How does one comment with authority in a democracy?

Just thinking out loud; this is only a prompt, a way to introduce questions.

I’ve been reading various reports about the US shifting policy in Afghanistan, and I’d like to say something about what I’ve read, but I’d also like to say something informed and helpful. So I’m staying quiet.

Of course, when one extends this logic fully, it means one can’t comment on national affairs, elections at any level, state or local affairs, media issues, educational issues, or even some personal issues, because what does one really know about anything? To add to the skepticism: note that in what we know best, part of our authority comes from saying “hey, while that’s a field closely related to mine/area of specialization within what I do, I don’t know it all that well.” Part of our authority regarding knowledge is that we can be trusted to confess ignorance.

But another part is that we can refer to others who do know better. And part of the fact we know they know is that we can ask questions and get responses that make sense. We also know whether what they produce, to a degree, is ultimately good or not: Aristotle tells us that you don’t need to be a carpenter to tell whether the house was built well or not.

So there are two sorts of knowledge at work here:

  • knowledge that is expertise – a skill, a technique. This gets results, produces things, and can be taught usually via method.
  • knowledge that is credible opinion. This is almost the famous “knowledge of ignorance,” except not quite: it does have some of the ability to recognize whether someone knows what they’re talking about, but it doesn’t have as radical a questioning as its ground. It rather complements “knowledge that is expertise” and ultimately defers to it.

This brings up an interesting question: is rule in a democracy really rule by expert? Weirdly enough, the way we’ve set things up, that’s the default – even where a tyrant comes to rule in a democracy, he’s someone who understands best how a people can be manipulated or cowed. This also means that a majority which has come to rule is expert in something, and the character of that knowledge can’t be denigrated as mere passion. There is a “knowledge” at play, and that might be even worse for diversity of opinion or getting at the truth.

The toughest thing, then, is to keep “credible opinion” – not necessarily “true opinion” – afloat. The biggest danger to “credible opinion” is an overemphasis on certain knowledge. This results in a need for everything and everyone to be effective, the only way most people interpret certainty, and the trouble with that criterion is obvious: prophets are far less effective than birth control. What we should strive towards has nothing to do with “effectiveness,” but whether or not we consider our lives well-lived or not.

So how does one comment with authority? It’s actually pretty simple: if you start with other opinions that are effective or that the majority accept, you’re starting from a ground that is a blank: “I don’t know, let me see what some other people have to say.” That “blank” never goes away: if you reach something truer, like a catalog of what’s wrong with every other opinion and a description of why each has adherents, all you’ve done is critique. “Credible opinions,” which are what we’re aiming for, build persuasiveness from the fact of the critique. They don’t try to seriously address the “blank” at base, I don’t think. That would involve asking why any opinions should have been offered on the topic in the first place, i.e. “What is the value of value,” and that’s not the primary purpose of civic life. The main purpose of civic life is to live well, and that means questions come to an end at some point.

It should be noted that philosophy may be an even more radical endeavor than I am letting on: given that most serious questions we ask yield insights about matters other than the ones we began talking about, the very attempt to posit a value of any sort – however thoughtfully or carefully one tries – is an inherently political move.


  1. @ machinepolitick:

    I understand that ever since Tocqueville there has always been the fear of ‘tyranny of the majority,’ but I’m not sure that is true when we consider the consent involved in most democracies that have a constitutional scaffolding. By this logic, the CSA was legitimate after Lincoln won the national election.

    “What we should strive towards has nothing to do with “effectiveness,” but whether or not we consider our lives well-lived or not.”

    I’m sure Ashok could say more about this, but note that he said, “What we SHOULD strive for…”

    I’m not quite sure if I’m on to what Ashok is getting at, but he seems to be trying to differentiate between the philosophic and the political; consider how much we would like Socrates as a statesman. The only time I can think of him ever seeming decisive about anything was during his Crito dialogue right before he died, but his aim always was to live well. Note that that doesn’t mean something like Rorty’s ideal community where counting blades of grass is no worse than God, etc.

    It gets really tough to get people to try to live well, because most people’s aim is the lower ‘thing’ – ‘effectiveness.’ I don’t think the issue is that the majority picks something that steps on the rights of the minority so much as they have strayed away from what allows one to have a full measure of happiness…is this in any way right?

