, interpreted as individual immunity from interference in self-regarding choices, is very weak. When you “rule” as a member of the democratic people you contribute to coercing others, not just yourself. That’s precisely the limit on the Millian idea of individual self-rule. So, I didn’t see that broad approach as an adequate answer to the ancient question: if your political decisions will affect (and even coerce) the prospects and choices of others, why should you get to do that even if you’re not good at it? Plato’s challenge is powerful.

So, we have to confront the possibility that ruling ought to be done by those who can actually do it well (though I reject it in the end). I find that students, at least, squirm at the very idea that some might be able to rule better than others, and yet they nod happily at the suggestion that some are much worse than others. So, since the stakes of political decision are so very high, why shouldn’t rule be by the much-less-bad? I came to think that an important key lies in the fact that, even if we agree that some would be better and some worse at ruling justly and well, we are very unlikely to agree on who is in which category. It would be one thing if all decent points of view did agree, but that’s just not plausible. The problem here is a moral one, not one about how to keep the dissidents in line. So, on one hand, it’s not plausible that the people simply have a right to collective self-rule even though their acts will momentously affect and interfere with others against their will. On the other hand, and here we push back against Plato, there is no strong reason to think that someone’s being correct about what should be done is enough to justify their having the power to impose it on others. What’s driving things, on this telling, is not a positive right of self-rule but some sort of right (hopefully defeasible!) not to be ruled, wisely or otherwise, by others. While the ancient puzzle is first raised by pointing to ignorance of the masses, it turns out that the moral problem might not mainly be about their ignorance. After all, there is still a problem for rule by the non-ignorant. So, at this point, an initial answer—err, question—to your question why we shouldn’t be ruled by the experts, is roughly: they might be correct, but what makes them boss?

Of course, the salience of that question, for me, was owed to Rawls’s development around that same time of his “political liberalism,” and his proposal of a liberal criterion of “legitimacy,” (roughly the permissibility of coercive collective political power): justification must be possible in terms that are compatible with the commitments of each of the variety of (correct and incorrect) world-views that might arise under free conditions—not literally all such viewpoints, of course, and here is the central philosophical challenge for this Rawlsian approach: It is not plausible that just any heinous or irrational world-view has that veto-like moral weight, and so it is only some subset. But nor is it only the correct views, since that would be indefensibly exclusive given that even many incorrect views (as each of us might identify those) are deserving of the relevant kind of respect. Rawls dubs this subset the “reasonable” views, but that word isn’t expected to really tell us where the boundary lies, and the term can mislead.

Still, acknowledging those challenges for political liberalism, it opens up this possibility in democratic theory: First, ruling, or a system of rule, isn’t legitimate owing to expertise or wisdom, but only owing to its being (if any is) justifiable by the lights of every “reasonable” point of view. Then, however, in principle, the tendency of a system of rule to make better decisions (by all relevant moral and non-moral standards) might find a way into the account. It won’t be rule by some race, class or gender—those all being disputable (to say the least) among reasonable views. But what about a system of pooling and forming views under conditions of robust political debate and activity, sufficiently principled, with influence over the course of debate being sufficiently unskewed by power, etc.? (You might object that that isn’t very realistic. But that point, and its significance (if true), is just a separate important question.) An “epistemic” dimension of this kind is not ruled out, even if rule by some alleged set of experts probably is. Anyway, that was the conjecture I followed up in my book on democracy.

3:AM: You say that usually the defence of democracy gives up on the idea that democracy delivers good decisions but you think these defences are not robust. Can you sketch how these defences have typically worked and why you think them too flimsy? After all, the argument that democracy is fair and its procedures treat everyone as equal is pretty ubiquitous and what’s not to like about fairness and equality?

DE: Right, that view that democracy is required by an idea of procedural fairness is widespread and pretty attractive in some ways. If that kind of fairness—let’s think of it as something like each participant’s having an equal chance to be decisive over the group decisions—if that is a weighty moral matter then this would keep the value of democracy independent of any tendency to make good decisions. In that way, it’s a bit like the self-rule approach I mentioned before, in offering a principle for democracy that evades the Platonic challenge (what I call the question of “epistocracy”) by trumping any concerns about the quality of decisions with considerations of self-rule or, in this case, procedural fairness. But, again, when we remember the stakes of political decisions, why think this procedural kind of fairness is so weighty? One way to throw that into question is to see that it isn’t yet a democratic principle: equal individual chance of decisiveness might be a genuine kind of procedural fairness, but it would be satisfied by a (surely crazy) system that chooses laws randomly: even there, no one has more chance of being decisive than others. If procedural fairness is so great, why not flip a coin?

Now, there are fancier developments of the idea of procedural fairness, such as adding that there needs to be a non-zero chance for each participant, which blocks the random fair procedure. The idea would be that it is not merely equal chances, but combining that with each actually entering her view or preference into the system in a potentially effectual way. My concern about this fancier version of procedural fairness is that the idea of procedural fairness alone can’t explain why it should be that kind of fair procedure, one that lets people’s views of their interests, their views of others’ interests, and their view of justice into the procedure. I think that’s hard to explain unless it is granted that some concern for good decisions—their tendency to meet certain procedure-independent standards—must play a role in the account rather than fairness alone. That would be an epistemic, or at least instrumental element. (Let’s say “instrumental” would be any account that makes use of the promotion of good decisions by independent standards.

“Epistemic” would be the subset that achieve this by intentionally trying to figure out the good decisions, rather than, say, by some alleged “invisible hand” mechanism.) And there’s some hope of avoiding hurtling toward epistocracy—rule of the knowers—if the political liberal account of justification blocks all particular sets of alleged knowers. At this fundamental level of justification, this kind of equal respect for each citizen’s views—similar in a way to the idea of procedural fairness, and maybe capturing some of its appeal—does (I need to hold) outweigh the importance of political procedures getting the right answer. But, as I said, it leaves open the possibility that the best justification for a political system within public reason will appeal to its potential epistemic value. So the view is a kind of hybrid of a) equal respect, apart from its epistemic benefits, with b) a crucial role for epistemic considerations, as understood in the variety of reasonable outlooks, in justifying the political system. It’s not wholly or mainly epistemic, but includes an important epistemic element that many other approaches have avoided for what I argue are inadequate reasons.

3:AM: Now, you say that what you’re doing is providing a philosophical framework for discussing these ideas and you do so for two reasons – one to avoid moving too quickly into practical application issues and also to avoid needing detailed factual information. You say this is an approach that you’d recommend not just for political philosophy but also ethics too? What advantages does this bring to your approach – to some it may look rather abstract and non-empirical to do any real work? Do analogies with maths and science help here?

DE: There are several good questions there, so I’ll pull them apart a bit. I do think there is a risk or pitfall that can come up in political philosophy, and to a lesser extent in ethics, that stems from the vague idea that our topic is a practical one. We do want philosophers and others contributing to the most pressing and immediate practical questions, no doubt about that. But that’s certainly not all we want. When the time comes for action we should hope that there is some fund of thoughtful and wide-ranging work that has benefitted from the luxury of not needing to work next to a ticking clock, needing quickly to say what to do before the alarm goes off. That time also comes (perpetually), but we should hope that not all moral and political philosophy is done in that mode, if only so that the decisions at the buzzer might be better. Of course, it is also important for people doing that less immediately prescriptive kind of work to pay attention to the urgent problems of suffering and injustice, not just because something must be done now (which it must), but also because philosophical work at more general or abstract levels can lose its bearings completely if it is the only game in town. Some do worry that it has long been the only game in town. I think that’s exaggerated, at least if you were to look through article titles in moral and political philosophy in good journals over the last several decades. But that’s a separate issue anyway.

The issues here are related to the recent interest in the (amorphous but important) set of issues around “ideal and non-ideal theory.” What I’ve said so far has little to do with the “ideal,” but one critique also of ideal theory (not the only one) is that it is too distant from the pressing practical problems we face. But no one should think that, while some people advocate philosophers doing non-ideal theory only, some advocate doing ideal theory only. No one advocates doing ideal theory only. The debate is only about whether both are legitimate and valuable, or whether only non-ideal theory is. Stepping back from that issue about “ideal theory” slightly here, I would never say (would anyone?) that the kinds of philosophy that are not done against the ticking clock are the only legitimate kind to do, or even that they are somehow better. I’m not even pressing or resisting any view about what we need more or less of than we now have in the field. I just reject the view (if anyone holds it, and I think some do) that it is not a legitimate or (very) valuable mode of philosophy at all. I’ve said a little about why.

3:AM: Do legitimacy and authority still have a role in your approach to the defence of democracy?

