The Cow in the Field

While listening to a recorded lecture of Yale University Professor Ian Shapiro’s course on the Moral Foundations of Politics ( I was intrigued with a thought experiment he offered about what John Stuart Mill may have thought was a fair way to arrive at the truth about something.

Mill, Prof. Shapiro emphasized, believed that free speech was a path to a truth that was “corrigible,” that is, can change, be discredited or replaced with a more accurate version over time, and that people should be permitted to argue their way to a just determination.

But how should we arrive at this determination? Let’s say we’re standing at the edge of a field and we see a cow in it. Someone asks, how much does that cow weigh? We can’t bring a scale to the field, so we’re going to have to guess. Whose guess will determine the truth?

Should we listen to everyone (and thereby compel people who have no opinion to join in?), or just those who pipe up with a guess?

When we’re finished gathering opinions, should we take an average of the guesses and hold that as to be the best version for the moment?

Should we vote on which opinion we like the most? If all opinions were honestly given, and every opinion was substantially different, we’d never get a useful determination.

Should we give special consideration to those who say they have expert knowledge–guy who has lived on a farm and says he “knows” cows.

What about the loudmouth who says he’s right and everybody else is wrong and tries to end the discussion? Mill would probably not like that because the loudmouth is limiting free speech. At the same time, what about the person who is in love with the sound of his own voice, who goes on and on and on? Should we give that person a three minute warning? And if that person disregards that warning, should we shut him down?

Of course, someone is going to say who cares how much the cow weighs? It’s a cow. It’s in a field. There are a lot of cows and a lot of fields. Why bother?

I’m extrapolating this now: what if we’re trying to arrive at a determination about how to deal with poor people. Or how to “create” jobs?  Or how to permit the free and open practice of  religion? These are issues that many people have opinions about, and none of them can be answered in a purely instrumental (i.e., get a scale, weigh the cow, believe the number you get). How do we determine “the right thing to do”?

I don’t have the answers but I feel it’s good to think about them.




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