Sanitization, Arrationality or should it be called Super-Humanity?

Describing what a lottery can contribute to the process of choosing.

Sanitization, Arrationality or should it be called Super-Humanity?

Whatever it is used for, a lottery does something for the process.  Sanitizing  is Stone’s description; Arrationality is Dowlen’s.

I do not disagree with either definition, but feel that both are a bit lacking.

Sanitization implies a clean-up, removal of contaminating elements, but leaves open the question: Cleansed of what?

Arrationality, besides being a neologism, hence not easily understood, might also even be taken to mean some kind of crazy departure which abandons the only human attribute that truly sets us above the animals – the ability to use our brains to think about things.

So either incomplete or liable to be mis-understood; can I come up with something better?

Whether deciding or choosing, the deliberate use of a lottery is a means of excluding human judgement.

So sanitization should be seen as the act cleaning off the elements of human judgement

I have a more condign misgiving about the use of arrationality as a descriptor – it is incomplete. According to Khaneman the human brain uses thinking in two ways, which he calls it fast and slow. These two ways of thinking are more recognisable as intuition and rationality; the quick response reactions that we exercise all the time, and the slower, deliberate reflection which is sometimes needed. Of course these are not mutually exclusive and may overlap.

Quick intuitive judgements are vital, for example when driving a car. Sometimes as with car driving they can be practised and learned. But at other times we can be guilty of snap judgements which may be highly misleading. Some of the worst features about many of today’s systems of human selection (selection of humans by humans) stem from the use of intuitive judgements. How often have we heard: “I’m a good judge of character, you know.” (Studies have shown this to be highly delusional).

So a lottery as a mechanism will exclude rational thought based on the slow careful weighing of facts. A lottery will also prevent the use of intuitive judgement. Many of the worst features of current choosing, be it elections or job-selections stem from quick, intuitive, and as Khaneman tells us mostly invalid judgements. This is, I believe the most important reason for using a lottery.

If valid rational methods are available then it would be mad to forgo their use, hence my quibble with arrationality. But such validated rational techniques are quite rare, far fewer than most people think exist.

So what could be a one-word way of describing a process which excludes human judgement?

Calling such decisions ‘Super-human’ may sound a bit Nietzschean, but it correctly and completely describes the source of efficacy for the lottery process of choosing. But could this veer off into quasi-religious explanations, something that Gataker would abhor, and say that in its normal, everyday use a lottery calls on God to decide?

Either way, I’d say “It’s Super-Human”.


Daniel Khaneman Thinking, fast and slow AllenLane, London 2011.

Khaneman has written a heavyweight yet best-selling book reviewing the results of years of experimental economics. As a pshychologist who stumbled into the field of economics, he was appaled at the very poor (simplistic) model economists had of the human agent. There already existed some results from experimental economics. K added to these, and in the process showed how much of economics was plain daft, but also gained much insight into the way the human mind both on its intuitive side and its rational side works, and more importantly how good it is at making judgements.

Gataker T The Nature and Uses of Lotteries Imprint Academic 2008 originally pub. 1627

Thomas Gataker was the 17th Cent divine who divide lotteries into gambling (to be used in moderation), ordinary (to decide who gets what) and divinely ordained where God deliberately intervened. He was very strongly opposed to ordinary lotteries being seen as in any way divinely authorised.

15 Responses

  1. Conall, I don’t really see much here with which I disagree. In the book, I sometimes use the expression “sanitizing effect of a process unaffected by reasons.” I think that captures what you are discussing; I agree that the term “sanitizing effect” is at best shorthand for something more, but I like to think I provide that “something more.”

    Since you raise the matter of judgment, I think it’s worth pointing out an equivocation regarding the term in some of my work. One can believe that a decision-making process tracks reasons, or one can believe that a decision-making process makes those reasons explicit. The two might not coincide; one can make a decision thinking that certain reasons are determining behavior even when they are not, and once can make a decision that tracks reasons even if one cannot articulate what they are. I think the latter is the right way to think about judgment; when I make a judgment call, I think there are good reasons for selecting one option rather than another, but I cannot really say why. Lotteries exclude reasons in both senses; I obviously cannot justify the selection if it is based upon a coin flip, and I make sure that the process does not track and reasons, whether they be acknowledged or unacknowledged. I have a paper in the works entitled “Non-Reasoned Decision-Making” dealing with some of this. An early version of my argument can be found here:

    Click to access PC_50_Stone.pdf

    I hope to say more about my reaction to the comments at the recent workshop, but I shall do that in another post.

