Philosophical Majoritarianism

When I was growing up, I loved Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoons. One of my favorites was when they introduced a character with the name of 5. 5 explains that his father changed the family’s names to numbers in response to the growing use of numbers in society. “This is his way of protesting, huh?” he is asked. “No,” 5 explains. “This is his way of giving in.”

Faced with the inescapable reality of human bias, overconfidence, and error, I am responding the same way as 5’s father. I am giving in. I admit and accept that my judgments are fundamentally flawed and my ability to correct and even perceive my own bias is highly questionable. And like a follower of 12-step programs, after admitting my flaws and that I am powerless to correct them, I turn to a higher power. Since as discussed recently I don’t have a religious faith, my higher power is secular. It is in fact the collective wisdom of the entire human race.

I choose to adopt the view that in general, on most issues, the average opinion of humanity will be a better and less biased guide to the truth than my own judgment. I will refer to this doctrine as “philosophical majoritarianism”. “Majoritarianism” normally means the political doctrine that the majority should rule over the minority, so I am trying to distinguish my usage with the adjective “philosophical”. But for convenience, throughout this essay I will just call it “majoritarianism” with the understanding that I mean the usage defined in this paragraph.

On first exposure, most people find the majoritarian doctrine to be implausible and objectionable. It is easy to recall facts where the majority opinion has been verifiably wrong in the past. And some observers have even argued that majoritarianism is self-contradictory, since most people don’t believe in it.

Here is a way of thinking of majoritarianism that I find helpful. Imagine that the bell curve below represents the range of human opinion on some issue. The vertical line labeled T represents the truth on that matter. Now, the average opinion, the peak of the bell curve, is not exactly correct. In fact, there are people who would be more accurate to hold to their own personal opinion than to adopt that of the majority. These people are identified by the shaded area in the diagram.


We can make a few observations:

  1. The shaded area is always less than half the curve. That means that on the average, people will improve their estimates by adopting majoritarianism.
  2. For a given width of the curve, the closer the average opinion is to the truth, the smaller the gray area would be.
  3. For a given degree of closeness to the truth of the average opinion, the broader and wider the range of opinions, the smaller the gray area.

The latter two points mean that majoritarianism will do best on issues where there is a range of opinions and biases, so that they largely cancel out. However as noted in point 1, in general, majoritarianism will improve the average opinion on the average question.

Therefore I would suggest that although one might not always want to defer to the majority opinion, it should be the default position. Rather than starting with the assumption that one’s own opinion is right, and then looking to see if the majority has good reasons for holding some other view, one should instead start off by following the majority opinion; and then only adopt a different view for good and convincing reasons. On most issues, the default of deferring to the majority will be the best approach. If we accept the principle that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, we should demand a high degree of justification for departing from the majority view. The mere fact that our own opinion seems sound would not be enough.

This caution is especially important given that one of the strongest and most universal biases is overconfidence, causing us to be inherently likely to evaluate our own opinion as better justified than it is, compared to the majority opinion. Indeed, there are likely to be a number of biases which conspire together to warp our judgment on this matter. Giving in to the majority opinion goes against much of our training. From childhood we are taught to think for ourselves and not to follow the crowd. Accepting majoritarianism can feel like an abdication of responsibility, even of humanity. If we are reduced to following the crowd, it may raise questions of what the point is of living, or whether we can make a contribution to society.

All these factors must be interpreted as arguments in favor of majoritarianism and against valuing our personal opinions above the majority. Given that we have so many intellectual and emotional biases pushing us towards overconfidence in our opinions, compensating for these biases requires that we give substantial preference to majoritarianism and only depart from it for very strong reasons.

As a final point, I have a few thoughts on the paradoxical and perhaps contradictory nature of majoritarianism. We all have emotional needs to distinguish ourselves from others, which may lead the majority to view majoritarianism with skepticism. However, on many issues, including survival-critical factual matters, I think that most people do in fact defer to the majority. In fact part of the reason why we have to have individualism drummed into us from childhood is precisely because of this instinct in the opposite direction. Majoritarianism is not as self-contradictory as it may seem at first, if you consider the totality of human experience and see how often people do in fact follow the crowd.

