Anderson on Democratic Ideals and Racial Integration


Anderson on Democratic Ideals and Racial Integration

Meena Krishnamurthy

In her book, The Imperative of Integration, Elizabeth Anderson’s main claim is that integration is a core democratic ideal.[1]  She argues that citizens from all walks of life should interact freely on the basis of equality and mutual regard in all institutions of civil society, and on voluntary terms in the intimate associations of private life (p. 95).  Anderson argues that integration is central to democracy because it fosters democratic values of collective practical intelligence, accountability, and equality.[2]  Anderson makes her case for these claims through an examination of Black individuals’ struggle for racial equality in the United States.  Her careful consideration of historical facts teaches us that examination of a dark past can contribute positively to contemporary philosophical theorizing.

While I find much of what Anderson says in this work compelling, I have some concerns.  I am sceptical about the extent to which the kind of collective learning that Anderson argues for can take place, even with integration.  In what follows, I outline my concerns and try to offer some helpful suggestions where I can.

Anderson argues that, in a fully democratic society, public policy should take into account each citizen’s interests.  She argues that this requires integration.  By allowing people of different walks of life to meet face to face in political institutions and in greater civil society, integration will support public policy that takes into account the interests of a diverse populous.  Interaction with people of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints, will enable citizens to form better conceptions of the common good and justice.  It allows members of the public to educate one another about the nature of public problems and appropriate solutions to these problems.  As an example of this phenomenon, Anderson describes the 1963 Civil Rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama (“educative acts”), which resulted in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“the lesson”) (p. 96).

Three assumptions seem to underwrite Anderson’s arguments here.  The first assumption is that people have superior knowledge with respect to their own interests and the interests of people like them (i.e., those of similar class, racial, or ethnic backgrounds).  There is, to use Anderson’s own phrase, “asymmetrical knowledge” among different groups of people (p. 109).  The second assumption is that this asymmetrical knowledge can be conveyed or communicated from one group to another.  Anderson explicitly states that she is against the thought that “certain ideas possessed by one group are inherently ineffable to another” (p. 110).  The third assumption is that people will listen to and take into consideration the expression of such asymmetrical knowledge.  After all, without this, there could not be a transfer of knowledge or, in turn, collective learning.

I have some worries about each of these assumptions.  Begin with the first assumption that there is asymmetrical knowledge.  In general, this seems plausible.  People have a more intimate and more sensitive understanding of their own interests and of the interests of those who are similar to them than they do of others’ interests.  Anderson seems right in suggesting that it is only by interacting with others and hearing their views that we are able to fully understand their interests (what they are, what weight they give them, and so on).  There is, however, the worry that sometimes people do not know what is best, even when it comes to their own interests.  This may be particularly true when we are concerned with members of oppressed groups.  False consciousness arising from adaptive preferences and internalized oppression may, in some cases, limit the usefulness of integration.[3]  We might not always be enlightened about what justice requires by asking those who are suffering injustices what they want, for example.[4]  Oppressed people sometimes internalize and adapt to their oppression so well that they do not have a deep sense of what they are entitled to as human beings.[5]  They do not, in some cases, have a sense of what is just or unjust, right or wrong.  In short, because the preferences of oppressed people may be adaptive, they may not be reliable indicators of what is morally right or wrong or what we ought to do in a given policy situation.  Oppressed people may not have “asymmetrical knowledge” to translate to others.

If this is right, then there is a genuine reason to be sceptical about the tendency of integration to lead to the collective learning that Anderson has in mind.

In the end, this may not be a very strong objection.  Worries about adaptive preferences might actually support integration.  One way for members of oppressed groups to become more critical of their own preferences and values, to overcome false consciousness, may be to engage with others who are outside of their group and of goodwill.  Integration is valuable then not only because it allows White individuals to form better conceptions of the common good, as Anderson argues, but also because it allows Black individuals to form better conceptions of their own good.  Noting this point only strengthens Anderson’s argument.

A further point to make in response is that the oppressed are not the only ones who sometimes suffer from adaptive preferences.  As Anderson’s own discussion of implicit bias suggests, privileged peopled, simply because of their positions of privilege, may lack an appropriate sense of what is just or unjust or right or wrong.  They too may not be reliable indicators of what is morally right or wrong or what we ought to do in a given policy situation.  Noting this only adds additional strength to Anderson’s argument, since the only way around the adaptive preferences of the privileged may be to integrate them with the oppressed.

