On political agnosticism

I am a political agnostic, or at least I try to be.

Let me put this agnosticism in personal context. Just like anyone else, I have my political opinions and habitual reactions to political happenings. I like everyone else suffer from biases that color my view of the world: I “see” more acutely confirmatory evidence for my opinions and can glaze over those that call them into question. I enjoy polemics against leaders from other political persuasion. I can point out evidential support for my beliefs, but such “evidence” is within the context of my prior opinions. However much I would like to attribute my opinions to a superior intellect or access to better information, I simply can’t. I meet intelligent people of varying stripes: those whose opinion agree with mine and others who disagree.

Beliefs are not knowledge. In fact political beliefs can be the very impediment for becoming knowledgeable about that which we tend to overlook or discount. So while I have beliefs, I don’t credit them as being knowledge. They simply are not.

Note that by claiming to be an agnostic, I am not therefore what is called an independent or moderate. For however those labels may take a stance of agnosticism toward parties and partisanship, neither is shy about professing and acting upon their beliefs as if they were knowledgeable.

Well, what to do? How ought I participate in a democratic process? The essence of injustice for Plato is to act upon another without knowledge of the sphere in which they operate, without appropriate respect for the immanent law/nomos of the good in which they know how to effect. Justice is “doing one’s own work and not meddling in the proper work of another.” I cannot see how voting or assuming political office in our current system is consistent with that conception of justice. (See my earlier post “On Tyranny” for some background to my thinking on this.) The positive side of justice to “do one’s own work,” i.e. to accomplish what one knowingly can, obedient to the immanent laws of the production of good in the world. The baking of the baker and the carpentry of the carpenter are positive expressions of just action. But the presumptive meddling of the carpenter in the baking of the baker (or vice-versa) is unjust. Our system is unjust in the Platonic sense of being institutionalized meddling, whether Republican, Democrat, Green Party, Libertarian, etc.

The most heretical-sounding position toward which my philosophical education leads concerns voting. The world is complicated and not reducible to sound-bites and political platforms. Those who pursue zealously the opportunity to rule over others, despite their manifest ignorance concerning the mass of this complication, are hubristic in the extreme. To choose right-wing hubris over left-wing hubris or vice-versa is akin to choosing the color of the whips and chains used against others. Can we really vote knowingly when candidates must practice every form of disguise and keep us diverted from the fact of their own ignorance? Professions of ignorance and doubt are punished at the ballot box. Confident-sounding opinions are extravagantly rewarded. I don’t vote not out of apathy, but in open acknowledgment of my ignorance. I would like to know, but find that I don’t. I am still waiting for the barest evidence of knowledge (even knowledge of ignorance) in those who would presume to rule me and others.

To practice the “political art” of Plato and Socrates in modern America requires, or it seems to me, the following:

1. To pursue excellence in one’s craft.

2. To respect the excellence and autonomy of the other’s craft.

3. To acknowledge that where the other is expert, the other is authoritative for me.

4. Not to participate in systems of meddling, nor act as an authority where one is not — which includes not voting.

5. To pursue political knowledge and work to cure one’s own political ignorance.

6. To question the claims to political knowledge of those who would presume to rule, perhaps leading them or others into pursuing a more just course, such as a humble life in pursuit of excellent work.

7. To acknowledge openly and inquiringly my own ignorance, submitting it to whatever would cure me.

So — in the light of number 5, 6 and 7 above, feel free to correct me in the comments where you find me in error. Make clear to me political obligations that my ignorance keep me from seeing. I truly want to be a good citizen and contribute as I can to a just political order.

Any thoughts?


10 thoughts on “On political agnosticism

  1. “3. To acknowledge that where the other is expert, the other is authoritative for me.”

    If I’m not knowledgable in a certain area, how can I recognize that someone else is? For example, if I’m a poor writer and reader of literature, how can I distinguish good authors from bad, or even know that my opinion is deficient to begin with?

    • Distinguishing the one who knows from false pretenders to knowledge is a real problem when you lack the knowledge that would adjudicate the varying claims. Socrates is a model in this regard, making claimants to knowledge demonstrate their knowledge before his questioning. Some aspect of trust is unavoidable — my main conditions for giving my expert my trust is that they are sufficiently critical of their hypotheses and sources and willing to reveal those who know less than them. Many supposed experts fail this test in the public arena unfortunately.