DE: My approach to democracy is still the one in my book, Democratic Authority, and except for replies to some terrific criticism and commentary I haven’t worked much on democracy since then (though I expect to return to it). But, since you brought it up, I do find it helpful to distinguish what I call legitimacy and authority. Those words have been vague and confusing in political philosophy, partly because many think that two distinct things, as it were, travel together. That might be right, or might not, but it is really unhelpful to treat them under one term, as one thing. So here are the two things: I call a government “legitimate” insofar as it is morally permitted to coercively enforce its orders. That’s very rough, but enough for the distinction I want here. I say a government has “authority” insofar as it has the power (a kind of moral power) to put people under moral obligations (defeasible of course) to do things, by commanding them to do so. Again, there are details, but that’s already a clear distinction between two moral questions. It’s possible, of course, to hold that one is never present without the other, and also possible to deny it. By analogy, it might be that all and only the tall flowers in my yard are yellow. But their being tall and yellow are different things about them. A government’s power to generate obligations is different from its being permitted to enforce its commands. I don’t suppose anyone disagrees, but issues are often missed by simply defining “authority” or “legitimate authority” as combining both, and never asking what grounds one part and what grounds the other.


3:AM: You defend democracy’s ability to deliver good decisions and you talk about the truth of political matters – which to some may seem problematic. How, they might ask, can there be truths about what must be done politically? Politics isn’t the kind of thing that has truths, they might claim. How do you respond to their worries?

DE: There are a few different sources of reticence about truth in political matters. Some come from very general views to the effect that there are no evaluative truths at all. That’s a traditional and still lively debate in moral philosophy. All I’ll say is that this skeptical view is hardly obvious, as some political philosophers and theorists seem to think. It’s not easy to make good sense of what a participant in a moral debate means by saying that Apartheid is wrong if they don’t think it is true that Apartheid is wrong. They might say they just mean “boo, Apartheid!” but there are lots of problems down that road. Fortunately, we can evade some of those controversies by dropping reference to “truth.” We might ask the critic of political truth whether, then, they believe or hold that certain things are unjust, or violate people’s rights, or oppress or exploit certain groups. Instead of asking about a political arrangement’s capacity, if any, to match the truth, we can ask about its capacity, if any, to make just decisions, respect rights, avoid or dismantle oppression, and so on. Nothing in the epistemic approach really needs to invoke the concept of truth itself if that’s problematic. It could do as well with the moral categories themselves. Then if there’s an opponent who doesn’t believe that any political decision is just or unjust, oppressive or exploitative, we have a very different question on our hands. I haven’t encountered any objectors of that kind myself.

3:AM: So you’re defending the idea that we can’t do without an epistemic or truth-seeking dimension to the democractic ideal and as we’ve seen, you think this is the way to go given that the commoner defences don’t work. How do you not fall into the despotic character that Hannah Arendt observed when she said ‘ from the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character.’

DE: I’m glad you asked that, and I have a long answer. The reason I’m glad is that Arendt’s view about “Truth and Politics” (as the title of her central essay on that topic puts it) is understandably, but wrongly I think, thought to ground a deep objection to thinking of democratic authority in even partly epistemic terms (as I do). If normative truth has no place in political discourse, then the question whether democratic arrangements might tend to get things right can’t ever arise…it might seem. So let me try to explain why I think that is not her view at all. (The key: she and I agree there are procedure-independent standards of political judgment, which is all I need, but for certain reasons she doesn’t want to call them “truths.”)

Arendt does not mount a critique of normative truth or standards that would show that they have no place in political thought or discourse. And we should note that there are two ways in which they can hardly be avoided. One is the point at which a person participates in politics. A person might simply amorally pursue her aims, I suppose, but this is not how almost anyone understands their participation. Rather, a person will normally (so we know from piles of empirical research) have a view of how her interests, competing interests of others, and other considerations, ought to be somehow brought to bear in action. The participant won’t necessarily think that her own opinions about these things ought to be imposed even as others disagree, but she does have opinions, and she does disagree with others. She can hardly add that there’s nothing to her view except that she happens to hold it, as if any view is as good as the next. She will take herself (however uncertain she might be) to hold it for reasons that warrant her holding it. She has a view about what people ought to support doing collectively, and she thinks (maybe tentatively, maybe not) others to be mistaken, at least partly. So she appeals to what she will see as certain controversial normative—I think broadly moral—judgments whose validity (let’s call it) is not up to her or anyone. The second point at which even a follower of Arendt must not think that everything normative is up to us is this: The very idea that what gets done ought to be determined politically (rather than despotically, say) is a moral or normative principle or standard that her view cannot avoid, and surely its own validity is, again, not subject to what gets decided in actual politics.