Turn now to the second assumption.  I am more sceptical than Anderson is about the extent to which asymmetrical knowledge can be conveyed or expressed.  Some things are difficult to teach and to learn because they can only be fully understood with experience.  To use a personal example, before having my own child, I had never understood why some women feel so strongly about breastfeeding rights.  I had always vaguely supported the rights of women to breastfeed at home, at school, and at work, but I never understood why it might be of great importance in the fight for women’s rights and women’s equality.  Having had my own baby and having breastfed her, I now understand the claim to breastfeeding.  Interacting and talking with other women did not convince me of the force of this claim.  Breastfeeding my daughter and having first-hand experience of the intimacy and closeness it underwrites, something that is rather difficult to articulate in its full, did.  For example, I now understand why it is important for women to be able to continue breastfeeding while in school or at work.  Moreover, I now understand why breastfeeding rights are of such importance in women’s fight for equality and why it is worth fighting for with such vigour.  In the same way, experience might be necessary to understand why certain ends take priority in Black individuals’ struggle for equality.  We might need to have certain experiences to understand why rights to assemble and protest rather than rights to vote have often to taken priority in Black individuals’ struggle for equality, for example.  My point is simply that, in many cases, it may be difficult to teach and to learn from one another without experience.

Once we acknowledge that experience is needed for full knowledge, the question is whether, outside of stepping into an experience machine, there are ways of communicating or sharing our experiences with others.  There are ways of sharing, at least in part, our experiences with one another and learning from them.  Discussion and protest are surely part of this, but are less well suited toward sharing experiences than storytelling, literature, poetry, art, film, and music.  These mediums are geared toward sharing the inexpressible.  They are geared toward the sharing of emotions, memories, and the imagined.  For example, though they may not fully communicate the experience of breastfeeding, stories, paintings, sculptures, and film might better convey the intimacy and emotion connected with breastfeeding.  In this way, storytelling, literature, poetry, art, film and music can help us to share our experiences and, in turn, can help to us to teach and to learn more from one another.  In short, these mediums are essential to the sort of integration and collective learning that are crucial to a fully democratic society.  This is something that Anderson’s account misses and would benefit from acknowledging.

Finally, putting these points aside – that is to say, even if there is asymmetrical knowledge and this knowledge can be conveyed – there are concerns about whether this knowledge will be assimilated.  In order to form appropriate conceptions of the common interest, we need to take into account the impact of various schemes and policies on a diverse populace.  To do this properly it is important to take other people’s interests and points of view into account adequately without exaggerating our own viewpoint.  Interacting with others and hearing their views is important to this process, for it is by interacting with others and hearing their views that we are able to understand their interests.  Nevertheless, this can be difficult because it is often hard to listen to those who are very different from ourselves. It is also easy to see the downside, without seeing the upside, of other people’s views, especially when they are very different from our own.  Anderson has shown us that the good listening and opened mindedness that are essential to collective learning are possible.  The Birmingham demonstrations are an example (see p. 95f).  But it is hard to know what to draw from this example.  It is certainly easier to listen to those who are different from ourselves when the only other option we are faced with is to take their lives, but many matters are much more mundane than this.  And I wonder, in these cases, what will lead to the kind of good listening and open mindedness that are essential to the collective learning that Anderson emphasizes?

In answer to this question, Anderson’s account might benefit from a discussion of the importance of empathy.  The cultivation of empathy among members of society would encourage good listening.  Empathy is the capacity to imagine ourselves in another person’s position and to discern her needs, motives, and feelings.[6]  Empathy also involves introspection.  We must look inside ourselves and determine our own needs, motives, and feelings.  To be good listeners and to genuinely learn from others, we must know which feelings and motives are our own so that we will not take them to be, or misrepresent them as, those of the other person.  Though there are important questions about how such a capacity can be encouraged in people and about the extent to which it will stimulate good listening, it seems clear that, if it can be encouraged, empathy will at least have the tendency to foster better listening and greater learning among diverse peoples.

In the end, Anderson makes an interesting and plausible argument for the value of integration in a democratic society.  Anderson’s arguments show us that, even if they are often difficult and incomplete, vital lessons about the common good and justice can only be learned with genuine integration at the level of the state and civil society.  However, literature, poetry, art, and film, and the cultivation of empathy among citizens have the potential to bring us even closer to complete learning and could work as a compliment to integration.



[1] Elizabeth Anderson, The Imperative of Integration (Princeton University Press, 2010).
[2] The core of her argument for racial integration as a democratic ideal is developed in chapter 5, “Democratic Ideals and Segregation” and chapter 6, “The Imperative of Integration.”
[3] A similar worry is raised in relation to “dialogic approaches” in Susan Moller Okin, “Gender Inequality and Cultural Differences” Political Theory 22.1 (1994), pp. 5-24.
[4] Ibid., p.19
[5] Ibid., p.19.
[6] On the importance of empathy and introspection to moral knowledge and good listening see Alison M. Jaggar, “Toward a Feminist Conception of Moral Reasoning,” in James P. Sterba et Al, Morality & Social Justice: Point/Counterpoint (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1995), pp. 115-146.

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