Archives For Morality

Author Information: Damien Williams, Virginia Tech, damienw7@vt.edu

Williams, Damien. “Cultivating Technomoral Interrelations: A Review of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 2 (2018): 64-69.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3US

Image by Stu Jones via CJ Sorg on Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Shannon Vallor’s most recent book, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting takes a look at what she calls the “Acute Technosocial Opacity” of the 21st century, a state in which technological, societal, political, and human-definitional changes occur at such a rapid-yet-shallow pace that they block our ability to conceptualize and understand them.[1]

Vallor is one of the most publicly engaged technological ethicists of the past several years, and much of her work’s weight comes from its direct engagement with philosophy—both philosophy of technology and various virtue ethical traditions—and the community of technological development and innovation that is Silicon Valley. It’s from this immersive perspective that Vallor begins her work in Virtues.

Vallor contends that we need a new way of understanding the projects of human flourishing and seeking the good life, and understanding which can help us reexamine how we make and participate through and with the technoscientific innovations of our time. The project of this book, then, is to provide the tools to create this new understanding, tools which Vallor believes can be found in an examination and synthesis of the world’s three leading Virtue Ethical Traditions: Aristotelian ethics, Confucian Ethics, and Buddhism.

Vallor breaks the work into three parts, and takes as her subject what she considers to be the four major world-changing technologies of the 21st century.  The book’s three parts are, “Foundations for a Technomoral Virtue Ethic,” “Cultivating the Self: Classical Virtue Traditions as Contemporary Guide,” and “Meeting the Future with Technomoral Wisdom, OR How To Live Well with Emerging Technologies.” The four world changing technologies, considered at length in Part III, are Social Media, Surveillance, Robotics/Artificial Intelligence, and Biomedical enhancement technologies.[2]

As Vallor moves through each of the three sections and four topics, she maintains a constant habit of returning to the questions of exactly how each one will either help us cultivate a new technomoral virtue ethic, or how said ethic would need to be cultivated, in order to address it. As both a stylistic and pedagogical choice, this works well, providing touchstones of reinforcement that mirror the process of intentional cultivation she discusses throughout the book.

Flourishing and Technology

In Part I, “Foundations,” Vallor covers both the definitions of her terms and the argument for her project. Chapter 1, “Virtue Ethics, Technology, and Human Flourishing,” begins with the notion of virtue as a continuum that gets cultivated, rather than a fixed end point of achievement. She notes that while there are many virtue traditions with their own ideas about what it means to flourish, there is a difference between recognizing multiple definitions of flourishing and a purely relativist claim that all definitions of flourishing are equal.[3] Vallor engages these different understandings of flourishing, throughout the text, but she also looks at other ethical traditions, to explore how they would handle the problem of technosocial opacity.

Without resorting to strawmen, Vallor examines The Kantian Categorical Imperative and Utilitarianism, in turn. She demonstrates that Kant’s ethics would result in us trying to create codes of behavior that are either always right, or always wrong (“Never Murder;” “Always Tell the Truth”), and Utilitarian consequentialism would allow us to make excuses for horrible choices in the name of “the Greater Good.” Which is to say nothing of how nebulous, variable, and incommensurate all of our understandings of “utility” and “good” will be with each other. Vallor says that rigid rules-based nature of each of these systems simply can’t account for the variety of experiences and challenges humans are likely to face in life.

Not only that, but deontological and consequentialist ethics have always been this inflexible, and this inflexibility will only be more of a problem in the face of the challenges posed by the speed and potency of the four abovementioned technologies.[4] Vallor states that the technologies of today are more likely to facilitate a “technological convergence,” in which they “merge synergistically” and become more powerful and impactful than the sum of their parts. She says that these complex, synergistic systems of technology cannot be responded to and grappled with via rigid rules.[5]

Vallor then folds in discussion of several of her predecessors in the philosophy of technology—thinkers like Hans Jonas and Albert Borgmann—giving a history of the conceptual frameworks by which philosophers have tried to deal with technological drift and lurch. From here, she decides that each of these theorists has helped to get us part of the way, but their theories all need some alterations in order to fully succeed.[6]

In Chapter 2, “The Case for a Global Technomoral Virtue Ethic,” Vallor explores the basic tenets of Aristotelian, Confucian, and Buddhist ethics, laying the groundwork for the new system she hopes to build. She explores each of their different perspectives on what constitutes The Good Life in moderate detail, clearly noting that there are some aspects of these systems that are incommensurate with “virtue” and “good” as we understand them, today.[7] Aristotle, for instance, believed that some people were naturally suited to be slaves, and that women were morally and intellectually inferior to men, and the Buddha taught that women would always have a harder time attaining the enlightenment of Nirvana.

Rather than simply attempting to repackage old ones for today’s challenges, these ancient virtue traditions can teach us something about the shared commitments of virtue ethics, more generally. Vallor says that what we learn from them will fuel the project of building a wholly new virtue tradition. To discuss their shared underpinnings, she talks about “thick” and “thin” moral concepts.[8] A thin moral concept is defined here as only the “skeleton of an idea” of morality, while a thick concept provides the rich details that make each tradition unique. If we look at the thin concepts, Vallor says, we can see the bone structure of these traditions is made of 4 shared commitments:

  • To the Highest Human Good (whatever that may be);
  • That moral virtues understood to be cultivated states of character;
  • To a practical path of moral self-cultivation; and
  • That we can have a conception of what humans are generally like.[9]

Vallor uses these commitments to build a plausible definition of “flourishing,” looking at things like intentional practice within a global community toward moral goods internal to that practice, a set of criteria from Alasdair MacIntyre which she adopts and expands on, [10] These goals are never fully realized, but always worked toward, and always with a community. All of this is meant to be supported by and to help foster goods like global community, intercultural understanding, and collective human wisdom.

We need a global technomoral virtue ethics because while the challenges we face require ancient virtues such as courage and charity and community, they’re now required to handle ethical deliberations at a scope the world has never seen.

But Vallor says that a virtue tradition, new or old, need not be universal in order to do real, lasting work; it only needs to be engaged in by enough people to move the global needle. And while there may be differences in rendering these ideas from one person or culture to the next, if we do the work of intentional cultivation of a pluralist ethics, then we can work from diverse standpoints, toward one goal.[11]

To do this, we will need to intentionally craft both ourselves and our communities and societies. This is because not everyone considers the same goods as good, and even our agreed-upon values play out in vastly different ways when they’re sought by billions of different people in complex, fluid situations.[12] Only with intention can we exclude systems which group things like intentional harm and acceleration of global conflict under the umbrella of “technomoral virtues.”

Cultivating Techno-Ethics

Part II does the work of laying out the process of technomoral cultivation. Vallor’s goal is to examine what we can learn by focusing on the similarities and crucial differences of other virtue traditions. Starting in chapter 3, Vallor once again places Aristotle, Kongzi (Confucius), and the Buddha in conceptual conversation, asking what we can come to understand from each. From there, she moves on to detailing the actual process of cultivating the technomoral self, listing seven key intentional practices that will aid in this:

  • Moral Habituation
  • Relational Understanding
  • Reflective Self-Examination
  • Intentional Self-Direction of Moral Development
  • Perceptual Attention to Moral Salience
  • Prudential Judgment
  • Appropriate Extension of Moral Concern[13]

Vallor moves through each of these in turn, taking the time to show how each step resonates with the historical virtue traditions she’s used as orientation markers, thus far, while also highlighting key areas of their divergence from those past theories.

Vallor says that the most important thing to remember is that each step is a part of a continual process of training and becoming; none of them is some sort of final achievement by which we will “become moral,” and some are that less than others. Moral Habituation is the first step on this list, because it is the quality at the foundation of all of the others: constant cultivation of the kind of person you want to be. And, we have to remember that while all seven steps must be undertaken continually, they also have to be undertaken communally. Only by working with others can we build systems and societies necessary to sustain these values in the world.

In Chapter 6, “Technomoral Wisdom for an Uncertain Future,” Vallor provides “a taxonomy of technomoral virtues.”[14] The twelve concepts she lists—honesty, self-control, humility, justice, courage, empathy, care, civility, flexibility, perspective, magnanimity, and technomoral wisdom—are not intended to be an exhaustive list of all possible technomoral virtues.

Rather, these twelve things together form system by which to understand the most crucial qualities for dealing with our 21st century lives. They’re all listed with “associated virtues,” which help provide a boarder and deeper sense of the kinds of conceptual connections we can achieve via relational engagement with all virtues.[15] Each member of the list should support and be supported by not only the other members, but also any as-yet-unknown or -undiscovered virtues.

Here, Vallor continues a pattern she’s established throughout the text of grounding potentially unfamiliar concepts in a frame of real-life technological predicaments from the 20th or 21st century. Scandals such as Facebook privacy controversies, the flash crash of 2010, or even the moral stances (or lack thereof) of CEO’s and engineers are discussed with a mind toward highlighting the final virtue: Technomoral Wisdom.[16] Technomoral Wisdom is a means of being able to unify the other virtues, and to understand the ways in which our challenges interweave with and reflect each other. In this way we can both cultivate virtuous responses within ourselves and our existing communities, and also begin to more intentionally create new individual, cultural, and global systems.

Applications and Transformations

In Part III, Vallor puts to the test everything that we’ve discussed so far, placing all of the principles, practices, and virtues in direct, extensive conversation with the four major technologies that frame the book. Exploring how new social media, surveillance cultures, robots and AI, and biomedical enhancement technologies are set to shape our world in radically new ways, and how we can develop new habits of engagement with them. Each technology is explored in its own chapter so as to better explore which virtues best suit which topic, which good might be expressed by or in spite of each field, and which cultivation practices will be required within each. In this way, Vallor highlights the real dangers of failing to skillfully adapt to the requirements of each of these unprecedented challenges.

While Vallor considers most every aspect of this project in great detail, there are points throughout the text where she seems to fall prey to some of the same technological pessimism, utopianism, or determinism for which she rightly calls out other thinkers, in earlier chapters. There is still a sense that these technologies are, of their nature, terrifying, and that all we can do is rein them in.

Additionally, her crucial point seems to be that through intentional cultivation of the self and our society, or that through our personally grappling with these tasks, we can move the world, a stance which leaves out, for instance, notions of potential socioeconomic or political resistance to these moves. There are those with a vested interest in not having a more mindful and intentional technomoral ethos, because that would undercut how they make their money. However, it may be that this is Vallor’s intent.

The audience and goal for this book seems to be ethicists who will be persuaded to become philosophers of technology, who will then take up this book’s understandings and go speak to policy makers and entrepreneurs, who will then make changes in how they deal with the public. If this is the case, then there will already be a shared conceptual background between Vallor and many of the other scholars whom she intends to make help her to do the hard work of changing how people think about their values. But those philosophers will need a great deal more power, oversight authority, and influence to effectively advocate for and implement what Vallor suggests, here, and we’ll need sociopolitical mechanisms for making those valuative changes, as well.

While the implications of climate catastrophes, dystopian police states, just-dumb-enough AI, and rampant gene hacking seem real, obvious, and avoidable to many of us, many others take them as merely naysaying distractions from the good of technosocial progress and the ever-innovating free market.[17] With that in mind, we need tools with which to begin the process of helping people understand why they ought to care about technomoral virtue, even when they have such large, driving incentives not to.

Without that, we are simply presenting people who would sell everything about us for another dollar with the tools by which to make a more cultivated, compassionate, and interrelational world, and hoping that enough of them understand the virtue of those tools, before it is too late. Technology and the Virtues is a fantastic schematic for a set of these tools.

Contact details: damienw7@vt.edu

References

Vallor, Shannon. Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a World Worth Wanting New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[1] Shannon Vallor, Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a World Worth Wanting (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016) ,6.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid., 19—21.

[4] Ibid., 22—26.

[5] Ibid. 28.

[6] Ibid., 28—32.

[7] Ibid., 35.

[8] Ibid., 43.

[9] Ibid., 44.

[10] Ibid., 45—47.

[11] Ibid., 54—55.

[12] Ibid., 51.

[13] Ibid., 64.

[14] Ibid., 119.

[15] Ibid., 120.

[16] Ibid., 122—154.

[17] Ibid., 249—254.

Author Information: Jensen Alex, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson, University of North Florida, jonathan.matheson@gmail.com

Alex, Jensen, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson. “Conscientiousness and Other Problems: A Reply to Zagzabski.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 10-13.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Sr

Please refer to:

We’d first like to thank Dr. Zagzebski for engaging with our review of Epistemic Authority. We want to extend the dialogue by offering brief comments on several issues that she raised.

Conscientiousness

In our review we brought up the case of a grieving father who simply could not believe that his son had died despite conclusive evidence to the contrary. This case struck us as a problem case for Zagzebki’s account of rationality. For Zagzebski, rationality is a matter of conscientiousness, and conscientiousness is a matter of using your faculties as best you can to get to truth, where the best guide for a belief’s truth is its surviving conscientious reflection. The problem raised by the grieving father is that his belief that his son is still alive will continuously survive his conscientious reflection (since he is psychologically incapable of believing otherwise) yet it is clearly an irrational belief. In her response, Zagzebski makes the following claims,

(A) “To say he has reasons to believe his son is dead is just to say that a conscientiously self-reflective person would treat what he hears, reads, sees as indicators of the truth of his son’s death. So I say that a reason just is what a conscientiously self-reflective person sees as indicating the truth of some belief.” (57)

and,

(B) “a conscientious judgment can never go against the balance of one’s reasons since one’s reasons for p just are what one conscientiously judges indicate the truth of p.” (57)

These claims about the case lead to a dilemma. Either conscientiousness is to be understood subjectively or objectively, and either way we see some issues. First, if we understand conscientiousness subjectively, then the father seems to pass the test. We can suppose that he is doing the best he can to believe truths, but the psychological stability of this one belief causes the dissonance to be resolved in atypical ways. So, on a subjective construal of conscientiousness, he is conscientious and his belief about his son has survived conscientious reflection.

We can stipulate that the father is doing the best he can with what he has, yet his belief is irrational. Zagzebski’s (B) above seems to fit a subjective understanding of conscientiousness and leads to such a verdict. This is also how we read her in Epistemic Authority more generally. Second, if we understand conscientiousness objectively, then it follows that the father is not being conscientious. There are objectively better ways to resolve his psychic dissonance even if they are not psychologically open to him.

So, the objective understanding of conscientiousness does not give the verdict that the grieving father is rational. Zagzebski’s (A) above fits with an objective understanding of conscientiousness. The problem with the objective understanding of conscientiousness is that it is much harder to get a grasp on what it is. Doing the best you can with what you have, has a clear meaning on the subjective level and gives a nice responsibilist account of conscientiousness. However, when we abstract away from the subject’s best efforts and the subject’s faculties, how should we understand conscientiousness? Is it to believe in accordance with what an ideal epistemic agent would conscientiously believe?

To us, while the objective understanding of conscientiousness avoids the problem, it comes with new problems, chief among which is a fleshed out concept of conscientiousness, so understood. In addition, the objective construal of conscientiousness also does not appear to be suited for how Zagzebski deploys the concept in other areas of the book. For instance, regarding her treatment of peer disagreement, Zagzebski claims that each party should resolve the dissonance in a way that favors what they trust most when thinking conscientiously about the matter. The conscientiousness in play here sounds quite subjective, since rational resolution is simply a matter of sticking with what one trusts the most (even if an ideal rational agent wouldn’t be placing their trust in the same states and even when presented evidence to the contrary).

Reasons

Zagzebski distinguishes between 1st and 3rd person reasons, in part, to include things like emotions as reasons. For Zagzebski,

“1st person or deliberative reasons are states of mind that indicate to me that some belief is true. 3rd person, or theoretical reasons, are not states of mind, but are propositions that are logically or probabilistically connected to the truth of some proposition. (What we call evidence is typically in this category)” (57)

We are troubled by the way that Zagzebski employs this distinction. First, it is not clear how these two kinds of reasons are related. Does a subject have a 1st person reason for every 3rd person reason? After all, not every proposition that is logically or probabilistically connected to the truth of a proposition is part of an individuals evidence or is one of their reasons. So, are the 3rd person reasons that one possesses reasons that one has access to by way of a first-person reason? How could a 3rd person reason be a reason that I have if not by way of some subjective connection?

The relation between these two kinds of reasons deserves further development since Zagzebski puts this distinction to a great deal of work in the book. The second issue results from Zagzebski’s claim that, “1st person and 3rd person reasons do not aggregate.” (57)  If 1st and 3rd person reasons do not aggregate, then they do not combine to give a verdict as to what one has all-things-considered reason to believe. This poses a significant problem in cases where one’s 1st and 3rd person reasons point in different directions.

Zagzebski’s focus is on one’s 1st person reasons, but what then of one’s 3rd person reasons? 3rd person reasons are still reasons, yet if they do not aggregate with 1st person reasons, and 1st person reasons are determining what one should believe, it’s hard to see what work is left for 3rd person reasons. This is quite striking since these are the very reasons epistemologists have focused on for centuries.

Zagzebski’s embrace of 1st person reasons is ostensibly a movement to integrate the concepts of rationality and truth with resolutely human faculties (e.g. emotion, belief, and sense-perception) that have largely been ignored by the Western philosophical canon. Her critical attitude toward Western hyper-intellectualism and the rationalist worldview is understandable and, in certain ways, admirable. Perhaps the movement to engage emotion, belief, and sense-perception as epistemic features can be preserved, but only in the broader context of an evidence-centered epistemology. Further research should channel this movement toward an examination of how non-traditional epistemic faculties as 1st person reasons may be mapped to 3rd person reasons in a way is cognizant of self-trust in personal experience —that is, an account of aggregation that is grounded fundamentally in evidence.

Biases

In the final part of her response, Zagzebski claims that the insight regarding prejudice within communities can bolster several of her points. She refers specifically to her argument that epistemic self-trust commits us to epistemic trust in others (and its expansion to communities), as well as her argument about communal epistemic egoism and the Rational Recognition Principle. She emphasizes the importance of communities to regard others as trustworthy and rational, which would lead to the recognition of biases within them—something that would not happen if communities relied on epistemic egoism.