I think Arendt could easily agree with all this. When Arendt says that “truth has a despotic character,” she explains that she means that as a single person investigates questions in, say, physics or math (even aspects of history, though that’s more complicated), the correct answers are not in any way affected by the fact that there are other minds with other perspectives. It’s simply between me and the non-negotiable world. By contrast, in the domain of the moral and political, there is no subject matter at all if not for multiple minds and perspectives. The right answer is not only hard to know without help from others—that’s also true about lots of math, physics, and history (she emphasizes the need for witnesses, for example). More importantly, in normative matters the right answer is itself some accommodation of multiple perspectives, such as competing aims and convictions. But her point here is easily exaggerated. She is not arguing that there are no moral or genuinely political judgments that have any validity or correctness apart from multiple people’s actual opinions or statements or arguments. She rejects that conventionalist view, and holds that people’s actual statements or views might be mistaken even about moral or political matters. Indeed, a common way for a person’s moral or political opinion to go wrong, on her view, is through a failure of (solitary or socially assisted) imagination, an insufficient “representation” of the positions of others.

For purposes of an epistemic dimension of democratic authority, this is enough, and it’s highly consonant with how I see things. Arendt doesn’t doubt for a moment that even democratic political decisions can go wrong, be invalid, lack “impartial generality,” in her term. That impartially general perspective is not up to us, as a matter of decision on her view (or Kant’s, on which she deeply draws, or Habermas’s which draws on them), though it does essentially involve the existence of multiple points of view, which is her point. I think it’s misleading to say, as she does, that in the political (a part of the realm of “opinion” rather than “truth”) “our thinking is truly discursive,” since that might suggest that it depends on what actually gets said. That is not the view as she explains it. On the other hand, she clearly thinks that trying to understand or reach that impartially general stance requires, as an epistemological matter, hearing from others—not because their opinions are somehow automatically valid or determinative (they aren’t) but because our imaginations are limited and need this aid. But it is crucial to this whole view that the impartially general (and so valid) stance is not constituted by what actually gets said in discourse, or even by whatever people happen to think, since even together, even democratically, we could always get it wrong. The impartially general stance sets a standard that is independent of any actual human (even democratic) procedures, even if it isn’t independent of the existence of multiple minds and agents. In my account of democratic authority, that’s the aspect of the vernacular idea of “truth” that is operative: procedure-independent standard for judgment or belief. (This leaves entirely open whether the valid impartial stance might be explicated by some imaginary idealized procedure, as Habermas argues. The point here remains: its independence of any actual procedures. The implications of the hypothetical procedures, on such a view, are still not up to us. Real politics could always get it wrong. Habermas is easy to misunderstand on this.)

Not much hangs on whether we call procedure independent standards for political judgment standards of “truth” or not (see my answer to your previous question). Arendt and I agree that there are such standards, and I agree with her that they are in a certain way essentially interpersonal. Indeed, that is partly why democratic procedures have the potential (often unrealized, alas) to help us get them right, according to the epistemic approach. Still, many readers resonate with her suggestion that from the point of view of politics “truth has a despotic character.” But I don’t think she really vindicates that rhetoric. I think it is hyperbole for Arendt to say that truth “precludes debate.” She seems to mean that if normative political judgments aspired to be truths, this would somehow preclude political debate—those last three words being almost be a contradiction in terms for her. But that thought depends on the thought that factual truth precludes debate, which is evidently false. (By “factual,” she apparently means empirical.) It’s obvious that there can be, and very often is, debate about even empirical, factual truths. So debate is not precluded in the sense of being impossible, or even uncommon. Second, the fact that something is true is not automatically a justification for politically stifling debate about it, as she would herself insist. So debate is not precluded in that sense. Third, truth (vs. opinion in her sense) is also not beyond debate in the sense that it’s simply obvious to everyone: “…factual truth is no more self-evident than opinion,” she writes. Really, there’s no sense at all in which truth precludes debate. Some people will try to stifle debate on behalf of what they take to be true, but that’s not the same thing at all, and that’s no less true about political judgments than it is about math, physics, or history.

