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Many-Minds Arguments in Legal Theory

Adrian Vermeule

Harvard Law School


Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-02

Many-minds arguments are flooding into legal theory. Such arguments claim that in some way or another, many heads are better than one; the genus includes many species, such as arguments about how legal and political institutions aggregate information, evolutionary analyses of those institutions, claims about the benefits of tradition as a source of law, and analyses of the virtues and vices of deliberation. This essay offers grounds for skepticism about many-minds arguments. I provide an intellectual zoology of such arguments and suggest that they are of low utility for legal theory. Four general and recurring problems with many-minds arguments are as follows:

(1) Whose minds?: The group or population whose minds are at issue is often equivocal or ill-defined.

(2) Many minds, worse minds: The quality of minds is not independent of their number; rather, number endogenously influences quality, often for the worse. More minds can be systematically worse than fewer because of selection effects, incentives for epistemic free-riding, and emotional and social influences.

(3) Epistemic bottlenecks: In the legal system, the epistemic benefits of many minds are often diluted or eliminated because the structure of institutions funnels decisions through an individual decisionmaker, or a small group of decisionmakers, who occupy a kind of epistemic bottleneck or chokepoint.

(4) Many minds vs. many minds: The insight that many heads can be better than one gets little purchase on the institutional comparisons that pervade legal theory, which are typically many-to-many comparisons rather than one-to-many.

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Date posted: January 26, 2008 ; Last revised: February 7, 2008

Suggested Citation

Vermeule, Adrian, Many-Minds Arguments in Legal Theory (2008). Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-02. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1087017 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1087017

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Adrian Vermeule (Contact Author)
Harvard Law School ( email )
1525 Massachusetts
Griswold 500
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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