Is Democracy a Means or an End?

Is Democracy a Means or an End? October 10, 2016

Recently we had what I thought was a really fantastic discussion in my Religion and Science Fiction class about whether we ought to allow a robot candidate for president. There are so many interesting ethical questions that intersect with this! Obviously it is related to the questions of personhood and rights that we discussed in the previous class period. If a machine can be a person but not be eligible to run for president, how would we justify this restriction of their rights? Being a “natural born” citizen is a requirement, but should the mere fact that robots are made rather than born be held against them?

Perhaps the most interesting question we discussed intersects with an opinion piece in Butler’s student newspaper, The Collegian, this week. That piece complains about a variety of conservative bugbears, from political correctness to social justice warriors. It seems odd that it complains about people using their free speech to shame other people into not using their own free speech in hateful ways. The it is a self-defeating understanding of freedom of speech to think that it means that others don’t have the right to use their free speech to try to persuade you of something.

But having said that, I frequently hear colleagues and friends speak in apocalyptic tones about the demise of democracy, and when I look to see what they are reacting to, it is precisely someone freely expressing their viewpoint.

And that gets at the key question: are freedom and democracy means, or ends?

If they are ends in themselves, then we should relish the disagreements, the debates, the free expressions of viewpoints we disagreement. That is democracy! That is liberty! That is freedom!

If democracy and freedom of speech are simply means to another end, then we should be honest about that. It may well be that, in the interest of protecting the rights of people to feel safe, we can, should, or even must place limitations on the speech of others.

At the moment, however, confusion reigns sufficiently that both sides of the political and ideological spectrum can style themselves as champions of “freedom.” Because they are, but for significantly different understandings of those terms.

The freedom of the poor often involves placing restrictions on the freedoms of the wealthy, just as unlimited freedom for one religion might significantly curtail the freedom of another. And so we need clearer and more focused discussions of what kinds of freedom our country is going to prioritize.

And after free and open discussion of it, some of us will just have to live with what the majority settles on.

A robot president might or might not be in our best interests. Ultimately, a robot leader might become a robot supreme leader, whether by force or because we decide that it makes no sense to vote over and over again for this best of all possible choices.

But that all depends on what we define our “best interests” as being. And whether a robot would lead a country, or run an economy, better than humans do, depends as well on what understanding of humanity’s “best interests” it was programmed with.

Dear thought police, you do not get to censor me: sorry not sorry


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