Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics: Why Don’t We Just Let The Wise Rule?!

7 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/11/07/the-case-against-democracy (Accessed:22/01/2022); https:// www.ipsos.com/en-uk/perceptions-are-not-reality (Accessed: 22/01/2022)
First, ‘The Value of Wisdom’. Generally, it is reasonable to expect that wisdom is positively correlated with a tendency to produce better outcomes. For example, the legally wise lawyer will tend to produce better legal outcomes for a client than a novice would. The same is true in domains as diverse as cooking and football. In these domains, then, it is intuitive that giving these experts disproportionate authority will foster a tendency to produce better outcomes. We might reasonably expect that politics is similar. If so, (1) is plausible. Weak Asymmetric Distribution (WAD): Everybody in society directly experiences at least one outcome of the decision, but nobody directly experiences all of the outcomes.
8 This list is not exhaustive.
3 e.g. a wisdom-based plural voting scheme.

  1. The Epistocratic Argument
    Epistocratic Argument (EA):
  2. Epistocracy would tend to produce better outcomes than democracy.
  3. If epistocracy would tend to produce better outcomes than democracy, we ought to prefer epistocracy to democracy.
  4. Therefore, we ought to prefer epistocracy to democracy.

This solution merely pushes the problem up a level. Inequality would influence the creation of the epistocratic group indirectly since the materially advantaged could pay for coaching, or familiarisation with test material etc. The problem of homogeneity would persist.
Existent structural inequality makes such an ability unlikely to obtain, by ensuring epistemically-damaging homogeneity amongst an epistocratic group.
Second, they might accept the premise, but claim that an epistocratic group can contain all EVPs. Again, this response is unpersuasive. For one thing, the ‘Homogeneity’ objection suggests that this is implausible in our non-ideal society. More importantly, it is conceptually impossible that epistocracy represents all EVPs. Non-epistocratic perspectives are also EVPs, especially with respect to decisions that only impact them. For example, a policy which made night school compulsory for the non-epistocratic group would only directly impact the non-epistocratic group. On the ‘Perspectives’ argument, their perspectives would certainly be EVPs. However, epistocracy definitionally excludes their perspectives in decision-making.
The interaction between epistocracy and structural inequality generates three mutually reinforcing objections to the idea that we ought to ‘let the wise rule’: ‘Homogeneity’, ‘Perspectives’, and ‘Practices’. Together, they undermine EA (1) and the epistocratic project.
Of course, the epistocrat might dismiss this as a semantic issue, and change their labels accordingly. However, this does not address the root of the problem. The fundamental division between the two groups is what fuels epistemically damaging perspectives.
Typically, epistocrats propose to distinguish the wise from the unwise via proxy or a sufficiently difficult political knowledge test. 10 The problem is that political knowledge or access to suitable proxies (e.g. education) is asymmetrically distributed in favour of the materially and/or socially advantaged. 11 This makes sense in the context of structural inequality: sexist and racist education practices (both formal and informal), amongst other structures, have ensured that political knowledge or access to it is the preserve of the most advantaged.

  1. Structural Inequality

For now, we ought to retain faith in the ‘mob’, at least in the absence of a credible alternative.
My essay has six sections. In Section I, I introduce the ‘epistocratic argument’. In Sections II-V, I offer three related, mutually reinforcing epistemic objections to epistocracy grounded in an understanding of structural inequality. In Section VI, I consider the implications of my answer.
The upshot of this is clear: the epistocratic, ‘wise’ group will be fairly homogenous. After all, the materially and socially advantaged are more likely than others to pass the ‘test’ or satisfy any suitable proxies employed.
(1), then, is not implausible. Nonetheless, it is false, at least in our non-ideal world.

