Robert Talisse on “Sustaining Democracy”

by Daniel A. Kaufman


I spoke with Robert Talisse of Vanderbilt University about his new book “Sustaining Democracy: What We Owe to the Other Side ” (Oxford UP, 2021).

2:00 The relationship between “Sustaining Democracy” and “Overdoing Democracy” 17:45 The democrat’s dilemma and the conflict between the two moral requirements of democratic citizenship. 32:45 Group/Belief Polarization. Partisan politics and conformism. 47:30 More in depth on group/belief polarization. 54:01 Robert’s recommendations on how best to address group/belief polarization: focus on its effects in-group, rather than across groups. 57:00 Robert: Healthy democratic citizenship requires more solitude. 1:09:00 Dan: Is this perhaps better viewed as a problem of catastrophic, system-wide immaturity? Is a clash of fundamental moral principles the best lens through which to frame the problem.


19 responses to “Robert Talisse on “Sustaining Democracy””

  1. Jay Jeffers

    I just really enjoyed this conversation. I have some reservations or questions about Talisse’s approach, but my team is about to play and I have to watch it. Tribal loyalty, etc. In this case of the college football variety.

    But aside from all that, as a person who is exposed to philosophy past a certain level, but lacking access to it a higher level (majored in it as an undergrad, normal person now), my appetites are rarely ever satisfied like this. This really hit the sweet spot.

  2. s. wallerstein

    First-rate thought provoking dialogue.

    Professor Talisse is right that solitude detoxes political passions. I’ve found that in my own life. I have an innate distaste for groupthink, I’m a born contrarian and so as I get older, I’ve withdrawn from political involvement and socialization which revolves around politics. When I socialize, which is not frequent, I prefer to talk about how cute the kids are than to argue partisan politics.

    However, I’m very introverted. Talisse at one point says “remember high school” and I do. I wasn’t a member of any clique there, I was too “out of it”, bookish, bad at sports and at dancing, so no one was much interested in me. Nevertheless, most people really never leave high school in psychological terms, they repeat the same clique-forming behaviors and are not likely to spend an afternoon reading Aristotle’s Politics or Plato’s Republic, which seems more appropriate in this context.

    There are golden moments of democracy of course, but remember that the first democracy, Athens, voted to condemn Socrates to death for being “different” and asking too many questions. Plato’s Republic is, among other things, a critique of Athenian democracy and in many ways rings true today, even though I doubt that his solution of philosopher kings would work well.

    Even in the so-called golden age of U.S. democracy, the 1950’s, Communists, leftists in general, homosexuals, blacks and atheists were persecuted.

    I live in Chile where political polarization is as bad as in the U.S., maybe worse, because political violence is more naturalized here. Social media make things worse no doubt.

    The solution? I don’t see one. Cultivate your garden, listen to Beethoven or Bach, etc.

  3. Charles Justice

    Dan: “part of the problem is framing it as moral to begin with.” “The thing to do is to deflate the moral dimension.” “I wonder if it’s the moral framing to begin with that’s the problem, not the polarization.” – Why do we have morality in the first place? Did people argue that it was both sides being too polarized in the Weimar Republic? At some point you need to realize that some political movements are just too dangerous to tolerate. This is exactly a moral problem! If one of the two major political parties embraces lies and conspiracy theories, encourages people to defy public health measures during a pandemic, enacts laws that make it harder for certain groups of people to vote, and replaces neutral election oversight with the blatantly partisan you’ve reached that stage. Looking at America from a bit of a distance it is obvious that your political system is in immanent danger of being hijacked by Trumpist authoritarians. You’re long past the point of “both sides do it.”

  4. Lawrence Cahoone

    Great to see RT. One piece of the puzzle is, as DK suggests: you can’t merge your ethics and politics (even worse if these take the place of religion). Merging them loads ethics with partisan issues, and makes politics the measure of “the good life”. Civil society, living with disagreement, requires keeping them separate.

  5. I don’t see any argument against the prudential approach that I favor, here.

  6. Hi Dan

    Good discussion, excellent example of political philosophizing. I tend to favour your more deflationary approach to politics and morality.

