Truth vs Reasonableness in Politics

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.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (10): Why Do We Need Democracy?

Regular readers will know that I see democracy as a human rights issue. The standard human rights texts (declarations, treaties and constitutions) all provide a right of the people of a nation to take part in the government, choose representatives in free elections etc. As with human rights in general, many people are in favor of democracy, but are unable to say why, or are unable to agree on the reasons why they are in favor. Some people may not have a particular reason to favor democracy, apart from a pragmatic one: it has worked quite well, especially compared to other forms of government that have been tried before, and it’s such a fuss to change.

Those who have reasons can be divided into two “camps”: those who view democracy as the best means to an independently valuable  goal, and those who view democracy as intrinsically valuable. The former group is the most numerous (and includes me). An instrumental justification of democracy can take many different forms, depending on the ultimate goal that is supposed to be promoted by democracy. The most common forms are:

  • Democracy promotes prosperity, economic growth and poverty reduction.
  • Democracy promotes peace (internally and externally).
  • Democracy leads to better political decisions.
  • Democracy leads to less repression and more respect for human rights.

I believe all of these statements are very persuasive, and taken together they form a very powerful justification of democracy (although we may need to agree on a very specific definition of democracy in order to be convinced by these statements – but that’s another discussion).

The non-instrumental justification, the one that says that democracy is good, not because of what it produces, but because of what it is, is also very interesting and persuasive. It focuses on what happens to people when they participate in government, what happens when democracy takes place, not what happens after it has taken place. So instead of pointing to beneficial consequences of democracy – more prosperity, more peace etc. – it points to the benefits of community, association, participation, self-government, self-determination etc. and how these things improve people’s characters, virtues and happiness. Read more here.

The only problem I have with this non-instrumental approach in which democracy is an end in itself, is that it tends to collapse into the instrumental approach: if democracy improves people’s character, then it’s also instrumental. It’s only an end in itself in the sense that it’s product doesn’t appear afterwards (like peace follows from democratic rule), but is simultaneous with it (people’s characters and virtues improve because of democracy, but only as long as democracy “happens”).

However, often it’s quite irrelevant which type of justification of democracy we prefer, and how successful (or not) the chosen justification is. Such exercises can be no more than “preaching to the choir”, intellectually interesting but practically irrelevant. People who already accept democracy don’t need a philosophical explanation of why democracy is so wonderful. And people who don’t accept democracy are often immune to rational justifications or to philosophy in general. Good luck approaching the Taliban with a philosophy paper on the benefits of democracy… (In fact, good luck approaching them at all).

What is Democracy? (39): Government of the Stupid, by the Stupid, and for the Stupid?

When the merits and demerits of democracy are discussed, we often hear that it’s not very wise to let the people govern themselves. Democracy must be rejected because the will of the people is necessarily ill-considered, emotional, stupid, based on instinctive and hasty reactions and so forth. The people are said to be disinterested, apathetic, indifferent and generally not smart enough to deal with the complex problems of today, and this is a sufficient reason to exclude the people from political decisions. They are not qualified to rule and are perhaps not even qualified to choose their rulers. Something which no amount of education can possible remedy. Politics should therefore be something inherently unequal.

This rejection of democracy is only correct when applied to a limited kind of democracy in which there is no place for public debate and active participation guaranteed by freedom rights. It is evident that the debates which precede and which are almost automatically engendered by a democratic vote, a referendum or a council meeting, vastly increase the willingness and the ability of the people to judge complex matters. If the people are allowed to vote on a certain issue, then many of them will instantly start to debate the issue and will become aware of the different arguments in favor of and against a certain solution. The same is true for those merely watching the debates.

This awareness not only increases the knowledge of the people, but also their interest in the issue and in related issues. Political participation eliminates the lack of knowledge and interest harmful to its functioning, at least to a certain degree. Why would you be interested in and knowledgeable about something if you can never use your knowledge in active deliberation and decision taking? Why would you have an opinion if this opinion will never have serious consequences, and if nothing depends on your decision?

