Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Some consolations of philosophy

The 2016 election has been unusually dispiriting. The absence of enthusiasm for both major party presidential candidates is confirmed by the always-reliable lawn sign indicator. There aren’t any.

A bit of metaphysics should help us understand that our political condition is more hopeful than it seems.

If you are a realist about social entities like governments (as I am), then you believe that there exists a ‘preference function’ capable of being realized in and enacted by governments. Since our form of government is democratic, that preference function is derived from the preference functions of the individual citizens. That social preference function has a real, separately identifiable value; it’s not merely a summary of the individual orderings.

A central question of democratic theory concerns how that public preference function is to be derived. Two theories prevail. On the first model, ‘Legislative Deliberation’, democracy poses the question, “How does justice require us to distribute the goods which government controls?” The answer: by dialogue among fellow citizens (or their representatives) who are all pursuing the same goal, namely to satisfy the requirements of justice.

On the second model, ‘Pluralist Bargaining’, democracy poses the question, “How do we resolve the competition among us for those goods? The answer: by negotiation in which each party tries to gain as much as possible short of undermining the arrangements. If we all take care of ourselves, justice will take care of itself.

Both theories have problems. The first makes us sound like angels (or Kantian Transcendental Egos). But human beings have particularistic, messy ties that can conflict quite badly with impersonal justice – and so much the worse for impersonal justice. Democracy cannot require us to lay down our humanity. It also suggests that there is One True Answer to the distribution question. But then is there some Platonic ‘Cognitive Elite’ who, by their understanding of that answer, may supplant democratic processes to implement it? (So Progressives reason.)

The second accepts the need for disguising preferences, withholding information, even undermining others. Strategies acceptable for bargaining even among enemies should not be acceptable among fellow citizens.

Some more metaphysics will help here. An externalist regarding the contents of mental states maintains that those contents may not be represented internally. Thus I can be intending to buy milk at the store even though my intention incorporates nothing representing ‘milk’: I have a list in my shirt pocket that has the word ‘milk’ on it. Why store it “in the head”?

Likewise, while it is true that each democratic citizen has a preference ordering, they may not have introspective access to it (because it’s not “in the head”). Indeed, each of us may have false beliefs about what our actual preferences are.

How then to derive the social preference function from the individual functions in a democracy? It seems impossible.

No, it’s not.

When we must come to an agreement about the social preference, but are confronted with others with different preferences, an inevitable process of refining our own preferences takes place. Maybe you don’t want a Medicare drug benefit as much as you thought you did, if it means foregoing military modernization that makes the nation safer. Or vice versa.

This process of discernment ordinarily takes place in legislatures: in our federal system in the House of Representatives. That’s why budget bills originate there.

Therefore, it becomes very, very important who constitutes that body if the process of discernment is to be effective.

And that is on you. The election of members of Congress, to say nothing of state assemblies and school boards, is a genuine and significant social act.

But, you respond, the issues are very complicated; you can’t form an opinion worth having on all those issues and live your life too.

Fair enough. That’s why decision heuristics are important. Don’t work out the details of policy. Work out your heuristic rules for deciding generally what policies you should favor.

Decision heuristics have a bad reputation, since they involve cognitive bias. But they are also indispensable. (Suppose you come to a stoplight on a two-lane street. In one lane is an elderly lady in a Lincoln Towncar; in the other lane is a Dude in a muscle car with flame decals. Who do you get behind? Granny may lay rubber through the intersection when the light turns green. But is that the way to bet? What if some issue of importance rests on your choice?)

One of my own decision heuristics for deciding what view to hold on proposed government programs is this: A program that places some good necessary for ordinary life solely or even predominantly in the hands of government undermines the proper relation between the citizen and the state. We would cease to be citizens and become clients or subjects instead.

Each of us will have different decision heuristics. But if we are going to be clear even on our own preference functions, we need to be confronted with other, different ones.

So take time to figure out the races down the ticket. That’s where the real action is. Metaphysics says so.

Thomas Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. May one reason thusly? "Trump is the dude with the muscle car with flames on it. HRC is the grandma in the Lincoln. Advantage, Trump."

  2. OK, more seriously now. There's a difference between a decision heuristic favoring certain persons, and a decision heuristic favoring certain policies. You seem to advance a bit of both, no? So, in local or national races, when we are voting on both persons and policies, with knowledge that persons may or make not bring in their wake certain policies (by keeping/breaking promises of who to appoint, by keeping/breaking promises of what policies to support in other ways), it's OK to vote for the most likely person to move the dial a bit in the direction you think policy to take?

    1. Good point. My decision heuristics regarding candidates is something like: I don't consider their moral condition except where it may effect the integrity of their conduct of the office. I don't need to like the person, or think they're nice. I don't actually have to agree with them on very much. My problem with both candidates for president this election is that I have no idea with their real convictions are (I used to think I knew what Clinton's where, but that was back in 2008). And I have every reason to doubt the integrity with which they will pursue them. My own heuristic on voting for president will be to do my part in seeing that whoever wins lacks a mandate for whatever it is they might do and place my hopes in a revival of institutional responsibility in the legislature.

