Imagine Philosopher Kings

I just read Joseph Heath’s Enlightenment 2.0 (reviewed here by Alex). Heath is a philosopher who is a big fan of “reason,” which he sees as an accidentally-created uniquely-human mental capacity offering great gains in generality and accuracy over our other mental capacities. However, reason comes at the costs of being slow and difficult, requiring fragile social and environmental supports, and going against our nature.

Heath sees a recent decline in reliance on reason within our political system, which he blames much more on the right than the left, and he has a few suggestions for improvement. He wants the political process to take longer to consider each choice, to focus more on writing relative to sound and images, and to focus more on longer essays instead of shorter quips. Instead of people just presenting views, he wants more more cross-examination and debate. Media coverage should focus more on experts than on journalists. (Supporting quotes below.)

It seems to me that academic philosopher Heath’s ideal of reason is the style of conversation that academic philosophers now use among themselves, in journals, peer review, and in symposia. Heath basically wishes that political conversations could be more like the academic philosophy conversations of his world. And I expect many others share his wish; there is after all the ancient ideal of the “philosopher king.”

It would be interesting if someone would explore this idea in detail, by trying to imagine just what governance would look like if it were run similar to how academic philosophers now run their seminars, conferences, journals, and departments. For example, imagine requiring a Ph.D. in philosophy to run for political office, and that the only political arguments that one could make in public were long written essays that had passed a slow process of peer review for cogency by professional philosophers. Bills sent to legislatures also require such a peer-reviewed supporting essay. Imagine further incentives to write essays responding to others, rather than just presenting one’s one view. For example, one might have to publish two response essays before being allowed to publish one non-response essay.

Assume that this new peer review process managed to uphold intellectual standards roughly as well as does the typical philosophy subfield journal today. Even then, I don’t have much confidence that this would go well. But I’m not sure, and I’d love to see someone who knows the internal processes of academic philosophy in some detail, and also knows common governance processes in some detail, work out a plausible guess for what a direct combination of these processes would look like. Perhaps in the form of a novel. I think we might learn quite a lot about what exactly can go right and wrong with reason.

Other professions might plausibly also wish that we ran the government more according to the standards that they use internally. It could also be interesting to imagine a government that was run more like how an engineering community is run, or how a community of physicists is run. Or even a community of spiritualists. Such scenarios could be both entertaining and informative.

Those promised quotes from Enlightenment 2.0:

One of the most important features of reason is that it is slow. Thus one way in which democratic institutions enhance the quality of decision making is simply by slowing down the process. The most obvious example of this is bicameralism. … and a complicated process by which bills go back and forth. .. “question period and debate institutionalize doubt and skepticism” .. the American political system simply lacks any mechanism to force the president and legislators to explain themselves or their actions to one another. .. The obvious recourse is simple to remove the television cameras. .. broadcasters are not allowed to reproduced segments of less than one minute in length. Similarly, the British system that requires submission of questions in advance is demonstrably superior. .. American journalists have a peculiar habit of interviewing each other rather than independent experts. .. “Fairness doctrine” .. coverage .. must .. provides for .. contrasting points of view. .. prohibits intentional repeated broadcast of “false or misleading news.” .. hold political advertising to the same “false advertising” standards that ordinary commercial advertising is expected to satisfy. .. Certain practices, such as editing a recording of one’s opponent’s speech, removing words in order to change the meaning of a sentence, are so obviously deceptive that it is difficult to believe they are legal in any jurisdiction. .. one could prohibit the user of images, music, and sound effects in political advertising – making it so that the ad could feature only the candidate talking. .. Take measures aimed at .. negative advertising. .. make voting mandatory. .. It is entirely possible that the past ten years will be looked back on as the “golden years” of public discourse, precisely because of the technological limitations that left us with not choice but to type out long messages to one another and to leave written comments on blogs.

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  • Joe

    I was struck by this quote from the book, as detailed in the linked review:

    The three major institutional features of our society—the market, representative democracy, and human rights—were all innovations that, at the time they were adopted, struck people as being completely crazy, absolutely contrary to human nature (which is why they were rejected throughout most of human history).