    (BTW, I have a posting that has been in moderation for a while. Is there a problem with it?)


  2. Surely the problem with snap judgments in (say) democratic political decisions is not that they are intuitive but that they are based on manipulated cues and partial information. If so then rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater (randomised decision-making) it would be better to use the lot to select a diverse and statistically-representative jury and then seek ways to improve the independence and diversity of the information input to the collective decision process. Whether the resulting aggregate decision would be based on intuitive or rational thinking is anybody’s guess, but I don’t think it matters that much. The participants in Galton’s guess-the-weight-of-the-ox competition most likely used both neural mechanisms and I wonder whether it really helps to differentiate them in quite such a stark manner. They may depend on two different neural pathways but they end up converging through the same cerebral cortex. It makes sense to distinguish the two mechanisms from the point of view of evolutionary neurobiology but, given the massive interconnectedness of the brain, both mechanisms cohere to produce decisions that are part-rational and part-intuitive. The same principle applies to job-selection, it’s just that the opportunity costs would rule out this approach for all but the most important appointments. So you might want to use it for appointing the president, but not the janitor.

    The use of lot for this purpose is 100% rational, hence my opposition to the idea of a single ‘sanitising’ lottery principle.


  3. >(BTW, I have a posting that has been in moderation for a while. Is there a problem with it?)

    They sometimes end up in the spam bin. Yoram?


  4. Keith, it is important not to confuse “snap judgments” with judgment in the non-reasoned sense I have in mind here. A judgment, as I’m using the term, is just a decision in which it is difficult or impossible to articulate reasons for why the preferred answer is the right one. Whether or not that condition obtains is independent of the speed or care with which the decision is made. For example, as Edna Ullmann-Margalit has argued, it may be impossible for a mortal to come up with a fully reasoned justification for the most incredibly difficult, life-changing decisions one makes–e.g., should one join the Resistance or stay home to care for one’s invalid mother (Sartre’s example). On the other hand, one can make a quick decision that the reasons point one way and so no further deliberation is necessary.

    I don’t want to go on too long, so I’ll just add that there’s nothing contradictory about saying that one has good reasons for making a decision via a process that keeps reasons out. That’s just a simple distinction between first- and second-order reasons, as I argue in my book. Is there some reason to think that’s wrong? If so, I’d suggest it’s worth a post on its own.


  5. Agreed. Existential decisions are best made by flipping a coin or consulting a soothsayer. But Conall’s examples were elections and job-selection, where the constraints are primarily opportunity costs. Selecting the best candidate for political office or another key job is primarily an epistemic problem, so the use of the lot here is positive (selecting a cognitively-diverse jury). In situations where the opportunity costs are too high (choosing between two identically-qualified and well-referenced applicants for a janitorial post), then we may well want to flip a coin, so this would be a negative use of the lot.

    It’s very important that we keep these two functions entirely separate. Galton’s prejudice was that we might as well flip a coin in an election or ox-guessing competition, but he was entirely wrong in the latter case, and this is why so many of us refer back to his experiment as an alternative model for the former.


  6. Thanks Peter, Keith for some very insightful comments. Mention of Galton puts me in mind of two things. He was the father of Eugenics — now there’s hyper-rationality gone mad!

    But to return to his ox-weighing contest at an agricultural fair: the contestants, who guessed intuitively, would mostly be farming folk with a ‘feel’ for this sort of thing. And I come back to my ‘independence’ criterion, v. important to make random samples work — the contestants did NOT discuss their guesses with each other.

    I think this illustrates one kind of intuitive decisioning process, but I’m not sure if it says anything about CitizenJury-type discussions!


  7. I don’t think that doing away with reasons really works as a justification for lottery, since the space of possible results and the weights for each of the results still have to be set.

    Arrationality is certainly not the operating reason for using sortition for appointing government officials in my mind.


  8. As for Peter’s post: I just published it. Unfortunately the system doesn’t notify me when someone submits a post. I usually check the submit queue periodically but sometimes I forget. If your post gets delayed by more than a day or two, please email me a reminder.


  9. Conall, I agree completely — independence is the most important criterion in any Condorcet decision process, that’s why I share your hostility to active deliberation in citizen juries. Trial juries are supposed to return unanimous verdicts, hence the need for the chattering in the jury room; but with citizen juries majority verdicts are fine, so there is no need at all for active deliberation. As for the distinction between tacit and rational knowledge, again this is unimportant wrt the model that I’m proposing — some folk will be swayed by the arguments of the competing advocates, whereas others will vote on the basis of their tacit knowledge (aka prejudice/irrationality). Informed advocates are necessary because most citizens will have little background knowledgeable on the issues in hand, and limiting the participation to those who are informed would be politically unacceptable and (paradoxically) counter-productive from an epistemic point of view. If it worked for Galton’s ox, then it should also work for political decision making (although it would be anathema to Habermasian deliberative democrats and those who propose an all-singing, all-dancing deliberative assembly). Perhaps it’s the deliberative democrats’ emphasis on hot air that makes Surowiecki so hostile to the application of the wisdom of crowds in political decision making and also accounts for your sceptical regarding the role of sortition in politics.

    It’s worth noting that Galton’s motive was to demonstrate that the average voter had very poor judgment, but he was forced to conclude (in the resulting paper in Nature) that “the result seems more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgment than might be expected”. Where the analogy between ox-weight-guessing and political judgment breaks down is manipulated cues, partial information and opportunity costs. These are the features that need addressing if we wish to apply the wisdom of crowds to the political arena. Rather than weighing oxen in their minds, jurists will be asked to weigh reasons but, as Surowiecki argues, irrational people make an essential epistemic contribution.

    None of this, however, has anything to do with arationality (lottery voting).


  10. Keith,

    You are confusing different classes of decisions here. There was only one correct answer to the dressed weight of Galton’s ox…. and if the “voters had compared guesses, we now know that the final average would have been WORSE thean when each guess was un-influenced by others. This is one version of the “wisdon of crowds.”

    However, many political decisions are not of this sort. Some decicion-making has elements of problem-solving, and values assessment. The optimal, or reasonably good decision in such situations (since there is no “right” decision) can best be found by tapping the cognitive diversity of random selected deliberators. Expert presenters, even if holding opposite views, will often be similar in cognitive style. We will have worse decisions, if the diversity of the allotted group in terms of cognitive style, but also diversity of life experiences, class, gender and other differences cannot be utilized. While there is a danger of polarization, or group-think, if not handled properly, deliberation can bring out latent and social knowledge that the experts wouldn’t have a clue about.

    This is why I see a vital role for BOTH kinds of group process…one group deliberative…and one without group deliberation, carried out by parallel allotted bodies.


  11. Fair point Terry, and I assume you mean sequential, rather than parallel allotted bodies as policy deliberation (boule) comes before allotted judgment (nomothetai). That worked fine in Athens and you’ve already persuaded me of the need to incorporate a boule equivalent into modern democracy. But in Athens most citizens would have served on the boule and everyone would know someone who was currently serving, so in a sense everyone was able to deliberate vicariously. Not so in modernity, hence the need to modify ancient practice to suit modern demographics. Given the impossibility of the modern boule debating everything that came in (hundreds of thousands of proposals?), there would be a need to secure some minimum threshold of popular support in order to generate a pre-legislative debate.

    To restrict the two processes (policy initiation and judgment) to allotted bodies only would be hard to justify in terms of democratic theory and would be unlikely to be perceived as legitimate by those citizens who were excluded. As such the political process could not claim to benefit from the consent of the governed. Whilst you may be able to justify it on purely epistemic grounds, I think you must agree that democratic legitimacy is a sine qua non and this requires the modern equivalent of isegoria, which is absent from allotted-only proposals.

    To put the legitimacy/consent argument slightly differently, the mandate that an elected politician or a (Platonic) guardian can claim is an individual one, whereas the mandate of cognitively-diverse group is an aggregate one (clue: the word “diversity”). Individual members of a diverse group, notwithstanding the fact that they may come up with the best solution to a problem, have no individual democratic mandate. From a descriptive-democratic perspective the group may look like America but each individual only looks like a small subset thereof. It’s possible of course that the boule may earn its mandate purely in terms of its epistemic outcome (‘it’s the economy, stupid’), but there is no particular reason to choose such a group by sortition.

    In summary, I agree with all you say, but still insist that the resulting institutions must have democratic legitimacy (as well as epistemic efficiency), and this presupposes the modern equivalent of isegoria.


  12. Keith,

    I agree that a modern equivalent of isegoria (equal right of speech) is needed. My proposal is that once an Agenda setting allotted body (the equivalent of the Athenian Boule) determines a law is needed to address X, that any and all citizens who wish could convene into as many panels (of around a dozen members each) as there are citizens to fill them, and that these “Interest Panels” would be the initial place for the exercise of isegoria. Only those proposals that pass this initial group would advance to the next stage.

