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Fr. 596

February 25, 2015

As a pragmatic-formal precondition of reason-giving, responsibly holding a position (or epistemic responsibility) stands as a key component of Jeffrey Stout’s analysis of contemporary political discussion. Although numerous examples of this responsibility are provided, at times we feel the lack of a more detailed model as to its conditions and structures. To supply this want, we might look at other such models to provide, at the very least, hints as to how we might go about this task. One such analysis might be found in Marx’s analysis of ideology, as presented in “What Marxist Ideology Can Set In Motion”, Brian Leiter’s recent excerpted work at 3am magazine. Just how far can this analysis be taken as an instructive lesson regarding Stout’s own epistemic responsibility.

Naturally, Leiter begins with a definition of terms:

On the Marxian theory, an “ideology” in the pejorative sense is an inferentially related set of beliefs about the character of the social, political and economic world that has two characteristics: (A) it falsely represents what are really the interests of a particular economic class as being in the general interest (call this “the Interests Mistake”); and (B) the Interests Mistake is possible because those who accept the ideology are mistaken about (or ignorant of)how they came to hold those beliefs (call this “the Genetic Mistake”).

The mistakes with which Marx and, by extension, Leiter are concerned with are not of a cognitive kind but, rather, are those at the instrumental and socioeconomic level. More precisely, Marx targets those mistakes as to her interests that a self-interested, rational agent would want to correct so as better to fulfill those interests. For this reason, once the agent understands both the origin of those beliefs and their mistaken apprehension of real socio-economic interests, then holding those beliefs is no longer tenable for the self-interested, rational agent.

The abstract case made, Leiter places Marx’s analysis in a more contemporary setting:

Here is an example that will help make concrete what is at stake in the Marxian theory of ideology:
A. Members of the “Tea Party” in the United States believe that low taxes are in the general interest (meaning, in particular, that they are in the interest of the lower- and middle-class people who make up large portions of the Tea Party).
B. Members of the “Tea Party” are mistaken: low taxes are not in their interest, since middle- and lower-class people depend on social security, Medicare, public schools, public parks, and other facilities that satisfy the needs and desires of most people and that can only be funded at adequate levels if taxes are higher, especially on the wealthy.
C. Members of the “Tea Party” are mistaken about which policies are in their interest because (in part) they are mistaken about how they came to believe (A), i.e., they do not realize the extent to which propaganda by the ruling classes led them to their false belief. If they realized the extent to which, e.g., billionaires fund advertising and candidates to promote the belief in A because it serves the interest of billionaires, they would no longer be able to believe A.

Though the case is familiar and prima facie plausible, Leiter insists that nothing in his presentation of Marx turns on its accuracy. Its plausibility is enough to secure the conceptual structure without further claim as to its factual instantiation. Such a belief is an exemplar of “pejorative” ideology in morality, law and public policy.

In opposition to this pejorative ideology, Leiter sketches out a non-ideological sense of morality, law and public policy. If our beliefs therein neither “falsely represent the interests of a particular economic class as in the general interest” nor does “the acceptability of these ideas […] depend on obscuring their genesis in class-specific interests”, these beliefs can be classed as non pejoratively ideological for Marx. On Leiter’s reading, the second point (i.e. the genesis class-specific interests) proves of particular importance in understanding the dividing line between ideological and non-ideological. Certainly, Marx urged a turn away from idealist readings of history to the more realist, socio-economic take, but it is unclear whether this underlines the full extent of this point.

To illustrate this dividing line, Leiter turns to a threshold case:

Consider, to start, a quite different case. Suppose that we have the empirical science we have because it is in the interests of the ruling class that we have this empirical science. This is probably true: many (maybe all) members of the capitalist class have a powerful economic interest in a correct understanding of the causal laws governing the natural world for obvious reasons, so they have a reason to encourage an epistemically reliable empirical science that gives them the understanding essential for effective productive exploitation of the natural world. This fact—assuming it is a fact—about the genesis of our empirical science would not affect its acceptability, however. The acceptability of empirical science depends on epistemic criteria (such as evidential warrant, explanatory power and predictive success), and not on whether the resulting claims are genuinely in everyone’s interest.

This is perhaps cause enough to remember the limits of discursive analysis of ideology candidates. As Leiter makes clear, whatever its origins, what makes the success of empirical science is not its securing the interests of the broader public but instead its internal epistemic criteria. In this way, the origins of empirical science are insulated or divorced from its standards of acceptability. This suggests that moral, legal and political claims are to circumscribed within specific limits to which other disciplines are not similarly bound. (It is a slightly different question as to how we determine what is the specific acceptability of a given discipline. The difficulty seems perhaps analogous to that in ancient Greek philosophy concerning the designation of an object’s virtue, in the sense of technè.)

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