I think her main point about the difference between factual (and also “rational” as in math or logic) truth being apolitical is different. Arendt emphasizes that one kind of truth (factual) concerns a “haphazard” order of nature. Factual truths, such as that the Earth is roughly round, aren’t what they are for reasons (though they have causes, of course). Reason does not shape the planets. Other kinds of truths, such as that twice two is four, are simply facts about reason, and could not conceivably have been otherwise no matter how nature or history might have gone. The third important category for Arendt is “opinion,” comprising moral and political judgment. She resists calling this a species of truth at all, though not for reasons I find very illuminating. Still, I’m sympathetic to there being this third domain, a kind of interpersonal rational validity that, unlike the others, has no meaning without invoking multiple minds and wills (and leaving it somewhat vague here). Broadly following Kant, this is the domain of the moral and political, which is essentially interpersonal, unlike truths of physics and math. (I’ll resist qualifying and complicating this by bringing in Kant’s transcendental idealism.)

Many have read Arendt and Habermas as holding that a lot more is, as we might put it, “up to us” than they have really argued, though the misunderstanding (as I see it) is encouraged by some potentially misleading language in both authors. There is no tension at all between those views about valid normative judgments and the inclusion of an epistemic element in an account of democratic authority. As I say, I do read Habermas as having a partly epistemic view. Arendt’s cases is more difficult (it may be close to a kind of view I find in Seyla Benhabib, which, in my democracy book I call “rational deliberative proceduralism,” and which I criticize.) That aside, I’ve only tried to explain why her view of truth is not inimical to an epistemic approach.

3:AM: You argue that while some few people probably do know best, this can be used in political justification only if their expertise is acceptable from all reasonable points of view. Doesn’t this fall foul if ‘all reasonable points of view’ are contradictory? And won’t deciding ‘reasonable’ here require some sort of already established authority and legitimacy, which makes the whole thing circular?

DE: Two good questions, first, is the political liberal approach, which needs there to be a category of considerations (the fund of “public reason,” as Rawls calls it) that are compatible with every reasonable view, is doomed if there is no such overlap among reasonable views?


Moving on to your next question… No, wait, let me explain that. It would be doomed in one way but not in another. Political liberalism could yet be a sound view—that is, it wouldn’t have been refuted even if there is nothing in that overlapping space of public reason. The theory would then imply, without any incoherence, that no uses of coercive political power are morally permissible. Some find that a more unpalatable position than others. Those who work in the “political liberalism” paradigm, though, will dispute attempts to show that public reason is in fact empty in that way. And, of course, you didn’t claim that it is, you just rightly noted that that’s conceivable.

Now, second, you’re right to wonder whether the boundaries of the category of “reasonable” views (ignore the ordinary language meaning of “reasonable” but it needs some name; I like “qualified”) is just another view that some people hold and some don’t and which gets illegitimately imposed in the political liberal framework. What I think that important question shows is not really damaging to political liberalism, at least not in the peremptory way that the question might suggest. It shows, I think, that the boundaries of that category must themselves be acceptable to all of the views that are in the category. If it is, then the use of those boundaries in the context of political justification would meet, but notably would still have to meet, that liberal conception of justification: acceptability to all reasonable or qualified points of view. There is undeniably an air of circularity about my suggestion here, but I argue (too elaborately to do here) that it’s not circular after all. Of course, and this is relevant to your previous question, none of this would arise at all if that principle isn’t itself true or correct.


3:AM: Sunstein’s infotopia doubts the idea that collective deliberation, of the sort you endorse for your epistemic democracy, will lead to morally and rationally better decisions. He claims there is little empirical evidence for the claims. Is he wrong?

DE: I think that’s not quite right about Cass Sunstein, but I know what you mean. His more nuanced position, I think, is that “democratic deliberation” is “full of pitfalls” and there are dangers “if we are not alert to them.” (Preface to Infotopia) I’m sure he’s right about that. To the (very limited) extent to which I would endorse the epistemic value of actually existing democratic deliberation, probably Sunstein and I would have a common project of designing the nature, structure, and scope for deliberative decision-making. I think Sunstein should be read as an early and continuing friend of the importance of democratic deliberation, and deliberative democratic theory, broadly conceived. He is right to chasten democratic theory with the evidence we have of the “pitfalls,” but they are, at least partly, challenges of institutional design. (I’m not saying those are the only challenges, but his pitfalls of deliberation can often be understood that way, as he says.)

I don’t venture any claims about actually existing democracy’s having what it takes epistemically. If an approach like mine is promising on other grounds, such as the several philosophical challenges it tries to address about authority, etc., then it would be valuable to think about how, more specifically, a particular political arrangement might be assessed with that question in mind. I do venture a few very preliminary ideas about that in my book, but then I do not, and am not now prepared to take the further step of looking at the complexities of an actual historical or current national or international arrangement and derive conclusions. I think it’s a fine but difficult question involving lots of hard issues far outside of political philosophy or theory.

