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To be a responsible citizen today, it is not enough to be reasonable | Psyche

To be a responsible citizen today, it is not enough to be reasonable

Volunteers observe the ballot count from the UK general election in East Dunbartonshire, Scotland, on 12 December 2019. Photo by David Cheskin/Getty

Here is a thought-experiment: if you were given full range to create from scratch an ideal version of the average citizen for these turbulent times, which powers will you endow her with? Obviously, I don’t mean superhuman powers, but which moral, intellectual and temperamental make-up do you think she’ll need to thrive in our current environment? In other words, what kind of average Jane do we need so that we don’t collapse under the weight of our most pressing societal problems?

Before we start, let me emphasise once more that we’re after the virtues of the average citizen, so idealistic answers seeking to turn everyone into a Greta Thunberg are out of the question. What we want is to identify the necessary basic qualities that an average citizenry ought to have if we’re to collectively get any traction in solving the most vexing problems ahead of us: suffocating inequality, tribalism, an unfair and ineffective political system and the climate crisis.

In the following paragraphs, I will offer my own answer but, before we get there, I think it would be illustrative to describe what I believe remains the paradigmatic answer to this question: the liberal citizen. Let me start with an interesting fact: the word reasonable is mentioned 1,124 times (which is, roughly, twice per page on average) in John Rawls’s Political Liberalism (1993), perhaps one of the most influential books in political philosophy over the past half-century. Even if you’ve never read Rawls, that fact alone should tell you plenty about what he thought was the paramount virtue that your average liberal Joe needed for a well-functioning liberal democracy to take hold. You guessed right: liberal citizens ought to be reasonable.

One need only survey what the basic requirements of reasonableness are to get a pretty good idea about why liberalism is in trouble. Liberal citizens are supposed to exhibit two main characteristics:

  1. They have to propose terms of social cooperation that others might also endorse – meaning that they have to refrain from peddling policies that they know full well are couched in principled philosophical or religious beliefs that others disagree with.
  2. They have to recognise what Rawls called ‘the burdens of judgment’ – the fact that other citizens can arrive at different beliefs in their honest search for truth.

Asking people to keep their beliefs private while tolerating those of others is nothing short of a pipe dream

Putting the two together, Rawls tells us that ‘reasonable persons will think it unreasonable to use political power, should they possess it, to repress comprehensive views that are not unreasonable, though different from their own.’

Now let’s ask ourselves: does that sound like a fair description of today’s average citizen? Does anyone still truly offer reciprocal terms of cooperation, refraining from using political power to favour their own worldview or repress the views of other reasonable people? Does anyone still recognise that in politics, ethics and religion ‘the full truth’ is divisive and hard to attain, and accept the limits this places on what can be brought into the political arena? No, no and no. If this is what being reasonable means, then the average citizen of our digital global village is unreasonable par excellence.

The key issue is that the liberal citizen whom Rawls describes is a relic of an analogue era. Rawls’s brand of reasonableness worked wonders on a pre-internet world where the core problem was to agree on a framework of justice that everyone could broadly support despite diverging private beliefs. Securing a fair institutional setup that safeguarded political liberty was the paramount goal, and if achieving it meant keeping our deeply held beliefs out of politics then so be it.

Now fast-forward to our current hyper-connected reality: even if you made a very great effort to be reasonable, you’d be quickly trampled by vociferous herds attempting to reshape the political in their own image. Your pleading for reasonableness would be drowned in a Twitter-storm. The issue is that our new reality is anathema for Rawls’s version of the average liberal Joe. With the current means of communication, asking people to keep their most deeply held beliefs private while tolerating those of others is nothing short of a pipe dream. In fact, the tables have turned so dramatically that asking people to be reasonable today seems unreasonable.

If being reasonable à la Rawls doesn’t cut it any longer, what then? To sum up my proposal in one word, I would say that the kind of average Jane we need today is a hyper-responsible one. The key features I would like to bestow on her I borrow from the pragmatist tradition, specially from Charles Sanders Peirce and William Kingdon Clifford. That, I hope, should allow us to refocus the meaning of ‘reasonable’ away from its Rawlsian undertones – which emphasise the word’s connotation of moderation and restraint – and move it towards its epistemic meaning, which emphasises the need for sustained logical argumentation.

To start, the hyper-responsible citizen begins by taking seriously pragmatism’s most basic yet most powerful insight: that our beliefs shape our conduct. With Peirce, writing in The Fixation of Belief (1877), she will agree that ‘our beliefs guide our desires and shape our actions’ and that

Belief does not make us act at once, but puts us into such a condition that we shall behave in some certain way, when the occasion arises.

Irresponsible practices of belief-formation are the deepest sin of a digital society

From here she will follow Clifford’s insights from his essay The Ethics of Belief (1877) and, with a clear awareness of the digitally interconnected nature of her society, she would fully appreciate that:

  1. beliefs shape her practices and, since her practices can affect others, she has a moral responsibility not to put them at risk with her credulity;
  2. even if a belief seems too immaterial to put anyone at risk, accepting it uncritically weakens her epistemic alertness and can, in time, turn her into a careless, credulous believer who puts others at risk; and
  3. in her capacity as communicator of belief, she has the moral responsibility not to pollute the well of collective knowledge and instead to strive to sustain its integrity.

From the prism of pragmatism, to be reasonable today is to understand that asserting beliefs comes with epistemic responsibilities that are increasingly urgent – as an interconnected world heightens the moral cost of credulity. Moderation, restraint and intellectual modesty are important features of the virtue of reasonableness as Rawls rightly perceived, but they don’t exhaust it. Taken too far, they can actually undermine our epistemic alertness, as we instinctively recoil from contentious, yet necessary, exchanges of views. Instead, the pressing need to engage in logical argumentation and to offer reasons to support our commitments should regain their centrality as the hallmarks of what it means to be reasonable.

Putting it all together, a reasonable, hyper-responsible citizen is one who above all is aware that, in a digitally interconnected society, we all have the moral obligation to believe only what we have diligently investigated. Irresponsible practices of belief-formation are the deepest sin of a digital society since the stakes of credulity are simply too high. What we need today is a citizenry that understands that we act as we believe, and that, since our actions have potentially global and instantaneous ramifications, we all have the ethical responsibility to ensure the soundness of our commitments.

The epistemic free pass that a relatively disconnected world afforded us has expired. As such, it’s no longer reasonable to tuck our beliefs in the realm of the private with the expectation that others will do as much. Instead, the reasonable thing to do is to be ready to offer the best reasons we can to support our commitments, and to be constantly engaged in keeping open the road of enquiry. That’s what reasonableness should be all about in this day and age. To be reasonable today, one ought to prioritise epistemic responsibility. This is not an easy goal, but making it explicit as a fundamental feature of an interconnected citizenry is a step in the right direction.

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12 January 2021