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Seattle Analytic Philosophy Club Message Board › criticisms of government by democracy broken down somewhat

criticisms of government by democracy broken down somewhat

Seattle, WA
Post #: 148

The "unless" clause gets right to the heart of one of the major problems I see with voting: why on earth should I limit my voting to just those candidates who are likely to win? What does winning have to do with personal expression?

Here is a common definition of voting from a dictionary:

"To express one's preference for a candidate or for a proposed resolution of an issue."

It sounds like the "express" you used in "personal expression" does not mean the same as "express" used in the dictionary definition. Notably, it doesn't say "express one's personal preference", idiosyncratic as they may be.

My problem with voting is that if I truly vote my considered preferences, I will ALWAYS lose. In order to have a chance at winning I must conform my preferences to usually one of two options that forces external to me have decided are likely candidates for winning. Under such constraints, I am asking, what is in it for me? Why should how I vote matter to me?

In other areas of choice, we are not usually so severely constrained: our choice of what to eat or where to work or what to wear. If voting is a species of actual "choice," it is a very peculiar one.

Not everyone believes it to be peculiar in the way you suggest. The phenomenon of nearly identical product design between brands pervades economic life in a competitive economy. Known as Hotelling's law, this is also seen in democratic elections http://en.wikipedia.o...­ That the results of elections are shared by everyone distinguishes them from products intended to be exclusively enjoyed by the purchaser.

On the other hand, if it is about winning, it seems to me it can only be about constraining my preferences to something very close to the point that they become unrecognizable as my preferences.

This suggests that you and people like you experience the real and hypothetical alternatives differently from many of us who see voting as a practical and useful exercise. (How practical or useful they are is certainly debatable)

When I vote in a competitive election, I expect that about half the voters will vote for a government that I would actually consider worse. I usually see enough difference between the candidates to know that one will be better for what I regard to be good. My vote won't be necessary or sufficient to determining the outcome of any large election. Yet I and many others act as though casting a ballot mattered and democracy results.
I conclude from this that voting is not a species of choice.
Because it lacks characteristics you associate with choice?
The best I can say for it is that it is an invitation to participate in a community endeavor, to subsume one's personal interest in a collective one. It has more of the ceremonial function of validating a way of life.
I don't know what subsume means. I also don't know what a collective interest is. We might point to the median voter theorem and say that in a democracy, the median voter rules.

Bill wrote: "The question is about the relation between whatever are deemed to be the relevant facts about citizens' reasons and the adequacy, proper attitude toward, or goodness ranking of a form of government."

I take the relevant facts about voting to be what the activity is meant to accomplish and then how well it does it. (Perhaps, I've been taking it for granted that it has something to do with a distinctive form of government when in fact it doesn't.)

Can I understand you to say that the goodness of a form government is a function of the aim of every activity essential to that form of government (such as voting in a democracy), and on how well those activities achieve that aim?

What do you take to be the relevant facts about voting? How does it promote a good thing? And what is that good thing?

I'm not trying to make any novel argument. You started with a reasonably focused topic and that is what I've been engaging you on. Here there were philosophical matters of method, logic, and normativity to explore. I haven't been interested in arguing for or against democracy or any other form of government.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 306
As I have mentioned before this is one topic where I do not see where there is a philosophical problem, but looking at the exchanges between Victor and Bill I think I have a better sense of why there is disagreement. Victor, I think that you are looking at things from a VERY idealistic perspective, while I (and I think Bill) have a much more pragmatic perspective. It seems clear to me that if you live any group, from a household to a nation, your choices and personal expression are going to be constrained, with more constraint as the group gets larger. There are certainly issues about for example, how much expression vs constraint to have, and whether small minority opinions should have representation, but these are not fundamental issues and do not challenge the basic idea that constraint of expression and choice is inevitable in any group, with the constraint increasing as the group gets larger. As Bill says, we could imagine (in practical terms, not really) a fantasy world where everyone is the master of everyone else, but this is impossible in our world, because it is pretty clear that many of one's unconstrained preferences would make other people quite unhappy, and vice-versa. So if I don't want everyone's idiosyncratic personal preferences to be imposed on me, it seems clear that I should realize that I can't impose all my personal preferences on everyone else. To some extent, Victor seems to have an unusual perspective on voting which asks how an individuals preferences are recognized, without also considering that voting applies to group outcomes, and one has to consider why group should accept your individual preferences as constraints on them, particularly if they disagree with these preferences.

