Epistemological Pluralism, Cognitive Liberalism & Authentic Choice


[1] Raz may not be as committed to autonomy as Nussbaum seems to believe. He consistently states that much like pluralism, the value of autonomy is contingent–free agency only has value if spent in “worthy” pursuits (Raz 1987). And it is rationality which divides the worthy pursuits from the unworthy: it is acceptable to violate agent’s autonomy if they are acting irrationally; the purpose of the state is to promote rational choices and actively suppress irrational ones; the purpose of ethics is to rationalize behavior (Raz 2000). This implies that rationality is actually Raz’s ultimate value. The significance of autonomy is subordinate to rationality in much the same way as pluralism to autonomy.

We should also note that, while not as rigid, there is a similar current in Rawls’ thought: he insists that ethics is about maximizing certain types of positive outcomes—and on the individual or social level, one will be more likely to realize these through acting rationally (Rawls 1971, sections 63-64).  Accordingly, regardless of whether we are discussing the philosophies of Rawls or Raz, the rational course of action will typically be the same as the ethical course of action, at both the personal and societal levels.

[2] Throughout, pluralism will refer to the belief that there are multiple (irreducible and often conflicting) moral “goods.”

[3] Larmore, to whom Nussbaum traces the origin of political liberalism, described it as “a core morality that reasonable people can accept despite their natural tendency to disagree about comprehensive visions of the nature of value and so in particular about the merits of pluralism and monism.”  In short, political liberalism is intended to have its own moral content, but one which is “sufficiently abstemious, both in content and grounding, to avoid controversial ideas of the type that divide citizens who reasonably disagree.” (Nussbaum 2011: 15-6)

[4]  In light of these facts, Rawls’ notion of personal “rationality” fares little better than his account of “reasonableness.” For instance, in A Theory of Justice Rawls sets out the following characteristics of a rational agent (Rawls 1971, sections 15, 25-7 & chapter 7):

  1. People (generally) strive to maximize their share of primary goods (defined broadly as rights & liberties, opportunities & powers, income & wealth, and a sense of self-worth).
  2. Accordingly, people generally (implicitly or explicitly) make decisions by weighing costs v. benefits, risks v. payoffs, etc. wherein what is at stake is one’s share of primary goods.
  3. People are able to accurately identify and rank their desires, needs and preferences (and to accurately anticipate what these will be in the future)—they use this information to determine how to utilize their share of primary goods in the service of their system of ends.
  4. (Typically) Through deliberation, people form rational plans to achieve these ends, taking into mind (among other considerations such as timing and scheduling) the likelihood their plan will succeed relative to its costs and benefits as compared to alternatives.

He further asserts that people can control or change their beliefs, preferences etc. (Rawls 2001: 254):

“We are assuming that people are able to control and revise their wants and desires in light of circumstances and that they have responsibility for doing so, provided that the principles of justice are fulfilled, as they are in a well-ordered society. Persons do not take their wants and desires as determined by happenings beyond their control. We are not, so to speak, assailed by them, as we are perhaps by disease and illness so that wants and desires fail to support claims to the means of satisfaction in the way that disease and illness support claims to medicine and treatment.”

Notice that there is substantial overlap, both implicit and explicit, between this picture of personal rationality and Rawls’ description of public rationality offered up by Nussbaum. However, neither conception seems to comport well with the scientific consensus on how people think and make decisions.

[5] Rawls has a lot riding on his depiction of human rationality: his two principles of justice were derived explicitly by resting upon this conception. He asserts that it is the responsibility of individuals to formulate Rational Life Plans in order to best utilize their share of social goods in the service of their system of ends, going so far as to equate rationality with goodness itself (another possible parallel to Raz).

Moreover, the “fact” that people are essentially (if imperfectly) rational is supposed to make his theory appealing and effective in “real-world” contexts. Rationality is supposed to ensure that a “well-ordered” society is viable, stable, and prosperous—again, even his accounts of “reasonableness” and “public rationality” are difficult to distinguish from his description of personal rationality. Accordingly, if it turns out that this conception is deeply misguided, the normative force of his Theory of Justice evaporates, both at the individual and societal levels.

[6] The reductio proof, in addition to making an elegant case against Rawls’ theoretical criteria, could also undermine Raz’s perfectionism. Insofar as his view is correctly described as having rationality for its highest value (followed by autonomy, whose value is contingent upon rational exercise, and pluralism, whose value is contingent upon free agency)—if it turns out that people simply are not rational, Raz’s ideology becomes akin to a rudderless ship.

Of course, Raz, Rawls and most other rationalists are perfectly willing to consider that people are imperfectly rational—constrained by cognitive limitations, biases, misinformation/disinformation, ignorance, and other extenuating circumstances (a list of exceptions whose indefinite length should be troubling in itself). However, these concessions still seem inadequate: the entire Enlightenment-derived discourse about human rationality is likely ill-formed (al-Gharbi 2014).

In fact, even if Raz relies on a fairly idiosyncratic, complex or arcane (or perhaps vague) notion of “rationality” which eludes straightforward definition, it is a relatively safe assumption based on a sampling his writing that, commensurate with most analytic political philosophy, his vision of human cognition is sufficiently out of step with the scientific and sociological consensus to render his account deeply problematic and (at best) in need of substantial reform.

[7] Gaus (2009) convincingly argues that the Kantian notion of autonomy also underlies virtually all liberal approaches, be they political or perfectionist, despite pretenses such as the “Method of Avoidance.” Of course, for our purposes Kant’s conception of autonomy is no less problematic than his formulation of respect—and mutatis mutandis, the arguments presented here against presuming the universal legitimacy of Kantian “respect” would apply just as well to “autonomy.”

