What is Democracy? (53): Secret Ballot, or Public Vote?

The secret ballot has become so common in modern democracies that it’s hardly ever questioned. And yet, there are good reasons why a democratic vote should be public. So, let’s go over the pros and cons of the secret ballot, and see where that gets us.

Advantages of the secret ballot

  • The desire to avoid voter intimidation or bribery is the obvious and most commonly cited justification of the secrecy of the ballot. If people in power know how an individual votes, then this individual may be pressured to vote in a certain way. And “people in power” should be understood in a broad sense, including employers, dominant husbands etc. This justification is based on certain key features of a democracy, namely equal influence, one-man-one-vote etc. The risk of coercion is present even in societies where the general level of coercion is low and democratic values are widely shared. And it’s often the least advantaged who will be coerced, because they have most to gain from changing their vote to please someone else, and most to lose from not doing so.
  • The risk of pressure can also be present in other, more subtle forms. For example, it has been shown that people are afraid to publicly oppose authority figures. Tests have shown that when an authority figure speaks first, there’s less dissent afterwards. An open ballot can lead to forced conformity.

Disadvantages of the secret ballot

  • Implicit in the doctrine of the secret ballot is the assumption that the electoral process is no more than the aggregation of individual preferences which have been fixed previously and independently of the electoral process. However, the voting process is, ideally, also formative of preferences, and not merely an arithmetic process based on fixed preferences. That means that people deliberate and discuss about the best way to vote, about the best candidates and policies. But that also means that people have to present their positions and preferences in public. Maybe the ultimate vote can still be secret, but the initial voting intention can’t be if we want democracy to be a lively debate. But if the voting intention can be public, why not the actual vote?
  • An open ballot allows representatives to know exactly whom they are representing. One of the advantages of this knowledge is that it allows for some efficiency gains. Representatives know who has to be convinced. Those efficiency gains should improve the electoral process.
  • When you vote in an election for representatives or in a referendum, this vote has real consequences. Taken together with the votes of your fellow citizens, your vote is likely to change the lives of a number of people, and sometimes change these lives dramatically. Moreover, those people are likely to be minorities, and hence relatively powerless. It’s therefore important that voters are accountable to their fellow citizens and that they explain and justify the reasons they have for voting in a certain way. This horizontal accountability is incompatible with the secret ballot.
  • Why should we have secret ballots for voters and at the same time open votes in parliament, as is usually the case? After all, the justifications for a secret ballot for voters also apply to representatives. They also may be subject to pressure when it’s known how they vote. Maybe to a lesser extent than some parts of the electorate, since they tend to be wealthy and generally powerful, but still. Representatives are less numerous, and hence it’s easier and more effective to use pressure in order to manipulate a vote. Also, the public nature of representatives’ positions makes them vulnerable to specific kinds of pressure that can’t be applied to ordinary citizens (e.g. they may be blackmailed for indecent private behavior and thereby pressured to vote in a certain way). Of course, representative bodies are different from electorates, and therefore not entirely comparable. For example, it’s hard to see how a representative body can be accountable to the electorate when it votes in secret. Voters have to know what the individual representatives have accomplished, or not, so that they can “throw the bums out” at the next election if necessary. Also, this threat of non-reelection can pressure the representatives to act in ways desired by the electorate. So, pressure – at least some kind of pressure – is part and parcel of the representative process, whereas it’s incompatible with a popular vote. However, even if a vote by representatives isn’t entirely comparable to a vote by the people, it still is somewhat comparable, and people arguing for a secret ballot in a general election will have to explain why their arguments don’t also apply to votes in parliament.
  • Open ballots, both in representative bodies and in general, force people to restrict themselves to preferences and arguments that they can justify to others. If you vote in a certain way, and are seen to be voting in a certain way, people will ask you why. And if you’re pressured to answer this question and to justify your vote (or voting intention), it’s a lot more difficult to be motivated, or to be seen to be motivated by self-interest only. Hence, the open ballot will make voters more sensitive to the general interest, which is a good thing. Also, this public justification tends to improve the quality of preferences, since people have to think about them, argue about them with others etc. That’s the logic of the marketplace of ideas.
  • And, finally, open ballots make electoral fraud a lot more difficult, if not impossible.

