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Stout and individual XXI

April 30, 2016

Furthermore, respect properly accorded will place person and audience alike in a situation where they are be more likely to account for the contingencies of cognitive context and conceptual economy informing their position and adapt their context and concepts to each other. For, otherwise situated, a member of the audience would plausibly express reasons and commitments contrary to those which she then holds. The author acknowledges this fact:

[The respect we have for one another] is nourished by our recognition that much of what our neighbors believe is what any reasonable person would believe if situated in exactly the same way they are […] Only as a last resort, when I have taken all situational particulars into account and done my best to interpret them charitably, should I adopt the hypothesis that a given person or group suffers from a “rationality deficit.” Then and only then should I be prepared to explain away my neighbor’s expressed reasons for action and beliefs by invoking the special interpretive tools of critical theory […] But in many cases we ought to be content to explain our differences with them by pointing to differences in context, allowing that they might be justified in believing what they do, and then beginning or continuing the exchange of reasons with them in a charitable and democratic spirit. If all goes well, the discussion will itself alter our respective epistemic contexts in such a way that we can overcome some of our differences, or at least learn to live with them respectfully. Whether we ought to change our minds, at a given point in the democratic exchange of ideas, is something to be decided case by case – by situated selves, reflecting critically on their own experience and on the various traditions and sources of evidence their situation makes available to them (DT, pp. 177-178).

Though impossible to foresee the outcome of any given exchange, much less exchanges across all times and places, Stout’s picture of democratic deliberation remains persuasive in that mutual respect for expressive freedom and self-expression leaves a way out of impasses arising from differences in contexts and concepts. On such a picture, each person at once recognizes the contingency of her position and respects the other’s responsibly holding that position. She and others thereby opens themselves to unforeseen developments in their contexts and concepts, developments which may well bring them nearer for certain points on which their different reasons and commitments now converge. All the same, Stout rightly leaves room for ideological critique in the case that some participants are irrational, mean-spirited, etc. and, hence, their positions irresponsibly held. In any case, the person maintaining the value of respect does not back herself into a discursive corner and different options remain available.

In the end, discursive norms and practices like the expressive freedom and self-expression articulated here prove as much other-regarding norms and practices as they are self-regarding. Yet some readers may worry that self-expression in the form of storytelling and the respect accorded to this form nonetheless leads to a discursive situation where no universal claims can emerge from a given person’s contribution to discourse. For, if those contributions take the form of storytelling and the exposition of a certain person’s cognitive context and conceptual economy, it may well seem that the person disposes of no means to make larger claims, i.e. to apply her reasons and commitments to her audience, respectfully justified in their own positions. Despite sharing a forum for exchange, persons will isolate themselves within, if not theoretically incommensurable, practically incommensurable spheres in that each’s idiom is justified in principle.

In other words, how is the person rightly to issue universal claims while employing only particular warrants? Certainly, people may publicly express and share their vocabularies, but this may leave us in a position where decisions are no more likely to be made. Put another way, though theoretically further along, the reader may worry that no practical advance has been made, leaving room for the specter of anomie and democratic inaction. In reality, this contention trades on confusion over the terms “universal” and “particular”. Stout writes of the possibility of universal obligations that:

An obligation can be universal in the sense of applying (as we see it) to everyone, without requiring a supposedly universal point of view (wholly independent of the ethical life of a people) for its justification. These two senses of universality [i.e. universal reach and universal validity] are in fact distinct […] I am talking about what everybody should refrain from doing. I am saying of everybody that they should refrain from doing something. But I am speaking from my own social perspective, making use of reasons and collateral commitments native to my setting (DT, pp. 195-196).

When critics maintain that universal claims cannot be built out of particular warrants, they elide “reach” and “validity” which are distinct senses of “universal”. (“Reach” is termed “scope” by authors such as Onora O’Neill. See Towards justice and virtue.) As the author argues, a claim or, in this case, obligation can have either universal reach or universal validity without the absence or presence of one necessitating the absence or presence of the other. A claim can, for the person, concern all positions held by the audience without thereby enjoying the demonstration of its validity across all positions. Conversely, a claim can enjoy universal validity but nevertheless remain without universal reach if the person does not make that reach explicit. Most importantly, were universal claims unable to be built out of particular warrants, persons could make no broader claims in virtue of being incapable of abstracting entirely from their cognitive context and conceptual economy. Yet both The Flight from Authority and historical examples, such as abolitionism and suffragism, show that such claims with universal reach can set out from particular warrants.

The force behind the notions of expressive freedom and self-expression leave us in a position to draw still one more conclusion from Stout’s presentation, in which the final step of mapping the position of the individual onto democratic deliberation will issue in a clearer conception of the “democratic individuality” which Stout reprises on multiple occasions.

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