In the most recent issue of Philosophy & Public Affairs, Allen Buchanan, a philosopher at Duke, has a very interesting article entitled “Liberalism and Social Epistemology.” He starts his argument with the observation that our knowledge of the world is inescapably dependent on social institutions. It is social institutions that allow for specialization, which in turn carried great advantages in terms of knowing the world. These advantages, however, come at a price. We must cede a certain amount of epistemic independence to authorities. This, he argues, creates great dangers. Certain authorities can be badly – horribly – wrong. He points to the examples of teachers and scientists in the Third Reich who lent authority to Nazi ideology, leading many people to accept its truth. His other example is teachers, parents, and ministers in the segregated South, who inculcated ideas of racial superiority etc. The danger, according to Buchannan, is two fold. First, there is the moral danger that we will do something evil – like lynch a black man or gas a Jew – as a result of false beliefs. Second, there is a practical danger. Millions and millions of Germans died and suffered as a result of their false beliefs about Nazism. What make’s Buchanan’s argument interesting is that he rejects what he calls the Cartesian solution, namely the vain ambition to completely separate our knowledge from its social sources and ground it entirely in some asocial, objective foundation. Specialization and authority are good. They allow us to know more about the world than we would otherwise know. What we want, he argues, is a set of institutions that mitigates against the epistemic dangers of say a Nazi Germany or the segregated South. This is where I see some interesting connections with Mormonism.
According to Buchanan liberal institutions – especially freedom of thought, expression, association, conscience, and meritocractic rather than hereditary or racial criteria for authority – are justified because they are likely to mitigate against dangerous false beliefs. What is interesting is that Buchanan’s argument for liberalism does not rest on the value of freedom per se, some Kantian respect for rights, or a social contract. For example, he argues that one could reject individual autonomy as the highest value and still desire liberal institutions as a way of mitigating epistemic risk. Even non-liberal communities, he argues, are benefitted by their proximity to liberal institutions.
There are two points about Mormonism that you could take from this article. One is boring and one is interesting. The boring point is that Mormonism is a non-liberal community. We believe in divine authority, prophecy, hierarchy, obedience, faith etc. Buchanan’s argument, however, suggests that we should nevertheless support liberal institutions because they are a good safety mechanism against our own possible mistakes. We can all agree (especially those of us who find it important not to be “Utah Mormons”) that Utah Valley is a better place because of the epistemic safety devices of free speech, etc., and we can all agree that we ought to defend such things when overzealous fellow Saints threaten them. Furthermore, we can do this without necessarily adopting some perfectionist notion of autonomy.
The more interesting point is that Mormonism itself offers an argument for liberal institutions based on social epistemology. This is the well worn Mormon teaching that the United States was prepared for the Restoration of the Gospel and that without the institutions of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association the Restoration would not have been possible. In other words, the liberal institutions of the United States are justified because they provide the social preconditions for a certain kind of knowledge, the knowledge of God and the plan of salvation. What I find interesting is the extent to which this Mormon argument for liberalism has any deeper connection to Buchanan’s argument. I am facinated by the question of how I should understand the relationship between Mormonism and philosophical liberalism. Elsewhere, I have argued (despite the fact that it makes Russell break out in hives) that Mormonism shares with liberalism a certain kind of autonomous individualism. I have also argued that there is a parallel between a certain kind of Mormon theodicy and social contract theory. The argument from social epistemology presents another possibility.