But, still, let’s talk about those pitfalls. I find that some people seem to take the empirical evidence about pitfalls of deliberation (I include Sunstein here in some cases) to show more than it does. Much of the literature shows that in some deliberative settings the epistemic performance of the group is not as good as might be thought or claimed. Sometimes the anti-deliberation “evidence” is only that the deliberative outcome is not as good as some other available source, such as the experts. But in my own approach, democracy would not need to be shown to be the best available epistemic engine. I doubt that that would ever be true even in highly favorable conditions. Here I depart from Hélène Landemore’s fascinating explorations of the stronger epistemic thesis in her book, Democratic Reason. On my approach, it would need only to be the best (and better than random) so far as can be determined by appeal to considerations in “public reason,” because being correct doesn’t make you boss (see above).

I won’t go on at greater length here, but suffice it to say that much of that skeptical empirical work itself turns up striking epistemic values of deliberation, but then emphasizes that they aren’t even better. The work even sometimes points to relatively clear ways to fix the deliberative setting to undo the epistemic failure. And finally, generally we know that it is easy in some settings to martial the aggregate knowledge or intelligence or insight of a group. Bring an SAT test into your undergraduate class and ask them what would be their best strategy, as a class, for getting the highest possible score. It will almost certainly be some method of sharing opinions, assessing them together, and somehow aggregating the sense of the group. There are pitfalls, as we know, but still. Not all settings are amenable, but we should be able to keep both points in mind: a) many heads are sometimes better than one; b) not always or no matter what. So far, it’s hardly fatal for a deliberative and epistemic account of the value of democracy.

3:AM: Do you think there are things about human nature that limits political philosophy? You give the example of a certain conception of justice that requires people to do what they can’t bring themselves to do. Why doesn’t that entail an inability to do the required thing ?

DE: First, yes, of course there are things that could sensibly go under the name “human nature” that limit political philosophy, lots of them: humans can suffer, humans can form projects and attach importance to them, humans can weigh the interests of others in their own reasons, and lots more. But, second, I know why you’re asking! I’ve argued that there is a common appeal to “human nature,” where this refers specifically to what are claimed to be robustly characteristic facts (some only statistical) about what human motives are like, using this (alleged, but let’s allow it for argument) motivational nature to refute theories of, for example, social justice that are (again, let’s allow it) very likely never going to be met by people like this. It’s not always made perfectly clear how that is supposed to be a refutation, so I point out that there are two ways of specifying that idea that would fail. For one thing, it’s pretty clear that we don’t escape a moral requirement simply by being unlikely (or even certain) to violate it. Enough said about that. But let’s allow that we do escape an alleged moral requirement, such as a principle of social justice, if we are wholly unable to meet it. That’s the version of the idea you’re picking up on: if there are robust motivational features of humans about what they (or enough of them) “can’t bring themselves to do,” doesn’t this show in turn that they are unable do them, thus refuting the requirement?

My answer is “no.” The category of what we can’t bring ourselves to do (letting this be a broad intuitive category for today and being more rigorous about it elsewhere) includes lots of things that we are able to do. It certainly also includes some things that we are unable to do, but that would be owing to additional features. Even if you convinced me that people will never be able to bring themselves to construct institutions that are not partly motivated by active or passive bigotry, it would not show that people are unable to construct them. It would be a claim about what, in the end, they are sufficiently motivated to do. They might see perfectly well how to do it, and yet not choose to do it.

Now, as I say, there are some motivational structures that are disabling. An extreme fear of heights can make one’s legs too weak to climb the next rung of a ladder. An extreme aversion to another person could cause palpitations or hyperventilation making conversation impossible. But even if it’s true (allowing it for the sake of argument) that people will always be too selfish (etc.) to build and maintain non-humiliating social institutions, I doubt this means that trying would make their legs would go weak, or they would pass out in the effort. Therefore, much more would be needed than showing they “can’t bring themselves to do it” in order to support the claim that they “can’t do it.” Until we are convinced that they can’t, then the inability that is allegedly used to block the requirement (of justice) hasn’t been demonstrated. It might be that even though people will, deeply, not sufficiently want to do it, they are morally required to build and maintain non-humiliating social institutions. (For simplicity here, I treat them as collectively having requirements and abilities, leaving aside how this connects to their individually having them. Other hard and interesting issues lie that way.)