However, biases have staying power beyond egoism. Even those who are interested in widening and deepening their perspective though engaging with others can nevertheless have deep biases that affect how they integrate this information. Although Zagzebski may be right in emphasizing the importance of communities to act in this way, it seems too idealistic to imply that such honest engagement would result in the recognition and correction of biases. While such engagement might highlight important disagreements, Zagzebski’s analysis of disagreement, where it is rational to stick with what you trust most, will far too often be an open invitation to maintain (if not reinforce) one’s own biases and prejudice.

It is also important to note that the worry concerning biases and prejudice cannot be resolved by emphasizing a move to communities given that communities are subject to the same biases and prejudices as individuals that compose them. Individuals, in trusting their own communities, will only reinforce the biases and prejudice of its members. So, this move can make things worse, even if sometimes it can make things better. Zagzebski’s expansion of self-trust to communities and her Rational Recognition Principle commits communities only to recognize others as (prima facie) trustworthy and rational by means of recognizing their own epistemic faculties in those others.

However, doing this does not do much in terms of the disclosure of biases given that communities are not committed to trust the beliefs of those they recognize as rational and trustworthy. Under Zagzebski’s view, it is possible for a community to recognize another as rational and trustworthy, without necessarily trusting their beliefs—all without the need to succumb to communal epistemic egoism. Communities are, then, able to treat disagreement in a way that resolves dissonance for them.

That is, by trusting their beliefs more than those of the other communities. This is so even when recognizing them as rational and trustworthy as themselves because, under Zagzebski’s view communities are justified in maintaining their beliefs over those of others not because of egoistic reasons but because by withstanding conscientious self-reflection, they trust their beliefs more than those of others. Resolving dissonance from disagreement in this way is clearly more detrimental than it is beneficial, especially in the cases of biased individuals and communities, for which this would lead them to keep their biases.

Although, as Zagzebski claims, attention to cases of prejudice within communities may help give more importance to her argument about the extension of self-trust to the communal level, it does not do much in terms of disclosing biases inasmuch as dissonance from disagreement is resolved in the way she proposes. Her proposal leads not to the disclosure of biases as she implies, but to their reinforcement given that biases—although plausibly unaware—is what communities and individuals would trust more in these cases.

Contact details: jonathan.matheson@gmail.com

References

Alex, Jensen, Valerie Joly Chock, Kyle Mallard, and Jonathan Matheson. “A Review of Linda Zagzebski’s Epistemic Authority.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 29-34.

Zagzebski, Linda T. Epistemic Authority: A Theory of Trust, Authority, and Autonomy in Belief. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Zagzebski, Linda T. “Trust in Others and Self-Trust: Regarding Epistemic Authority.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 56-59.

Author information: Kjartan Koch Mikalsen, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, kjartan.mikalsen@ntnu.no.

Mikalsen, Kjartan Koch. “An Ideal Case for Accountability Mechanisms, the Unity of Epistemic and Democratic Concerns, and Skepticism About Moral Expertise.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 1 (2018): 1-5.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3S2

Please refer to:

Image from Birdman Photos, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

How do we square democracy with pervasive dependency on experts and expert arrangements? This is the basic question of Cathrine Holst and Anders Molander’s article “Public deliberation and the fact of expertise: making experts accountable.” Holst and Molander approach the question as a challenge internal to a democratic political order. Their concern is not whether expert rule might be an alternative to democratic government.

Rather than ask if the existence of expertise raises an “epistocratic challenge” to democracy, they “ask how science could be integrated into politics in a way that is consistent with democratic requirements as well as epistemic standards” (236).[1] Given commitment to a normative conception of deliberative democracy, what qualifies as a legitimate expert arrangement?

Against the backdrop of epistemic asymmetry between experts and laypersons, Holst and Molander present this question as a problem of accountability. When experts play a political role, we need to ensure that they really are experts and that they practice their expert role properly. I believe this is a compelling challenge, not least in view of expert disagreement and contestation. In a context where we lack sufficient knowledge and training to assess directly the reasoning behind contested advice, we face a non-trivial problem of deciding which expert to trust. I also agree that the problem calls for institutional measures.

However, I do not think such measures simply answer to a non-ideal problem related to untrustworthy experts. The need for institutionalized accountability mechanisms runs deeper. Nor am I convinced by the idea that introducing such measures involves balancing “the potential rewards from expertise against potential deliberative costs” (236). Finally, I find it problematic to place moral expertise side-by-side with scientific expertise in the way Holst and Molander do.

Accountability Mechanisms: More than Non-ideal Remedies

To meet the challenge of epistemic asymmetry combined with expert disagreement, Holst and Molander propose three sets of institutional mechanisms for scrutinizing the work of expert bodies (242-43). First, in order to secure compliance with basic epistemic norms, they propose laws and guidelines that specify investigation procedures in some detail, procedures for reviewing expert performance and for excluding experts with a bad record of accomplishment, as well as sanctions against sloppy work.

Second, in order to review expert judgements, they propose checks in the form of fora comprising peers, experts in other fields, bureaucrats and stakeholders, legislators, or the public sphere. Third, in order to assure that expert groups work under good conditions for inquiry and judgment, they propose organizing the work of such groups in a way that fosters cognitive diversity.

According to Holst and Molander, these measures have a remedial function. Their purpose is to counter the misbehavior of non-ideal experts, that is, experts whose behavior and judgements are biased or influenced by private interests. The measures concern unreasonable disagreement rooted in experts’ over-confidence or partiality, as opposed to reasonable disagreement rooted in “burdens of judgement” (Rawls 1993, 54). By targeting objectionable conduct and reasoning, they reduce the risk of fallacies and the “intrusion of non-epistemic interests and preferences” (242). In this way, they increase the trustworthiness of experts.

As I see it, this is to attribute a too limited role to the proposed accountability mechanisms. While they might certainly work in the way Holst and Molander suggest, it is doubtful whether they would be superfluous if all experts were ideal experts without biases or conflicting interests.

Even ideal experts are fallible and have partial perspectives on reality. The ideal expert is not omniscient, but a finite being who perceives the world from a certain perspective, depending on a range of contingent factors, such as training in a particular scientific field, basic theoretical assumptions, methodological ideals, subjective expectations, and so on. The ideal expert is aware that she is fallible and that her own point of view is just one among many others. We might therefore expect that she does not easily become a victim of overconfidence or confirmation bias. Yet, given the unavoidable limits of an individual’s knowledge and intellectual capacity, no expert can know what the world looks like from all other perspectives and no expert can be safe from misjudgments.

Accordingly, subjecting expert judgements to review and organizing diverse expert groups is important no matter how ideal the expert. There seems to be no other way to test the soundness of expert opinions than to check them against the judgements of other experts, other forms of expertise, or the public at large. Similarly, organizing diverse expert groups seems like a sensible way of bringing out all relevant facts about an issue even in the case of ideal experts. We do not have to suspect anyone of bias or pursuance of self-serving interests in order to justify these kinds of institutional measures.

Image by Birdman Photos via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

No Trade-off Between Democratic and Epistemic Concerns

An important aspect of Holst and Molander’s discussion of how to make experts accountable is the idea that we need to balance the epistemic value of expert arrangements against democratic concerns about inclusive deliberation. While they point out that the mechanisms for holding experts to account can democratize expertise in ways that leads to epistemic enrichment, they also warn that inclusion of lay testimony or knowledge “can result in undue and disproportional consideration of arguments that are irrelevant, obviously invalid or fleshed out more precisely in expert contributions” (244).

There is of course always the danger that things go wrong, and that the wrong voices win through. Yet, the question is whether this risk forces us to make trade-offs between epistemic soundness and democratic participation. Holst and Molander quote Stephen Turner (2003, 5) on the supposed dilemma that “something has to give: either the idea of government by generally intelligible discussion, or the idea that there is genuine knowledge that is known to few, but not generally intelligible” (236). To my mind, this formulation rests on an ideal picture of public deliberation that is not only excessively demanding, but also normatively problematic.

It is a mistake to assume that political deliberation cannot include “esoteric” expert knowledge if it is to be inclusive and open to everyone. If democracy is rule by public discussion, then every citizen should have an equal chance to contribute to political deliberation and will-formation, but this is not to say that all aspects of every contribution should be comprehensible to everyone. Integration of expert opinions based on knowledge fully accessible only to a few does not clash with democratic ideals of equal respect and inclusion of all voices.

Because of specialization and differentiation, all experts are laypersons with respect to many areas where others are experts. Disregarding individual variation of minor importance, we are all equals in ignorance, lacking sufficient knowledge and training to assess the relevant evidence in most fields.[2] Besides, and more fundamentally, deferring to expert advice in a political context does not imply some form of political status hierarchy between persons.

To acknowledge expert judgments as authoritative in an epistemic sense is simply to acknowledge that there is evidence supporting certain views, and that this evidence is accessible to everyone who has time and skill to investigate the matter. For this reason, it is unclear how the observation that political expert arrangements do not always harmonize with democratic ideals warrants talk of a need for trade-offs or a balancing of diverging concerns. In principle, there seems to be no reason why there has to be divergence between epistemic and democratic concerns.

To put the point even sharper, I would like to suggest that allowing alleged democratic concerns to trump sound expert advice is democratic in name only. With Jacob Weinrib (2016, 57-65), I consider democratic law making as essential to a just legal system because all non-democratic forms of legislation are defective arrangements that arbitrarily exclude someone from contributing to the enactment of the laws that regulate their interaction with others. Yet, an inclusive legislative procedure that disregards the best available reasons is hardly a case of democratic self-legislation.

It is more like raving blind drunk. Legislators that ignore state-of-the-art knowledge are not only deeply irrational, but also disrespectful of those bound by the laws that they enact. Need I mention the climate crisis? Understanding democracy as a process of discursive rationalization (Habermas 1996), the question is not what trade-offs we have to make, but how inclusive legislative procedures can be made sufficiently truth sensitive (Christiano 2012). We can only approximate a defensible democratic order by making democratic and epistemic concerns pull in the same direction.

Moral vs Scientific and Technical Expertise

Before introducing the accountability problem, Holst and Molander consider two ideal objections against giving experts an important political role: ‘(1) that one cannot know decisively who the knowers or experts are’ and ‘(2) that all political decisions have moral dimensions and that there is no moral expertise’ (237). They reject both objections. With respect to (1), they convincingly argue that there are indirect ways of identifying experts without oneself being an expert. With respect to (2), they pursue two strategies.

First, they argue that even if facts and values are intertwined in policy-making, descriptive and normative aspects of an issue are still distinguishable. Second, they argue that unless strong moral non-cognitivism is correct, it is possible to speak of moral expertise in the form of ‘competence to state and clarify moral questions and to provide justified answers’ (241). To my mind, the first of these two strategies is promising, whereas the second seems to play down important differences between distinct forms of expertise.

There are of course various types of democratic expert arrangements. Sometimes experts are embedded in public bodies making collectively binding decisions. At other occasions, experts serve an advisory function. Holst and Molander tend to use “expertise” and “expert” as unspecified, generic terms, and they refer to both categories side-by-side (235, 237). However, by framing their argument as an argument concerning epistemic asymmetry and the novice/expert-problem, they indicate that they have in mind moral experts in advisory capacities and as someone in possession of insights known to a few, yet of importance for political decision-making.

I agree that some people are better informed about moral theory and more skilled in moral argumentation than others are, but such expertise still seems different in kind from technical expertise or expertise within empirical sciences. Although moral experts, like other experts, provide action-guiding advice, their public role is not analogous to the public role of technical or scientific experts.

For the public, the value of scientific and technical expertise lies in information about empirical restraints and the (lack of) effectiveness of alternative solutions to problems. If someone is an expert in good standing within a certain field, then it is reasonable to regard her claims related to this field as authoritative, and to consider them when making political decisions. As argued in the previous section, it would be disrespectful and contrary to basic democratic norms to ignore or bracket such claims, even if one does not fully grasp the evidence and reasoning supporting them.

Things look quite different when it comes to moral expertise. While there can be good reasons for paying attention to what specialists in moral theory and practical reasoning have to say, we rarely, if ever, accept their claims about justified norms, values and ends as authoritative or valid without considering the reasoning supporting the claims, and rightly so. Unlike Holst and Molander, I do not think we should accept the arguments of moral experts as defined here simply based on indirect evidence that they are trustworthy (cf. 241).

For one thing, the value of moral expertise seems to lie in the practical reasoning itself just as much as in the moral ideals underpinned by reasons. An important part of what the moral expert has to offer is thoroughly worked out arguments worth considering before making a decision on an issue. However, an argument is not something we can take at face value, because an argument is of value to us only insofar as we think it through ourselves. Moreover, the appeal to moral cognitivism is of limited value for elevating someone to the status of moral expert. Even if we might reach agreement on basic principles to govern society, there will still be reasonable disagreement as to how we should translate the principles into general rules and how we should apply the rules to particular cases.

Accordingly, we should not expect acceptance of the conclusions of moral experts in the same way we should expect acceptance of the conclusions of scientific and technical expertise. To the contrary, we should scrutinize such conclusions critically and try to make up our own mind. This is, after all, more in line with the enlightenment motto at the core of modern democracy, understood as government by discussion: “Have courage to make use of your own understanding!” (Kant 1996 [1784], 17).

Contact details: kjartan.mikalsen@ntnu.no

References

Christiano, Thomas. “Rational Deliberation among Experts and Citizens.” In Deliberative Systems: Deliberative Democracy at the Large Scale, ed. John Parkinson and Jane Mansbridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Habermas, Jürgen. Between Facts and Norms.

Holst, Cathrine, and Anders Molander. “Public deliberation and the fact of expertise: making experts accountable.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 3 (2017): 235-250.

Kant, Immanuel. Practical Philosophy, ed. Mary Gregor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Kant, Immanuel. Anthropology, History, and Edcucation, ed. Günther Zöller and Robert B. Louden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Rawls, John. Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Turner, Stephen. Liberal Democracy 3.0: Civil Society in an Age of Experts. London: Sage Publications Ltd, 2003.

Weinrib, Jacob. Dimensions of Dignity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[1] All bracketed numbers without reference to author in the main text refer to Holst and Molander (2017).

[2] This also seems to be Kant’s point when he writes that human predispositions for the use of reason “develop completely only in the species, but not in the individual” (2007 [1784], 109).

Author Information: Manuel Padilla Cruz, University of Seville, mpadillacruz@us.es

Cruz, Manuel Padilla. “Conceptual Competence Injustice and Relevance Theory, A Reply to Derek Anderson.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 39-50.

Please refer to:

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3RS

Contestants from the 2013 Scripps National Spelling Bee. Image from Scripps National Spelling Bee, via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Derek Anderson (2017a) has recently differentiated conceptual competence injustice and characterised it as the wrong done when, on the grounds of the vocabulary used in interaction, a person is believed not to have a sophisticated or rich conceptual repertoire. His most interesting, insightful and illuminating work induced me to propose incorporating this notion to the field of linguistic pragmatics as a way of conceptualising an undesired and unexpected perlocutionary effect: attribution of lower level of communicative or linguistic competence. These may be drawn from a perception of seemingly poor performance stemming from lack of the words necessary to refer to specific elements of reality or misuse of the adequate ones (Padilla Cruz 2017a).

Relying on the cognitive pragmatic framework of relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004), I also argued that such perlocutionary effect would be an unfortunate by-product of the constant tendency to search for the optimal relevance of intentional stimuli like single utterances or longer stretches of discourse. More specifically, while aiming for maximum cognitive gain in exchange for a reasonable amount of cognitive effort, the human mind may activate or access assumptions about a language user’s linguistic or communicative performance, and feed them as implicated premises into inferential computations.

Although those assumptions might not really have been intended by the language user, they are made manifest by her[1] behaviour and may be exploited in inference, even if at the hearer’s sole responsibility and risk. Those assumptions are weak implicated premises and their interaction with other mentally stored information yields weakly implicated conclusions (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004). Since their content pertains to the speaker’s behaviour, they are behavioural implicatures (Jary 2013); since they negatively impact on an individual’s reputation as a language user, they turn out to be detrimental implicatures (Jary 1998).

My proposal about the benefits of the notion of conceptual competence injustice to linguistic pragmatics was immediately replied by Anderson (2017b). He considers that the intention underlying my comment on his work was “[…] to model conceptual competence injustice within relevance theory” and points out that my proposal “[…] must be tempered with the proper understanding of that phenomenon as a structural injustice” (Anderson 2017b: 36; emphasis in the original). Furthermore, he also claims that relevance theory “[…] does not intrinsically have the resources to identify instances of conceptual competence injustice” (Anderson 2017b: 36).

In what follows, I purport to clarify two issues. Firstly, my suggestion to incorporate conceptual competence injustice into linguistic pragmatics necessarily relies on a much broader, more general and loosened understanding of this notion. Even if such an understanding deprives it of some of its essential, defining conditions –namely, existence of different social identities and of matrices of domination– it may somehow capture the ontology of the unexpected effects that communicative performance may result in: an unfair appraisal of capacities.

Secondly, my intention when commenting on Anderson’s (2017a) work was not actually to model conceptual competence injustice within relevance theory, but to show that this pragmatic framework is well equipped and most appropriate in order to account for the cognitive processes and the reasons underlying the unfortunate negative effects that may be alluded to with the notion I am advocating for. Therefore, I will argue that relevance theory does in fact have the resources to explain why some injustices stemming from communicative performance may originate. To conclude, I will elaborate on the factors why wrong ascriptions of conceptual and lexical competence may be made.

What Is Conceptual Competence Injustice

As a sub-type of epistemic injustice (Fricker 2007), conceptual competence injustice arises in scenarios where there are privileged epistemic agents who (i) are prejudiced against members of specific social groups, identities or minorities, and (ii) exert power as a way of oppression. Such agents make “[…] false judgments of incompetence [which] function as part of a broader, reliable pattern of marginalization that systematically undermines the epistemic agency of members of an oppressed social identity” (Anderson 2017b: 36). Therefore, conceptual competence injustice is a way of denigrating individuals as knowers of specific domains of reality and ultimately disempowering, discriminating and excluding them, so it “[…] is a form of epistemic oppression […]” (Anderson 2017b: 36).

Lack or misuse of vocabulary may result in wronging if hearers conclude that certain concepts denoting specific elements of reality –objects, animals, actions, events, etc.– are not available to particular speakers or that they have erroneously mapped those concepts onto lexical items. When this happens, speakers’ conceptualising and lexical capacities could be deemed to be below alleged or actual standards. Since lexical competence is one of the pillars of communicative competence (Hymes 1972; Canale 1983; Bachman 1991; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995), that judgement could contribute to downgrading speakers in an alleged scale of communicative competence and, consequently, to regarding them as partially or fully incompetent.