  3. Tom, thanks for this timely piece, which of course contains much wisdom. I would ordinarily agree with you that the real action is races down the ticket. And perhaps that is true in California, since there is close to 0 chance that Trump will win here.

    However, even in the context of an encouraging piece like this, I think it is important to acknowledge that the situation we face at the presidential level is more than a little dispiriting. Everyone should be terrified at the prospect of someone whose distinguishing feature is a total lack of accountability to reason becoming the commander in chief of the most potent military force in history. The Rise of Trump and the collapse of the Republican party as a principled political entity is one of the most sickening political spectacles we have witnessed in our lifetimes.

    Still, I mean ultimately to register agreement with your optimism about informed involvement in the process. Our terror at this prospect is not an excuse for ignoring everything else.

    I am personally not a fan of the initiative/referendum process, so my personal heuristic is vote No in the absence of extremely compelling reasons to vote Yes even (and perhaps especially) if you don't understand it.

    1. I'm not all that optimistic about the immediate term because the political situation in California can only be described as 'decadent.' If there is value in the process of discernment among those with different preference orderings, California politics notably lacks that value. There is no, literally no, Republican candidate for US senator - an astonishing state of affairs. House seats, as well as seats in the state senate and assembly have been apportioned, conspiratorily, to minimize genuinely contested elections. So elections are not real choices. My point is that, if you aspire to some hope for our politics, that's where you should expend your energy, not on who's president.
      Regarding initiatives, I have the same heuristic.

  4. Tom,

    I take you to be saying that the outcome of the higgling and haggling that takes place in legislatures is, in some metaphysically robust sense, the content of our preferences.

    Is there really any reason to believe that? It seems false on its face and the bit about externalism doesn't really help that much. Also, there's a theorem in social choice theory beginning with Arrow (well, really Condorcet) that shows just how fraught attempts to move from a set of individual preference rankings to a social ordering are, such that you can't really say that the latter is our ranking.

    1. Kyle,
      Right! Arrow’s General Possibility Theorem shows that, if a procedure for deriving a social preference ranking from the preference rankings of individuals has certain democracy-bestowing features, then it will yield no consistent social preference. It will produce ‘voting paradoxes.’ As you point out, this has been known at least since Condorcet. Arrow contributed the precise conditions and ‘rationality assumptions’ that produce this highly embarrassing result.
      I argue that externalism helps by reminding us that the content of an intentional state may not be available to the individual whose state it is. This then undermines the assumption that individual preference rankings are so available. How then do we gain access to our own preference?
      Consider a real estate transaction. Buyer’s and seller’s preference rankings will conflict. Buyer wants fresh paint, new carpets, new appliances, and a low price. Seller want to do no improvement yet receive full price. But both share an interest in making the deal. How much does buyer really want the new appliances? How much does seller want to turn down the lowball offer to avoid making improvements? The need for an agreed-upon social preference ranking forces the parties to become clearer even to themselves what their preferences really are. So the individual preferences are discerned in the process of making the social preference.
      What might that process include? It might include: disguising preferences; appealing to considerations irrelevant to the issue at hand but significant to the other party. In short, all the nasty-seeming features of democratic political practice.
      Politicians in democracies frequently accuse each other of ‘hypocrisy’. But such hypocrisy often amounts simply to an appeal to reasons that have no weight with you but are persuasive to the other party. The ‘hypocrite’ must say to himself, “Yes, that would be a good reason. I am obliged to acknowledge that anyone deciding for that reason would be deciding well, even though it is not my reason.”
      In short, these metaphysical considerations show that the nasty-seeming features of political practice in democracies are, given Arrow’s Theorem, are indispensible to deriving the social preference. They’re not a bug but a feature.

    2. Indispensable for what? Why think those practices will result in something deserving the name "social preference"? I mean, Arrow doesn't say that voting mechanisms can't arrive at some result or other. But there's no reason to think the result will have any connection with the preferences of the voters.

      In your example of the private transaction, we could identify the connection between the parties' (stated) preferences at t1 and their (actual) preferences (in the face of various constraints) as they're revealed at t2 when the agreement is struck.

    3. You make two points (if I understand you correctly): (i) That use of a procedure fitting Arrow’s conditions gives us no reason to think the result of the procedure will have any connection with the preferences of the voters; (ii) that there’s a contrast between the real estate case and democratic political practice.
      Regarding (i), the connection between individual preferences and social preference seems evident. Two of Arrow’s conditions seem to guarantee it. One, ‘Positive Association,’ goes thus: If every individual’s decision concerning an alternative x remains unchanged or changes in favor of x, and the decision concerning any other alternatives is unchanged, then a social decision concerning x also remains unchanged or changes in favor of x.” In short the social decision is a dependent variable of the individual preferences. Another, “Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives,” states: Take any pair of alternatives in the triple (x, y, z) – say, x and y. A social decision on the preference of x over y (or vice versa) depends only on individual decisions concerning that pair. In short, the procedure should settle the issue based on individual preferences and nothing else.
      Regarding (ii), democratic political practice will embody the ‘discernment’ feature even more than a real estate transaction. Real estate transactions are typically ‘one-off,’ but politics is an iterated game.

