(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, not take a vote or ask the cashier at the checkout lane. If you want to know about the merits of a lawsuit you would consult an attorney, not a pharmacist or plumber. And if you want to understand the science of climate change, you would consult a climate scientist, not a scientifically illiterate politician. Since running the society is of the utmost importance, Plato believed it imperative that those holding political positions 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 makes them more likely to be qualified to do their jobs than if they were chosen randomly or by a vote of the ignorant.
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 want those who practice to be qualified. And like Plato, I believe that persons applying to hold a political office should have to pass some kind of exams to demonstrate knowledge of the relevant issues, in the same way one 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 too, 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 of the issues; 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 of observing people for many years to assess their moral virtue, or we may prefer the one used for centuries in ancient China—the Imperial Exams. But, as readers of this blog know, the best solution I know of to change our world 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.