Posts Tagged ‘Plato’

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Conclusions

May 9, 2017

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Conclusions

 

Platonic politics seems very distant from “the American way,” so distant that we may wonder if it has anything at all to teach us. But as one of the earliest attempts at rational political theory, it is also the source of some of our deepest principles. Most fundamentally, Republic’s politics are rooted in the notion of the leaders as public servants. Plato’s rulers were to live entirely on the public dime, and that dime was supplying their daily bread—not caviar. They were to have simple food, simple clothes, no private property of any kind. Even family was denied them; children were to be raised by the community. This may seem insane today, but in Plato’s day it wasn’t so far from the actual society of Sparta. The main difference between Sparta and Plato’s ideal society, as he himself says, is that the Spartans were no philosophers. Plato believed that philosophy was essential to full human achievement and to the sound running of a society. A society led without a moral sense would inevitably collapse into corruption and tyranny, so the leaders had to be as philosophically devout as they were socially dedicated. Furthermore, in Plato’s day “philosophy” included areas of thought that we would today consider very separate subjects: engineering, mathematics, and natural science were all areas investigated first by “philosophers.” Music is math in action, turning physical ratios such as length of string on a lyre into audible harmonies; so his philosophers had to study and practice music as well. History and drama help us understand the human condition and explore moral truths, so philosophy would include knowledge of what we broadly call “arts and humanities.” All of these would be strictly disciplined, turned to the service of promoting social order; but while actual Sparta had little use for all this art and thinking, Plato’s republic would put them at the center of education for future leaders. They would not be warrior-ascetics like the Spartans, but philosopher-warriors. But like the Spartans, Plato’s rulers would not only sacrifice their comforts, but if necessary even their lives for the good of the State, serving as guardians and auxiliaries, a lean, mean professional army to be used not for conquest, but ruthlessly in self-defense.

The second lesson Plato teaches is the importance of expertise. No one can be good at everything; different people have different abilities and different motivations. Some will be delighted by a life of public service; others will see no point in a life lived for anything except their own pleasure. In Plato’s world, those who want to make money and build businesses would do so, and their acquisitive instincts would be turned to the good of society as a whole; someone has to make the weapons the soldiers use to guard the nation, or raise the food that feeds the philosopher rulers. Those who want to serve and who crave excitement and prestige will become lifelong auxiliaries, professional soldiers and police defending and enforcing the laws created by the philosophers. And those with the philosophical temperament and mental ability to wisely lead would be given the job of thinking and making laws for the society.   One of the things that separates human society from the much less successful social structures of other primates is the notion of a division of labor. Chimpanzees work entirely on a dominance model of leadership; the bigger and stronger become alphas until deposed. Among humans, leadership often rests more on expertise and the prestige it affords; people listen to someone who knows what he or she is talking about. They also listen to the one who can bully or punish, or more broadly can impose an agenda rather than solicit one from the group; so among humans the “dominance” and the “expertise” models of leadership often compete. No alpha male chimp takes advice from a weaker subject, nor does he fear being undermined by someone who can make better tools. Human leaders may organize and rely on those with expertise in different areas, or they may see the “eggheads” as threats to be slapped down or kicked out of the group. In Plato’s world, expertise rules; the “alpha male” personality would, in his view, be too passionate and irrational to be allowed power. Better to let him be a warrior if he can obey orders, or let him build a business, so long as he doesn’t actually undermine the State.

But “the American way” is only distantly descended from Plato’s republic, as this passed through Augustine’s civitas Dei to Aquinas and Luther and other Christian political thinkers, thence to the Enlightenment and John Locke. In Locke, both dominance and expertise are modified, and in fact he is not creating an “ideal society” at all; he is proposing principles for real people living in real civil society. And in this, the government’s job is to discern and fulfill the collective will of the community. The would-be alpha must persuade others to follow; the expert must teach and sell his or her thoughts in the marketplace of ideas; both models of leadership ultimately rest on getting people to agree to be led, which means a combination of persuading them where to go and agreeing to lead them where they ultimately say they want to go. The ultimate leader is not the king, or the Prime Minister; it is the voter. As with Plato, in Locke’s view the political leader is a public servant. Despite their differences, as we saw before, they have very similar views of what the bad government, tyranny, looks like: the true leader is a public servant working for the good of society, while the tyrant expects the society to work to his (or her) own profit.

Thus, in a civil society all citizens are both subject and ruler, making and obeying the laws. No one is above the law and no one is too lowly to help write the laws all will obey. One of the inalienable rights of all human beings is liberty; we may agree to obey the will of the majority, but only because we also had a part in making the decision. Even when the citizen is outvoted, the government is still an expression of his or her will, created by the process of voting and debating in which all have their part.

Furthermore, anyone who chooses not to vote is eo ipso choosing the part of a slave, letting others make the essential decisions. If voting is the way individual liberty is expressed in a civil society, to not vote is to not be free. This idea, however, raises other questions. Logically, does freedom have to be exercised to be real, or can it be merely potential? What if one likes none of the options one is asked to choose between? Or, what if (as often happens) there is only one candidate for a position? And what if the voting rules are written or the voting maps are drawn in such a way that one’s vote is rendered powerless?

