The downsides of Brennan’s verbally consequentialist standard

In the first chapter of AGAINST DEMOCRACY, “Hobbits and Hooligans,” Jason Brennan (JB) endorses the idea, from John Stuart Mill, that we should institute whatever form of government produces the “best results” [p. 1-2].  He lists the following among the important good results that a government might produce: (a) respecting liberal rights, (b) promoting economic growth and (c) promoting intellectual and moral virtue among the citizenry.

Because he includes [a], JB is clearly thinking of consequences or outcomes or results in a very broad way that includes adherence to deontic constraints or requirements.  Though at one very general level this is all fine and well, part of the evaluative picture here is supposed to be that some form of government other than democracy might turn out to be best.  This picture makes sense if we are examining results or consequences narrowly construed (such that adherence to deontic constraints does not count as an outcome). It also makes sense if we suppose that democracy is merely a way of discovering, formulating and enforcing liberal rights (say, on some Lockean conception).

But the set of liberal rights might include a right to vote!  But if so then the possibility that some form of government other than democracy could beat out democracy is rather narrow and bleak.  For all acceptable forms of government, on this normative scenario, are democratic. Only if there were a situation in which a government had to choose between adhering to this constraint and some more important constraint (e.g., not torturing its citizens) would some non-democratic form of government be best in some context.

All of this is obscured by JB offering what verbally appears to be a hard-nosed consequentialist standard for evaluating government – but that really is not.  The effect here is that of brushing under the carpet a deontic consideration that goes something like this: in the context of collective action/activity, each participant is due a voice in how the process unfolds with regard to the important costs and benefits involved/produced.

How this requirement is best satisfied in the context of modern government is an interesting question and here I’ll provisionally agree with JB that traditional forms of universal suffrage have severe disadvantages that might, in some contexts, make them inferior to less robust forms of democracy.  But we can only address these interesting issues in a realistic way with the relevant voting-rights-related constraint on collective action (specifically government action) clearly in view.

(Elsewhere, JB does address deontic justifications for democracy.  In an important sense, addressing his explicit positions and arguments on this is where the action is at.  My complaint here is that his verbally consequentialist standard for evaluating different forms of government is potentially confusing and obscures what is arguably the most important consideration in evaluating different forms of government.)

12 thoughts on “The downsides of Brennan’s verbally consequentialist standard

  1. I’m in the middle of reading Against Democracy, so your post comes at an opportune time, at least for me. I agree (or partially agree) with the first point you’re making, but not the second. (But thanks for the opportunity to think out loud about this.)

    As you suggest, Brennan’s discussion of instrumentalism and consequences is pretty confusing. That said, I don’t think it’s obviously or straightforwardly inconsistent. As you say, he starts out by quoting Mill to the effect that we should institute whatever form of government produces the best results. He then specifies an epistemic/instrumental conception of democracy that he wants to defend: democracy is good because it tends to lead to just, efficient, or stable outcomes, at least as compared with the alternatives (p. 7). Instrumentalism about democracy contrasts with proceduralism about democracy, which holds that democratic procedures and participation are good in themselves (p. 11). But the instrumentalism/proceduralism contrast is not supposed to map onto the consequentialist/deontic contrast: “An instrumentalist about democracy could accept either a consequentialist or deontological theory of justice. The instrumentalist is only committed to the claim that democracy is not intrinsically just” (pp. 247-48n.11).

    Putting the whole thing together: instrumentalism entails that systems are to be judged by the outcomes they produce with respect to some combination of justice, efficiency, and stability, where “justice” may or may not include deontic norms. So strictly speaking, I don’t think he’s guilty of brushing deontic norms under the carpet. What I would say is that his account of justice, efficiency, and stability and their inter-relation is so indeterminate that it’s hard to give content to his instrumentalism. You sit there wondering, “instrumental to what end?” and get no answer.

    But I don’t think your criticism about voting is going to cut much ice. Your criticism, I take it, is that since Brennan brushes deontic norms under the carpet, but regards respect for liberal rights as an outcome, he begs the question against the possibility that the right to vote is a deontic liberal right whose exercise has to be valued as a just outcome. That assumes that he’s brushing deontic norms under the carpet, which isn’t what he thinks he’s doing, and it also presupposes that liberal rights are deontic, which is controversial (and I think, implausible). All he has to say is that voting can’t be intrinsically just, full stop; it either instrumentally has to produce good consequences, or has to exemplify some higher-order deontic principle of justice, where the exemplification of the principle is considered an outcome. Maybe he’s begging some question there, but on the whole, that set of moves strikes me as legitimate.

    Incidentally, sort of off and sort of on topic, but given the discussion of Mill and consequentialism, this paper is an interesting footnote to Brennan’s discussion:


    • On second thought, I wonder if I’ve misread you? You’re not saying that he ignores deontic considerations per se, but that he ignores the specific consideration you’ve put in italics. Is that right? You may need to straighten me out by saying a bit more.


      • Thanks, Irfan. That’s really helpful. As was re-reading the relevant bits of the chapter on proceduralist and instrumentalist views of the value of democracy.

        I take the proceduralist/instrumentalist distinction to be one of (non-instrumental) value in states of affairs and the deontology/consequentialist distinction to be one of rightness/wrongness in decision or action. Justice-talk is ambiguous. Actions can be just (and hence right) but states of affairs (including those constituted by agents acting in certain ways) can be just as well (and in this sense justice is a good outcome that can be produced or not).

        My initial reaction to JB’s general criterion for evaluating types of governments was premised on the idea that governments treat citizens well or badly – in this sense, there is a kind of collective action that can be right or wrong. And that this is a weighty, or the most weighty, consideration in this context. As I’m reading him now, JB is entirely focused on the production of just states of affairs being good; the question is whether the locus of the non-instrumental goodness in democracy is entirely in the outcomes or partially (or even wholly) in the democratic procedure. The rightness and wrongness of (collective) action is an entirely separate thing.

        My initial interpretation of JB’s criterion was that he was “consequentializing” right action so that it gets formally reduced to good (or perhaps “good*”) states of affairs. But this is wrong. He is just not concerned with right action at all (except perhaps insofar as it is correlated with good states of affairs)! He is concerned with justice as a (non-instrumentally) good state of affairs that is either realized (proceduralism) or produced by democratic procedure (instrumentalism). But this fails to capture the important idea that governments are obligated to treat their citizens in certain ways (and, in particular, as stakeholders due effective voice, as indicated in my italicized principle).

        I suspect that the two sorts of valences here are connected in this way: if a government, G, would be wrong (and unjust) in PHI-ing with respect to one of its citizens, C, then the state of affairs of G PHI-ing with respect to C is non-instrumentally bad (and unjust).[1] So the deontic properties here are not independent of the instrumentalist/proceduralist distinction in value. If you are the relevant sort of collective-action deontologist, then your evaluation of government should be (at least partially) proceduralist; and if you are an instrumentalist in your evaluation of government, then you cannot be the relevant sort of collective-action deontologist.

        JB disagrees here, but I’m not sure why (my speculation is that he is treating the two sets of features as if there were independent). I’m also puzzled that he seems to think that only the goodness of just states of affairs – not also the rightness of just action – is relevant to evaluating democracy and other types of governments.

        [(1) NOTE ADDED LATER. I was here assuming the obligation or requirement of justice to be deontic. It is, I think, the deontic nature of such a requirement that makes associated adherence-type states of affairs non-instrumentally valuable (or something that we have compelling reason to value non-instrumentally). Plausibly, if the normative force of an obligation were to owe to good consequences produced, then the associated adherence-type states of affairs would inherent that normative force – and hence be instrumentally valuable.]

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        • So you initially misread Brennan, and I initially misread you, but now I think we’re on the same page in both respects (your reading Brennan, my reading you), and I think I see your point. At a minimum, Brennan owes his readers a positive, substantive account of the relationship between the instrumental/procedural distinction and the consequentialist/deontic distinction. He says that they’re different distinctions, and that an instrumentalist can in principle adopt a deontic conception of justice, but if you’re right, that isn’t enough.

          But let me play Devil’s Advocate (or Brennan’s Advocate, I mean). Your point is that there is a deontic procedural principle that underwrites the right to vote: a right, in contexts of collective decision-making, to have a say over what affects you. The way you phrase it, it sounds as though you mean a right to a say in the procedures that affect you. But I take it that the voice in question could concern either procedures or substantive outcomes, right? A vote for a candidate is ambiguous as between the two.

          What if Brennan were to respond that what matters is not just a bare unvarnished right to have a say over what affects you, but a right to have a say that’s conditional on a demonstration of the competence to have a say? Why should you have a right to voice if you have nothing worth saying? Maybe a given law or policy affects you, whether adversely or positively, but why should anyone care about what you have to say about it if you have nothing to say that’s worth hearing? And if you’re as ignorant as a hobbit or a hooligan, why wouldn’t that disqualify you from having a say, whether you’re affected by a given policy or not?

          Consider an example from outside of politics. Think about a workplace meeting or the twice-annual meeting of a homeowner’s association. Workplace and HOA policies affect everyone in the workplace or the HOA. But a meeting set up to discuss workplace or HOA concerns is going to be limited in time. Only so many people can speak. That implies that some won’t be able to.

          Imagine that you’re presiding over a meeting of this sort. You see all these people with raised hands wanting to speak, and let’s say that you personally know them all. You also have some discretion about who to call on and who to ignore in the limited time at your disposal. So you deliberately choose to ignore the blowhards and ignoramuses in the room, so as to maximize the speaking time of the informed and well spoken.

          The meeting ends and the biggest ignorant blowhard in the room complains that he didn’t get a chance to speak. You point out, correctly, that he didn’t get to speak because he’s shown by past practice that he’s got nothing of value to say. Rude but true. Can he legitimately claim to have been wronged? Brennan might say not. But if not, maybe the corresponding point applies to contexts of democratic deliberation. That, at any rate, is how I think Brennan might respond.

          I think there is something to your “having a voice” principle, but I don’t think that your principle is where the action is in a critique of Brennan. The real problems, it seems to me, have more to do with Brennan’s epistemic assumptions–his social scientific imperialism. My view is that Brennan vastly exaggerates the value of social science to political deliberation, and unfairly derides political folk epistemology (e.g., character-based voting) in political contexts. This has typically been described as “the wisdom of the crowd,” or “the miracle of aggregation” or whatever, but all that strikes me as misleading. The real issue is what counts as bona fide political knowledge in the first place. To my mind, Brennan has a question-begging and overly narrow picture of political knowledge that excludes a lot of what I regard as genuine knowledge, and demotes a lot of what I regard as political competence to incompetence. So the part of chapter 1 that I fixate on is less the instrumentalism/proceduralism stuff (though there are problems there), and more the hooligan/hobbit/vulcan trichotomy, which I find extremely misleading.

          Anyway, you should write your post up as a paper, and send it to NASSP. They’ve got two CFPs out, one for their big conference in San Francisco, and one for a panel at the APA.

          In fact, when I get a chance, I’m going to write up a post plugging conferences and CFPs, in the hopes that we can produce a PoT contingent at some of these conferences, the way we had a mini-contingent at the Felician conference back in 2016 (you, me, David Potts, and Derek). Eventually, we can all just list “Brennan” as our AOS, and make a career of it.


  2. Again, quite helpful and thanks.

    My “stakeholder/voice” principle is meant to address power, not just literally having one’s say or being heard. I probably need a better, more precise formulation in order to make this clear.

    I do think there is a competence caveat, but the question is: how competent and at what? My leading thought here would be competence in knowing you have been harmed or wronged (by your government or by general social conditions). No expert knowledge required. If you don’t have this competence (say, you are a child or you have severe dementia), only someone else with your interests at heart could in justice exercise voice or power on your behalf (you would not be allowed to). I realize that’s no principled objection to Brennan (he would have a different competence caveat if he endorsed anything like my principle).

    Maybe considering your blowhard at the HOA meeting scenario is helpful. I’d say this: having his say at the meeting is analogous either to free political speech or to the reasoning/decisions of a bureaucrat, not to a citizen having a right to vote. What would be analogous to the latter would be his being an HOA member in good standing and therefore having an HOA vote. Brennan should say the same thing, I think, since his focus of concern is distribution of power, not who makes the various delegated decisions and how (and not free political speech).

    Here’s how and why I think the revised version of my criticism has legs. My suggestion (clarified in the note added to the above reply) is that the relevant obligation is non-instrumental (and deontic) and that this entails that the associated adherence-type states of affairs are non-instrumentally valuable (in Brennan’s terms, intrinsically just). In just the way that the inherent wrongness and injustice of (the action) of some guy committing murder is a state of affairs that we all have compelling reason to non-instrumentally (and super-strongly) disvalue (an intrinsically unjust state of affairs, in Brennan’s terms). The metaethics here matter.

    Now perhaps the connection that I draw here between obligation and value is wrong. Or perhaps the relevant obligations are merely instrumentally justified. But grant me my plausible premises and I’ve made problems for Brennan’s purely instrumentalist way of evaluating democracy.

    It is telling that in his summary of Chapter 5 (where he addresses proceduralist objections to pure instrumentalism) JB takes the important classes of non-instrumental value to be expressive or symbolic (earlier, he mentioned the different thing of people being valuable as “as ends in themselves,” but he does not mention this sort of thing here). This is fishy because we seem to have compelling reason to non-instrumentally value all sorts of things for reasons that do not have much to do with symbolizing or expressing values. In any case, the formulation here does not cover our having compelling reason to non-instrumentally value (government) adherence to (fundamental, deontic) obligations. Maybe, nevertheless, things he says in Chapter 5 will address my worry.

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    • That makes a lot of sense. Your question about competence is right on target: how competent and at what? Part of the problem is that Brennan writes as though because the competence he has in mind is epistemic, if we just consult “our best epistemological theory,” we get criteria for competence. But analytic epistemology doesn’t produce theories of domain-specific competence. At best, theories of epistemic justification have very general things to say about domain-specific epistemic competence, but how many epistemologist think that “our best theory of epistemic justification” entails that a knowledge of Economics 101 is a necessary condition for competent voting–even if it turns out to be?

      A theory of domain-specific epistemic competence is a theory that specifies that knowledge required to accomplish a certain task. But that’s not what analytic epistemology is about. To expect analytic epistemologists to produce epistemic criteria for competent voting is like expecting Alvin Plantinga to write items for the civil service exam. How would an epistemologist know, qua epistemologist, what’s required for competence at voting?

      Brennan treats voting as a kind of quasi-professional skill, like surgery or plumbing. He then infers that because you need determinate sorts of domain-specific epistemic competence to do surgery or repair a plumbing system, the same thing should be true of voting. One problem with this analogy is that the criteria for good surgery or plumbing are easier to identify than the criteria for competent voting: it’s easier to figure out what any competent surgeon or plumber is trying to accomplish than it is in the case of the competent voter.

      The other problem is that surgery and plumbing involve skills that aren’t reducible to propositional knowledge, a fact that Brennan ignores when he talks about political knowledge. For him, the basic epistemic lesson of professional skills is that they embody expert propositional knowledge. But another lesson to draw is that they showcase the value of experience. That connects with your claim that you can have a distinctive knowledge of having-been-harmed that no expert could grasp in a purely abstract way (without attending to your informed, but non-expert experience). It’s very easy to underestimate harms or inconveniences that you’ve never had to experience.

      Anyway, when I get the chance, I want to write a post on the epistemology of epistocracy–a critique of Brennan’s Hobbit/Hooligan/Vulcan distinction, and a (hopefully short) epistemic discussion of chapter 2. But not sure when I’ll get to that. Thanks for getting the ball rolling.

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      • I’m skeptical of the idea that each of us has “competence in knowing [we] have been harmed or wronged (by [our] government or by general social conditions).” My skepticism rests on two considerations. First, it seems empirically plain that all sorts of people take themselves to have been harmed or wrong in cases where this judgment is, at best, controversial. Claims about the harms of certain sorts of speech, of the cultural prevalence of pornography or other purportedly degrading representations of women, about the impact of immigration policy and enforcement in depriving people of work and subjecting us to free riders and criminals, about the effects of trade policies on American workers, about the effects of affirmative action policies on this or that group of people all immediately come to mind as cases where people confidently claim that they have been harmed or wronged. Yet we have to allow that they might be mistaken simply because different people’s confident claims to this effect are contradictory. So this general competence must issue in judgments that are at least highly defeasible, if not simply unreliable. Second, if we do not identify the frustration or disappointment of preferences as such as harmful, then it’s difficult to see much plausibility in the thought that each of us is generally competent at knowing when we’ve been harmed. We may be competent in knowing when our preferences have not been satisfied, but if there can be quite a gap between unsatisfied preferences and harms, then it seems like we should expect that many people might be mistaken in judging that they’ve been harmed. This problem only increases when we move from harming to wronging. Provided that being wronged involves more than simply being harmed, and depends on various contextual factors including facts about the agents who brought about the harm, their realistic options, and the interests of others, it seems highly doubtful that most people’s intuitive judgments of when they’ve been wronged would be reliably true, because those contextual facts are often complex and difficult to know and assess. It’s also not hard to think of cases where people do in fact make mistaken judgments about being wronged; men who take themselves to have been wronged by women who did not want to sleep with them, religious conservatives who take themselves to have been wronged by laws prohibiting public schools from officially endorsing their religious beliefs. Here too, we only need controversial cases, not clearly false ones: some people take it as obvious that they’ve been wronged by bakers who refuse to bake cakes for their weddings, while those bakers take it as obvious that they’ve been wronged by laws prohibiting them from refusing to bake cakes for weddings of which they disapprove.

        These considerations leave me skeptical of Michael’s claim. In fact, I’m inclined to go beyond skepticism and to affirm the opposite: people are not generally reliable judges of whether they’ve been harmed or wronged, particularly not by anything as complex as government policies or general social conditions. (I say inclined because I’m not quite confident enough yet to affirm this without further reflection, but it’s certainly how it appears to me).

        That said, I also doubt that we need to appeal to such a general competence in order to make an epistemic case for taking people’s judgments seriously in political deliberation. One might of course think, following Aristotle, that people’s virtues and vices of judgment often balance each other out, so that collectively the judgments we end up with are reliably better than the judgments we’d get if we just left a small elite of individually superior judges to decide. But there seems to be a further role for ordinary people’s judgments, unreliable as they may be: even if ordinary people are not reliably competent judges, people who are reliably competent judges need to take those ordinary people’s experiences into account in order to know how different proposed policies will affect them and thereby to arrive at good conclusions about what to do, and even if most people are not reliably critical enough in judging their own experience, their own accounts of their experience are often necessary, even though insufficient, for understanding it and judging whether they’ve ben harmed or wronged. If something roughly like that is right, we should not simply dismiss ordinary people’s judgments, and so should not exclude their voices from political deliberation.

        Of course voting as it functions in our national elections bears little resemblance to taking people’s accounts of their own experience seriously in critical deliberation about the best policies. My vote for candidate X just tallies my preference for X over the alternatives, where X is just that candidate, not even this or that set of policies or more general ideas or principles. Candidates and officials might take ordinary people’s judgments into account in deciding what to do, but I’ve not got much confidence that that really happens very often, and I’m not sure how well it could really work. One of my close family members ran for state office recently in part on a platform of actually listening to constituents and trying to represent them regardless of their party affiliation or antecedent agreement with her. Naturally, in a campaign platform it was not possible to set out just how that was supposed to work. In any case, the party nominated someone else, so we’ll never know how that plan would have looked in execution. I’ve no confidence that anything like it will become the norm, though. The closest thing to it is when candidates shift their platforms in response to what they think will get them the most votes, thereby indirectly responding to voter preferences. But the whole problem is that voter preferences are often irrational, and the electoral system does not operate in a way that encourages reflective, rational criticism of our own preferences. Contra Brennan, the ordinary person might be sufficiently competent to deserve a voice in political deliberation on epistemic grounds even if Michael’s claim is false. But there does seem to me to be a serious problem of epistemic vice among ordinary voters. I can’t claim to be an especially epistemically virtuous voter myself, let alone someone who would count as one of Brennan’s experts. But if anything, that just makes me less confident in the American electorate.

        I’m not reading Against Democracy, so I can’t weigh in on the particulars of its argument. But here’s a general question: granted that, if we think, against Brennan, that the right to vote is one of the ‘liberal rights’ that good government needs to protect, we will reject his epistocratic criteria for voting rights, what about similar epistocratic requirements on holding office? There’s a sense in which such an arrangement would be decidedly un-democratic, but it would respect the liberal right to vote. Would Brennan’s objections to democracy as he understands it still apply to such an arrangement? Would your objections to Brennanite epistocracy still apply in that attenuated form?

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        • Thanks for that commentary, David. I’ll try to spend more time with it later. Briefly: I think you are mostly right and that the relevant competence is something more like voters knowing when their subjective interests have been harmed (or knowing when they take themselves to have been wronged). I do think that, on JB’s view, there are competency concerns for officeholders, administrative appointee, civil servants, etc. (though I don’t see why they would have to be precisely the same ones). And so he should be open to the idea that choices at either of these levels should be restricted in order to better achieve justice or whatnot.


        • I’m not reading Against Democracy, so I can’t weigh in on the particulars of its argument.

          Still reading Aquinas on angels? You have no idea what you’re missing. We’re actually thinking of re-naming the blog after a different Depeche Mode song at this point: “Just Can’t Get Enough (of Jason Brennan),” which more accurately reflects what we actually discuss around here. I mean, Policy of What? Come on.

          The Philosopher says:

          granted that, if we think, against Brennan, that the right to vote is one of the ‘liberal rights’ that good government needs to protect, we will reject his epistocratic criteria for voting rights, what about similar epistocratic requirements on holding office? There’s a sense in which such an arrangement would be decidedly un-democratic, but it would respect the liberal right to vote.

          Respondeo: I’ve been working on a post on that very topic. It’ll be awhile before I post it, but here’s a preview from an email I sent Michael backstage. Recall that on Brennan’s view, a justified voter aims, through voting, to promote the common good.

          If voters are obliged to vote for the common good, aren’t officeholders supposed to engage in policy-making on the same basis? It almost seems self-evident that they should. But a (counterfactually stable) propensity to engage in policy-making for the sake of the common good is a trait of character. If the voter aims at promoting the common good, and the candidate does the same, doesn’t it make sense for the voter to voter for the candidate with the strongest (counterfactually stable) propensity to promote the common good? If “(counterfactually stable) propensity to promote the common good” is a trait of character, and voting aims at the common good, we seem to be led to a form of character-based voting (CBV).

          It doesn’t help that the italicized trait is a “proxy for policy.” Of course it is. The defender of CBV is not, after all, advising us to refrain from voting on character when it’s a proxy for policy. He’s saying that some traits clearly are proxies for good policy without requiring a detailed knowledge of policy issues. And the italicized trait is practically guaranteed to be one.

          The question then becomes whether a voter could in principle pick out the candidate with the strongest, or clearest propensity to promote the common good without knowing Econ 101, or much other social science. Brennan makes no attempt even to address the issue. But now suppose that the trait of promoting the common good manifests itself in a given election as a propensity to listen to voters’ grievances vs. a propensity offhandedly to dismiss them. Would you need a lot of social scientific knowledge to make a pairwise comparison favoring the better listener over the worse?

          Granted, this one issue may be an insufficient basis for casting a vote. But it’s not obvious either way; the issue depends on how we think of “single issue voting.” Nothing that Brennan says rules out the possibility that a voter should be able to vote on the basis of her own personal favorite topic or issue–including the trait that she prizes most in a political candidate, assuming that the trait is itself a constituent of justice, construed as a propensity to promote the common good. It’s not obvious to me that a voter would be doing anything wrong if she candidly told herself that, not knowing much about policy, she voted for your family member in the state office election you mentioned because your family-member candidate was an extraordinarily good listener (in a case where the rival candidate was a discernibly bad listener, e.g., supercilious, interrupted a lot, dogmatic, etc.), and where good listening turns out to be substantially relevant to an officeholder’s promoting the common good.

          It seems to me that the voter votes competently just in case she justifiably judges the candidate to have justice-promoting trait T to discernibly higher degree than the other candidates in the election, where T really does promote the common good in some significant way, whether or not the voter has worked-out beliefs about how T promotes the common good. The voter simply has to be right about possession of the relevant trait (where it is relevant), not about the whole causal story that connects the trait in the right way to the common good. To insist on the latter strikes me as far too demanding a standard for “competence.”

          On the other issue you raise: I actually think that Michael’s sold himself short on the knowledge-of-grievances issue. But then, I think he overstated the principle in the first place: I wouldn’t have said that we each have competence to know when we’re harmed, tout court, but that there are contexts in which we have a much better idea of when we’ve been harmed than those who claim to govern us. I don’t have time to deal with that tonight (and probably won’t tomorrow). Hopefully will write something on it Tuesday or later this week.

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  3. So I finally have a free moment to address the issue of our competence to judge whether or not we’ve been harmed. I think Michael’s original formulation overstates things, but I also think David’s skepticism either “goes too far” or fails to take adequate account of contexts in which victims have a sort of knowledge that non-victims lack. I think Michael is right to think that Brennan’s epistocracy fails to do justice to this knowledge.

    It’s certainly true for all the reasons David gives that our knowledge of when we’ve been harmed is defeasible. But there are also contexts in which there is reason to think that our knowledge of when we’ve been harmed is better than that possessed by epistocrats.

    1. Take the case in which you have reason to believe that the epistocrats are, in a general sense, more epistemically competent than you, but have a strong tendency not to care about people like you. “Strong tendency not to care” may fall anywhere on a spectrum from “are decidedly indifferent to your interests” to “harbor genocidal feelings for people like you, and are looking for the next opportunity to wipe you off the face of the planet.” And “people like you” can range anywhere from people of your demographic for some standard demographic variable to you in particular (where these two categories are meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive).