According to Medina (2011), competence is a comparative and contrastive property. On the one hand, skilfulness in some domain may be compared to that in (an)other domain(s), so a person may be very skilled in areas like languages, drawing, football, etc., but not in others like mathematics, oil painting, basketball, etc. On the other hand, knowledge of and abilities in some matters may be greater or lesser than those of other individuals. Competence, moreover, may be characterised as gradual and context-dependent. Degree of competence –i.e. its depth and width, so to say– normally increases because of age, maturity, personal circumstances and experience, or factors such as instruction and subsequent learning, needs, interests, motivation, etc. In turn, the way in which competence surfaces may be affected by a variety of intertwined factors, which include (Mustajoki 2012; Padilla Cruz 2017b).

Factors Affecting Competence in Communication

Internal factors –i.e. person-related– among which feature:

Relatively stable factors, such as (i) other knowledge and abilities, regardless of their actual relatedness to a particular competence, and (ii) cognitive styles –i.e. patterns of accessing and using knowledge items, among which are concepts and words used to name them.

Relatively unstable factors, such as (i) psychological states like nervousness, concentration, absent-mindedness, emotional override, or simply experiencing feelings like happiness, sadness, depression, etc.; (ii) physiological conditions like tiredness, drowsiness, drunkenness, etc., or (iii) performance of actions necessary for physiological functions like swallowing, sipping, sneezing, etc. These may facilitate or hinder access to and usage of knowledge items including concepts and words.

External –i.e. situation-related– factors, which encompass (i) the spatio-temporal circumstances where encounters take place, and (ii) the social relations with other participants in an encounter. For instance, haste, urgency or (un)familiarity with a setting may ease or impede access to and usage of knowledge items, as may experiencing social distance and/or more or less power with respect to another individual (Brown and Levinson 1987).

While ‘social distance’ refers to (un)acquaintance with other people and (dis)similarity with them as a result of perceptions of membership to a social group, ‘power’ does not simply allude to the possibility of imposing upon others and conditioning their behaviour as a consequence of differing positions in a particular hierarchy within a specific social institution. ‘Power’ also refers to the likelihood to impose upon other people owing to perceived or supposed expertise in a field –i.e. expert power, like that exerted by, for instance, a professor over students– or to admiration of diverse personal attributes –i.e. referent power, like that exerted by, for example, a pop idol over fans (Spencer-Oatey 1996).

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding

Conceptualising capacities, conceptual inventories and lexical competence also partake of the four features listed above: gradualness, comparativeness, contrastiveness and context-dependence. Needless to say, all three of them obviously increase as a consequence of growth and exposure to or participation in a plethora of situations and events, among which education or training are fundamental. Conceptualising capacities and lexical competence may be more or less developed or accurate than other abilities, among which are the other sub-competences upon which communicative competence depends –i.e. phonetics, morphology, syntax and pragmatics (Hymes 1972; Canale 1983; Bachman 1991; Celce-Murcia et al. 1995).

Additionally, conceptual inventories enabling lexical performance may be rather complex in some domains but not in others –e.g. a person may store many concepts and possess a rich vocabulary pertaining to, for instance, linguistics, but lack or have rudimentary ones about sports. Finally, lexical competence may appear to be higher or lower than that of other individuals under specific spatio-temporal and social circumstances, or because of the influence of the aforesaid psychological and physiological factors, or actions performed while speaking.

Apparent knowledge and usage of general or domain-specific vocabulary may be assessed and compared to those of other people, but performance may be hindered or fail to meet expectations because of the aforementioned factors. If it was considered deficient, inferior or lower than that of other individuals, such consideration should only concern knowledge and usage of vocabulary concerning a specific domain, and be only relative to a particular moment, maybe under specific circumstances.

Unfortunately, people often extrapolate and (over)generalise, so they may take (seeming) lexical gaps at a particular time in a speaker’s life or one-off, occasional or momentary lexical infelicities to suggest or unveil more global and overarching conceptualising handicaps or lexical deficits. This does not only lead people to doubt the richness and broadness of that speaker’s conceptual inventory and lexical repertoire, but also to question her conceptualising abilities and what may be labelled her conceptual accuracy –i.e. the capacity to create concepts that adequately capture nuances in elements of reality and facilitate correct reference to those elements– as well as her lexical efficiency or lexical reliability –i.e. the ability to use vocabulary appropriately.

As long as doubts are cast about the amount and accuracy of the concepts available to a speaker and her ability to verbalise them, there arises an unwarranted and unfair wronging which would count as an injustice about that speaker’s conceptualising skills, amount of concepts and expressive abilities. The loosened notion of conceptual competence injustice whose incorporation into the field of linguistic pragmatics I advocated does not necessarily presuppose a previous discrimination or prejudice negatively biasing hegemonic, privileged or empowered individuals against minorities or identities.

Wrong is done, and an epistemic injustice is therefore inflicted, because another person’s conceptual inventory, lexical repertoire and expressive skills are underestimated or negatively evaluated because of (i) perception of a communicative behaviour that is felt not to meet expectations or to be below alleged standards, (ii) tenacious adherence to those expectations or standards, and (iii) unawareness of the likely influence of various factors on performance. This wronging may nonetheless lead to subsequently downgrading that person as regards her communicative competence, discrediting her conceptual accuracy and lexical efficiency/reliability, and denigrating her as a speaker of a language, and, therefore, as an epistemic agent. Relying on all this, further discrimination on other grounds may ensue or an already existing one may be strengthened and perpetuated.

Relevance Theory and Conceptual Competence Injustice

Initially put forth in 1986, and slightly refined almost ten years later, relevance theory is a pragmatic framework that aims to explain (i) why hearers select particular interpretations out of the various possible ones that utterances may have –all of which are compatible with the linguistically encoded and communicated information– (ii) how hearers process utterances, and (iii) how and why utterances and discourse give rise to a plethora of effects (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995). Accordingly, it concentrates on the cognitive side of communication: comprehension and the mental processes intervening in it.

Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) reacted against the so-called code model of communication, which was deeply entrenched in western linguistics. According to this model, communication merely consists of encoding thoughts or messages into utterances, and decoding these in order to arrive at speaker meaning. Since speakers cannot encode everything they intend to communicate and absolute explicitness is practically unattainable, relevance theory portrays communication as an ostensive-inferential process where speakers draw the audience’s attention by means of intentional stimuli. On some occasions these amount to direct evidence –i.e. showing– of what speakers mean, so their processing requires inference; on other occasions, intentional stimuli amount to indirect –i.e. encoded– evidence of speaker meaning, so their processing relies on decoding.

However, in most cases the stimuli produced in communication combine direct with indirect evidence, so their processing depends on both inference and decoding (Sperber and Wilson 2015). Intentional stimuli make manifest speakers’ informative intention –i.e. the intention that the audience create a mental representation of the intended message, or, in other words, a plausible interpretative hypothesis– and their communicative intention –i.e. the intention that the audience recognise that speakers do have a particular informative intention. The role of hearers, then, is to arrive at speaker meaning by means of both decoding and inference (but see below).

Relevance theory also reacted against philosopher Herbert P. Grice’s (1975) view of communication as a joint endeavour where interlocutors identify a common purpose and may abide by, disobey or flout a series of maxims pertaining to communicative behaviour –those of quantity, quality, relation and manner– which articulate the so-called cooperative principle. Although Sperber and Wilson (1986/1995) seriously question the existence of such principle, they nevertheless rest squarely on a notion already present in Grice’s work, but which he unfortunately left undefined: relevance. This becomes the corner stone in their framework. Relevance is claimed to be a property of intentional stimuli and characterised on the basis of two factors:

Cognitive effects, or the gains resulting from the processing of utterances: (i) strengthening of old information, (ii) contradiction and rejection of old information, and (iii) derivation of new information.

Cognitive or processing effort, which is the effort of memory to select or construct a suitable mental context for processing utterances and to carry out a series of simultaneous tasks that involve the operation of a number of mental mechanisms or modules: (i) the language module, which decodes and parses utterances; (ii) the inferential module, which relates information encoded and made manifest by utterances to already stored information; (iii) the emotion-reading module, which identifies emotional states; (iv) the mindreading module, which attributes mental states, and (v) vigilance mechanisms, which assess the reliability of informers and the believability of information (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004; Sperber et al. 2010).

Relevance is a scalar property that is directly proportionate to the amount of cognitive effects that an interpretation gives rise to, but inversely proportionate to the expenditure of cognitive effort required. Interpretations are relevant if they yield cognitive effects in return for the cognitive effort invested. Optimal relevance emerges when the effect-effort balance is satisfactory. If an interpretation is found to be optimally relevant, it is chosen by the hearer and thought to be the intended interpretation. Hence, optimal relevance is the property determining the selection of interpretations.

The Power of Relevance Theory

Sperber and Wilson’s (1986/1995) ideas and claims originated a whole branch in cognitive pragmatics that is now known as relevance-theoretic pragmatics. After years of intense, illuminating and fruitful work, relevance theorists have offered a plausible model for comprehension. In it, interpretative hypotheses –i.e. likely interpretations– are said to be formulated during a process of mutual parallel adjustment of the explicit and implicit content of utterances, where the said modules and mechanisms perform a series of simultaneous, incredibly fast tasks at a subconscious level (Carston 2002; Wilson and Sperber 2004).

Decoding only yields a minimally parsed chunk of concepts that is not yet fully propositional, so it cannot be truth-evaluable: the logical form. This form needs pragmatic or contextual enrichment by means of additional tasks wherein the inferential module relies on contextual information and is sometimes constrained by the procedural meaning –i.e. processing instructions– encoded by some linguistic elements.

Those tasks include (i) disambiguation of syntactic constituents; (ii) assignment of reference to words like personal pronouns, proper names, deictics, etc.; (iii) adjustment of the conceptual content encoded by words like nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, and (iv) recovery of unarticulated constituents. Completion of these tasks results in the lower-level explicature of an utterance, which is a truth-evaluable propositional form amounting to the explicit content of an utterance. Construction of lower-level explicatures depends on decoding and inference, so that the more decoding involved, the more explicit or strong these explicatures are and, conversely, the more inference needed, the less explicit and weaker these explicatures are (Wilson and Sperber 2004).

A lower-level explicature may further be embedded into a conceptual schema that captures the speaker’s attitude(s) towards the proposition expressed, her emotion(s) or feeling(s) when saying what she says, or the action that she intends or expects the hearer to perform by saying what she says. This schema is the higher-level explicature and is also part of the explicit content of an utterance.

It is sometimes built through decoding some of the elements in an utterance –e.g. attitudinal adverbs like ‘happily’ or ‘unfortunately’ (Ifantidou 1992) or performative verbs like ‘order’, ‘apologise’ or ‘thank’ (Austin 1962)– and other times through inference, emotion-reading and mindreading –as in the case of, for instance, interjections, intonation or paralanguage (Wilson and Wharton 2006; Wharton 2009, 2016) or indirect speech acts (Searle 1969; Grice 1975). As in the case of lower-level explicatures, higher-level ones may also be strong or weak depending on the amount of decoding, emotion-reading and mindreading involved in their construction.

The explicit content of utterances may additionally be related to information stored in the mind or perceptible from the environment. Those information items act as implicated premises in inferential processes. If the hearer has enough evidence that the speaker intended or expected him to resort to and use those premises in inference, they are strong, but, if he does so at his own risk and responsibility, they are weak. Interaction of the explicit content with implicated premises yields implicated conclusions. Altogether, implicated premises and implicated conclusions make up the implicit content of an utterance. Arriving at the implicit content completes mutual parallel adjustment, which is a process constantly driven by expectations of relevance, in which the more plausible, less effort-demanding and more effect-yielding possibilities are normally chosen.

The Limits of Relevance Theory

As a model centred on comprehension and interpretation of ostensive stimuli, relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) does not need to be able to identify instances of conceptual competence injustice, as Anderson (2017b) remarks, nor even instances of the negative consequences of communicative behaviour that may be alluded to by means of the broader, loosened notion of conceptual competence injustice I argued for. Rather, as a cognitive framework, its role is to explain why and how these originate. And, certainly, its notional apparatus and the cognitive machinery intervening in comprehension which it describes can satisfactorily account for (i) the ontology of unwarranted judgements of lexical and conceptual (in)competence, (ii) their origin and (iii) some of the reasons why they are made.

Accordingly, those judgements (i) are implicated conclusions which (ii) are derived during mutual parallel adjustment as a result of (iii) accessing some manifest assumptions and using these as implicated premises in inference. Obviously, the implicated premises that yield the negative conclusions about (in)competence might not have been intended by the speaker, who would not be interested in the hearer accessing and using them. However, her communicative performance makes manifest assumptions alluding to her lexical lacunae and mistakes and these lead the hearer to draw undesired conclusions.

Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995) is powerful enough to offer a cognitive explanation of the said three issues. And this alone was what I aimed to show in my comment to Anderson’s (2017a) work. Two different issues, nevertheless, are (i) the reasons why certain prejudicial assumptions become manifest to an audience and (ii) why those assumptions end up being distributed across the members of certain wide social groups.

As Anderson (2017b) underlines, conceptual competence injustices must necessarily be contextualised in situations where privileged and empowered social groups are negatively-biased or prejudiced against other identities and create patterns of marginalisation. Prejudice may be argued to bring to the fore a variety of negative assumptions about the members of the identities against whom it is held. Using Giora’s (1997) terminology, prejudice makes certain detrimental assumptions very salient or increases the saliency of those assumptions.

Consequently, they are amenable to being promptly accessed and effortlessly used as implicated premises in deductions, from which negative conclusions are straightforwardly and effortlessly derived. Those premises and conclusions spread throughout the members of the prejudiced and hegemonic group because, according to Sperber’s (1996) epidemiological model of culture, they are repeatedly transmitted or made public. This is possible thanks to two types of factors (Sperber 1996: 84):

Psychological factors, such as their relative easiness of storage, the existence of other knowledge with which they can interact in order to generate cognitive effects –e.g. additional negative conclusions pertaining to the members of the marginalised identity– or existence of compelling reasons to make the individuals in the group willing to transmit them –e.g. desire to disempower and/or marginalise the members of an unprivileged group, to exclude them from certain domains of human activity, to secure a privileged position, etc.

Ecological factors, such as the repetition of the circumstances under which those premises and conclusions result in certain actions –e.g. denigration, disempowerment, maginalisation, exclusion, etc.– availability of storage mechanisms other than the mind –e.g. written documents– or the existence of institutions that transmit and perpetuate those premises and conclusions, thus ensuring their continuity and availability.

Since the members of the dominating biased group find those premises and conclusions useful to their purposes and interests, they constantly reproduce them and, so to say, pass them on to the other members of the group or even on to individuals who do not belong to it. Using Sperber’s (1996) metaphor, repeated production and internalisation of those representations resembles the contagion of illnesses. As a result, those representations end up being part of the pool of cultural representations shared by the members of the group in question or other individuals.

The Imperative to Get Competence Correct

In social groups with an interest in denigrating and marginalising an identity, certain assumptions regarding the lexical inventories and conceptualising abilities of the epistemic agents with that identity may be very salient, or purposefully made very salient, with a view to ensuring that they are inferentially exploited as implicated premises that easily yield negative conclusions. In the case of average speakers’ lexical gaps and mistakes, assumptions concerning their performance and infelicities may also become very salient, be fed into inferential processes and result in prejudicial conclusions about their lexical and conceptual (in)competence.

Although utterance comprehension and information processing end upon completion of mutual parallel adjustment, for the informational load of utterances and the conclusions derivable from them to be added to an individual’s universe of beliefs, information must pass the filters of a series of mental mechanisms that target both informers and information itself, and check their believability and reliability. These mechanisms scrutinise various sources determining trust allocation, such as signs indicating certainty and trustworthiness –e.g. gestures, hesitation, nervousness, rephrasing, stuttering, eye contact, gaze direction, etc.– the appropriateness, coherence and relevance of the dispensed information; (previous) assumptions about speakers’ expertise or authoritativeness in some domain; the socially distributed reputation of informers, and emotions, prejudices and biases (Origgi 2013: 227-233).

As a result, these mechanisms trigger a cautious and sceptic attitude known as epistemic vigilance, which in some cases enables individuals to avoid blind gullibility and deception (Sperber et al. 2010). In addition, these mechanisms monitor the correctness and adequateness of the interpretative steps taken and the inferential routes followed while processing utterances and information, and check for possible flaws at any of the tasks in mutual parallel adjustment –e.g. wrong assignment of reference, supply of erroneous implicated premises, etc.– which would prevent individuals from arriving at actually intended interpretations. Consequently, another cautious and sceptical attitude is triggered towards interpretations, which may be labelled hermeneutical vigilance (Padilla Cruz 2016).

If individuals do not perceive risks of malevolence or deception, or do not sense that they might have made interpretative mistakes, vigilance mechanisms are weakly or moderately activated (Michaelian 2013: 46; Sperber 2013: 64). However, their level of activation may be raised so that individuals exercise external and/or internal vigilance. While the former facilitates higher awareness of external factors determining trust allocation –e.g. cultural norms, contextual information, biases, prejudices, etc.– the latter facilitates distancing from conclusions drawn at a particular moment, backtracking with a view to tracing their origin –i.e. the interpretative steps taken, the assumptions fed into inference and assessment of their potential consequences (Origgi 2013: 224-227).

Exercising weak or moderate vigilance of the conclusions drawn upon perception of lexical lacunae or mistakes may account for their unfairness and the subsequent wronging of individuals as regards their actual conceptual and lexical competence. Unawareness of the internal and external factors that may momentarily have hindered competence and ensuing performance, may cause perceivers of lexical gaps and errors to unquestioningly trust assumptions that their interlocutors’ allegedly poor performance makes manifest, rely on them, supply them as implicated premises, derive conclusions that do not do any justice to their actual level of conceptual and lexical competence, and eventually trust their appropriateness, adequacy or accuracy.

