Some will disagree, but I believe that many of the important questions in politics, society and morality aren’t matters of truth, knowledge and certainty. For example, it isn’t “true”, in any sense of the word, that justice means the equal distribution of goods, that abortion is wrong, or that free speech is important. Those who advance those propositions may use facts, data and logic in their arguments, but ultimately the propositions are value judgments rather than statements of fact or knowledge. They are about right and wrong, not about true or false. (I made a similar case here).
This view of morality is known as moral skepticism. The opposing views are often called moral intuitionism or moral realism, and state that there are objective facts of morality independent of human opinion. I’ll do these views an injustice and summarize them in the question: “Don’t you know that slavery is morally wrong?”.
I can understand the attraction of such claims, but still I think moral skepticism holds because political and moral matters are fundamentally different from mathematical or scientific claims based on logic, data gathering, experimentation, statistical analysis, falsification etc. In politics and morality, we’re stuck with mere opinions; opinions which can be better than others, based on the reasoning and the arguments supporting them, but which nevertheless cannot pretend to be the truth. There will always be people with other opinions which may be supported by equally good arguments. Of course, also in matters of scientific or mathematical truth will there always be people with other opinions – take the example of global warming, or the vaccination skeptics – but these other opinions can be easily dismissed by facts, experiments, proofs etc. (which doesn’t mean that these opinions will go away; many people are immune to facts and proof). The same is not the case for basic political and moral questions. These questions may also be supported by data and experiments, but ultimately they rest on arguments for or against value judgments, and hence they can’t be settled on a purely cognitive or scientific basis (in other words, they aren’t – or better don’t have to be – caused by the mere ignorance or stupidity of one of the parties).
So, if data aren’t sufficient and truth and certainty aren’t a possible result of politics and morality, and if, as a result, there will always be a plurality of contradicting opinions, should we just keep on arguing indefinitely? Obviously we don’t. We decide on these questions all of the time. A large proportion of political activity is taken up by decisions on moral matters. And many consider those decisions not only necessary but also urgent. But then how do we decide? How do we distinguish good from bad decisions? We decide, not simply on the basis of facts and experiments, and certainly not on the basis of proof or a priori given truth or knowledge. Instead we use reasonable procedures guaranteeing the best possible decisions in a situation of uncertainty and urgency. These reasonable procedures produces reasonable decisions, not true or certain decisions. It is not because truth and certainty are unavailable that we have to find ourselves at the other extreme of arbitrary, impulsive and purely individual decisions. It is not because we cannot be certain of something that we cannot act in a reasonable way. There’s space between moral realism and moral nihilism, or between moral subjectivism and moral objectivism.
Reasonable decisions have at least the following six characteristics:
- First of all, reasonable decisions have to have a high level of acceptability and have to be relatively easy to attain and to execute. The decisions of the majority of the people are more difficult to attain but also more acceptable and therefore easier to execute than the decisions of an individual, a monarch or a minority. A decision by consensus is, of course, even more acceptable, but it is also much more difficult to attain. The system of majority decisions seems to be the most reasonable one because it strikes the right balance between the two different criteria of acceptability and ease.
- However, a reasonable decision has other characteristics as well. A decision of a majority can have terrible consequences, even if it is highly acceptable to the majority and easy to attain and to execute, especially when it is directed against a minority. A decision is a solution to a problem and should not cause problems that are worse than the one it tries to solve. The consequences of a decision should be taken into account. In other words, a reasonable decision is a responsible decision, in the sense that responsibility means taking into account and being accountable for the consequences of your actions.
- A reasonable decision must be the best possible one under the given circumstances. This means that all possible decisions must be allowed to appear and to be defended in public before the actual decision is taken. The advantages and disadvantages of each one must be compared to the advantages and disadvantages of all other possible decisions. The choice between competing decisions must take place in public and as many people as possible should participate in this choice, otherwise we may not find the best possible decision. If we exclude some people, we may exclude some possible solutions or some arguments against or in favor of some solutions. In order to be able to identify the best solution, the choice of a solution should be preceded by thorough examination of every possible or proposed solution and by public argumentation and deliberation. A maximum number of people should consider every possible solution. Reasonable decisions or reasonable solutions to problems should be public and should involve massive and free participation. Dictatorial, secret or impulsive decisions can only by chance be the best possible decisions.
- We should not be impulsive, but some things are urgent nevertheless. Sometimes we do not have time for massive participation and for thorough consideration of all possible solutions and arguments. Timeliness is also a characteristic of reasonableness. A decision that comes too late can never be called reasonable.
- The characteristic of timeliness is balanced by the characteristic of provisionality. Every reasonable decision is provisional, experimental (but not in the scientific sense) and therefore possibly transitory. It must be possible to correct or revoke a decision if it turns out to be the wrong one, if better arguments for other decisions turn up or if the circumstances change. This makes the speed of some decisions more acceptable. Regret and self-criticism are important democratic values. There is a Scottish rock band, The Proclaimers, that sings: “what do you do when democracy’s all through, when ‘minority’ means you, when the rest can’t see its true?”. The members of the band are Scottish nationalists who favor independence. However, there seems to be no Scottish majority ready to follow them. The error in their argument is that democracy is never “all through”. You can always continue to advocate your case and maybe, some day, you will find the right argument to convince a majority.
- The provisional character of a decision should, of course, be balanced against the need for stability and continuity. Decisions that change all the time are not the best possible decisions either.
These remarks indicate that democracy and freedom of speech are necessary or at least very helpful to arrive at the best possible decisions. Of course, massive participation and free discussion are also important in the discovery of scientific truth. But the “massive participation” is limited to scientists with knowledge of the domain in question. No one will propose a nation-wide referendum to decide on the correctness of the theory of relativity for example. Moreover, scientific discussions rest heavily on data, proof, experiments etc., which doesn’t have to be the case in moral and political matters.
Politics is not concerned with an a priori given truth. Political decisions do not exist because someone declares them after contemplation of the truth. They exist because a democratic majority has taken a decision with its limited knowledge of the moment and after reasonable, public and large-scale discussion, and because afterwards experience has shown that the decision has done what was expected and that arguments for other decisions have remained unconvincing. Reasonable procedures and experience, rather than truth, data, proof etc. give legitimacy to decisions.