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February 02, 2015


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I'm not sure if this is to the point, but it seems a relevant question to ask how informed citizens need to be in a representative democracy to have institutions that are overall responsive to the right sorts of interests.

When I think of what's wrong with the decisions we now make (by my lights) it seems like most of it is due to anti-democratic elements of how we do things - gerrymandering, voter suppression, an anti-immigrant sentiment that leaves millions without real representation. Or at least some of the bad decisions would be less likely to be made with greater enfranchisement. I'm not suggesting that we don't get manipulated and that we often are not well-informed. But I'm always puzzled by anti-democratic arguments such as Brennan's given that many of the people such arguments seem to me to target (I know he's not arguing for voter suppression), seem like they have a relatively good grasp of their interests much of the time.

Anyway, I'm not sure this is to the point, since I haven't read Swabey's article, but in the interest of promoting further conversation, this is what I thought of as I read the two pieces about Swabey's work.

Thanks for the comment, Mark. Well, I imagine Brennan would point to the extensive social science that suggest that people don't have a grasp on what would be in their interests, at least not once we get into the details. But I think Swabey worries that although people have some broad sense of what is in their interests on some issues, there are many for which that is not the case, due to the complexity of those issues. We know we want affordable healthcare, regular and rewarding employment, safe food and water and air, good education, affordable housing, and so on. But moving from platitudes and promises about these issues to policies that actually achieve these things is much harder. And without the ability to evaluate the proposals and actions of our representatives accurately, we are subject to manipulation and misdirection. So there is a real question, I think, of how far we get with only a broad sense of what would be in our interests without accompanying knowledge of the complexities and details of policy proposals.

Swabey writes: "Perhaps the major issue of modern democracy rests just here: whether it is any longer possible for the faculties of the ordinary man to compass the cumulative intricacies of the environment. While civilization is apparently increasing in complexity at an accelerated rate, man's intellectual and political capacities remain simple and constant. How, then, can the logic of events be circumvented which is depriving the masses of their share in shaping the policies of government, and is concentrating authority in the hands of a few specialists who alone seem able to grasp the involutions of the modern system?"

Well, surely we will not be able to do without reliance on specialists and experts; and surely any defensible rejection of technocracy will allow for that. The question has to be how we can control them democratically, structuring our reliance on them so that it works for democracy rather than against it. It’s fascinating that Swabey is willing to rely on federal experts to package information for the public.

But I wonder if the more important element of the problem, Alex, isn’t the one you label “Limitations,” rather than the ignorance problem. That’s what the opening quotation of your retrospective essay suggests; and her article’s talk about the power of informational graphics (such as “pictograms”) to move people seems to reinforce that emphasis on motivating people. If this is right, that leads to two further questions. First, why shouldn’t we be even more worried about relying on the government to motivate us to action on matters of “public concern” than we would be about its providing us our information about it?

Second, though, as a fan of NPR, where I’m happy to get a lot of my information about such things, I note that there isn’t all that much emphasis on mathematics or statistics. That’s how Swabey’s pictograms come up, as a vivid and powerful way to get statistical information across. That’s fine; but a lot of what news outlets such as NPR do that’s potentially motivating is to tell people’s stories—or even let people tell their own stories. Given that—as I learn from your post—Swabey wrote a book about comedy, she surely would have appreciated this point. Do you think it’s there in the article, and I’m just missing it amidst all the talk of mathematics?

Having now read the Swabey paper about which Alex writes, I (like Henry) was impressed most by her seeing the solution to the problem of ignorance in a government compiled, distilled and disseminated body of information that she thinks we need to make reasonable decisions. I think that's also one of Alex's points in the last paragraph of his essay in Ethics. Probably that is very much a function of when it was written and why it sticks out to us.

But there is also a way in which I'd see what she says as somewhat in line with my earlier comment that perhaps worries about ignorance don't have an undemocratic upshot. She thinks that having a good overview of what's going on is sufficient for citizens to play their role in a representative democracy. (And she thinks that statistics and pictograms can give that overview. But that's an optional extra.) So you can see her response to the four claims that Alex uses to set up the problem as a version of denying the fourth, Ignorance.

But it does that from two directions. (1) By denying that people must be ignorant of what they need to know given their competing interests and limited time. And (2) lowering the bar for what you need to know to require general but not all that specific knowledge of how things work in the relevant domains. And it is something like the second idea that may militate in favor of a more extensive enfranchisement. So long as people can track in outline when the common good is being served, they can leave the details to those with more specific knowledge. And if they are in general good at that, the more people involved the better.

Hi Henry: Thanks for your comment/question. Swabey is clearly aware of the worries of propaganda, both as a tool for "informing" people and as a tool for motivating them to act, but she still seems to think that it would be good to have the government playing some role. It can be a bit hard to see why. I think it makes sense to see her as setting out what would be a morally permissible way for the government or some entity to play this educative and motivational publicity role, perhaps on the assumption (not so implausible) that the government will in fact come to play this role, at least to some extent, no matter what we might think optimal. So she spends several pages discussing how propaganda works, arriving at the conclusion that "it differs from publicity in two respects: first, in its aim, which is the control of actions rather than the enlightenment of minds (by which latter men might become capable of self-control); and, second, in its means, which is to stimulate the affective side of man so that he shall want to do certain things that other people want. For propaganda is apparently a conscious, organized attempt to influence the behavior of men on a large scale through methods of emotional suggestion and sensuous appeal, rather than through reflection or education by the facts themselves."

So, I do think she would be very open to NPR-style story-telling, as long as it doesn't fall onto the side of propaganda in the above sense. Indeed, she focuses on "art" in this regard, noting that "[t]he drama, the oration, the lyric, the epic poem, and later the novel have admittedly all played important parts as purveyors of social and political ideas to mankind" and she is also impressed with the then-new technology of the motion picture and the radio, and the messages that can be conveyed by those mechanisms. So I think she is definitely on board with the spirit of that point, and the importance of motivating people to pay attention to an issue by making it narratively compelling.

One place that I do think she is open to criticism is on the perhaps overly hostile attitude toward the role of emotion in political engagement and political judgment. She is wary of it, and perhaps we should be in the context of mass publicity campaigns, but there is a concern that she goes too far in a pure rationalist direction. We are, after all, emotional creatures, and emotional responses can be important sources of insight and judgment. (Of course, Swabey is writing in a very much pre-Gilligan era.)

Mark: I agree with you about Swabey's position. She is very committed to the idea that each of us has what it takes to make democracy work, and she is clearly committed to broad political enfranchisement. (I think that's nicely expressed by the long quotation from her other paper that I quote in the main post.) I agree with her there. But I part ways when it comes to her assessment of what would actually be adequate, institutionally speaking, to make democracy work--to overcome the problem of ignorance and hold our representatives meaningfully accountable. But you are right that she thinks that we can get by well enough with the right kind of information, even when that is not full or expert-level information.

First, I’d like to thank Alex Guerrero for rescuing the name and work of Marie Collins Swabey from obscurity. Alex could have picked any past philosopher from the prestigious list of formerly published authors in Ethics and he chose her, which says as much about him as about Swabey. As a woman, I’m grateful for the opportunity to celebrate a female philosopher for a change. As an epistemic democrat, I’m as excited as Alex Guerrero by the modernity of some of Swabey’s insights. I agree wholeheartedly with the assessment that Swabey’s work foreshadows important developments in democratic theory and political philosophy of the 20th--and now 21st--century.

In particular, it seems to me that Swabey could easily count as a proto-epistemic democrat, like Swabey’s contemporary John Dewey, with whom she seems to share many insights while reading more pleasantly. I would be exceedingly curious to know what kind of intellectual relations, if any, she had with him and to what degree their thinking on matters of democracy differed. There is possibly a dissertation in the waiting on such an untried topic. Incredibly, the woman does not even seem to have her own Wikipedia page.