A higher alertness to the potential influence of those factors on performance would block access to the detrimental assumptions made manifest by their interlocutors’ performance or make perceivers of lexical infelicities reconsider the convenience of using those assumptions in deductions. If this was actually the case, perceivers would be deploying the processing strategy labelled cautious optimism, which enables them to question the suitability of certain deductions and to make alternative ones (Sperber 1994).

Conclusion

Relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson 1986/1995; Wilson and Sperber 2004) does not need to be able to identify cases of conceptual competence injustice, but its notional apparatus and the machinery that it describes can satisfactorily account for the cognitive processes whereby conceptual competence injustices originate. In essence, prejudice and interests in denigrating members of specific identities or minorities favour the saliency of certain assumptions about their incompetence, which, for a variety of psychological and ecological reasons, may already be part of the cultural knowledge of the members of prejudiced empowered groups. Those assumptions are subsequently supplied as implicated premises to deductions, which yield conclusions that undermine the reputation of the members of the identities or minorities in question. Ultimately, such conclusions may in turn be added to the cultural knowledge of the members of the biased hegemonic group.

The same process would apply to those cases wherein hearers unfairly wrong their interlocutors on the grounds of performance below alleged or expected standards, and are not vigilant enough of the factors that could have impeded it. That wronging may be alluded to by means of a somewhat loosened, broadened notion of ‘conceptual competence injustice’ which deprives it of one of its quintessential conditions: the existence of prejudice and interests in marginalising other individuals. Inasmuch as apparently poor performance may give rise to unfortunate unfair judgements of speakers’ overall level of competence, those judgements could count as injustices. In a nutshell, this was the reason why I advocated for the incorporation of a ‘decaffeinated’ version of Anderson’s (2017a) notion into the field of linguistic pragmatics.

Contact details: mpadillacruz@us.es

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Jary, Mark. “Two Types of Implicature: Material and Behavioural.” Mind & Language 28, no. 5 (2013): 638-660.

Medina, José. “The Relevance of Credibility Excess in a Proportional View of Epistemic Injustice: Differential Epistemic Authority and the Social Imaginary.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 25, no. 1 (2011): 15-35.

Michaelian, Kourken. “The Evolution of Testimony: Receiver Vigilance, Speaker Honesty and the Reliability of Communication.” Episteme 10, no. 1 (2013): 37-59.

Mustajoki, Arto. “A Speaker-oriented Multidimensional Approach to Risks and Causes of Miscommunication.” Language and Dialogue 2, no. 2 (2012): 216-243.

Origgi, Gloria. “Epistemic Injustice and Epistemic Trust.” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy 26, no. 2 (2013): 221-235.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Vigilance Mechanisms in Interpretation: Hermeneutical Vigilance.” Studia Linguistica Universitatis Iagellonicae Cracoviensis 133, no. 1 (2016): 21-29.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “On the Usefulness of the Notion of ‘Conceptual Competence Injustice’ to Linguistic Pragmatics.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 4 (2017a): 12-19.

Padilla Cruz, Manuel. “Interlocutors-related and Hearer-specific Causes of Misunderstanding: Processing Strategy, Confirmation Bias and Weak Vigilance.” Research in Language 15, no. 1 (2017b): 11-36.

Searle, John. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969.

Spencer-Oatey, Hellen D. “Reconsidering Power and Distance.” Journal of Pragmatics 26 (1996): 1-24.

Sperber, Dan. “Understanding Verbal Understanding.” In What Is Intelligence? edited by Jean Khalfa, 179-198. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Sperber, Dan. Explaining Culture. A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996.

Sperber, Dan. “Speakers Are Honest because Hearers Are Vigilant. Reply to Kourken Michaelian.” Episteme 10, no. 1 (2013): 61-71.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance. Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. Relevance. Communication and Cognition. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

Sperber, Dan, and Deirdre Wilson. “Beyond Speaker’s Meaning.” Croatian Journal of Philosophy 15, no. 44 (2015): 117-149.

Sperber, Dan, Fabrice Clément, Christophe Heintz, Olivier Mascaro, Hugo Mercier, Gloria Origgi, and Deirdre Wilson. “Epistemic Vigilance.” Mind & Language 25, no. 4 (2010): 359-393.

Wharton, Tim. Pragmatics and Non-verbal Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Wharton, Tim. “That Bloody so-and-so Has Retired: Expressives Revisited.” Lingua 175-176 (2016): 20-35.

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[1] Following a relevance-theoretic convention, reference to the speaker will be made through the feminine third person singular personal pronoun, while reference to the hearer will be made through its masculine counterpart.

Author Information: Bernard Wills, Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador, bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

Wills, Bernard. “Conservatism: The End of An Idea.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 12 (2017): 7-16.

The pdf of the article refers to specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3R9

Image from Carnaval.com Studios via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

I recently noticed that conservatism as a political stance is definitively dead. Truth is it has been on life support for decades. This has not stopped all sorts of people from using the term both positively and negatively. All sorts of people proudly proclaim themselves to be conservatives while others angrily denounce people as conservatives. The death of conservatism means, for starters, that neither group fully grasps of the term they are using. The word has become utterly detached from the thing. Another thing it means is that an individual may have conservative opinions but only in the sense that an individual may worship the goddess Artemis in her back yard or live like a 17th Century Puritan. It is a private eccentricity with no public institutional reality. The death of conservatism is then something like the death of God.

A New Classification of Politics: Three Ideologies

There is no significance to taking any public stand as a conservative. This is for one basic reason. This reason is that the victory of ideology in contemporary politics is now total and that conservatism is not an ideology.[1] Our political discourse is now divided between three ideological stances: the progressive, the neo-liberal and ethno-nationalist stances. So called social conservatives used to exist but they have utterly disappeared into the third stance as is plain with the rise of Trump in the United States and the rise of similar populists elsewhere.[2] There are now no social conservatives of any note who are not also ethno-nationalists and indeed primarily ethno-nationalists.

This is absolutely evident from their obsession with a purported clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. By and large Muslims share the values of social conservatives when it comes to things like family, modesty, the centrality of religion and so on. Yet social conservatives despise and fear Muslims all the same making it plain that by family values they mean white Anglo-Saxon family values and by piety they mean white Anglo-Saxon piety. That is the core of the ethno-nationalist position: that western Christian values are cherished not for their supposed universality but as the foundation of a tribal identity. From time to time the neo-Liberal stance is classified as ‘conservative’ though for no reason I can fathom: as Marx pointed out predatory capitalism rips the veil form all traditional pieties by reducing everything to a cash value. The proposition that limitless accumulation is the aim of life and indeed the primary duty of a citizen is consistent with no ancient wisdom I know of religious or otherwise.

Conservatism then is no more. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It is hardly my place to say: conservatism itself advises us that like all human constructions it is finite and imperfect. However, at this point the reader may well be waiting, impatiently, for a definition of conservatism. What is it that I say has died?

I will proceed to offer if not a definition then an account of what conservatism is in the root sense of the word: an attitude to the world which seeks to conserve or protect those principles, values or institutions on which genuine human flourishing has always and will always rest. It will then be evident that people who use the term most loudly haven’t the faintest interest in conservatism or conservative values and perhaps never have. Of course, I run the risk of baffling people (both boosters and knockers) who will not recognize their version of conservatism in anything I say. I ask such people to be patient until I finish my exposition.

How Were We Able to Drink Up the Sea?

I said above that conservatism is not an ideology: from writers labelled ‘conservative’ it would be difficult to cull a doctrinal statement. This means that it has no definition in the sense of a core statement of doctrine or set of prescriptive demands: it is, if like, the position which is not a position but rather an attitude and a practice. However, I can give you a living example of it from a much despised source.

I find an excellent description of conservatism as a life stance expressed in the five pillars of the Islamic faith.[3] Soi-disant ‘conservatives’ who are shocked and angered by this should ask themselves why as these values seem to me core to any conservative stance towards the world. The first of these pillars is the shahada or profession of faith: There is no god but god and Mohammed is his prophet. Now conservatism does not inherently care about the latter part of this assertion: it is happy to recognize a multitude of other prophets who have taught in other parts of the world such as Siddartha, Jesus, or Confucius.

The first however is essential: conservatism is theocratic in orientation. Humans are first and foremost unconditionally responsible to a divine order: to the standards which are ultimate because they are founded in the unchanging nature of God. No human being is to place any finite value, such as family, clan, party in the place of God. The regard the finite as infinite in value and as an absolute end is to commit the arch-error of shirk. On this basis conservatism attaches only a qualified value to the goods of this world: it does not absolutize the relative. No movement, no passion, no interest which is merely human or temporary can trump our duty to god and his sovereign will. Order is prior absolutely to freedom and in fact it is true freedom to recognize this.

Of course this whole position is pointless if we do not know God’s will. Fortunately, it is of the nature of god to reveal himself in scriptures, historical events, the exemplary deeds of prophets and saints and so on. God is present and active in the world. His will is manifest in the sacred teachings and philosophies (the philosophia perennialis) of the world as in the depths of our own conscience.[4] Indeed, his will is present even in those conscious non-believers who nonetheless enshrine the eternal verities (the good, the beautiful and the true) within their hearts.

For this reason, the second pillar enjoins us to prayer. Humans must remember and acknowledge both internally and externally the absoluteness of God. This is important because it cuts against the grain. Our tendency is to lose focus in the midst of the world’s distractions. We wander away from our final end and our ultimate good. We put wealth, or lust, or power or anger at the center of our lives instead of the union with god we all intrinsically long for. We miss our happiness by seeking it in things that cannot, of their very metaphysical nature, supply it.

This is why prayer, both personal and liturgical is central to a well lived life for in prayer we re-collect our ultimate aim, the peace that comes of divine union. This peace is the aim of all prayer even when expressed in its lowest manifestation which is petitionary prayer. Conservatism calls us to recollect those spiritual values that make for true fulfillment against everything faddish and temporary. It calls to put the eternal always before the merely modish and to this extent prayer is one of its liveliest manifestations as it a call to remember god in the midst of this world.

A Union of Materialism and Faith

Yet our lives are in this world too. Conservatism rejects the pessimism of the millenarian and gnostic. It does not long for an immanent millennium to destroy the present world order but waits patiently for the fulfillment of things in the fullness of time. Thus, when faced with the worldly Gnosticism of the secular revolutionary or the religious despair of those who simply wish to be raptured into eternity as the world burns it counsels skepticism. Thus, as our status in the next world is determined by how we live in this one our duty to god is also our duty to community. Almsgiving is then a conservative value. Wealth exists to be shared. It is not an idol and not an end. It is a means to community and those who are blessed with it in turn bless others. Wealth selfishly hoarded is not wealth at all and thus zakat is enjoined on all believers.

This is especially important as we tend to the selfish and misguided view that our wealth is the deserved result of our special virtue whereas in truth all good things come from god and god alone. As it comes from god it is given back to god as god is present in the neediness of our neighbors and the needs of our community. How vulgar then is the so called ‘prosperity gospel’ preached by certain Christians who claim to have Jesus in their hearts when they do not even have Mohammed! There are many displays of vulgar wealth in the Islamic world as in ours. People in the East and the West need constant reminding that the needs of the community outweigh the wants of the individual.

This is part of our human fallibility, our tendency to forget our ultimate end for merely proximate ones. The principle of almsgiving is, however, particularly salutary for those of us living in the Christian west as our societies have made the endless accumulation of personal wealth their over-riding principle even at the expense of the very soil we live on and the air we breathe. I should note though entirely in line with conservatism zakat assumes that differences between people entail differences in wealth and that this will not be abolished but equalized through giving.

The fourth pillar counsels fasting on the sound conservative principle that we do not live for the gratification of the senses but for the fulfillment of the spirit. Fasting reminds us that the primary struggle in life is with ourselves and that the demands of the moral and communal life are at odds (often) with the gratification of the senses. Indeed, there is no substitute for the feeling of hunger as those who never feel it have no conception of the suffering of those who do. This is why great wealth so often goes with poverty of the spirit and why it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

Yet fasting is only one letter away from feasting. As there is a time to curb the senses there is a time to release them particularly in the context of communal celebration. As Aristotle said long ago, proper self-control involves not just self-denial, knowing when to say no to our desires, but also knowing when to indulge them: one does not gorge at a funeral or fast at a wedding. Still, as giving free rein to our desires must be choice and not compulsion our moral training will tend to focus on self-denial so that our indulgence may be unconstrained by evil habit.

Finally, the fifth pillar enjoins on us pilgrimage to Mecca and why not as life itself is a pilgrimage? T. S. Eliot prays: “help us to care and not to care” and this is the core of the notion that we are pilgrims in this world. The world of time and space we inhabit is both affirmed and transcended. We give ourselves over to finite ends yet leave the fruit of our action in the hands of providence. The finite passes over to the infinite as we give over our worldly projects and passions, releasing them into the eternal will of God.

On practical level this is a powerful inoculation against despair as the world does not bear all the weight of our expectations (which of its creaturely nature it can never bear). Consider as an example the old expression “better dead than red”. Those who uttered this expression meant that the Western Bourgeois form of freedom was freedom absolute and that its potential loss justified the nuclear annihilation of the planet. Of course, Western Bourgeois freedom (though admirable in many ways) is a provincial form of freedom. It does not exhaust every possibility of human good. Only a whig-history-on-steroids view of western institutions as the inevitable and only culmination of human history could justify such nihilism.

Conservatism will have no truck with this sentiment. History is an arena of struggle subject to advances and retreats. Yet possibilities for good remain in the darkest of times and the insanity of history can never destroy or even affect in the slightest the eternal essence of God source and ground of all good. In a godless universe, where this world is the only locus of good, history becomes a battleground in which the stakes are absolute and compromise unthinkable: hence the vicious ideological battles of those who think they have solved the riddle of history and claim to be bringing about the final human good.

When Opposition to the Radical Falls Away

Of course it can be objected that conservatism as I have described it here has no more been tried than Christianity or communism. Conservativism, one might say, has never really existed outside the elegant, wistful prose of conservatives. There is much truth to this charge yet it is, of course, true of all moral stances that their instantiations are very far indeed from their archetypal forms. Hence we get the characteristic vice of the conservative: the tendency to forget fundamental values for external privileges and the inability to identify what it is that ought, in fact, to be conserved.

Still, on the plus side of the ledger, the conservative might well ask whether his or her own view is comprehensive of all its rivals. Conservatives share with progressives a concern for justice and equity especially for the poor and marginalized. Conservatives share with ethno-nationalism a concern for the particularities of language and culture over against the homogenizing tendencies of globalism and technocracy. Conservatives even share with neo-liberals a suspicion of totalitarian power, planning and control.

However, conservatism, in the west at least, may well be dead for a more fundamental reason. This is because there is a powerful alternative to the conservative tradition and that is the radical tradition. All three of our contemporary ideologies have their roots in radicalism and are closer to each other than they can readily imagine given their current conflict. For the radical tradition the constraints imposed by tradition are in almost all cases artificial. What the conservative tradition would constrain the radical tradition would release. Radicalism envisages a flowering of human diversity, a host of new avenues in which self-hood can be explored beyond the stale platitudes of convention. This radical principle has routed conservatism (much of which expressed itself as cheap nostalgia anyway) and is the default position of all North Americans.[5]

This spirit can express itself as radical egalitarianism or its opposite. For instance, among ethno-nationalists it is assumed that the will of the demos embodies the wisdom and good sense of the people. This wisdom would readily express itself were it not for the constraints imposed by various ‘elites’ whose abstract intellectualism has lost touch with the community and indeed with reality. These elites constantly invoke the authority of science, or education or expertise or data against what ‘simple folk’ can see with their own eyes. When the demos seeks to express its will this is declared ‘unconstitutional’ or ‘against the rule of law’ by lawyers or advocacy groups or other ‘elite’ institutions.

The demos however, holds all such institutions in contempt and seeks to impose its will through a ‘great leader’ who is willing to flout them and indeed is willing to flout moral convention altogether (even moral conventions like marital fidelity to which the demos remain sentimentally attached). Thus, we have a kind of direct democracy outside of constitutional and legal constraints such as conservatism has forever warned against. That these radicals sometimes espouse ‘conservative’ seeming policies or points of view is irrelevant as they espouse them lawlessly and in a manner contemptuous of the very traditions they claim to value.

Why, for instance, is it conservative to despise the opinions of the educated and even pour contempt on the intellect itself? Such things are an expression of a rebellious and anti-authoritarian spirit. The demos trusts only in its collective judgment and not only rejects but actively despises any other principle. That this attitude is over-determined by socio-economic factors is plain but that does not make it any easier to deal with on a day to day basis especially as the scapegoating of immigrants, prisoners and others is high on the populist wish-list and the populace resents institutional constraints on its will to revenge especially.[6]

There is of course the other side of this coin and that is the populism of progressive movements such as the occupy movement, black-bloc radicals and so on.[7] These movements, it must be said, have aims that seem overall nobler and better than the beefs and resentments of populists. However, this is a weakness as much as a strength: as I said above every stance struggles with its shadow. Noble ideals are a proven danger when not accompanied by political and moral pragmatism and relentless self-examination. Moral crusaders have a distressing tendency to fumble badly when actually called upon to run things: this is because sweeping moral denunciations are a form of cheap grace while actual governance (self-governance included) is slow, patient work.

Return to Innocence Lost (or Imagined)

There is also a false innocence that can maintained simply by never facing the temptations of power. William Blake (a far deeper radical) was a persistent critic of any form of abstract moralism. For him no political or theological order could be the basis of freedom that did not overcome the problem of self-righteousness: our tendency to identify ourselves with an abstract principle of goodness and others (inevitably) with an abstract principle of evil. In a powerful image he tells us that blood sacrifice and war are the culmination of the moral law, the categories of good and evil unrelieved by charity, solidarity, or forgiveness.[8]

Moralism is for Blake a form of violence. (see for instance plates 47-51 of Jerusalem) Our care must embrace the ‘minute particulars’ of humanity: no ‘humanism’ can be liberating that puts an abstraction like ‘Humanity’ before flesh and blood human beings. We all have encountered people who virtue signal on every conceivable ‘issue’ but have little but venom in their hearts: one danger of the progressive stance lies, then, in the monsters of self-righteous zeal that it breeds.

At any rate, such people envisage (after some difficult to specify revolutionary event) a world in which a host of sexualities, ethnicities, personalities and identities flourish without constraint and (though this is surely impossible) without mutual contradiction.[9] As the economic discipline of Capitalism lies behind all other forms of oppression the current economic order must be overthrown. The suggested alternative is often some form of anarchism.

