Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Education (Page 1 of 4)

On how the Dunning-Kruger effect complicates normative considerations

Individuals are notoriously self-serving in assessing their competences either in absolute terms or when comparing themselves to others. We are likely to think we are more sociable than others, better than most at judging character and sincerity, or that we perform above average in our workplaces. We often overestimate our levels of knowledge when we objectively know very little. In fact, this bias seems most potent when we are oblivious about some matter. At such times, we may act quite unrestrained in peddling the most absurd notions as facts to others. Our virtual lives of late, cluttered with half-baked claims and notions about the pandemic, offer plentiful evidence for this. What is even more disheartening is that, as the famous Dunning-Kruger effect teaches us, the more incompetent we are, the less likely we are to become aware of our own incompetence. Individuals often fall victim to this effect regardless of their intelligence, social grouping, or their successes at anticipating and counteracting a self-serving bias in some other area.

Despite being familiar in some form for several decades, the Dunning-Kruger effect has not seriously grabbed the attention of normative philosophers. Only epistemologists have seriously considered how it may affect epistemic obligations, for instance, how we should act in circumstances of assumed peer disagreement (Wiland, 2016). We have hardly considered the kinds of moral obligations we might have as individuals, or how we ought to shape public policies and institutions in the face of widespread Dunning-Kruger effects.

Consider, for instance, the decision of a highly educated person whether she should go into politics and compete for public seats. Imagine that this person is educated broadly enough to offer meaningful contributions over a range of public concerns. “But alas”, she reflects, “I don’t know enough about all the relevant laws, or how to draw up or revise a budget. I wasn’t trained for public administration. So I’m hardly competent to take up such a job.” But the educated person fails to consider that if she decides not to pursue the job, a far less competent person, one with far fewer scruples of the aforementioned kind, may attempt to take it up instead. Apart from considering merely whether she is qualified, she must assess whether the Dunning-Kruger effect will generate unwavering confidence in candidates who are far less qualified. So in the face of a lurking threat of social harms arising from incompetence, is the educated person obliged to overcome her reservations?

A further complication arises from the flip side of the Dunning-Kruger effect: in some cases, the truly competent exemplify tendencies to second-guess their competences, even if the area of competence is much more specific than in the previous example. Bertrand Russell noticed both sides of these self-assessment difficulties, when he famously stated that “in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt” (1933). Simply, the awareness of the competent that there is still much they don’t know saps their confidence, whereas the incompetent are unperturbed in their lack of awareness of just how incompetent they are. But in that case, the obligation to overcome their reservations may include a psychological hurdle for the competent that makes it particularly demanding.

Assigning the competent with this obligation faces two other crucial difficulties. First, the main lesson of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that those who believe they are competent may very easily turn out to be incompetent. Thus, it’s quite possible that those taking up the obligation to save us from the incompetent, with the best of intentions, are themselves incompetent. When there is no one who could vouch for their competence, self-assessors will often overestimate themselves. Therefore, committing ourselves to beat the incompetent runs at least some risk that we are thereby enabling our own incompetence.

Second, even if we could safely and reliably establish, with the help of others, that we are truly competent, a moral question remains: how much should we be asked to do? How far-reaching is our obligation to clean up after the incompetent, or preventing them from ever making a mess? Surely, if we are competent, we are allowed to appeal to an “agent-centered prerogative […] a modest right of self-interest” (Cohen, 1996), not to invest most of our time, like in the case of taking up a public seat.

Whether moral complications arising from the Dunning-Kruger effect should affect the decisions of individuals, and how, remains an open question that requires serious thought. However, we might think that Dunning-Kruger effects are best neutralized at various levels of institutional structure. Education, for instance, might be attuned to help the most competent in overcoming their imposter syndromes, in steering and reassuring them towards positions of great social importance, and encouraging them to branch out of their epistemic comfort zones. This can, in turn, help the competent in overcoming their psychological barriers when taking up individual moral obligations.

