The Connection between Shared Knowledge and Democracy

Stephen Yearwood
7 min readOct 10, 2020


the latter depends on the former

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

‘You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts’. That statement, we are learning, is the existential condition for a democratic society. It presupposes that there are bits of knowledge that are valid for all people, that all people can be legitimately expected to accept as valid, no matter what. That presupposition is valid (I hope to demonstrate herein), though its relationship to democracy will surprise many people.

First, I must state what I mean by “knowledge.” That by itself gives a clue to the difficulties at hand. If there is no shared agreement on the meaning of that word, and democracy depends on shared knowledge, then isn’t any hope for a democratic society already lost?

No. The definition of knowledge I use is one no one would feel any need to reject: knowledge is sufficiently verified information.

That does make “sufficiently verified” and “information” the key terms. Let’s begin with the latter.

By information I mean any input received by a person’s consciousness. It can come from material existence, via the physical senses (including hearing it from another person or reading something another person has written). It can also come from ‘within’, as in a ‘feeling’ or a premonition or an intuition or a dream or a spiritual experience (great or small), etc. It is all information. Any input of which anyone is aware counts as information.

That leaves us with “sufficiently verified.” For any individual human being, for any bit of information — any input — to be “sufficiently verified” is merely to choose to accept its validity. That’s all it takes.

The obverse is also true: anyone can assert with utter validity for oneself that this or that bit of information is not sufficiently verified. That would include any information regarding material existence.

Here’s the thing: when it comes to information that is not a matter of material existence, such as spiritual information, personal acceptance of it makes it valid; regarding material existence, however, personal validation is irrelevant to its validity. That is to say, the reality of material existence does not depend on how many people accept as valid or reject as invalid any perception of any of that existence. Our understanding of that existence changes over time, and we affect that existence with our actions, but material existence is not the creation of human beings or our understanding of it.

The reality of material existence affects all human beings. Personal, physical survival is all about the interaction between oneself and the rest of material existence. Similarly, the political process of every society that has ever existed has been concerned with the interaction between that society as a social unit and material reality.

In a society without a democratic political process all that matters for society is the personal knowledge of those in power. In a democratic society the whole population is involved. Even those who abstain politically (or are too young to be politically engaged) are involved because they, too, will experience the results of the choices effected through the political process— for good or ill.

Since individuals are free, however, to deny the realties of material existence, as a practical matter democracy boils down to the ‘law of large numbers’: the more people who are involved in evaluating a set of circumstances and choosing the optimum response to those circumstances, the more likely it is that the ensuing evaluation will be correct and the implemented response the best one available.

The reason democracy in the U.S. is in trouble is simple: not enough people are participating in the process. There are two parts to that. One is that people are opting out, primarily by not voting and by what economists call ‘barriers to entry’: it is all but impossible for anyone who does not want to be tied to either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party who cannot self-fund a political campaign to run for office successfully. The other is that people with really new and different ideas are not being allowed to participate in our public discourse. All that makes correctly identifying present circumstances and finding an optimal response to those circumstances less likely.

The established media — both print and on-line, and on all points along the ideological spectrum— are acting as a barrier to new and different ideas, not as a conduit for them. All they do in that way is to perpetuate the “contests of power” (from Michel Foucault) that are the inevitable products of political ideologies. If ideologies were the sole source of possible solutions to our problems as a society, that would be one thing. That no ideology has an actual solution for even one of our societal problems makes the conduct of the established media quite another thing. They are not serving the democratic political process, but only ideology as an end in itself. [Medium and entities like it allow almost all people to express themselves, but within them the powers that be arbitrarily decide what to promote or not — and John Locke correctly identified arbitrariness with injustice over 300 years ago.]

Beyond that (available, though unrealized) practical benefit of democracy, its existence as the only possible just form of governance is consistent with our material existence as human beings. Please allow me to explain.

Here is a bit of information regarding human being within material existence that no one can refute: no human being has any choice but to effect choices (i.e., choose among perceived options and take action to bring that choice to fruition). To utter any statement concerning that bit of information is in itself to effect a choice, to choose to act in uttering something about it.

That makes choosing integral to being human. As fellow human beings we are therefore required to respect one another’s capacity to choose, beginning with choosing whether/how/to what extent to be involved whenever any choice is being effected.

So mutual respect of that kind must govern the behavior of all human beings whenever any choice is being effected. To act otherwise is to deny the reality of other beings’ existence as fellow humans.

[Since both the determiners and the referents of that ethic are located in material existence, that legitimately de-legitimates going outside material existence — to feelings, beliefs, etc. — to justify violating that ethic. For more about that ethic there is “Real Justice: Goodness without Limit” here in Medium. A requirement of mutual respect also follows from a belief in equality: “Equality Is All We Need,” also here in Medium. The material reality of the ethic of mutual respect legitimizes accepting it — and advocating for it and its implications for society — on the basis of believing in human equality.]

A society governed by that ethic of mutual respect would have the maximum liberty that coexisting human beings can share simultaneously and a democratic political process. In the economy the “democratic distributive principle” would be applied to money in the form of a “democratically distributed income” [also here in Medium].

That last part undoubtedly sounds radical to most people, but it is not. It is at bottom ‘only’ a different way of supplying the economy with money (as currency) [also here in Medium]. It could be applied to any existing economy. It would transform the outcomes for society related to the economy, but it would not require tearing down any of the existing institutional structure, whatever it might be, or changing the ‘nature’ of the economy, whatever that might be: a market-based economy would still be a market-based economy.

[The existence of that income would provide the means to make the economy fully self-regulating while eliminating unemployment (at no cost to anyone) and poverty (without having to redistribute anything and with no limit on income/wealth), as well as taxes and pubic debt (at all levels of government), and making it environmentally sustainable, even without any additional regulations or any changes in behavior (because total output would be governed — passively but effectively — by demographics, with no unemployment or poverty at any level of total output). Who wouldn’t want all that?]

Democracy is both a particular political form and a way of life. A democracy is all about self-rule. That means, as far as government itself is concerned, rule ‘by the people’ — the citizenry. For it to be successful citizens must for the most part govern themselves as individuals.

A successful democracy therefore has a public ethic, an agreed upon rule (or set of rules) for ‘the people’ to govern their interactions with one another. Lately, in the U.S. we seem to have lost track of our public ethic.

In fact, we never really had one. Citizens of this nation have always shared some notion of justice having something to do with liberty and equality, but there was no specific, agreed upon rule or set of rules by which, as individuals, we would govern ourselves. All we have ever had in that way are some hand-me-downs from a religious tradition in which fewer and fewer of us participate.

While it is not based in any religious tradition, mutual respect (in effecting choices) does not contradict anything in the Gospels relating the words of Jesus. Nor is it ‘moral relativism’. That ethic in fact boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions that go well beyond the Ten Commandments in our relations with one another as human beings: no killing, harming, coercing, lying, cheating, or stealing to get what you want.

Mutual respect (of a basic kind — taking one another into account) stands as a rule of conduct for all human beings that can make our democratic society better and stronger than it has ever been. Who would not want that?



Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice