Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Governance (Page 1 of 8)

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.

What Do We Owe to Pandemic Puppies?

For many, having an animal companion during the pandemic has been a blessing. Someone to keep you company, someone to play with, someone who brings you joy and gives you a reason to get out of bed. Indeed, in the UK, the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PFMA) reported that 3.2 million households in the UK have acquired an animal companion since the start of the pandemic. This brings the total number of animal companions in the UK up to 34 million, including 12 million cats and 12 million dogs, and equates to 17 million households being responsible for an animal’s welfare.

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Is the OECD/G20 international corporate tax reform fair?

On October 8th, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) announced that 136 countries have adopted its two-pillar proposal to reform the taxation of multinational enterprises (MNEs).

Pillar One applies to MNEs with sales in excess of $20bn and profits over 10%. It shifts the taxing rights of the next 25% of profits above the 10% threshold to market jurisdictions, that is, to the country where the goods and services of the MNE in question are sold. The measure is thought to apply only to about 100 MNEs, many of them in the highly profitable digital services sector. Pillar Two introduces a minimum tax of 15% for all MNEs with revenues of more than $750m.

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Accounting for global and local justice in behavioural climate policy

Anthropogenic climate change is a global concern. However, that climate change concerns all of us does not mean that it would concern all of us equally. Income is the primary correlate of carbon footprint whether analysed on a national or individual level. The richest half of the world’s countries (in GDP) emit 86% of global CO2 emissions. The difference is even starker when analysed on an individual level: income level is also the strongest correlate with citizen CO2 footprint (2016 data from the Global Carbon Project). The effect of attempts to decrease carbon footprint in wealthy countries by producing climate-friendly consumer goods, energy, and transport options have had limited effect – in part because these only transform a small part of citizens’ total consumption behaviour, and in part because reductions are needed, primarily, in the amount of consumption by high-income citizens rather than in the specific goods being consumed.

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What the pandemic can teach us about political philosophy

This post originally appeared on LSE School of Public Policy’s COVID-19 blog on 3rd September. You can access this version here. Political Philosophy in a Pandemic: Routes to a More Just Future, the collection of essays discussed in this post, is out this coming Thursday (23rd September)!


Aveek Bhattacharya (Social Market Foundation) and Fay Niker (University of Stirling), co-editors of a new book on the ethics and politics of the COVID-19 pandemic and our response to it, introduce some of its ideas.

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Back in April 2020, in the period we now look back on as “the first lockdown”, we gathered together some early reflections from philosophers and political theorists on the ethical dimensions of the developing COVID-19 pandemic. We published these on Justice Everywhere, the blog we help to run. Experts from almost every academic field – epidemiology, statistical modelling, social psychology, economics – were turning the tools of their trades to the growing crisis. What, if anything, did we and our peers have to offer?

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From the Vault: Good Reads on Children and Upbringing

While Justice Everywhere takes a short break over the summer, we recall some of the highlights from our 2020-21 season. 

 

Here are three good reads on issues relating to children and upbringing that you may have missed or be interested to re-read:

  • Anca Gheaus’s post, Having Slaves and Raising Children, which discusses just how far one may push the analogy between holding slaves and raising children in a world like ours, which has not yet fully outgrown the long tradition of denying rights to children.
  • Daniela Cutas and Sabine Hohl’s post, which explores the question: What Do Co-Parents Owe Each Other? (This post is part of our ongoing collaboration with the Journal of Applied Philosophy.)
  • Helen McCabe’s guest contribution, Ending Child Marriage in the UKwhich examines the philosophical dimensions of a recent bill proposing to raise the minimum age of marriage in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to 18 – namely, questions about what decisions people should be permitted to make at 16, and about the balance between maximising people’s options and protecting a small number from significant harm.

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From the Vault: Good Reads on Public Philosophy

While Justice Everywhere takes a short break over the summer, we recall some of the highlights from our 2020-21 season. 

 

Here are three good reads on issues relating to public philosophy that you may have missed or be interested to re-read:

  • In From Armchair to Engaged Philosophy, Nicolás Brando reflects on the the benefits of philosophers directly engaging with their subjects of research throughout the whole research process – applying this to children as the subject of an important strand of recent and current philosophising. Nicolás’s post references Diana Popescu’s interview with Jo Wolff, which discusses the idea of “engaged philosophy”, published as part of our Beyond the Ivory Tower series.
  • Anh Le’s post, which addresses the question: Should Academics also be Activists?
  • Lisa Herzog’s interview with Rowan Cruft, the latest in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series, in which they discuss his public philosophy, and in particular his contribution to the Leveson Inquiry into the practices and ethics of the British media.

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Wrongly Weeded Out: Richardson’s Removal and Unreasonable Rules

In this guest post, John Tillson and Winston C. Thompson discuss the recent case of US track star Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension from competing at the Olympics.

Sha’Carri Richardson was suspended from the US Olympic team after testing positive for marijuana. This is ultimately because the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) decided to ban THC in-competition in all sports. THC (or tetrahydrocannabinol) is the main psychoactive component of cannabis/marijuana. WADA can prohibit athletes’ use of substances in order compete in the Olympics and other major sporting events such as those organized under the auspices of World Athletics. Richardson has apologized for her actions and US President Biden has commented on the case saying, ‘the rules are the rules’.

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Combining public policies and transformative action in fighting against gender violence

In this contribution, Katarina Pitasse Fragoso and Nathália Sanglard reflect on gender violence and public policies. 

 Gender violence is a form of physical, verbal, psychological or symbolic damage, caused directly or indirectly to the person due to her gender identity. It is an injustice, because, according to Elizabeth Anderson, it has been generated by arbitrary systems, such as patriarchal ones, which use gender as a justification to harm others and prevent access to resources, rights, the job market and other services. In this article, we will explore how these types of violence disproportionately affect women and feminized subjects, and we will propose some ways to enhance mainstream public policies, through a combination of actions and participatory devices.

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Public-private collaboration in the governance of AI

Artificial Intelligence – Adobe Stock

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have seen impressive developments in the last decades. Think about Google’s DeepMind defeating Lee Sedol, the best human player of Go, with their program AlphaGo in 2015. The latest version, AlphaZero, is remarkable because it relied on deep reinforcement learning to learn how to play Go entirely by itself from scratch: with only the rules of the game, through trial and error, and playing millions of games against itself. Machine learning algorithms have a range of other practical applications, from image recognition in medical diagnostics to energy management.

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