Wednesday, December 15, 2010

On the idea of Tolerable Outcomes (Epistemic Arguments for Conservatism V)

What does it mean for an institution to be associated with “tolerable” outcomes over a period of time? The question is more subtle than I thought at first; under prompting from a friend who commented on the paper I am writing, here’s a stab. (For an introduction to this series, see here; for all the other posts, click here; the idea of “tolerable” or "ok" outcomes is used here, here and here).

The first problem is to determine the sense in which we might say that some outcome (or some set of circumstances) is “tolerable.” One promising idea identifies tolerable outcomes with those outcomes that do not involve “clear evils.” By a “clear evil” I mean the sort of thing that all (reasonable?) individuals could identify as an evil: slavery, genocide, etc. (Though then, of course, we have the problem of sorting out the reasonable from the unreasonable; see here Estlund’s Democratic Authority). Some evils are not clear in this sense: reasonable individuals (in the Rawlsian sense of the term) might disagree about their importance, or their identification as an evil, given their (differing) beliefs about justice and the good.

A more problematic, but more substantive sense of “tolerable,” identifies tolerable outcomes with those outcomes that are above some threshold of badness on some substantive scale. Here the idea is not that some evils are necessarily clear in the sense discussed above, but that the determination of which evils are tolerable and which are not is an “easier” problem than the determination of which goods make a society optimal or fair or just, for example. Even if reasonable people disagree about whether, for example, persistent poverty is a tolerable evil, the conservative can still argue that determining whether persistent poverty is a tolerable evil is an “easy” problem relative to, for example, determining whether an egalitarian society is justified. (Perhaps the majority of people believe that poverty is a tolerable evil, while slavery is not; if we assume that the majority of people have some warrant for these beliefs, then the belief that persistent poverty is a tolerable evil might be epistemically justified, even if some reasonable individuals disagree). 

Taking some criterion of “tolerability” as given, a second problem emerges: institutions are associated with outcomes over time. Should a conservative discard any institution that is associated with even a single intolerable outcome? Or should the conservative somehow “average” these outcomes over time, or “discount” past outcomes at a specific rate?

For an example, consider the basic institutions of liberal democracy. If we look, say, at the institutions of the Netherlands or Sweden since 1960, we could easily agree that these institutions have been associated with tolerable outcomes since then, in the sense that they do not seem to have been associated (or produced, though by assumption we cannot tell whether outcomes associated with these institutions have been produced by them) with clear evils.

But now consider the entire history of relatively liberal institutions in the USA since the late 18th century.  These institutions were not always associated with tolerable outcomes; they were in fact associated with slavery and ethnic cleansing, which count as clear evils if anything does, and with many other evils besides (aggressive war and colonialism among them). But at the time they were also not the same institutions as today; there has been a great deal of institutional change in the USA. Though the basic structure of the institutions, as specified in the US constitution, has not changed that much – e.g., we still have competitive elections, two legislative chambers with specific responsibilities, an executive, a relatively independent judiciary, a bill of rights, etc. – the actual workings of these institutions, the associated circumstances under which they operate, and the expectations that shape their use have changed quite a bit. Suffrage was extended to all adult males; then it was extended to women in the early 20th century. Slavery was abolished. The regulatory powers of the Federal government expanded. The country industrialized. And so on. Since (by assumption) we do not know which aspects of American institutions and circumstances produced clear evils and which aspects and circumstances did not, we cannot in general answer the question of whether liberal institutions in the USA have produced tolerable outcomes in all past circumstances; at best, we can say that American institutions that are in some ways similar to existing institutions were associated with intolerable (not ok) outcomes in the past.

What might a conservative say to this? One possibility would be for the conservative to have a particular “discount rate” for the past: the further back in the past an outcome is associated with an institution, the less it is to “count” towards an evaluation of whether the institution is to be preserved, on the assumption that the further back in time we go, the less we are talking about the same institutions. Early nineteenth century American institutions were only superficially similar to modern American institutions, on this view; and so the outcomes associated with them should be discounted when we consider whether or not American institutions should have “epistemic authority.”

The problem with this is that, the smaller the discount rate is, the more intolerable outcomes it will “catch,” so that the conservative is forced to discard almost all institutions. With a small discount rate, the conservative is forced to argue that American institutions should not, in general be given the benefit of the doubt, since they (or similar enough institutions) have produced intolerable outcomes. But with a large discount rate, the conservative can be far less confident that the institutions  in question will be associated with tolerable outcomes in the future, since he has less evidence to go on. So the conservative faces a sort of evidence/discount rate tradeoff: the conservative position is most powerful, the more evidence we have of the association of institutions with tolerable outcomes; but the more evidence we have of outcomes, the more likely it is that some of these will be intolerable, forcing the conservative to argue for changes.

(In more formal terms: consider the series of states of the world {X1,..Xi…Xn}, associated with the institution {I1,…In}. For each Xi, we know whether it represents a tolerable or an intolerable outcome, and we know that it was associated with Ii, though we do not know whether Ii produced it. Suppose all intolerable outcomes are found in the past (i.e., in the series {X1…Xi}, where i is less than n). Suppose also that our confidence that institution In (today’s incarnation of the institution) is similar enough to institution Ii decreases according to some discount rate d. The larger the d, the smaller the series of states that can serve as evidence that In will be associated with tolerable outcomes in the future; but the smaller the d, the more likely it is that the evidential series of states will include some states in the series {X1…Xi}).

What do people think?

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