Political Philosophy
March 26, 2017
The Epistemic Pollution of Racism

I have recently finished Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson, on which a similarly named television show is based. The book is a detailed blow-by-blow retelling of the famous court case that exercised America. One theme from the book stuck out to me: how all participants in the case—prosecutors, defendants, jurors, police officers, observers—had to battle with a constant sense of epistemic pollution by racism, and to some degree, celebrity culture.


March 9, 2017
No Single Mind Can Capture The Truth

It is clear that none of us can know everything. Especially in politics, the extent of individual ignorance is significant. As I argued in a previous series of posts, I suspect that each of us is simply not competent to decide large-scale political issues. To put this in a slightly pretentious slogan, no single mind can capture the truth. A second observation I have stressed is that people strongly, deeply and reasonably disagree about the truth. Even where we do think we have captured the truth, we seriously disagree over what it is.

It’s useful to think about how these two different observations fit together. In some philosophical quarters, there is optimism that intellectual diversity is a good thing, rather than a disadvantage. The idea is that we all possess a different piece of the truth—disagreement indicates that we need to fit these pieces together. Call this the puzzle metaphor. On the puzzle metaphor, it’s not greatly troubling that we disagree and that no single mind can capture the truth, as long as we are decently cooperating in putting the puzzle pieces together. Disagreement is a challenge, but a surmountable one.


February 9, 2017
Regulating the Marketplace of Ideas

Amongst ways to justify freedom of speech, the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas has often held a central place. The basic thought is simple enough: just as free markets are likely to contribute the most to social and economic progress, so a free market in ideas is most likely to allow us to discover truth.

You might question whether this analogy really works (what’s the “price” of an idea? etc.). But quite independent from these worries, I think that most people who use this metaphor fail to explore what it would fully entail.

Here’s a first problem: a marketplace for ideas would be a truth-conducive market only if there was demand for truth, or at least if truth was the primary feature in ideas that individuals demanded. It’s not at all clear that this is the case. People also demand ideas which comfort them, which rationalise their identity, their grievances, and their self-interest.

Marketplaces, if they work, deliver on what people want. So there’s no guarantee that a working marketplace of ideas is particularly good on delivering the truth. Indeed, that publications like the Daily Mail or Fox News are successful might be a sign that the marketplace of ideas is healthy and thriving.

That’s of course not a knock-down argument. Insofar as some demand is driven by a desire for truth, free competition between ideas in this area might still be the instrumentally best way to achieve truth. (Perhaps you are very optimistic and think this is the case for academia.) But our defence of a free marketplace for ideas has now become importantly conditional: it is under certain conditions and in certain respects that it delivers epistemically valuable results; but where the conditions do not hold, we might have no reason to favour a free marketplace over some other kind of organisation.

The second crucial point is that the analogy cannot at all establish unrestricted freedom of speech. Outside libertarian circles, few people will believe that markets should be totally unregulated. Indeed, a standard liberal (“ordoliberal”) idea is that the state should step in where markets fail. Governments should, for example, reign in monopolies, force companies to internalise external costs, and protect vulnerable market participants from exploitation. Markets in modern economies are free as much as they’re regulated, and most liberals think that this is as it should be.

So there’s no reason to think that we should not also regulate the marketplace of ideas. I’m not sure what precise regulations on free speech we should favour. But invoking the metaphor of the marketplace works very badly if you wish to argue for unrestricted freedom of speech, and in fact may show the precise opposite.

One might reply that there are no natural analogues in the speech case for the reasons why we wish to regulate markets in goods and services—what, for example, could it possibly mean that an idea has external costs? But once you accept that there are few meaningful analogies between real-world markets and the “market” of ideas, it would be better just to drop the analogy altogether.

January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 6)

Democracy without Individual Competence

If what I have argued is true, then being politically competent is highly demanding. Voters would need significant amounts of background knowledge, intellectual skill, moral impartiality, and access to reliable information to make competent political decisions. Only a tiny sliver of the population would count as politically competent.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 5)

Weakening Competence

There are various strategies one might pursue to weaken the demands of competence. Some of these attempts have some force, but ultimately I am sceptical about the degree to which these strategies can be made to work.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 4)

The Extent of Demandingness

Let me elaborate a bit on the demandingness of the account I’ve given. We’ve seen that empirical research consistently shows that a significant amount of voters—between a quarter and a third—already fails the first category of conditions (information about choices). We should be even more sceptical about people having sufficiently sophisticated predictive and evaluative models for competence. We have seen that voters have troubles with having minimally coherent belief systems. Lots of evidence suggests that voters base their choices on minimal, highly filtered amount of information, which they process in badly biased ways.