Obviously, not all of these advantages and disadvantages have the same importance, and they don’t make it instantly clear whether a secret or an open ballot should be preferred in principle. Much depends on the specific circumstances. For example, in a country with a lot of economic inequality and gender inequality, the case for a secret ballot for voters is relatively strong. In general, a mixed system is probably best. However, we don’t have such a mixed system at the moment. Most modern democracies strongly favor secret ballots, and seem to ignore the real problems resulting from such a system. I believe some more attention should be given to these problems and to possible solutions, which obviously doesn’t mean that we should go to the other extreme and deny people’s right to keep their opinions to themselves if they so wish. There can’t be a duty of free speech.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (24): What is the Marketplace of Ideas?

I’ve often invoked the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas to justify the right to free speech. (See these older posts). I think it’s useful to spell out in some more detail what the metaphor means, how far it goes and how it can bolster the right to free speech.

The point is this: ideas that can get themselves accepted in a competitive market of ideas will tend to be of better quality than other ideas. The marketplace of ideas therefore improves the quality of our ideas and our thinking. If different ideas are presented in an “ideas-market”, and if that market is populated by a maximum number of free agents expressing themselves freely, then those competing ideas will be exposed to a maximum number of supporting and dissenting arguments, and the balance of arguments in favor of or against an idea will be compared to the same balance for counter-ideas. The idea with the best balance will “survive”, because alternative ideas will be seen as comparatively defective, given the fact that the arguments in favor of them are weaker or the arguments against them are stronger.

It’s crucial that there is mass participation in the argumentation and deliberation going on in this market, since only mass participation will allow for the multiplication of possible arguments and alternative ideas. Hence, it’s also crucial that there’s a right to free speech and that everyone (or at least a large number of people) has and effectively exercises this right. This mass participation of free and expressive agents will improve the quality of ideas and of their supportive arguments even before the ideas reach the market: people who know that their ideas will meet probing and massive criticism will prepare themselves for this criticism, and this preparation means that they will preemptively develop supportive arguments and undermine opposing arguments. Hence, these ideas may even change and improve before they reach the market.

Exposing ideas to the test of the market doesn’t mean telling only your friends or your countrymen about them. Ideally, the market includes the whole of humanity; people who are close to you may share your biases and hence may not see the weakness of certain arguments or may not come up with the killer counter-argument. Another metaphor that can make this point somewhat clearer is the metaphor of perspectives: if you only look at a square from one side (or from one perspective) because no one told you that there’s another side or because in your group or culture it’s not common to suppose that there’s another side, you may not come to see that the square is actually a cube.

Without this massive and global participation of free speakers, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question.

This ultimately global nature of the marketplace of ideas gives us not only a justification of the equal right to free speech, but also a justification of the universal right to free speech.

So, the marketplace of ideas shouldn’t be understood in purely economic or literal terms, as a place where ideas are “traded” or “sold”, or “produced” and “consumed”; that wouldn’t make any sense. Of course, the result of the marketplace of ideas is that some people “trade” their old ideas for other ideas because the marketplace has proven that some ideas are hard to defend. In some sense of the word, ideas – and alternative ideas – are “exchanged”, as are arguments for and against ideas, but they aren’t exchanged in an economic sense. Also, one can argue that ideas have a cost: it may have been very hard and therefore costly to establish the set of arguments in favor of a winning idea (the marketplace of ideas is a tough place); or it may be costly in terms of status to hold on to an idea that has been thoroughly debunked in the marketplace. In the end, however, it’s never advisable to take metaphors too far or to use economic thinking where it doesn’t belong.

One important caveat: none of this should lead to the conclusion that massive support for an idea automatically turns this idea into a good one. It’s not because many people have decided that an idea is strongly supported by the best arguments and that other ideas have failed, that they are right. Maybe the marketplace of ideas hasn’t worked properly, because some of the prerequisites aren’t there (massive participation, strong speech rights, an educated citizenry etc.). Maybe the popular assessment of the balance of arguments rests on nothing more than prejudice. If you insist you can call this a “market failure”.

