The Politics of Doubt

Two Concepts of Belief

Over time, I’ve come to see thinking about morality and politics as divided into two streams. Let’s call the first, “belief as an attitude”. The second, “belief as a philosophy”. In the former, politics is conceived as a situation under which our projects are seen as built within a pluralistic framework, such that multiple valid goals and intuitions compete for our attention. The only choice we have therefore, is to see our ideas within a framework of epistemic and moral ambiguity. This promotes a skepticism about our priorities having a particular end-goal, and instead contributes to building a family of perspectives within an overall world view. Rather than solely operating through reason, we cultivate impressions that help to guide us. In the latter, a series of interlinked steps lead toward conclusions, which, if not inexorable, are thought to be highly probable or vital. We may begin with a foundational precept which, via a merry chain of logic, gets us to home base, wherever that might be. We might alternatively work on building theories that appeal to specific intuitions, leading towards viewing agents and institutions as having a clearly defined status.*

Belief as Philosophy

One example of this in the political realm might be found in Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority. Huemer argues that our common intuitions about the state are fundamentally inconsistent, attributing as they do moral authority and the right to violent coercion and social control for agents that may not justly claim such authority. He furthermore shows that standard issue popular and academic defenses of state legitimacy fail for various reasons, including especially the various iterations of social contract theory. He ultimately argues for the adoption of market anarchism, or anarcho-capitalism. These contributions notwithstanding, I came away from the book feeling not entirely satisfied.

One problem is that Huemer’s discussion is too narrow, by constraining the available set of considerations. An important part of the justificatory framework and implicit reason for the mass adoption of belief in social institutions, the state included, isn’t simply (though probably to a significant degree) due to perpetual myths of authority, but also on the messy inherent normativity that actually existing institutions have within them. Will Wilkinson argues,

“Philosophers generally draw a sharp line between de facto and legitimate authority, but it can be a confusing distinction because it’s not really a distinction between the descriptive and prescriptive or positive and normative. De facto authority is already normative. Normativity is built in at the ground floor. Authority supplies binding reasons for action. THAT’S HOW IT WORKS. That’s how it coordinates. So when we’re asking about the legitimacy of authority, we can’t be asking about what gives authority its normative force. If it’s de facto authority, it already has it. So we must be asking for some sort of higher-order moral validation of authority’s reason-giving power. De facto authority does produce obligations, but do we really have reason to really do what authority supplies us with reasons to do.”

The issue isn’t just a rationalist-pluralist divide over whether we can redesign systems from the top, or what we ought to do about competing forms of social groups and collectivities. It’s a broader dispute about the role that existing beliefs play in the legitimation of a perspective or an institution. These existing beliefs both contribute to, and emerge from, the normative properties an institution might hold, including its claims to be just. When we ask people to abandon a political perspective, or follow a set of radical conclusions, we need to take into account the perception they have of those institutions as normatively justified, by looking at the presence of those systems as the background to their lives. That presence performs a kind of reason-giving function for taking state institutions as legitimate. Since the role that the state plays enables a de facto authority, our respect for the moral considerations of others should ask us to take it seriously within the exchange of reasons.

We can illustrate this by thinking about social norms. Norms, as a species of institution, contain elements of both “is” and “ought”. That is, the functioning of a norm is built both on the empirics of the way things operate in practice, and the relative state of affairs between people, but also on perceptions of the way we are morally obligated to behave. The power of statements like “Please” and “Thank You”, lie not only in the utility of such statements to promote peaceful relationships by signalling good terms, but also as moral presumptions about how people should to be treated. Thus, avoiding polite language is not just inefficient, but understood as a breakdown in our duties to one another, to social morality and “the way things should to be”. The reasons we give therefore, are idealized and universal, stretching far beyond the particular. However contextual norms might be, relying on the implicit understandings and guarantees within an environment in an endless game of cooperation against defection, their presence makes us see them as being more than simply a matter of context.

A worldview that builds itself on the deducing out from single line of intuitions, is more likely to see “belief as philosophy”, and devote itself to deriving conclusions with particular results. This is built on an external set of reasons that see themselves as easily transcending the matrix of experiences, norms, and moral perceptions within which they are embedded.

