The Democratic Virtues of Skepticism

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Skepticism is the view that knowledge is unattainable. It comes in varying strengths. In the strongest version, it is a thesis about all knowledge, the global denial that anyone has ever known anything. More commonly, though, skepticism is constrained. It is the denial of the possibility of knowledge of some specific kind. Moral skepticism, for example, is the view that there is no such thing as knowledge of right and wrong, good and bad. External world skepticism is the thesis that there could be no knowledge with respect to matters outside of one’s mind. You get the idea.

When you think about it, we’re all skeptics in at least some of these constrained senses. You’re likely a skeptic with respect to some kind of purported knowledge or other. And most folks think that being skeptical is a healthy attitude to have when people make striking claims. Still, skepticism gets a bad rap among philosophers. So much so that entire intellectual programs have been devised solely for the purpose of defeating the skeptic.

Yet there’s a virtue to skepticism, at least in its ancient varieties. And this virtue is both crucial to a healthy democracy and presently under attack in our politics.

The insight of the ancient skeptical tradition, exemplified in both the Academic and Pyrrhonian schools, is that intellectual humility is a virtue. It is not a weakness to admit you do not know, that you don’t have the answers. In fact, with this humility and the skills of inculcating it, we not only have the ability to cut through the bullshit of others, but also our own bullshit.

The Academics saw that the longer one surveys the breadth of arguments on many issues, the less one is sure of one’s answers. The later Pyrrhonians developed a series of skeptical tropes, shortcuts to skeptical challenge, that in pretty short order uncover incomplete evidential support or simply question-begging reasoning. When it comes to the big ideas that run our lives, most of the things we feel certain about are more often than not uncritically accepted. In light of this, the ancient skeptics counseled that we should suspend judgment, and if we do judge, it should be modest and at the end of a process that weighs out all the sides.

Today, we live in a world that provokes nearly instantaneous judgment. We are inundated with calls for outrage, support, indignation, and sympathy. In many contexts, the explicit norm is that silence constitutes a kind of complicity, and withholding judgment is itself an endorsement. Time is of the essence! Let your views be heard, because no matter what, you’ll be understood to have communicated an opinion.

Yet this advance towards a culture of insta-verdicts comes at a time when information has become increasingly difficult to process. In a world of sophisticated fake news and deep fake capabilities, combined with the old-fashioned techniques of manipulation, it is, as George Orwell observed, a struggle simply to see what’s in front of one’s face.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the valorization of the unblinking judgment is in part entrepreneurial. Regardless of our politics, we are all conservative in an epistemic sense. That is, once we formulate an opinion, we are cognitively wired to hold on to it. We are psychologically disposed to stick to our guns. And so, we evaluate evidence partly in terms of how well it supports our antecedent beliefs. We suffer from confirmation bias. Moreover, our beliefs prevent us from detecting bad reasoning in favor of them. In one famous study, we are less likely to spot formal fallacies in arguments when they have conclusions we find agreeable. Finally, many of our beliefs aren’t just things we assent to, but they are things that make us us. Think of how your position in your social circle depends on saying the right things about all the important things, and how you not being sure about something may endanger your place. Maybe even whether you’re in that circle anymore. The stakes for beliefs are high, and we, once we’ve got them, tend to keep them.

The marketplace of ideas is more like a market for minds, where content providers compete for our attention by providing images and messaging that we can be expected to find satiating. It helps these providers to further their commercial interests if audiences can be curated in predictable ways. Hence the import of the snap judgment: we’re encouraged to get on board as quickly as possible so that a pleasing narrative then can be constructed, a diet of information that will keep us watching.

It goes without saying that this is all terrible news for democracy. Although it may make citizens feel as if they’re especially engaged in the politics of the day, it’s all just a matter or increasingly elaborate marketing. What’s more, the hard work of real politics is farmed out to large commercial interests that can be counted on to warp our perceptions. When our capacities for judgment are outsourced in this way, we eventually lose them. In the end, we become one another’s strawmen, increasingly fitting the worst depictions the other side projects on to us.

The ancient skeptical tradition teaches the importance of suspending judgment, even the face of persistent calls for assent. It teaches the art of stepping back from the immediate, not as a way to separate from the world, but as a strategy for properly gauging one’s investments in it. That is, the skeptical view is that learning to suspend judgment is a necessary precursor to properly assessing the appropriate degree of confidence one should attach to a belief.

In a democracy, the shared project of self-government among political equals calls us to sustain within ourselves the powers of intellectual humility. We must stand ready to adjust, correct, and revise our judgments in light of new or newly considered evidence. We must remain persuadable by others. And we must avoid overplaying our views.

Being persuadable and open to new evidence means that you are able to hear those with whom you disagree, hear their reasons as reasons. That doesn’t guarantee that you are persuaded in the end, but it does mean that, in proper democratic fashion, you treat them as equals. The problem is that if you don’t see those with whom you disagree as fellow reasoners, then you’re not seeing them as coequal in the project of jointly deliberating. They are merely obstacles. That’s not a democratic attitude about one’s fellow citizens.

The great irony is that although skeptics think that, ultimately, very few views are worth assenting to, they also hold that almost every view is worth taking seriously enough to investigate. The key democratic insight that we must take our fellow citizens’ views seriously because they are our political equals. In order to do that, we have to resist the pull of showing up with our judgments already set, we must find a way to slow down our inclination to hastily form beliefs.

The current political culture of instant takes itself works against these skeptical virtues, and insofar as they are virtues that are also central to good democratic citizenship, this culture of snap judgment also works against democracy.

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