But I also think that most politically informed, highly-educated voters would not pass the competence test I’ve outlined. Focus on the politicos who keep up with political developments on a day-to-day basis, who have a good degree of civic knowledge, identify and organise along party lines, and participate in politics outside elections. Stereotypically, this is the person who reads a daily newspaper like the New York Times or Washington Post, consults “high-brow” political websites like Slate or Vox, and so on.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 3)

Competence Reconsidered

So let’s reconsider the question of competence. Voting in an election is a type of choice, similar to many other important choices—e.g., which university to apply for, whom to marry, or which house to buy. So I suggest we follow some broadly decision-theoretic notions in outlining what it would mean to be competent in making a choice. We can classify the demands of competence into four categories:

  1. you need to know the major options open to you (knowledge about choices),
  2. you need to be aware of the consequences of each option, or at least have a rough sense of some of the possible outcomes of the major options, and a sense for which of these outcomes are more likely than others (predictive model),
  3. you need to be able to evaluate the desirability of the relevant outcomes, in a way which allows you to make at least rough comparisons across outcomes (evaluative model), and lastly,
  4. you need to be able to form coherent, all-things-considered judgments regarding the desirability of different options on the basis of (i) to (iii) (integrated framework).

This account is still quite generic. But it’s possible to fill in some more of the details if we look at the specifics of voting.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 2)

Competence in the Literature

I’ll start with a quick and selective account of how some other theorists, especially political scientists, have approached the question of competence. The debate is a bit hampered by the fact that there is little agreed-upon terminology, and competence overlaps with a number of other phenomena, such as (political) knowledge, (political) information, (political) sophistication, and education. (Some attempts at conceptual ground-clearing are here and here.)

Still, a few general lines can be discerned. We can start from Jason Brennan’s four conditions for voter competence:

  1. Voters should act on widely available, good information […].
  2. They should avoid mass superstition and systematic error.
  3. They should evaluate information in a moderately rational, unbiased way […].
  4. Voters should be aware of their limits, and thus always look for more and better information on any high-stakes decision. (165)

These are pretty generic demands. They are also relatively minimal—they look like necessary, but certainly not like sufficient conditions for competence.

To be fair to Brennan, he isn’t interested in developing a full account of competence; it might well be that he would wish to add further conditions if he turned to that task. Relatively undemanding accounts of competence, however, are a recurring feature in empirical research on voter competence.


January 29, 2017
The Demands of Political Competence (part 1)


It is a natural thought that political competence is important to democracy. We are troubled by the idea that voters are not competent, and it is normal to stress the importance of political education. However, I have found that it is surprisingly difficult to state in a satisfying way when individuals are competent voters. This is the issue I’ll aim to shed light on.

Most adults are of course legally competent—that is, we think they possess the minimal mental capacities necessary to be responsible for their own legal choices. But it’s a separate issue whether people are competent at voting. I take this issue to be the following: (when) do individuals possess a certain kind of skill in tackling a certain kind of task, namely, the task of voting?

Here’s a troubling possibility I will explore: political competence is highly demanding, and very few people are capable in making competent political choices. In the voting booth, you might make choices, but it is unlikely that you make a well-informed, competent choice.

Political scientists have long stressed that people are uninformed about politics. They find that anywhere between a quarter to a third of the population are “know-nothings”. But once we realise the true epistemic demands of governance, it might turn out that even more people are not able to competently vote. (I would not think myself competent in such a way, if the argument is true.)

This sets a clear agenda. After looking at some existing accounts of competence (part 2), I’ll argue that political competence might be very rare (part 3). This is a surprising result, but perhaps not too surprising (part 4). In response, you might try to weaken the demands of competence (part 5). But I think more plausibly, we might try to develop democratic theory that entirely works its way around the notion of individual competence (part 6).

Continue to part 2

December 20, 2016
Modelling the Pursuit of Justice

Following up on my previous post, one of the most interesting aspects of Gaus’s work on ideal/non-ideal theories of justice is that he suggests a formal model in which we can think about the issue. Gaus is quite explicit in stressing the advantages of formal modelling in the introduction to his book. In particular, the outlines of the model Gaus develops are clearly inspired by the idea of fitness landscapes from evolutionary biology; and the contrast between his ideal and non-ideal theories of justice looks a lot like the search for an efficient search algorithm on such landscapes.

So Gaus liberally exploits models from the sciences to think about the pursuit of justice; and this strikes me as a valuable, interesting strategy. But while Gaus sketches a formal model, and spends lots of time on developing various aspects of it, it remains seriously incomplete. In particular, Gaus never suggests—or comes close to suggesting—a way how we can translate the contrast between ideal and non-ideal theories into concrete algorithms within the context of a specified mathematical model. Nor does Gaus spend much time at all on evaluating the success of actual search algorithms, or surveying the literature on the success of such algorithms.

This is a curious omission. In fact, in the crucial part of his book, when Gaus levels his ultimate charge against “ideal” theories of justice, he falls back on mostly non-technical arguments that I found rather unconvincing (though this is a story for another day). Here I’ll make some preliminary observations about how Gaus’s hints could be translated into an actual model, and which challenges we face along the way.


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