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Cognitive illiberalism & expressive overdetermination ... a fragment

from Kahan, D.M. The Cognitively Illiberal State. Stan. L. Rev. 60, 115-154 (2007).


The nature of political conflict in our society is deeply paradoxical. Despite our unprecedented knowledge of the workings of the natural and social world, we remain bitterly divided over the dangers we face and the efficacy of policies for abating them. The basis of our disagreement, moreover, is not differences in our material interests (that would make perfect sense) but divergences in our cultural worldviews. By virtue of the moderating effects of liberal market institutions, we no longer organize ourselves into sectarian factions for the purpose of imposing our opposing visions of the good on one another. Yet when we deliberate over how to secure our collective secular ends, we end up split along exactly those lines.

The explanation, I’ve argued, is the phenomenon of cultural cognition. Individual access to collective knowledge depends just as much today as it ever did on cultural cues. As a result, even as we become increasingly committed to confining law to attainment of goods accessible to persons of morally diverse persuasions, we remain prone to cultural polarization over the means of doing so. Indeed, the prospect of agreement on the consequences of law has diminished, not grown, with advancement in collective knowledge, precisely because we enjoy an unprecedented degree of cultural pluralism and hence an unprecedented number of competing cultural certifiers of truth.

If there’s a way to mitigate this condition of cognitive illiberalism, it is by reforming our political discourse. Liberal discourse norms enjoin us to suppress reference to partisan visions of the good when we engage in political advocacy. But this injunction does little to mitigate illiberal forms of status competition: because what we believe reflects who we are (culturally speaking), citizens readily perceive even value-denuded instrumental justifications for law as partisan affirmations of certain worldviews over others.

Rather than implausibly deny our cultural partiality, we should embrace it. The norm of expressive overdetermination would oblige political actors not just to seek affirmation of their worldviews in law, but to cooperate in forming policies that allow persons of opposing worldviews to do so at the same time. Under these circumstances, citizens of diverse cultural orientations are more likely to agree on the facts—and to get them right—because expressive overdetermination erases the status threats that make individuals resist accurate information. But even more importantly, participation in the framing of policies that bear diverse meanings can be expected to excite self-reinforcing, reciprocal motivations that make a culture of political pluralism sustainable.

Ought, it is said, implies can. Contrary to the central injunction of liberalism, we cannot, as a cognitive matter, justify laws on grounds that are genuinely free of our attachments to competing understandings of the good life. But through a more sophisticated understanding of social psychology, it remains possible to construct a form of political discourse that conveys genuine respect for our cultural diversity.

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Reader Comments (4)

"If there’s a way to mitigate this condition of cognitive illiberalism, it is by reforming our political discourse."

Mmm. Yes. But if the political divide we're talking about is precisely that between the liberal and illiberal philosophies, how does this help?

The illiberal side - the side talking about shutting down debate, preventing opponents getting their views heard in national and scientific media, introducing regulations and taxes to impose their solutions, setting up international 'climate justice' courts with jurisdiction to overrule democratically elected governments on the running of national economies, and indeed, explicitly discussing the failure of democracy as a means to address the emergency and the need for "a supreme office of the biosphere" that would "either rule themselves or advise an authoritarian government of policies based on their ecological training and philosophical sensitivities." - would simply reject all such calls as "false balance".

And of course they would argue that a call from liberals to "reform" politics along liberal lines is tantamount to a demand for their unconditional surrender. Of course there will be less argument if you exclude all other points of view. But why should it be the liberals who get to purge the illiberals (surely a rather inconsistent position!) from the body politic rather than the other way round, which does at least have the virtue of internal consistency?

It's a tricky paradox, like the question of whether one should be tolerant of intolerance.

I do very much agree with you - but I don't think the problem is so easily solved. How do we persuade people of the benefits of universal liberty? Not just for themselves, but for their opponents too?

April 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


Actually, I understand myself to be addressing a "1st world" problem here -- one that occurs only within societies fortunate enough to have crossed the historical threshold to a liberal democratic form of political organization.

Those who haven't gotten there yet (or even worse have reverted to a pre-liberal state; does this happen? there's no reason why it couldn't) have a much bigger problem. For sure, no style of political discourse will solve it for them. Free markets are their best hope (only, probably).

Also, while I still think the formulation of the problem reflected in this essay is basically correct, I'm convinced the prescription is at best "incomplete." I do think that a form of public reason that features "expressive overdetermination" is a useful element of the solution to the problem of cognitive illiberalism. But a new political science of science communication -- one with a much more far-reaching set of objectives-- is what's in fact essential for addressing this problem precisely b/c it is new-- a feature of (indeed a paradox inherent in) the maturation of the Liberal Republic of Science

April 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

"or even worse have reverted to a pre-liberal state; does this happen? there's no reason why it couldn't"

Yes! Definitely! Just look at 20th century history.

And yes, there is a common assumption that "it couldn't happen here" that is unfounded, leading many first world people into a dangerous complacency.

I agree absolutely with your position on cognitive liberalism, and my comment was in no way intended as a criticism. It's just that I found it ironic, since I've spent the last several years espousing liberal / libertarian / free market thinking, and been roundly denounced for it. Apparently, my "free market neoliberal politics" are what are driving me to "deny science" and disagree with their consensus. According to some people, it is my liberalism - my stubborn unwillingness to sacrifice individual liberty even when it proves necessary to restrict people's freedom of action to save the planet - that will doom us all. And it is the dangerous intellectual liberalism of the press in trying to present both sides of the issue that is, I am told, the obstacle to getting widespread public acceptance of the science.

I think we are agreed on this much. The difficulty I see is that I think your suggestion to "cooperate in forming policies that allow persons of opposing worldviews to do so at the same time" is contained within the position of one of the worldviews, and antithetical to the other. So it is difficult to see how this can be done. It's not exactly "cooperation" if one side wins the war over the other.

April 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

It seems to me that along with openly acknowledging our cultural partialities, we also need to acknowledge the fluctuating and thus sometimes tenuous hold that even the most advanced first world nations have on a fully liberal democratic form of political organization, and the impossibilities of attaining and maintaining a truly open and free market. The failings of democracy and capitalism frequently merge:

I agree that we can, and ought to construct a form of political discourse that conveys genuine respect for our cultural diversity, but then, as pointed out by NiV above, what happens when decisions need to be made? Paralysis is one outcome, but then, to decide not to decide is a decision, (as my grandmother used to put it).

As an example of how more knowledge is not necessarily a solution, I thought that this remarkably open piece by a risk management specialist is quite telling: Living with risk: Yes, but don't you love the view?

April 6, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

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