    Yes, people have defeasible beliefs about when they are in the preceding situation–epistemically ordinary folk facing malevolent/indifferent epistocrats–but sometimes they are right. And when they are right, victims of malevolent/indifferent epistocrats will tend to be right about being harmed precisely when the epistocrats are most actively doing their epistocratic thing: deploying their expert knowledge to govern people for what they take to be (or call) the common good. If I want to kill the German-descended classicists of the world whose last names begin with “R,” especially the ones who have recently published books and own dogs, then the frustration you feel at my efforts to govern you will tend not to be only coincidentally related to the subversion of your interests. And your judgments that you’ve been harmed here, there, and over there will tend to be truer than my denials. Yes, your judgments are defeasible, but in this case, they will tend to be reliable, at least about one thing.

    In contexts of this sort, when the epistocrats are sincere, they will tend to overlook your interests. And when they are malevolent, they’ll tend to discount them, sometimes to the vanishing point. In contexts like this, your belief “I am being harmed, this is wrong, and it should stop,” will tend to be more reliable than any epistocrat’s denial of those propositions, whether sincere or insincere.

    2. Bracketing issues of motivation, consider a context in which the people governing you are so distant from the particulars of what they are trying to govern that they altogether lack knowledge of local circumstances. But suppose that as epistocrats who prize non-local knowledge–law-like scientific generalizations, let’s say–they tend to discount the need to have local knowledge. As far as they’re concerned, so-called “local knowledge” is not Knowledge at all, but nescience or mere folk wisdom masquerading as Knowledge. So they’re either systematically blind to its value or they systematically (but falsely) deny its significance. But despite those denials, they insist on ruling you and insist that they are entirely competent to do so. As far as they’re concerned, you are the epistemically incompetent one–so incompetent that there’s no reason you should have a say in what affects you.

    Imagine for instance that your health insurance company decided that Richard Dawkins or Richard Lewontin ought to be your primary care physician on the grounds that unlike some mere MD, who traffics in mere folk remedies and folk biology, Dawkins and Lewontin are True Experts in Biology–a biology grounded in “the best science out there.” Worse still, since Dawkins and Lewontin don’t want to leave their academic positions, they insist on “functioning” as your primary care physician(s) by literally dialing it in, talking to you (superciliously) on Google Video Chat while multi-tasking on their latest research from Oxford or Cambridge, Mass. It’s unlikely that you could argue with their knowledge of biology. You might not be able to grasp why experts in evolutionary biology aren’t automatically expert primary care physicians, either. I mean, isn’t medicine just applied biology? And yet you might be entirely justified in inferring that Dawkins and Lewontin suck as primary care physicians, and that your health insurance company has either blundered or bullshitted you in sticking you with physicians of this caliber.

    The example may sound outlandish, but I think situations like it arise in any political context where some distant epistocratic authority figure decides that it’s necessary to micro-regulate someone’s life on the basis of scientific considerations that imply that folk-epistemic considerations are comparatively speaking, rubbish unworthy of consideration. In cases like that, folk knowledge that one is being ill-treated will tend to be more reliable than lofty claims to the effect that the epistocrats know what they’re doing.

    As a large-scale example, nothing can beat the Vietnam War: lots of plain people knew what Robert McNamara and General Westmoreland et al didn’t know, and lots of plain people were absolutely right to think that being sent to Vietnam by the likes of Robert McNamara and General Westmoreland et al was bullshit and a terrible injustice. This despite all their fallibility and ignorance. Brennan loves to quote claims to the effect that people at the height of the Cold War didn’t know what NATO was. Well, Robert McNamara knew what NATO was, but oddly, when the chips were down, that didn’t help him. By contrast, even if lots of people involved in the Moratorium to End the War didn’t know what NATO was, and didn’t know anything about game theory or war strategy or the containment doctrine or whatever, they were right about the injustice and folly of the war. As far as I can see, nothing in Brennan’s defense of epistocracy deals with this fact.

    In short, I think Michael’s claims are on the right track if they’re properly contextualized.

    Incidentally, while I don’t agree with every formulation in it, this paper, somewhat relevant to what we’re discussing, strikes me as offering a fatal critique of Brennanite epistocracy.

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