If, however, education fails, the Dunning-Kruger effect stands out as an important consideration in setting up our electoral and governmental institutions. There is no doubt that the effect influences both the incompetent and the competent in their voting behavior, as well as in their decisions to pursue positions of leadership. An institutional arrangement that prevents the incompetent in some way from hijacking important public decisions may very well be the last frontier at which self-serving biases are to be repelled.

The United States’ Perils of Presidentialism

Photo of the White House. Credit to René DeAnda.

In his seminal 1990 article “The Perils of Presidentialism,” political scientist Juan Linz pointed out that “the vast majority of the stable democracies in the world today are parliamentary regimes” and that, in contrast, “the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States.” Based in part on this observation, Linz concluded that parliamentary democracies are more conducive to stable democracies that presidential democracies.

Linz thought the United States was the exception. What, according to Linz, made the United States exceptional? His answer was that it lacked political polarization and instead had a large moderate consensus that avoided catering to extremists. But this is no longer true.

Read More

“What I would like is for people to come at the world with lots of different ways of seeing things”; Dr Liam Kofi Bright on the philosophical canon

Detail of Raphael's The School of Athens

Detail of Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, depicting among others Plato and Aristotle

In 2020, Dr Liam Kofi Bright (LSE) was interviewed by the Dutch newspaper Trouw [in Dutch]. In that interview, he outlined his case for getting rid of philosophical canons. “The Dutch far right got very angry with me on Twitter,” Bright says. “A quite prominent far-right politician said what a terrible person I am, and a bunch of her followers agreed.” But much of this anger was based on a misunderstanding of Bright’s argument. “They assumed without really reading what I was saying that my objection was to the particular people on the canon, so say Descartes, because he was a white guy from Europe. And they, being the far right, didn’t like that. But actually my objection isn’t really to any particular items on the canon at all.”

To start off our new series of posts about teaching philosophy – titled, unimaginatively but succinctly, “Teaching Philosophy” – we caught up with Dr Bright in August 2021 to discuss his argument, and to learn more about what teaching philosophy without teaching to the philosophy canon might look like.

Read More

COVID-19 and Technomoral Change

According to the emerging paradigm of technomoral change, technology and morality co-shape each other. It is not only the case that morality influences the development of technologies. The reverse also holds: technologies affect moral norms and values. Tsjalling Swierstra compares the relationship of technology and morality with a special type of marriage: one that does not allow for divorce. Has the still-ongoing pandemic led to instances of technomoral change, or is it likely to lead to them in the future? One of the many effects of the pandemic is the acceleration of processes of digitalisation in many parts of the world. The widespread use of digital technologies in contexts such as work, education, and private life can be said to have socially disruptive effects. It deeply affects how people experience their relations to others, how they connect to their families, friends and colleagues, and the meaning that direct personal encounters have for them. Does the pandemic also have morally disruptive effects? By way of changing social interactions and relationships, it might indirectly affect moral agency and how the competent moral agent is conceived of. As promising as the prospect of replacing many of the traditional business meetings, international conferences, team meetings etc. with online meetings might seem with regard to solving the climate crisis, as worrisome it might be with an eye on the development and exercise of social and moral capacities.

Read More

What Epistemic Profiles Should We (Not) Foster?

It is often said that the main task of teachers is to foster learning. But what kind of learning? What knowledge can we hope to attain through such learning? And what kinds of people should children aspire to become in the process? We imagine that fostering learning in the right way would ensure not only that adults lead flourishing lives, but that they can help others in acquiring knowledge. As epistemologists show, some intellectual virtues are other-regarding, meaning that individuals can and should affect others in their knowledge acquisition and intellectual flourishing; such is, for instance, the drive to discover socially relevant findings, or honesty and integrity in communicating information (Turri and Alfano, 2017).

Read More

Encouraging religious schools to teach good citizens

In this post, Baldwin Wong discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how religious schools could participate in civic education.