  • . Homogeneity

We ought not let the wise rule, at least not in a structurally unequal society. There is little reason to believe EA (1): against a background of structural inequality, an epistocratic group is likely to be homogenous and unable to capture epistemically valuable perspectives. In turn, this makes it unlikely that it will ‘tend to produce better outcomes’ than democracy.
That structural inequality currently exists will not be debated here but justifiably assumed, since its existence is almost beyond empirical doubt.9
6 e.g. Estlund (2008)
All perspectives are EVPs in decision-making because of the asymmetric distribution of political outcomes: all decisions produce outcomes, each of which is disproportionately experienced by some groups in society but not others. We can distinguish between two kinds of asymmetric distribution:
The epistocrat might attempt three responses. Least successfully, they might attempt to deny the ascription of epistemic value to experience. This is unlikely to persuade many: the value ascription is minimal and, anyway, such an ascription is commonly accepted in value questions.12
(1) is the interesting premise for me. I argue against its truth in Sections II-V. However, there are two reasons which might initially make it convincing.
1 See e.g. Plato in Republic Book VI
Written by Alexander Scoby, University of Cambridge
By structural inequality, I refer broadly to inequality produced by social or political structures, where ‘structures’ are understood as encompassing practices and institutions. Structural inequality can take many forms – material, social, political.8

  1. Perspectives

Epistocracy requires the ability to delineate between the wise and the unwise in an epistemically valuable way. Otherwise, it cannot harness the ‘Value of Wisdom’ or mitigate the ‘Burden of Ignorance’.
11 See Bhatia (2020) for a discussion of relevant empirical studies supporting this.
Recognising this suggests that all perspectives are always at least somewhat valuable, since different groups experience different outcomes of the same decision. Consequently, different groups have greater epistemological access to the values of certain outcomes than others. For example, the migrant family will experience different outcomes from the election of a fiscally-conservative, socially-conservative new ruling party than the wealthy, native banker will. In turn, the migrant family are better placed to understand the value of migration-related policies than the banker is.
There are two good reasons to think that formal disenfranchisement will lead to loss of EVPs, both relating to the ‘labelling’ essential to epistocratic disenfranchisement.
The epistocrat might respond in two ways. Most obviously, they might claim that any suitable political knowledge test or proxy would capture the political wisdom of the disadvantaged. Perhaps a test created by a sufficiently large, randomly selected group might be the best way to do this.
A similar point applies when we consider structural inequality. Because of inequality, the outcomes of the same decision are often experienced in radically different ways. For example, the materially advantaged experience the election of a fiscally-conservative party in a completely different way to the materially disadvantaged. In a more equal society, experiences might not diverge so radically.
9 See e.g. the gender pay gap; access to better education dependent on material resources; attainment gaps along class lines, etc.
I argue that against a background of structural inequality, an epistocracy is unlikely to epistemically outperform democracy. By doing so, I hope to undermine the appeal of epistocracy and ‘defend’ democracy from a competitor.
13Schmidt et al (2017)
The third response to the ‘Perspectives’ objection, then, is to deny the underlying assumption that formal disenfranchisement entails a loss of perspective. The ‘Practices’ objection undermines this response.
Before assessing the EA, it is worth noting that it assumes objectivism and cognitivism with respect to claims about political outcomes. That is, it assumes that some outcomes are objectively better than others and, further, that we can know the objective value of outcomes. This assumption is justifiable, though not uncontroversial. 4 I accept the assumption in this essay, since both sides in the debate do.5
The second response might be to temporarily bite the bullet. Although currently homogenous, an epistocratic group would become diverse over time because epistocracy would effectively work to address structural inequality.

  1. Practices

The main problem with this response is naïvety. The next two objections suggest why: epistocracy, because its essential maintenance of political structural inequality, is unlikely to effectively address issues important to the most disadvantaged. Even setting this aside, however, the response is costly. After all, it implicitly concedes that creating an epistemically valuable epistocratic group is implausible in a structurally unequal society.
This article received an honourable mention in the undergraduate category of the 2022 National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics
My rejection of epistocracy depends on a background understanding of structural inequality, its existence in current society, and epistocracy’s essential maintenance of it.
The epistocratic might deny that a ‘wise’ group would engage in devaluation. However, devaluation is subconscious and difficult to mitigate. It is comparable to the ‘marketing placebo effect’ in that epistocrats might not consciously change their response based on labels, yet it occurs nonetheless. 13
Assuming justifiably that experience increases epistemological access at least in value-questions, it is true that all perspectives are EVPs in decision-making, since outcomes (and with it epistemological access) are asymmetrically distributed. This is a problem for EA (1): if epistocracy cannot harness all EVPs because it disenfranchises some, it is unlikely that it can accurately appreciate the value of outcomes. In turn, this makes it less likely to routinely produce valuable outcomes.