Being able to rely only on the Ethics piece commented on by Alex Guerrero (I didn’t get a chance to take a look at her The State of Democratic Theory), I will limit myself in what follows to point out two important epistemic insights of her democratic vision.

To begin with, I’m struck by how much of a connection she insists on drawing between science, technology, and democracy--that is, between the kind of tools for discovery that a society can avail itself of and the democratic nature of its governance and rules. For her there seems to be a direct correlation between the progress of the social sciences and communication technologies on the one hand and the strengthening of democracy on the other. She thus sees the civic use of the “radio, wireless telegraph, telephone, and television” as marking the “opening of a new era in modern politics” (p. 106). Like contemporary cognitive scientists and epistemic democrats, she sees technology as a way by which societies can alleviate the cognitive burden of their citizens and distribute knowledge widely. To her mind, the new technologies of her time were supposed to render “the classical and Rousseauvian ideal of direct democracy” feasible on a “un-dreamt of”--i.e., mass-scale.

She also foresees the growing role of statistics in policy-making and the ways in which visualization tools such as pies, charts, and other graphic aids may simplify the tasks of decision-makers to the level, she hopes, of regular citizens’ understanding. Statistical results are thus, like new technologies, cognitive artifacts that are supposed to play the role of “social telescope” or “microscope” to the average man, “extending his range of visions and revealing life in the light of an astonishingly new and plain analysis” (p. 112). Such scientific tools basically empower lay-citizens “to draw or not to draw a conclusion in [their] own way,” freeing them from blind deference to traditional authorities and experts and allowing them to use their own judgment. In a way, Swabey sees improvements in science and technology as means of bringing democracy closer to the ideal of self-government. More than that, Swabey seems to envision democracy itself as a technology of knowledge management, a cognitive artifact relevant to the processing of information in mass societies.

Of course we now see that she was way too optimistic about the potential of the technologies of her age, the radio and the TV in particular. Both communication channels link one-to-many in a unidirectional manner, without actually giving citizens the power to govern themselves directly on a mass-scale. Even the telephone and wireless telegraph only allow for limited bi-directional exchanges (typically one-to-one). What such technologies allow for is primarily a “democracy of the public” (or “audience democracy” as Manin also calls it) or a plebiscitarian democracy—a democracy that strives to create a direct relation between the elected leader and the public. In such a democracy, the public may well have more sources of information, but the relationship with the leader is based on profound asymmetries—the leader speaks, is seen, and reaches far into the intimacy of the citizens (by way of radio or TV talks), whereas the citizens remain largely invisible to the leader and unable to talk back to him (except perhaps by phoning in an occasional question to a talk show host). The public cannot enter the conversation about policy-making, let alone set the agenda. The public can hardly talk to itself and, as Lippmann saw it and Dewey conceded (in The Public and Its Problems), is even at pains to clarify its own identity. All that the masses have is what Jeffrey Green has recently helpfully conceptualized as the rather limited power of the “gaze.”

Plug Swabey’s intuitions in today’s technological and scientific landscape though, and I would argue that she’s right on the money. The Internet is a technology that goes way beyond the powers of the telephone and the telegraph by allowing multi-directional, many-to-many conversations, as well as actual participation through online collaboration or co-creation. The powers of statistics are now deployed on “big data,” the results of which are easily accessible by anyone armed with a smartphone and the right applications. Citizens can and do demand governments that are more transparent, collaborative, and participatory (i.e., “open” in the current jargon). Whether these new technologies will truly allow for a functional direct democracy (assuming this is a desirable goal to begin with) remains to be seen. But the public has arguably never been more empowered. It can in theory at least partially set the agenda through easily set-up online initiatives, shape the laws through crowdsourced policy-making, and monitor their representatives through email or Twitter more efficiently than through phone or snail mail. This is in addition to getting access to vastly more sources of information than in the age of the TV, much less that of the print.

