Epistemological Pluralism, Cognitive Liberalism & Authentic Choice

Political Liberalism, Refined

In defining “reasonable” CDs and LPs, Rawls sets forward a number of criteria which appear to be more “theoretical” than ethical (that is, they seem to be concerned more with “rationality” than “reasonableness”), including:

  1. One’s CDs & LPs should be more-or-less internally consistent
  2. They should be ranked, or at least be capable of being decisively prioritized in the event they do conflict
  3. They should be more-or-less stable over time, drawing from some established intellectual tradition—although they cannot be too rigid because…
  4. They also must be derived from, or at least responsive to, evidence, reason, etc.

Nussbaum then demonstrates that “many” widely-endorsed CDs and LPs so not meet these criteria. This is a problem because Rawls, like Raz, believes that the state should work to create space for “reasonable” options to flourish while suppressing “unreasonable” ones. Accordingly, political liberalism, as formulated by Rawls, may exclude a number of CDs and LPs which are quite popular and more-or-less benign to the broader liberal project. While Rawls does build a number of caveats into his conception which would restrict the ways the state could go about marginalizing these options, Nussbaum argues that many would nonetheless feel unjustly persecuted and/or excluded—especially given that CDs and LPs tend to be profoundly reflective of people’s sense of identity and search for meaning.

In driving this point home, she draws an analogy between an individual criticizing another person’s dearly-held beliefs vs. the government doing it: In person-to-person interactions, challenging another’s views can serve as a sign of respect. However, these sorts of confrontations are complex affairs—it requires a high amount of social nuance to know when, how, and how far to push back against someone’s position in a constructive fashion. Many of the factors essential to carrying this out effectively will be context-dependent, often drawing from a previously-established intimacy between the parties. And of course, if the interlocutors are engaging in good faith, both parties should enter the exchange willing to change their views in accordance with “the facts.”

Interactions between a state and an individual are nothing like this: The state cannot exercise this sort of deftness tailored for each individual and each circumstance. The exchange is largely one-way—the individual does not have a comparable ability to influence the state as the state does over the individual.

This leads to Nussbaum’s more general concern: a position held by the state is fundamentally different than a position held by any particular member of society (speaking for and as himself). A government expressing an opinion affects how one feels in their society, how one feels about said society, how one feels about themselves, or even how others in society feel about a given person or group—and in a much more drastic way than the expressed opinions of individuals. Moreover (perhaps more important), a government’s ideological position informs state policy in a host of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, with the potential to profoundly (and adversely) impact someone’s life on a scale that views of individuals typically do not.

In turn, this sort of exclusion and discrimination can result in a host of destabilizing second-order effects on political systems and institutions insofar as the disenfranchised reject and possibly seek to disrupt or dismantle the order achieved at their expense. In order to avoid these outcomes, and to better live up to the pluralistic ideals of political liberalism, the state should adopt a maximally-inclusive definition of “reasonableness.” This entails restricting the definition of “reasonable” to ethical criteria rather than theoretical ones.


The Road Not Travelled

While Nussbaum’s argument is compelling, there is a much simpler and perhaps more effective means of making her case against Rawls; the criteria he sets out for “reasonableness” do not seem to bode well in the face of contemporary research in psychology and cognitive science:

  1. People’s doctrines and beliefs are not nearly as systematic as we like to think (VanGelder 1995); we do not have conscious access to a good deal of our mental contents (Bar-Anan et al. 2010; Clark 1994; Gendler 2008); our mental states are not nearly as malleable as many political philosophers suggest (Ariely 2010).
  2. Desires and preferences are not prioritized/ prioritizable. While we can, upon demand, make a list of what we perceive as our aspirations or interests, and rank them in some order, these confabulations are not necessarily reports about our actual mental process/states, which are largely opaque to introspection. In fact, these accounts are easily falsifiable (Davidson 1982). In general, we are fairly bad at predicting what will make us happy/unhappy, how happy/unhappy various things will make us, and for how long–insofar as it is even sensible to reduce these mental states into quantitative measures (Gilbert & Wilson 2000).
  3. Our intuitions are wildly unstable—be it from person to person, or even for the same person across different times and circumstances (Alexander & Weinberg 2007).
  4. We do not know how or why we came to hold particular beliefs, desires, etc. (Weinberg et al. 2001; Haidt et al. 2000). Our justifications towards this end, even when sincere, are often simply wrong (Johnson 1997; Loftus 1996; Nisbett & Wilson 1977).
  5. Cognitive sophistication actually exacerbates rather than mediates many of these “problems” (Hertwig & Todd 2003; Kornblith 1999; Mercier 2010; Uhlmann et al. 2009; West et al. 2012). For this reason, among others, attempts to “rationalize” people and institutions may do more harm than good (Morozov 2013; Popper 2013; Taleb 2012).


In short, neither Rawls, nor Nussbaum nor anyone else actually has CDs or LPs which correspond to Rawls’ criteria, nor could they plausibly do so. People simply are not wired that way.[4] One can articulate CDs and LPs superficially compliant with Rawls’ criteria, but these abstracta will have precious little connection to one’s actual states of mind, will have a negligible impact upon one’s actual behaviors, and if realized, would have an unpredictable (often detrimental) effect on one’s actual happiness.

However, CDs and LPs are held to be significant strictly to the extent they alternatively reflect and inform one’s mental states. Absent this connection to how people actually think, feel, and behave CDs and LPs would be irrelevant with regards to political philosophy; it wouldn’t really matter, for instance, if a government suppressed them. Similarly, it would be trivial if agents generated explicit CDs and LPs which are superficially compliant with Rawls’ “reasonableness” criteria if these commitments failed to meaningfully guide people’s thoughts and actions. This is a fatal defect: insofar as CDs and LPs must veridically (rather than merely ostensibly) correspond to these theoretical criteria in order to be reasonable, no CDs or LPs are, in fact, reasonable—not for anyone, now or in any foreseeable future.

This reductio proof would altogether remove the normative force from Rawls’ theoretical criteria, even from a practical standpoint (let alone their supposed ethical force,[5] which is reliant heavily upon Rawls’ notion of “goodness as rationality”)—thereby forcing political liberals towards Nussbaum’s conviction that the criteria for “reasonableness,” must be non-theoretical.

Such an argument is particularly elegant because Nussbaum and her interlocutors are united in their agreement that social systems (and even individual CDs and LPs, albeit to a lesser extent) must be compliant with non-controversial science and/or responsive to empirical evidence. The handful of facts relied upon to make this case against Rawls are, in turn, well-established within the sciences (Lakoff & Johnson 1999). This leaves her interlocutors in a Catch-22:

The findings of contemporary cognitive science and psychology mandate that they abandon their views about rationality. If they choose to cling to their position in defiance of the scientific consensus, rationalism is thereby rendered hollow and inconsistent insofar as it requires adherents to modify their positions in accordance with the scientific consensus, well-formed argument, and empirical evidence. So either way, their position fails absent radical modification.[6]

While these considerations are important insofar as they allow us to more simply and profoundly critique Rawls’ superfluous criteria regarding “reasonable” CDs and LPs, this empirically-driven and scientifically-based approach will also elucidate the problems with Nussbaum’s counter-model…

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