Skip to content
Home » Plato, Democracy and Me: Ken Taylor at TEDxStanford (Full Transcript)

Plato, Democracy and Me: Ken Taylor at TEDxStanford (Full Transcript)

Ken Taylor


I’m going to start with a quote from a dead white guy, Plato. This is a quote in which he says, “The world’s not going to be in good shape until,” get this, “Philosophers become kings, and kings become philosophers.”

Now you might think that as a philosopher I really like that statement, right, because I should be a king. But I’m a huge fan of democracy, huge fan of democracy. Plato, however, was not at all a fan of democracy. It’s not like he thought it was the worst form of government, but he did think it was the second worst form of government. The only thing worse is absolute tyranny where you are ruled by a despot.

But he compared democracy, the democratic state, to a ship at sea. It’s beset by a bunch of sailors. The sailors are fighting with each other, and the sailors each have one overriding goal: to somehow get the owner of the ship, that would be the people, to hand over the rudder of the ship to them. Not because they know anything about navigation, but because they want to plunder the ship. That’s what he thought of politicians in a democracy.

Now, you might think, well, the politicians, yeah who likes politicians? Plato also did not think much of the people. He compared the people to a beast, moved by appetite and passion rather than reason. And here’s what he said about the art of political persuasion in a democracy, “Trying to persuade the people in a democracy is trying to wrestle and sooth the savage beast.” And that’s not reason, that’s not reasoned discourse, that’s just manipulation and persuasion.

Now here’s something I would really like to believe. I would like to believe that Plato got it absolutely wrong about democracy. I would like to believe that, but you know what, I don’t. And neither did our founding fathers, so I’ve got a problem, right? And I ask Plato’s question, “Are human beings fit for self-governance, rational self-governance, either individually or collectively?” He’ll say, “No, look at the human mind, most humans are not fit. Only an elite few are and so democracy is completely unworkable.” Think that’s a terrible argument? I think it’s a troubling argument.

So, I said I want to defend democracy, I’m here to defend democracy, but I’m going to make it harder. Because I’m going to show you modern cognitive science. We’re going from Plato, 2500 years ago, to modern cognitive science. One thing modern cognitive science does: it’s probe the mind a great deal, it’s probed the human mind a great deal. And one of the things that it’s found is that the human mind is shot through with irrationality, in its belief formation and in its decision making. All kinds of irrationalities.

Here’s one kind of irrationality, it’s called the Endowment Effects, and actually it has to do with both goods and beliefs. Basically, the idea of an Endowment Effect is that if you have something or if you believe something, you’ll place greater value on the thing that you have, than a thing that you could get that’s equivalent. Like I said that applies to both goods and beliefs. I could do a little thought experiment.

Suppose I was to give this half of the room a cool thing, a plaque, a cup, whatever, and I said, “It’s yours to keep. You may have it.” And I want to say this half of the room, “I’m going to give you the same cool thing, but only if you’re willing to pay the right price.” I ask you what price you’re willing to pay. You’ll write down a price. I ask you guys, “What price you’re willing to sell your cool thing to them for?” You’re going to set a price like twice as high as the price that they’ll be willing to buy it. Why? Because you got it. It doesn’t just apply to goods, it also applies to beliefs. People fall in love with their beliefs. There’s a phenomenon that because it was discovered by some Canadians – they talk funny – it’s called PerSEVerance of Discredited Belief, rather than PerseVEERance of Discredited Beliefs.

So, here I’m going to do a little experiment. I’m going to ask you to form a belief based on some evidence. Do risk-takers or cautious people make better firefighters? I’m going to give this side the following evidence: There’s a John, a risk-taking firefighter, he rushes into a burning building, puts himself at great risk, but in the process saves a family from death. What do you think? Do risk-taking people or cautious people make better firefighters? Group A, you’re going to conclude, “Oh, risk-taking people make better firefighters.” Because you’re going to say something like “Being a firefighter takes courage and look at – look at – look – and – and – and – so you got to be brave.”

