Huemer II: On Ordinary Political Intuitions
A long reply to Michael Huemer, below the fold.
In chapter six of Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority, we find:
[Some] advocates of political authority suggest that anarchism should be rejected because it is simply too far out of the mainstream of political opinion. The belief in political obligations, writes George Klosko, “is a basic feature of our political consciousness.” He believes that we should accept common opinions as prima facie evidence in normative matters, particularly when philosophical opinion is divided. David Hume goes farther: “The general opinion of mankind has some authority in all cases; but in this of morals ’tis perfectly infallible.” If there is no political authority, it is natural to ask, then how have so many people come to have such a firm belief in it? Is it not more likely that I and the handful of other anarchists have made a mistake, than that almost everyone else in the world has?
Ultimately, I disagree with that argument. All things considered, I think it more likely that others are mistaken than that I am. (Obviously, I would not hold a belief that I myself did not consider more likely true than false.)
Now, I would not personally suggest that belief in political authority is a “basic” feature of consciousness; this to my mind does some sneaky normative work that it ought not to do. (Are people who lack this belief defective human beings, then?) But at any rate, the belief that a command bears some additional moral force by virtue of its having come from the state does seem to be pretty darn common. And even intuitive.
The problem for me lies in Huemer’s final two sentences, which are about as un-Bayesian as one can get. They even come close to affirming the truth value of a claim… simply because I am the one affirming the truth value of the claim!
This would be very convenient, if logic permitted.
But if we more reasonably assume that each of us is endowed with some positive, imperfect, yet non-negligible capacity as a truth detector, and if each of us is more or less alike in that regard, and if the overwhelming majority of people’s intuitions still settle on political authoritarianism, well then, we ought to consider, barring a very convincing demonstration of error coming from a provably superior truth-detector, that the common intuition is correct. As my colleague Julian Sanchez has noted, this bodes ill for certain brands of doctrinaire libertarianism:
I’ve become more of a Bayesian about politics: I cannot help but notice that lots of folks who are as smart or smarter than I have rather radically different views about what sort of polity is best, and I cannot quite bring myself to conclude that they’re simply watching shadows dance on the cave walls, while I have glimpsed the Forms. And so I don’t, these days, much find myself thinking about the specific contours of libertopia. Instead, I tend to find myself thinking in terms like: “Well, let’s push in this direction and see how it works.” You have to be careful there too, of course, since depending on the details, a government-market hybrid (say) will just give you the disadvantages of both. (See: Healthcare System, United States.) But I think this is the direction you end up pushed in if you take Hayek’s warnings about “constructivist rationalism” sufficiently seriously. On this model, libertarianism isn’t so much a final picture of a just society as a specific sort of toolkit…
This is a view I somewhat share, although I would caution those who would adopt it away from the error of thinking that popular intuitions about politics are significantly more likely to be correct when they are aggregated and compared to any eccentric view.
This sort of thinking leads quickly to Panglossianism of the original and very worst sort — political Panglossianism, the idea that we already live right now in the best of all possible political worlds. (“If it’s really so awful,” asked the nineteenth century, “why haven’t we already abolished slavery? It can’t be that bad!”)
The key divergence between politics as it is usually conducted and the model of political life that posits that we are a collection Bayesian updaters is simply that most people are not Bayesian updaters.
On the contrary, most people are demonstrably, even proudly, un-Bayesian. In this they are just like Huemer, and just like I often am, too, if I’m being honest. There is not really any very strong reason arising from the epistemological account of probability to think that our politics is converging on, or has converged on, the truth.
This means that democratic commands aren’t worthy of additional moral weight for probabilistic reasons, and it also means that we need not give up on eccentric political ideas merely because the majority doesn’t share them. If most people aren’t Bayesian updaters, then true Bayesian updaters ought not to listen to them.
But it is also to say that we all have political intuitions, and they all (probably) stink.
The analogy to medicine is again instructive; all the medical intuition in the world, shared and passed along from one generation to the next, did not suffice to appreciably lower the mortality rate from ancient times until the advent of the germ theory of disease. Which, by the way, was vastly counterintuitive to the very smart people who were not raised to find it intuitive. My three-year-old knows more about germs than the very learned doctors of the eighteenth century. Should we really suppose that politics, a subject easily as complex as medicine, would be so much more intuitive?
And yet, if we’re still committed to intuitionism (after all that!), shouldn’t we at last use political intuitions for political reasoning, and non-political intuitions for non-political things?
Later in chapter six, Huemer addresses what he sees as the particular fallibility of political intuition: Humans are demonstrably and horrifyingly deferent to authority. He walks readers through the Milgram experiment and suggests that politics might be quite similar: An authority figure asks us to do something objectively horrible, and we for the most part comply.
A lot of politics really is like this. As a libertarian, I’m committed to saying that nearly all of it is, and I agree entirely with him when he writes:
The widespread acceptance of political authority has been cited as evidence of the existence of (legitimate) political authority. The psychological and historical evidence undermines this appeal. The Nazis, the American soldiers at My Lai, and Milgram’s subjects were clearly under no obligation of obedience–quite the contrary–and the orders they were given were clearly illegitimate. From outside these situations, we can see that. Yet, when actually confronted by the demands of the authority figures, the individuals in these situations felt the need to obey. This tendency is very widespread among human beings. Now suppose, hypothetically, that all governments were illegitimate, and that no one were obligated to obey their commands (except where the commands line up with pre-existing moral requirements). The psychological and historical evidence cannot show whether this radical ethical hypothesis is true. But what the evidence does suggest is that if that hypothesis were true, it is quite likely that we would still by and large feel bound to obey our governments.
Huemer claims to detect a bias in others, and I think he’s almost certainly correct about it. But we can’t infer from the fact that others are demonstrably biased in favor of a conclusion that the conclusion itself is wrong. That would be a bad reasons fallacy, wouldn’t it? There might be an irrational bias toward political authority in most or nearly all people — and I think there is one — but that doesn’t mean that we must reject (or accept) political authority.