3:AM: Inequality is a massive issue at the moment – Piketty’s book has given the data on just how big the problem is. How might political theory help sort out this mess, or is this something to be left to the economists?

DE: It’s great, in my view, that it is a massive issue now. It’s not a massive issue in the sense that everyone agrees that inequality in itself is unjust. The massive issue is partly the (partly) philosophical one: given how dramatic certain forms of inequality have become, what ought to be done about it? If everyone agreed that it was bad in its own right, then much of the work about the different paths that might reduce it would need to draw from economics. But there is lots of philosophical controversy about what, if anything, is bad in itself about distributive inequality. Understanding that better would probably have a big bearing on what ought to be done. But philosophy also joins with other disciplines to identify ways in which distributive inequality might lead to other morally important damage that isn’t essentially about having more or less than others, such as poor mental and physical health outcomes for the worse off.

Philosophy also helps in distinguishing distributive wealth inequality, whose merits are controversial, from the kind of equality involved in the idea of a democratic political arrangement, which is less (but not un-) controversial. Many on the left find the idea of what Rawls calls “fair value of the political liberties,” to be a compelling way to understand how the liberties involving property and political expression cannot plausibly be seen as absolute. Grant that certain basic liberties, including those about property and political expression, are highly important—but this importance includes all of them, and in an appropriate package. As a package their value may trump other considerations. But the political liberties are part of that trumping package. And they can’t have their value if concentration of wealth can lead to too much concentration of political power. Consider the formally or legally equal right to run for office, or to support one’s favored party or candidate, or to publish one’s opinions in the press, etc. That’s not enough to count a society has having the moral value that democracy stands for (whether or not you take my partly epistemic view on democratic authority). It is necessary, in addition, to have the political outcomes really determined by roughly equal participation by people in the various social groups that are salient for justice (poor or rich, racially minority or majority, able/disabled, by gender identities, and so on). Even a more substantively “fair value” of those liberties supplied by some material equality wouldn’t guarantee that actual participation. But it removes an important obstacle. That kind of case for limiting liberties of property and expression is itself liberty-based.

3:AM: The Plutocracy brings attention to the role of greed and self interest and the role of power in modern politics. How should these be understood in a deliberative democracy?

DE: Self-interest has a legitimate place in that conception of democracy, since we are certainly justified in pressing our own self-interest within the context of a conscientious conception of justice. Pressing our interests beyond that, as in the case of greed, would not be justified. Now, of course, many do so, and a conception of political legitimacy and authority that condemns that isn’t itself any answer to how we ought to arrange politics given (suppose) that they will do so anyway. Some thinking about deliberative democracy is aimed at the more idealized arrangement that, so it is argued, could fully supply authority and legitimacy. If it is unrealistic, that wouldn’t yet address whether it is the soundest account of those values. But, of course, there are also important issues in which it is conceded that even if it is not justified to press one’s interests beyond justice, this will often be done, and we need to proceed with our eyes wide open.

That’s obviously right. I think the deliberative conception of democracy has resources there too, however. In particular, I think that the topics of dissent, protest, and escalations of these could benefit from more philosophical attention. The narrow tactic of civil disobedience has taken most of the ink (and pixels) in that general area, but it is a very narrow thing. I’ve worked a little on how escalations of dissident protest might fit into, and be illuminated by, a broadly deliberative democratic normative framework, and I’m lately doing some thinking about democracy and revolution. Kimberley Brownlee’s recent work on civil disobedience (Conscience and Conviction, (2012)) emphasizes a communicative aspect, which allows some natural connections to deliberation. Leaving aside deliberation, which I don’t think for a moment is the only, or always the most important, frame for thinking about these things, Allen Buchanan has been working on revolution (I mean, thinking and writing about it…), which I’m glad to see. A number of the issues that get discussed in the very active area of ethics of war (see the recent introductory text, The Ethics of War and Peace: An Introduction, by Helen Frowe (2011)) do inform these topics about escalated protest. So I think it could be a good time for the topic.

3:AM: What are the main currents of contemporary political philosophy at the moment – is there a sense that the political world is changing and that new models are going to be needed – or have we the resources within the old models to cope?

