Res Publica

, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp 297–302

Epistemic Responsibility and Democratic Justification

Robert B. Talisse: Democracy and Moral Conflict. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009, 216 pp



DOI: 10.1007/s11158-011-9147-1

Cite this article as:
Smith, A.F. Res Publica (2011) 17: 297. doi:10.1007/s11158-011-9147-1

Many political philosophers tend to take it as given that the justification for democracy rests upon specifying a set of moral commitments that all citizens reasonably can be expected to accept.1 Sufficient agreement about these commitments is often treated, as Cristina Lafont puts it, as ‘the very condition for the possibility of democracy’ (2009, 130). If this is correct then, without such agreement, the legitimacy of democracy—which depends upon the assent of all who are subject to the state’s coercive power—seemingly cannot be secured.

This prospect raises serious worries, for it should be clear that, typically, the citizens of democratic societies deeply disagree over matters of morality. As Robert Talisse characterises it in Democracy and Moral Conflict, our moral commitments are ‘essentially controversial’ (2009, 4). Fundamental divisions persist, he notes, over whether democracy is faltering due to a lack of moral clarity or whether we suffer from a lack of self-criticism, which appeals to moral clarity squelch.2 Moreover, it is not clear how to justify the claim that deep disagreement of this sort entails that at least one party must be unreasonable without appealing to principles that, when fleshed out, are themselves essentially controversial. Thus, according to Talisse, we face a ‘paradox of democratic justification’:

…legitimacy requires that democratic decisions be justifiable to all citizens, but when citizens are deeply divided at the most basic moral levels, they are also divided over what constitutes a successful moral justification. And so it seems that democratic justification—and thus democratic legitimacy—is impossible when citizens are deeply divided at the level of basic moral commitments (19).

Such deep divisions entail that ‘someone’s values must lose out’ (42), and there is no moral rationale upon which we can fall back to explain why citizens should countenance this. As a result, we find ourselves in the midst of an acute legitimation crisis of democracy.

Talisse’s primary intent in Democracy and Moral Conflict is to resolve this crisis. He offers a substantive diagnosis of what ails democracy (particularly in the United States), why political philosophers have been helpless to address these ailments, and how such ailments can be addressed effectively. My discussion will focus on the last of these matters, where Talisse’s approach is especially innovative. Talisse sets out to show that anyone who maintains beliefs, that is, any epistemic agent, is already implicitly committed to democracy. Indeed, he maintains that, ‘no matter what you believe about morality, you have overriding epistemological reasons—reasons concerning how, what, and when one ought to believe something—to endorse democratic politics’ (4).3 Moreover, this commitment is not just to any form of democracy, but to what Talisse calls dialogical democracy, which ‘aims to make explicit the motivation each of us has to engage in dialogue across deep disagreements’ (139).

Talisse charts a trajectory that permits us to see clearly the problems that democracy faces. His argumentation is lucid and incisive, but it is not entirely clear that his epistemic justification of dialogical democracy succeeds. In order to see why, I shall lay out Talisse’s arguments, first for a set of core epistemic principles to which all epistemic agents are committed, and second in favour of the proposition that they support the epistemic justification. I shall then raise two concerns. The first is that Talisse does not motivate the claim that citizens should countenance losing out morally when deliberation ends and a political decision must be made. The second is that at least one of his core epistemic principles seems to be contentious, and this threatens to undermine his justification of dialogical democracy.

Central to Talisse’s argument is his utilisation of a ‘first-personal epistemology.’ In contrast to the standard third-personal approach, which is employed to assess the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge, Talisse’s approach is designed to speak directly to readers to foster our engagement in self-scrutiny about the role that such basic epistemic concepts as belief, truth, evidence, reason, and argument play in our lives. This approach contributes to the ‘folk epistemology’ upon which Talisse relies to support the epistemic justification for dialogical democracy. This folk epistemology is constituted by a collection of ‘no frills’ epistemic principles that are both ‘useable in a rough and ready, practical way’ (82) and sufficient ‘on the ground’ to motivate an overriding commitment to democracy.

At the heart of folk epistemology are these five core principles:
  • (P1) To believe some proposition p is to hold that p is true.

  • (P2) To hold that p is true is generally to hold that the best reasons support p.

  • (P3) To hold that p is supported by the best reasons is to hold that p is assertable.

  • (P4) To assert that p is to enter into a social process of reason exchange.

  • (P5) To engage in social processes of reason exchange is to at least implicitly adopt certain cognitive and dispositional norms related to one’s epistemic character.4 (87–88)

In certain cases, to say that one believes that p is to offer a hedge. Alternatively, it may function declaratively ‘as an oath or a pledge’ (89). Talisse instead focuses upon the manner in which belief functions to affirm that p is true ‘plain and simple’ (90), that p is not subject to doubt or equivocation over whether it is the case.