There needs to be a way to vote “none of the above” in an election. The wise parent asks the child, “Do you want your red shoes or your blue shoes?” The important point, wearing shoes, is not left to a vote. For adults, this is not acceptable, for it is no choice at all. It is “managed democracy,” not real democracy.[1] It is intended, as is the choice offered the child, to give the appearance of freedom while denying the substance. The difference is that the child is not a fully rational being, and the parent is guiding the child towards becoming a fully free and rational adult in the future by giving “practice” choices. The autocrat is trying to create the illusion of freedom while denying true choice to the citizen. Allowing voters to say “none of the above” allows them to express their displeasure. Even if this no-confidence vote has no formal sanction attached, at least it informs the leaders that the people are not in fact endorsing through silence. This is, however, only a first step. The fact is that, politically speaking, freedom is only real when there is a viable way it can be expressed. Politicians, like anyone, want job security, and generally will try to find ways to win reelection beyond simply asking what the voters want and then delivering it. Democracy is, after all, “rule by the people;” thus it is not always in the interests of the current leadership, regardless of party or factional allegiance. Democracy is, essentially, the periodic opportunity for peaceful revolution, to eliminate the need for violent transfers of power. Those who currently hold power may not want to transfer it. But democracy is always in the interests of the society itself, simply because it is a way to resolve conflicts without chaos and bloodshed. Thus, politicians will always be tempted to gerrymander, to mislead, and to obstruct the right to vote. They may not even consciously recognize that this is self-serving; instead, sometimes they say that voting is a privilege, or that some people vote “wrong” and thus should be discouraged from voting until they “grow up” and “understand better what it means to be an American.”[2] Even today, some argue that voting age should be raised back to 21 or even 25.[3] And others have argued that women should not have the right to vote.[4] The arguments in these and similar instances are that voting is a privilege which must be earned, and that people who are likely to make the wrong choices shouldn’t be granted that privilege. This is the very opposite of the idea advocated by Locke and repeated by the leaders of the American Revolution, that the right to vote is an expression of freedom and freedom is a natural right.[5]

I believe it should be clear now that these efforts at voter suppression are the very opposite of what “The United States of America” is supposedly about, and in fact could have tragic, violent consequences. The U.S. political conversation has always been controlled by the debate between paternalism, represented by Plato, versus participation as advocated by Locke. In practice, paternalistic language has often been a cover for tyrannical agendas. I would say that the paternalism/participation debate is more fundamental than the so-called “conservative” versus “liberal” polarization that gets so much press. The question of whether the people should have a voice in running things, or should be controlled by leaders who claim moral or intellectual superiority, is the first question that must be settled; after deciding how to decide, a society can then address the conservative/liberal debate. That is what the Founding Fathers believed, and that commitment to participation is an essential part of American politics. It is the air we have breathed since the Revolution itself. It is as much a part of our political DNA as the oxygen we breath is part of our blood. And the logic of participation, as bequeathed to us by John Locke, is perfectly clear: a government that does not allow you to vote is not your government. Any person or institution that seeks to deny you the right to vote, or to render that right impotent —because you are likely to vote for the “wrong” party, because you are black or poor or female or non-Christian or your parents immigrated here more recently than theirs, or for any other reason not obviously related to your incapacity as an individual person—- is your enemy, is at war against you, and you have a natural right to resist such an attack with violence if necessary. Democracy is the alternative to civil war; to try to thwart, suppress, or subvert it is to attack the peacekeeping and problem-solving ability of the society, and to leave civil war the only choice for those shut out of full participation. Currently in the U.S. the largest, best-organized, best-funded and most dedicated group working to suppress democracy is the Republican Party. Repeated investigations have found that so-called “voter I.D.” laws are aimed solely at denying legal American citizens the right to vote.[6] Repeated legal rulings and investigations have shown that these laws are not addressing any real problem but are solely intended to stop the “wrong” people from voting. Even Republicans, when faced with their President’s claim of widespread voter fraud, publicly admitted that there is no evidence that widespread fraud exists.[7] Attacks on the very concept of factual reality, reliance on “alternative truths” and other such gaslighting of the public are another way to undermine functioning democracy. And while the language of paternalism is used, the actual practice has been what both paternalists and participationists would define as tyranny: authoritarianism, cliquishness, government by power and intimidation rather than by expertise and wisdom, dishonesty, and profit-making by the ruling family and its hangers-on.

There are some who would ask, “Who cares about what some musty old philosophy book says?” Philosophy matters, especially to non-philosophers. There is a dialogue between philosophy and the wider culture. Thinkers look at the world, distil the essence of trends and notions around them, make unconscious assumptions visible and conscious, and occasionally invent novel solutions to problems and conflicts. The ideas they present are in turn taken up by law schools and courts, by seminaries and divinity schools, and by writers and other artists, and become part of the legislative processes and the popular culture. So it matters, deeply, what John Locke has to say about government by the people. These ideas are the original programming of our nation, and they will continue to run when activated, as long as America is America.

There is government that encourages the people to speak and works to give them voice, or there is tyranny, war of the government against the people. The people may tolerate a state of cold war or siege war for a long time, as long as things run smoothly; but when things turn sour, as they inevitably will, the final resolution is revolution. The only escape from future political violence is present action to strengthen democracy, even (especially!) at the risk of political and social change brought on by empowering everyone, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or whatever. As Thomas Jefferson said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The government that seeks to deny millions of its citizens these rights that Americans have been taught to regard as “inalienable” will itself alienate those citizens, and risks the same response King George received.

