The Value of Impartiality

Last night I read a response to Gutmann & Thompson's deliberative theory by Stanley Fish. Fish's critique is truly devestating, and it raises some serious issues relevant for any partisan of democracy.

Perhaps most central to his critique is the way in which he points to impartiality--the pet principle of Habermas, Rawls, Nagel, and the bulk of deliberative democrats--as itself a controversial value without universal support.

This recognition has significant implications. Recently, I've been having some discussions with Ben about the possibility of a relatively neutral perspective in characterizations of American politics. Ben made the excellent point that to call any account biased is to equate the most careful and considered reflection with the most flagrant of partisan hackery. Impartiality, like any quality, admits of degrees.

Granted, but I didn't feel completely satisfied on this point. Yes, a kind of political neutrality seems desirable within the natural sciences and in many social sciences, but is it always a virtue? There are at least two ways in which I think not.

On the one hand, we can draw upon the example that Fish uses, the Mozert case. The plaintiff, a fundamentalist Christian, had a daughter in a public elementary school. Students were required to engage in a program of "critical reading" that was designed to foster openmindedness, the ability to examine different aspects of an issue and make a reasoned decision. In other words, the students were encouraged to adopt an impartial perspective on issues to make judgments without prejudice.

Now, virtually everyone I know would see this program as unproblematic. In fact, I require my students to adopt such a stance in class, to use arguments and evidence to make a case rather than bald assertions, and to treat those who disagree respectfully (which of course does not mean treating their statements uncritically). I think our nation would be much better off if schools could effectively promote values like these--and I think Fish agrees.

Nevertheless, promoting such a value is not itself a neutral act. While the court sided with the school, drawing upon the defense's distinction between exposure and indoctrination--the school was exposing children to different ideas, but not advocating any particular one of them--Fish points out that this really begs the question. This distinction, he writes,

rests on a psychology that is part and parcel of the liberalism [plaintiff] Vicki Frost and her friends don't want imposed on their children. In that psychology, the mind remains unaffected by the ideas and doctrines that pass before it, and its job is to weigh and assess those doctrines from a position distanced from and independent of any of them....

However, in another psychology, one undergirded by a conviction of original sin, the mind is not...so strongly independent. Rather than standing apart from the range of views that contend for its approval, it is, in its congenital weakness and disposition to be overwhelmed, at the mercy of those views; and accordingly, it behooves the parent or educator to take care lest their charges be influenced in the wrong directions, as they well might be if they were introduced to notions they were ill-equipped to resist. [from Macedo, Deliberative Politics, 91-2]

Now, my initial response to reading this passage was--and I wrote this in the margin--"But their psychology is the wrong one!" Surely, I thought, questions of human psychology are matters to be discovered empirically. There are at least two problems with this view. On the one hand, the Enlightenment psychology that liberalism presupposes probably isn't that true. With the exception of those academically-trained, few people are good at reasoning.

But, perhaps more centrally, wouldn't relying on the methods of empirical psychology yet again beg the question? Is the Christian more likely to trust what scientists have to say about the human mind over what they take to be the word of God? If we're going to be honest here, this disagreement goes all the way down.

So here we see one way in which impartiality is not uncontroversially virtuous. But, this brings me to the other case of when neutrality is undesirable--should we really be honest?

Let me be clear about what I mean. I'm not saying we shouldn't be honest with ourselves. If, as liberals and children of the Enlightenment, we value impartiality, we should recognize that here is a case where we're not taking seriously the views of fundamentalists and others who disagree with us. In a sense, it's impossible to be truly impartial here.

Nevertheless, that does not mean that we should abandon talk of that value. Consider the alternative--it's been tried and I don't think that we want to go down that bloody road again. Rather, by invoking these kinds of values, we add rhetorical or strategic force to our agenda. Fish masterfully picks up on this, when he points out that, even though the only real reason they exclude views like Ms. Frost's is that they disagree with them,

As card-carrying liberals, Gutmann and Thompson cannot acknowledge dislike of a point of view as a reason for keeping it out of a conversation; after all, the very first premise of their liberalism is that private moral judgments should not be imposed on others in the form of public policy. Therefore, they must find a way of dressing up their personal moral judgments so they will appear to have been generated by a wholly impersonal mechanism. [ibid., 95; my emphasis]

G&T's insistence that all arguments must be in good faith, leaves them no room for strategizing and ultimately renders their position fundamentally inconsistent. This is why I largely prefer Mouffe's account; she acknowledges that there are limits to pluralism, that there's sometimes a fine line between good and bad faith arguments, and explicitly advocates a democratic agenda within these constraints.

