Research Article

The Epistemic Value of the Democratic Process

William Nelson


An epistemic theory of democracy, I assume, is meant to provide on answer to the question of why democracy is desirable. It does so by trying to show how the democratic process can have epistemic value. I begin by describing a couple of examples of epistemic theories in the literature and bringing out what they presuppose. I then examine a particular type of theory, worked out most thoroughly by Joshua Cohen, which seems to imply that democracy has epistemic value. The key idea in this theory is that its conception of political right is itself a democratic conception – roughly, what is right is constituted by a consensus among ideal democratic agents. If democratic procedures are modeled on this conception of right, the theory proposes, the fact that we follow these procedures in decision-making will give us reason to believe that the outcomes are themselves right. I do not reject the democratic conception of the right, but I argue that the theory breaks down when we try to extend its conclusions to real-world democratic procedures. While it invites interesting speculation about possible reforms, it gives us little reason to accept the outcomes of actual democratic politics.

William Nelson is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Houston, where he teaches courses on moral and political philosophy and philosophy of law. He is currently working mainly on Kant's ethics. He is the author of On Justifying Democracy (1980) and several subsequent papers on the philosophy of democracy.