[1] Nicholay Petrov and Micahel McFaul, “The Essence of Putin’s Managed Democracy;” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 18, 2005 (http://carnegieendowment.org/2005/10/18/essence-of-putin-s-managed-democracy-event-819)

[2] For examples, see Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People to Vote;” Right Wing Watch: a project of People for the American Way, September 24, 2015 (http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/) So-called liberal politicians are also inclined to such sentiments as well.

[3] Austin Frank, “We Shouldn’t Lower the Voting Age—We Should Raise It: People Under 25 Shouldn’t Vote;” Today in Politics February 9, 2017 (https://tipolitics.com/we-shouldnt-lower-the-voting-age-we-should-raise-it-579a07c3152b)

[4] Mikayla Bean, “Ann Coulter says ‘Women Should Not Have the Right to Vote,’ but ‘They Can Still Write Books.’ Right Wing Watch: a project of People for the American Way, June 11, 2015 (http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/ann-coulter-women-should-not-have-the-right-to-vote-but-they-can-still-write-books/)

[5] Granted, this was not explicitly spelled out in the Constitution, and not universally held even by all the Founding Fathers. Like the right of non-whites and women to vote, the right of the poor to vote was certainly implied by that “all “men” are created equal” idea, but only made explicit later in amendments. Today, however, it is explicit: all American citizens have the right to vote, and that is what it means to be a citizen. For more discussion, see Garrett Epps, “Voting: Right or Privilege?” The Atlantic September 18, 2012 (https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/09/voting-right-or-privilege/262511/)

[6] Robert Barnes and Ann E. Marimow, “Appeals Court Strikes Down North Carolina’s Voter I.D. Law;” Washington Post June 29, 2016 (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/appeals-court-strikes-down-north-carolinas-voter-id-law/2016/07/29/810b5844-4f72-11e6-aa14-e0c1087f7583_story.html?utm_term=.a7c4d7d5bca2)

[7] Reuters, “Republicans Unenthused Over Trump’s Voter Fraud Claims;” Newsweek January 25, 2017 (http://www.newsweek.com/donald-trump-voter-fraud-republicans-congress-election-fraud-548277)

Advertisements

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Summary

March 19, 2017

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Summary

 

Common sense is not so common.

—-Voltaire

 

 

The Founding Fathers of this nation were, by and large, well-read men. They knew their philosophical heritage. Interest in Aristotle declined in the 1600s and 1700s, the period known at The Enlightenment, because Aristotle was associated with medieval, Church-controlled teaching. Plato was seen as free from the ecclesiastical baggage and restrictions, and even those who did not agree with his rationalist idealism were familiar with his works. In Britain, a new school of philosophy, Empiricism, arose, devoted to a strict attention to the information given by the senses (which Plato would have despised) and to the ideal of inquiry into truth through careful conceptual analysis (which he would have approved). Plato was, in many ways, the father of Western philosophy; John Locke was the father of modern Anglo-American philosophy. It is thus fitting to consider how the political philosophies of these two very different thinkers can shed light on the nation begun by their intellectual descendents.

Democracy, or “rule by the people,” is dedicated to the ideal that all citizens should have part in running the government. That is the ideal, or the horizon; in practice, often democracies have fallen short, and limited the status of “citizen” to a smaller group. The first democracy, Athens, excluded most of its population: women, slaves, even long-time foreigners could not vote, address the assembly, or exercise even basic rights. But still, Athens extended political power from a small aristocracy to a much larger group, and later intellectuals would seek to extend the ideal of equality still further. For his part, Plato thought all this “equality” was a terrible idea. Democracy, after all, killed Socrates; Anaxagoras and other philosophers were also persecuted by “the many.” If you want something done well, you get someone who knows how to do it; a ship’s captain doesn’t take a vote from the sailors, and the captain of the ship of state shouldn’t either. Most people are simply too irrational and too uninformed to govern responsibly or effectively. Instead, government should be run by a well-educated elite, who sacrificed their own material prosperity for the duty of governing a country that would take care of its citizens, as the philosopher-king determined was best. Stupid people simply should not have a right to vote; to allow the corruptible majority that sort of power is to open the door to tyranny.

Two thousand years later, John Locke came to the opposite conclusion. In his view, all people are basically rational, and thus all should have some voice in the government; and all are also corruptible, and thus none can really be trusted with unchecked power. Therefore, he argued that the state should be run by a government with separate institutions for executive, legislative and judicial functions, independent but interacting to create and enforce laws written according to the collective will of the people. A true government is one that governs for the good of the people and protects their interests as they have expressed them through a process of voting and choosing representatives; when government starts to ignore their will, it collapses into tyranny. Therefore, it is important that as many people as possible be able to make their voices heard through some sort of democratically-elected body of representatives.

