The Burdens of Judgment in Law, Politics, & Culture

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on January 25th, 2008

The idea of “the burdens of judgment” in the subtitle of this weblog can be understood in this way: Reasonable disagreement–disagreement that is not resolvable by attending to an intersubjectively provable mistake by one of the parties–is caused by the burdens of judgment which consist of the following: (1) the complexity of empirical factors relevant to judgment; (2) the difference in weight given to the various empirical factors agreed upon as authentic; (3) the indeterminacy associated with the central concepts in political debate and consequently, the need for interpretation and theories of interpretation; (4) the important differences in life experiences and the effects these differences have on reasoning and judgments; (5) differences in various kinds of normative factors with concomitant differences in the normative force that generate different judgments; and (6) the difficulty in selecting the appropriate subset of values from society’s actual set of “cherished” or fundamental values.[1]

The burdens of judgment do not serve as a shill for either conceptual or epistemic skepticism. Indeed, according to this doctrine, there may very well be right answers to hot-button controversies as well as correct methodologies for discovering them. The problem is not agreement on a right answer is impossible just difficult. Therefore, in both the underlying structure of political society, constitutional foundations, and, my view, ordinary politics, one needs to heed the admonition that republican democrats cannot impose their answers of one’s fellow citizens. Moreover, the burdens of judgment suggest a political attitude that one needs to condition oneself to exhibit: since all citizens are moral and political equals no one can have a corner on the truth. The difficulty in avoiding reasonable disagreement should chasten those who think of democracy as merely a vehicle for getting their own way. Rather it is a process, a deliberative process, of reflectively constructing judgments that in principle can achieve provisional closure to hot-button debates among moral and political equals. But a republican democrat realizes that sometimes, many times perhaps, even provisional closure is elusive. In such circumstances, one should not retreat within the inner recesses of one’s substantive positions–whether it is libertarianism or Marxism, for example–rather one’s needs to subject one’s substantive position to the reflective criticism of others and acknowledge how unlikely it is for one’s substantive position to emerge from such deliberative debate unchanged in significant ways. Imagining that it can illustrates a failure to appreciate the significance of the burdens of judgment.
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[1] John Rawls, Political Liberalism 54-58 (1993) with a slight gloss by me.

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