Another striking aspect of Swabey’s article is the central role she gives to the assumption that citizens can be receptive to good reasons. The idea that “in cases in which the general welfare is concerned, good reasons if plainly set forth ought to make their way among honest minds” is, as she rightly points out, “the postulate of democratic theory” [97]. It is certainly the central postulate of Rousseau’s philosophy: the general will is not hard to figure out (with the help of some pie charts maybe). It just takes a pure heart and an honest mind.

In that respect, Swabey’s views also prefigure contemporary deliberative democrats and among them epistemic ones. Her postulate is not all that different, indeed it is essentially the same, as Habermas’ famous assumption of “the unforced force of the better argument” that is supposed to triumph in ideal deliberation among free and equal deliberators. In Habermas too, the persuasiveness of the better argument is a postulate, derived from a transcendental argument delineating the conditions of possibility for meaningful communication among rational beings. In Swabey, the formulation is simpler and more straightforwardly epistemic: “good reasons [about the general welfare] ought to make their way among honest minds.” I take this to mean that our reasoning about the common good should be considered responsive to good reasons and thus, like good reasons themselves, be truth-apt and truth-oriented.

Ultimately Swabey seems to hint in this essay the deliberative ideal of democracy that we associate with her contemporary John Dewey. She does not explicitly come out with a vision of an active public engaged in deliberations with itself, and from that point of view her appeal to the ideal of a Rousseauvian direct democracy could actually conjure a non-deliberative kind of democracy (people voting in the silence of their hearts). Given the technologies she refers to, it could be that citizens, in her view, are only supposed to engage in private deliberations after being exposed to the “good reasons” of the leader as he tries to convince and persuade the public over the TV or the radio.

Yet she also praises as beneficial to the quality of policy and law proposals the trial by exposure to many minds that only public deliberation would seem to provide a real opportunity for. She even seems to suggest that policies subject to a society-wide public debate are more likely to track the common good than policies not exposed to popular criticism: “For in the course of being challenged by many minds, plans are shorn of their idiosyncrasies and reveal whatever is of essential worth or generality in their natures; with the result that in the long run those that run the gauntlet of popular criticism are usually consonant with public welfare” [98]. Notice that Swabey emphasizes two epistemic properties of a wide public debate, or at least wide public criticism (since it's not clear that the criticism needs to be formulated through deliberation). The first is that it passes plans under scrutiny through the filter of public reason (removing those that cannot be framed in terms of general welfare) and, second, it corrects for the “idiosyncrasies”—i.e., the biases—that corrupt individual judgments. This is exactly the kind of things one would expect a deliberative epistemic democrat to say.

Now the “postulate” at the heart of her democratic convictions remains just that, a postulate. It is this postulate that is, first and foremost, attacked by critics of democracy--her contemporary as well as ours--who claim to find no empirical validation for it. It would be interesting to see if Marie Collins Swabey had developed any thoughts of her own on how to answer that empirical challenge.

Hi Hélène. Thanks so much for this terrific comment, tracing out these connections between Swabey's views and views of epistemic and deliberative democrats. I agree with many of your assessments, and share many of your questions. And I agree that much hangs on these empirical claims made by Swabey and other deliberative epistemic democrats, and on the possibility of designing institutions and utilization of technology that might possibly allow for the right kind of input and deliberation.

I also hope that somebody takes up your suggestion to look at her work in more detail, perhaps particularly in relation to Dewey and Lippmann (I may have to teach a seminar on the three of them at some point). What I know of Swabey's life I know only from her memorial notice in the Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 40 (1966-1967), but given Lippmann's lifelong ties to New York City, Dewey's long connections to Columbia, and Swabey's long connections to NYU, it is quite possible that there was significant intellectual engagement.

Thanks very much for your comment.

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