Thesis Redux: The Competency of the Majority: Our Best Chance for the Best Society.

Posted on January 9, 2012


In July of 2005, I realized I was FUCKED! Capital F, capital U, capital C, capital K, capital E, Capital D, exclamation mark, FUCKED!

In six months, my funding would run out and I was expected to submit my PhD thesis. One problem: I had no thesis to submit.

Let me be clear: I was not FUCKED! because I had left everything to the last minute.

On the contrary. I had done a ridiculous amount of research, thinking, and writing. Unfortunately, after all that research, thinking, and writing, I was forced to conclude that contemporary political philosophy had gone down a blind alley.

John Rawls, a philosopher whose work I still admire, is credited with renewing an interest in political philosophy as a branch of moral philosophy. By the time I started studying political philosophy seriously, he had already begun to rethink that part of his work I would say is distinctively moral. By the time I was done thinking and writing about his rethinking, I realized that the moral part of his work was fundamentally flawed and so was the idea of a distinctively moral political philosophy.

To put it as simply as possible: if we don’t think it’s appropriate or effective to use the one true religious morality to organize society, why would it be appropriate or effective to employ any other kind of one true morality? Fortunately and unfortunately, I managed to make my point in a single chapter that would eventually become a peer reviewed article.

And I still had the damn thesis to write.

I thought very seriously about calling it quits then and there. Clearly, my philosophical journey had come to an end and, unfortunately, I hadn’t yet managed to produce a thesis. Mix into my malaise a whole lot of discontent about the university system and it didn’t seem to me like there was much point in finishing the thesis.

But then, for some reason, I thought about all the people who had supported me over the years with their encouragement and letters of recommendation and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I owed it to them to do my best to finish a thesis and submit it. Fuck.

So, I went to work, refashioning what I had produced up to that point. I had learned, during my extended tarry in university, that the tenor, tone, and point of a paper — and thus presumably a thesis — could be completely changed with only a few key revisions. After some gnashing of teeth, some pounding of head against wall, and several false starts, I stumbled upon my first good — and, in retrospect, totally obvious — idea.

The Government of Canada had provided me with fists full of cash to undertake my research and, thoughtfully, they had forced me to write down what I intended to do with that money in order to get it. I thought, “hey, I might as well produce the work I promised to produce five years ago”. I dug up my one page outline and it looked feasible. At least, I now had a plan of action.

Then, I had my second good idea. If I was correct to think that contemporary political philosophy had gone down a blind alley and if I was correct to think that I didn’t really want to become a part of the university system, I had absolutely nothing to lose by thinking big. If I was going to fail, I might as well go down in flames.

So, I rearranged the work I had done in such a way that it allowed me to do some good old fashioned first philosophy. That’s right, I decided to get all Rene Descartes up in here. I would assume nothing, start from scratch, and reason my way to the best approach to society’s organization.

Then, I had my third good idea. No more hobby horses! If you are going to start fresh, I said to myself, start fresh!

Because I had arrived at political philosophy via my fretting about the the existence of God and via my fretting about the nature of truth, I was predisposed to look askance at anyone who talked about truth, knowledge, and certainty. As a result, I had more or less ignored a vein of work in contemporary philosophy that had reexamined Condorcet’s Jury Theorem, which [take a breath!] demonstrates mathematically that a majority decision based on the independent judgments of a sufficiently large number of sufficiently competent persons is the best estimation of which of two or more proposed courses of action is the best available, and [breathe!] it was this theorem that would eventually be the keystone of my thesis.

I can’t say when I realized the theorem was the keystone of my thesis because I was coming to understand the theorem — and the new work on it — as I worked on the whole of the thesis. Six months of almost non-stop work later and contrary to my own expectations, I managed to submit a thesis. I even managed to submit the damn thing a few days early.

All in all, I was pretty satisfied with the thesis I submitted, however, I had included a lot of material simply because it was a thesis being submitted for a degree. There are certain expectations of what a PhD thesis is meant to look like and I dutifully met them. Then, to get my thesis past my examining committee, I dutifully added even more material. As a result, the document that was eventually accepted, bound, and deposited as my thesis, from my perspective, was unnecessarily bloated. I resolved to cut it down to a size that accords with my philosophical aesthetic rather than the one dominant in academic culture.

And, finally, after many fits and starts, I did!

And here it is, if you care to read it, distributed round about the sixth anniversary of when I first submitted it — the end of January 2006. Holy fuck! Has it really been six years?

After reading and rereading the text over these last few weeks, there are for me two lingering concerns.

First, the writing is a bit tortured and is, I think, characteristic of someone who spent far too much of his life earning “A’s” to pay the bills. If I had more patience, I would rewrite it word for word but, ultimately, my goal has been to create a text that is more like the version I would have submitted if I hadn’t had to meet the expectations of the academic community and, unfortunately for the courageous reader, that’s just the way I wrote back then. And still do sometimes, I will admit.

Second, and more importantly, in the years since completing the thesis, I’ve come to take much more seriously the idea that we human primates have a hard time thinking and acting independently. I still think that the level of independent thinking required for Condorcet’s theorem is possible and even feasible, but I now recognize that it is pretty tough for most people to think, judge, and act independently most of the time. We are, after all, tribal primates and it is, I think, the struggle between independent judgement and tribal groupthink that — for both good and for evil — is the engine of human history.

If you have the time and inclination to read The Competency of the Majority: Our Best Chance for the Best Society, I welcome all questions and comments. I should also say, if you read only the fairly short introduction and conclusion, you will pretty much get the gist of it.

Download The Competency of the Majority: Our Best Chance for the Best Society