Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Importance of Conceptual Clarity

A major problem with “popular politics” is the use of vague and ambiguous value concepts in order to score rhetorical points.  This is a problem not just at the level of political sound bites but at the more general level of horizontal political deliberation generally.  So we see political commentators and bloggers charge one group with an ideology that denigrates “democracy” or does not value “equality” or “liberty” or whatever.  The problem, of course, is that these terms are subject to differing interpretations of the values implicated and the ordering of those values in a comprehensive view of the world. 

As a result, it is important to recognize that certain policy positions are often the result of (1) a certain conception of the concept and the values involved, and (2) a certain worldview about how actual institutions do/do not live up to these underlying ideals.  Suppose, for example, that one has a certain theory of political obligation, political authority, and legitimate representative democracy.  On this theory, representative democracy is only legitimate IFF there are certain institutional mechanisms in place (proportional representation, equality of opportunity of political influence, etc.).  This person now looks at the political landscape currently in existence.  She is then asked her beliefs about “American democracy” and proceeds to make disparaging remarks, such as “just because a voted produces a decision doesn’t provide it with moral authority.”  This person will likely be blasted in popular political commentary for denigrating democracy, hating “the People,” etc. 

The problem, however, is that this is simply not the case.  She simply has a different conception of ideal democracy and the underlying values.  If one were to carefully consider her position, they would recognize that she is fully committed to the ideal of democracy, We the People, popular sovereignty, etc.  One may disagree with her theory of legitimate democracy and attack her specific conceptions and interpretations of the underlying values/ideals.  But it is simply false to claim that the person “hates democracy” or “hates The People.”

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