Religious schools, such as the parochial schools affiliated with Christian churches, the cheder of Judaism, and the madrasas of Islam, are common in many democratic societies. These schools are usually established by private religious groups. Their environments are filled with religious symbols and celebrations that impact students’ learning experience. The content of education involves religious classics, theology, and the teaching of the virtues  valued in each faith.

Political liberals have long been worried about the partiality of religious schools. They argue that these schools should be carefully regulated. Otherwise, their partial education may create “ethically servile children” who have an ignorant antipathy toward alternative viewpoints. I agree that religious schools should be regulated, but, in my recent article, I further suggest that some of these schools should be encouraged and subsidized because they are crucial in addressing a problem that a government cannot single-handedly resolve—the reconciliation between faith and justice.

Read More

Free Speech, Cartoons and Anti-Racism

In this post, John Tillson (Liverpool Hope University) discusses a recent case in British news on the use of satirical cartoons in the classroom. 

A teacher at a UK school was recently suspended for showing satirical cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad during a Religious Education (RE) lesson. Parents protested outside the school in response to the use of the cartoons, and the school’s headteacher apologised saying that their use was inappropriate.

Read More

Political Philosophy and Political Work at the University

In this guest post, Gottfried Schweiger (University of Salzburg) discusses the university as a political place and outlines four different kinds of political work that take place within it. 

Political philosophy reflects on the big problems and injustices in the world and how they can be changed for the better. Political work and the specifics of the organization and social space that is the “university” are rarely explicitly reflected upon, yet political philosophy would have the tools to do so.

Read More

Introducing Political Philosophy with Public Policy

What is a good way to learn about political philosophy? Plausibly there is a variety of reasonable answers to this question, depending on what and why one wants to know about the subject, and it is some testament to this that there are excellent introductions that focus on the issues, concepts, and key thinkers in the field.

In our recent book – Introducing Political Philosophy: A Policy-Driven Approach – Will Abel, Elizabeth Kahn, Tom Parr, and I offer an approach that focuses on introducing the subject through the lens of public policy.

Read More

Explaining Injustice: A Symposium on Bias in Context

In this post, Erin Beeghly and Jules Holroyd introduce a recent symposium they edited in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the role of biases in oppression and injustice.


For over a century, activists and theorists have decried the role of prejudice and stereotyping in creating—and sustaining—group oppression. In an 1892 editorial, Ida B. Wells argued that white lynch mobs and their defenders seemed to believe that all black folks were “criminal, ignorant, and bestial.” In liberation movements of the mid-to-late 20th century, feminists and anti-colonial theorists likewise critiqued stereotyping and prejudice as part of their push for social equality and political self-determination. “My true wish,” writes Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks, “is to get my brother, black or white, to shake off the dust from that lamentable livery built up over centuries of incomprehension.” “Shaking off the dust” requires, in part, freeing one’s heart and mind from biases.

But how easy is it to do this, and how significant are these personal, psychological transformations to ending injustices? In the 1990s and early 2000s, psychologists increasingly began to argue that social biases had gone “underground” in our psychologies, and were therefore both widespread and particularly difficult to root out. They referred to these biases as “implicit.” Implicit bias was posited as an important cause of discrimination and exclusion, capable of explaining why social inequality could persist in the absence of ill will and explicit prejudice. Yet many objections exist to explaining injustice via prejudicial attitudes and implicit bias in particular. Some worry that attention to the role of psychological factors obscures the real causes of injustice, which are structural in nature. Others argue that implicit bias theorists downplay the existence of explicit racism, sexism, and homophobia in the 21st century. Yet others contend that the scientific quality of the research is questionable and not sufficiently predictive of real-world behaviour.

In 2016 and 2017, we—along with Alex Madva—hosted a series of four workshops to scrutinize these critiques, and explore how one might understand the role of psychology in group oppression. This post provides a brief snapshot into the conference series, as well as the symposium that emerged out of it. We outline some of the symposium’s main themes and connect these with the three articles featured in it, as we do in our introduction to the symposium.

Read More

Page 1 of 4

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén