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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