So I find the idea that in democracy of hundreds of millions, your choices and avenues of personal expression in voting are going to be severely constrained to be completely unproblematic - in fact, I do not see how it could be otherwise. I see no reason why voting should allow me to express my all my personal preferences - particularly the ones which are not widespread - as best as possible - because I certainly don't want everyone imposing their tiny minority preferences on me. As Bill seems to be saying, if there is a better alternative, the specifics should be proposed and perhaps one could start to actively increase public awareness of it.

So it seems to me Victor, that you arguing from a perspective that Bill (I think) and I might reject to begin with, and we are essentially talking past each other. As Bill says, I suspect that you view what you do when you are voting - the real and hypothetical alternatives - very differently than Bill and I do. It is probably true that what you are looking when you vote is not satisfied by our current system(s) but I think there is no actual system that could satisfy it. So it might appear from your perspective that there is a philosophical problem because the system doesn't meet your expectations, and then you imply that this somehow casts doubt on the system itself. But the pragmatist might say that this says nothing about the system, the answer is to change your expectations first to conform to what is possible.

Bill, if I'm misinterpreting you let me know.
Seattle, WA
Post #: 149
I agree that there is some difference in perspective between voters such as Gene and I and non-voters like Victor. Voting is celebrated, and I have to believe that Victor is sincere in his reasons for objecting to that celebration.

Victor might be idealistic, but I think he is trying to do something like map out some reference points which we would use with a result of better governance. (Or I could be completely wrong about this). The description of a Kantian bases for government was very unclear as I don't understand the terms used or how they don't lead to contradiction. The criticisms of the form of government we favor in this world might be the better place to start.

Therefore I've been trying to understand the method Victor implicitly uses for assessing a government type's goodness. I didn't sufficiently explain that this is what I was doing when I asked about the relation between a government type's goodness and facts of the variety Victor was exploring. It might be time to move that question of evaluating government to a separate thread or private e-mails.

I probably have a skewed perspective of what is taking place here, but if the discussion were bringing clarity to an unclear topic, I'd say philosophy was being done.

I understand Victor to see moral problems or normative political theory problems in the paradox of voting. I don't see any moral or normative significance in this paradox. Democracy could be a best form of government, which would happen not to exist if people avoided the supposed waste of personal effort that voting entails.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 307

Therefore I've been trying to understand the method Victor implicitly uses for assessing a government type's goodness. I didn't sufficiently explain that this is what I was doing when I asked about the relation between a government type's goodness and facts of the variety Victor was exploring. It might be time to move that question of evaluating government to a separate thread or private e-mails.

The standard way to assess a government's goodness would be to ask what are the greatest societal goods, and then ask how a particular form of government addresses them, relative to other alternatives. The philosophical debate would then be over what those societal goods should be (for example, overall economic growth, rights, freedom, economic equality, happiness, etc) and how they are weighted relative to one another.

Victor's method, as best I can tell, is to look at one procedural aspect of a form of government, propose that this procedural aspect is deeply flawed, and then say that the entire system of government is cast into doubt. Here are the problems I see with that approach.

I do not see why one would not simply use the first approach.

The issue is not how ideal democracy is, but how it does relative to other alternatives. So if there is a feasible alternative that meets the criteria one is looking for, it should be proposed so one could compare the two.

So the horse and the cart may be backwards. Using the first approach, one could decide what form of government best meets ones preference for societal goods. If the answer is democracy, then it is largely irrelevant what the issues with voting are because if democracy is best form of government, voting is just a procedural method on which it depends. I think this is what you are implying Bill?

Given this recent thread, I think that Victor's possibilities for why one might vote may not capture what actual voters think. I for one, don't think that I am doing any of those things. Ultimately this is just an empirical question which could be determined by asking a large number of voters. However, if one thinks that voting cannot possibly satisfy what you want to do when you are voting, does this mean that voting is flawed? I see one other possibility: change your expectations to conform to what is actually possible rather than an ideal.

There is a very simple explanation of voting which I've mentioned several times and haven't seen countered. It is just one of many examples of a societal good/tragedy of the commons issue (that is a societal good depends on people doing something which is not individually rational). Take for example any action one might take to miniimize carbon footprint. For example, it is in one sense, deeply irrational to bike or take the bus instead of drive, if it takes more time and effort, because the chance it will make a difference to anything is zero. In fact, it is far more irrational than voting, since it takes a lot more time if one is committed to it, and at least voting has some infestismal chance of having an effect. But the reason one might do it is just that one realizes it might be a societal good. So if there is a counter to this argument, I haven't heard it.

