Epistocracy

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

This article received an honourable mention in the undergraduate category of the 2022 National Oxford Uehiro Prize in Practical Ethics

Written by Alexander Scoby, University of Cambridge

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

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

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. Continue reading

Who Should be Allowed to Vote?

Let us suppose that a jury has just reached a verdict on any case you can imagine (however trivial). Let us suppose that we discover one of the following three facts:

  1. The Ignorant Jury. The jury paid no attention to the trial; when asked how each of them found the defendant, they arbitrarily decided on guilty.
  2. The Irrational Jury. The jury paid some attention to the trial, however decided their judgement on reasons not related to the trail, such as wishful thinking or bizarre conspiracy theories.
  3. The Morally Unreasonable Jury. The jury found the defendant guilty because of pre-existing prejudices, i.e. she is Romanian.

In each of these cases the jury would lack authority and legitimacy (there would most likely be a retrial). A jury’s decision can significantly affect people’s lives—not simply the defendants—by depriving them of property, liberty and even life. Here’s a principle that the three juries could be said to violate:

The Competence Principle: It is unjust to deprive citizens of life, liberty and property, or to alter their life prospects significantly, by force and threats of force as a result of decisions made by an incompetent or morally unreasonable deliberative body, or as a result of decisions made in an incompetent and morally unreasonable way (Brennan 2011, 704). Continue reading

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