      But I also mean “expert” in a much more broad sense than usual. To give a trivial example, I am an expert in my own house, as presumably you are. I know where the scissors are kept, the quirks of its appliances, and how often the grass usually needs to be watered. In addition, my house is governed by certain tacit rules that me and my family have kind of lived into, like acceptable standards of messiness or policies for respecting each other’s space. If you were to visit my house, you, being well-mannered, would surely look to me as the authority, as I would in your house. Now, a lot of our “knowledge” of the world is of this type: knowledge of place, time, local customs, etc. Such “government” is often too subtle to even notice, but its effects are palpable and its claims are usually legitimate.

      • Also, your reader/write example may not be apt. Is that knowledge or something like what Socrates calls in the Gorgias an empeiria, i.e. a “knack”?

  2. Though on the other hand, I suppose that’s the effect of a figure like Socrates, who exposes the deficiency in our knowledge.

  3. I wonder what Plato would say about Americans’ tendency to base their votes more on blanket ideology than on specific issues for which expert opinion can have a more direct bearing. To be sure, voting strictly along party lines has been a substitute for rational thought.

    • Right. Our system essentializes faction and party. Who wins is almost irrelevant from the standpoint of homonoia and justice. Whichever side wins our winner-take-all spoils system will inevitably reinforce a factional point of view: we’re right so they must be wrong AND (even worse) they’re wrong so we must be right. Both sides agree with that general principle unfortunately.

      • By the way, I recommend reading an ebook by Arnold Kling called “The Three Languages of Politics.” It’s short, cheap and provides a useful schema for understanding the progressive/conservative/libertarian division.

  4. Woody, you have interesting concepts that deserve consideration. My reply is based on your reasoning, as I understand it, that you aren’t capable of making a rational decision as you are ignorant of the true intent and qualifications of the candidates. Though you didn’t discuss how we, as a nation, got to this point, I would like to submit that our founders expected a different view of our citizens, the way we would interact with our leaders and presumed leaders, and therefore a different outcome.

    By writing a Constitution that defined a federal and republican form of democracy, our founders expected most politics to be local, and since they are local, we should know our local representatives or presumed representatives, on the federal level (representatives), state level (state senators and representatives), and local level (commissioners, etc.). State representatives were to elect senators, so our locally elected representatives would “represent” us in their vote. The president would be elected by state representatives as well, who would be elected by the local voters. Senators and congressmen would debate and determine the laws, with the consent of the president. The president’s function would be to execute the laws defined by the local representatives, and to select supreme court judges who would ensure that laws were adjudicated correctly according to our Constitution.

    Unfortunately, our federal representatives modified the constitution to change the way federal senators are elected, and our supreme court judges have consistently given more and more power to the federal government, yielding the situation that you have described.

    However, I believe it is still our duty to get to know our local representatives and presumed representatives to put people in positions of leadership who share our beliefs (as biased as they may be: Bias doesn’t mean right or wrong.) so that through the power of representative democracy, they can move us back to what we should be as a nation. Either that, or have a revolution to set things straight. And I’m not advocating that… Yet.

    • Thanks for your comment, John. I think you express well the intentions of the founders. I am not sure that a nation of the shear size and diversity is justly governable on Platonic terms. The standard Greek political unit was the polis in which all politics truly are local. But this concern is tangential to my concrete interest which is what I, as a person in a specific place in a specific time, should do to practice a just politics. Voting in terms of our political prejudices seems to me to be contrary to Platonic justice.

      Today is an election day in my community. I happen to know fairly well a couple of the people running for office. Both of those candidates I know are nice people — I consider them both friends — but each is driven by abstract and unexamined political opinions. Each has a very simplistic/naive view of governance in that they think the problems besetting the community and nation are easily solved by people of good will, which of course they fancy themselves. Each is convinced that the political opinions of their opponents are morally tainted. Neither is interested in a critical examination of their own beliefs other than to confirm them before an imagined opposition. Two is a small sample size, I realize, but I suspect that all of the other candidates without exception suffer from a common set of political delusions. What sort of government is produced by assemblies of such people? Just government?

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