  1. Conclusions

These considerations gain force when we think about decisions with a SAD of outcomes. After all, not all groups experience any outcome of the decision. Therefore, the perspectives of those who do are especially epistemically valuable in understanding outcomes’ values.
5 e.g. Landemore, Cohen, and Estlund (democrats); Ingham (2013) and Brennan (2011), (2016) (epistocrats). Exactly why homogeneity is epistemically damaging will become clear in Sections IV and V. For now, it is sufficient to note that homogeneity is something an epistocrat wants to avoid if the ‘wise’ group is to be epistemically valuable.
10 E.g. Mill (1861) or Brennan (2016) and https://www.vox.com/2018/7/23/17581394/against-democracy-book-epistocracy-jason-brennan (Accessed: 23/01/2022)
Throughout history, democracy has been accused of producing objectively sub-optimal outcomes because it gives voice to the ‘mob’. 1 Recently, Brexit and the election of Trump have been the favoured examples.2
12 e.g. questions about artistic value.
A less plausible assumption in the EA underlies premise (2): epistemic performance is all that matters when assessing political systems against one another. This is not true. In fact, arguments against epistocracy often invoke normative considerations about procedural fairness or equality. 6 In this essay, however, I grant (2). This is purely for dialectical value: by engaging with the epistocrat on their assumption that instrumental value is all that matters in a political system, my argument is stronger than it would be if I relied on normative considerations that they might not share.
Strong Asymmetric Distribution (SAD): Not everybody in society directly experiences at least one outcome of the decision.
The supposedly poor epistemic performance of democracy has served as a springboard for epistocracy, loosely defined as any political arrangement where the ‘wise’ (or competent) have disproportionate political authority relative to the rest of the population.3
Devaluation also occurs amongst the non-epistocratic group as a result of labelling. The stigmatising effect of being labelled ‘unwise’ by the state is likely to result in a loss of epistemic self-belief. As Haslanger notes, it is difficult to retain even justified beliefs in the face of devaluation.14
2 e.g. Brennan, J. (2016), Brexit, Democracy, Epistocracy; see also https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/11/10/the-dance-of-the-dunces-trump-clinton-election-republican-democrat/
14 Haslanger (2014)
Labels structure responses. If something is publicly labelled ‘bad’, respondents are more likely to disregard it. Similarly, when epistocrats publicly label some ‘unwise’, they invite disregard for their views in deliberation. Their epistemic credibility, ability to solve complex problems or, generally, their perspectives, are all likely to be devalued.
Second, ‘The Burden of Ignorance’. Empirically, many voters are ignorant of relevant, important facts. 7 Generally, ignorance (or a lack of wisdom) hinders a tendency to produce the best possible outcomes; this is why the legal novice will rarely produce the best legal outcomes. Epistocracy, by relatively or absolutely disenfranchising the ‘unwise’, is better placed to mitigate the influence of the ignorant in decision-making than democracy, where everybody theoretically has equal political authority. In turn, this lack of ‘burden’ supports (1).
Including both perspectives in this case is epistemically valuable in two related ways. First, our cumulative epistemological access to the total value of outcomes produced by the decision increases, since no group has identical access. Second, the potential for ‘epistemic blindspots’ is reduced: by including all perspectives in decision-making, we will not incidentally exclude an especially valuable perspective with respect to the value of a decision’s outcomes.
A deeper problem with epistocracy is that it is fundamentally mistaken about the extension of the class of ‘epistemically valuable perspectives’ (EVPs) in decision-making; this is especially true in a structurally unequal society. Epistocracy essentially limits the class of EVPs to those of the epistocratic group and systematically silences the perspectives of the non-epistocratic group via relative or absolute disenfranchisement,.
4 See Landemore (2017) for a discussion of Rawls’ (1993) objection to objectivism and/or cognitivism about some political claims, Habermas’ (1990) response and Martí’s (2006) argument.