The other argument I can offer in response to this criticism is the possibility that this may indeed be an issue where I have a justifiable basis for putting my own opinion above the majority. Despite all the cautions and caveats I laid out above, on this particular issue I don’t think there is much danger of overconfidence biasing me to prefer my opinion, simply because my position fundamentally undercuts the operation of the overconfidence bias. I argue in favor of abandoning personal judgment on most matters in favor of the majority view, and if I were motivated by overconfidence bias then I would think this is the last position I would want to support. So on this narrow doctrinal question I think that to the extent that the crowd disagrees with philosophical majoritarianism, accepting the principle may nevertheless be justified.

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  • Stuart Armstrong

    Are there criteria for which majority to choose? The majority of every human being that has ever existed? The majority of educated adults living in our own country? The majority of scientific specialists on the subject?

    On any given subject, we have to make carefull decisions as to which majority to select. Unless we have good reasons, independent reasons for which majority to go for, this brings us back to our own biases. I think it may be wiser to just try and establish when the majority is wise (and when it’s not, and what majority has the best opinion), rather than use it as a default position.

  • Rob Spear

    This seems to rely upon opinions on the matter in question having a normal distribution, but I don’t think that the central limit theorem necessarily works in this case – can we really assume that majority opinion is the sum of “independent and identically distributed random variables” in most cases? For politically divisive questions, I would expect to see more of an “m-shaped” curve.

  • Rob Spear

    Gah, I am an idiot. Ignore my comment.

  • I do take issue with Philosophical Majoritarianism. Your justification is based on several assumptions, two of which are particularly bothersome.

    Firstly, you assume that opinions follow a normal distribution, which I think is a vast oversimplification.

    Secondly, and more importantly, you assume that there is an actual truth. On scientific issues this is certainly the case, but I put it to you that on those issues you’d be better off going with the majority view among scientists.

    On political issues, for instance, the truth is more a question of personal values than of anything else, hence the majority view will reflect the majority values which might not be your own.

  • 1. How useful is the assumption of a bell-shaped distribution in approximating the range of opinions, esp. given that individuals’ opinions are normally interdependent. Specifically, the first observation would not necessarily hold if the distribution is exceptionally skewed – perhaps when one particular opinion is oversubscribed due to media coverage or political propaganda.

    2. Secondly, if we turn this into a dynamic analysis and if everyone is to follow ‘philosophical majoritarianism’ in forming their opinion, wouldn’t the distribution itself change? How would subsequent observations change? Would there be a convergence of opinions? If there is, would this point of convergence be the truth, or perhaps a stable equilibrium away from the truth, hence a bias?

  • Bias is not bias per se. It is not arbitrary. It doesn’t serve merely to mislead us. It is merely the application of cognitive faculties perfectly suited for tasks they are designed to handle, to tasks which they are not. Like how when Wason’s card problem is posed as it is, people fail miserably. But when posed as problem of catching cheaters, which has the same logical form, people instinctively employed their brain’s cheater detection mechanism, which effectively provided the correct solution. The solution, if we want to arrive at some truth not designed to be handled by our ancient cognitive mechanisms, is not to compensate quantitatively for bias (as in to subtract another opposite bias from it?! which seems to me the basis of your entire proposal, including your justification for it), but to be aware of domains of reasoning where we are susceptible to them, and to keep them in check.

    The assumption of a bell-shaped distribution to opinions is plausible. However, there is no need for the truth to be anywhere near or far from the peak. Biases aren’t random, they therefore don’t cancel out. Unlike the distribution of opinions, the probability distribution of truth would more likely be uniform across the entire spectrum of opinions (appealing to the principle of indifference, as we really don’t at all know where the truth should be).

    Majoritarianism implies the heeding conclusions, instead of evidence. Thus it will inevitably lead you to conclude what everyone else is concluding. And what everyone else is concluding is what everyone else is concluding, ad infinitum. The entire system is self-deterministic and closed. It is designed to be in ignorance of evidence. In deciding truth, it is no better than rolling a dice. Except, as the system will tend toward a stable equilibrium, you only have one shot at the truth. Which makes this system far worse than even gambling.

  • Hal, your stated justification for ignoring the majority opinion on majoritarianism – “Well, I think most people have a bias in the opposite direction, so I’m going to ignore them” – is enormously flimsier than the justifications for ignoring the majority opinions on such topics as the nonexistence of God, the expected utility of cryonics, or, hell, the truth of evolutionary theory. If you’re willing to ignore the majority opinion in the first case, you ought to be willing to ignore the majority opinion in the others.

  • People vary by orders of magnitude in their ability to perceive reality correctly. One can see this by engaging the man in the street on subjects like physics where the correct answers are known to a near certainty. My personal favorite is the man who after viewing television footage of the process, insisted that when a parachute opens, the parachutist for a few seconds is pulled up, i.e., rises with respect to the ground.

    People vary greatly in how confident they are in their own perceptions. I hypothesize that the people who are exceptionally good at perceiving reality correctly got that way by scrutinizing the reliability of their own perceptions much more probingly than most people are are willing to. (But beware the “distinguished scientist” effect.)

    Unless doing so is an assignment for a class or a personal favor to Robin, the mere fact that one is a regular reader of this blog vastly increases the probability that one subjects his perceptions to probing scrutiny, which by my hypothesis increases the probability that one is exceptionally good at perceiving reality.

    If a reader of this blog hesitates to make some important decision, there is no shortage of people who will boldly make that decision in his or her stead. It is an ethical mistake to refrain from acting until one is sure because that concedes the decision to people who are more confident and less competent.

  • Eliezer, it seems to me that Hal is trying to go as far as he can in the direction of not presuming that he knows more than others. So the reason to disagree with the majority on majoritarianism, but not on God, is because the first disagreement is required by the whole approach, while the second is not.

  • Robin, you can’t justify a line of reasoning by saying that it’s “required by the whole approach”. Either it works or it doesn’t. If you need to draw an accurate map of a city, walking through the city works, flipping coins doesn’t. Even if flipping coins is “required by the whole approach” for approach X, it still won’t work, just like engines can’t run on water.

    Likewise with saying, “I think the majority is biased so I’m going to reject their opinion.” Either that’s a reasonable justification or not (I sure think it is), but either way a cognitive procedure is not going to work for drawing accurate maps on just one occasion and then fail at all other times – let alone exhibit such behavior because it’s “required by the whole approach”.

  • On Bias, the Wisdom of Crowds, and Philosophical Majoritarianism

    Wow. It’s one thing to claim bias or conflict of interest every single time you disagree with someone else. It’s a whole different beast when you recognize that everyone (including yourself) is biased everywhere, all the time. Hal Finney’s post is an i…

  • Paul Gowder

    Can I break out the religion reductio again? Please don’t convince me that normative epistemology commits me to believing in the existence of a supernatural deity.

  • Hmmm. You’re only better off accepting the average opinion if you are not already in the shaded area.

    My view is that your model is information-neutral but people are not. A simple instance would be to ask everyone in the world what the Russian word “piva” means in their language. Dude, I’m not taking the majority view on that! So much for facts.

    In the world of less factually based opinion, I’m wondering *why* I would take your stance. Were it true that the majority was wiser than the individual, our views would remain the same in perpetuity. But they don’t.

  • Matt

    You’re assuming opinions are normally distributed, but shouldn’t we expect a multimodal distribution due to the social nature of beliefs? Think about how that graph would look like for the age of Earth in town where half of the people are evangelical christians.

  • Pingback: Whose opinions can we trust? | Pharmer's Tangents()

  • Richard Boase

    People are educated mostly along majority consensus lines however, at least in the basic things. For example, math lessons in school will teach not only the majority oare apinion but the global consensus as doctrine, i.e. as self-evident and objective truth. However, as Math gets more and more complex and further levels of complexity are added, expressions written math for the purpose of physics for example, rearrange the entire canon of mathematics previously understood to be self-evident truth. E=MC² for example, alters a localised view ‘Newtonian Physics’ into an atomic global view, ‘Quantum Physics’.

  • Richard Boase

    Majority opinions are like people. Everybody has one. 🙂