Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Nationalism and Rationality

Today I am reporting from the annual meeting of the Danish Philosophical Society in Odense (6-7 March), which was entitled Nationalism and Rationality, organised by Nikolaj Nottelmann. Unfortunately, I missed the first day of the meeting but here are summaries of some of the fascinating presentations on the second day relevant to themes in political epistemology. (This was my last pre-COVID19 conference!)




Gina Labovic (University of Copenhagen) talked about "Climate change denial and (un)reasonable disagreement". Within the public reason framework, we can justify privileging the warnings of the climate scientists over the views of those who deny climate change. According to Rawls, there can be reasonable disagreement between views (e.g. how to live out lives). To be a good citizen, we need to accept what scientists tell us as long as there is no controversy within the scientific community. So, there is no reasonable disagreement on well-communicated scientific consensus.


Gina Labovic


But the problem is that, because we have different experiences in life, we disagree both about facts and about methods. There is no wide acceptance of the methods (epistemic principles) by which we gain information about the world. So we need a further justification of the methods (e.g., of science). This characterises 'deep disagreements': how do we decide what to believe when we disagree about facts and methods?

Maybe we can identify practical, self-interested reasons for selecting epistemic principles (this is called the Method Game, Lynch 2010, something akin to the Veil of Ignorance). Three assumptions: epistemic ignorance; moral ignorance; and we are to live in Parallel Earth. Practical reasons need to be repeatable, adaptable, public, and widespread. For Lynch, under this epistemic veil of ignorance, we would converge on scientific methods of inquiry. But this is controversial.

Kappel (2012) has some objections: given that under the veil we know no facts, then there would be no reason to choose scientific methods of inquiry over other methods (underdetermination problem). But even if we could select scientific standards, there would still be the issue that citizens are epistemically irrational and would not be motivated to abide by those standards (epistemic irrationality problem). Is it democratic to impose rules on people who do not agree on them when they are epistemic rational?

Klemens Kappel (University of Copenhagen) presented a talk entitled "Science in Public Reason". In many cases (vaccine scepticism, GMO-scepticism, etc.) a part of the population rejects a scientific consensus. What is democratically legitimate in those cases? Can we defend the view that science is part of public reason? Dissenters may argue that the scientific community is corrupted by ideological forces and thus we cannot trust what scientists tell us.

One view, science as public reason, is to commit that there is an obligation to defer to scientific institutions when publicly justifying coercive fact-dependent policies (such as mandatory vaccination). This involves several obligations: for policy makers not to interfere with science in ways that affect policy making; for science to remain politically neutral.


Klemens Kappel


There are several arguments for the view of science as public reason but, according to Kappel, they all fail. One is the argument from extension: as we all commit to epistemic standards and scientific standards are an extension of epistemic standards, then we all commit to scientific standards. But reasonable individuals may not accept scientific standards because scientific standards depend on factual beliefs about the world and not just on epistemic standards.

Another argument is that from hypothetical acceptance. That's the idea that if we all committed to epistemic standards and were rational enough, then we would commit to scientific standards. This may be true, but it is important to appeal to the beliefs and desires people actually have.

In one argument from restraint, you are making a decision together with a friend. You accept p but your friend rejects p and p is relevant to the decision. What will you do? Maybe you should bracket your belief that p. For the purpose of public reason, we need standards that are accessible to everyone (not 'bracketed issues') and only scientific standards are accessible in that way. But sometimes scientific consensus relies on controversial metaphysical views.


On SDU campus

Kappel argued that we need to accept science as public reason even if we can't justify it (dogmatism). Imagine a reasonable citizen (agreeing that her fellow citizens are free and equal and willing to cooperate with them) who believe that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Would this citizen have grounds to complain if the state coerces her to vaccinate her children? Does the policy unduly restricts her freedom? This is for Kappel a difficult question to answer.

The presentation by Michael Jonathan Hannon (University of Nottingham) was called "Political Disagreement or Badmouthing?". Hannon started from the fact that there is a lot of disagreement in politics and the observation that disagreement has extended from ideological to factual issues. But is it true that there is disagreement about facts? The example used was the comparison between photos at the inauguration of Obama and Trump (see below). People were asked which picture had more people. Trump supporters were more likely to say that the photo on the right had more people.




How frequent are these phenomena of partisanship? Maybe people are not providing factual answers but expressing values (cheerleading or badmouthing). Expressive responding signals allegiance to an ideological community and people deliberately misrepresent their beliefs to express their attitudes. So, these cases are not cases of biased believing as some psychologists have suggested. Political supporters are like sports fans.

Elizabeth Anderson also argues that claims against Obama are like 'playground insults': they are not supposed to be accurate or even coherent with other things we believe, but they are ways of saying: "Obama is not one of us, is not a real American". Similarly, phrases such as "Build the wall!" or "Lock her up!" are not actual recommendations but expressions of dislike for people who are believed not to belong or who are disliked for other reasons. In line with this, it is not policy preferences that drives voting behaviour but social identity (see Lilliana Mason's work on politics and identity).

According to Hannon, this diagnosis of apparent political disagreement explains why debates are so unsatisfactory and disputes are intractable, not sensitive to reasons. It also explains why people seem to commit to inconsistent claims and why attempts to correct 'beliefs' backfire.

This was a very interesting meeting, offering plenty of food for thought to people interested in topics at the intersection of epistemology and political philosophy.

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