Like the populists, anarchists distrust and despise constitutionalism which after all only serves to protect the oppressors. Indeed, the anarchists despise traditional civil liberties as a form of constraint and mock those who espouse them as ‘liberals’. In particular, they resent the fact that such liberties prevent them from waging all-out war against their eternal adversary the populists. The populists heartily agree. Both sides fantasize about epic street confrontations or cyber battles that will issue in a final rout of the forces of evil. In other words, they are secular (and indeed religious) millenarians.

Each believes in a great battle, an apocalyptic convulsion that will only happen if liberals and other idiots get out of the way. A significant minority of each group considers this not just as a ‘culture war’ but as a ‘war’ war with brickbats, fires and vandalism of property. At any rate both agree on the Manichean position: the world and everything in it is hopelessly vitiated and corrupt and must be purged by fire whether this be the literal fire of Armageddon or the flames of secular revolution.

Finally, we have the technological dreamers. They do not dream of an unconstrained populist will or an unconstrained flowering of genders and sexualities but of the unconstrained power of technical and economic innovation. The enemy is, again the state and its institutions. Regulation of industry and common sense controls over heedless technological advancement are as bizarre and repellent to them as constraints on abortion or sexuality are to progressives. They, after all, represent the creative energy behind all forms of human advancement, all growth and prosperity. Technological or business imperatives cannot be questioned without questioning prosperity and progress themselves: the two things which for this ideology are non-negotiable. Such people see nothing ironic or odd in the fact the demands of progress and the spread of prosperity never conflict with their own self-interest.

The self- interest of the entrepreneur or innovator is the interest of the community. In a seeming parody of the Marxist utopia where the freedom of each is the freedom of all the neo-liberals and libertarians do not see the economic freedom of the individual as ever conflicting with the good of the community. This is, of course, the dream of anarchists as well: that individual wills can exist in immediate and natural harmony once the power of the state is gone. The technophiles go even further however: for them this harmony can be achieved and maintained in the midst of unrestrained competition.

The magic of the market will smooth out all inequities and bring prosperity and balance to all (or, if the libertarian leans also to vengeful populism, to the deserving). At any rate the neo-liberals have one ace in the hole that it is difficult to imagine anyone overcoming: this is the fact that almost all acts of rebellion can be appropriated and monetized. This is particularly true of physical vandalism. Capitalism does not fetishize physical property the way some anarchists think it does: burn a bank to the ground and you will find only that stock in private security companies has gone up.

Liberation as Consuming Fire

For all three groups the enemy is clear as is the goal: the repressed must be liberated. The demos must be free to enact its vengeful fantasies on immigrants, prisoners or gays. The libertarian must be free to innovate and make more money than anyone can find a use for. Sexual and ethnic minorities must be free to express their forms of life to whatever limit logic implies. All must be free and all must be free especially of the enemy of freedom, the state and its laws and institutions.[10] This is the core of each position quite apart from the fact that within each there may be many demands reasonable in themselves.

This indicates that the radical stance is the stance where our politics is concerned. Everything must be liberated though conservatives may warn again and again that liberation may mean the freedom of everything awful as easily as the freedom of everything good. Lamentation however is pointless (with apologies to Canada’s lamenter-in-chief George Parkin Grant!). This is because the radical principle is our principle and is, indeed, along with conservatism, a fundamental human option. Moreover, it has great achievements to its credit even as conservatism has many disgraces.

At the same time radicalism imposes its own constraints: most of us would rejoice if anti-vaxxers stopped being such fools yet they are acting on an impeccable radical principle, that of personal autonomy, as well as a suspicion of institutionalized medicine that many of us share. In fact, this example raises a vexing problem: vaccination can only be carried out on a population, all must buy into it for it to work. How would an anarchist society founded on a principle of radical freedom (whether anarcho-communist or right wing patriot) handle a question of this sort? Will radical stances license such appalling disorder that conservatism will become a living option? Are Clinton and Trudeau after all the best we can hope for?

Blake certainly painted a dark vision of the hellish cycle of rebellion and reaction: the perpetual alteration between sanguinary radicalism and stultifying conservatism. Is this our future? Philosophy, alas, does not deal with the future. It counsels only that we temper hope as well as fear and judge all things sub-specie-aeternitatis. It is with this stoic sentiment, as boring as it is true, that I will conclude. We seem at an impasse though the author would certainly be happy to learn from others that he is unduly pessimistic about the world.

Contact details: bwills@grenfell.mun.ca

References

Aristophanes. The Clouds trans. C.D.C. Reeve, from The Trials of Socrates. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2002)

Blake, William. Complete Poems ed. Alicia Ostriker. London: Penguin Classics, 1978.

Girard, René. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning trans. J.G. Williams. (Ottawa: Novalis, 2001)

Hegel, G.W.F. The Phenomenology of Mind. trans. J.B. Baillie. (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1967.

Reno, Robert “Why I Am anti-anti-TrumpFirst Things. Retrieved from https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2016/05/why-im-anti-anti-trump.

Smith, John Huston. The World’s Religions New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

[1] A fundamental problem with conservatism is that as soon as it defines itself vis a vis its ideological rivals it itself becomes an ideological construct rather than an assumed form of life. At that point conservatism turns into reaction. This problem was noted as long ago as Aristophanes the Clouds. One ace in the hole of the radical tradition is that as soon as traditional norms are questioned and have to be self-consciously defended the conservative standpoint is lost. At that point conservatism becomes a position duking it out with the other positions scoring the odd victory here and suffering the odd reverse there.

[2] The fatal weakness of social conservatism as a political movement was that it never articulated a positive vision of society leaving this work first to neo-liberals and now to ethno-nationalists. Its politics was simply oppositional: devoted to blocking actions against abortion or homosexuality or other things deemed decadent, conflicts that were and are unwinnable. On this basis it forged its foolish alliance first with corporate kleptocracy and then with strident populism culminating in ludicrous defenses of Trumpism from previously reputable conservative publications like First Things. (e.g Robert Reno https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2016/05/why-im-anti-anti-trump  

[3] For a rich introduction to Islam and indeed to other major faiths see The World’s Religions by John Huston Smith.

[4] This notion of a ‘perennial philosophy’ is central to writers we might place on the conservative spectrum from traditionalist writers like Rene Guenon to more eclectic figures like Aldous Huxley or Simone Weil who, while influential in some conservative circles, defy easy categorization. These metaphysically inclined thinkers contrast with the more pragmatic strain of conservatism stemming from the tradition of Burke and Swift. The American Russel Kirk may be taken as one of the last influential exponents of this view. One can add to this list the disciples of Leo Strauss (a far deeper thinker than Kirk), Canadians like George Grant as well as pure reactionaries in the tradition of Joseph de Maistre. What any of these figures would have thought of Donald J. Trump, a wealthy vulgarian straight from the pages of the Satyricon, one can only guess. Ironies abound here however: Guenon, a western convert to Islam, seems to have influenced the volcanic anti-Islamic rage of Steve Bannon. The paleo-conservatism of the genteel Russel Kirk also spawned the nativism of Pat Buchanan. Every stance has its shadow, the embodiment of its darker tendencies and ethno-nationalism seems to stand in this relation to conservatism.

[5] Any defense of a conservative principle in politics and society in the west can only be a highly qualified one for the reason that there are (in my view at least) a plurality of moral languages with claims on our attention and one of these is indeed that of the radical tradition. For Westerners this problem is acute for, as far as I able to determine, the roots of radicalism are in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul. These are not Conservative documents in my reading of them precisely for their doctrine of radical solidarity with the poor which undermines the binaries on which traditional human societies are built (and sometimes subverts those texts themselves). It was not for nothing that the Emperors of Rome thought Christianity a fundamental threat to civilized standards. In the West, then, the radical principle is already present in its primary theological constitution (however much it tries to ignore or forget that fact).

[6] Indeed, conservative Christianity is, with some honorable exceptions, becoming a pharisaical revenge cult. Behind all the rhetoric around ‘security’ (Canada remains one of the securest societies on planet Earth where terrorism is concerned) and the ‘Muslim threat’ one will find the simple will to retaliate in kind against anyone who represents the hated ‘other’ no matter how guilty or how innocent.

[7] I have before me the online Anarchist Library compiled by the Green Mountain Collective. (https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/anti-racist-action-the-green-mountain-anarchist-collective-black-bloc-tactics-communique). These sources give the inescapable impression of an abstract ideological rage consuming itself in an intellectual and historical vacuum: pretty much as Hegel saw the French revolutionaries. (The Phenomenology of Mind, 604) Talking to proponents of these views online (if talking is quite the word for it) only deepens this impression. Perhaps I am being harsh however: if the reader is curious, she may peruse Hegel’s chapter ‘Absolute Freedom and Terror’ and judge for herself if the comparison is apt. Those curious as to why the revolution always eats itself and why revolutionaries must at last turn on themselves may find Hegel’s analysis helpful.

[8] That ‘progressives’ will verbally disembowel each other over ideological differences barely discernible to outsiders shows that they are far from immune to the mimetic violence described by René Girard (2001; 24-31) Just as Blake said, moral abstraction enacts ritual violence. Progressivism is far from alone in this of course and indeed the ethno-nationalist stance is even more Manichean and violent. Still, the fact that it is over all the most humane of the current stances only makes the trap deeper: without what theologians once called a sense of sin it is difficult to imagine any politics escaping the scapegoating impulse and the self-righteous violence it manifests. Considering the ridicule and anger one provokes from many progressives by defending a stance of non-violence things do not seem hopeful.

[9] This is a deeper problem than many realize. The total liberation of one standpoint is the suppression of another: unconditional solidarity with ALL standpoints at once seems a chimerical notion. This is why in practice progressives (for instance) must always favor some oppressed people over others: aboriginal people in Guatemala, say, over outlandish folk like the Copts in Egypt. This why the radical stance may, for all protestations to the contrary, be implicitly totalitarian. Consider the following problem: A adopts the deep narrative about himself that he is the one true prophet of God. A desires not only the liberty to adopt this self-description but demands the universal recognition of this deep description by others. It is, to him, a fundamental denial of his personhood should anyone question his foundational narrative as, in his mind, he IS this narrative. However, trouble arises if B also adopts the deep story that SHE is the one true prophet of God as others cannot offer unconditional affirmation of both narratives. Here is where the currently much maligned standpoint of liberalism steps in. The liberal defers the eschaton by imposing articles of peace on A and B while each prosecutes their claim to be the one true prophet. With this peace imposed A and B come to the realization that, whatever differences divide them, they share a common nature as rational agents. They can now differ on each other’s deep story, neither one need be forced to accept the other because neither party is reducible to their narrative. With that they can go about their affairs. The alternative is playing the zero sum game of establishing my narrative as the dominant one through the suppression of the other contrary narrative. A simply destroys B. This is the totalitarian stance. Its dangers are evident yet the liberal stance costs as well. By entering that stance, we forgo universal recognition for the sake of peace and subordinate our deep story to the common good, at which point we cease to be simply our story, we assume a common public narrative as our own somewhat as we give up our private religious perceptions to join a church. I tend to think that is a cost worth paying though others may differ.

[10] This is why the most embattled principle of all is the centrism espoused by the Democratic party in the U.S. and the Liberal Party in Canada. As in the thirties it seems “the center cannot hold” (to quote W.B. Yeats). The basic problem seems to me that no centrist government can impose discipline on the fossil fuel-industry. Nor can it impose any discipline on the speculators and financiers who hoard badly needed funds offshore: a miserly activity contrary to the very nature of the capitalism they are said to espouse. That said, if there is anything which can be said to be ‘conservative’ in the current context it is belief in a social democratic state with traditional civil liberties protected by a strong constitutional framework. This, if I would hazard a guess, would be the best polity currently on offer. I have given short shrift to the phenomenon of political centrism in this piece, a deficiency I hope to make up in a subsequent essay.

Author Information: Raimo Tuomela, University of Helsinki, raimo.tuomela@helsinki.fi

Tuomela, Raimo. “The Limits of Groups: An Author Replies.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 28-33.

The pdf of the article refers to specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3QM

Please refer to:

In their critique Corlett and Strobel (2017) discuss my 2013 book Social Ontology and comment on some of my views. In this reply I will respond to their three central criticisms that I here formulate as follows:[1]

(1) Group members are said in my account to be required to ask for the group’s, thus other members’, permission to leave the group, and this seems to go against the personal moral autonomy of the members.

(2) My account does not focus on morally central matters such as personal autonomy, although it should.

(3) My moral notions are based on a utilitarian view of morality.

In this note I will show that claims (1) – (3) are not (properly) justified on closer scrutiny.

Unity Is What’s Missing In Our Lives

Below I will mostly focus on we-mode groups, that is, groups based on we-thinking, we-reasoning, a shared “ethos”, and consequent action as a unified group.[2] Ideally, such we-mode groups are autonomous (externally uncoerced) and hence free to decide about the ethos (viz. the central goals, beliefs, norms, etc.) of their group and to select its position holders in the case of an organized group. Inside the group (one with freely entered members) each member is supposed to be “socially” committed to the others to perform her part of the joint enterprise. (Intentions in general involve commitment to carry out what is intended).

The members of a we-mode group should be able to count on each other not to be let down. The goal of the joint activity typically will not be reached without the other members’ successful part performances (often involving helping). When one enters a we-mode group it is one’s own choice, but if the others cannot be trusted the whole project may be impossible to carry out (think of people building a bridge in their village).

The authors claim that my moral views are based on utilitarianism and hence some kind of maximization of group welfare instead of emphasizing individual autonomy and the moral rights of individuals.[3] This is a complex matter and I will here say only that there is room in my theory both for group autonomy and individual autonomy.  The we-mode account states what it takes for people to act in the we-mode (see Tuomela, 2013, ch. 2). According to my account, the members have given up part of their individual autonomy to the group. From this follows that solidarity to the other members is important. The members of a paradigmatic we-mode group should not let the others down. This is seen as a moral matter.

The Moral Nature of the Act

As to the moral implications of the present approach, when a group is acting intentionally it is as a rule responsible for what it does. But what can be said about the responsibility of a member? Basically, each member is responsible as a group member and also privately morally responsible for the performance of his part. (He could have left the group or expressed his divergent opinion and reasons.) Here we are discussing the properly moral and not only the instrumental or quasi-moral implications of group action and the members.[4]

A member’s exiting a free (autonomous) group is in some cases a matter for the group to deal with. “What sanctions does a group need for quitting members if it endangers the whole endeavor?” Of course the members may exit the group but then they have to be prepared to suffer the (possibly) agreed-upon sanctions for quitting. Corlett and Strobel focus on the requirement of a permission to leave the group (see pp. 43-44 of Tuomela, 2013). It is up to the group to decide about suitable sanctions. E.g. the members may be expected to follow the majority here. (See ch. 5 of Tuomela, 2013).

Furthermore, those who join the group should of course be clear about what kind of group they are joining. If they later on wish to give up their membership they can leave upon taking on the sanctions, if any, that the group has decided upon. My critics rightfully wonder about the expression “permission to leave the group”. My formulations seem to have misleadingly suggested to them that the members are (possibly) trapped in the we-mode group. Note that on p. 44 of my 2013 book I speak of cases where leaving the group harms the other members and propose that sometimes rather mere informing the members might be appropriate.

How can “permission from the group” be best understood? Depending on the case at hand, it might involve asking the individual members if they allow the person in question to leave without sanctions. But this sounds rather silly especially in the case of large groups. Rather, the group may formulate procedures for leaving the group. This would involve institutionalizing the matter and the possible sanctioning system. In the case of paradigmatic autonomous we-mode groups the exit generally is free in the sense that the group itself rather than an external authority decides about procedures for exiting the group (see appendix 1 to chapter 2 of Tuomela, 2013). However, those leaving the group might have to face group-based sanctions if they by their leaving considerably harm the others.

In my account the members of a well-functioning we-mode group can be said somewhat figuratively to have given up part of their autonomy and self-determination to their we-mode group. Solidarity between the members is important: The members should not let the others down – or else the group’s project (viz. the members’ joint project) will not be successful. This is a non-utilitarian moral matter – the members are to keep together not to let each other down. Also for practical reasons it is desirable that the members stick together on penalty of not achieving their joint goal – e.g. building a bridge in their village.

People do retain their personal (moral) autonomy in the above kind of cases where entering and exiting a we-mode group is free (especially free from external authorities) or where, in some cases, the members have to satisfy special conditions accepted by their group. I have suggested elsewhere that dissenting members should either leave the group or try to change the ethos of the group. As said above, in specific cases of ethos-related matters the members may use a voting method, e.g. majority voting, even if the minority may want to challenge the result.[5]

Questions of Freedom

According to Corlett and Strobel, freedom of expression is largely blocked and the notion of individual autonomy is dubious in my account (see p. 9 of their critical paper). As was pointed out above, the members may leave the group freely or via an agreed-upon procedure. Individual autonomy is thwarted to the extent that is needed for performing one’s part, but such performance is the whole point of participation in the first place. Of course the ethos may be discussed along the way and changes may be introduced if the members or e.g. the majority of them or another “suitable” number of them agree. The members enter the group freely, by their own will and through the group’s entrance procedures and may likewise leave the group through collectively agreed-on procedures (if such exist).

As we know, autonomy is a concept much used in everyday life, outside moral philosophy. In my account it is used in “autonomous groups”, in the simple sense that the group can make its own decisions about ethos, division of tasks, conditions for entering and exiting the group without coercion by an external authority. Basically, only the autonomous we-mode group can, through its members’ decision, make rules for how people are allowed to join or leave the group.[6]

Corlett’s and Strobel’s critique that the members in autonomous we-mode groups have no autonomy (in the moral sense) in my account cannot be directed towards the paradigmatic case of groups with free entrance, where the group members decide among themselves what is to be done by whom and how to arrange for the situation of a member wanting to leave the group, maybe in the middle of a critical situation. Of course, a member cannot always do as he chooses in situations of group action. A joint goal is at stake and one’s letting the others down when they have a good reason to count on one would be detrimental to everyone’s goal achievement. Also, letting the others down is at least socially and morally condemnable.

When people have good reason to drop out, having changed their mind or finding that the joint project is morally dubious, they can exit according to the relevant rules (if such exist in the group). The feature criticized by the present authors that “others’ permission is required” is due to my unlucky formulation. What is meant is that in some cases there should be some kind of procedure in the group for leaving. The group members are socially committed to each other to further the ethos, as well as committed to the ethos. The social commitment has, of course, the effect that each member looks to the others for cooperative actions and attitudes and has a good reason to do so.

My critics suggest that the members should seek support from the others – indeed this seems to be what the assumed solidarity of we-mode groups can be taken to provide. However, what they mean could be a procedure to make the ethos more attractive to them and leading to their renewed support of the ethos, instead of pressuring them to stay in a group with an ethos that no longer interests them. Of course, the ethos may be presented in new ways, but there still may be situations where members want to leave and they have a right to leave following the agreed upon procedures. Informing the group in due time, so that the group can find compensating measures, is what a member who quits can and should minimally do. The authors discuss examples where heads of states and corporations want to resign. It is typically possible to resign according e.g.to the group’s exit rules, if such exist.

Follow the Leader

On page 11 the authors criticize the we-mode account for the fact that non-operative members ought to accept what the operative leaders decide. They claim that e.g. a state like the U.S., on the contrary, allows, and in some situations, even asks the citizens to protest. They are, of course, right in their claims concerning special cases. Naturally there will sometimes be situations where protest is called for. The dissidents may then win and the government (or what have you) will change its course of action. Even the ethos of the group may sometimes have to be reformulated.

Gradual development occurs also in social groups and organizations, the ethos evolves often through dissident actions. When the authorized operatives act according to what they deem to be a feasible way, they do what they are chosen to do. If non-operatives protest due to immoral actions of the operatives, they do the right thing morally, but if the operatives act according to the ethos, they are doing their job, although they should have chosen a moral way to achieve the goal. The protest of the non-operatives may have an effect. On the other hand, note that even Mafia groups may act in the we-mode and do so in immoral ways, in accordance to their own agenda.

The authors discuss yet another kind of example of exiting the group, where asking permission would seem out of place: a marriage. If a married couple is taken to be a we-mode group, the parties would have to agree upon exit conditions (if marriage is not an institutionalized and codified concept – what it, nevertheless, usually is). As an institution it is regulated in various ways depending on the culture. The summarized critique by the authors on page 12 has been met this far. It seems that they have been fixated on the formulation that “members cannot leave the group without the permission from the other members.” To be sure, my view is that group members cannot just walk out on the others without taking any measures to ease the detrimental effects of their defection. Whether it is permission, compensation or an excuse, depends on the case. In protesting we have a different story: Dissidents often have good reasons to protest, and sometimes they just want to change the ethos instead of leaving.

It’s Your Prerogative

At the end of their critique the authors suggest that I should include in my account a moral prerogative for the members to seek the support of other group members as a courtesy to other members and the group. I have no objection to that. Once more, the expression “permission to leave the group” has been an unfortunate choice of words. It would have been better e.g. to speak of a member’s being required to inform the others that one has to quit and be ready to suffer possible sanctions for letting the others down and perhaps causing the whole project to collapse.

However, dissidents should have the right to protest. Those who volunteer to join a group with a specific ethos cannot always foresee if the ethos allows for immoral or otherwise unacceptable courses of action. Finally, my phrase “free entrance and exit” may have been misunderstood. As pointed out, the expression refers to the right of the members to enter and exit instead of being forced to join a group and remain there. To emphasize once more, it is in this way that the members of we-mode groups are autonomous.  Also, there is no dictator who steers the ethos formation and choice of position holders. However, although the members may jointly arrange their group life freely, each member is not free to do whatever he chooses when he acts in the we-mode. We-mode acting involves solidary collective acting by the members according to the ethos of the group.

In this note I have responded to the main criticisms (1)-(3) by Corlett and Strobel (2017) and argued that they do not damage my theory at least in a serious way. I wish to thank my critics for their thoughtful critical points.

Contact details: raimo.tuomela@helsinki.fi

References

Corlett, A. and Strobel J., “Raimo Tuomela’s Social Ontology”, Social Epistemology 31, no. 6.  (2017): 1-15

Schmid, H.-B. “On not doing one’s part.” Pp. 287-306, in Psarros, N., Schule-Ostermann, K. (eds.) Facets of Sociality. Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag, 2007

Tuomela, R. The Importance of Us: A Philosophical Study of Basic Social Notions. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Tuomela, R. The Philosophy of Sociality, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Tuomela, R. Social Ontology, New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Tuomela, R. and Mäkelä, P. “Group agents and their responsibility.” Journal of Ethics 20. (2016): 299-316

Tuomela, R. and Tuomela, M. “Acting As a Group Member and Collective Commitment”, Protosociology 18, (2003): 7-65.

[1] Acknowledgement. I wish to thank my wife Dr. Maj Tuomela for important help in writing this paper.

[2] See Tuomela (2007) and (2013) for the above notions.

[3] I speak of utilities only in game-theoretic contexts. (My moral views are closer to pragmatism and functionalism than utilitarianism.)

[4] See e.g. Tuomela-Mäkelä (2016) for a group’s  and group members’ moral responsibility, Also see pp. 37 and 41 of Tuomela (2013) and chapter 10 in Tuomela (2007).

[5] As to dissidents I have discussed the notion briefly in my 1995 book and in a paper published in 2003 with Maj Tuomela (see the references). Furthermore, Hans Bernhard Schmid discusses dissidents in we-mode groups in his article “On not doing one’s part” in Psarros and Schulte-Ostermann (eds.) Facets of Sociality, Ontos Verlag, 2007, pp. 287-306.

[6] Groups that are dependent on an external agent (e.g. a dictator, an owner of a company or an officer commanding an army unit) may lack the freedom to decide about what they should be doing, which positions they should have, and the members may be forced to join a group that they cannot exit from. My notion of “autonomous groups” refers to groups that are free to decide about their own matters, e.g. entrance and exit (possibly including sanctions). Personal moral autonomy in such groups is retained by the possibility to apply for entrance and exit upon taking on possible sanctions, influencing the ethos or protesting. The upshot is that a person functioning in a paradigmatic we-mode group should obey the possible restrictions that the group has set for exiting the group and be willing to suffer agreed upon sanctions. Such a we-mode group is assumed to have coercion-free entrance to the group and also free exit from it – as specified in Appendix 1 to Chapter 2 of my 2013 book. Here is meant that no external authority is coercing people to join and to remain in the group. A completely different matter is the case of a Mafia group and an army unit. The latter may be a unit that cannot be freely entered and exited. Even in these cases people may act in the we-mode. In some non-autonomous groups, like in a business company, the shareholders decide about all central matters and the workers get paid. Members may enter if they are chosen to join and exit only according to specific rules.

Author Information: Gregory Lobo, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia, globo@uniandes.edu.co

Lobo, Gregory J. “Back to Basics: Straw Men, Status Functions, and Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 11 (2017): 6-19.

The pdf of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3Qk

Please refer to:

Image by United To End Genocide, via Flickr

 

“They won’t let me be a citizen, because then they have to give me rights and they won’t call me a refugee because then they have to give me aid,” said Mr. Saifullah. “I am not a citizen or a refugee. I am an illegal alien. I am nothing.”[1]

While Mr. Saifullah, quite tragically, gets it, Professor Corlett, sadly, does not. This brief essay is an attempt to help Professor Corlett “get it,” to understand why status functions are important for understanding human rights. Along the way some basic misunderstandings regarding the substance and purpose of John Searle’s reflections on how his social ontology might shed light on discussions of human rights will be clarified. These misunderstandings are evident in Corlett (2016),[2] henceforth simply 2016, and were initially addressed in a scant seven pages by Lobo (2017),[3] henceforth Lobo.[4] In reaction to Lobo’s seven pages, Professor Corlett produced a 22 page response,[5] henceforth 2017, rejecting Lobo’s clarifications and reaffirming his original conclusions as found in 2016.

In the first part of what follows, Corlett’s principal objection to Searle’s thinking will be re-presented. As in Lobo, it will be shown once more that the objection is unfounded, by comparing relevant textual citations from 2016 and 2017 with textual citations from Searle (2010)[6] and Searle (2011).[7] In the second part, the purpose of Searle’s intervention into the field of human rights thinking will be clarified. This will reveal that Corlett’s objections — even if they were not baseless — are in any event not germane.

Finally, what is claimed in Lobo to be Searle’s major contribution to human rights thinking, based on the concept of the status function, will be discussed. In 2017 Corlett mishandled (that is, treated without due care) Lobo’s representation (paraphrase) of what he, Lobo, understands to be Searle’s major contribution to the discussion.[8] It is possible that it is this error by Corlett that led to him dismissing said contribution in 2017 as entirely unoriginal. The discussion will clarify both the substance of Searle’s actual contribution and its originality.

Errors and Corrections

Fundamentally, Corlett errs in his characterization of Searle’s thinking on human rights. Among his initial errors is this: “Searle’s conception of human rights is purely institutional, e.g. he believes that such rights are products only of social construction.”[9] Corlett’s related but more principal concern would seem to be that Searle’s thinking on human rights “is not completely justified”[10] because Searle does not address the issue of what Corlett refers to as the “essential moral properties” of such rights. The best explication to found in Corlett of what this might mean is this: a human right “finds at least part of its grounding in morality.”[11] It is appropriate to ask, what is meant by morality? “By ‘morality,’ it is meant that such rights have moral foundations in an objective sense.”[12]

If the reader is less that satisfied with this tautology, so be it: Corlett offers nothing further. Of more concern, perhaps, is that based on Corlett (2016 and 2017) everything indicates that the guarantor of objectivity, and thus morality (and of the objectivity of objectivity and the morality of morality), would seem to be none other than the “tradition” or the “leading philosophers of human rights.” This, of course, should not worry the reader in any way at all. It is important to point out that Corlett re-words this moral concern of his towards the conclusion of 2016, criticizing Searle’s thinking, both in general and on human rights specifically, for lacking what he refers to as a “morally normative” component or element,[13] for which a non-tautological explication is never offered.

Now, to support this characterization of Searle’s thinking, Corlett quotes from Searle (2011), an article in which Searle is replying to some of the critics of his 2010 work. Having characterized Searle’s conception of human rights as “purely institutional” and “social construction[ist],” and complained that Searle’s thinking “does not even address” questions of morality in relation to human rights, Corlett seeks to give credence to this characterization by quoting Searle, thusly: “‘[o]n my [Searle is using the first person] account all rights are status functions and thus human creations. We do not discover human rights in nature as we discover human chromosomes. But if human rights are created by human beings, then what rationally compelling justification can we give for the creation of universal human rights?’ (Searle 2011, pp. 139–140).”[14]

Here it is relevant to ask, if Corlett is going to quote Searle asking what rationally compelling justification can be given for the creation of universal human rights, why does Corlett not let Searle answer? For Searle does answer the question Corlett quotes. But Corlett passes over Searle’s answer, as if it does not exist.

Instead of allowing Searle his answer (quoting it), Corlett immediately interjects a non sequitur: “In Searle’s terms, then, human rights are epistemically subjective rather than objective.”[15] Now, this is a non sequitur insofar as it has nothing to do with the question Searle poses; however, it is anything but a non sequitur for Corlett’s purposes. For by interjecting so, Corlett is clearly seeking to hang Searle on what Corlett sees as the problematic inferences one can make when reading Searle’s question in the absence of an answer.

Corlett, it appears, seems to want the reader to imagine that Searle is posing a rhetorical question, out of exasperation, to which everyone already knows the answer. Through his presentation of Searle’s question, absent Searle’s answer, it looks like Corlett is suggesting that in asking the question, “what rationally compelling justification can we give for the creation of universal human rights?”, Searle is implying that we really can’t give a rationally compelling justification for them at all. This would mean that we are left only with institutions and social construction — or what Corlett sums up as the “epistemically subjective”.

But Corlett is being dishonest.[16] For Searle does answer; his question is not born of exasperation, and it is certainly not rhetorical.[17] And his answer, as much as his question — which is about universal human rights and their justification — shows that Searle seeks, in fact, to ground human rights in moral foundations, even as he continues to understand human rights, indeed all rights, as the result of human creativity.

The Meaning of the Question

Still, before turning to Searle’s answer, it is worth considering further the implications of Searle’s question, especially with respect to Corlett’s accusation that Searle’s thinking lacks considerations of the morally normative. Searle asks about legitimacy in the creation of universal human rights. But for a right to be universal it would have to be, ipso facto, normative, morally so, ethically so, and it would have to be so normative for everyone — for it is universal. In other words, a universal human right is, by definition, always already morally normative, and Corlett’s principal complaint against Searle’s thinking, that it lacks consideration of the morally normative because it is purely institutional, collapses.

That being the case, it is still worth pondering the implications of Searle’s answer to the question he poses. Recall that Searle is asking after a rationally compelling justification for the creation of universal human rights. He immediately responds: “I offer a justification, but if I am right it limits the scope of human rights.”[18] How could this be so; how could his thinking contemplate limits (which again, suggests normativity)? For on Corlett’s reading, Searle’s “purely institutional”, “social construction[ist]” understanding of human rights amounts to a “madness” which does nothing less than pave the way to outrages like white supremacy and slave ownership.[19] On Corlett’s reading, Searle’s thinking allows any old anybody to dream up any whimsy that strikes their fancy and call it a human right. In 2016 Corlett, as is being evidenced, understands Searle poorly and thus his reading is completely wrong (not only plausibly wrong but, to repeat, completely wrong); but in 2017, after Lobo, Corlett still manages to somehow remain refractory to evidence that annuls his thesis.

Here is, finally, how Searle answers the question he posed: “A right is legitimately created only if it can rationally be justified by a correct conception of human nature, a set of values about human beings, and can rationally impose an obligation on all human beings to respect it.”[20] In insisting that the rights in question have to be rationally imposable on all, Searle is insisting on something that is equivalent to an insistence on moral normativity and universality. Corlett missed these words. One could argue that he had to miss them, for they incontrovertibly refute all elements of his thesis. Or it could be allowed, charitably, that in 2016 he missed these words due to the pressures of working to deadline, and the employment of the quite fallible strategy of selective reading, which has claimed many more and much greater heads than his.

What is perhaps quite unforgivable however, is Corlett’s reaction when confronted by these words of Searle in Lobo. In 2017, having had the chance to contemplate both the existence of these words, and the damage they quite clearly do to his thesis, Corlett responds in the following manner: he concedes that this “is the closest published statement by Searle of which I [Corlett] am aware that on the surface appears to align his view of human rights with the conception of human rights as moral ones which I attribute to the contemporary human rights tradition.”[21] But his concern, the reader will recall, is that Searle is a pure institutionalist, a “mad”[22] social constructionist, whose work “lacks an essentially morally normative component.”[23] The quotation, one among many (see Lobo for more), confirms that Corlett’s concerns are groundless. So now the less charitable conclusion must be drawn: Corlett is purposefully ignoring the evidence before his eyes.

How Do You Justify?

Look at his initial response: “on the surface,” he insists, superficially, this quotation seems to successfully indicate that Corlett has misjudged Searle. But only there, on the surface. “However, the statement does not quite succeed in doing so,”[24] Corlett continues, in an attempt to regain his footing. This is to be expected, for the reader will recall, Corlett’s standard is “complete justification.”[25] According to such logic, not quite succeeding amounts to nothing less than unmitigated failure. But in what way is the statement not quite successful? How will Corlett justify his use of the mitigating locution, “on the surface”?

As follows: “according to the conception of human rights which I articulate but do not endorse in Corlett (2016) and herein, being rationally justified by a correct conception of human nature is not a jointly sufficient condition of a human right, though it might be relevant to the issue of human rights possession (i.e., of who qualifies in having a human right).”[26] This “justification” is left without further comment. Corlett seems to think it is meaningful. The reader should decide for herself, but it is here deemed — further commentary notwithstanding — twaddle.

From the ridiculous to the sublime: what Corlett does next in his attempt to annul the overwhelming evidence that he has, as they say, constructed a straw man, a straw Searle, against whom to aim his arrows, is nothing less than extraordinary. He extends his attempt to undercut the pertinence Searle’s wholly unobjectionable observation that a “right is legitimately created only if it can rationally be justified by a correct conception of human nature,” by introducing into argument the following, equally unobjectionable, truism: “That something is rationally justified can be a subjective or relative matter.”[27] This is extraordinary — in this context — because Searle is careful to make this consideration central to his thinking.

In his discussion of human rights he very clearly says:  “I can at least argue for my conception of what I think is valuable in human life.”[28] In other words, and in the same sense, he can certainly argue (as can Corlett) for what he thinks should be morally normative. But as Searle immediately observes: “such arguments, as is typical in ethics, are not demonstrative, in the sense that any rational [and, it might well be added, reasonable] person is bound to accept them on pain of irrationality [or unreasonableness].”[29] Searle concludes this thought with an idea that should interest Corlett, for it speaks directly to the latter’s concerns: “But from the fact that they [the arguments] have an element of epistemic subjectivity, it does not follow that they are arbitrary or beyond the scope of argument”.[30]

It would seem there is little more to be said on this topic, for anyone who understands, at least roughly, how language works, knows that it is possible to say equivalent things without using identical words. Thus it is no stretch whatsoever to conclude on the basis of what Searle says that he is arguing, explicitly, for moral considerations in the elaboration of human rights. He explicitly rejects the notion that they can be elaborated arbitrarily or without reference to moral foundations. This information and argument was presented in Lobo, but ignored in and by Corlett in 2017.

When Is the Universal Truly Necessary?

Sadly, however, this is not in fact the least of it. What is truly astonishing about Corlett’s pointing up that subjectivity and rationality are an important concern — as indeed they are — is that, in neither 2016 nor 2017, is there found any clear (non-tautological) explication of what counts as “morally normative” — his central peeve — anyway; the closest Corlett comes to giving the expression some substance is when he refers to “what are moral rights above and beyond what societies say they are” in 2016,[31] and in 2017, when he says that “human rights are […] are non-institutionally moral or ethical, backed by valid moral or ethical principles or rules.”[32]

To repeat: in an attempt to cut at Searle, Corlett informs his reader (as if the reader were unaware): “That something is rationally justified can be a subjective or relative matter.”[33] To be clear, Corlett is broadcasting the insight that what counts as rational and as justified (and by extension, surely, what is “true,” “valid,” “objective” and so on) is in fact subjective, relative — to one’s point of view, no doubt. It is claimed here that this intervention is astonishing. Why? Not for its content, certainly, but because the subject of its enunciation, namely Corlett himself, has in both 2016 and 2017 used the following phrases as if they were not tainted with subjectivity or relativity in the slightest: “‘true morality’,”[34] “valid moral claims,”[35] “valid moral rules,”[36] “a morally enlightened moral conscience,”[37] “objectively valid moral rules,”[38] “valid moral principles,”[39] notions like “objectively valid,”[40] “a proper interpretation,”[41] formulations like “[b]y ‘valid’ is meant objectively valid,”[42] “valid moral or ethical principles,”[43]  and this, while exhausting, is hardly an exhaustive list.

In not one single instance that can be found does Corlett allow that something like “true morality” might be a subjective or relative matter, that what counts as “a morally enlightened moral conscience” might be an unsettled question, within the scope of argument.[44] What is to be made of a statement like the following: “what makes a human right valid […] is valid [?] moral/ethical principles or rules which confer [wait for it…] validity on a human rights claim or interest and thereby confer the right in question to a particular individual or group”?[45] It is too distressingly convoluted and tautological to be considered a valid[46] English sentence; but what is more bothersome in the present context is it begs the question (begged by all the other just cited formulations too): who decides what is valid, true, objective, normative, moral, proper and so on?[47]

For Corlett there is a “true morality” that is not subjective, not relative; there are “valid moral claims” that are not subjective or relative matters; there is a “morally enlightened moral conscience” (yes, he uses the redundancy) and this is neither subjective nor relative. It is surprising that Corlett — that anyone engaged in the philosophical, and more pointedly, the social epistemological, if you will, enterprise — would so unselfconsciously, so unreflectively, so unironically, deploy such terms in an attempt to find fault with Searle’s — indeed, anyone’s — thinking. Does he not realize that such formulations are entirely of a piece with the discourses of radical religionists, Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists and so on?

They are not, however, part of Searle’s discourse. And in this regard it is to be noted, as a sort of coda to this section, that in the piece most selectively cited by Corlett[48] in 2016, and which has provided much food for thought above, Searle has the following to say about validity and the morally normative. First, validity: “a valid justification does not necessarily produce agreement.”[49] This observation does not seem to register with Corlett (his truism cited above notwithstanding). Searle goes on: “As a philosopher I would have a much easier life if people agreed with all my valid arguments. (No doubt my adversaries have the same feeling about my inability to appreciate their ‘valid’ arguments.)

The point for the present discussion is that one can legitimately argue for the validity and universality of certain human rights even though one knows that the conception of human dignity that one is arguing from is not universally shared and that one’s arguments will not convince people who wish to deny humans their rights.”[50] Who would dispute this? On the face of the evidence (2016 and 2017) Corlett would: “the moral conception of a human rights holds that such rights do not change.”[51] In other words, Corlett thinks these things can placed beyond argument. An audience of totalitarians would likely be the first to agree.

Regarding human rights more specifically, Searle says: “there ought to be a general account of them and how they relate to our humanity.”[52] This is essentially an argument in favor of something like moral normativity; he then adds, “I try to provide the beginning of such an account.”[53] Indeed. He then offers up a critique of merely “utilitarian” justifications of human rights, which again evinces his understanding of the need for some sort of normative grounding for them. It is deeply troubling that Corlett cannot intellectually grasp this. Finally, Searle reiterates his point, already present in 2010 but ignored for some reason by Corlett in 2016 and 2017, namely, that “a right can continue to exist even when it is not recognized” and that one therefore does “not lose” one’s “rights in a situation where they are generally violated.”[54] This provides a segue into the next section.

Searle’s Purpose and Contribution

In 2017, towards the end of his 22 pages responding to Lobo’s seven, Corlett admits that he doesn’t really know what Searle is up to in Searle (2010): “this discussion of Searle’s view of human rights raises the question of precisely which questions he is attempting to answer.”[55] Corlett offers up a couple of possibilities; but both are wrong. The overall goal for the chapter that so vexes Corlett is not to explore the field or tradition of human rights but to see what light, if any, Searle’s social ontology sheds on the ontology of human rights.[56] Towards the end of his chapter, Searle, having partially (but hardly completely) explored the debate on human rights, summarizes his basic position, using italics:

the justification for human rights cannot be ethically neutral. It involves more than just a biological conception of what sorts of beings we are; it also involves a conception of what is valuable, actually or potentially, about our very existence.[57]

Though he does not speak of morality in this quotation, he mentions ethics and elaborates what he means: it concerns what is valuable about our existence, which is to say, what is good, and best even. In other words, he insists on the need to formulate human rights by the light of reason (it is unclear how else such universal human rights might be formulated), with close attention paid to considerations grounded in the non-institutional, i.e. the biological, and extending into the ethical and moral. This quotation, in and of itself, should be enough to short-circuit Corlett’s argument, and knock the stuffing, the straw, out of the Searlean stand-in he constructs; in the face of it he could gracefully admit that he had misread Searle (for misreading is something to which even the best of us succumb), perhaps express gratitude for the clarification, and all involved could move on. Or not.

And so, in 2016 and 2017 these words from Searle (2010), cited in Lobo, which constitute clear evidence that Searle acknowledges the need to ground human rights in moral norms, are simply ignored or disputed as not saying exactly what Corlett wants (remember: he will accept nothing less than complete justification). It remains to be seen whether they will be ignored again, so it is worth emphasizing what Searle is doing here: Searle is doing exactly what Corlett says he is not doing. That Searle doesn’t use Corlett’s favorite phrases is what seems to make it impossible for Corlett to see this. With the benefit of this second clarification, perhaps he will.

But Searle is also doing something else. While not concerned at all to align his thinking with Corlett’s hallowed tradition, he is anxious to explore and resolve a paradox at the heart of thinking about human rights: on the one hand it is said human rights did not exist before the Enlightenment, but on the other hand, it is also said that human rights have always existed, but were only recognized with the Enlightenment, and indeed, can exist even when not recognized.[58]

Searle’s way of resolving the paradox is what was argued in Lobo to be his big contribution to the debate, which Corlett in 2017 dismisses as unoriginal.

So Who Is Right?

First, it is important to see how Corlett understands Lobo’s paraphrasing of Searle’s contribution. Corlett, conveniently (in more than one sense of the word) cites Lobo summarizing Searle: “Searle ‘… makes a contribution to the philosophy of human rights whose importance, I think, is hard to exaggerate, when he points out that what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community’ (Lobo 2017, 28.).”[59] This quotation is truncated, which would not be a problem[60] were the truncation signaled with an ellipsis; but it is not (and the initial ellipsis is not being questioned here).[61] Here is what Lobo wrote, with the missing words italicized:

…makes a contribution to the philosophy of human rights whose importance, I think, is hard to exaggerate, when he points out that what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as actual bearers, that each and every member of the human species must be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to the rights that accrue, automatically and inalienably, to each and every member of said community.[62]

Does it make a difference? Insofar as Corlett’s version of Lobo evinces once more what might at this point be justly characterized as a tendency to selectively read, to conveniently misread, it probably makes a difference. The difference it might make is compounded by the fact that Corlett repeats the misquotation again on his next page, and it is on the basis of this misquotation that he dismisses as unoriginal what Lobo has said is an important contribution to the human rights discussion, as “either assumed, asserted, or argued by many doing rights theory during the past few decades.”[63] Tellingly, he does not cite any textual support for this assertion. He does however again quote the substance of the misquotation (this is the third time), as part of his attempt to denude Searle’s contribution of value.

It is perhaps inevitable that, having misquoted Lobo, Corlett should misunderstand him, and believe him to be saying something already and widely said. What is it that Corlett thinks Lobo is saying, that has already been said? It is this: “one must be a human being in order to be in a position to make valid rights claims.”[64] Or, the “fact” that humans are “members of the human community”, Corlett continues, “places them in a position to possess human rights.”[65] Now if this were what Lobo is saying, and if this were what Searle is saying (for Lobo is taken to be explicating Searle here), then Corlett would be right, and Lobo, at the very least, would probably be embarrassed, but grateful for the lesson. But again, this formulation of Corlett is based on a misreading, evidenced by Corlett’s reliance on an unreliable, and ungrammatical misquotation he produced.

What the Meaning of the Argument Was in the First Place

So what is Lobo actually saying? First, a return to the accurate quote, again adding emphasis where appropriate: with regard to human rights “what is crucial is that their potential bearers be recognized as actual bearers.” To make sense of this (these are the final lines of Lobo; the idea has been explicated previously in that text), one has to understand the socio-ontological difference between potential and actual bearers, and it is here that Searle’s work, whatever faults it may well and otherwise manifest, is so important.

For Searle’s work (specifically his discussion of status functions) allows us to understand that being human is not an ontological condition but a socio-ontological condition. This is a subtle point.[66] But it is profound.[67] One might say that there is the species, homo sapiens, (this is in a sense an assertion about ontological reality) members of which are potential bearers of human rights. But at the level of the symbolic, at the level of social ontology, members of the species homo sapiens are only often, but not always, regarded as humans and thus — lately at least — as possessors of human rights. Thus, potential bearers of human rights, that is members of the species homo sapiens, have to be recognized as humans (members of the human community) if they are to effectively have their human rights. If Corlett does not understand this, it is simply because he does not understand how status functions work, which is the subject for another occasion.

The second part of the text mishandled by Corlett is this, emphasizing with italics where necessary: “each and every member of the human species [i.e. every individual homo sapiens] must be recognized as a fully-fledged member of the human community and thus as entitled to” human rights. Note what is not being said here. It is not being said that “one must be a human being in order to be in a position to make valid rights claims”; nor is it being said that “members of the community of humans […] possess human rights.” These are both by now trite observations which, and Corlett is surely correct here, have long been part of the human rights tradition.

What is being said, based on Searlean social ontology, is that one must be recognized as a human being in order to make valid rights claims, that one must be seen as a member of the human community to (effectively) possess human rights, or to not have one’s human rights violated. What is the difference? The difference is that being a homo sapiens does not mean you are seen as, recognized as, a human being, a member of the community, and it is in this sense that a homo sapiens/human being can be said to both possess and be denied their human rights. Corlett’s whole discourse in 2016 and 2017 is predicated on the (mistaken) assumption that being human is socio-ontologically unproblematic and that the issue is the social existence and recognition of rights; but in fact it is about where and when homo sapiens are recognized and not recognized qua humans.

Corlett, and likely the tradition he invokes (if indeed he invokes its positions accurately, which at this point, it is not uncharitable to imagine, we have reason to doubt), may well say “No! Humans are humans, and as such are possessors of human rights!” Well, he and his vaunted tradition should go say it to Mr. Saifullah.

The Voice of a Lost Man

Mr. Saifullah? The reader is referred to the present essay’s epigraph. Mr. Saifullah, according to the story in the New York Times, is a member of the Rohingya refugee community living in Pakistan for the last four decades, in conditions that the paper describes as “distressingly impoverished even by Karachi’s standards.” He and the community to which he belongs are actively being denied their basic rights.

But how can this be so?, Corlett must ask — for surely Mr. Saifullah is human; clearly he belongs to the human community. Such a “fact”, Corlett would say, means he possesses rights, and he can claim them. Corlett would invoke the morally normative elements of the rights Mr. Saifullah possesses as a member of the human community and insist on the application of the normativity in question. And surely, just like that, Mr. Saifullah’s humanity would be recognized by the relevant parties and his rights, never lost, just violated, would be made effective.

If only it were so easy…

But Mr. Saifullah, unlike Corlett, gets it. He understands (that is to say, his words evidence at least an implicit understanding) that being a homo sapiens does not in fact make you a member of the human community, for he understands that the human community is not ontological in any straightforward way; rather, it is socially and symbolically ontological.[68] He understands that it is not what one is, but how one is seen, for how one is seen is what determines whether one will be afforded the considerations rights supposedly guarantee one.

Look at Mr. Saifullah’s words: “They won’t let me be a citizen, because then they have to give me rights and they won’t call me a refugee because then they have to give me aid”. And then: “I am not a citizen or a refugee. I am an illegal alien. I am nothing.” He understands that they — they, those who are not part of any hallowed tradition, but whose thinking on the matter is nonetheless decisive in a way Corlett, safely ensconced in the beautiful University of San Diego, doesn’t seem to even want to comprehend — don’t want to see him as a citizen or grant him citizenship, because then his rights as a human would have to be honored.

But nor will they call him a refugee, because in today’s world, refugees have rights to aid that have to be honored. But Mr. Saifullah is not done. For he knows that the Pakistani functionaries who are not honoring his rights cannot simply ignore him as if he were not there. He is not invisible; he exists.[69] But as what? And so they assign him a status function, though it is not the status function of human: in effect they are saying, this homo sapiens is not (at least not first and foremost) a human; he is, rather, an illegal alien.

As such it is not so much that his rights as a human are violated — for he is not seen as a human, at least not in the important sense; it is that qua this sort of social object — i.e. an other beyond the protections of the law — his “rights” need not be so much be ignored as actively violated. For how else would one treat an illegal alien?[70] In being counted as an illegal alien, he is able to be counted as nothing.

There is little left to say, except for the fact that Searle’s contribution sheds light on the rise in animal rights activism and indeed, on cases where people treat animals better than they treat homo sapiens. The former somehow acquire the status of human (understood in this case as the bearer of “rights” to life and comfort and to not be killed for food, etc.) and receive a level of care that millions of homo sapiens do not, these latter being assigned the status not of humans but of “the poor” or “the criminal” or “illegal aliens” or what have you. This point was made in Lobo.[71]

Conclusion: isn’t it (really) ironic?

Professor Corlett, to conclude, ends with stupendous irony, only adding substance to and validating Searle’s contribution, when he argues, in an attempt to score an inconsequential point against Searle (and Lobo), that there “are humans [what he means to say, though he doesn’t know it, is homo sapiens] both throughout history and today who have neither a moral […] right to life nor to freedom of expression, namely, those who deserve capital punishment based on their” crimes.[72]

Here Corlett is evidencing his subjective, relative perspective. For in Colombia, for example, such homo sapiens do not exist (at least not today): the Colombian constitution explicitly forbids not only capital punishment but also life imprisonment, no matter what the crime. But he is also evidencing an implicit endorsement of the Searlean perspective. For, of course, in contexts where such respect for what are still considered members of the human community in Colombia is absent, such homo sapiens are indeed, as he says, displaced from said community, and thus stripped of the rights that are otherwise a “simple” consequence of being (declared) human.

How? By declaring them to be something else. Which is to say that they are, through an institutional process, assigned a status function which, given the particular institutional arrangement and its foundational moral norms, supersedes the status function of human: they become now the condemned, convicts, guilty of capital crimes or indeed crimes against humanity, all status functions which permit and, in the corresponding situation, possibly demand that the organism to which such status function is assigned be put to death. Hopefully Professor Corlett will take some time to consider the consequences of this latent corroboration of Lobo’s presentation of Searle before dashing off another excessively long response. Or perhaps he will take the higher road, and simply leave things as they now stand.

Contact details: globo@uniandes.edu.co

References

Corlett, J. Angelo. “More on Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 15-36.

Corlett, J. Angelo. “Searle on Human Rights.” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

Lobo, Gregory J. “Reason, Morality and Recognition: On Searle’s Theory of Human Rights.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no 9: (2017): 22-28.

Searle, John R. Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Searle, John R. “Replies.” Analysis 71, no. 4 (2011): 733-741.

[1] Mehreen Zahra-Malik, “Far From Myanmar Violence, Rohingya in Pakistan Are Seething,” The New York Times, Sep. 12, 2017, accessed Sep. 13, 2017 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/12/world/asia/rohingya-pakistan-myanmar-violence.html?emc=edit_th_20170913&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=22512676. A version of this article appears in print on September 13, 2017, on Page A4 of the New York edition with the headline: Far From Myanmar’s Strife, Pakistan’s Rohingya Suffer.

[2] J Angelo Corlett, “Searle on Human Rights,” Social Epistemology 30, no. 4 (2016): 440-463.

[3] Gregory J Lobo, “Reason, Morality and Recognition,” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 9 (2017): 22-28.

[4] Fearing that the use of the first person, while often justified, nonetheless interrupts the dialectic of collaborative reasoning, as interlocutors instantiate a personal, private relationship with “their” arguments and interpretations, such that they become embodiments of the same and thus refractory to evidence that contradicts them/their position, the third person is employed consistently throughout this essay, in an attempt to avoid what in Colombia is called a dialogue of the deaf (diálogo de sordos).

[5] J Angelo Corlett, “More on Searle on Human Rights,” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 15-36.

[6] John R Searle, Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2010).

[7]John R Searle, “Replies” Analysis 71, no. 4 (2011): 733-741.

[8] Corlett’s mishandling of Lobo’s words is troubling on the face of it; it is even more so in light of Corlett’s insistence that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32 emphasis added).

[9] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[10] Corlett, “Searle,” 455. It shall go unremarked that “complete justification” would seem to be an impossible standard.

[11] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[12] Corlett, “Searle,” 454-455. More will be said about Corlett’s use of the notion of objective below.

[13] Corlett, “Searle,” 461-462.

[14] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[15] Corlett, “Searle,” 454.

[16] Though Lobo’s sincere attempt to help Corlett understand and correct the errors in his understanding of Searle have been received ungraciously by Corlett and, rather, met with snide but baseless insinuations (see 2017, 32), the temptation to fall into a mimetic replication of Corlett’s unprofessional response will here be resisted. The characterization of Corlett as dishonest, to be absolutely clear, is direct, and based on the evidence: that even though Lobo points out what Corlett has done in 2016, alerting him to his error, Corlett continues to ignore the evidence, and proceeds as if it didn’t exist and directly refute his position. He might have been understandably distracted the first time round, but the second time suggests something approaching dishonesty. Additionally, elsewhere in 2017 (see page 26), Corlett again acts in such a way as to justify the charge of dishonesty, as when he textually cites Lobo paraphrasing Searle, ignores Lobo’s textual citation of Searle, and then faults Lobo for not citing Searle directly.

