How can we do politics better?
In Reasoned Politics, Magnus Vinding lays out a path toward politics based on ethical reasoning and empirical evidence. He argues that a better approach to politics is both conceivable and realistic. Modern discoveries in political psychology hint at new, improved norms for political discourse and cooperation, while also pointing to concrete ways in which such improvements can gradually be realized.
Having outlined a general framework for reasoned politics, Vinding proceeds to apply this framework to real-world policy issues. Based on an ethical foundation that takes the suffering of all sentient beings into account, he explores various lines of evidence to infer which policies seem most helpful for alleviating severe suffering.
The goals of the book
The book has several goals, which include the following:
- To promote a more reasoned and evidence-based approach to politics (on the margin). (Chapter 1)
- To promote a more cooperative and win-win-oriented approach to politics, over a zero-sum one; and relatedly, to reduce political polarization of the hostile and counterproductive kind. (Chapters 1, 4, and 8)
- To increase awareness of important findings in political psychology, and to explore their main implications. (Chapters 2-4)
- To show how consequentialist views combined with empirical examinations can provide reasonable recommendations on political policy, and to encourage further explorations of this kind. (Parts III-IV)
- To provide anyone interested in reducing suffering with concrete recommendations on key policy issues, based on empirical evidence and theoretical considerations. (Part IV; see here for an example)
Why I wrote this book
The goals of the book go some way toward explaining why I have written it. Yet there is more to be said about the “why” than what is contained in the goals above. The following are some of the (additional) reasons I wrote the book.
A cooperative project
The goals listed above seem good relative to a broad set of values. In particular, most value systems (as well as common sense) would endorse the broadly beneficial aims of promoting a more reasoned and evidence-based approach to politics; promoting more of a cooperative, win-win-oriented approach; and increasing awareness of common obstacles to reasoned and positive-sum politics.
The aim of reducing suffering is likewise an important component in a wide range of ethical views, and the policy analysis in the book is generally compatible both with pluralist ethical views as well as with classical utilitarianism (i.e. it is not committed to the view that the reduction of suffering is the only thing that matters).
A better political environment seems good for reducing s-risks
Much of our research at CRS suggests that it should be a priority to move politics in a less polarized and less antagonistic direction, since these things likely represent a risk factor for very bad outcomes. Not only may high levels of polarization increase the risk of making bad political decisions in general, but it likely also increases the risk of ending up with malevolent rulers in power (see also Section 14.6 in the book).
The bar seems low
It is difficult to know what is optimal to push for in the political realm. This might be seen as a reason not to engage in politics, especially since the stakes are so high. On the other hand, while it may be difficult to know what exactly is best, it seems that the bar is fairly low when it comes to doing significantly better than the status quo.
This is like the joke where two people encounter a hungry bear: The first person starts to put on shoes to prepare for a run. The other person asks, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear!” To which the first person responds, “I don’t have to. I only have to outrun you.”
Passivity in the absence of “optimal” might be akin to allowing ourselves to get eaten by a bear. And the norms and discourses we currently see in politics really do seem dangerously suboptimal, and do seem eminently improvable on the margin.
Avoiding the “marginalist curse”
It is good to be pragmatic when trying to improve the world, and to think in terms of realistic improvements on the margin. But perhaps there is also a risk of thinking too much in terms of slight changes on the margin, at the expense of more ambitious visions. While (aspiring) effective altruists are ambitious in many respects — such as when it comes to our careers or long-term visions for a much better world — it seems that there are some respects in which there is room for more ambition, particularly when it comes to creating better political systems and a better political culture.
So another reason I have written this book is that I think there is a sensible and ambitious vision for better, more reasoned politics that is currently not being promoted strongly enough.
Patient political change seems neglected
To be clear, the ambitious vision I am talking about is not one that is realizable on a large scale any time soon. Rather, it is a long-term vision for how our political norms could be better years down the line, beginning with gradual steps from where we are today. (And note that such gradual steps on the margin may already be quite significant, given that politics is so consequential.)
In the book, I draw an analogy to literacy: A few hundred years ago, virtually everyone everywhere was illiterate. The claim that everyone could learn to read — let alone that most people would be literate in just a few generations — probably seemed unduly optimistic back then. And it indeed wasn’t possible in just a few years, or even a few decades. But it was realistic in the long run, and something similar could apply in the case of (greater) political literacy.
There is arguably a tendency to focus too much on short-term change and too little on long-term change in efforts to improve politics and our political norms more broadly. Indeed, not only may long-term change be worth prioritizing because incremental improvements occurring over a longer time are more realistic compared to significant short-term improvements, but it may also be more tractable to push for long-term change because such efforts face less competition.
Jeff Bezos about business: “If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. … Just by lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue.” The same plausibly applies to endeavors to improve politics and our political culture in general.
Interesting sources to pull together
Another reason I wrote the book is that there are a lot of important sources and findings that do not yet seem to have been synthesized and integrated in a single place (which is not so strange given that many of them were published quite recently). These include books such as The Secret of Our Success, The WEIRDest People in the World, Democracy for Realists, The Elephant in the Brain, The Righteous Mind, and Our Political Nature; various journal articles; as well as shorter essays such as Crony Beliefs and Coalitional Instincts. All of these sources (among others) can be said to provide the “descriptive backbone” of my book. (They are explored in Part II.)
In addition to these descriptive works, I also draw on various sources on the normative side, such as Jamie Mayerfeld’s Suffering and Moral Responsibility, Richard Ryder’s Putting Morality Back Into Politics, and Alasdair Cochrane’s Sentientist Politics.
Synthesizing the core ideas of these sources, even without adding much new, itself seemed valuable and like a golden opportunity (and perhaps an opportunity that current academic norms and field divisions don’t encourage any academics to take).
In particular, it seems quite neglected to integrate both the descriptive and the normative side of things. The scientists who explore the descriptive side rarely venture deeply into normative issues, and conversely, those who focus primarily on normative issues rarely venture deeply into descriptive matters, such as the detailed mechanism of our devious political psychology. Yet an integrative approach that takes seriously both normative theory and our best empirical evidence seems necessary if we are to make sensible policy recommendations and navigate well in the political sphere.
Table of contents
Below is the book’s table of contents, to provide a rough overview. Note that the first two parts of the book constitute a mini-book (~20k words) that can be read independently, and which does not assume any particular set of ethical values, apart from the general ideal of values- and evidence-based politics outlined in Chapter 1.
Part I: A General Framework
1. The Two-Step Ideal of Reasoned Politics
Part II: Descriptive Groundwork and Its Implications
2. Political Psychology
3. Political Biases
4. Implications of Our Political Psychology and Biases
5. The Importance of Culture
6. Implications of the Importance of Culture
Part III: Reducing Suffering in Politics
7. Suffering Reduction as a Core Value in Politics
8. Notes on Consequentialist Politics
9. Identifying Plausible Proxies
Part IV: Policy Issues
10. Non-Human Beings and Politics
Part V: Summary
15. An Early Step in a Larger Project
16. Party Example: Alliance of Reason and Compassion
Appendix A: Does Voting Make Sense?
Appendix B: Hidden Challenges to the Two-Step Ideal