    The idea that these ideas were resisted due to running contrary to human nature, specifically, is quite interesting. It’s interesting because, according to the understanding of hunter-gatherer societies you’ve conveyed here in the past (which does seem to be the standard view with relative consensus), democracy, and perhaps human rights too, are very intuitive concepts. Markets are easy to see as alien to human nature, but democracy certainly isn’t – so the resistance to it would have come from learned ideas, etched into us over many millenia of society ruled by farming culture, rather than coming from innate human psychology.

    This would give a larger role to culture in developing those ‘automatic’ parts of our minds than Heath seems to suggest. (And separately, it does seem like our minds are able to convert repeatedly-performed ‘reasoned’ actions into ‘automatic’ actions we are able to do without thinking.)

    • oldoddjobs

      Since when are “human rights” one of the three major institutional features of our society?

      Whose society?

      What is an institutional feature and how are some minor and some major?

      Who exactly said that “human rights” were crazy?

      I don’t know who these people write for, or what universe they think they’re living in.

  • davidmanheim

    This obviously doesn’t happen in large part due to the different incentives. But the artificial incentives in academia are perverse in specific ways caused by attempts to manage it, as a recent blog post, “Every attempt to manage academia makes it worse” by Mike Taylor – – lays out; . It concludes that
    “… could it possibly be … that the best way to get good research and publications out of scholars is to hire good people, pay them the going rate and tell them to do the job to the best of their ability?” (ellipses in original)

    So to be fair to academics, perhaps the asked-for analysis could consider what politics would look like if academia weren’t so subject to the vicissitudes of, well, politics.

    Of course, if we had a system to hire politicians that let us identify the “good people,” or better, let us choose policies by somehow accurately predicting how they would perform *cough* futarchy *cough* then this wouldn’t be a problem…

  • Robert Koslover

    No, thank you. I think William F. Buckley, Jr. said it best:
    “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”

  • sflicht

    I don’t think a philosophy journal approach to government would be very interesting, even just as an experiment. That might be the case if people were legislating based on value systems, but as Robin is well-aware, all too-often legislation is based on belief systems. Academic philosophy is not notable for being good at arriving at objective truths, even if it’s arguable that it is good for arriving at superior value systems.

  • lump1

    The argumentative style of philosophers is well suited to quarterly journals that debate topics in philosophy. But if you swap out the topic, you have no reason to expect the style keep working. I say this as someone who’s attended philosophy department faculty meetings. One doesn’t come away wishing these professors were kings. Slowing everything down (even more) by requiring essays and peer review won’t fix the core problem, which is that good leaders understand which problems merit detailed analysis and which don’t. Philosophers are happy to devote a whole prolific career to problems that they know don’t really matter – not even inside the discipline of philosophy. And that’s the outcome we should expect if we foist the methods of philosophy on a profession that needs to make real decisions: We get endless debates and cycles of replies about a detail of a detail of an argument about a problem.

    Monty Python did a philosophers’ soccer match where the ball was ignored as the players paced broodingly and thought. That’s kinda funny, but not really fair to the philosophers. Now imagine if a debate broke out, and at the opening whistle, all the “players” wanted to first “get clear on certain conceptual points” before they got around to kicking the ball. Yeah, I can imagine that taking 90 minutes.

  • Brian Slesinsky

    It seems like the judicial system is the closest thing we have to this today. For important decisions, judges (and their clerks) make extensive written arguments explaining their reasoning. So, maybe the question is why the government as a whole isn’t more like the judicial system?

    Maybe it’s because the judicial system is often very slow and expensive?

    • RobinHanson

      The judicial system actually makes a lot MORE publicly visible decisions than do the other branches.

      • Brian Slesinsky

        True, and yet, litigation is expensive. Using the court system to resolve disputes is often avoided.

    • Unfinishe

      And the unelected guardians in black robes consistently enjoy higher public approval ratings than either Congress or the President.

  • Kate Stern

    Seems to be a typo: “so obviously deceptive that it is difficult to relive they are legal” relive -> believe

    • Robin Hanson

      fixed; thanks