DE: It’s very hard to say what the main currents are, especially without giving exaggerated importance to a very few authors or books, so I won’t try to enumerate them. Whether they’re “main” or not, there are a few things that are more pronounced than they were a while ago, so that’s a related question. One is the idea of equality according to which no groups of people are socially or politically subordinate, as distinguished from the distributive idea (which we talked some about earlier). It’s not a new idea, of course, and in fact that idea has often been used to interpret the idea of “equal protection” in the US Constitution, seen as an “anti-caste” principle. But Philip Pettit’s idea of “non-domination” is similar and has been very influential over the last decade. Elizabeth Anderson has developed the idea under the name “relational equality,” adding to her own account a critique of the alleged value of the other “distributional” kind of equality.

There’s been a lot of attention, as I mentioned before, to questions broadly about “ideal and non-ideal theory,” some of which stems, I think, from Charles Mills’ provocative piece “Ideal Theory as Ideology,” (2004) and also from Jerry Cohen’s 2009 book, Rescuing Justice and Equality, and work leading up to it. Interestingly, both of those powerful works are fundamental rejections of Rawlsian political philosophy, though in different ways. Mills roundly rejects ideal theory (defined in a certain way), though it’s not entirely clear whether the critique is of doing-ideal-theory-only (which was Mills’ reading of the field), or whether it is meant also to cast ideal theory as illegitimate. Probably some of each. In any case, that is not Cohen’s conclusion. Cohen argues that Rawls’s method gives far too much weight to the real facts of human life (partly by factoring them into the hypothetical decision in the Original Position) which, Cohen argues, have no bearing at all on what justice fundamentally requires. Of course, he agrees that the facts matter a lot when the question is what we ought to do given the facts, but that’s not guaranteed to be, and probably wouldn’t be, the same thing as justice, (so he argues). The contrast between those two critiques of Rawls is striking.

Closely related to the issues about ideal theory, there’s a recent literature on the idea of feasibility in political philosophy. It’s interesting how many of the more important papers in that area have close associations with the philosophy program in the RSSS at Australian National University in Canberra; Geoff Brennan, Holly Lawford-Smith, Nic Southwood, Pablo Gilabert, and David Wiens. It’s a second “Canberra Plan” perhaps.

There is also a lot of growing attention to issues of social inclusion, diversity, implicit bias, and also and sometimes relatedly to “ideology critique,” and the dubious social construction of our vernacular normative and political concepts—I’m throwing a bunch of stuff in together. Sally Haslanger, Tommie Shelby, and recently Jason Stanley, among others, are stimulating a lot of work in that broad list of topics, and this is a change from a decade or two ago.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend to the readers here at 3:AM that will take us further into your philosophical world?

DE: I won’t mainly go for the great books that have influenced me the most. Those might be fairly obvious and boring. So here are some I mention for miscellaneous reasons.


Thomas Nagel’s Equality and Partiality (1991) really stimulated me to think about the dilemma about motivational realistic-ness and utopianism in political philosophy. The issues got so deeply into my head back then that when I finally published something about this twenty years later (“Human Nature and the Limits (If Any) of Political Philosophy,” (2011)) I basically forgot they had been touched off by Nagel, and I didn’t mention him! I take the opposing view to his, but his discussion is characteristically sensitive to the considerations on both sides, and I’m indebted to it. It’s an embarrassing lapse on my part which I’ll further remedy when I return to these questions in a book I’m near finishing.


Jerry Gaus’s new book, The Tyranny of the Ideal, just arrived in the mail, and I’ve eagerly started reading this final version. I confess that part of my interest is that he (let’s just say) expresses some qualms about my recent work defending unrealistic political philosophy. He and I have always seen things profoundly similarly and completely differently, so I never fail to learn when I try to see things the way he is seeing them. I’m finding (all) that again now.


I’m audio-reading Alva Noë’s Strange Tools (2015). He explores the provocative idea that philosophy and art are deeply similar practices. His own view has me stirring my early encounters with aesthetics in together with my inchoate views about what philosophy is and why it’s valuable.


I’ve only started Leif Wenar’s Blood Oil (2015), though I have heard him present a fair amount of the main line of argument. Wenar is a (very good) philosopher, but this isn’t meant to be a philosophical exercise. The thing that strikes some philosophical cords in me is the underlying conviction, which I agree with, that we ought to reflect at all levels on possibilities for dramatic improvement in the world even if they seem very unlikely. And partly (Leif might say “wholly,” I wouldn’t) this is so that we’re ready if and when the chance comes. Being ready to act partly requires knowing what we think.


OK, ok… Last but not least, let me mention John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, (1971).


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

Buy his book here to keep him biding!

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 11th, 2016.