So really my puzzlement over this topic is that many of the issues that we addressed in the actual meetup are really traditionally part of political science, and the other issues seem to be have a very straightforward (to me) answer which raises no philosophical puzzle. But since I really don't have a good grasp on what is going on here, I will leave the topic to you and Victor to pursue further if you wish by forum or email.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 140
Bill and Gene,

I think we agree that constraint on individual choice increases as the group gets larger. At what point does it make more sense to stop seeing it as constraint on individual choice and start seeing it more as "directed choice" from above on the individual and less about personal expression? Or even about choice at all?

I see the question about voting as philosophical in the sense that it is about exploring the limits of the concept of choice in a political scheme that is premised on it. It is conceptual analysis. It also contributes to a very old debate, at least since Plato and Aristotle, on the relation between ethics and political philosophy.

I am claiming the conventional understanding of the act voting is unclear as to the good it serves. Maintaining unclarity about something that could be made clearer is unethical at least according to some ethical theories. It is unethical because it presents opportunities for abuse.

Here are two alternative ways of how voting could work that would be clearer than the received understanding:

1. "Voting as validation" is what I will call this one. Either an individual (an autocrat) or a small group of individuals (e.g., "founding fathers," plutocrats, etc., in consultation with each other) decides which options will be presented to a larger electorate. It does not matter whether they are elected or not, so long as they are empowered sufficiently to frame choices for others. (Though it does matter that their empowerment came about through this same process: the framed choices of predecessors.) The choices are presented and individuals in the electorate are asked to validate one or another by voting. The virtue of this system is that the origin of the choices---of the agenda---is crystal clear. There is no great gesture toward personal expression. All that is being asked of the voter is that they choose from a very limited menu, determined not by the voter. This system does offer a modicum of respect to the role of the voter. The voter might have been left out of the decision altogether. Instead, they are given collectively a say in validating what has been handed down from on high, items from a short menu---as short as it can be short of no choice at all: usually two.

What is at stake for the individual under this scheme is clear: if one of the options is one they might have chosen themselves, they are in luck. If not, not. If they see little difference between the choices, they should be encouraged to engage in activity that has more utility for them. Under this system, there need be no moral pressure to participate since it is easy to see how the choices presented may bear little relation to what they, as individuals, might want. On the other hand, a pragmatist might say, "It could be worse, you might have had no choice at all." And, of course, they would be right. But regardless of what the voter might do, no one is under any illusion that anything of great moment depends on their participation. No one could be blamed for abstaining. Voting would be a kind of courtesy extended to the ruled---a courtesy it is perfectly sensible to decline.

Note that under this scheme, change, reform, etc., if it comes, can come from nowhere but above.

2. Another scheme would be one which invested great meaning in the act of voting. We might call it the "sanctity of voting" view. It acknowledges that we must live with many others who may not agree with us and that our opinion can never be single-handedly effective at bringing about political change. We cannot dictate to others anymore than they might dictate to us. The agreement in this scheme is that, given this reality, we must compromise having our way in the end---but, it insists, along the way to that end, every effort must be made that only necessary compromises are made, not arbitrary or expedient ones, to the respect we show the vote. The pressure to compromise for reasons of expediency must be resisted every step of the way because the bottom line under this scheme is that voting is an expressive act worthy of the highest regard---every other consideration must bend before it. In practical terms, this respect might mean that if I can't have my first choice, then my second choice must be given serious consideration, if not that, my third, and so on. Every effort would be to widen, not constrict, the choices presented to me as voter in order that my choice be given the widest field in which to operate. Anything short of that would not be to show proper respect for the vote.

In the end, in mass elections, compromise could not be avoided. But the path to that compromise would be more respectful of autonomous individual choice. People would be encouraged to at least entertain the thought that their discrimination skills could play a part in an outcome because no effort was being spared to insure respect for it---short of the logical impossibility that both they and those who disagree with them could both have their untrammeled way.

This scheme, premised on a high regard for individual say, would entail radical changes over what we are used to were it taken seriously. (E.g. the constitution itself would have to be changed, for starters---not amended, but rewritten from scratch... This is another reason why this is philosophy and not a question in political science: constitutions enshrine certain normativities or pieties which I am calling into question.)

