While sitting in Starbucks and walking home – the cold seems to have frozen my bicycle lock – I have been thinking about three social roles relevant to my thesis; I shall call them the ‘Pure Advocate’, the ‘Pure Expert’, and the ‘Hybrid’ roles. Each type of actor has an important part to play, in the determination of policy, and each treats information and preferences in ways conditioned by their social role. For the purposes of this discussion, they are ideal characters who reflect only their assumed or assigned roles and not their own interests in any other way.
Legitimacy and the Pure Advocate
The Pure Advocate (PA) represents the ‘legitimacy’ side of my thesis. By necessity, they have one or more principal, for whom they serve as an agent. It is important that they are more than just an amalgamator of preferences. Having a Member of Parliament is not the same as having a robot who conducts polls and then votes in accordance with the wishes of constituents. The reasons for that are several:
- No advocate can simultaneously serve all the interests of their principles
- Advocates engage in activities that transcend a single decision. Voting the party line most of the time, for instance, may be an action necessary to be performed in order to become or remain an effective representative
- Principles may not have the time or ability to actually identify their preferences with regards to all issues.
The PA defends their autonomy on the basis of some kind of system of auditing. Most straightforwardly, this involves periodic re-evaluation by the principals, in the form of something like an election. It is the maintenance of uncoerced support in such trials that establishes the effectiveness with which a PA is cleaving to their role.
The Pure Expert
The Pure Expert (PE) has no principles: their role is not representative. Rather, the PE has understanding of a corpus of knowledge to which most people have either limited or no knowledge. Examples of such bodies include law, military strategy, or environmental science. One important difference between the PA and the PE is that the PA is permitted to be strategic: they are allowed to manipulate information and situations so as to benefit their principals, constrained only by the need to remain an endorsed representative.
As with the PA, the extent to which a PE conforms to a social role is determined through a process of auditing. Here, however, that process depends upon rules, methods, and procedures that are developed and evaluated in an ongoing way by a community of PEs. This is as true for jurisprudence as it is for scientific knowledge.
Just as the PA plays a role well or badly vis a vis the perception of principles, a PE plays a role well or badly as viewed by a community of peers. While, in some cases, the views of that community may bear relation to externally verifiable phenomena (such as empirical facts of nature), that need not be the case.
This is the interesting one. For an example, think of a lawyer. A lawyer has one or more principals and bears a special obligation towards them. A lawyer’s role centres around duties that are assigned, with regards to their conduct on behalf of a principal. At the same time, lawyers are part of a community of peers with certain important standards. It is not legitimate to destroy evidence or physically threaten judges, so as to obtain a benefit for your client. As such, those in Hybrid roles are subject to both of the forms of auditing presented above.
Doctors and, more relevantly, politicians fall into this camp. In a democratic system predicated upon the rule of law, it is not legitimate for an elected representative to secure benefits for constituents by illegal means, even when doing so secures no personal benefit. Among doctors, it is illegitimate to kill one patient, even if organs could be harvested that might save several, because those actions overstep the boundaries of appropriate conduct that are embedded in the social role.
Naturally, I am thinking about global environmental policymaking, in the formulation of the above model. There are a number of ways whereby the particular conditions of environmental policymaking complicate the formula above. The two biggest have to do with uncertainty and the interests of future generations.
Uncertainty plays a part in both the PA and the PE role. The PA faces uncertainty about what the preferences of principals really are, or would be if conditions arose that required them to form. The PA also faces uncertainty about the effectiveness of their own actions in securing outcomes that correspond to those preferences. Finally, the PA faces the problem of conflicting preferences: especially those involving near and certain costs that attach to distant and uncertain benefits. Faced with a preference for economic growth today and environmental integrity in the future, how does a PA reach a balance?
Uncertainty for the PE is likewise somewhat multifaceted. In situations where expertise relates to real phenomena (like the tensile strength of metal alloys), there may be uncertainty about the quality of understanding within the PE community or the ways in which different elements of a system will affect one another. A PE faces uncertainty about the effect the melting of the north polar ice cap would have upon rainfall and agricultural production, for instance. Then, both PEs in areas relating to real phenomena and those working with constructed phenomena (like law) can face uncertainty about the “rules, methods, and procedures that are developed and evaluated in an ongoing way by [their] community of PEs.” This becomes particularly acute when there are agents who are working to distort or manipulate those structures for their own benefit.
The interests of future generations are problematic because they do not have any direct bearing on policymaking. While people undoubtedly care about the welfare of their descendants, and perhaps even that of strangers who will subsequently inhabit the planet, they may not manifest those preferences strongly enough to adequately represent the interests of future generations. Also, since the interests of future generations cannot be directly known, present decisions can perhaps be better seen as either opening up greater possibilities for them to make their own choices, or constraining those possibilities by locking them into decisions we make now.
Social roles can be defined and combined to make systems more perfect than would be attainable using undifferentiated actions. The criminal legal system is a prime example: by making people act as prosecutors, jurors, judges, expert witnesses, and defense attorneys, we achieve a more rigorous and effective mechanisms for achieving certain ends that would be possible using an equal number of people given less defined (but identically motivated) roles. How roles can be established and balanced to deal with global environmental questions is something to which a great deal of thought should be directed.