OK, Group B, I’m going to give you a different story. I’m going to say, “Look, John the cautious firefighter decides it’s too risky to allow his units to enter the burning building,” which immediately after, it collapses, the whole thing is engulfed in flames and smoke. If he had sent his guys in there, they would have died. Group B says, “Oh, cautious people, make better firefighters because you’ve got to have good judgment.” And here’s the problem though, it’s all setup, and I’m going to now debrief you, I’m going to say, “You know what? I just made that all up, it’s all a setup, I was just playing with you. But you know what? You think you’re going to change your mind about what you believe?” On the basis of this discrediting evidence – No chance. You’re going to hold on to what you believe. Even though the evidence on which you base your belief is completely discredited you still believe it. You think that’s rational – No way. We make bad decisions, we’re really adverse to loss. We’re adverse to losing goods, we’re adverse to losing our cherished beliefs. That’s about beliefs you already had, suppose I wanted to seek out a belief? Sometimes you have to seek out a belief, you know, decide what to believe. And to decide what to believe, you form a hypothesis and you test it.

So, I’m going to give you a little test. Here’s a hypothesis. Is this hypothesis true or false? If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other. And what I want you to do, I want you to name those cards, and only those cards, which you should turn over to determine whether this hypothesis is true or false and solve the problem in your head. Y’all got it? How many of you said the E card and the 7 card? How many of you said that? Everybody who didn’t say E and 7 got this little problem wrong. How many of you thought the 7 is irrelevant here? How many of you wanted to turn over the 7? Not very many. You know why? You probably all wanted to turn over the E, if you want to turn over the K and the 4, I don’t know what to do with you.

But if you wanted to turn over the E, you wanted to turn over the E, because you think, “Well, if there’s an even number under there, that confirms the hypothesis. But what you didn’t notice, that if you turn over the 7 and there’s a vowel under that, that disconfirms the hypothesis. So what we do, when we’re testing hypotheses, we seek out confirmation. You say, is this a big deal? Yeah it’s a big deal. It’s called confirmation bias. It’s all around us. It’s one of the main human cognitive failings, and people know this. People – the media knows this, the politicians know this, the marketers know this, Fox News’s business model is based on confirmation bias. Nobody ever watches Fox News, looking to have their preconceived notions refuted.

But you know what? MSNBC knows it too. Right? We’ve given ourselves internet cocoons. Look. So we got – Plato’s right. The human mind is a mess. What do we do about it? Do we turn over the art of government to the philosophical elite, the technocratic elite, the scientific elite? And forget the poor schmucks down there, who are the rest of us? Should we do that? Some say, “Yes.” I say, “No.” I say, “No.” I say Plato had the half-right solution, he was partly there, I’m going to change that quote of his. But there will be no end to the troubles of states or indeed of humanity itself, ’til philosophers become citizens in this world or, here’s the real thing, or ’til those we now call citizens and the people really and truly become philosophers.

Why do I say that? Why was Plato such a fan of the philosopher kings? Because philosophy is about making your mind, disciplining your mind, so that: a) it seeks truth and only truth always and b) it’s always and only moved by the force of the better reason. You want to persuade me of something, give me a better reason.

Now, this capacity to be moved by the force of the better reason to be an inveterate truth-seeker who questions everything, even their own preconceived notions, in large subject to confirmation bias, this capacity I believe, is essential to the workings of a shared life in a democratic polity. We should regard it as the birthright, the birthright, of every child born in a democracy. Without it, without that, Plato is right. Democracy cannot work, you have the elite, the intelligentsia, ruling on behalf of and over the rest of us. And I do not think that would be a good thing. So, we’ve got to get the humanities going, and philosophy in particular. Thank you.

Related Posts

Reader Disclosure: Some links on this Site are affiliate links. Which means that, if you choose to make a purchase, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. We greatly appreciate your support.