Here’s a quote that nicely illustrates my point – it’s about scientific discourse but it applies generally:

Science works very well as a social process, when we can come together and find flaws in each other’s reasoning. We can’t find the problems in our own reasoning very well. But, that’s what other people are for, is to criticize us. And together, we hope the truth comes out. … [W]hen people reason on their own, they’re unable to arrive at a good solution, at a good belief, or to make a good decision because they will only confirm their initial intuition.

On the other hand, when people are able to discuss their ideas with other people who disagree with them, then the confirmation biases of the different participants will balance each other out, and the group will be able to focus on the best solution. Thus, reasoning works much better in groups. When people reason on their own, it’s very likely that they are going to go down a wrong path. But when they’re actually able to reason together, they are much more likely to reach a correct solution. (source)

Migration and Human Rights (39): The Democracy Argument Against Open Borders

Usually, arguments against open borders and in favor of varying degrees of immigration restrictions are based on economic or cultural considerations. Often, such arguments can be easily dismissed as prejudiced, chauvinist and selfish, and the data don’t support them anyway. However, a potentially stronger argument against open borders is based on the requirements of democracy. It’s potentially stronger because it goes to the heart of the same liberal values that animate the push for open borders.

Central to the idea of democracy is that those who are governed by laws should have a say in the drafting of the laws. In the words of Jürgen Habermas:

Gültig sind genau die Handlungsnormen, denen alle möglicherweise Betroffenen als Teilnehmer an rationalen Diskursen zustimmen könnten.

People are obligated to obey the laws of government only insofar as they have consented to those laws (or to the power exercised in passing those laws). That’s the whole idea behind self-government.

Now, what would happen to this idea where we to open the borders? It’s claimed that the constant coming and going of people that would result from open borders, would make self-government impossible. People would vote on laws that would not apply to them in the future because they come and go, and other people would not be able to vote on laws that would apply to them because they won’t be here yet. Open borders would mean that people are allowed to decide on things they don’t care about and won’t have a stake in. Self-government would not be possible because the “self” that governs would never match the “self” that is governed.

Another democracy based objection to open borders is a practical one. The effective functioning of democracy requires a common language, since democracy is essentially deliberation. It also requires knowledge of the political system and the political culture, and a feeling for what is achievable and acceptable to the wider community. Open borders inhibit this effective functioning.

There are basically two ways to respond to these arguments. First, the arguments seem to confuse access rights and citizenship rights. It’s correct that citizenship in a democracy should be tied to certain conditions, such as knowledge of the language and permanence of residence, and that citizenship is a necessary condition for most democratic participation. I made that argument here so I won’t repeat it now. Suffice it to say that there are good reasons to distinguish – but not separate – different parts of humanity by way of conditional acquisition of citizenship – with each part hopefully having democratic rights within its own country. However, these reasons don’t, by themselves, justify closed borders. Access rights and citizenship rights are different things.

However, as Michael Walzer has argued, when we decide to allow people in but at the same time deny them citizenship, we run the risk of creating a permanent underclass of disenfranchised non-citizens, who live and work in the country but can’t effectively protect their interests through political participation. Hence, an open border policy should also include a pathway to citizenship. The problem is then to strike the right balance between the need for flexible citizenship and the risks to democratic governance resulting from a notion of citizenship that is too weak.

Secondly, the central idea of democracy – that people governed by laws should have the right to participate in the framing of those laws – can be used to argue in favor of rather than against open borders. A decision by one part of humanity to exclude others from a certain part of the earth’s surface clearly violates this central idea. The potential immigrants who are excluded obviously don’t have a say in this decision, and yet they are governed by it. If they had a say, they would probably carry the day, given their numerical strength.

Some would claim that it’s foolish to allow potential immigrants to participate in such decisions. Would we allow a mob of homeless people, demanding access to our house, to vote, together with us, whether or not they have a right to access? No we wouldn’t, but the analogy is baseless. We do have a legitimate property right to our house (at least most of us do), but the citizens of a country don’t have a similar right to a part of the surface of the earth.

It’s of course an open question how we would practically organize such a common decision. Perhaps we should take the next logical step and institute some kind of federal world democracy. But that’s for another post.