The “stupidity argument” against democracy is therefore circular: it excludes people from politics because they are supposedly too stupid for this “profession”, but they lack knowledge precisely because they are excluded.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (8): Lack of Good Governance

Bad governance is a cause of underdevelopment, poverty, war and human rights violations. Major donors and international financial institutions are increasingly basing their aid and loans on the condition that the recipient countries reform their systems so that these conform to the requirements of good governance.

Good governance means a good way to take and implement government decisions (corporate governance is the way to take and implement decisions in a company, but that’s another topic). When judging whether governance is good or bad one has to look at:

  • the way decisions are taken and implemented
  • the structures and rules that govern the decision making and implementing process
  • the people involved
  • the decisions themselves
  • the outcome and consequences of the decisions.

The focus is both on what is done and on the way it is done.

Criteria for judging governance

The criteria used to judge governance are the following (some are partially overlapping):

  1. Is the government accountable or is there no way to criticize it, to replace it or to correct it?
  2. Is the process of decision-making and implementation transparent or is it hidden from public criticism? Is information freely and directly accessible to those who will be affected by decisions?
  3. Is the process of decision-making and implementation responsive to the needs of the citizens or does it follow other needs (such as business needs, international requirements, selfish needs’85) and ignores or misrepresents the needs of the people?
  4. Is the process of decision-making and implementation inclusive, just and fair? Are the needs of the most vulnerable taken into account? Do all the members of society feel that they have an equal stake in it, or do some feel excluded, left out, treated unfairly or discriminated?
  5. Is the process of decision-making and implementation effective and efficient? Does it produce the results that meet the needs of society or results that are demanded by an elite? Does it deliver rapid service or are the procedures slow and cumbersome? Does it make the best use of resources or is it wasteful and time consuming? Does it make use of natural resources in a sustainable way and a way that protects the environment?
  6. Does the process of decision-making and implementation follow the rule of law or is it arbitrary? Are decisions based on enforceable rules that apply equally to all? Are these rules enforced by an independent judiciary and an impartial and incorruptible police force?
  7. Is the process of decision-making and implementation participatory or is it exclusive? Does it respect equality and non-discrimination? Is the participation ad hoc or organized and structured?
  8. Is the process of decision-making and implementation oriented towards consensus, towards mediation of and compromise between different interests, or is it divisive?

The concept of good governance is therefore not limited to the government, but to the whole of society, including the effects of government on society and the input of society in government.

The criteria to judge governance are universal, but it is important to take into account local circumstances, historical “baggage” (like previous regimes, colonialism etc.), a country’s position in the international system etc.

What is Democracy? (25): Corporate Democracy

Given the importance of work and production in the life of individuals, it is justified to give them some say in the way in which the means of production are used. The owners of the means of production should not be entitled to decide unilaterally on the conditions, organization, purposes, processes and meaning of production. Production is an important part of human life and people should have a say in it.

Concretely, this means a kind of corporate democracy and participation. Communism traditionally proposes common ownership of the means of production. The workers in the factory, rather than the capitalists or the shareholders, would own the factory in common. Or, rather, society as a whole, which in communism means the class of workers, would own the totality of all means of production. This would obviously spell the end of private property, not necessarily private property as such, but in any case private property of the means of production.

This is unacceptable because private property is an important value. It’s unequal distribution should be criticized, as well as the exclusive right of decision of the owners of the means of production, but there are good reasons to keep the right to private property more or less intact (or, more specifically, the right to legal protection of private property and the right to use it freely).

Common ownership of the means of production, as proposed by traditional communists, is not the only means to create corporate participation and worker control over production. Modern-day capitalism has in some cases reconciled private ownership with large measures of worker participation. Many decisions in companies are now taken by the owners and the workers together. This participation is not incompatible with the free market either. A free market is a system between economic agents, not within them.