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Social Philosophy Today

Volume 33, 2017

Power and Public Reason

Jeremy Butler
Pages 55-72

Participation, Legitimacy, and the Epistemic Dimension of Deliberative Democracy

The aim of this paper is to elucidate a significant epistemic dimension of deliberative democracy. I argue that the role of citizens’ political judgments in deliberative democratic theory commits deliberative democracy to a view of deliberation as an essentially epistemic enterprise, one aimed at identifying correct answers to questions of political morality. This epistemic reading stands in contrast to prevailing views of deliberative democracy that tend to hold that the normatively significant function of deliberation is merely to legitimate democratic decisions, regardless of their substantive correctness. These views tend to regard any epistemic benefit of deliberation as a mere welcome side effect, ancillary to the aim of securing legitimacy. My argument, however, shows deliberative democratic legitimacy itself to depend on the epistemic success of deliberative procedures with respect to questions of political morality. I approach this argument by way of a contrast between deliberative democracy and the so-called aggregative conception of democracy. It will turn out that the important philosophical differences between the two views are located in their different conceptions of political participation and democratic legitimacy. I then go on to argue that the deliberative conceptions of participation and legitimacy give rise to an epistemic dimension which is generally underappreciated, but which is crucial to a proper understanding of deliberative democracy. I conclude that it is incumbent upon deliberative democrats to offer a compelling account of the epistemic value of deliberative procedures. The epistemic value of deliberation is not just a convenient epiphenomenon of deliberative democracy’s legitimation procedures. Rather, it is a necessary condition of those procedures playing their legitimating role at all.

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