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Are Dissenters Epistemically Arrogant?

Abstract

“One who elects to serve mankind by taking the law into his own hands thereby demonstrates his conviction that his own ability to determine policy is superior to democratic decision making. [Defendants’] professed unselfish motivation, rather than a justification, actually identifies a form of arrogance which organized society cannot tolerate.” Those were the words of Justice Harris L. Hartz at the sentencing hearing of three nuns convicted of trespassing and vandalizing government property to demonstrate against U.S. foreign policy. Citizens engaging in civil disobedience are indeed at times accused of being arrogant because they apparently think their own political judgment is superior to that of the democratic majority. This paper examines and evaluates the claim that dissenters are epistemically arrogant. Contrary to the dominant viewpoint in the literature, I argue that epistemic arrogance involves inflating the epistemic worth of one’s view. Indeed, the most plausible charge against civil dissenters consists of two claims: (A) civil dissenters have a higher degree of rational certainty in P than is warranted, and (B) civil dissenters use a method of expression that requires a higher level of rational certainty than is warranted in the propositions that their political view is right and the injustice they fight is substantial. I argue that civil disobedience does not necessarily involve epistemic arrogance. Whether an act of civil disobedience evinces epistemic arrogance has to be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the extent to which each dissenter lives up to (A) and (B).

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The most charitable interpretation of the charge made against dissenters—that they are epistemically arrogant—is that they are epistemically arrogant because they think that they know better than the democratic majority whether the specific law or policy they protest is unjust. The charge does not say that dissenters think that they always know better than the democratic majority what ought to be done politically.

  2. 2.

    For a more detailed analysis of the thoughts of King on the civil rights movement, see Terry (2017) and Shelby and Terry (2018).

  3. 3.

    It is controversial in the philosophical literature on civil disobedience whether Snowden’s whistleblowing falls under the category of civil disobedience. For discussion, see, e.g., Scheuerman (2014) and Delmas (2015).

  4. 4.

    Employing this particular conception of civil disobedience does not imply that acts of disobedience that are defined as uncivil are or are not epistemically arrogant. It is beyond the scope of this paper to investigate further whether related types of disobedience involve epistemic arrogance as well, although these are also interesting questions and the conception of epistemic arrogance developed in this paper will also be relevant to reflections on whether other types of disobedience and political expression involve arrogance.

  5. 5.

    According to Lynch (2018), epistemic arrogance can be conceived of as a trait or a psychological attitude. If an agent is epistemically arrogant where this is understood as a trait, that agent has a personal quality that is stable over time. A psychological attitude is not stable over time in that an agent may have an attitude of epistemic arrogance one or more times, but does not have a stable disposition to be so (Lynch 2018, 288).

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Acknowledgements

I wish to thank Klemens Kappel, Andreas Christiansen, David Estlund, Kimberley Brownlee, Sune Laegaard, Morten Ebbe Juul Nielsen, Josefine Pallavicini, Bjørn Hallson, Orri Stefánsson, the practical philosophy research group at University of Copenhagen and two anonymous reviewers for this journal for very helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Tine Hindkjaer Madsen.

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Hindkjaer Madsen, T. Are Dissenters Epistemically Arrogant?. Criminal Law, Philosophy 15, 1–23 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11572-019-09521-9

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Keywords

  • Civil disobedience
  • Dissent
  • Epistemic arrogance
  • Civic virtues
  • Political judgment
  • Majority rule
  • Democratic theory