More on open borders here.

Measuring Poverty (12): The Experimental Method

The so-called experimental method of poverty measurement is akin to the subjective approach. Rather than measuring poverty on the basis of objective economic numbers about income or consumption the experimental method uses people’s subjective evaluation of living standards and living conditions. But contrary to the usual subjective approach it’s aim is not to ask people directly about what poverty means to them, about what they think is a reasonable minimum level of income or consumption or a maximum tolerable level of deprivation in certain specific areas (food, health, education etc.). Instead, it uses experiments to try to gather this information.

For example, you can set up a group of 20 people from widely different social backgrounds and some of them may suffer from different types of deprivation, or from no deprivation at all. The group receives a sum of money and has to decide how to spend it on poverty alleviation (within their test group or outside of the group). The decision as to who will receive which amount of funding targeted at which type of deprivation has to be made after deliberation and possibly even unanimously.

The advantage of this experimental approach, compared to simply asking individual survey respondents, is that you get a deliberated choice: people will think together about what poverty means, about which types of deprivation are most important and about the best way to intervene. It’s assumed that such a deliberated choice is better than an individual choice.

More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (13): Why Do We Need Freedom of Expression?

Here’s a list of some of the traditional rationales for the right to free speech (Eric Barendt for example has identified some of these in his book “Freedom of Speech“):

1. Freedom of speech serves the search for truth

There’s a long tradition in philosophy claiming that freedom of speech and the equal right of everyone to express himself or herself in public on any possible topic improves the quality of opinions and knowledge. Rawls, Mill and Kant for example have fleshed out this claim. In the words of Alexander Meiklejohn:

Just so far as, at any point, the citizens who are to decide an issue are denied acquaintance with information or opinion or doubt or disbelief or criticism which is relevant to that issue, just so far the result must be ill-considered, ill-balanced planning for the general good. It is that mutilation of the thinking process of the community against which the First Amendment to the Constitution is directed. (source)

Or in the words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Abrams v. United States (dissenting):

The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

2. Freedom of speech serves individual self-fulfillment

People who can express themselves freely are better placed to develop their personality and identity. When you can say what you think and believe, you can better give shape to your thoughts and beliefs. Also, thoughts and beliefs depend heavily on the possibility to receive information, which is something that in turn depends on free expression. On top of that, persuasion is an important element of wellbeing: people who can persuade others feel better about themselves. And when they can persuade others, they can form communities and associations, and belonging is another important aspect of wellbeing and self-fulfillment. Finally, when the right to free expression is respected, people can better enjoy culture, education and other things that improve wellbeing.

3. Freedom of speech improves the functioning of democracy

Even for a minimal democracy (regular, free and fair elections for representatives) freedom of speech is very important. Candidates have to be able to advertise themselves and their policies and argue amongst themselves. Lobbyists should be allowed to make their case (publicly and transparently, of course). Etc. But democracy should be more than that. Ideally, democracy requires deliberation among the people on the best possible policies. It’s obvious that this deliberation requires free speech. More on democracy and free speech here.

4. Freedom of speech is a check on the corruption of power

People have to be able to receive information about the functioning of government. Free speech is a necessary prerequisite of government accountability. Freedom of information acts are just as much an element of free speech as a free press, and both are required to counteract corruption and abuse of power. At the margin, elements of free speech such as freedom of information, a free press and the right to protest can make the difference between freedom and tyranny, but they also limit the risk of lesser evils such as administrative corruption, betrayal of election promises, covert government activities etc.

5. Freedom of speech is a right that is required for the protection of other rights

Historically, it has been the case that other rights have depended on freedom of speech for their full protection. The civil rights movement and the struggle against racial discrimination in the U.S., for example, would have been impossible without freedom of speech (which doesn’t mean that the right to free speech of the proponents of equal rights was never restricted). Equally, the feminist struggle for equal voting rights for women was made much easier by freedom of speech. And finally, the right to religious freedom cannot be separated from freedom of speech. And there are many other examples.

