Sunday, October 21, 2018

Nationalism 012: Epistemology of Disagreement

This posting is less concerned with political philosophy than with epistemology - the theory of knowledge. However, it does have relevance for the latter subject.

In my previous post, I considered the idea that political liberalism (or, perhaps, better described as a culture of political toleration), combined with elements of the philosophy of disagreement, suggested that citizens in such a society needed to be skeptical of philosophical, moral, and political truths. Political toleration and philosophical, moral, and religious conviction were incompatible.

This "philosophy of disagreement" from which this argument sprang asks the question, "How should a person respond to the fact that equally intelligent people disagree?" We must all admit that, on most political issues, at least some people who disagree with us are as knowledgeable (if not more knowledgeable), as intellectually responsible (if not more intellectually responsible), and as concerned with the welfare of the world than we are. Yet, they advocate a different path. On what grounds do we assert that they must be wrong and that society must listen to us?

As I have mentioned, there is a level at which this is the question that got me started in asking questions in philosophy. I had my own ideas on how to create a perfect world, and was concerned about the fact that intelligent people who are at least as caring as I disagreed with me on how to do it. The common public response to this type of situation is to merely dismiss any critics as corrupt or ignorant. I did not take that route. I acknowledged their concern and their intelligence - and yet, somehow, they came up with a different answer.

Now, when I look at issues where I disagree with others, I notice that I seldom confront a situation where I must make a conclusion based solely on the fact that others disagree.

I have learned to distinguish between a person who is informed on an issue, and a person who is uninformed.

An uninformed person should not be drawing any conclusions on an issue but should instead say, "Because I have not studied the matter in sufficient detail, I am not well enough informed to have an opinion."

The only person who has a right to render an opinion is the person who is informed. However, the person who is informed not only knows that others disagree with her, but why. Furthermore, she has a "theory of wrongness" = a theory that explains why they are wrong. She also knows that those who disagree with her believe that she is wrong, and she has answers to their "theory of wrongness".

I am not denying the possibility that two intelligent and concerned individuals can ultimately reach different conclusions. This is possible where two philosophers who have studied all of the philosophical literature still come to a disagreement on the existence of God, the objectivity of value, the reality of numbers, or the foundations of knowledge. However, this does not describe the situation that most voters find themselves in. If we are restricting our discussion to the common voter responding to disagreement, we get a different response. Disagreement is a sign and a symptom of one's own ignorance. The fact that others disagree should be taken as evidence that one does not know the subject matter well enough to have an opinion.

We should distinguish the epistemology of disagreement from the epistemology of insufficient information. These are both important areas of study - and I am not dismissing either of them as being some trivial matter containing only obvious answers. There are situations where a person must make a decision even without having all of the relevant information - where obtaining more information is either too costly (in terms of economic opportunity costs) or, simply, impossible. It is to be expected that when two insufficiently well informed people reach a conclusion, each of them, partially misinformed in different ways, may come to a different answer. The vice is in false assumption that one is the intellectually perfect agent who can reach true conclusions easily based on insufficient information while one's critic is an arrogant and ignorant fool.

In short, I would replace the epistemology of disagreement with the epistemology of limited information - asserting that the latter, and not the former, is the true situation that the average voter faces. The question then becomes: What is a voter's epistemic responsibility given the fact that she is casting a substantially under-informed vote?

How about, to begin with, stop this presumption too often made that anybody who comes to a different conclusion is either corrupt or foolish, but is simply somebody else who, having a different set of limited information, came to a different conclusion.

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