Brennan’s Error About Pluralism

KIEFER_1According to Jason Brennan, countless political theorists have formulated a problem/puzzle of pluralism, but these formulations are misguided. He understands the problem of pluralism to thus be,

Many political theorists believe that democratic theory faces a puzzle or paradox. Democracy is supposed to answer to the differing worldviews, opinions, perspectives, and considered judgments of its citizens. But, we’re told, the polity has intractable value and perspective pluralism—citizens have myriad incompatible comprehensive worldviews and value systems. So we face the Puzzle of Pluralism: How can we pass any laws or even offer judgments about what is just or unjust, without thereby disrespecting our fellow citizens and running roughshod over their different worldviews?

For Brennan, then worries “that Zerilli, Rawls, Habermas, Arendt, Okin, and the countless other political philosophers and theorists who write about this problem are dealing with a pseudo-problem.” His main contention is that empirical research on voting behavior indicates that the average voter has no unified comprehensive worldview. Instead, their political commitments are all over the place, and as such, there are no comprehensive worldviews held by people at all to which the problem of pluralism feels it must answer. Instead, the problem of pluralism is generated out of philosophical confusion about what is the case, and if we can show what is the case empirically, then we should abandon the pseudo-problem and move on.*

Brennan does concede that this is more than likely a problem for a small percentage of people—perhaps the very philosophically-inclined class of people that generated it. Some small percentage of the population may think that it’s their epistemic project to form comprehensive worldviews and consistent beliefs about what they ought to believe concerning voting issues, yet on a whole we can’t say that the majority of voting Americans are remotely like this enough to justify again the absurdity of the puzzle of pluralism.

In this short response, I’ll concede the truth that most Americans do not have anything resembling comprehensive beliefs about voting commitments. Indeed, I find it very plausible that many Americans are not self-reflective about what they ought to believe about many topics. In the absence of self-reflection of most people, does that mean that the problem of pluralism should be abandoned philosophically? I would argue no because the historical complexity of these thinkers means that the problem of pluralism is not just a philosophical problem as Brennan is responding to it (and expressive of a bad ahistoric mode of analytic philosophy itself), but the problem of pluralism expresses the existential realities of lived-experience these authors confronted. Let me explain with the example of Arendt.

Hannah Arendt’s commitment to pluralism comes at the crossroads of a life being Jewish, German, and escaping the Holocaust. In the shortest of terms, Arendt escaped a society that did not seek to tolerate difference at all. In her opening words of The Human Condition, she notes that not man as one encompassing species, but individual men live on the Earth. Through our action, we disclose who we are and that plurality is the condition of action. These words reveal an effort to try and figure out how it is that political action can tolerate difference in the very disclosure of the who each person is. For Arendt, the public realm is necessary for this existential disclosure of the who, and the more this space of appearances can tolerate variety, the better off we are. Arendt is, then, very concerned about any society that seeks to eradicate this public space that disclosure takes place. It’s a hallmark of totalitarian society to eradicate the public realm completely. The rise of mass culture, mass man, and a society of unreflective and banal people are threats to the stability of a healthy state of affairs that can tolerate the public realm.

Of course, this is a very rough sketch of Arendt, but I think if we pay attention to the context of Arendt’s thought rather than overgeneralizing the historical complexity as a pseudo-problem (and absurdly overgeneralizing the complexity of Habermas alongside Arendt), we can see why Arendt is thinking in pluralistic terms. On an existential level (and not solely epistemic terms), Arendt would agree that many—if not most—people have no comprehensive worldviews normally. The normal position is the banal person who after Milgram can sit in the same position of Adolf Eichmann reading train schedules and sending Jews to die in Office IVAB.

Now, what’s the point of this trajectory? How is this a response to Brennan? Well, think about it. What happens if we start to think about what Arendt is responding to? We start to see that, perhaps, there’s wisdom in framing the philosophical problem as she has. The upshot comes from thinking in terms of pluralism itself, in the very framing of it and refusing to let that insight go away. To put the same insight another way: Arendt reveals the dangers of unreflective people incapable of moral judgment in Adolf Eichmann: A Report on the Banality of Evil and one could connect that to the reasons she opens The Human Condition with the fact of pluralism is the very condition of men inhabiting the Earth. She already saw what happens when people choose to ignore the fact that people ought to start there and recognize pluralism at the outset, even if the large majority of people aren’t yet even capable of recognizing pluralism as such (which is perhaps a general way of summarizing the thematic whole of her Origins of Totalitarianism). That’s what Brennan’s very typical ahistoric analytic problem-solving method of identifying something called the puzzle of pluralism ignores when you oversimplify the historical realities of a group of philosophers.** For this reason, it’s a mistake to think that what Arendt is doing is in any way connected to a folk theory of democracy, but employing philosophy to respond to the circumstances she endured. The problem of pluralism is existential, hermeneutic, phenomenological, and pragmatic. It is not only about beliefs representing reality, and only when the problem of pluralism is distorted as solely only about beliefs representing reality does Brennan’s criticism make sense. Instead, beliefs are rules of action, and encompass a great deal more than how I think Brennan’s appeal to empirical research allows.

*There’s also the curious fact about uncritically assuming the metaphysical views of what the social science may be assuming about persons that becomes uncritically reproduced as a background assumption when making these comments. I’m just wondering if Brennan might think that the existential and phenomenological character of Arendt’s work, while not scientific, is seen as folk theory?

**Notice also the very curious dearth of textual citation of what pluralism amounts to any text of Habermas or Arendt for that matter. I find it curious that someone would try to make generalizations about various philosophers without at least trying to find textual support for those claims…even in the sporty arena of informal blog writing.


2 Replies to “Brennan’s Error About Pluralism”

  1. So, the simple form of the criticism is that he interprets the problem as epistemic, when it’s much more than that? If so, that would be a standard analytic move.

    1. Yes, it would. The real question that escapes me is what character class does Jason play? I imagine libertarians being attracted to barbarians. Moralistic libertarians might be attracted to Paladins.

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