Friday, March 28, 2008

Plato and Incompetence

While I'm thinking about Plato: In both Republic and Statesman, Plato compares the art of governing to navigation. He likens the demos (people) to an incompetent ship's captain, easily persuaded by demoagogues with pretty rhetoric but no true knowledge of statescraft, while the ones who does know (the navigator, analogous to the philosophy) is dismissed as a useless star-gazer.

Aristotle responds, in the Politics, that people don't have to be competent to perform a task themselves in order to be capable of judging it, pointing out that one needn't be a chef to judge the quality of the meal one eats. There's probably some truth to this, but it also begs the question against Plato, who explicitly deals with such a response: in the Gorgias he compares the philosopher to the doctor administering drugs, demagogues to confectioners, and the demos to children - of course the people prefer sweets to medicine, but that's no indication of what's really good for them, as they aren't capable of rational choice.

Though both Plato and Aristotle accept that certain ends are rational, I think that this dispute may ultimately come down to the question whether we accept this or Hume's dictum that reason ought only to be the slave of the passions. If we agree with Hume, then we might think that the people should set the end (i.e. destination of the ship), leave getting there to the experts, but at the end of the day hold the experts to account. (Although this, of course, involves some problems - the people wouldn't know, for example, whether anyone could have done better or, if so, who). Plato, however, thinks we're not like passengers on a ship wanting to be taken to a particular, given destination by the best route; rather, we don't even know where we should go.

Anyway, I'm digressing slightly. The real motivation of this post was recent scientific research indicating that less competent people are more likely to over-estimate their competence and make bad judges of others (via Scott Adams).

The fact that the majority of people believe themselves above average is, I thought, reasonably well known. To some extent, the fact that incompetent people over-estimate and competent people under-estimate their ability isn't too surprising, as there's more room for error in that direction. In any case, it seems to offer some kind of support for Plato's thesis that most people not only don't know what they're doing but aren't fit to judge those that do. (This runs counter to what Willmoore Kendall argues is the implicit premise behind Locke's theory - that most people are rational and just).

Adams thinks this explains why people vote. I think it may play some part, but not for the reasons he suggests. He claims his political preferences switch in ways suggesting he isn't capable of judging who should be president but, recognizing his incompetence, he abstains. It may be true that most people over-estimate their ability to make the right choice (assuming, of course, that there is one), but even so observed levels of voting surely depend on people over-estimating the efficacy of their votes - which, in large scale elections, is near zero. I've written on these issues before, here and here.

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