    4. Kyle,
      I hope I’m understanding your objections correctly. The short format is a bit frustrating in that respect, since I fear I may be less than clear.
      We may be missing each other in the dark.

    5. Yes, we might be missing each other. I meant that the connection won't be such as to allow us to think of the result of our actual political practices as a legitimate social ordering. I understood your post as an attempt to dispute that, but I'm not seeing how it works.

      In other words, I asked how externalism is supposed to help deal with Arrow's result. You said:

      "externalism helps by reminding us that the content of an intentional state may not be available to the individual whose state it is. This then undermines the assumption that individual preference rankings are so available. How then do we gain access to our own preference?"

      So maybe you mean that the best (or a good) way to identify what our individual preference rankings are is to see what get spit out of our messy political processes, which is (Voila!) a social ranking of the options.

      Because later you said, "that the nasty-seeming features of political practice in democracies are, given Arrow’s Theorem, indispensable to deriving the social preference."

      But since these practices don't adhere to Arrow's conditions, why should we think the result is even a decent proxy for the social preference? Or, why should we think the result really is dependent on the preferences of the individuals voting?

    6. The nasty-seeming practices do adhere to Arrow’s rationality considerations after all. The model holds that political practice is the process of clarifying your actual, fine-grained preference individual structure even to yourself. You do this by being confronted directly with the preference structures of others, who are doing the same thing, in the public arena, in a situation where all parties prefer some outcome to stalemate. So what looks like disguising preferences, appealing to considerations irrelevant considerations, or using considerations that have no weight with you but do with your opponents, really isn’t. You can’t be said to be disguising preferences if you’re in a process of learning yourself what they are. You can’t be said to be introducing considerations irrelevant to the issue, because what is relevant may be one of the things at issue. (Political coalitions often aggregate issues to enlarge the coalition.) And it’s not hypocrisy to rehearse your opponents favored considerations in your arguments. It requires understanding their point of view, after all. It’s 'rhetoric' in the good sense.

      It seems to me that much political discourse presently has as its purpose avoiding just such confrontations with the views of others. Jonathan Haidt is all over this point: liberals and conservatives no longer understand each other, and have no desire to.

      So whatever results is dependent on the preferences of individuals in the right, democracy-bestowing, way because it does after all meet Arrow’s conditions.

      I think this model is superior to the ‘Legislative Deliberation’ model because I’m more convinced that a society’s social preference ordering exists than that impersonal justice exists. And ‘Pluralist Bargaining’ makes implausible assumptions about our access to our own mental states.

      I hope that’s clearer, Kyle!

    7. I should have said, "I'm more convinced that a society's social preference wording exists - and is discernible - than that impersonal justice exists - and is discernible."

      After all, we have legislatures to sort social policy out.

      But we philosophers seem to be no good at all at sorting social justice out.

  5. Also, Tom, about the first model:

    Empirical work in political science shows that voters actually vote altruistically and in ways that they believe will promote justice and the common good. The problem is that most voters are appallingly ignorant about which policies do that. This makes sense: don't invest in becoming an informed, self-interested voter when your vote has only the most minuscule chance of making a difference to the outcome when you can get warm fuzzies from casting an altruistic vote at considerably less cost!

    And, it turns out, most don't even know enough to be able to make effective use of heuristics. For example, they're ignorant about party stereotypes. More here in this recent (very balanced) New Yorker review:

    1. I’m just taking our democratic institutions for what they are. I’m ‘at home’ to all the objections to democracy, especially in large, complex nations like ours. As a purely abstract principle, if I’m required to choose between: (i) a government that is fully liberal (preserves negative liberties, etc.) but undemocratic, and (ii) a government that is democratic but illiberal, I choose (i).
      But for all the Hayekian reasons, I think rule by a liberal cognitive elite would be no better at producing the social preference ranking than democracy.

  6. Hello Professor Pyne,

    How interestingly coincidental! We just had a conversation about states as real entities this week... I want to clarify for myself a bit on what you mean when you say that a there is a preference function capable of being realized and enacted which is not only a summary of the individual preference orderings of citizens.

    When you say that this function would be different and not just a summation, do you mean that it is not simply enough that we combine the preference functions of individuals as independent elements? Are you arguing a government's preference function differs from the simple summation of individuals such that the government's preference function has to account for the interrelation of each element (individuals' functions) as a member which alters others? I can see how this would require a separate descriptive framework for entities which did not simply reduce to the individuals. Do you think that if what I am reading this as is the case, it constitutes a kind of necessary condition for the realist stance regarding social entities?

    1. Social facts are (in some way) emergent from, but not identical to, summaries of individual facts. That's what realism amounts to here.
      In my response to Prof. Swan I try to give, in an undetailed fashion, exactly the sort of 'interrelations' I suspect you are referring to.
      Good thought, Stan!

    2. You guys waded right in, didn't you? :) I admit I am far out of my depth here but I think I am picking up on a trail that both corresponds to my interests and directs me on what I need to read about (externalist and internalist accounts of intentional states) to really engage the topic.

    3. We may be out of our depth too, Stan.