Describe and evaluate Plato’s argument in favour of rule by Philosopher Kings

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Describe and evaluate Plato’s argument in favour of rule by Philosopher Kings.

At heart of Plato’s politics are two analogies, attacking democracy as a form of government, and promoting his epistocratic views. I will explore the philosophical content of these analogies. In response, there are two strands of argument against Plato’s conclusions that can be pursued by democrats; the counterarguments that democracy can provide equally good or better government, and that Plato’s treatment of democracy neglects crucial features of the state that his philosopher kings also fail to provide. I will survey these arguments to judge their success in combating Plato’s assertion.

I: Plato’s ideal government

Plato’s argument, like much of the Republic, rests on the contention that people have natural aptitudes for certain tasks – “different people are inherently suitable for different activities” (Republic, pg.60). This leads to the “craft analogy” (Wolff, 1996): politics is a craft, and there will be some people naturally disposed to it, just as there are some disposed to seafaring or medicine. To gain the most from the population, then, just as the best doctors should be the ones practicing medicine, the only the best rulers should rule. Hence, the argument can be formulated:

  1. Different people are inherently suitable for different activities.

  2. Government is an activity in this sense.

  3. Therefore, some people are inherently suitable for government. (by 1 & 2)

  4. The best society is that in which each activity is performed by those most inherently suitable for that activity.

  5. Therefore, the best society is that in which the people inherently suitable for government govern. (by 3 & 4)

Plato identifies the skills to rule as virtue and ethical knowledge (Pappas, pp.115-6). This generates a tension with the doctrine of natural aptitudes, as it seems uncertain whether the most virtuous or the most knowledgeable should rule. Plato, however, argues that philosophy generates both of these faculties. Virtue follows from the dominance of the desire of the rational part of the soul to seek knowledge over the base desires of self-promotion. Knowledge of the good follows from his metaphysical arguments that the philosopher is a seeker of knowledge of the Forms, a lover of knowledge of the good who will, by analogy with other forms of love, seek to propagate the good.

So, Plato contends that virtue and knowledge of the good is the domain of philosophers. The ship analogy supports Plato’s conclusions by depicting the rest of the population as ignorant in these spheres. The analogy indicates that unless politics is the preserve of those best trained in governance, like captaincy is only for those trained in seafaring, misrule will follow and the state will be wrongfully directed. Hence, it is the natural task of the philosopher to govern, reinforced by a strict education to instil in them just motivation, and privation of personal property to defend against corruption. This, for Plato, will create the ideal governing body.
II: Democracy provides knowledge

Democrats have disputed whether this conclusion necessarily follows. If it could be shown that democracy provides as good or greater knowledge of the good-of-the-state, then the craft analogy falls. Condorcet’s ‘Jury Theorem’ attempts to demonstrate this mathematically. It asserts that if each person in a set has a probability greater than 0.5 of making the correct decision for the communal good, then as the numbers of voters increases, so does the chance of reaching the correct choice. Christian List demonstrates (2004, Fig.1) that if we assume 0.6 probability of correctness for each voter, within 100 people the chance of the majority being correct is near-definite. From this theorem, it appears that (superficially) democratic voting has a very high probability of generating correct decisions, thus eliminating the need for epistocracy and neutralising Plato’s argument.

This conclusion, though, is misguided. The proof of the theorem presupposes several indefensible assumptions. Voters must have an above-0.5 probability of making the correct choice, yet the crux of Plato’s argument is that the general populace do not have this ability. The people are not well-placed to make these decisions. The democrat may reply that while this held for the direct democracy of Plato’s Athens, in the modern sense of representative democracy, the people are called upon to make a much simpler choice. In representative democracy, the electorate mandate a government to administrate the complex affairs of state in which we cannot expect the people generally to be well-versed. The choice is which representative or party to elect. Thus, the people need only have a chance greater than 0.5 of knowing which representatives will be the best governors. We may more safely expect the population to judge this competently.

This response, however, neglects the reality of electoral systems. There are two basic forms of electoral system in representative democracy: majoritarian systems such as that depicted above, and proportional systems (Lijphart, 1999). In a majoritarian system, there is commonly a one-party government, which runs the country until reinstated or replaced by the electorate. Indeed, it seems plausible that much of the country is able to judge which the better choice is. However, under these electoral conditions, it is entirely possible that no majority consensus of the population will be reached – in Britain, the paradigm of this electoral model, for instance, only 35.2% of the vote in 2005 election returned Labour to office (Electoral Commission, 2005). This completely defeats the object of Condorcet’s theorem, which states that a majority of the votes will converge on the correct choice, but not a minority.

