Monday, October 11, 2010

Ball, Terence. Review of Robert B. Talisse, DEMOCRACY AND MORAL CONFLICT. NDPR (October 2010).

Talisse, Robert B.  Democracy and Moral Conflict. Cambridge: CUP, 2009.

[I]f there once was a fairly seamless American consensus (which I rather doubt, as I shall later explain), there is no longer. This is the ragged backdrop against which Robert Talisse attempts to argue a new and compelling case for democracy in post-consensus America and elsewhere. He writes that at present "our popular democratic politics is driven by insults, scandal, name-calling, fear-mongering, mistrust, charges of hypocrisy, and worse" (p. 1). Hardly Habermas's "ideal speech situation" in which "the forceless force of the better argument" carries the day![3]

Philosophers, political theorists and others who try to account for and make sense of such discord are at a loss to do so in any wholly satisfactory way. Oversimplifying somewhat, two general accounts have emerged of late. The first is "the clash of civilizations account, which holds that the world is on the brink of . . . a global conflict between distinct and incompatible ways of life." This is the view advanced in very different ways in Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations (1996) and in Benjamin R. Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld (1995). There are global and local variants of this view; according to the latter, a clash of civilizations or a "culture war" is being waged within the United States.

A second account -- "the democracy deficit narrative" -- holds that a once-widely shared commitment to democracy is in decline, as citizens draw ever-sharper lines dividing them from their fellow citizens, which makes it ever more difficult to find common ground or to compromise (pp. 1-2). According to these two accounts, politics is thus either a politics of difference driven by a kind of "us vs. them" tribalism or by a militant moralism -- which is of course different from morality -- that brooks no quarter and no compromise.

Under these conditions of moral pluralism and fundamental clashes of conviction, the stage seems set for a Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes. If this war is to be avoided, Talisse argues, we shall as democrats have to forgo any claim to base our commitment to democracy on prior moral commitments, since those very commitments are in contention and conflict. Talisse opts instead for an epistemic defense of democracy. His contention is that even though we disagree morally, we are all pretty well in agreement epistemically. This is because we subscribe to a real but largely unconscious and unargued "folk epistemology" (about which more in a moment). Before expounding and defending that bold and even audacious claim, however, he has some spade-work to do. . . .

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