Truth, Knowledge, and Political Disagreement

Convenor:

Dr. Elizabeth Edenberg, Senior Ethicist of Ethics Lab (Georgetown University)
Dr. Michael Hannon, Deputy Director of the Institute of Philosophy (University of London)

 

This workshop is about the role of truth and knowledge in politics. Our political culture is increasingly characterized by appeals to emotion, disconnected from the details of policy, and framed by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored. Further, the irreconcilable clash of political outlooks seems to threaten the common ground on which the collective pursuit of truth depends. As a result, an increasing number of scholars are investigating the role of truth and knowledge in politics, the challenges to political authority, the epistemology of testimony as it relates to political polarization, and related topics. Our workshop will bring together social epistemologists and political philosophers to analyze the value and threat of appeals to truth in politics and identify constructive paths forward.

We focus on two broad areas of intersection between political philosophy and epistemology:

 
The role of facts and knowledge in politics and political discourse
In the furious debates surrounding the UK Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election as US President, claims and counterclaims of fake news, questionable experts, and untrustworthy media have been flying around. Deep political divides are not new, but in the current context disagreement goes all the way down to disagreement about basic matters of facts. Without a common basis to ground our disagreement, the possibility of productive political debate seems unlikely. This raises important threats to liberal democracy. Progress on this front requires an analysis of how truth and knowledge intersect with political debate and justifications of authority. Does the current context challenge or support an epistemic basis of political authority? Does democracy have epistemic merits? Is true information intrinsically valuable or only instrumental for other goals? If the latter, do we have an epistemic or moral obligation to believe what is true? Does a political community need agreement on standards for determining truth or knowledge?

 

 

The epistemology and politics of trust and disagreement

In our complex, information-saturated world, it is inevitable that most of our information will come to us second-hand. Social epistemologists have characterized many benefits and shortcomings of relying on second-hand information in ways that can show what goes right and what goes wrong when people rely on testimony in political debates. Social media adds a new dimension, as the networks that users create to share information can become echo chambers where one political viewpoint dominates and scrutiny of claims fails. This allows parallel information universes of websites, publishers, and news channels to develop which can repeat claims without rebuttal. What impact does political polarization have on our ability to trust the testimony of our fellow citizens or engage with them on fair terms? Political philosophers have long been interested in reasonable disagreements, or what Rawls called “the fact of reasonable pluralism.” Disagreement has also recently become widely discussed in epistemology. Yet these two literatures diverge on what makes disagreement reasonable. Is this a moral claim about who is
reasonable? Or an epistemic claim about who is our peer? Are current political polarizations reasonable or unreasonable? And why? Does this threaten prominent claims of political legitimacy?

 
Please submit 500 word abstracts, prepared for blind review, to elizabeth.edenberg@georgetown.edu by
Friday, June 1st