Epistemological Pluralism, Cognitive Liberalism & Authentic Choice

Epistemological Pluralism

Let us draw a distinction between “weak” epistemological pluralism and “strong” epistemological pluralism. Both Rawls and Raz endorse weak interpretations insofar as they acknowledge that different life experiences, opaque information environments, and various cognitive and perceptual limitations may lead people to different conclusions about many important issues—differences which cannot simply be attributed to one party or the other being ignorant, factually wrong or illogical (i.e. there are many “reasonable disagreements”). Similarly, they acknowledge that a great number of pursuits may have intrinsic worth, and that people vary in how they prioritize and utilize primary goods–and this is not only acceptable, it is laudable.

While these doctrines have a distinct metaphysical component (about the ultimate nature of value, etc.), they also entail many propositions about how people think, what they believe, and about which patterns of thought are good or bad. Nussbaum has argued that Raz and Rawls may have been too hasty in their (explicit and implicit) denigration of deferral to religious authorities, faith, or tradition. Similarly, she pointed out that many popular secular ideologies fail to conform to Rawls’ theoretical criteria. We have sharpened these arguments by highlighting critical points of consensus from the scientific community about how people think. However, our investigation has subsequently suggested that Nussbaum may not have gone far enough—that perhaps her own view is actually narrower and more contentious than those she was criticizing, and many of her apparent concessions actually prove to be fairly shallow.



Despite discarding Rawls’ theoretical standards as appropriate criteria for “reasonableness,” and declaring the state’s obligation to respect an individual’s right to personal para-logical beliefs—Nussbaum nonetheless asserts that reason, argument and proof must hold a privileged position in the public sphere.  She holds “practical reason” as a core capacity that “all democracies” should strive to promote. Much like her interlocutors, she seems to discuss terms like “reason,” “logic,” “argument,” “proof,” and “science” in a fairly homogenous and reductive fashion. Even in her defense of religion, she seems to acknowledge that most faith-based or otherwise traditional epistemologies are more-or-less illogical[12] (although they should be tolerated as long as they get the “right” socio-political answer)—implying the existence of some unified and correct (perhaps objective?) “logic,” external to religion and related ideologies.

Of course, given her broader project, it is convenient for Nussbaum to talk and think this way because it suggests the possibility of universal truths, or at the least, of reflective equilibrium even across radically different contexts—thereby enabling the establishment of universally recognized and enforceable norms (ideally, commensurate with her capabilities approach). Unfortunately, this sort of conception cannot long survive in the “real world.”

Nussbaum partially acknowledges, albeit perhaps without fully understanding the profundity of, the fact that different cultures have different norms for structuring and evaluating arguments, different rules governing justifications, different standards of evidence, different notions of authority and priorities of authorities in the event they conflict, ad infinitum (Bichierri 2005; Foucault 2010; Nisbett 2003; Zerubavel 1999). She seems to overlook many other critical realities as well:

For instance, logic is not monolithic: within the “classical” domain (relative to Western norms and history), there are several modes of logic, with hosts of interpretations/applications of these systems, deployed in response to particular circumstances (Fetzer 1990).[13] Beyond these options are “non-classical” logics, many of which are entirely secular but nonetheless subvert the rationalists’ sacred principle of non-contradiction (Priest 2003, 2008). That is, even blatant contradictions do not necessarily indicate “illogic,” especially given the ubiquity of phenomena which are not cleanly reducible to language (Polanyi 2009; Quine 2008).

Similarly, there is wide variance across or within contexts as to what counts as “science” (and in virtue of what), what are the best practices, how to mitigate conflicting evidence, etc. These definitions have and continue to evolve under contention, often in drastic ways (Feyerabend 2010; Foucault 1994; Kuhn 1996).  Even the most rudimentary analysis of scientific practice reveals that whether (or where) research is published, or if a view receives traction, depends in large part (probably predominantly) on the person or institution from which it originates and/or the reputations of early endorsers and detractors. Ultimately, the paradigm which prevails is determined by a host of social, political, economic and personal interests (which often fueled the research in the first place). Science is not in the business of universal/objective/eternal truths, but of useful and provisional ones, as determined by a host of socio-cultural factors (Polanyi 1974). Speaking of “science” in universalist terms (or speaking of its findings as absolute truths) is indicative of failing to understand what it is, what it does, or how it works.