Voting in our current system comes closer to the validation scheme above than it does to the one I describe here, the sanctity view. But, and here's the crux of my point, our current scheme seems to want to have it both ways: behave like a validation scheme while often talking like voting was an act of moral importance, some kind of duty, civic, moral, or otherwise.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 141
So why should the regard for individual say be held so high? The reason cannot be expedient: i.e., because if you don't, the natives will get restless and they will rebel. Lip service to the ideal can go along way to keeping them docile. (Lip service is a moral problem. I am asking a normative question, about how things should be, not the descriptive one that would have to admit that in fact, expediency is what it is all about. Blind acceptance of expediency has troublesome moral consequences.)

At this point I will have to leave political philosophy and appeal to ethical theory. I will have to ask what is the relation between ethics and political philosophy, if there is one. I am assuming there has to be one or the possibility of salutary individual and collective development is not possible. As long as we can see a path between what I, as a discriminating individual, might think (required by certain conceptions of morality) and the end product of a political act, like voting, the possibility for change, reform, or at least development, is conceivable.

Of course, there are other conceptions of morality centered on expediency. Under them, the validation conception of voting might fare better.

The morality of politics I have in mind comes to focus on the act of voting because for most citizens voting is their only explicitly political act. If voting were considered only one of a myriad of things one might do to participate politically (as, in fact, it is, but this seems not to be very often stressed), this discussion wouldn't be centered so much on voting.

A political system like democracy is a social construction that acts as an agent or proxy for the flow of moral responsibility from the individual voter to the collective electorate. The only way the latter can be morally responsible is through the acts of the former. That supposedly is a virtue of democracy not shared by competing, more top-down forms of government.

However, if that responsibility cannot flow due to artificial, obsolete, and unnecessary constraints such as the acceptance of a need for premature compromise, which I think the current system encourages in the interest of expediency, then alternatives to democracy start to look morally less bad. At least, in those cases there is someone to blame. Systems where blame is defused to the point of vanishing in the cracks of the system are morally problematic.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 142
As an aside, I am not a "non-voter". Nor am I advocating non-voting. If I am advocating anything on this subject, it is thoughtful voting. I do think a thoughtful reaction to voting can be non-voting, however. In fact, my conviction that it might be the most thoughtful reaction of all to voting is growing stronger on moral grounds. In practice, I have generally vacillated between either voting "my conscience" for candidates or policies that have no chance of winning or, in more recent times, "given" my vote away as act of charity to candidates or policies of concern to others around me whose interests I have independent grounds for respecting. But the idea that *my* considered preferences have any relation to the possible outcomes of an election has long since seemed bazaar. As I argued earlier, whatever "good" reasons there are for voting that isn't one of them.

One might think that "giving" my vote to causes of concern to others is indistinguishable from just voting for them myself. Maybe so. But it is an attitude that would have interesting consequences if it were generalized.
Jon C.
Mercer Island, WA
Post #: 143
I think we agree that constraint on individual choice increases as the group gets larger.

It's not clear what you mean by getting larger. If you are talking about small groups trying to be self-sufficient, then the career choices available to individuals becomes greater as the amount of specialization increases, either because a larger society can operate a more complex economy, or a larger enterprise has more projects going on. If you are talking about city, county, state, and nation, then also the number of choices of candidates goes up also. If you are talking about instances in which there is someone there telling you what to do, then yes that would go up as the number of people in the society increases, but in a relatively free society such as ours, the absence of someone telling you what to do is not more freedom, it is having to cope with the environment yourself, either as an entrepreneur or farmer.
Victor M.
user 12752879
Seattle, WA
Post #: 143

The group I refer to as getting larger is the electorate. And the context of choice is voting. And the aspect of voting that concerns me is its ethical one.

Although the act of voting is a social and political act in that it is part of a collective effort, it must also be an individual act. It is a place where the ethical and polticial come together. As an individual act it is appropriate to ask whether it is a good act? And then go on to ask what it would take for the act of voting to be a good one? What conditions must it satisfy?

I am not concerned with freedom in an external sense, i.e., political freedom, here. That's squarely a topic in political philosophy. I am concerned with the kind of respect for autonomy that comes into play when you genuinely ask someone's opinion on any complex subject. If you ask what do you think about this or this other thing, you have set an agenda that has cut short the possible responses. That's what voting under the best of circumstances does. Is that adequate to justify any kind of moral compunction in favor of voting? I have serious doubts about that.
Gene L
user 19640341
Group Organizer
Seattle, WA
Post #: 308

Perhaps you could describe a possible alternative form of government that better respects individual autonomy. I think it may be hard for most people to see what the problems are if a better possibility is not available.

Winston Churchill said "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
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