[8] The primary way liberals attempt to enhance well-being is to promote so-called “primary goods,” and to empower beneficiaries to use them however they please (within reason). However, the value of these goods is highly relative, as are socio-cultural interpretations of what goods such as “autonomy” mean—and in many cases these resources have diminishing returns or their abundance can even become odious or foster greater social strife (Easterlin 2005; Graham & Pettinato 2001; Kahneman & Deaton 2010; Markus & Schwartz 2010; Sahlins 1974).

For instance, with regards to freedom and responsibility, the prevailing desire seems to have them in an authentic but definitively-bounded sense–with frontiers determined by indigenous values, norms, and frames of reference. Similarly, with regards to other primary goods, most people are satisfied when they have enough to live comfortably (beyond sustenance, typically at or just above what they perceive to be the “norm”). Accordingly, a ham-fisted proliferation or even imposition of various “primary goods” as defined in Western quarters (under the falsified assumption that people are “maximizers”) is unlikely to improve people’s lives as much as intended, and may even make them worse (Easterly 2014)—even setting aside the severe problem of perverse incentives/ ulterior motives on the part of those carrying out these paternalistic missions.

[9] One of the primary differences between “modern” and “traditional” societies is the relative significance of the individual v. the community. The “traditional” demand that all citizens subordinate or even sacrifice their personal aspirations and well-being for the sake of fulfilling their culturally prescribed roles—this runs sharply against liberal sensibilities and likely contributes to misperceptions about gender relations.

[10] It is likely that an aristocrat a la Nietzsche or Plato would reply to Nussbaum’s charge of unreasonableness as follows: the Kantian notion is actually tantamount to universal disrespect. It condescends to the “lower” classes by paternalistically coddling them, feeding delusions of grandeur rather than encouraging people to accept their station and the realities entailed thereby. And it disrespects the strong, of course, by castrating them on myriad levels. The result, they would argue, is that everyone is worse off. The best way to respect all parties would be to acknowledge the fundamental truth that all men were not created equal, and to arrange society accordingly. In short, this is another case where, despite a mutual commitment to respect, the positions of Nussbaum and her interlocutors would be diametrically opposed: “respect for all people” need not be cashed out in terms of Kant’s “equal respect.”

[11] Nussbaum focuses nearly-exclusively on religiously-derived CD’s and LP’s to illustrate that a view may be “epistemologically” unreasonable while remaining “ethically” reasonable. In making this case, she claims that prolific authority figures of most of the world’s major religions have accepted or even endorsed key ethical tenants of liberalism, especially regarding human rights and equality issues. And so despite the fact that adherents may endorse liberal positions due to their belief in the divine (as opposed to being convinced through logical argument), it seems crazy to marginalize those who could be easily co-opted instead.

But again, Nussbaum’s “tolerance” extends only insofar as religious adherents do, in fact, recognize essential tenants of liberalism (in practice). Only those strains of the relevant religions/ worldviews which accept, at least politically, the ideal of “equal respect” will be permitted. This is significant, because those token liberal religious figures she cites (in the abstract) tend to be fairly unrepresentative of the faith traditions in question, and this is unlikely to change anytime in the foreseeable future (Kazmi 2014). Accordingly, her tolerance may not, in practice, extend as far as she seems to believe it would.

[12] Contra, Henrich 2015: 97-116

[13] Just as there are different modes of logic, each of which tends to work better or worse in particular circumstances, it may be helpful to think of alternative conceptions of justice (etc.) as different modes of these ideals. And as with logic, it may be that the more developed one’s multi-modal ethical reasoning abilities are, the better-equipped one will be to handle novel, complex, or otherwise difficult situations.

Moreover, just as a recognition of different modes of logic does not prevent one from identifying logical fallacies (relative to that mode), or suggesting that another mode of reasoning may work better in particular instances–recognizing different ethical modes need not entail that all points of conflict are merely the product of cultural differences. However, divergence from one’s own mode of reasoning could not, in itself, be held up as proof of an interlocutor’s error. Instead, one would have to begin by engaging others on their own terms or via a collaborative “Third Space” (Bhabha 2004). The upside? This type of exchange, though more demanding, would likely prove far more productive as well (Haidt 2012; Kahan 2010).

[14] Given the history of eugenics and related ideologies, it is important to underscore that between these cognitive and conceptual paradigms, there is no universal “better” or “worse.” Evolution, be it social or biological, is about change, not progress. Whether or not any adaptation is good or bad is determined by fitness, in light of the particular environment an organism finds itself in. This is not to take a relativistic position, as certain options are better than others in particular contexts–although superior fitness would have to be established on a case-by-case basis, rather than being taken for granted a priori (moreover, performance differences can often be mitigated by changing the format/ presentation of the relevant data [Gigerenzer & Hofferage 1995]). However, it is highly-improbable that any particular paradigm will be superior to all others, or even any particular counter-model, in every circumstance.

[15] However it is also plausible that this unity will prove elusive. For instance, let us stipulate an objective reality in which we all are immersed. The preceding investigation strongly suggests that human beings are incapable of perceiving, reflecting upon or communicating about this reality in a comprehensive and/or objective fashion. As a result of these limitations, it could be the case that two perspectives are more-or-less sound but also fundamentally incompatible (Zizek 2009).

Recognition of this possibility informs many lines of traditional thought—from the popular parable of “The Blind Men and an Elephant” to mystical assertions that paradoxes hold the highest truths. In these instances, to eliminate contradictions (for instance, by privileging one perspective at the expense of all others, or by privileging common ground at the expense of points of divergence) is to achieve elegance by impoverishing understanding of the phenomenon in question. Accordingly, even if we stipulate the existence of objective moral truths, it may be erroneous to pursue some universal (conceptual, legal) frame for understanding, expressing or realizing these truths (Dancy 2007).

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