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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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I hate to put it this way, but America’s diversity (and I don’t mean simply racially, but all the ways in which Americans can be diverse) is also the same thing that keeps it from being maximally satisfying.

    For example, we might all agree that freedom is “good” in an abstract sense, but there are certainly plenty of Americans who value other things over freedom. Security, for instance. And even with the same individual, these things will vary based on circumstance. How many people trumpeting small government and individual liberty today were all too ready to hand over emergency powers to Big Government under threat of terrorist attack? How many of those people look back on that time with regret?

    Not only do we not agree on the best way to preserve or implement our values, we don’t even agree on what those values are and their priorities. Yet, we believe (perhaps naively) that all these people can live and govern together. The system that facilitates this is democracy, or more of a republic the way we’ve implemented it, and to me, that’s what it is – an implementation detail.

    One of the features of this implementation detail is that 51% of the people can tell the other 49% what to do if they can agree “enough.” Whether this is freedom or not is highly debatable. While there are a number of groups in America whose ideologies I don’t agree with, I can also understand the frustration of powerlessness that can come from not being the majority. I can also understand the frustration of having been the majority and no longer being the majority.

    And all these implementation details are fraught with peril. What if the majority are idiots? What if representatives disregard the people they represent?

    I say all that just to say that to make democracy the equivalent of freedom or even define it as a value worth striving for in and of itself seems really problematic. It’s problematic enough to strive for “freedom,” and you pointed that out very well.

    I’m not saying the solution is for America to break off into tiny fragments composed of people who all agree with each other; but I am saying that the effort to sustain a nation like America involves an awful lot of trade-offs and a near guarantee that you as an individual are going to be radically discontent about something at some point.

  • histrogeek

    I’ve often thought there is a distinction between civil and individual freedom, or as I like to think of them democratic and aristocratic freedom. The former requires a degree of restriction on the individual in the interest of public good, so no incitement to riot for example. The latter demands that the public give way to the individual.

    Civil freedom is a bit sloppy in logic because the line between public good and individual freedom is quite blurry. Individual freedom is sloppy in reality because the “public” consists of other individuals, so the line between one individual’s right and another quickly degenerates into the relative strength of individuals.

  • arcseconds

    There’s a view of democracy whereby we all act as essentially isolated individuals: we have our values and preferences (often treated as ‘given’ and left unanalyzed) and political activity is just about being buffeted a bit by election campaigns and then determining candidates who we regard as best able to advance or represent our values and preferences.

    This is no doubt connected to the very similar view in free market economics (ECON101 let us say) where again preferences are treated as given and agents are treated as trying to maximize their preference-fulfillment through economic activity.

    One of the features of this style of analysis is that the analysis is ‘values free’, so we can do away with all that frustrating ethics and ideal society and even rationality (or rather, we redefine ‘rationality’ to mean just the sort of behaviour we do want to analyse) stuff, and even put aside the difficult question about how values and preferences are formed and influenced, and just treat everyone as atomic individual actors.

    From this kind of perspective, so long as diversity of opinion doesn’t actually mean questioning democracy itself in a way that’s likely to lead to undermining that democracy, diversity can’t really threaten democracy, all it means is that people are more likely to be unhappy with the result.

    (But isn’t this itself a worry? What happens if there’s a large enough people who are frustrated with never getting anything very close to what they want? Perhaps this could happen if they had been used to candidates who seemed very representative of them, down to gender, skin colour, favourite sports and religion, and suddenly a diverse society started looking like it was going to constantly throw up candidates who might be very different? Isn’t 51% of the vote (or less, if their opposition is devided and a first-past-the-post system is used) enough for them to legally restrict the possibility of the rest of the population getting someone who more represents them? No doubt this is a theoretical concern that couldn’t possibly have any bearing on modern, diverse democracies, the citizens of which must have made their peace with diversity and compromise long before…)

    But there’s another view, as old as modern democracy itself, if not older, that democracy isn’t ultimately about elections at all, but rather about public discourse. The view here is that we reason together to come to an agreement about how society is to operate, preferably a consensus or near-consensus agreement. Democracy doesn’t therefore operate only at the point where a vote is taken, but rather the vote is the last step in order to measure the agreement that we’re already supposed to have come to as a result of our public discourse.

    This of course is an Enlightenment view, and goes hand-in-hand with the Enlightenment’s optimism in human reason.

    By this view, there are forms of diversity which undermine democracy quite directly, and these are just those kinds of diversity which undermine reasoned discussion.

    To take your example of a discussion about what kind of freedoms to prioritize, this discussion would be impossible with someone who is quite convinced that terrorism is the biggest threat to America, that preventing terrorism trumps all other goals, and just will not listen to any suggestions that widespread powers of surveillance, arrest and detention themselves are inimical to freedom, seems to rejoice when these powers are used on their political opponents and in fact will not hesitate to call anyone who disagrees a traitor and terrorist-appeaser, and casts anything other than the solutions they espouse as ‘letting the terrorists win’.

    Total rejection and disinterest in empirical evidence in favour of ideologically-motivated mythologies is also very much along these lines, climate change being an obvious example, but one could also point to examples like the bizarre idea that the uteri of women who use the contraceptive pill are graveyards of tiny little impacted fetus-corpses.

    Democracy in the second sense has already failed with such people: consensus is definitely out of the question, and a reasonable compromise also often seems nigh-impossible.

    One can hope that reason will eventually prevail, and even attempt to bring that about, but until then, one is left with democracy in the first sense, where both parties seek to force the other to accept their preferred outcome by gaining majority support for it, and hopefully maintain it over time. The losing party at best grudgingly accept this and seethes with resentment.

    If I’m quite convinced that drinking coffee will result in dire consequences for the entire human race in a few generations time due to a build-up of caffeine in the genome, obviously ex hypothesi we can’t reach a consensus on this. And what would count as compromise? Coffee drinkers continuing to drink coffee are, according to me, leading the human race into downfall eventually, so I’m not going to agree to anything other than a complete ban. Whereas I’m trying to remove something that a great many people enjoy, and for some it’s even a core activity of their lives due to some spurious and irrational belief: if I’m even partly successful it will seem like a huge and completely unnecessary imposition.