Yet, despite their differences, there are some points on which Plato and Locke can agree. In different ways, both have checks and balances on the political power of the governing powers. For Plato, political power is separated from economic power. The leaders are “public servants” in the very real sense that they are on the public payroll. They are not allowed to extort luxuries for themselves; in fact, they are to live lives of great material simplicity. For Locke, the balancing of power comes from each individual being essentially a free person, who is understood as yielding only some rights for the sake of communal life. Each has a right to the products of his or her own labor, and furthermore each has a right to vote for representatives who will speak for them all in the legislative assembly. There is an economic check on the power of the government, as well as the political one provided by the vote. Both Plato and Locke understand the danger of tyranny, and have similar descriptions of the tyrant: a person or possibly a clique, governing not for the sake of the people but primarily for the sake and benefit of the tyrant only. For the tyrant, running the government is a means of personal profit; even when the tyrant makes laws that benefit others, it is always as an expression solely of the tyrant’s own will and for the tyrant’s benefit.

A tyranny might benefit others to gain their support, as when an apartheid government caters not just to the political leaders but also to the powerful minority that supports them. It is also possible that the Leader might have whims that benefit the people. The tyrant might like growing things and establish parks where the people also can relax, or value learning and therefore establish universities. Still, the fact that Hitler gave us the autobahn does not do much to improve our view of his tyranny. The definitive element of tyranny is that the private will and interests of the Leader become the governing force of the society. Tyrants do not distinguish between personal affairs and affairs of State; the government exists to fulfill the wishes of the Leader, and the Leader and cronies feel entitled to profit from it. Personal slights or political rivalries are treated as betrayals of the State itself, prompting threats of legal and extralegal retaliation. Plato and Locke had their experiences with tyrants, and despite their very different philosophies and very different historical circumstances they agree fairly well on the nature of a tyrant.

They disagree, radically, on how to prevent tyranny, and that suggests ways in which they view tyranny differently. For Plato, the problem is money; good governments are those that strictly limit how much property the leaders can own, requiring them to live and eat together, at government expense but also control. His real-world analog was Sparta, where the political leadership lived like soldiers on campaign, wearing simple clothes and eating plain, sustaining food. When political leaders can earn profits, Plato says, they will inevitably begin to mix their personal business with the nation’s business. A democracy that allows everyone to own property and to exercise political power will have as many tyrants as it has citizens, all competing to pervert the common good for their own benefit, until finally one tyrant wins out. Instead, the political/military aspects of the society must be firmly in control, but also separated from personal profits that motivate most people.

Locke does say that the leaders of a civil society must act according to the needs of the nation, not the profits of the leadership. However, he sees the threat as coming more from the tyrant’s overreach of power. After all, everyone has a God-given right to private property. To limit the ability of any one person or group to become tyrannical, Locke seeks to divide the power of government between different institutions; and the legislative branch in particular is to be controlled by elected representatives of the people, to make laws that reflect the will of the majority. It is when this separation of powers breaks down, and one person emerges who is able to usurp and combine the legislative, judicial and executive functions, that individual (or perhaps small group) is able to bend the government to the personal profit of the tyrant. So for Plato, money corrupts, and it is the power of money that threatens to undermine government; for Locke, power corrupts, and it is that political corruption that allows profiteering and graft.

Has one or the other proved more convincing over the course of history? Plato’s ideal society, with an elite ruling over the many, has been seen as giving comfort to tyrants, who are apt to imagine themselves as the philosopher-king he describes even when their own personal lives stray far from that ideal. And in fact, tyrants and would-be tyrants did come from among the disciples of Plato, notably including the Greek tyrant in Syracuse, Dionysius II. It is easy, it seems, to find followers who will adopt Plato’s recommendations against democracy, free speech and the rest, but harder to find those who will go all the way and renounce personal comfort and wealth in return for being granted leadership.

Locke’s heritage has been more concretely successful. The United States was founded largely by students of Locke, who implemented many of his recommendations. In turn, later British and European governments began to move more towards Locke’s vision of a limited monarchy, an elected parliament and an independent judiciary, until that has become the dominant form of government in Europe and in many other industrialized countries. While Lockean democracy has often fallen short, and occasionally staggered, rarely has it utterly fallen into tyranny. And at least rhetorically, popular sovereignty is the standard which our politicians profess to follow.

In practice, though, the actual commitment of politicians to Locke’s ideals seems less at times than their professed devotion. This is not merely to say that many would-be tyrants are less than honest about their ambitions; it is to say that while many U.S. politicians may claim to adhere to Jeffersonian ideas of democracy derived largely from John Locke, in practice they seem to think they are Guardians in Plato’s Republic. Plato favored censorship of the arts to avoid arousing the passions; conservatives in the U.S. seek to classify pornography as a public health threat (more so even than childhood obesity or chronic homelessness) so it can be restricted. Plato sought to limit participation in government to an elite that would preserve the social order; conservatives in the U.S. have argued for at least thirty years that “our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down,” and thus sought to disenfranchise millions of Americans.[1] This temptation towards elitism (whether the “elite” is defined educationally, racially or whatever) is certainly not limited to conservatives; when I was in college, the most cliquish and self-serving of the student politicians were avowed liberals. They were all political science majors, looking forward to careers in politics or political law. Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism, was a particular favorite of theirs, based on their writing in the student newspaper. Their argument was that everyone else was such a narcissist that it was up to them, the self-sacrificing student government, to run things for our good, and the rest of the citizens should just sit back and be grateful—and quiet. I guess the difference is that conservatives in the U.S. seem to have read 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale and thought they sounded pretty good, while liberals are more likely trying to recreate Brave New World. None, alas, are really trying to establish Plato’s ideal society, for they all lack the one essential requirement: complete denial of private property to leaders. In that regard, they all claim to be guardians but are in fact more like tyrants.