[17] At the risk of redundancy, the reader is again reminded that in 2017 Corlett points out that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32). It seems that  Corlett exempts himself from this simple standard, actively transgressing it by engaging in selective quotation to serve his ends or by simply representing his own version of an author’s position without recourse to textual evidence. For example, Corlett argues, or implies (the difference is hugely important to Corlett) that someone (probably Searle, possibly Lobo) is “insist[ing] that only humans can have a right to life” (2017, 33). But no one, at least niether Searle nor Lobo, insists on such a thing.

[18] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[19] Corlett, “Searle,” 456.

[20] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[21] Corlett, “More,” 28-29, emphasis added. It is important to point out that the issue is not really whether Searle’s thinking can be aligned with any tradition. What is in question is whether Searle integrates what Corlett refers to as moral normativity into his thinking on human rights. Though Searle doesn’t use that precise phrasing, the evidence is insurmountable: he clearly does.

[22] Again, Corlett deploys the phrase “Searlean madness” in 2016 (456) to make the case that there is no distance between Searle’s thinking and white supremacy. One wonders how much distance there is between this sort of aspersion and calumny.

[23] Corlett, “Searle,” 458.

[24] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[25] Corlett, “Searle,” 455.

[26] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[27] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[28] Searle, Making, 192.

[29] Searle, Making, 192. In footnote 18 on page 29 of 2017, Corlett makes a fuss about the difference between reasonable and rational, emphasizing his preference for the former. His argument is unconvincing and one can just as easily make the case for their interchangeability. A quick online search using Google reveals: rationality — the quality of being based on or in accordance with reason or logic. Corlett is quite clearly clutching at straw(s).

[30] Searle, Making, 192.

[31] Corlett, “Searle,” 455. One might ask, justly, in what way this formulation differs from Searle’s insistence that human rights be formulated to rationally impose an obligation on all human beings to respect them.

[32] Corlett, “More,” 22.

[33] Corlett, “More,” 29.

[34] Corlett, “Searle”, 455. Corlett uses quotation marks around this phrase, though it is not clear why. For they most certainly are not scare quotes. His use of the term is non-ironic, thoroughly sincere.

[35] Corlett, “Searle,” 456, 460.

[36] Corlett, “Searle,” 457.

[37] Corlett, “Searle,” 456, 457 twice, 459.

[38] Corlett, “Searle,” 455, 457.

[39] Corlett, “Searle,” 457.

[40] Corlett, “More,” 20.

[41] Corlett, “More,” 23.

[42] Wait, what? Corlett, “More,” 20.

[43] Corlett, “More,” 22.

[44] It is noted, in passing, that Searle would recognize such concepts to be subject to argument. See below.

[45] Corlett, “More,” 25.

[46] Stipulated here.

[47] To this most basic criticism can be added that Corlett, in repeatedly drawing on the formulation that human rights are “discovered by human reason” (2016, 455; 2017, 25, 34), seems to think that rights are on the same level as black holes and quarks (truly “discovered” by human reason before being empirically observed), and that, moreover, reason itself is an uncorrupt tool, that its ethical discoveries are somehow beyond subjectivity and relativity.

[48] That is to say, cited selectively, for Corlett’s rhetorical convenience, rather than for the dialectical process.

[49] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[50] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[51] Which might well lead one to describe such rights as eternal, insofar as eternal can be taken to mean unchanging.

[52] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[53] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[54] Searle, “Replies,” 741.

[55] Corlett, “More,” 33.

[56] Searle, Making, 175.

[57] Searle, Making, 190.

[58] Searle, Making, 177.

[59] Corlett, “More,” 17.

[60] In point of fact it would be a problem, for as cited by Corlett, it is ungrammatical. Corlett appears not to notice.

[61] At the risk of even more redundancy: In 2017 Corlett insists that “both critics and defenders of an author’s work owe it to themselves, the author, and others to carefully quote an author in constructing her position” (2017, 32, emphasis added).

[62] Lobo, “Reason,” 28.

[63] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[64] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[65] Corlett, “More,” 18.

[66] Hence, possibly, Corlett’s difficulty with it?

[67] See previous note.

[68] As any high schooler who learned the Greek roots of the word barbarian implicitly understands too.

[69] One might put it this way: his ontology is not in question (but nor is it decisive). What is in question, and what will be decisive, is his social ontology.

[70] This question, should it not be clear, is posed rhetorically.

[71] As further evidence of Corlett’s problematic practice, he usurps Lobo’s use of the phenomena of animal rights to make what seems to be a similar point, but without attribution. But typically, he gets it wrong because he misses the point. Someone who, in his own words, “painstakingly summarize[d]” Searle’s social ontology clearly doesn’t understand Searle’s main contribution to the field, status functions, and thus misses the point that social ontology is not about what is, it is about what can claim to be and what is recognized as being. People treat animals as if they were human, sometimes as if they were more than human. Often, people do not treat humans (homo sapiens) as human.

[72] Corlett, “More,” 2017.

Author Information: Inkeri Koskinen, University of Helsinki, inkeri.koskinen@helsinki.fi

Koskinen, Inkeri. “Not-So-Well-Designed Scientific Communities.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 6, no. 10 (2017): 54-58.

The pdf of the article includes specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-3PB

Please refer to:

Image from Katie Walker via Flickr

 

The idea of hybrid concepts, simultaneously both epistemic and moral, has recently attracted the interest of philosophers, especially since the notion of epistemic injustice (Fricker 2007) became the central topic of a lively and growing discussion. In her article, Kristina Rolin adopts the idea of such hybridity, and investigates the possibility of understanding epistemic responsibility as having both epistemic and moral qualities.

Rolin argues that scientists belonging to epistemically well-designed communities are united by mutual epistemic responsibilities, and that these responsibilities ought to be understood in a specific way. Epistemically responsible behaviour towards fellow researchers—such as adopting a defense commitment with respect to one’s knowledge claims, or offering constructive criticism to colleagues—would not just be an epistemic duty, but also a moral one; one that shows moral respect for other human beings in their capacity as knowers.

However, as Rolin focuses on “well-designed scientific communities”, I fear that she fails to notice an implication of her own argument. Current trends in science policy encourage researchers in many fields to take up high-impact, solution-oriented, multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary projects. If one can talk about “designing scientific communities” in this context, the design is clearly meant to challenge the existing division of epistemic labour in academia, and to destabilise speciality communities. If we follow Rolin’s own argumentation, understanding epistemic responsibility as a moral duty can thus become a surprisingly heavy burden for an individual researcher in such a situation.

Epistemic Cosmopolitanism

According to Rolin, accounts of epistemic responsibility that appeal to self-interested or epistemic motives need to be complemented with a moral account. Without one it is not always possible to explain why it is rational for an individual researcher to behave in an epistemically responsible way.

Both the self-interest account and the epistemic account state that scientists behave in an epistemically responsible way because they believe that it serves their own ends—be it career advancement, fame, and financial gain, or purely epistemic individual ends. However, as Rolin aptly points out, both accounts are insufficient in a situation where the ends of the individual researcher and the impersonal epistemic ends of science are not aligned. Only if researchers see epistemically responsible behaviour as a moral duty, will they act in an epistemically responsible way even if this does not serve their own ends.

It is to some degree ambiguous how Rolin’s account should be read—how normative it is, and in what sense. Some parts of her article could be interpreted as a somewhat Mertonian description of actual moral views held by individual scientists, and cultivated in scientific communities (Merton [1942] 1973). However, she also clearly gives normative advice: well-designed scientific communities should foster a moral account of epistemic responsibility.

But when offering a moral justification for her view, she at times seems to defend a stronger normative stance, one that would posit epistemic responsibility as a universal moral duty. However, her main argument does not require the strongest reading. I thus interpret her account as partly descriptive and partly normative: many researchers treat epistemic responsibility as a moral duty, and it is epistemically beneficial for scientific communities to foster such a view. Moreover, a moral justification can be offered for the view.

When defining her account more closely, Rolin cites ideas developed in political philosophy. She adopts Robert Goodin’s (1988) distinction between general and special moral duties, and names her account epistemic cosmopolitanism:

Epistemic cosmopolitanism states that (a) insofar as we are engaged in knowledge-seeking practices, we have general epistemic responsibilities, and (b) the special epistemic responsibilities scientists have as members of scientific communities are essentially distributed general epistemic responsibilities (Rolin 2017, 478).

One of the advantages of this account is of particular interest to me. Rolin notes that if epistemically responsible behaviour would be seen as just a general moral duty, it could be too demanding for individual researchers. Any scientist is bound to fail in an attempt to behave in an entirely epistemically responsible manner towards all existing scientific speciality communities, taking all their diverse standards of evidence into account. This result can be avoided through a division of epistemic labour. The general responsibilities can be distributed in a way that limits the audience towards which individual scientists must behave in an epistemically responsible way. Thus, “in epistemically well-designed scientific communities, no scientist is put into a position where she is not capable of carrying out her special epistemic responsibilities” (Rolin 2017, 478).

Trends in Science Policy

Rolin’s main interest is in epistemically well-designed scientific communities. However, she also takes up an example I mention in a recent paper (Koskinen 2016). In it I examine a few research articles in order to illustrate situations where a relevant scientific community has not been recognised, or where there is no clear community to be found. In these articles, researchers from diverse fields attempt to integrate archaeological, geological or seismological evidence with orally transmitted stories about great floods. In other words, they take the oral stories seriously, and attempt to use them as historical evidence. However, they fail to take into account folkloristic expertise on myths. This I find highly problematic, as the stories the researchers try to use as historical evidence include typical elements of the flood myth.

The aims of such attempts to integrate academic and extra-academic knowledge are both emancipatory—taking the oral histories of indigenous communities seriously—and practical, as knowledge about past natural catastrophes may help prevent new ones. This chimes well with certain current trends in science policy. Collaborations across disciplinary boundaries, and even across the boundaries of science, are promoted as a way to increase the societal impact of science and provide solutions to practical problems. Researchers are expected to contribute to solving the problems by integrating knowledge from different sources.

Such aims have been articulated in terms of systems theory, the Mode-2 concept of knowledge production and, recently, open science (Gibbons et al. 1994; Nowotny et al. 2001; Hirsch Hadorn et al. 2008), leading to the development of solution-oriented multi, inter-, and transdisciplinary research approaches. At the same time, critical feminist and postcolonial theories have influenced collaborative and participatory methodologies (Reason and Bradbury 2008; Harding 2011), and recently ideas borrowed from business have led to an increasing amount of ‘co-creation’ and ‘co-research’ in academia (see e.g. Horizon 2020).

All this, combined with keen competition for research funding, leads in some areas of academic research to increasing amounts of solution-oriented research projects that systematically break disciplinary boundaries. And simultaneously they often challenge the existing division of epistemic labour.

Challenging the Existing Division of Epistemic Labour

According to Rolin, well-designed scientific communities need to foster the moral account of epistemic responsibilities. The necessity becomes clear in such situations as are described above: it would be in the epistemic interests of scientific communities, and science in general, if folklorists were to offer constructive criticism to the archaeologists, geologists and seismologists. However, if the folklorists are motivated only by self-interest, or by personal epistemic goals, they have no reason to do so. Only if they see epistemic responsibility as a moral duty, one that is fundamentally based on general moral duties, will their actions be in accord with the epistemic interests of science. Rolin argues that this happens because the existing division of epistemic labour can be challenged.

Normally, according to epistemic cosmopolitanism, the epistemic responsibilities of folklorists would lie mainly in their own speciality community. However, if the existing division of epistemic labour does not serve the epistemic goals of science, this does not suffice. And if special moral duties are taken to be distributed general moral duties, the way of distributing them can always be changed. In fact, it must be changed, if that is the only way to follow the underlying general moral duties:

If the cooperation between archaeologists and folklorists is in the epistemic interests of science, a division of epistemic labour should be changed so that, at least in some cases, archaeologists and folklorists should have mutual special epistemic responsibilities. This is the basis for claiming that a folklorist has a moral obligation to intervene in the problematic use of orally transmitted stories in archaeology (Rolin 2017, 478–479).

The solution seems compelling, but I see a problem that Rolin does not sufficiently address. She seems to believe that situations where the existing division of epistemic labour is challenged are fairly rare, and that they lead to a new, stable division of epistemic labour. I do not think that this is the case.

Rolin cites Brad Wray (2011) and Uskali Mäki (2016) when emphasising that scientific speciality communities are not eternal. They may dissolve and new ones may emerge, and interdisciplinary collaboration can lead to the formation of new speciality communities. However, as Mäki and I have noted (Koskinen & Mäki 2016), solution-oriented inter- or transdisciplinary research does not necessarily, or even typically, lead to the formation of new scientific communities. Only global problems, such as biodiversity loss or climate change, are likely to function as catalysts in the disciplinary matrix, leading to the formation of numerous interdisciplinary research teams addressing the same problem field. Smaller, local problems generate only changeable constellations of inter- and transdisciplinary collaborations that dissolve once a project is over. If such collaborations become common, the state Rolin describes as a rare period of transition becomes the status quo.

It Can be Too Demanding

Rather than a critique of Rolin’s argument, the conclusion of this commentary is an observation that follows from the said argument. It helps us to clarify one possible reason for the difficulties that researchers encounter with inter- and transdisciplinary research.

Rolin argues that epistemically well-designed scientific communities should foster the idea of epistemic responsibilities being not only epistemic, but also moral duties. The usefulness of such an outlook becomes particularly clear in situations where the prevailing division of epistemic labour is challenged—for instance, when an interdisciplinary project fails to take some relevant viewpoint into account, and the researchers who would be able to offer valuable criticism do not benefit from offering it. In such a situation researchers motivated by self-interest or by individual epistemic goals would have no reason to offer the required criticism. This would be unfortunate, given the impersonal epistemic goals of science. So, we must hope that scientists see epistemically responsible behaviour as their moral duty.

However, for a researcher working in an environment where changeable, solution-oriented, multi-, inter-, and transdisciplinary projects are common, understanding epistemic responsibility as a moral duty may easily become a burden. The prevailing division of epistemic labour is challenged constantly, and without a new, stable division necessarily replacing it.

As Rolin notes, it is due to a tolerably clear division of labour that epistemic responsibilities understood as moral duties do not become too demanding for individual researchers. But as trends in science policy erode disciplinary boundaries, the division of labour becomes unstable. If it continues to be challenged, it is not just once or twice that responsible scientists may have to intervene and comment on research that is not in their area of specialisation. This can become a constant and exhausting duty. So if instead of well-designed scientific communities, we get their erosion by design, we may have to reconsider the moral account of epistemic responsibility.

References

Fricker, M. Epistemic injustice: power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Gibbons, M., Limoges, C., Nowotny, H., Schwartzman, S., Scott, P. & Trow, M. The new production of knowledge: the dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies. London: Sage, 1994.

Goodin, R. “What is So Special about Our Fellow Countrymen?” Ethics 98 no. 4 (1988): 663–686.

Hirsch Hadorn, G., Hoffmann-Riem, H., Biber-Klemm, S., Grossenbacher-Mansuy, W., Joye, D., Pohl, C., Wiesmann, U., Zemp, E. (Eds.). Handbook of Transdisciplinary Research. Berlin: Springer, 2008.

Harding, S. (Ed.). The postcolonial science and technology studies reader. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011.

Horizon 2020. Work Programme 2016–2017. European Commission Decision C (2017)2468 of 24 April 2017.

Koskinen, I. “Where is the Epistemic Community? On Democratisation of Science and Social Accounts of Objectivity.” Synthese. 4 August 2016. doi:10.1007/s11229-016-1173-2.

Koskinen, I., & Mäki, U. “Extra-academic transdisciplinarity and scientific pluralism: What might they learn from one another?” The European Journal of Philosophy of Science 6, no. 3 (2016): 419–444.

Mäki, U. “Philosophy of Interdisciplinarity. What? Why? How?” European Journal for Philosophy of Science 6, no. 3 (2016): 327–342.

Merton, R. K. “Science and Technology in a Democratic Order.” Journal of Legal and Political Sociology 1 (1942): 115–126. Reprinted as “The Normative Structure of Science.” In R. K Merton, The Sociology of Science. Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973: 267–278.

Nowotny, H., Scott, P., & Gibbons, M. Re-thinking science: knowledge and the public in an age of uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity, 2001.

Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (Eds.). The Sage Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice. Sage, CA: 2008.

Rolin, K. “Scientific Community: A Moral Dimension.” Social Epistemology 31, no. 5 (2017), 468–483.

Wray, K. B. Kuhn’s Evolutionary Social Epistemology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Author Information: Adam Riggio, McMaster University, adamriggio@gmail.com

Riggio, Adam. “‘I Feel Like I’ve Heard All This Before,’ A Reply to Stenmark and Lukes.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 5 (2014): 73-76.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1qH

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The question is almost inevitable in introductory classes in many humanities disciplines when an instructor begins to discuss the various ways in which we understand uncertainty about what is true and the nature of truth. A student, usually with a tinge of fear in her voice, asks, “But isn’t that relativism?”

Mikael Stenmark’s article is largely concerned with distinguishing different kinds of relativism, or at least different ways to understand it. Relativist accounts of knowledge and truth are usually raised as challenges to a social or political order that enforces a single account of the way the world is, as if it were the only valid account, the only account that is complete and true. The fear of those students who tremble at the prospect of a relativistic world is rooted in a basic human need for stability that we all, in a very basic sense, need. Those who are most troubled by relativist statements, or even statements that might give a naïve relativist some rope, are those who believe that knowledge must be grounded absolutely to be true. If knowledge in any way varies with physical, empirical, cultural, personal, or any other context, so this perspective says, then it was never knowledge, and was merely delusion. Unless knowledge has the stability and universality of “2+2=4,” it is not true knowledge. So speaks the most intense fear of any relativism. Continue Reading…

Author Information: Steven Lukes, New York University, sl53@nyu.edu

Lukes, Steven. “How Relativist Should We Be? A Reply to Stenmark.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 3, no. 5 (2014): 13-16.

The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers. Shortlink: http://wp.me/p1Bfg0-1oo

Please refer to:

Mikael Stenmark’s article is admirably short, succinct and lucid. It proffers an explanation of relativism’s current appeal to people in general and in the humanities and social sciences in particular; an analysis of its central claims in the form of four ‘theses’; and it ends by challenging the reader to assess its scope. How relativist should we be? Continue Reading…