Moreover, underlying superficial semantic equivalences made by proponents of “universal values,” there are often profoundly different notions of terms like “justice,” “freedom” or “respect” across and even within socio-linguistic contexts (MacIntyre 1989), resulting in sometimes radically alternative conceptions of the systems, institutions, and practices best suited to fulfill, promote or defend these “shared” values (Taylor 2003)—and as we have previously explored regarding feminism, many of these interpretations will defy liberal sensibilities. In many cases, various facets of liberalism will even contradict one-another:

For instance, the classical conception of liberalism includes, among other things, a commitment to free markets, universal law, democracy, pluralism and secularism—ideologies which are not intrinsically compatible or necessarily intertwined (Schmitter 1994). In fact, these ideas were not historically compatible, even in Europe. In many contexts, they diverge and conflict, and the balances struck in any particular context are not easily exported to others (Asad 2003; Gillespie 2009; Schmitter 1995). As a result of these contradictions internal to liberalism, attempts to instantiate or promote contemporary Western values and institutions in exogenous contexts is likely to foster instability and blowback rather than universal peace and prosperity. In many cases liberalism will prove inferior to alternative social arrangements (such as state capitalism, illiberal democracy, legal pluralism, etc.) at realizing the will and interests of a given population in their particular circumstances (Zakaria 2007, Miller 2015); individually or collectively, while they may often prove benign, the liberal doctrines are neither universal, necessary, nor inevitable.

In turn, cognitive and conceptual diversity is refracted and compounded in profound ways given the rich and complex interplay between genes and memes (Cosmides & Tooby 1992; Sterelny 2003; Todd et al. 2010): differences in natural and social environments affect the development and trajectory of various cognitive abilities, which in turn affect how agents interact with and shape their environments (on and on). And so, it is not just about respecting differences in “software” (e.g. different languages framing reality, different cultures and history, etc.) but also “hardware” (Rushton & Jensen 2005; Gallese & Lakoff 2005; Lakoff & Nunez 2001; Sterelny 2012; Halpern 2012).[14]

These realities are constitutive of “strong” epistemological pluralism, the internalization of which would resolve Nussbaum’s objection about condescension: it would not be a matter of turning a blind eye to “injustice” in other contexts, but of understanding that there are different (often radically alternative) notions of justice, respect, etc. with no conceivable objective way to settle between them. As Nussbaum points out, authentic respect for differences renders tolerance superfluous—and with it, the accompanying condescension.



Unlike monism/pluralism about the Good, whose “proof” consists largely of arguments from various axioms (often pluralism or monism is simply taken as an axiom itself), strong epistemological pluralism must be acknowledged, first and foremost, because it is a brute fact about the world; it need not be accepted dogmatically, as it can be empirically established and observed. Accordingly, Nussbaum and her interlocutors are bound by their own ideologies to accept it insofar as they defer to established science, reliable evidence and well-formed argument.

There is another sense in which their own views mandate a recognition of strong epistemological pluralism: talk about freedom of conscience, aesthetic/moral pluralism etc. cannot be particularly deep or meaningful without it. This latter fact has been acknowledged by Nussbaum’s friend and colleague Amartya Sen (2005), preventing him from even attempting to list and weigh universals such as Nussbaum’s core capabilities. Instead, these determinations must be made in relation to, and with the participation of, the societies in question (Chambers 1999).

However, an acceptance of strong epistemological pluralism need not be a death-knell for political liberalism. One can even affirm Nussbaum’s convictions regarding the appropriate centrality of reason in public discourse, etc.—albeit while acknowledging and respecting profound epistemological differences, as well as  the second-order effects of these differences, vis a vis the formation or endorsement of social, political and economic systems, institutions, and practices (Kahan 2007).

While accepting strong epistemological pluralism, Nussbaum might be able to salvage her broader project by maintaining Rawls’ “good faith” criteria for reasonable agents, and then adding that a CD or LP can be “reasonable” if rooted in respect for people, however understood and expressed within the specific relevant context—shedding the needlessly controversial caveat about equality, as well as the ethnocentrism and other problems related to Nussbaum’s interpretation of Kantian respect.

Leave a Reply