He’s Immune to Parody, Too

Jason’s Brennan’s self-parodic idea of a parody, titled “I Am Immune to Criticism” (my italics):

I’ve decided to copy-cat a style of argumentation which is prominent among democrats and socialists in the philosophy literature. This move will now render me and my work immune from criticism.

By epistocracy, I henceforth mean not only a system that gives greater weight to the wise during voting, but which actually makes substantively wise decisions! Thus, any time a seemingly epistocratic decision-system makes a bad choice–such as a choice that runs afoul of the demographic objection–it wasn’t *true* or *real* epistocracy! Epistocracy by definition always makes the wisest choices. Therefore, to oppose epistocracy is to oppose good choices and favor bad ones.

The notable thing about this proposal is that it commits the very fallacy it supposedly claims to parody. Because nowhere does Brennan show that epistocracy “gives greater weight to the wise,” as though Jason the Epistocrat had devised some reliable procedure for tracking actual, substantive political wisdom, and then decided to give this thing “greater weight.” He seems here to have conjured that “proof” into existence by an act of imagination, in a precise self-parody of the view he claims to be making fun of. What he’s done in his published work is to identify some (tendentious, highly contestable) necessary conditions of correct voting. What he’s done in this blog post is to transmute that, by an act of philosophical alchemy, into “wisdom.”

Nor could he show that epistocracy “gives greater weight to the wise during voting.” Wisdom is a trait of character. But Brennanite voters are not permitted to vote for anyone on grounds of character, unless the trait in question can either be reduced to a normatively ideal set of policy prescriptions, or be shown to be an operationalizable proxy for such a set. Brennan has done neither thing as far as wisdom is concerned. Neither has anyone else. So Brennanite voters couldn’t, consistently with Brennan’s own strictures on voting, “give greater weight to the wise” qua wise–unless they stipulated with a straight face that epistocracy does so by definition. This last result raises the question of who is parodying whom. It also raises the question whether Brennan’s dogma of insisting (in ad hoc fashion) on “Muh Social Science” is really a practicable way of conducting political life in the world inhabited by Homo sapiens sapiens these last 100,000 years or so.

Sometimes the best part of wisdom is to leave parodies alone, whether as a matter of character or of policy. 

2 thoughts on “He’s Immune to Parody, Too

  1. Well, a couple of quibbles though. By “a system that gives greater weight to the wise during voting,” does Jason really mean “a system in which voters give greater weight to wise candidates,” rather than “a system that gives the votes of wiser voters greater weight”? The latter doesn’t run afoul of his strictures against CBV.

    And even if he means the former too, by “wisdom” does Jason really mean a character trait, in the sense at issue in CBV? Socrates thought that wisdom in the sense of possessing a certain kind of knowledge (wisdom-K) was sufficient for wisdom in the sense of a trait of character that could reliably be expected to produce morally enlightened actions (wisdom -C); but for those who doubt Socrates’ intellectualist thesis about motivation, aren’t wisdom-K and wisdom-C different sorts of animule? Wisdom-C is a character trait, but absent the Socratic assumption, wisdom-K is not obviously so; thus even if voters were choosing candidates based on their wisdom-K, that wouldn’t clearly be a concession to CBV.

    That said, it seems a fair objection that the only reason we want wise-K candidates is that we expect certain sorts of action from them, so stressing the separation of knowledge and action could be a two-edged sword for Jason.

    Furthermore, I of course agree with you that Jason’s tests and proxies for wisdom (in whichever sense) are quite dubious. Indeed, I think the case for epistocracy runs afoul of elementary public-choice problems, and so its advocacy suggests precisely either the lack of awareness of public-choice theory or a failure to draw obvious inferences from it. Hence epistocracy can be advocated only by those who would should theoretically excluded from political influence under epistocracy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • My criticism is written so as to cover either possibility you mention in your first paragraph. If you define the criteria for voter eligibility as Brennan does, it doesn’t matter whether he means a system that gives more weight to wise voters (likely his primary meaning), or a system that gives more weight to wise candidates (likely a secondary consideration, but still part of the picture). The fundamental criticism I’m making is that he’s magically treated a highly contestable, non-operationalized, extremely weak, one-sided list of necessary conditions for voting as tantamount to the possession of “wisdom.” However we conceive “wisdom,” it’s an honorific, but however we interpret Brennan, he has not produced an account that entitles him to the use of that honorific. So however things stack up, the irony is that he is committing the very fallacy he claims to be parodying. I don’t think there’s any way around that conclusion.

      Though we could in principle distinguish two kinds of wisdom, Socratic assumptions aside, I think “wisdom” in common usage is a trait, not the possession of knowledge insufficient for governing action. I also think it’s clear that Brennan accepts the Socratic assumption you describe as “intellectualist.” At a bare minimum, the knowledge you have as a voter has to be stable enough to enable you to pass an eligibility exam. That may involve a weak sense of a trait, but it’s still a trait. So I don’t think there’s any way for Brennan to get from his eligibility requirements to “wisdom” without committing himself to some form of wisdom-C.

      I grant you that his view is more focused on the wisdom of voters than that of candidates, and CBV is about candidates, not voters. But since he’s describing epistocracy as rule by the wise, the wisdom of wise voters inevitably consists in voting for the wisdom of wise candidates. The list of eligibility conditions only makes sense if the voters are satisfying those conditions in order to vote for the wise. Brennan himself is the one to stress that voters operate in an information-poor environment, e.g., one in which 9/11 is not predictable on 9/10. He’s also the one who goes on about how real-world policy platforms are mere nonsense that tell you nothing about the policies that the candidates aim to adopt.

      So what exactly are these wise voters voting on? Brennan himself admits that traits are legitimate bases for voting if they’re proxies for policies. What he can’t seem to admit is that on his own view of politics, voting-by-relying-on-claims-about-the-traits-of-candidates is the only mechanism for getting epistocracy into place. If we can ascribe wisdom to voters for passing lame eligibility tests, we can surely ascribe wisdom to politicians for adopting some of the policies we would want put in place, abstracting from the information poor environment in which we operate.

      And whether he admits it or not, we have to. The obvious fact stares anyone but Jason Brennan in the face: at that point (meaning, when the “wise” voter is about to vote in this information-poor environment), “the wise” make judgments about the epistemic and moral traits possessed by the candidates, and use them as a basis for inferences about what will happen once they get into office. If a candidate lacked minimal honesty or trustworthiness, it wouldn’t matter that he offered policy prescription P at t1. You’d have no basis for inferring that he’d adopt it at t2. He might be lying about literally everything. In order to make the inference that what he tells us at t1 will apply to t2, you need to ascribe traits to the candidates that license that inference. Brennan half admits this, then half denies it, then gets all bent out of shape when anyone (like me) points out that he’s doing both things at once in confusing ways. But he is.


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