Furthermore, an even more central problem is the question of where we choose to place our moral focus. Perhaps the main issue with making determined paths about where institutions ought to go, is that the moral concepts embedded within them are “essentially contested”. This makes it difficult to figure out how and where we should move. Furthermore, as Wilkinson notes elsewhere, few if any moral notions can claim to be exempt from such a status. Wilkinson follows (as do I) David Schmidtz’s wise insight that justice (and morality more broadly) most closely resembles a map, crossed by many paths. This means that our road always intersects with others that hold pieces of truth within them. The problem of disagreement is about the splits between people who conscientiously reason within the territory, yet arrive at different ends of the region.

Huemer argues that we have particular intuitions about the place of coercion, which are then violated by the structure and functions of the modern state. This should lead us to be critical of the state as a legitimate institution, and thus call for its abolition. The difficulty here is that although Huemer’s line of reasoning might not be internally wrong given his presumptions, it makes the moral problem too small. By formalizing the question of legitimacy into avoiding particularly defined coercive acts, it potentially closes of other lines of moral reasoning by building legitimacy as most closely resembling a specific set of requirements, rather than as a set of complex and tacit moral values that are in dialogue with one another. If I think that consent is the most important overriding consideration, then I might see the seemingly indefensibleness of the social contract as a kind of slam dunk for the critics of political authority.

However, this seems to abandon the other kinds of values we see our institutions as embodying, such as equality or desert. This isn’t to claim that state action is somehow “content independent”, but simply that we might view institutions as defined through certain functions, centering around a pluralistic variety of justice considerations. The moral and structural function that the state provides through ensuring equality, liberty, or some other set of concerns, is what makes that institutional set what it is. From this angle, there is no overstepping of bounds- these things are just what the system is there to do. If Huemer wants to fully reach skeptics of anarchy, he needs to provide a more robust and detailed understanding of what both personhood and justice actually involve, within the broad sense that people have of their world.

Thus, this existential/epistemic divide is distinct from merely being pragmatic. It’s not only about “direction versus destination”, but about what the idea of “direction” itself involves. When we say that we want a certain thing, we are still eternally divided by the problems of differing individual reasons, both because of the divergence from the status quo, but also because any moral calculus inevitably leaves a lot out. We may think we’ve worked through the question, but once a conclusion is reached, we narrow the field of possibility, and risk ignoring the vital fact of disagreement as a basic component of existing in a world of many voices.

Belief as Attitude

Indeed, as Gerald Gaus points out, this problem is a perennial feature of political life, and can lead to dangerous results.

“…how do we “fight” for what we think is right under modern conditions, where the free use of reason leads to opposed convictions about the place of humans in the universe, the nature of a just society and the good life? The first step is to realize that we contest and fight in many ways. I can contest ideals and convince others that I really do have the sound basis for my claims about what is best. I also might contest and learn from others in ways that improve my understanding about what is the best. We all might contest and learn from each other, and come to better conclusions about what is best from all our perspectives. All these forms of “fighting” are the engines of a dynamic diverse society..[…]… We will then be faced with the sort of fights inherent in healthy democratic politics, voting to resolve our differences about which of a number of reasonable policies we all can live with, we shall adopt. But there is another sort of democratic fight — what might be called a political war — a fight over whose ideals are to shape the life of all. This is a struggle for the power to impose one’s ideals on others. Whoever wins that fight, many will be forced to live under laws and policies that they view as deeply wrong and, perhaps, in violation of their most fundamental commitments.”

I’ve argued previously that good moral thinking involves recognizing tradeoffs between and among different values, ranking the ones that matter, and seeing our political and ethical divergences from within competing equilibria of prioritization. Staying away from all-encompassing “big stories”, political tribalism, binary constructions, and exclusive discourses is just as equally important, since the former can’t be accomplished without jettisoning the latter. Here, I want to emphasize that it also involves embracing a lack of surety, what I like to call “the politics of doubt”. It’s about cultivating reason, not only through the classical mode of deduction, but from adopting conflicting stances of belief and experience, and especially by incorporating agnosticism about what to do by recognizing the both competing and tradeable nature of ethical considerations. Thus, I may embrace a number of steps in an argument, yet still be unsure about where to move next.

