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Self-knowledge and political justification 6

June 16, 2017

To further this claim, Leiter marshals two examples: the 2014 Steven Salaita controversy at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign showing how discursive hygiene on hard and fast legal norms can fail; Jonathan Haidt’s 2001 “incest experiment” to test a social intuitionist model of practical reasons and:

[…] according to which in most ordinary situations, moral judgments are produced by emotional or affective responses, the reasons adduced in their support being post-hoc: they do not explain the judgment, as evidenced by the resilience of the judgment even in the face of the defeat of the proffered reason […] (ibid., 57-8)

If these considerations do not disprove the effect of discursive hygiene on moral and political judgments, it serves as a limiting case to the overly rosy or optimistic take offered by public philosophers. With this, Leiter moves to the second limiting case to the practice of “discursive hygiene” in public discourse and political deliberation.  If “prejudice and bias are dominant forces in human life”, this owes in great part to what Leiter dubs “tribalism”, defined as follows:

Tribalism – the propensity of creatures like us to identify with those “like themselves,” and to view others as unacceptably different, deficient, depraved, and perhaps dangerous – is, as any realistic appraisal of human affairs will reveal, the dominant force in public life (59).

If, as Leiter concedes, such tribalistic mindsets have given some way with the rise of international and transnational bodies, the fact remains that such institutions as the United Nations and notions as universal human rights first emerged following horrendous, widespread conflict. To this end, Leiter notes that “argument played little or no role” therein; rather, such progress is to be attributed to “emotional revulsion at barbarity” (idem.). Linking this to his emotivist point on attitudinal recalcitrance, Leiter remarks:

The key point, however, is that we philosophers must recognize that moral change depends fundamentally on the emotional attitudes of people, and that these attitudes tend in a strongly Tribalist direction (60).

As evidence therefor, Leiter advances that Peter Singer, while perhaps the foremost public philosopher alive today, appeals similarly to attitudes with no deeper rational basis (i.e. the moral salience of suffering rather than species (60)) and argues most effectively when relying on “moral perception” (62) (cf. Stout 2004, 217-224), e.g. his description of factory farming (Singer 1973). The appeal of non-rational considerations “such as theoretical simplicity, methodological conservatism, and consilience” (60) might be adduced as still more evidence for tempering our expectations for public philosophy. If a leading public philosopher likewise counts on attitudes and emotional response to do the philosophical heavy lifting, Leiter, perhaps rightly, wonders what hope there can be for lay audiences at the time of public discussion.

Yet Leiter himself does not mean to sound the death knell of public philosophy and marshals several considerations therefor (62-3):

  • Being unable to contribute meaningfully to urgent ethical and political matters in no way diminishes the importance of finding an answer to those matters.
  • If we do not understand well the causal linkage between beliefs and attitudes at the time of discursive hygiene, this does not mean that discursive hygiene might not track the evolution of beliefs and attitudes. One should thus go on providing such hygiene.
  • Law, the discipline closest to philosophy, practices and recognizes the need for discursive hygiene in the sense that logical entailments can constrain attitudes when the time comes to rationalize the reasons proffered and the attitudes adopted.

Perhaps the most important lesson which Leiter draws from 3.) is the contention that law has understood something which philosophy has not: “rhetoric – the art of persuasion apart from appeal to what follows from discursive hygiene – matters, and often matters decisively, in what the public believes” (63-64). Indeed, “’belief fixation’, the process by which certain beliefs take hold in the cognitive and affective economy of the mind and thus yield action, does not necessarily track evidential, inferential and logical relations that interest philosophers” (64). Such that philosophers of a public vocation should add rhetoric to their argumentative toolbox while recognizing that “rhetoric does not tell us what beliefs we should try to produce with our rhetorical tools”. As examples of philosophers of a public vocation for whom rhetoric was an integral resource, Leiter cites Marx and Nietzsche, influential independently of discursive hygiene.

In a word, Leiter contends that philosophical argumentation must, at least at one level, track emotional and affective responses and attitudes if it is to retain currency within public discourse and political justification. Before assessing whether Stout can meet this last charge, it is worthwhile to step back and to take stock of whether and to what extent Leiter’s account modifies the connection which we have sketched between self-knowledge and political justification.

His emotivist charge, in connection with intuitionism and sentimentalism, purports to show that the person has first an emotional or affective response to a given set of circumstances for which she only afterwards adduces reasons. This would seem to cast doubt on both her claim to thick self-knowledge in that she deceives herself on the means by which she came to hold that belief. As to her thin self-knowledge, if she is aware of her belief on a given political position, she nonetheless mistakes her reasons therefor (in part because of a failing of thick knowledge). Accordingly, her thin self-knowledge is incomplete in part because of the incomplete character of the thick, and her political position is, at best, justifiable if not justified. What then of Leiter’s second charge of tribalism? If emotive or affective response determines political attitudes and emotive or affective response is divided along tribal lines, then political attitudes are divided along tribal lines. Such that the self-knowledge breakdown for the emotivist charge seems to cross-apply: while the person may know her belief on a position and the purported reasons for that belief, she also ignores how she came to hold that belief and adduce supporting reasons. Again, her political position is at best justifiable in light of other considerations but not justified by way of her own beliefs.

Given this failing of thick self-knowledge, Leiter contends that we must be ready to forego thick self-knowledge (if not thick other-knowledge) and apply rhetorical pressure to the thin self-knowledge. On a Pryorian reading, Leiter plays down the possibility of political justification in that few, if any, will hold justified (as opposed to justifiable) beliefs or political positions, however we might be attached to justified political belief. Does Stout have an answer to these challenges or is his view of public philosophy as expressive rationality consigned to obsolescence? For that matter, must we seek still another sense of justified political belief?

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