This does not entail that no one holds irrational beliefs or dogmatically adheres to beliefs for which they have no warrant. People routinely seek to preserve beliefs in the face of countervailing reasons, evidence, and arguments. But, in accordance with the first-personal epistemology, we must focus on how we self-consciously view ourselves, Talisse asserts, for ‘when we believe, we take ourselves to be responding to reasons’ (94)—the best reasons, evidence, and arguments available. We cannot but do so if we are to regard ourselves as proper believers. Furthermore, to the extent that we take our beliefs to be supported by the best epistemic criteria, we are committed to the proposition that they are fit to be asserted to others; they can withstand the scrutiny that their assertion may engender. Indeed, Talisse declares, ‘If we aim to have true beliefs, and if this aiming requires that we attempt to square our beliefs with the best reasons then we need to keep open the avenues by which we encounter the strongest criticisms to our beliefs’ (105). We must be prepared not only to tolerate critics, but to engage openly with them in the exchange of reasons.

Consider, by contrast, how we would view ourselves if we were to say ‘I believe that p, but I have resolutely avoided subjecting p to the scrutiny of intelligent critics’ or ‘I believe that p, but I have insulated p from criticism by insulating myself from potential critics’ (105). To admit as much would be self-consciously to face a clear instance of epistemic irresponsibility to the extent that we would be acknowledging that we fear that our beliefs cannot square with the best epistemic criteria. Moreover, Talisse declares, only in a democracy can we live in accordance with the five core epistemic principles. Only democracy offers open access to reliable information and the protections and liberties associated with freedom of thought and expression, including the basic rights enumerated in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Citizens of democracies may defer to the party line, to a specifiable authority, but this is because the authority’s decrees are regarded as appropriate or true. ‘Of course,’ Talisse notes, one ‘might have a corrupt view of what evidence or good reason is, but this is no matter; all we are committed to saying is that when one believes, one takes oneself to be properly responsive to reasons’ (122).

Let me now turn to my concerns. The first focuses upon the inevitability that someone loses out morally unless deliberation leads to outright resolution, which Talisse rightly suggests should neither be expected regularly to occur nor necessarily encouraged if it comes at the expense of dissent. Consider, in particular, deep disagreements for which resolution is unlikely even under ideal epistemic conditions. In America, these include disagreements over abortion or prayer in public schools, over which there is scant deliberative traction between opposing parties because what count as the best epistemic criteria themselves would seem to be essentially contested.

The central question is this: Does the epistemic justification extend beyond the deliberative process to the point at which political decisions must be made on contested issues? As far as I can tell, the answer is no. Nothing in the core principles that Talisse enumerates addresses how we should interact when we reach the point at which dissent remains over an impending decision. Given that Talisse is aiming not simply to address how to motivate engagement in public deliberation, but also to resolve the legitimation crisis of democracy tout court, this question must be answered. Unfortunately, an answer is missing from the epistemic justification. This being so, the justification would appear to be consistent with epistemic agents responsibly deliberating, but nonetheless taking up arms when they lose out come decision time.

Consider the example that Talisse offers about the manner in which racists are radicalized because their concerns are not given due deliberative uptake. Even if they are given a full and fair hearing, the policies they favour are unlikely to be established. Why should they be committed to democracy under such conditions? Perhaps Talisse could respond that continually losing out in this way is a sign that racist beliefs are mistaken, and hence that racists are not following through on what they implicitly take to be responsible believing. But this avenue is not open to him, for he rejects Rousseau’s claim—following from the defence of the general will—that being a dissenter is proof positive that one is doxastically misguided. As such, I would welcome clarification on how Talisse is prepared to address the move from deliberation to decision. As things stand, at the latter stage, the legitimation crisis remains unresolved.

My second concern focuses upon the viability of (P4), or the proposition that one’s commitment to the assertability of one’s beliefs further commits one to the enterprise of reason exchange. Consider another case that Talisse addresses, which is moral or religious believers who self-consciously maintain that they already know that their beliefs are true, hence that a political process which facilitates truth seeking, the likes of which Talisse prescribes, is not in fact worthy of endorsement. If one knows the truth, one may claim, no further dialogue is required. Those with whom one disagrees are perhaps to be tolerated, but there is no salient reason to engage with them.