    Both you and RT manage to retain — and project — a non-dogmatic stance, though you both could be seen to have an a priori (?) starting point or ideal (respectively, liberal and democratic). Maybe political philosophy (like some other modes of political discourse) ultimately requires this.

  7. Mark, I am inclined to offer prudential arguments on behalf of both liberalism and democracy, so I don’t view my commitments there as a priori. Can you elaborate?

  8. s. wallerstein

    I believe that the prudential argument is your strongest argument and one that we all can learn a lot from.

    None of us want to live in the ex-Yugoslavia (your example) or in Venezuela or in a society so torn by racial differences that the riots and looting after the death of George Floyd become habitual or a society in which an excluded sub-proletariat (not necessarily excluded because of racism) will turn to crime and violence, thus making cities very dangerous as in several Latin American societies.

    All or the vast majority of us want to live in peaceful societies where we can take a walk without fear and our chlldren can play in the streets or in the parks and to do that we have to solve many social problems, as you point out, for prudential reasons.

  9. We all have values-based commitments which are relevant to political discussion and which do not arise from explicit argument or observed evidence.

    Looking at this discussion, RT seems to have a clear and primary commitment to a democratic ideal or standard. It is values-based and a motivating factor for his work; a starting point, something assumed or supposed. He appeals to empirical evidence to support his position so I am not claiming that he is simply reasoning deductively from some a priori assumption or assumptions. (Note also that the assumption or assumptions I am talking about may not even be completely stateable in propositional form.)

    Likewise, you seem to have a clear commitment to certain liberal values or ideals which presumably predates any prudential arguments which might be brought forward to defend them. (You wrote a piece once about the stories and songs you were exposed to as a small child and some of these had clear liberal messages. This is the sort of thing I am thinking of.)

  10. Ah yes, I understand. As you know, I don’t think such things can be given grounds. This is one of the areas where we agree.

  11. But I *do* think, nonetheless, that there is a significant difference between what I am calling a “prudential approach” and the axiologically and morally thick one taken by Robert. Such that it constitutes a substantive alternative.

  12. Charles Justice

    That’s fine, because the brunt of my argument is against your notion that it’s the moral framing that is the problem behind the current political polarization. Just because moral standpoints are misused doesn’t mean we should throw out morality. Morality isn’t supposed to be convenient or subjective. People can be dead wrong about moral issues. But morality is there for a reason. And when one of the two main political parties embraces white supremacy and jettisons democracy, the rest of us need powerful motivation to stop and reverse this slide into autocracy. That’s what it comes down to. That’s what morality is for. This is not about two sides of an issue, this is about preserving the moral progress that was achieved through the civil war and the civil rights movement.

  13. One sad take away: The measures that would have been needed to prevent the current polarization and the rise of anti-democratic fervor would now be ineffective in deflating that polarization and returning us to some acceptable cross-political public discourse.

    It’s too bad you didn’t get around to discuss the differences between liberalism and democracy, because while I recognize the differences, I’m not sure you can a state with either without the other.

    Just as a slight bit of day-dreaming here, I personally long for the day when the Republican Party included liberals and traditional conservatives and not just right-wing loonies. I was raised in NYS when we had a liberal Republican governor, Rockefeller, inheriting from liberal Republican Thomas Dewey, and NYC had liberal Republican mayors including LaGuardia back in the day and John Lindsay; then it was truly the Empire State, and we enjoyed quite a golden age (not at all denying the many problems that we needed to deal with back then – but every political reality will present with problems, because politics and economics can get very messy). Newt Gingrich, who began the purge of liberals and moderates from the Party, is among the true monsters of American political history, and remains so to this day. Him and the Australian fascist opportunist Rupert Murdoch, who has done more to corrupt public discourse than anyone else in Anglophone media history. Social media on the web has given us alternative “realities” that separate us into political tribes, but Murdoch prepared the way for this.

  14. henryharlow

    Interesting discussion. I do think human beings are wired up as right/wrong; good/bad; win/lose” machines. By that, I mean human beings default to winning, being right and considering themselves as good. Thus, the human tendency is to make the other person lose, wrong, bad, and themselves as winner, right and good.