6. Freedom of speech serves prosperity

Without freedom of speech there is less innovation and less trade. Scientists who develop new products or services need freedom of speech, and business people have a lot of difficulties trading or advertising without it. Hence, it can be said that economic growth is fostered by free speech. But free speech doesn’t only promote prosperity in general (on average); it also benefits the poor. The squeaky hinge gets the oil. If the poor aren’t able to make their case, they won’t get help.

More on freedom of expression.

What is Democracy? (47): Something in Need of Innovation

If we agree that democracy is something valuable, and that speaking about democracy means speaking about a “thick” democracy, a “deep” democracy, a “full” democracy or a maximalist version of democracy as opposed to a democracy characterized only by regular and fair elections, then it becomes important to find ways in which to make our democracies more democratic.

Making a democracy more democratic means designing procedures and institutions that make it more likely that government policy and legislation represent the will of the people, but also that processes that guide the formation of this will are improved. A lot of thinking about democracy takes popular preferences for granted, and merely focuses on the implementation of these preferences. However, you can imagine procedures that do a very good job implementing preferences, but what use are they if these preferences are merely unreflected opinions and when there are no deliberative institutions that help to form preferences?

So, if we want to improve democracy and deepen it, we have to focus on two aspects:

  • improve the way in which preferences are implemented
  • improve the way in which preferences are formed.

Innovations in preference implementation

In mentioned in a previous post that a purely representative system of democracy isn’t able to accurately implement voter preferences. The argument in a nutshell: it’s more difficult to express preferences while voting for persons than it is while voting for issues. One person, who is a candidate for representative, holds many different opinions, and voting for this person means voting for the totality of these opinions. As a voter, you therefore vote for opinions which aren’t necessarily yours. You cannot express every single one of your preferences. You express your preference for a person, and this will be a person who more or less has the same preferences as you have, but there is some loss. And when preferences can’t be adequately expressed, they can be adequately implemented either.

For example, suppose your opinions as a voter are generally very liberal, but you oppose abortion vehemently. Suppose also that all liberal candidates for representatives are in favor of abortion. What do you do? You either don’t vote – but then you give up on democracy and the premise of this post doesn’t hold – or you vote for the liberal who holds a set of opinions closest to your own. However, when choosing the latter option you will vote for someone who favors abortion. Hence you were unable to express your preference against abortion, and democratic politics will therefore not correctly implement popular preferences.

If we want to improve this aspect of democracy, we should allow people to vote on issues, at least now and again. A modicum of direct democracy should be available. One institutional translation of direct democracy is the referendum. A referendum can be viewed as an innovation of purely representative democracy, an innovation designed to allow a better expression and implementation of popular preferences.

A vote in a referendum may be better than a vote for a representative in some cases – because such a vote means a more correct expression of preferences – but a traditional criticism against referenda is precisely that they simplify issues: they force people to put their preferences into the straight-jacket of a simple yes-no choice. People may not be able to express their preferences with the means of a simple “yes” or “no”. Many issues on which people are asked to express themselves in a referendum may not be suitable for a simple yes-no question. For example, some people may answer the question “should abortion be illegal” with a resounding “yes” or “no”, but other people may feel that their preferences require a longer, more nuanced answer.

However, instead of using this problem in order to reject the referendum as a democratic tool, we may opt for an innovation of the referendum system. Instead of offering a simple yes-no answer, a referendum can be a bit more complicated. Possible answers can take other forms, for example:

  • “Answer yes or no”; “If you have answered ‘no’, would you be willing to accept the following, less far-reaching alternative …, yes or no?”, etc.
  • “Answer yes or no”; “Since it is likely that the following consequences […] will result from the rejection of this proposal by the majority, would you be willing to accept consequence 1, 2 etc.?”; “If not, would you be willing to accept…?” etc.
  • Instead of a simple yes-no, voters could also be asked to classify a series of options according to their preferences.
  • etc.

So there are ways to improve and innovate direct democracy, which is in itself an improvement of representative democracy. But even if we stay within the realm of representative democracy, it’s possible to make it better. For example, it is well known that the political party system is not perfect. The candidates/representatives that are presented to the people for election, are selected by way of opaque mechanisms, involving power struggles within parties, fundraising, lobbying etc. This  distorts the election of representatives as an expression of popular preferences. Moreover, a party system – especially a two-party system – limits the field of debate. Topics which aren’t interesting for the parties or don’t fit within their overall ideology are ignored. One can reflect on a representative system which does away with parties altogether. Also, why should elections be the best way to represent people and their preferences? Wouldn’t a selection by lot of people from the general public not produce a more representative body of politicians? All such innovations and many more are worth considering.

