In this chapter Estlund asks the question whether an ‘epistocracy of the educated’ — whether, as J.S. Mill recommends, the educated should receive more votes than the uneducated — could satisfy the ‘qualified acceptability requirement’, that is, be a political principle to which no qualified objection could be levelled. Most epistocratic proposals are defeated because they could not satisfy the qualified acceptability requirement, as there exists qualified disagreement in pluralist societies over who counts as ‘wise’ with respect to political matters. Thus epistemic proceduralism rules out ‘invidious comparisons’ amongst citizens with respect to their normative political wisdom (as explained in chapter II). However, given the widespread view that a ‘good political education’ promotes good political decision-making, and that under Mill’s proposal all citizens would have at least one vote, can the Millian proposal for additional votes for the educated satisfy the qualified acceptability requirement?
Estlund begins the chapter by explaining why Mill’s proposal for additional votes for the educated, and thus an epistocracy of the educated, is a view that epistemic proceduralism needs to take seriously. First, he summarises Aristotle’s criticism of Plato’s proposed epistocracy. Aristotle’s argument, roughly, is that even if one individual, or a few individuals, are wiser than others, decision-making can nonetheless (under most circumstances) be improved by including larger numbers of individuals (even if they are less wise) in the decision-making process. So restricting political decision-making to only the wise can have epistemic costs. However, while this argument might be successful against Plato’s epistocratic proposal, it is unsuccessful against the Millian proposal, since everyone would have at least one vote. The Millian proposal is that the educated should receive more votes, not that political decision-making should be limited to some subset of the population (‘the wise’).
This leads to a dilemma. Most epistocratic proposals can be rejected because there exists qualified objections to claims about who ought be counted as ‘the wise’ (the principle against invidious comparisons). On the hand, the following proposition appears to be extremely plausible:
“The political value of education: A well-educated population will, other things equal, tend to rule more wisely (p. 211).”
The proposition is very plausible because it is hard to imagine that any qualified objections could be raised against the idea that persons who are literate, are knowledgeable about how their government works, are knowledgeable of history, and so forth, will (ceteris paribus) tend to make better political decisions.
From the ‘Political Value of Education’ there appears to be a small step to:
“The epistocracy of the educated thesis: Where some are well educated and others are not, the polity would (other things equal) be better ruled by giving the well educated more votes (p. 212).”
Estlund then considers two objections to block the move from ‘The Political Value of Education’ to ‘The Epistocracy of the Educated Thesis’: (1) The Deference Objection (which Estlund rejects), and (2) The Demographic Objection (which Estlund endorses).
The Deference Objection
This objection is based on the premise that it is always a qualified objection to refuse to defer to some other agency (in this case, the educated) authority over substantial moral matters. The reason why this objection fails, if I understand Estlund’s discussion correctly, is that if it were to succeed it would require denying that the well educated are wiser with respect to political decision making. But this looks absurd, since if it is correct, why care about the education of the population as a whole (at least with respect to political decision making)? Furthermore, since “the epistemic value of any arrangement at all would fit into the same template, not just arrangements involving education,” granting this objection potentially defeats “the whole epistemic dimension of political argumentation” (p. 213). (I should note that I had some trouble following Estlund’s discussion on p. 214, so I may not be presenting accurately his overall reply to the deference objection.)
The Demographic Objection
This objection holds that limiting the political decision-making process to only the educated can have epistemic costs that outweigh any potential epistemic benefits. More specifically:
“The demographic objection: The educated portion of the populace may disproportionately have epistemically damaging features that countervail the admitted epistemic benefits of education (p. 215).”
A common objection to Mill’s plural voting proposal is that since certain groups in existing western societies have superior access to education (based on gender, race, class, and so forth), certain inevitable biases will affect the political decision-making processes if the educated are given additional votes (even if we assume that that the educated do their best to act in good faith). This objection could be met, perhaps, by demographically correcting the group given extra votes (i.e., correcting for under-representation of certain races, classes, and so forth, amongst the educated population). There is a practical worry, though, that it may be unfeasible to demographically ensure that all relevant groups are represented (if we correct for gender, race, and class, what about religion? Sexual orientation? Vegetarianism? Etc.).
An even deeper worry is that there may be what Estlund calls ‘empirically latent’ features — features that cannot (realistically) be tested for, but which nonetheless may be biases — that might disproportionately be found amongst the educated (the examples of racism and sexism are given). Objections based on such empirically latent features to the Millian plural voting proposal are qualified objections. Likewise, one might make a more general objection to the Millian plural voting proposal, namely, that giving additional votes to the educated might involve some possible epistemically damaging demographic distortion(s). Such appeals to what Estlund calls ‘conjectural features’ also count as qualified objections. Consequently, because of qualified objections based on ‘empirically latent’ features and ‘conjectual features’ that might have epistemic costs, and might disproportionately be found amongst the educated, the plural voting proposal cannot satisfy the qualified acceptability requirement.
Estlund then notes that any argument in favour of either equal or unequal votes based on the special epistemic insights of a particular sub-group (e.g., an argument in favour of equal votes for rural voters based on their special insight into rural matters, or an argument in favour of additional votes for victims of injustice based on their special insight into matters of justice) involves invidious comparisons amongst citizens. Consequently, all such arguments are ruled out.
Estlund concludes the chapter by noting that none of his arguments in this chapter (or, for that matter, this book) should be understood as defending “formally equal voting power for each citizen”, as such a defence would require “some non-epistemic consideration such as some suitable conception of procedural fairness of equal respect” (p. 221). Estlund’s aim has been only to show that Mill’s argument in favour of additional votes for the educated — which Estlund takes to be the strongest argument in favour of a kind of epistocracy — fails.
