For a forthcoming Handbook on Civil Society, I have committed to write the article on “civil society and social knowledge.” I may ask to change that title because I find, via Google, that “social knowledge” is commonly used in three ways that should not be the focus of my article for this Handbook. The phrase often means: (1) the knowledge that small children must acquire in order to be “social”; (2) the production of knowledge through social software, such as Wikipedia; or (3) the epistemological theory that knowledge is not objective but is “socially constructed” (a theory which I think is often grossly exaggerated, because facts are stubborn things).
I think the basic questions for my article should be:
- What do most people (as individuals) need to know to make civil society work well? For instance, they might need to know their own rights, that others have rights, and which voluntary associations exist.
The knowledge that citizens need to participate in civil society depends on (a) what we consider the proper role for civil society, and (b) what skills and dispositions are needed on a large scale to secure that kind of society. Answers to part (a) would differ greatly between libertarians and socialists, to name just two examples. Part (b) is empirical, but it depends on the preliminary question of what makes a good society.
Political scientists and theorists who have endorsed de Tocqueville’s basic account of a good democratic system for the United States (i.e., one that is protective of individual rights and cultural diversity, decentralized, capitalistic, and moderately egalitarian) have assembled empirical evidence that certain values and skills are necessary, or at least helpful, to such a society. For example, Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) identify the disposition to attend meetings where decisions are made, the skills necessary to function effectively in such meetings, and knowledge of how to convene such meetings as examples of valuable civic skills.
- What do some people need to know (as individuals) to make civil society work well? Some people might need to know how to organize social movements or how to change policy through litigation. How many people need to know these things is a related question.
- What should be known collectively to make a good civil society? For instance, no individual knows the whole history of a community, but it is good for the historical records and numerous narratives and interpretations of the community’s history to exist and to be accessible.
- What knowledge does civil society generate? Much knowledge is created collectively–that is how science works, for instance. But I think the knowledge created by civil society is different, because everyone can participate in civil society by virtue of being a citizen, whereas scientists are defined by special skills, tools, and credentials.
So what knowledge can everyone participate in creating through the associations of civil society? Michael Sandel famously wrote, “When politics goes well, we can know a good in common that we cannot know alone.” Sandel argued, and I agree, that the characteristic knowledge that we must obtain together is moral knowledge, knowledge of the good. We need others to know the good because moral judgments are heavily experiential, any individual’s perspective is biased, and there is no impartial algorithm or method that can identify the good. (Thus Sandel is a critic of utilitarianism and mainstream Kantianism, both of which propose such a method.)