Innovations in preference formation

However, what is the use of having systems that adequately express and implement citizens’ preferences if these preferences are of low quality, if they’re mere prejudice, knee jerk reactions, parrot talking points or unreflected slogans? Preferences should ideally be the result of reflection and deliberation. If preferences are formed through open discussion in which many perspectives on issues and many arguments for and against certain options can be aired, then the quality of preferences will be greatly enhanced, and that is something that benefits us all, even those of us who don’t manage to get our preferences translated into policy and legislation.

I have an older post here discussing the way in which deliberation improves thinking (based on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant).

However, open and fair discussion isn’t the strongest point of our current democracies, and this is another area in need of innovation and improvement. How can we improve the quality of political discourse? The reinstatement of the “fairness doctrine” is an option, but perhaps not the best one. Citizen juries are another option. Such juries, comprised of randomly selected members of the public, are asked to discuss a topic, interview experts, and form an opinion. Either this opinion is then taken to represent the opinion of the public as a whole and implemented into policy, or the public as a whole is asked to take note of the proceedings and conclusions and debate it further in other forums.

And that’s just one way of considering citizens’ preferences not as a given but as something that has be to formed, and that can be formed in a good way or a bad way.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (9): Free Speech, Democracy, Socrates and the Search for Truth

Just a few additional remarks on the way in which the equal right to free speech, and democratic deliberation based on this right, improve the quality of “knowledge” and of political decisions. (Continuing where this and this post left off).

Of course, “knowledge” and “truth” not in any absolute or objective sense, but in the sense of the best kind of thinking a given society at a given time can achieve.

Before arguing how Socrates is relevant in this discussion, allow me to cite a few 20th century thinkers. Justice Louis Brandeis, in his concurring opinion in Whitney v California, stated that the

freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth. (source)

Alexander Meiklejohn:

Just so far as, at any point, the citizens who are to decide an issue are denied acquaintance with information or opinion or doubt or disbelief or criticism which is relevant to that issue, just so far the result must be ill-considered, ill-balanced planning for the general good. It is that mutilation of the thinking process of the community against which the First Amendment to the Constitution is directed. (source)

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in Abrams v. United States (dissenting):

The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.

The freedom to speak, the equal freedom to speak, and massive use by large numbers of people of this freedom, result in the appearance and confrontation of a large number of points of view and of perspectives on an issue. It means that a proposal or opinion or policy is subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism. If it survives this, it is bound to be of better quality. Unfounded opinions or opinions that are open to sound criticism are not likely to survive this process. Free speech in general, and free speech as it is implemented in democratic decision procedures, initiate such a process. That is why opinions in a free society and political decisions in a democracy have what we could call an epistemological advantage. They are of better quality. At least as long as we contemplate the ideals. Real free societies and real democracies may fall significantly short of this ideal.

Again, epistemological advantage doesn’t equal “truth” and “knowledge”; just the best thinking we can get. Unfortunately, I’m not being very original here. This is obvious when we return to the Ancient Greeks. The Athenians especially believed that democratic deliberation (which for them was the same as free speech) was essential for wise decisions because it sheds the light of diverse opinions and criticism on policy options. Pericles, in his Funeral Oration, as recorded by Thucydides, said:

Instead of looking on discussion as a stumbling-block in the way of action, we think it an indispensable preliminary to any wise action at all.

None of this is limited to highly participatory systems of direct democracy such as the Athenian democracy, or to politics. The process can occur in modern, representative democracies and in any setting, political or non-political, guaranteeing free and equal speech. The scientific community for example heavily relies on peer participation. It’s fair to say that freedom of speech is essential for any collective search for of or advancement towards truth. In fact, the word “collective” is superfluous here, because the process is by definition collective. No one thinks more or less correctly in isolation.