My main concern with chapter XI is a concern that I’ve had since chapter III, namely, the unspecified nature of the ‘qualified acceptance requirement’. In chapter III Estlund presents the general idea of the qualified acceptance requirement (of which Rawls’s ‘Liberal Principle of Legitimacy’ is a specific version) and defends that general idea against some common objections (the overinclusive and underinclusive objections). In chapter III, Estlund was reluctant to provide a specific account of the qualified acceptance requirement, including what kinds of arguments or objections could count as ‘qualified’, in order to defend the plausibility of the idea itself, and not get hung up on details or confusions over, for example, the idea of the ‘reasonable’ (as used by Rawls). However, there seem to be costs in not providing a more specific account of the qualified acceptance requirement — its grounds and its boundaries — and these costs, I think, come out in this chapter.
The first cost is an appearance of a kind of ‘ad hoc-ism’ with respect to the arguments presented. That is, at different points in Estlund’s argument, the idea of the qualified acceptance requirement fails to rule out some kinds of objections (some objections are unqualified, e.g., the objection based on deference does not defeat the Millian proposal) and rule in other kinds of objections (some objections are qualified, e.g., objections based on conjectures about possible biases amongst the class of the educated defeat the Millian proposal). However, unless some more detailed account of the qualified acceptance requirement is provided — specifically, what its basis and boundaries consist in — invoking it in order to rule in and rule out different kinds of objections looks ad hoc. (To be clear: I do not in fact think that Estlund is using the qualified acceptance requirement in this way. However, by leaving it so underspecified, there is, I think, an unfortunate appearance of ‘ad hoc-ism’ in some of his arguments.)
The second cost is that so long as there is no positive argument for the truth of the qualified acceptability requirement (as opposed to the arguments against objections to the idea, as presented in chapter III), I suspect that whatever positive argument there is available for the qualified acceptability requirement, that argument may suffice also to justify (at least some form of) democracy (independent of epistemic considerations). The qualified acceptability requirement is a moral doctrine, not an epistemic one. It constrains the range of acceptable political doctrines such that if a qualified objection can be levelled against a political proposal (say, a proposal in favour of a particular kind of epistocracy), that objection defeats that proposal, even if that proposal would have resulted in an epistemically superior political institution or policy. Consequently the justification for the qualified acceptability requirement has to be some kind of moral principle. But is there any moral principle that could justify the qualified acceptability requirement that could not also justify (some form of) democratic government? I’m not sure that there is.
Let me unpack this a bit. My own understanding of political liberalism has been greatly influenced by Estlund’s article, ‘The Insularity of the Reasonable’ (1999). In that article (in which can be found the ancestor of the overall view presented in chapter III), Estlund made the argument that political liberalism could not be indifferent to the truth about everything. Instead, in order to avoid a vicious circularity, political liberalism had at least to think that its criterion of justification — the Liberal Principle of Legitimacy (or a suitably modified version of it) — was true. However, this was not a significant concession for political liberalism (contra Raz), since it only had to assert that this one principle was true, and that non-true political conceptions of justice could satisfy it (i.e., be ‘successful’ in Estlund’s terms).
I found this argument quite compelling with respect to political liberalism. But it naturally raised the question: why think that the Liberal Principle of Legitimacy is true (the correct principle to govern coercive political arrangements)? Drawing on articles by Thomas Hill (1994) and Charles Larmore (1998), the most plausible answer, it seems to me, is that the Liberal Principle of Legitimacy expresses a principle of equal respect for persons. It does so by trying to justify the exercise of coercive political power in ways acceptable to all ‘reasonable persons’. And the set of ‘reasonable persons’ consist of those persons committed to this very moral principle. (‘Reasonable persons’ are committed to the principle of equal respect for persons by being committed to the ‘criterion of reciprocity’ in their political relations with others, and by acknowledging the ‘fact of reasonable pluralism’. Acknowledging the fact of reasonable pluralism is a requirement of respect for persons if we think that reasonable pluralism is the natural consequence of the exercise of human reason under conditions of social freedom.) Unreasonable persons fail to recognise (or refuse to recognise) this true moral principle; consequently, justifications for the exercise of coercive political power need not endeavour to be justifiable to them. In short, the most plausible account of political liberalism (I think) is based on the principle of equal respect for persons, and this principle justifies maintaining that the Liberal Principle of Legitimacy is the true criterion for regulating the exercise of coercive political power.
However, if the justification for the truth of the Liberal Principle of Legitimacy is the principle of equal respect for persons, could the principle of equal respect for persons not also justify equal voting rights for all citizens? I think that it clearly could, although I will not develop such an argument here (doing so would take too long, and would involve repeating things previously already said by Quong and others; I nonetheless hope that the basic idea is clear enough to most readers).
Estlund himself suggests that the principle of equal respect for persons might support equal voting rights on p. 221, but disavows any commitment to that principle. However, this brings me back to my worry: if Estlund is not committed to some version of the principle of equal respect for persons in order to justify the qualified acceptability requirement, what positive justification exists for the qualified acceptability requirement? The only plausible justification that I can think of, equal respect for persons, also justifies (some form of) democratic government, independent of epistemic considerations. I would be very interested to learn of some other positive justification for the qualified acceptability requirement other than a principle of respect for persons.
In short, my overall concern is that so long as the qualified acceptability requirement remains unspecified — so long as its grounds and boundaries are not explained — a key premise in the overall argument for epistemic proceduralism is missing, and, moreover, that specifying the qualified acceptability requirement may turn out, at the end of the day, to be sufficient to justify (some form of) democratic government (independent of, although obviously not incompatible with, epistemic considerations).