Thus, if we are honest with ourselves and acknowledge that we have certain values that we would like to see dominant, then let us be less than fully honest with those who oppose us, using a strategy that draws on classical liberal values even while it circumvents them. This brings us to a strange place, almost a kind of left Straussianism, where we advocate one dialogue among the elites and another for the voting public.

Is this stance in any way justifiable? I mean, right Straussianism is the philosophy undergirding the current Republican leadership, which leads them to lie with impugnity and has gotten us into a whole mess of shit. Is it enough to say that this kind of Machiavellianism (in the vulgar sense) is alright for us since our position is the right one? Is there any other basis for such a position?

Well, in the first place, should we win out, then we wouldn't have to adapt such strategies and could then be honestly impartial--since everyone would agree on the primacy of this value. This is not a satisfactory answer, of course, because the fundamentalist could make the exact same argument, and it just ends up being a battle of wills to see who triumphs politically.

This is where I think theoretical justifications reach a limit. I cannot envision one that does not, in some way, implicitly beg the question. As many have pointed out, pluralism has only so much room for anti-pluralism; tolerance cannot tolerate intolerance. Nevertheless, I will not fall prey to Rorty's strategy of just giving up on our adversaries and speaking only to "we liberals". There are practical reasons in favor of liberal democratic values like impartiality, tolerance, reciprocity, and so forth (and here I grant that I have not been careful in distinguishing between these).

First, the commitments of political liberalism are minimal. You can maintain a wide array of beliefs on anything you want. You can be a Christian, a Muslim, a classical conservative, a libertarian, a neo-Darwinian, or a paranormalist--pretty much whatever your heart desires.

You just have to admit that you might be wrong, that people who disagree with you are not as a result utterly wicked or irrational but worthy of respect, and that living together in a diverse society sometimes requires us to sacrifice things that we hold dear. In short, the tent of liberalism may not fit everyone, but it's a hell of a lot bigger than the tent of fundamentalism or any other anti-liberal view.

But, and I see this as its greatest value, it gives a means of resolving our conflicts without the use of physical violence. If you disagree with me, I don't get a bunch of my friends together and then go burn down your house (while you're in it of course). No, we just argue, until one side wins out (by taking a vote or whatever).

This doesn't mean that there won't be coercion and other types of force--like the rhetorical or ideological force that is the seamy underside of rational conversation. This doesn't mean that there aren't costs, for instance, the less cohesive bonds of an individualistic, tolerant culture.

But what else can we do? We saw many political ideologies emerge and come into power in the last century (in the West) only to lead to genocide and other atrocities. Democracy has won the day. While modern democracies engage in far too much warfare against weaker, non-democratic states, at least they don't fight amongst themselves (or haven't yet).

In closing, I encourage those of you with an interest in political theory to read Fish's article--and Mouffe's The Democratic Paradox while you're at it--to see a number of these points made more articulately. And if you come up with any better political solution than liberal democracy, please let me know!


Steven said...

Hey Dom,

I wanted to post this to just push two things quickly. First, my blog is at http://whatisbeing.blogspot.com if you'd like to check it out. I already put a link up to your page, you can ask me to take it down if you don't want it up there.
Second, I wanted to just put up the idea again that there is still a hope to prioritize democracy over liberalism, it just cannot be done via the way Gutmann and Thompson try to do it. There is a mix of political essentialism derived from something we could loosely call "the world as we find it" which includes Arendtian-like commitments such as a view of power as something like "the capacity to act in concert" (On Violence) and a view of plurality as "the reality that men and not man inhabit the earth" (On Revolution) that I think can ground the values of Gutmann and Thompson's prescriptive views in something that looks more like prudent judgment than fundamental commitments. I haven't articulated this very well here or in class, so think of this more as getting the foot in the door for an argument rather than an actual argument in full.

specter_of_spinoza said...

Thanks for linking me. I've added you to my sidebar, as well.

I'd be interested to here your position in more detail when you develop it. If we take the problem to be like Mouffe's articulation--in which the competing principles are something like equality (or democracy) and liberty, like her, I tend to think we're skewed too far in the direction of the priority of a narrow interpretation of liberty (neo-liberalism). So, any sound argument for increased democracy I gleefully support.