What is a Majority?

My latest post discusses citizen juries from the perspective cognitive science. Starting with the argumentative theory of reason, I argue that final decision makers must be insulated from any requirement of justifying their decisions. This is precisely what juries do in trials: they apply a community standard, one that is inscrutable to advocates within the system, who operate on the basis of rules. The lack of such a function in democratic systems is an existential flaw that sortition must aim to correct.

4 Responses

  1. Alex, that’s brilliant, although you need to read it a couple of times to fully understand your reasoning (unfortunate word)! The interesting thing is how it completely goes against the grain of deliberative democracy, which relies on the classical model of reasoning as a way to update our own beliefs. And the focus on intuition (in the deciders) brings us to back to Rousseau. I haven’t read Sperber/Mercier originals in depth but my impression from Helene Landemore’s use of the Argumentatlve Theory of Reasoning is that deciding between alternatives is also a form of “reasoning” (even though reasons are not involved) as the theory posits different cognitive modules for persuading and deciding. Of course anyone who slags off evolutionary psychology as “just so” stories, will call the theory “trite”, but it does seem to work out in practice. I’d be very keen to hear what Helene thinks of your use of this, so will draw it to her attention.

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  2. Very interesting and many parallels to two chapters of my own (still unpublished) book on the Trouble with Elections. I think you overstate the argument against justification, especially if this explanation is provided to the public AFTER the final vote (when it can do no harm). The emphasis on “intuition” seems in error. This is because you don’t adequately address the flip side of the argumentation theory of reasoning … which is that in addition to existing for persuading others (proactive), it serves as the core of our bullshit detector ability (reactive) in evaluating and finding holes in the arguments of those trying to persuade us. Thus it is still REASONING (though of a different sort) rather than intuition that is central to good policy decisions. Offering one’s justification for a NO vote is especially valuable to society. But without presentation of the YES argument (even if distorted by confirmation bias) it is misleading.

    By the way … you have a tiny typo a third of the way into the piece… “want to look as some cognitive aspects …” should be “at.”

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  3. Terry:> reasoning … serves as the core of our bullshit detector ability (reactive) in evaluating and finding holes in the arguments of those trying to persuade us.

    Absolutely. That’s essential to the case for decision-making juries, the interesting thing being that engaging the other cognitive module (persuading) detracts from the ability to evaluate other people’s arguments (that’s why Terry, Yoram and myself find it so hard to change our views!) It also supports the notion of deliberation as weighing the arguments (rather than engaging in speech acts). What I would be keen to hear from Helene Landemore is why she thinks it supports her case for regular deliberative democracy — in which the same people get to persuade and decide.

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  4. Terry:> I think you overstate the argument against justification, especially if this explanation is provided to the public AFTER the final vote (when it can do no harm).

    What many of the experiments cited in Mercier and Sperber’s paper showed is that the mere knowledge that one will be forced to justify a decision later leads to worse outcomes.

    Terry:> The emphasis on “intuition” seems in error.

    I may have been a bit sloppy in my use of the term intuition. I mean, generally, forming a mental model, as opposed to forming reasons or rationalizations for a decision. I am certainly not trying to deny the value of reasoning (in a general sense) in forming such a mental model, only stating the need to avoid pressure on jurors for public (or even private) justification. I think we may just philosophically disagree on this point.

    More broadly, I’m rather down on “accountability” as a democratic mechanism, at least for final decisions. A final decision in this context is ultimately a measure of social utility, which is inherently opaque. Accountability turns into CYA.

    Also, the votes I envision are not YES or NO votes, they are rankings of multiple options, although this post could apply to either.

    Terry:> you have a tiny typo…

    Thanks, I will correct.

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