Elegant Intellectual Foundation for the Caux Round Table’s Ethical Principles

I just read in the Wall Street Journal a very favorable review of Jonathan Rauch’s new book, The Constitution of Knowledge.

The review highlights why Rauch’s philosophical stance on finding truth demands use of the Caux Round Table Principles for Business and for the discourse ethics of our principles for moral government.  Open-mindedness, opportunity to falsify and flexibility in engaging with reality result from application of the principles to our institutions and relationships with others.

Here is the review for your consideration:

‘The Constitution of Knowledge’ Review: Credentials Versus Fruits

Knowledge-class expertise is the source of many blessings.  But as a guide to collective life, it’s neither sufficient nor incontestible.

By Benjamin and Jenna Storey
Oct. 12, 2021

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

By Jonathan Rauch
Brookings Institute

In The Constitution of Knowledge, Jonathan Rauch makes a convincing case that we still need our institutions of expertise and the people who work for them.  Mr. Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, argues that human beings have a natural tendency to believe whatever they wish, irrespective of evidence.  Our institutions of expertise incentivize intellectual rigor through practices such as peer review and fact checking, which help tame this tendency.

To remind us of why we developed these institutions in the first place, Mr. Rauch returns to the beginning of modernity.  When the wars of religion were drenching Europe in blood, writers and philosophers such as Michel de Montaigne and John Locke saw a way through that impasse of intransigence.  They originated an approach to thinking that systematized doubt and made it productive.

The institutions built to encourage constructive doubt embody Mr. Rauch’s constitution of knowledge.  Their cardinal principles are “fallibilism” and “empiricism.”  Knowledge is fallible if it might be debunked yet “withstands attempts to debunk it.”  It is empirical if the method we use to check it “gives the same result regardless of the identity of the checker.”  While our processes of review don’t tell us exactly what truth is, they often identify what truth isn’t.  And they produce tested hypotheses that help us govern ourselves.

Mr. Rauch draws a parallel between this constitution of knowledge and two of liberalism’s other hallmark institutions, constitutional government and free-market economics.  All of them “organize far-flung cooperation, distribute decision-making across social networks and exploit network intelligence.”  The result is political cooperation, reliable scientific findings and economic prosperity.

For much of the 20th century, Americans implicitly trusted the institutions of the constitution of knowledge.  If a claim showed up in a prestigious newspaper or scientific journal, most people assumed it had survived critical scrutiny.  If the FDA approved a medicine, most believed it was safe and effective.

Many no longer do.  Why?  Mr. Rauch identifies two forces undermining the constitution of knowledge.  The first is the nihilism of the internet.  “The commercial internet was born with an epistemic defect,” he writes.  Its “metrics and algorithms and optimization tools were sensitive to popularity but indifferent to truth.”  Sensational rumors, salacious images and outrage-driven social media pile-ons are clickbait; truth is at best a secondary consideration.

Some see the confusion that results as a political opportunity.  State actors deploy bots to soak social media in conspiracy theories—less to promote certain electoral outcomes than to “induce uncertainty, disorientation and attendant cynicism.”  The point is to “exhaust your critical thinking,” as Garry Kasparov has put it, and produce “epistemic helplessness.”  Such cynicism and despair undermine our capacity for thinking together and make republican self-government harder.

The constitution of knowledge also faces a challenge from the inside: cancel culture.  Cancel culture is rooted in what Mr. Rauch calls “emotional safetyism,” which construes arguments one disagrees with as threats that must be policed.  Emotional safetyism turns a culture of critical review into a culture of confirmation bias and censorship.

Mr. Rauch’s defense of the constitution of knowledge is an insightful and important reminder of the real goods produced by expertise.  But he largely ignores the deepest reasons for the crisis of public confidence in the institutions he cares about.  His intellectual history proceeds as if no serious person had ever challenged the constitution of knowledge.  He describes those who think outside its framework as a collection of cranks: “creationists, Christian Scientists, homeopaths, astrologists, flat-earthers, anti-vaxxers” and so on.  To this list, one might add many of the mightiest minds ever to have put pen to paper: religious thinkers, from Blaise Pascal to C.S. Lewis, but also secular ones, from Jean Jacques Rousseau to Friedrich Nietzsche.

All of them pointed out that the trouble with the Montaignean and Lockean worldview is that it truncates our minds, enervates our hearts and leaves us existentially clueless.  This is why no society has ever fully accepted Mr. Rauch’s vaunting proposition that “liberal science . . . is the only legitimate validator of knowledge.”  Greater familiarity with the best arguments against this Enlightenment worldview would give its proponents some much-needed humility.

Mr. Rauch defends a ruling class: the “reality-based community” that determines what views get published, platformed and enacted as policies.  But a ruling class that systematically blinds itself to the most profound longings of human beings will misunderstand and misgovern those under its sway.

In recent years, the expert class has undermined its pretensions to authority with high-profile displays of ineptitude, from shifting and contradictory pandemic policies to the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.

If experts want to regain the trust they need to be effective, they must remember that, while they judge themselves by their credentials, others judge them by their fruits.  Mr. Rauch rightly points out the invaluable work done by the institutions of the constitution of knowledge.  But those who rule can only justify their place by ruling well—and knowing their limits.