Those who endorse “belief as philosophy” might retort. ‘You are just advocating taking no position. A theory of justice without a clear cut conception of what to do simply abnegates responsibility, not to mention a practicable notion of external, clearly understood, consistent morality.’ **

In The Order of Public Reason, Gaus defends the role of “fox” oriented theorizing, as borrowed from Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between foxes and hedgehogs.

“A fox approach to moral, social, and political philosophy might appear necessarily antitheoretical. Bernard Williams was a foxy philosopher (well, in our sense, at least), and he was also generally against theorizing about morality. But to appreciate the diversity of a phenomenon, and the ways that different schools and methods have contributed to our understanding of it, is not to abandon the idea that we may develop a unified and coherent account of it. A foxy theory will be complex, and it will draw on a variety of approaches. It will be sensitive to the relevance of new data, and so it must allow that its conclusions are revisable (at the same time it will resist turning the study of empirical phenomena into the new hedgehog truth of philosophy). A foxy theory need not take everything on board, singing the bland refrain that “everything is wonderful in its own way.” But it will be sensitive to the fact that the complexity of the moral and social world cannot be captured by one value, one method, or one school. Its theory will not be a deduction from one core truth or insight, but a piecing together of many truths that leads to a bigger and, one hopes, true picture. It may even have a central concern or worry. A fox is not one who cannot be moved to answer a single question; it is one who sees the complexity of the answer.”

In a different but connected vein, Charles Taylor, one of my all-time favourite thinkers, discusses the role of the modern self. In the world in which we live, when what he sees as the traditional 3 moral axes- respect and obligations toward others, the notion of the “good life”, and the idea of dignity- have been rendered difficult to hold onto (though not unrecoverable), we are left with the recognition of frameworks. To confront this problem, Taylor discusses the necessity of the existential quest, and the recognition that we play as separate individual persons, unbound from the great chain of being.

“…a framework is that in virtue of which we make sense of our lives spiritually. Not to have a framework is to fall into a life which is spiritually senseless. The quest is thus always a quest for sense. But the invocation of meaning also comes from our awareness of how much the search involves articulation. We find the sense of life through articulating it. And moderns have become acutely aware of how much sense being there for us depends on our own powers of expression. Discovering here depends on, is interwoven with, inventing. Finding a sense to life depends on framing meaningful expressions which are adequate. There is thus something particularly appropriate to our condition in the polysemy of the word ‘meaning’: lives can have or lack it when they have or lack a point; while it also applies to language and other forms of expression. More and more, we moderns attain meaning in the first sense, when we do, through creating it in the second sense. The problem of the meaning of life is therefore on our agenda, however much we may jibe at this phrase, either in the form of a threatened loss of meaning or because making sense of our life is the object of a quest.”

Thus, in the recognition of our horizons, or in taking the approach of a fox, we might say that although we have a certain arena of understanding, much remains unclear. The reasons for this aren’t just because we might not know what the facts are, or because social science is difficult, but because morality itself is a messy business, emergent as it is from the process of our individual encounters with life itself. Part of what makes moral questions difficult, isn’t just that lots of considerations present themselves, but that knowing whether those considerations matter is always built within contexts, which themselves are bound, yet expansive by the necessity of needing to apply judgement. Context applies in many ways. It’s about cultural beliefs, current norms, and institutional components all at once, interacting with our intuitions and faculties of reason. The lives that we live are also not irrelevant to the understanding that we have of how we should view things morally, any more than are our capacities to think far beyond our experience.

This isn’t to say that I’m sure that belief as attitude is always useful. Getting somewhere matters. The problem is that “getting there” might be harder than we think.

*Thanks to Cooper Williams for helping inspire this discussion, and for serving as a cheerfully sharp sounding board for ideas in-utero.
**Notably, as Alexander Schaefer has remarked to me, political theorists frequently hold additional scholarly focuses on determining meta-ethics, in addition to pairing questions of justice with a defense of a broader normative view.















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