We normally assume that an ideally conducted discussion among many persons is more likely to arrive at the correct conclusion (by a vote if necessary) than the deliberations of any one of them by himself. Why should this be so? In everyday life the exchange of opinion with others checks our partiality and widens our perspective; we are made to see things from their standpoint and the limits of our vision are brought home to us … Discussion is a way of combining information and enlarging the range of arguments. At least in the course of time, the effects of common deliberation seem bound to improve matters. John Rawls

I know, I know: “what about Socrates!”. Well, the Socratic method is a type of discussion with adversaries which is intended to expose the adversaries’ pretensions, prejudices, dogmas and conventional beliefs. In other words, it targets opinions which are accepted as such, without having first passed through a process of examination and criticism. Socrates is a one man democratic agora, launching different criticisms and counter-arguments at an opinion, and shining the light of many perspectives.

Plato, Democracy, and “Human Rights” (4): Real Theoretical Life

(please read part 1, part 2 and part 3 first)

In the ideal Platonic society, led by thinking people who use force to train others to become like them, there will be wellbeing because spiritual life, free from the slavery of nature and desires, is the only good life. It means freedom, the satisfaction of knowledge, and peace because the desires and passions of people are the main reason for strife. Also other reasons for strife, such as scarcity, will be eliminated by a planning state taking care of population and birth control. The number of citizens will no longer cause scarcity, envy, territorial expansion and other reasons to go to war.

So Plato started from an initially attractive premise, the importance of a thinking life compared to consumerism, but then issued a whole range of proposals to protect and promote this life which invariably lead to dictatorship. In all this, he is perhaps the classic example of the way in which the combined hostility to nature, materialism and the plurality of society causes hatred for democracy.

But even his premise is questionable. Is solitary reflection of the general, free from appearances and the particular, really the road to wisdom? Perhaps it is more correct to say that sense perception, expression, and hence the use of one’s body and the interaction with other bodies is the best way to gain knowledge. Much of science is still very material, and discussion, argumentation, deliberation and the testing of opinions through expression and discussion protected by human rights can radically improve our opinions.

We need interaction and communication with other people in order to think correctly, and even to think at all. Would we think without our parents and teachers, without speaking and listening to anyone, without engaging in the world of appearances? And would we be able to think more or less correctly without public interaction protected by a democracy and human rights, without venturing in the bigger world of appearances and without leaving our own small and private group of people? Thinking needs the public use of reason (see also this post on Kant). Thoughts are not something you develop on your own, not even in some small and closed group. You first need to listen to as many freely expressed thoughts as possible in order to develop your own thoughts, and then you need to test your own thoughts in confrontation with others.

By making your thoughts public and thus submitting them to scrutiny and tests by other people – first and foremost submitting them to those who are not your private or personal friends, because they might be too kind for you or too like-minded – you are forced to say how you came to have these thoughts and to give an account of the reasons why you have these thoughts instead of others. This will force you to reflect on your reasons and arguments, and, if necessary, to look for better ones. Giving a public account of your reasoning, or knowing in advance that you will give this account, makes you very critical of yourself and helps you avoid mistakes. Nobody wants to make a fool of himself.

The world of appearances, so disliked by Plato for its volatility and imperfection, actually improves the quality of thoughts because of the range of sources of information and opinions, because of the a priori self-criticism that it promotes and because of the a posteriori testing and objecting by other and not necessarily like-minded people (a phenomenon well known in the scientific community).

Giving a public account of your reasoning and arguments, taking objections into account, putting yourself in the place of someone else, think like someone else, look at things from another side or perspective, act as if you hold a contrary point of view, all this is possible only when different perspectives and different points of view are freely expressed. Human rights can help to achieve this. Without human rights, many valuable points of view or perspectives will not be made public, and many valuable objections and counter-arguments will not be known to someone defending a certain thought or idea. This can diminish the quality of the thought or idea in question and therefore it is difficult to understand how a theoretical life can benefit from the elimination of the world of appearances.

Knowledge can hence be defined in a way which is completely different from the Platonic, passive, lonely, anti-social, introvert, non-discursive contemplation. More on the problem of knowledge and politics here.

Parts 1, 2 and 3