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  • Epistemic Value and Deliberative Democracy
  • James Bohman (bio)

In the discussions that dominated the initial debates, deliberative democracy first and foremost concerned the how question of democracy: how do the people rule themselves in a democratic manner? While there are certainly many different answers to this question, two have been particularly salient: the aggregative conception of democracy, which relies on electoral representation in legislation; and the deliberative conception that includes any one of a family of views, according to which the public deliberation of free and equal citizens is the core of legitimate political decision-making and self-rule. Beyond this fundamental agreement, however, each of the terms of this definition is hotly debated among deliberative democrats. Various institutional and non-institutional locations for deliberation have been proposed and debated, as have various attempts to determine their feasibility. At the core of deliberative democracy, in any of its forms, is the idea that deliberation essentially involves publicly giving reasons to justify decisions, policies or laws, all of which are the means by which citizens constitute and regulate their common life together. However, even as the debates stressed a sharp contrast between deliberation and aggregation, few deliberative democrats were willing to replace voting with deliberation, but rather sought to interpret it as a phase of deliberation and the important exercise of the decisional status of citizens. This solution points to a pattern for many of the future debates, in which this overly sharp contrast becomes mitigated by the fact that any theory must include both decision mechanisms and deliberation.

The current discussion of pure proceduralism and procedure independent standards fits this pattern. For many appeals to substantive or procedure independent standards seem to be deeply undemocratic, while for others pure procedural approaches seem to lack the basis to distinguish good from bad deliberative outcomes without introducing epistemic standards. If the former lacks standards of judgment, the latter might lead us to think that rule by experts and not by the people is the most reliable way to achieve certain outcomes. The debate seems to lead straight to a dilemma: the former is insufficiently cognitive, and the latter insufficiently democratic. For this reason, David Estlund remarks that "procedure independent standards must be introduced very carefully." On the other hand, as Estlund points out, certain forms of procedural fairness may not be conducive to deliberation, leading him to suggest that any such standard must at least be superior to chance. So the current debates may yield some of the same lessons as past debates, that any adequate account must be able to weigh the twin demands of democracy and deliberation together. Otherwise, any such view would fall short in important ways. It is for this reason that Estlund calls his view "epistemic proceduralism," a view that does not occupy the whole of the conceptual space that recognizes the requirements of both democracy and deliberation.

In what follows, I want to explore these issues by considering the main arguments in David Estlund's Democratic Authority. First, Estlund rejects both horns of the dilemma, in opposing any form of pure proceduralism, even while denying that correctness theory by itself cannot pass a minimal standard of democratic acceptability. As opposed to his form of minimal epistemic proceduralism, I want to argue that an epistemic form of pure proceduralism provides a much better and economical solution. The second issue concerns the practical issue of the realizability of the deliberative ideal. Estlund defends aspirational theories from those realist critics who see them as merely utopian. But his two stage understanding of strictly normative "aspirational" theories and concessive, second-best applications to real world circumstances is insufficiently epistemic. The problem of realizing democratic ideals under current social circumstances is epistemological, and pragmatists have long understood that an important feature of democracy itself is the study of the conditions which promote it and undermine it, that are "resources" and "obstacles" as Dewey put it. This sort of inquiry and testing of procedures shows their epistemic value on the one hand and is the means by which an epistemic theory of democracy is not just applied, but developed. Thus, realist theories without aspirational ideals are empty; but aspirational ideals without empirical...


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pp. 28-34
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