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Self-knowledge and political justification 1

June 9, 2017

I: Introduction: Self-knowledge and justification

 

What relation might obtain between self-knowledge and (political) justification? Why should we expect any relation to obtain between the two? Certainly, any answer thereto will depend in part on the precise understanding of self-knowledge and (political) justification at issue. A broad understanding of self-knowledge might entail that a person has thin self-knowledge, i.e. of her own attitudes, beliefs and history. Self-knowledge might further involve thick knowledge of the upstream processes (further attitudes, beliefs and history) which led to the formation of the thin. For the sake of simplicity, let us call these thin and thick self-knowledge. We will also have occasion to broach other-knowledge in the same terms.

In parallel, we can put forward a broad understanding of (political) justification. Following Pryor 2004, justification admits of two basic distinctions: 1.) “what you have justification to believe, and what you’re rationally committed to believe by beliefs you already have” (363); 2.) “having justification to believe something, and having a belief that is justified or well-founded” (365). In a way, justification for a “belief that p” amounts to “reasons r” which one might have for holding a “belief that p”. If one does not base one’s “belief that p” on those “reasons r” or opposes thereto other reasons or beliefs, then the “belief that p” is not justified. Only when one has justification for a “belief that p” and one bases the “belief that p” on those “reasons r” and one has no other reasons or beliefs which rationally commit one to an opposed belief is the “belief that p” then justified or well-founded. More simply, having justification for a “belief that p” comes apart from being justified in having the “belief that p”.

Extending these distinctions, political justification partly consists in appending the clause “relative to political deliberation” to the above. Accordingly, one may have justification for the “belief that p” (relative to political deliberation) while failing to have the “belief that p” due to ignorance, doubt, weakness of will, or conflicting beliefs. Likewise, a “belief that p” (relative to political deliberation) will only be justified when one has justification therefor, bases belief thereon and has no conflicting rational commitments. However, an emendation seems in order. For Pryor’s breakdown of justifiable belief and justified belief remains within the realm of the intrapersonal and passive whereas political justification, i.e. political deliberation as justifying beliefs to others, moves us to the interpersonal and active. In this case, successful political justification would entail either of the following forms: transmission of a justified belief from one person to another; another’s recognition of a belief’s justified quality; adapting a belief to another’s cognitive context. Both cases prima facie preserve both thin and thick self-knowledge requirements: one’s expression of a justified belief must retain the relation between beliefs and reasons which render it justified on the interpersonal level.

Can we have one without the other? The properly amended Pryorian account seems to require it insofar as one must be aware of one’s “belief that p” (relative to political deliberation) and of any other reasons or beliefs which commit oneself to opposed positions. Otherwise, one might simply have a justifiable belief without that belief itself attaining the status of justified. That said, there are cases in which justification, as either justification for a belief or justified belief, seems to proceed without self-knowledge, thin or thick. A person might hold a belief for a reason which they ignore or lack entirely. Somewhat differently, the Rawlsian original position stipulates that, to arrive at a conception of justice for the distribution of primary goods in society or the evaluation thereof, the person have no knowledge of her preferences or beliefs ahead of the resultant distribution. The lack of self-knowledge in no way impedes political justification and may even facilitate consensus (a fact backed up by the empirical literature – cf. Frohlich, Oppenheimer, and Eavey 1987).

Nonetheless, we might have reason to reject this depiction as misguided for several reasons. On our Pryorian account of (political) justification, the class of reasons r and “beliefs that p” might be suitably narrowed such that the little which one knows about oneself figures all the same in the justified belief. So, some thin self-knowledge obtains. With greater emphasis on the Rawlsian account itself, we might have reason, more narrowly, to reject the original position as an untenable or unreasonable epistemological device or, more broadly, to reject knowledge- or justification-claims made from an unsituated, context-free standpoint, such that the original position cannot serve as an example to establish the sufficient, if not necessary, independence of self-knowledge and (political) justification from one another. Provisionally, this leaves us with four possible answers to our starting point:

Strong and thick version: Thick self-knowledge is necessary for political justification.

Strong and thin version: Thin self-knowledge is necessary for political justification.

Weak and thick version: Thick self-knowledge is important for political justification.

Weak and thin version: Thin self-knowledge is important for political justification.

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