“Who decides?”: how fair questions can derail meaningful action

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Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitzhttps://voidpod.com/
Aaron Rabinowitz is a lecturer in philosophy at Rutgers University, and host of the Embrace The Void and Philosophers in Space podcast.

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Who decides? As an ethicist, I get asked this question at least once a week. Make a case for an ethical principle like “people who promote dangerous conspiracy theories should be banned from social media” and you’ll inevitably get some version of “but who decides?”. Who decides what counts as a dangerous conspiracy theory? Who decides that conspiracy theories are sufficient justification for banning?

“Who decides?” is a reasonable question to consider, but I want to talk about two ways in which it can derail a debate. It’s a reoccurring theme of this column, and philosophical skepticism more broadly, that good arguments and bad arguments are often difficult to distinguish, and sometimes even good argumentative moves can be used fallaciously. “Who decides?” is a powerful example of that, because it is very much a fair question, but it’s also a common last-ditch refuge for unsupportable positions. “Who decides?” is often a hard question with unsatisfying answers, and it’s easy to trade on that dissatisfaction when a better objection isn’t available.

The problem arises when a person asks “who decides?” because they’ve run out of other objections. In cases where “who decides?” is used as a counterargument, rather than simply trying to understand the decision mechanism, the question tends to shift the discussion away from the key points of disagreement that need to be resolved, and towards an issue that might seem especially challenging but ultimately isn’t particularly illuminating.

Take the example of defunding access to harmful or ineffective forms of “alternative medicine”. Relative to other ethical dilemmas, the question of “who decides?” is not especially salient here. Whether a treatment is effective or harmful is a question best decided by medical experts. The answer to the broader normative question of “who decides that we should restrict people’s freedom to seek alternative treatments?” is the community, likely through their elected representatives who, in theory, attempt to bring about greater wellbeing for their constituents through the advice of experts and thoughtful cost/benefit analysis. None of those answers are especially satisfying, partly because the question itself is not particularly salient in this context, and partly because a further step of “who decides?” remains an open question. Who decides who is a medical expert? Accreditors. Who decides the criteria accreditors use? And so on, ad infinitum. As our good friend Sextus teaches us, any argument can be thrown back infinitely like this. The choice, as with all our other beliefs, is either to adhere to Sextus’ radical skepticism, or to decide you’ve sufficiently guarded against bad inference at some point along the infinite regress.

It can be tricky to get a handle on what is problematic about this question, but I think there are two key ways in which “who decides?” can undercut fruitful discussion. The first way can best be understood with a comparison to “god of the gaps” style arguments used by creationists against naturalist accounts of the universe. The frustrating nature of the god of the gaps argument is best exemplified by the historic debate between Professor Farnsworth and Dr. Banjo in episode nine of season six of Futurama, “A clockwork Origin”. Dr. Banjo’s god of the gaps argument trades on the fact that there is always the potential for an explanatory gap between two states of events, and filling in that gap just creates two more gaps, and so on ad infinitum.

God of the gaps aren’t always empirical. One could argue that William Lane Craig’s metaethical pressupositionalism is a kind of god of the gaps, as he claims that it’s impossible to bridge the gap between our natural world and moral truths. What’s more, the early moves of pressupositionalist arguments are often phrased as “who decides what is moral?”, with the inevitable implication that a god is needed to decide or provide the grounding for the decision. Whether it’s claims about science or morality, the key feature of a god of the gaps argument is that you can simply restate the gap problem on into infinity.

A person stands at three directional arrows drawn with chalk on the floor.

Similarly, it’s easy to generate an infinite regress of “who decides?” such that critics can always claim that you’ve failed to thoroughly address their concern. These feelings of dissatisfaction are frequently amplified by emotional appeals to the looming threat of domination. The harmful result is that, as long as we can’t give a perfectly satisfying account of who decides up front, we feel justified in avoiding implementing any new action or system, lest that system fall into the hands of a tyrant.

These arguments all trade on a similar kind of appeal to ignorance, one that can be addressed given enough time, but in functional discourse can and should be deferred by recognising that further explanation is possible, but not necessary to feel justified in forming beliefs and acting on them. We may never be able to fill in every gap in the history of life, but the fact that every gap we’ve pressed hard on so far has yielded a natural “missing link” gives us good reason to suspect that the remaining gaps can similarly be filled without appeal to a divine creator. Similarly, I may not always be able to give a satisfying answer to “who decides?” at present, but the fact that humans have made some progress developing and acting on our moral knowledge inclines me to think more of that work can be done, even if the path isn’t always clear and the risk of abuse is real.

The second way that “who decides?” can be an argumentative misstep is in cases where someone must inevitably decide, but the question is posed in such a way as to suggest there is a decision-free alternative. I see this problem constantly in discussions about social media moderation. There is a great deal of outcry, some of it understandable, that unaccountable social media corporations have near absolute power in deciding who and what is allowed on social media. Folks across the spectrum find this situation intolerable, but there seems to be a lot of resistance to acknowledging that the power of moderation will have to rest in someone’s hands eventually. If not corporations, then government agencies. If not humans, then algorithms programmed by humans. Even adopting a maximally hands-off approach, which would be a disaster, would still be a decision that someone has to make.

In this context, “who decides?” could be a valuable question if it leads to analysing the costs and benefits of different decision structures and the implementation of the “worst option, besides all the others”. However, when “who decides?” is used as a way to imply that no one should have the power to decide, or that those advocating for any decision structure are in favor of tyranny or are oblivious to the costs of their preferred system, the question undercuts progress.

The answer to “who decides?” is often an unsatisfying “it’s complicated”. That’s okay though, right answers aren’t always satisfying, and if we learn not to expect them to always be satisfying, we can avoid the temptation of satisfying oversimplifications like “nobody should decide”.

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