Against warranted deference

There are two popular ways of responding to criticism you dislike. One is to smile serenely and say, “You’re entitled to your opinion.” This utterance often produces the sense that all parties are faultless in their disagreement, and that no-one is rationally obligated to defer to anyone else. Another is deny that your critic is has any entitlement to their opinion since they are in the wrong social position to make a justifiable assertion about some matters of fact (either because they occupy a position of relative privilege or a position of relative deprivation). Strong versions of this approach teach us that it is rational to defer to people just by looking at their social position.

A third, more plausible view is that if we want to make for productive debate, then we should talk about what it generally takes to get along. e.g., perhaps we should obey norms of respect and kindness towards each other, even when we disagree (else run the risk of descending into babel). But even this can’t be right, since mere disagreement with someone when it comes to their vital projects (that is, the things they identify with) shall always count as disrespect. If someone has adopted a belief in young earth creationism as a vital life project, and I offer a decisive challenge to that view, and they do not regard this as disrespectful, then they have not understood what has been said. (I cannot say “I disrespect your belief, but respect you,” when I full well understand that the belief is something that the person has adopted as a volitional necessity.) Hence, while it is good to be kind and respectful, and I may even have a peculiar kind of duty to be kind and respectful to the extent that it is within my powers and purposes. But people who have adopted vital life projects of that kind have no right to demand respect from me insofar as I offer a challenge to their beliefs, and hence to them as practical agents. Hence the norm of respectfulness can’t guide us, since it is unreasonable to defer in such cases. At least on a surface level, it looks like we have to have a theory of warranted deference in order to explain how that is.

For what it’s worth, I have experience with combative politics, both in the form of the politics of a radically democratic academic union and as a participant/observer of the online skeptic community. These experiences have given me ample — and sometimes, intimate — reasons to believe that these norms have the effect of trivializing debate. I think that productive debate on serious issues is an important thing, and when done right it is both the friend and ally of morality and equity (albeit almost always the enemy of expedient decision making, as reflected amusingly in the title of Francesca Polletta’s linked monograph).


A few months ago, one of TPM’s bloggers developed a theory which he referred to as a theory of warranted deference. The aim of the theory was to state the general conditions when we are justified in believing that we are rationally obligated to defer to others. The central point of the original article was to argue that our rational norms ought to be governed by the principle of dignity. By the principle of dignity, the author meant the following Kant-inspired maxim: “Always treat your interlocutor as being worthy of consideration, and expect to be treated in the same way.” One might add that treating someone as worthy of consideration also entails treating them as worthy of compassion.

Without belaboring the details, the upshot of the theory is that you are rational in believing that you have a [general] obligation to defer to the opinions of a group as a whole only when you’re trying to understand the terms of their vocabulary. And one important term that the group gets to define for themselves is the membership of the group itself. According to the theory, you have to defer to the group as a whole when you’re trying to figure out who counts as an insider.

Here’s an example. Suppose Bob is a non-physicist. Bob understands the word ‘physicist’ to mean someone who has a positive relationship to the study of physics. Now Bob is introduced to Joe, who is a brilliant amateur who does physics, and who self-identifies as a physicist. The question is: what is Joe, and how can Bob tell? Well, the approach from dignity tells us that Bob is not well-placed to say that Joe is a physicist. Instead, the theory tells us that Bob should defer to the community of physicists to decide what Joe is and what to call him.


I wrote that essay. In subsequent months, a colleague suggested to me that the theory is subject to a mature and crippling challenge. It now seems to me that the reach of the theory has exceeded its grasp.

If you assume, as I did, that any theory of warranted deference must also provide guidance on when you ought to defer on moral grounds, then the theory forces you to consider the dignity of immoral persons. e.g., if a restaurant refuses to serve potential customers who are of a certain ethnicity, then the theory says that the potential customer is rationally obligated to defer to the will of the restaurant.

But actually, it seems more plausible to say that nobody is rationally obligated to defer to the restaurant, for the following reason. If there is some sense in which you are compelled to defer in that situation, it is only because you’re compelled to do so on non-moral grounds. In that situation, it is obvious that there are no moral obligations to defer to the restaurant owners on the relevant issue; if anything, there are moral obligations to defy them on that issue, and one cannot defer to someone on something when they are in a state of defiance on that issue. Finally, if you think that moral duties provide overriding reasons for action in this case, then any deference to the restaurant is unwarranted.

Unfortunately, the principle of dignity tells you the opposite. Hence, the principle of dignity can be irrational. And hence, it is not a good candidate as a general theory of rational deference.

So perhaps, as some commenters (e.g., Ron Murphy) have suggested, the whole project is misguided.

It now occurs to me that instead of trying to lay out the conditions where people are warranted to defer, I ought to have been thinking about the conditions under which it is unwarranted to do so. It seems that the cases I find most interesting all deal with unwarranted deference: we are not warranted in deferring to Joe about who counts as a physicist, and the Young Earth Creationist is not warranted in demanding that I defer to them about Creationism.


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