The alternative, proportional representation, does register the preferences of the voters to a high degree of accuracy. However, under such a system the voters are presented with an assortment of possibilities, voting for parties from a multiplicity. This may lower their chances of voting in the actual best interest of the state. As these systems naturally create coalitions of parties, even if one is correct and certain that the present situation is unsatisfactory, it may be impossible to vote to remove the present coalitional structure, only to shift the balance of power within it. To do this successfully, the voters would need to be well-versed in the politics of the day and in which policies are best, rendering democracy once more vulnerable to the original assertion by Plato that people are ignorant and best employed doing what they are good at, and abstaining from politics.

Furthermore, the mathematical theorem neglects the very likely circumstance that voters do not necessarily vote for what they think is the good of the community. Vested interests in a particular outcome lead to self-interested voting behaviours, while political opportunism could lead to deliberate misvoting. The theorem also assumes that all votes are probabilistically independent events, which is simply untrue; many people are strongly influenced in their voting by their peers, loved ones and the media. If the vote of a journalist, for instance, is able to strongly influence the opinions of thousands of uncertain voters, the theorem’s applicability to real-world situations is undermined.

III: Plato’s omissions

Perhaps we cannot successfully show that democracy necessarily functions as well in knowing the good as the philosopher kings, however this is not the only dimension to democracy. Plato fails to perceive the multifaceted usefulness of democratic government. First, democracy provides accountability. The philosopher kings are not subject to checks from the population, so should corruption or poor decision-making occur, there is no method for the removal of the rulers from power. It is, to use Popper’s term, a “theory of unchecked sovereignty” (1945, pg.129). Popper employs his falsificationist methodology in a political context, inverting the debate and arguing that though ‘the wisest’ seems a good answer to the question of who should rule with unchecked sovereignty, we should rather be pursuing the institutions that permit the least misrule. The great value of democracy is in the regular opportunities for the governed to remove incompetent or corrupt governors from positions of responsibility without violence. It seems that should Plato’s institutional defences against corruption be overcome – it is all-too-easy to envision the philosopher kings declaring that there is no longer good reason for them not to own private property, for instance (Wolff, 1996) – the disenfranchised public would be unable to change the dysfunctional system without revolution.

Plato also fails to recognise one of the key functions of democracy: to identify and remove preferences that are generally objectionable and unhelpful. He neglects the deliberative component of democracy. We should not mistake ‘democracy’ for ‘democratic voting’ – democracy is more than elections alone. As well as a method for assessing the preferences of the people by voting, democracy functions to provide opportunities to evaluate our preferences and cultivate new ones. It promotes autonomy, free speech and debate. Racial discrimination provides a key example (Sunstein, 1988, p.334); politics should not simply implement existing discriminatory preferences, but rather show these to be objectionable in public forums of deliberation and promote more acceptable public preferences. Furthermore, in this context, those wielding political power can benefit from the public’s knowledge and experience of what impedes and improves their working prosperity and quality of life. Deliberative forums provide knowledge to the government, contentment to the governed, and integration to dissenters (Sunstein, 1988).
IV: Conclusion

From this analysis, it becomes apparent that Plato’s arguments are insufficient to compel us to favour philosopher kings over democracy. Democracy, for all the flaws which Plato highlights, is a paradigm of accountability, responsiveness and deliberative inclusivity. To paraphrase the asymmetry noted by Popper, the philosopher kings may, despite Condorcet’s theorem, be potentially the best rulers, but democracy holds the crown of the ‘least worst’ – the minimal potential misrule.

Electoral Commission, (2005) General Election 2005 summary of results retrieved from (09/01/2008)
Lijphart, A. (1999) Patterns of Democracy (New Haven: Yale)
List, C. (2004) ‘Democracy in Animal Groups’, in Trends in Ecology and Evolution 19 (4): 168-169
Pappas, N. (1995) Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Plato and the Republic (London: Routledge)
Plato, Republic, Translation by Waterfield, R., (1993), Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: OUP).
Popper, K.R. (1945) The Open Society and Its Enemies; Volume One: the Spell of Plato (London: Routledge).
Sunstein, C.R. (1988) ‘Constitutions and Democracies: an epilogue.’ in Elster, J. & Slagstad, R. (eds.) Constitutionalism and Democracy. (Cambridge: CUP) 327-353
Wolff, J. (1996) An Introduction to Political Philosophy (Oxford: OUP)

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