We continue our celebration of the 125th anniversary year of Ethics by discussing Alexander Guerrero‘s retrospective of Marie Collins Swabey’s “Publicity and Measurement,” as well as the original paper by Swabey. Guerrero’s retrospective is available here, Swabey’s paper is available here; both are open access.
Guerrero has also kindly written for us a terrific overview of Swabey’s work and life, posted below the fold. Join in the discussion!
Thanks to PEA Soup for hosting the discussion of Marie Collins Swabey’s interesting and prescient article, “Publicity and Measurement,” and my short reflections on that article for the Ethics 125th anniversary retrospective series.
Leafing through (OK, clicking through) the earliest issues of Ethics to see if there were any pieces I’d like to write about, I was struck by the sheer number of completely unfamiliar names. One of these that particularly stood out was Marie Collins Swabey, in part because there were not that many women, but in larger part because she published four articles in Ethics during this time: “The Rational Character of the Democratic Principle” (1925), “Democracy and the Concept of Quantity” (1927), “Publicity and Measurement” (1930), and “The Leading Myths of Our Time” (1939). In these four articles, and in her 1937 book, Theory of the Democratic State (Harvard University Press), she offers interesting and powerful answers to questions that remain central questions in political philosophy and democratic theory today:
•How is good democratic governance possible, given the complexity of modern policymaking and widespread voter ignorance?
•Why should we entrust lawmaking to “the people” and their representatives, rather than to experts?
•Is modern democracy compatible with an ideal of citizens as rational, intelligent, humanistic individuals?
•How should we understand the ideal of equality as encapsulated in democratic practice?
•What is the proper role, if any, of ideology and mythology in sustaining a political community and supporting a political system?
Her answers are insightful, fascinating, and challenging. In her work, as in the work of her much better-known contemporaries John Dewey and Walter Lippmann, it is possible to see early elements of much of the important democratic theory and political philosophy of the 20th century. Her work can be seen as an early and in some cases originating contribution to debates about the value of democracy and the importance of reasoned deliberation; epistemic defenses of democracy based on large numbers, aggregation of opinion, and random sampling; debates about democracy versus technocracy; discussions of the role of science and expertise in democratic communities; the importance of education and humanistic education in particular; and the importance of institutional design.
Swabey received her A.B. in 1913 from Wellesley College, and received an M.A. from the University of Kansas in 1914, and her Ph.D. from Cornell in 1920. She spent most of her career—three decades—as a professor at New York University, before retiring in 1956. She worked in political philosophy, but she was a wide-ranging philosopher, also publishing articles in the Journal of Philosophy on the philosophy of logic (“Is There Logical Force in Demonstration” and “Logic as Language Habits versus Logic as Formal Truth”), on what makes circular arguments vicious or benign (“Circles”), on religious tolerance (“Toynbee and the Limits of Religious Tolerance”), and she offers a theory of comedy (“The Comic as Nonsense, Sadism, or Incongruity”). These articles and others were developed into three other books: Logic and Nature (1930), The Judgment of History (1954), and Comic Laughter (1961). She was also a co-translator of two works by Ernst Cassirer (along with her husband): Substance and Function and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (1923).
Despite its relevance to many contemporary debates, her work in political philosophy has been almost entirely neglected. I could find only 3 citations to her book in the past 50 years, and no citations to any of the articles published in Ethics. This is a shame, and I hope that people start to give her work the attention it deserves.
There is much of interest in her “Publicity and Measurement” article, and I try to highlight a few of the main themes in my short piece. One question I think it is worth discussing is whether Swabey is too optimistic about us.
In this article, and in her other work, she acknowledges the problem of voter ignorance and apathy in modern democracies, but remains steadfast in her defense of a role for citizens as deliberators and reasoners; as people who can learn what they need to know to participate actively and intelligently, if given the opportunity. “Publicity and Measurement” is partly about what is required in that regard, and about how vital but technical information might be made engaging and digestible for citizens and potential voters.
It is hard not to read this somewhat cynically, particularly in light of decades of political science demonstrating how little voters know, how little they care, how rational it is for them to remain ignorant, and how much incentive there is for powerful individuals and institutions to distract and manipulate the views of voters. If this is your response, however, I think Swabey has a powerful challenge for you: why should we have an electoral democracy in which each person gets a vote? Why not give votes and political power only to those who know, or those who know best? Why not weight votes based on education or other evidence of epistemic fitness? Jason Brennan and others have pressed this challenge and essentially accepted that conclusion, but many are unwilling to go down that road.
In “The Rational Character of the Democratic Principle,” Swabey argues that “the basis for conferring a share of power upon each individual, and that upon which the responsibility for its exercise rests, is the individual’s reason.” If this is not the basis, what is? There are other answers here, certainly, but I find myself drawn to her populist, humanist view:
Furthermore, it is only because reason is present in all men in some sense equally that democracy is able to accord authority to all in the exercise of the power of rule. Reason is equal, in the sense that it is a definitive character of man as such, and not a special talent of the few; for although men are not equally gifted at reasoning, there is yet a certain modicum, a certain irreducible minimum in every man, enough to insure his general competence to sustain a share in the government. While certain powers seem granted only to a few, to be natural gifts—such as talents in music or in mathematics—other powers seem shared and common among mankind, so that of reason especially it may be said that it constitutes a kind of common sense, since every man, if he will but exercise his ability, must prove to have the root of the matter in him.
The challenge, as I see it, and I think as Swabey sees it, is to figure out how to design political institutions so as to respect this fundamental equality while also confronting the serious challenges of policy complexity and voter ignorance in modern political communities. It seems to me the wrong response to either ignore this fundamental equality, or to ignore the difficulties posed by the technical and complex nature of modern policymaking.