  2. @ thag: “Live well” might be the lower thing – the philosophic life aims for a happiness that is untouchable, and it takes risks, gigantic ones. You can get a sense of the risk taken if Glaucon didn’t become moderate, but rather more tyrannical in the Republic, and while it would be nice to say “a philosopher can be sure he wouldn’t get there,” it still took 10 books to try and head Glaucon’s ambitions off. Nearly every argument is Glaucon challenging Socratic rhetoric and getting bolder and slipperier doing so.

    Your teachers – and mine – will never talk to you about the risk because of the fact of the “history of political philosophy:” we’re discussing the “tradition” as it has come down to us, and in a sense, we’re all Thomists already. We’ve synthesized, we think, what people were either exiled or killed for previously. To some degree, this may be true: I was reading a short biographical sketch of Rousseau, and his life pretty much was running from authorities and having friends that were backstabbers. This is definitely a freer, more humane climate, if one needed the proof.

    “Live well” can be done in ignorance. This is from the Crito, but implied there.

    “Effectiveness” isn’t an end in itself at all, it is purely a means.

    Yeah, you’re right, the issue isn’t minority/majority, it’s more like: I don’t see any real diversity. One reason why I’m pushing the poetry so much is that there’s enormous diversity in forms and thoughts and language there, and it’s just neglected in favor of things that say what we want to hear time and time again.

  3. thag, thanks for the info.Unfortunately,much of what you quote is beyond my knowledge.I will have to do some research.It looks like ashok sums it up nicely, though.
    I spend most of my time reading history and politics pertaining to American government. I think one point you’re making is extremely valid.People aim more to accomplish a goal than to be good people.The ends justify the means, even if the original mission is lost.
    When speaking of the majority over the minority, my concern is with the current political climate in America. People seem to think they are right and their actions are excusable because everyone around them agrees. You are right in saying this limits diversity, and that is where the minority becomes the most important. The original intent of the diversity movement was to gain recognition and equality for the minority. Now that the political tide is changing, it seems those terms no longer apply. That is the real travesty here. Majority or minority, all points should be examined and respected. When we surround ourselves exclusively with like minded people, we limit our own perspective.
    Thanks again, and I look forward to educating myself on your points.

  4. Ashok:

    As simple as I am most of the time, I have a hard time understanding the idea that ‘living well’ can be done in ignorance. What do you mean by that? Because it seems like there are two different kinds. Socrates was, by his admission, ignorant but was consciously so. Can somebody like well and be like Protagoras or Euthyphro? They were ignorant too…

    So is the philosophic aim ‘to live well’ lower because it is meant for the private sphere? Socrates does say something like “justice is minding your own business.”

    I really find the idea of ‘risk’ you bring up interesting. If I’m getting it correctly, you mean to say we’ve seen the past play out, and believe we can overstep the crap they went through? Maybe where I’m lost is the fact that I have no idea what being a Thomist entails, haha…

    Ashok if I haven’t told you yet, I think you should be applauded for what you’ve done on your site. The range and depth is ridiculous — and I know you are questioning keeping the thing going. Just thought maybe a little pat on the back could let you know that people do read and have interest in your stuff, and that real teaching is going on (as far as a blog, allows anyway haha).

  5. @ thag: Euthyphro does live well – there’s a perfectly plausible line of interpretation where he leaves at the end of dialogue because he’s not going to press charges against his father. But Euthyphro is emphatically not philosophic, not at the end of the dialogue even, I’m pretty sure.

    And yeah, you’ve caught on – it’s no knock to be ignorant the way this argument is going.

    I mean, these things are tough to clarify. I could sit here and go through example after example, but they all depend upon assumptions about dialogues and certain bits of philosophy and adding it all together and maybe it turns into something, maybe not. And I’ll be the first to admit the examples are shaky. Best thing I can say is just keep this line of argumentation in mind while reading more, and if it doesn’t hold up, it doesn’t hold up.

  6. Wow, Ashok I am really enjoying your blog… Thanks again for the post to link me here. I am not in graduate school, but just finishing up my undergraduate political science degree. I really enjoy the quality of conversation and blog posts you have here. Very few political science posts are both interesting and academic.

    You’ve taken a lot of interesting topics in political science and really run with them. Thanks!

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