    Political and religious discussions tend to trigger this somewhat innate trait leading to another factor that seems to be somewhat hard wired into humans known as “what you resist, persists”. The more one pushes to be right and win the more the other persists in their “other side” of the argument.

    I would say part of being a mature adult is allowing someone else to make you wrong with grace while giving nothing to push back on. Why? Sometimes it is somewhat obvious pushing back will make no difference and likely push the other deeper into their position so they are no longer open to alternative views. I sometimes fall back on “You may be right, I will give it some more thought. Thanks for telling me.” Nothing to push back on with that and making it clear their position is acknowledged and heard thus leaving them in a better place than the alternative in my judgment.

    In terms of what comes first, morality or political positions this article examines the view of which comes first that I found interesting since the study it cites finds political comes first and morality second:


  15. Charles Justice

    This from the Psychology Today article: “When political ideology is in the driver’s seat, a more extreme, polarized political landscape readily gives way to a more depraved moral reality. In the name of ‘us,’ ‘they’ must suffer.
    Bleak as it may be, this pessimistic warning is not without merit. It is founded on the thought that morality is no match for politics. And the available evidence suggests there may be something to this. Recent research suggests that political ideology likely shapes moral judgment, and not the other way around.”

    Psychological studies show political motivation precedes moral motivation. One could probably argue the same thing about religion too. Religious motivation can override moral motivation (see Kierkegaard, “Fear and Trembling”) But that doesn’t change morality’s primacy. It’s unfortunate that Politics and Religion override morality so frequently – that’s a bad thing. That means they are out of control and need to be constrained for the good of humanity. As in the case of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Rwanda, and Bosnia. It doesn’t mean that we should just go with what feels natural. With morality we step back from our particular allegiances to see the overall good. Whereas, in Politics and Religion we end up committing ourselves to parties or faiths. This can make our motivations more powerful and mislead us. But the moral system has to be there underneath everything in order for human societies to exist, so that people are able to cooperate with each other in the first place. Neither politics nor religion got us out of the state of nature. Agreeing to a moral system got us out of the state of nature. Politics and Religion were later adaptations. Morality first developed within multi-family human groups to deal with threats from insiders. This made larger human groups possible, and politics developed in larger groups to deal with threats from outsiders. Without morality we couldn’t have developed the kind of politics that we have of giving groups and individuals their due. The problem with Fascism and all other kinds of Authoritarianism is that they actively undermine and destroy morality, replacing it with primitive in-group chauvinism. What is happening in the United States, is that the Trumpists are making plans to seize and keep power through undemocratic means. They are disseminating lies and misinformation and enacting state laws that restrict the voting rights of minorities. The reason we value democracy so highly is that it makes for a more moral society – one in which all people have rights and acts that deliberately harm others are punished. Authoritarianism is wrong because it leads to arbitrary force and the persecution of minorities. Resisting this trend towards autocracy is our moral duty.

  16. Charles Justice

    Making the political a priority over the moral is Post-Modernism. Moral Deflationism is Post-Modernism. It means, if the Fascists seize power, instead of rejecting Fascism because of it’s inverted moral values we need to let our morals sink to their level.

  17. What a load of nonsense.

  18. Charles Justice

    The motivation to deflate morality is probably similar to the motivation for deflating truth. That is, in the case of truth, the need is to restrict the domain to logic and set theory in order to keep it “objective”. In the case of morality, it would seem to be to restrict it’s domain to philosophy departments in order to tamp down the controversies. Religious and Political groups like the Taliban abuse morality and use it to bully and control people. That’s an abuse of it’s function. Morality can function as a way of holding people to account, when there is an underlying (moral) sense of fairness and equality. Participation in moral judgement is fundamental to being human. Deflating morality is taking our essential participation in the moral system, and pawning it off on “experts”. Deflating morality means constraining it under a standard that would somehow be above morality. There is nothing above morality. Every time Religion or Politics attempts to define morality by some standard that transcends morality we end up with mass murders and the slaughter of innocents. Post Modernism is the mistaken view that because people do bad things in the name of morality, morality is not primary, but nothing more than convention, tied to political and religious control of people.

  19. Deflationary treatments of truth and morality have zero to do with restricting things to experts.