In response, Talisse argues that the claim that we currently grasp moral or religious truth is entirely consistent with the proposition that there are many matters about which we must inquire if we are to back the right policies. To be a proper believer, self-consciously accepting that we know the truth that p still requires an exchange of reasons, evidence, and arguments when applying p. Consider what is entailed in believing that euthanasia is morally abhorrent:

My knowledge of the truth that euthanasiais always wrong does not by itself enable me to decide what cases count as cases of euthanasia. In order to know whether a particular case of killing is a case of euthanasia, I must assess a wide array of biological and neurological data. Furthermore, even if cases of euthanasia could be reliably detected, I must still confront the moral question of what is morally permissible in a wide array of cases involving patients in permanent vegetative states and various forms of untreatable chronic, debilitating illness…In other words, on any viable moral doctrine, even if one knows what is good and right, one must nevertheless deliberate about what action is morally required under a given set of circumstances. And this deliberation, if it is to be responsible, must be informed by accurate assessments of the relevant moral and non-moral facts of the given case. (140–141)

But, as we have seen, Talisse acknowledges that deference to authorities that we regard as reliable is entirely consistent with being a proper believer. In the case here described, deference can make the need to deliberate about how to apply our belief unnecessary to the extent that we can leave it to the authority to which we defer to sift through the available details and declare when a case is euthanasia and when it is not. In other words, we can self-consciously maintain that we know the truth with respect to p and also know that the decrees of the authority to which we defer are correct. Thus, pace (P4), there is no necessary inference from assertability to exchange after all.

Talisse may respond that we make ourselves susceptible to group polarisation if we consistently refuse to verify independently our authority’s decrees. By deliberating with others who are doxastically homogeneous, we risk ending up holding a more extreme version of our original belief. But deference alone does not entail that our decisions are not properly independent. As David Estlund (2007, 225ff) notes, what is critical in this regard is not that individuals are causally independent and never swayed by others. Rather, what should be sought by epistemic agents are decisions that are statistically independent, by which one agent’s decision (including the decision of an opinion leader) makes it neither more nor less probable that others decide in the same way. This is consistent with deference of the sort that Talisse describes: deference by agents who are aware of the need to measure the reliability of their ‘social epistemic system.’

Furthermore, according to Talisse’s first-personal epistemology, we can self-consciously take ourselves to know the truth with respect to our belief about the consistent reliability of our social epistemic system. From someone else’s perspective, we may be self-deluded. We may fail, as Estlund states, to ‘have some competence with respect to knowing when to defer and when not to defer’ (2007, 226). But from our perspective—which is what matters—it is entirely fitting to rest on our doxastic laurels, as it were. Talisse may insist, as noted in the extended quote above, that an epistemic agent who proceeds in this manner fails to be ‘informed by accurate assessments of the relevant moral and non-moral facts of the given case.’ Yet it seems to me that the only way that he can gain argumentative traction here is to make the unwarranted move from a first-personal epistemology to a third-personal epistemology. He must charge us with failing to meet standards that are external to our belief system, which Talisse explicitly seeks to avoid doing.

Thus, without further elaboration, I am doubtful that the inference in (P4) from assertability to exchange holds up. Epistemic agents may well implicitly endorse democratic institutions that protect basic rights and liberties associated with freedom of thought and expression. Yet, this involves endorsement not of dialogical democracy but instead, at best, of something like an assertional—or instructional—democracy. Under such conditions, everyone is in a position to seek the best means for others to come over to our way of thinking. But this does not require us to be open to others’ criticisms. From what I can tell, Talisse’s epistemic justification of democracy extends only this far.

That said, Talisse is carving out a philosophical trajectory that illuminates a promising path forward as we assess the clear difficulties associated with democratic legitimation. This substantive yet compact book is highly engaging. It deserves sustained attention. It will be fascinating to see where the discussion of the important issues that Talisse addresses goes from here.


To offer several emblematic examples, John Rawls appeals to a shared fund of public political values—citizens ought to be regarded free and equal, society should constitute a fair scheme of mutual cooperation, all citizens must enjoy constitutionally enshrined rights and liberties—that are ‘not easily overridden' (2001, 189) even by compelling comprehensive considerations. Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson offer three basic principles that should regulate political processes (reciprocity, publicity, and accountability) and three comparable principles that should govern the content of policies (basic liberty, basic opportunity, and fair opportunity) (1996, 12). And Ronald Dworkin asserts that two principles, which embody the idea ‘that every human life is of intrinsic potential value and that everyone has a responsibility for realizing that value in his own life' (2006, 10), define the basis of human dignity that democracy is intended to enshrine.


In charting his return to politics, Christian conservative Ralph Reed notes that earlier failures forced him ‘to turn inward for some self-cleansing and—at the risk of sounding like a Maoist—self-criticism' (2010, 42). This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the latter practice.


Talisse’s claim is not that people do not embrace anti-democratic political positions; ‘rather, the view is that anti-democrats are not—and cannot be—proper believers.' (2009, 132). They are self-deluded epistemic agents to the extent that they maintain beliefs that run up against their epistemic self-understanding: their sense of themselves as committed to the truth of their beliefs, or to the desire for access to accurate information and good evidence.


These core principles represent a refinement and generalisation of earlier epistemic justifications of democracy that Talisse has offered. Here, he more thoroughly defends these principles while also broadening the epistemic justification beyond past Peircean roots that, it would seem, Talisse now regards as unnecessarily controversial.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011