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Social Theory and Practice

Volume 42, Issue 3, July 2016

Eva Erman, Niklas Möller
Pages 449-473
DOI: 10.5840/soctheorpract201642312

Why Democracy Cannot Be Grounded in Epistemic Principles

In recent years, philosophers influenced by Peirce's pragmatism have contributed to the democracy debate by offering not simply a justification of democracy that relies on epistemic as well as moral presumptions, but a justification on purely epistemic grounds, that is, without recourse to any moral values or principles. In a nutshell, this pragmatist epistemic argument takes as its starting-point (1) a few fundamental epistemic principles we cannot reasonably deny, and goes on to claim that (2) a number of interpersonal epistemic commitments follow, which in turn (3) justify democracy in a fullfledged, deliberative sense. In light of the fact of reasonable pluralism, this freestanding (nonmoral) epistemic justification of democracy is allegedly superior to the mainstream, morally anchored liberal alternatives, because epistemic principles are universally shared despite moral disagreement. The pragmatist epistemic approach has been praised for being a valuable contribution to democratic theory, but few attempts have so far been made to systematically scrutinize the argument as a whole. The present paper sets out to do that. In particular, our investigation focuses on the underappreciated but central coherence form of the pragmatist epistemic argument: the central claim that in order to be an internally coherent believer, one must accept democracy. While we endorse the fundamental premise (1) for the sake of argument, our analysis shows that the argument fails in both of the two further steps, (2) and (3). More specifically, the epistemic principles are too weak to entail the suggested interpersonal epistemic commitments; and even if these epistemic commitments are granted, they are insufficient to ground democracy.

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