(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, November 13, 2016.)
Plato argued that we can’t have a good lives without good government, and he also believed that we can’t have good governments without intellectually and morally excellent leaders.
To understand why we need intelligent and knowledgeable individuals occupying the most important positions in society, Plato invites us to consider the following: if we want good health care we consult physicians and nurses; if we desire legal advice we consult attorneys; if we want to construct buildings or bridges we consult engineers and architects; etc. Yet, Plato said, in a democracy when we choose our political leaders we consult all the people—even the most ignorant among us.
Now if you were trying to determine whether you needed heart surgery you would consult a cardiologist, you wouldn’t take a vote or ask the cashier at the checkout lane in the grocery store. If you want to know about the merits of a lawsuit you would consult an attorney, not a pharmacist or plumber or psychologist. And if you want to understand the science of climate change, you would consult a climate scientist not a politician ignorant of climate science. Since running the society is the most important job of all, Plato believed it imperative that those occupying political positions must be at least minimally knowledgeable of politics, history, economics, science and more.
In his dialogue The Republic, Plato lays out an educational plan to help ensure, as far as possible, that politicians—like physicians, attorneys, nurses, physicists, and philosophy professors—are educated in areas relevant to making important decisions for the society. In addition Plato thought that the ruling class should be morally excellent, and in The Republic he lays out a plan to ensure, as far as humanly possible, that virtuous individuals compose the ruling class. Now none of this guarantees that will we get good politicians, nor that society will flourish as a result, because even after long periods of training there are incompetent and immoral politicians, physicians and philosophy professors. But surely the fact that physicians, nurses, attorneys, physicists, and philosophers endure long periods of training and must pass multiple examinations is better than if were chosen randomly or by a vote!
By contrast, suppose your physician told you that she know nothing of medicine but the free market lets anyone practice so she thought she would give it a go. Suppose your philosophy professor says he had never had a philosophy class, but that he got the job because he knows the dean. In either case you would not feel good about the situation. Plato thinks the same way about politics. You must expect that those who practice are qualified. And like Plato I believe that persons applying to hold a political office should have to pass some kind of exams to demonstrate some relevant knowledge of the job, in the same way you must pass medical boards (physicians), or the bar (attorneys), or comprehensive examinations (PhDs) in order to practice in those realms. [We might also consider some minimal qualifications for voting, as so many are low information voters.]
Now all of this is relevant to the American political system where those who run for political office often have no relevant knowledge; often they are ignorant of economics, science, political theory, history, religion, nuclear weapons, and more. Sometimes they are even chosen because they are actors, athletes, or ignorant celebrities. Surely all of this is insane! I want a physician to treat me, not someone who plays one on TV. In other important positions I want someone who understand health care, the economy, the environment and technology, not someone who only pretends to understand them. As for the argument that leaders don’t have to know anything, just choose good experts to advise them, I say balderdash. How can an ignorant person even identify knowledgeable ones? They cannot.
Now I do realize that intellectual excellence is merely a necessary and not a sufficient condition for good governing, but necessary it is. As for the moral component, this is a more difficult thing to recognize. To identify moral individuals we might use Plato’s model or the one used for centuries in ancient China—the Imperial Exams. But, as readers of this blog know, the best solution I know of is to use technology to change the human genome and the brain itself. This is a radical solution, but the best one I know of.
In the meantime we must hope that we have the wisdom to prevent morally and intellectually bankrupt individuals like Donald Trump from holding high office. And I would like to thank all the woman in this country who are disproportionately saving us from this catastrophe.