    Isegoria in Athens came with responsibility. Proposing something in the Assembly or other body was a big deal, not merely throwing in a vote. Everyone would have the right to speak, but we only have a responsibility to listen to (deliberate about) those proposals that make their way from the Interest Panels, through the Review Panels and eventually to a Decision-making panel.


  13. Terry,

    Yes that would certainly give interest groups, lobbyists and other political anoraks the ability to dominate the review process, but it would still restrict the agenda setting to the random whims of a tiny group of oligarchs or (more likely) those with the financial muscle to bribe one of the oligarchs into proposing their own pet initiative. That strikes me as an unacceptably high price to pay to avoid a little bit of rational ignorance (which would be overturned at the final deliberative stage). Your proposal for the “total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity from any part in government” would be without modern precedent, had Madison not got there first.

    I’m sorry to put it so starkly, but a sortition-only constitutional settlement strikes me as indefensible — both in theory and practice — and I’m disappointed that our earlier attempts at compromise seem to have foundered. People on this forum like to cite the ancients (highly selectively), but Aristotle’s argument for a mixed constitution is ignored. Why?


    PS: I agree with you regarding the necessity for a high threshold for proposal-makers. The punitive sanctions preferred by the Athenians would be unacceptable in a liberal society, hence my endorsement of the 100,000 signature threshold for the UK government e-petition.


  14. Keith,

    But bribing the Agneta Council (Boule) wouldn’t buy the corruptor anything of value, because the Agenda Council only proposes a topic, and fills in none of the details (where the corruptors interests lie). The countless Interest Panels that involve people far more significantly than any current electoral democracy, fill in possible details…Yet another Review Panel adds, rejects, and combines these into a final draft bill . That is a stage where bribery might be useful, except that this final product then goes to a Jury which votes after hearing pro and con presentations. Just as in your model, only this final Jury makes final decisions. By sub-dividing the process into multiple allotted bodies for EACH bill it becomes almost impossible for would-be corruptors to be successful, and far more citizens play an ACTIVE role in law-making than in any electoral democracy.

    Clinging to a mass electoral element (votation) is not “democratic.” It is “republican,” which I realize is also a “good” in your view. However, it also is the best means of corruption (through money/media/power) by utilizing voter rational ignorance to steer decisions in an undemocratic direction.

    My model allows ANY citizen who wishes, to contribute to the decision-making process in a potentially meaningful way (unlike electoral systems), while also assuring that the ultimate decision-makers are genuinely representative of the population.


  15. Terry,

    I note that you haven’t addressed my primary objection — limiting the introduction of legislative proposals to the random whims of a tiny oligarchy. This is entirely undemocratic and bears no relationship to Athenian practice. Some (UK) examples of the power of initiative might include proposals for Scottish independence, capital punishment, leaving the EU, returning to the gold standard, stringing up bankers, a 75% top tax rate. Whilst such proposals might well be modified by interest panels, nevertheless the fact that these items (as opposed to an infinite number of alternatives) are on the agenda is entirely down to the random oligarchs, whose speech acts would be up for sale to the highest bidder. It would also be cheap to flood the interest and review panels with place-men unless their number were multiplied to the extent that rational ignorance would be reintroduced by the back door. Given that there are two opposing interests involved in many lobbying operations it’s likely that the review process would end up just as partisan as our existing arrangements. Volunteering and sortition are uneasy bedfellows, this is why apart from Athens (where other means were involved to avoid stasis) sortition is usually combined with election, not volunteering.

    I’m puzzled by your claim regarding the status of direct-democratic decision-making (votation), as early-modern republican thinkers — from Harrington to Madison — rejected direct democracy as the Achilles’ heel of Athenian democracy, preferring their own “republican” filtering process. Your “direct democracy is not democratic” claim is based on your revisionist re-reading of Athenian democracy through kleroterian glasses. Republican theorists never argued that direct democracy wasn’t democratic, only that it led to bad decision making, hence their argument for representation.

    But my main objection to your proposal is pragmatic. Given that the case for sortition has still to be made, your byzantine proposal, involving a hierarchy of allotted bodies (Agenda, Interest, Review, Jury), each with a different function, has no chance whatsoever of being implemented. So why pursue it, just for the sake of ideological purity? My proposal is a modern-day analogue of Athenian democracy (a combination of election, direct democracy and sortition that shifted over time). I’ve accepted your argument for a modern equivalent of the boule, but you (and others on this forum) are so fixated on one element of Athenian practice (sortition) that you rule out all of the others, simply because you don’t like them.


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