Steve Cooke

measuring the boundaries of our nation by the sun

Why calling ‘False Consciousness’ is dangerous and unreasonable

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One of the things marks out a liberal democratic political community is that it’s presaged on the idea of the moral equality of members of the community. One way that a citizen shows his or her commitment to equality is by giving reasons to other moral agents. Political decisions must be justified to the citizenry; to enact them without the giving and receiving of reasons would be to act in a paternalistic manner and thus constitutes a denial of equality. Similarly, when citizens of a largely just liberal democracy engage in civil disobedience, they must express their reasons for doing so. They must do so in order to demonstrate that they act in ways which show fidelity to democratic principles and the rule of law. If the civil disobedient does not act civilly, by offering her reasons, then she behaves in a way which places her preferences above the rule of law and so expresses a belief in her superiority over others (cf. Rawls). In other words, if I am willing to breach or enact laws which constrain you, and I don’t think I ought to offer you a reason (one which is intelligible to you) or give consideration to counter-reasons you might have, then it cannot be that I regard you as an equal citizen. Such a person is willing to unilaterally impose their will upon others, and a willingness to impose views on others like this is incompatible with a belief that you and they are owed equal consideration. If you don’t think the views of others count, whilst yours do, then you are rejecting the principle of democratic equality.

The moment that someone believes that another agent suffers from false conscious, then they risk denying the equality of citizens. If someone believes that another suffers from false consciousness, then they can discount any reasons the other gives. The agent believes that they have special access to the truth, which others do not. Once you have special access to the truth, by being part of the Marxist Vanguard, by possessing faith, by being situated in the correct Standpoint, etc, then your reasons automatically count and another’s can automatically be discounted. The principle of equal consideration goes out of the window. Those suffering from capitalist false consciousness, Privilege, a lack of faith, etc. simply don’t have to be listened to: any disagreement can be put down to their lack of access to the truth. The only way to prove that you don’t suffer from false consciousness is to wholeheartedly agree with the one who believes that you suffer from it. Effectively, you are regarded as fallible, and they as infallible. This kind of thinking can easily provide a justification for them to impose their will upon you (this is the sort of problem that Isaiah Berlin worried about in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ when he spoke of the slide into totalitarianism).

It is for these reasons that deploying an argument that your opponent is wrong because they suffer from some form of false consciousness risks being profoundly patronising and obnoxious. It leads to a strand of unpleasant anti-democratic fundamentalism. What’s worrying is how prevalent cries of false consciousness are in contemporary (esp. online) debates. Instead, we should engage with others under the acceptance of what Rawls referred to as ‘the burdens of judgement.’ That is, we should accept that we are fallible beings with imperfect reasoning ability and imperfect access to the truth, and that reasonable people in possession of the same sets of facts can reasonably come to different conclusions.

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Author: Steve Cooke

I work in normative ethics, specialising in animal and environmental ethics and political philosophy.

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