On the other hand, there is something very appealing about Plato’s advice. Shouldn’t social decisions be made by the best educated, most clever and imaginative persons possible? And shouldn’t people who agree to serve do so out of love for the country, rather than hopes of personal gain? And isn’t it a fact that “common sense is not so common,” and that in fact the majority are not either capable or inclined to be effective leaders of society?

This, in fact, is the real difference between Plato and Locke. Plato thought that rationality is pretty rare; most people are ruled by their appetites, and therefore a society that is ruled by the many will be ruled by appetite rather than reason. Locke thought that reason was, if not universal, at least common to most people. He said that reason is the law even in the state of Nature where there is no formal law; even without police and prisons, we more or less know right and wrong and are inclined to do what is right and reasonable. We may disagree, particularly in our own interests, and that is a second element in Locke’s philosophical anthropology: human nature is always mixed. Plato famously argued that the soul has three parts: appetite, spirit and reason. Reason strives for truth; appetite strives for self-gratification; and between them, spirit strives for personal honor and acclaim. Some people, he said, are motivated by their reason, a greater number by their appetite; but some are willing to forgo pleasure for the badges and parades and admiring looks that a brave, self-sacrificing life earns. Locke on the other hand assumes that people are rational and irrational at the same time, liable to self-indulgence and partisanship but also capable of social and practical reasoning. For this reason they can live in a free society where everyone has a voice, since all have something to contribute, but at the same time they need a society because in a state of complete anarchy they would find it too difficult to judge impartially between themselves and their neighbors. The civil society that Locke imagines gives a framework for the exercise of liberty, protecting it against both tyranny and selfish excess.

Since both the Platonic and the Lockean philosophies agree on the danger of tyranny, and both agree that a form of separation of powers is the best way to guard against it, we can accept this as our starting point. Plato’s model, separation of leadership from property, simply has not worked; even he admits as much when he discusses how even Sparta struggles to curb the acquisitiveness of its leaders. Locke’s plan to have separate branches of government, each checking the other so no one person can easily seize total power and become a tyrant, has had more success. Furthermore, as our history has shown by the ever-expanding right to vote, Locke’s philosophy is capable of self-correction and growth. And it is, simply, “the American way.” Our nation was founded, and our Constitution written by people who believed in Locke’s basic insights and who sought to create laws that would bring them to fruition.

Should stupid people be allowed to vote? I follow Locke here: yes! We are all stupid, at least at times, and are almost all capable of reason, at least at times. But more to the point, to deny anyone the right to vote is to put the state at war with that person. Anyone who cannot vote is little more than a conquered subject, not a citizen. A stable society is one where as many people as possible participate and have a stake in the decision, and in the success of the society as an ongoing project. And conversely, a society that denies a sizeable segment of its population the rights of citizenship, and most importantly the right to have a part in writing the laws, creates an enemy in its midst, an enemy that contributes to the economic health of the society and thus cannot simply be ignored or ejected, but who has no good reason to support that society. To be denied the vote is to be a slave, with all the injustice, and all the instability, and all the perverse dependence of the “master” on the “slave” that this entails.

[1] Miranda Blue, “Seven Times Conservatives Have Admitted They Don’t Want People To Vote;” Right Wing Watch: a project of People for the American Way, September 24, 2015 (http://www.rightwingwatch.org/post/seven-times-conservatives-have-admitted-they-dont-want-people-to-vote/)

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 2

December 16, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 2

 

For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority

 

—– John Locke

 

 

How does “protecting the inalienable right to liberty” translate to obeying the laws of the government, or even paying taxes?   This is what is perhaps the most radical and transformative part of Locke’s political philosophy. Locke follows the same basic formula as Hobbes and many other social contract theorists: we imagine starting in a “state of Nature” prior to all government, and then ask why any individual would move from the perfect freedom of anarchy into an ordered (and ordering) society. How we interpret the natural state of humanity tells us about what sort of debt we owe the State, and by implication what the State owes us citizens. It assumes a quasi-historical moment when the individual voluntarily joined the society, recognizing that this was more implicit and theoretical than actual. In Locke’s view, a free and basically reasonable individual chooses to belong to a civil society because that society preserves his or her basic freedom and rationality better than simply going it alone in a state of natural anarchy.[1] However, to be a functioning society, the group has to be able to act as a coherent unit; so some sort of government must exist. Thus, we all have to agree to give up our right to just do whatever pops into our heads, and instead must cooperate. That means we need some sort of process whereby everyone can be heard, everyone’s interests can be considered, and then the group can decide to act as determined by the will of the majority. Each of us must agree to accept the will of the majority, since otherwise agreeing to live in a society was a hollow promise; either we’re all in this together, or there is no “we” and anarchy prevails. So you may have a “king” but even his policies must be expressions of the collective will of his “subjects.”[2] As part of this society, there may be some property set aside for common use; Locke assumes that every village will have a village green, where anyone may come and harvest turf as needed, for example. And if the group decides on some joint project, as Athens did when Themistocles persuaded them to build a national fleet, they may agree to pay into a common fund to do so, and all citizens are obligated to pay this tax even if the minority didn’t vote for it since it is an expression of the will of the society as a whole, of which they are a part. In exchange, the minority has the right to fight for its voice to be heard and its concerns to be addressed, and to try to persuade some portion of the others to join and support its views as policies for the group.

This really was a revolutionary thought. Most societies in Europe were governed by monarchies that ruled by a presumed divine right. When Thomas Hobbes wrote his Leviathan to propose a secular basis for government, that was already a radical notion. Hobbes acknowledged as much when he wrote that, “This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence.”[3] We are not, he is saying, ruled by God; we are ruled by Leviathan, The Beast. God has left us to be ruled by this earthly master, this god that we ourselves have made by forming a social compact or commonwealth. But Hobbes still offered his philosophy as a defense of the privileges of the absolute monarch. Short of randomly torturing or murdering subjects, or failing to actually control and defend the realm, Hobbes put no limits on the sovereign’s power. Locke writes to defend not absolute monarchy, but a republic and limited monarchy. The force that is to determine national policy is not the whim of one powerful king backed by the brute force of an army; instead it is the collective will of the citizens that is to dictate to the government what it should do.

Just how revolutionary this theory is becomes clear when Locke considers the dissolution of the commonwealth.[4] There he argues that when any government attempts to usurp absolute power over its citizens, either by arbitrarily seizing their property, by enslaving them or killing them, then they are freed from their tacit agreement to abide by its laws. The government has broken the social contract, so now the citizens are back in a state of nature. And as free persons in a state of nature, they are once again free to join together for mutual defense, and to form a new government. Locke offers the intellectual and moral justification for political revolution. The government that denies its citizens their inalienable rights has violated the laws of Nature, Reason and God (which are largely equivalent terms for Locke), and thus has lost all legitimacy. It rules only by force, and thus there is no crime in resisting it and overthrowing it by force, either. Only the government that acts as directed by the will of the majority has any binding, legitimate claim to the obedience of the people.
The philosophical foundation for the American Revolution was this very notion. People felt that they were being “enslaved” by the distant crown and parliament, which imposed taxes on them without their consent or even voice. (Yes, it is a tragic irony that they knew what enslavement was so well, owning slaves themselves.) They had come to this frontier land and tamed it, raised crops, built homes and churches and whole cities, and now they felt that this was theirs. They had put their own sweat into this land; as Locke said, they had put part of themselves into it, and thus it was as much theirs as their own flesh. And now a distant government was imposing laws and taxes on them. From the English point of view, they were simply asking the colonies to pay for their own defense; but the fact remained that there were no colonial representatives in Parliament. From a Lockean point of view, they were outside the social contract, since they were denied the fundamental right of any citizen of the commonwealth to be heard. And following Locke, they felt that this gave them the right to revolt. They produced a Declaration of Independence, which detailed their justifications for their break from England, and established the beginnings of their social contract to form a new commonwealth together. This was not like Plato’s failed attempt to bring his ideal republic to life in ancient Syracuse, where conceptual perfection crashed against human realities. Nor was it like the more recent attempt to establish a divine theocracy in Münster, which fell into disorder and was destroyed by its enemies. This philosophical experiment, which we now know as the United States of America, was not based on Biblical or philosophical idealism, but on human reason, on philosophy rooted in observation, experience and reflection. Unlike Plato’s Republic or his later Laws, the empiricist philosophy of Locke did not assume that there was an ideal state which could only change by degenerating. The founders of the United States assumed that their nation would have to change and grow, and they included mechanisms for amending the social contract. They hoped that it would grow and become better as its people chose the best among them to debate and discover new solutions to unanticipated problems. And while Plato’s republic sought to eliminate social conflict, the very notion of Locke’s commonwealth assumes disagreement and conflict. Any nation based on Locke’s principles has to allow for all stakeholders to have a voice, and to resolve their competing claims in a peaceful manner. It hasn’t always worked, as we know, but the trend for over two hundred years has been to channel dissent and conflict, expanding the rights of citizens and the chorus of voices in the marketplace of ideas.

To be continued…

[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter II, sections 4-11

[2] Locke, chapter VIII, sect. 95-99

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter 17

[4] Locke, chapter XIX, sect. 222

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 3

November 14, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 3

 

“And then one, seeing another grow rich, seeks to rival him, and thus the great mass of the citizens become lovers of money.”

—–“Likely enough.”

“And so they grow richer and richer, and the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue; for when riches and virtue are placed together in the scales of the balance, the one always rises as the other falls.”

—–Plato, Republic

 

 

One of the key elements of Plato’s idealized republic is that each individual does what he or she is best at. The best thinkers are set to solving problems and making plans for the society; the best and bravest soldiers are given jobs of defense and law enforcement; and the best businesspeople are empowered to make money and all the products that make life possible for all, and comfortable for themselves. Sometimes we carelessly call this a “caste” system, but it really is a meritocracy: each job is to be done by whomever is best at that job.

A second key element is that each person is to receive what he or she desires most. Thinkers want to think; makers want to make; warriors want to show their prowess. Therefore, the guardians are given the leisure to philosophize, theorize and investigate; the producers are allowed to make money and to enjoy the fruits of their labors; and the auxiliaries spend their time training and fighting for the sense of achievement and for the social recognition their honor demands. When Socrates describes the life of the guardians, with its lack of fame and creature comforts, Glaucon complains that he is making his citizens miserable. Socrates really has two replies to this. First, he says that the point of his exercise is to explore what would make the overall healthiest society, not to make any one person the happiest possible; therefore, it is irrelevant whether one group or another has everything that could be desired. But more importantly, Socrates/Plato is saying that in fact these people are getting what they really want, and what will really fulfill the longings of their true natures.

Thirdly, and just as vitally, no one gets what he or she should not have. The guardians are allowed to think, and have the satisfaction of seeing their ideas in action; though Plato makes it clear that true philosophers would rather focus on theory and only stoop to the distraction of implementing their ideas out of a recognition of their duty to others. But they do their work for the republic for nothing more than their own basic maintenance. They receive no riches, no fine mansions or spectacular clothes so that people should look at them enviously as they are carried about on palanquins; they live simple lives devoted to their work and to self-improvement to make themselves better at their jobs. And the guardians receive no fame, since that is reserved for the auxiliaries; the guardians are to do their work not so they can be loved and have their names emblazoned on monuments like a pharaoh, but simply so they can learn more and lead their society. Fame is reserved for the auxiliaries, whose ambition and sense of honor is their strongest drive; but they are not allowed any leadership role, nor are they allowed to accumulate riches. The auxiliaries are to be more educated than the producers, but still are temperamentally and intellectually unsuited to leadership; and they are not to collect creature comforts which would distract and soften them. And the producers, who so crave wealth and luxuries, are too undisciplined and selfish to be trusted either in the professional defense force or in political leadership. They may enjoy the wealth of the republic, but may not have any power or part in its leadership.

Plato indicates why this is important in Book VIII of Republic. There he imagines how this ideal state would eventually degenerate, since nothing human lasts forever. The point of this fiction is to show how each of the main political archetypes of his day vary from the ideal, and to rank them from best to worst. The first step away from the ideal resembles the Spartan or Cretan states, which Plato has Socrates affirm are generally considered well-run. There is no clear name for this sort of state, but Plato coins the term “timocracy,” or government by honor. This state resembles his republic in most respects, but the leaders are not philosophers. Instead, they are more like the people Plato had as auxiliaries: educated and cultured perhaps, but more passionate and ambitious and concerned for their personal honor. Lacking philosophic discipline and wisdom, they are prone to temptation and longing for the goods the guardians were denied. They are competitive with one another, seeking personal honor as much or more than the welfare of the state. When they are younger, this drive for honor is likely to be their primary motivation, and this to some extent keeps them honest and devoted to their service as warrior-leaders. When they are older, however, Plato says they are more likely to start to covet wealth. They are legally denied wealth and forbidden from farming, trading or other ways they could make money; so they may resort to extorting from their fellow citizens or other covert means of accumulating luxuries, and they become miserly over what they do have since it is so hard to acquire. Without philosophy to build and guide their characters, they start to love money more and virtue less.

The next sort of state is oligarchy, or government by a rich elite. In this sort of state, personal virtue and excellence have been largely dispensed with as requirements for leadership. Instead, leaders are those who are wealthy and powerful, and those who are politically powerful in turn use their position to gain more wealth. While the timocratic state of Sparta or Crete was still said to be “well run” and in fact the actual governments most approved by Plato, oligarchy is clearly corrupt. Love of virtue and justice has been replaced by love of money, and it is the rich who are respected rather than the wise. Furthermore, as there are separations between rich and poor, there is envy and crime as those without wealth attempt to get some by whatever means they can. Graft at the top, theft at the bottom, the oligarchy seems corrupt through and through.

However, oligarchy is in fact barely midway down Plato’s scale of corrupt states. Next is democracy, such as found in Plato’s own state of Athens. In this state, the pretense that some people are better fit to lead than others is thrown out completely; everyone competes for money and for power. The people have realized that their leaders are, in fact, no better than any of them, so they command little loyalty in times of crisis. The people chafe at any restrictions imposed on them by leaders who they regard as nothing special in themselves, so they revolt and establish a government that will allow the maximum liberty possible to the individual citizens. Being the freest in that respect, democracy also allows the most range of individual characters, from the virtuous to the positively criminal. And being so variegated and individualistic, the democracy lacks cohesion; mutual competition is everything.

Naturally, in such an environment there are some people who simply want to be free of all restraint, and others who will not be satisfied until they dominate everything. Therefore, democracy naturally slides towards tyranny. In tyranny, the confusion of economic and political power is complete, as one individual takes over the state and runs it for his own pleasure and that of his lackeys. The tyrant is thus the complete opposite of the philosopher-king in the ideal republic; while the guardians served the state and received only their basic needs in return, the tyrant demands satisfaction of his every appetite and expects the state to serve him. And while democracy promised complete equality as well as freedom, Plato argues that the greed and ambition of its citizens guarantees that both of these will be lost, resulting in the most unequal and repressive state possible.

In Plato’s terms, the United States is not a democracy; it is a mixture of democracy and oligarchy. The Constitution was written by men who had read Plato and read the history of Athens, and who shared many of Plato’s concerns about pure democracy. Instead of having the people set policy directly, the created a system where the people elect leaders who in turn set policy. But even with this sort of two-stage democracy, the tendency for tyranny has always existed. America’s detractors and lovers all agree that this is a society devoted to the making and spending of money. And particularly today, there is an unquestioned faith in the wisdom of the businessman. Plato says this is exactly the sort of person we should keep well away from power. Government requires long-term thinking; business can do very well planning year-by-year or quarter-by-quarter. Government requires an eye on the big picture, coordinating and prioritizing all sorts of needs of the citizens; business requires only a limited perspective. Businesses may profit and even be founded on a holistic approach, but it is not necessary. In Plato’s republic, all leaders were to be trained in music and in physical fitness, as well as in the intellectual skills directly relating to politics, because they needed to be well-rounded individuals, limber of body and mind. In American schools the focus is on training for the business world, and funding for the arts and for physical fitness (aside from team sports which are practically businesses themselves) is constantly under threat.   The idea of a “liberal arts” education, training everyone in a core body of knowledge to make each one a better citizen, is generally despised as useless; why learn about history or science or philosophy when you can just earn an M.B.A. and get rich?

Plato would say it is inevitable that a rich and powerful individual would emerge in a government like ours and set himself up as a strongman, that he would gain a loyal following by promising some group power over others, that he would play on their emotions rather than argue logically or factually, and that eventually the government would be taken down and fall into tyranny. This is always the danger of populism, and Plato saw nothing good in it. He believed in a government that gave the people what they truly needed and wanted even if they didn’t realize this themselves, but which did not give them a voice or power since they would inevitably misuse it. At the same time, he believed in a government that impoverished its leaders rather than enriching them, making them true public servants; government was to exist for the well-being of the citizenry as a whole, not just the ruling elite.

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 2

November 5, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 2

“And each form of government enacts the laws with a view to its own advantage, a democracy democratic laws and tyranny autocratic and the others likewise, and by so legislating they proclaim that the just for their subjects is that which is for their—the rulers’—advantage and the man who deviates101 from this law they chastise as a law-breaker and a wrongdoer. This, then, my good sir, is what I understand as the identical principle of justice that obtains in all states [339a] —the advantage of the established government. This I presume you will admit holds power and is strong, so that, if one reasons rightly, it works out that the just is the same thing everywhere,102 the advantage of the stronger.”

—–Thrasymachus, from Republic by Plato

 

 

Plato’s presentation of political theory in Republic has two elements. The first is presented as the views of the Sophists, the professional teachers who were often presented as rivals to Socrates; the second and longest portion is the positive expression of Plato’s own view, which he puts into the mouth of Socrates. The Sophists were not so much political philosophers as they were early political scientists. As traveling scholars, they went from city to city, and each city was effectively its own country with its own laws and political structure. They did not teach that any one political system was the right one. There were no schools like we know them today, where teachers are hired to offer courses that students may select, within limits, to earn degrees attesting to their educational achievement. Instead, each Sophist traveled from democracy to monarchy to oligarchy, and collected students wherever he went. He would teach whatever courses the students wanted, since his pay came directly from the students. And unsurprisingly, the students usually wanted courses that would lead to political and economic advancement: public speaking, law and legal debate, and so on.  They weren’t interested in how society “ought” to be structured; they wanted to deal with their society as it was structured, and know how to get and wield power in that society.

Thrasymachus was one of these professional traveling teachers, and Plato depicts him as unwilling to share his views until he is paid by the audience. Once he has received his due, he gives a speech asserting that “justice” is just the will of the ruling class. The stronger class imposes its standards, sets up the laws, punishes those who break those laws, and defines “good” and “evil” for the society. Whatever the stronger does is “just,” since it is they who decide what “just” means. Thrasymachus is, like most Sophists, a skilled speechmaker but a lousy debater, and is unable to answer questions about the implications of his own position. In particular, his concept “the advantage” turns out to be vague: what if the ruling class is mistaken about what is their true advantage? Is it better to get what they want, or what they need? Eventually, rather than defend his own views, he simply leaves, and one of his audience steps forward to try to shore up and refine his position. This speaker, Glaucon, presents a somewhat different view. In every society, he says, there are a few “wolves:” natural predators, who have more ambition, more political savvy, and more deviousness. These “superior” men (in ancient Greece the political roles of women ranged from limited to nonexistent, depending on the city) could pretty much get away with whatever they wanted, and then argue their way out of it in court or pull in political favors to avoid any punishment. If every individual had to defend himself and his family against these predators, each would be devoured one by one until everyone was impoverished and enslaved by the single ruling tyrant of the community. The one chance the majority have is to band together, like sheep in a herd. For this reason, people join together to form societies and establish laws and enforce punishments. It is, in many ways, similar to the argument Thomas Hobbes made two thousand years later: that in a state of natural anarchy we are all trapped in unending violence, and to prevent this we all choose to live in a society that will impose limits on our mutual conflicts.

The Sophist positions have significant differences. Thrasymachus argues that government is formed for the advantage of the naturally powerful “superior” people; Glaucon argues that the function of government is to protect the majority from the so-called “superiors” who would prey upon them. Both, however, have one important thing in common: they don’t ask what government should be, but instead attempt to simply analyze what it is. They offer a descriptive analysis of government. Plato, in response, offers an aspirational argument. He does not simply present what government is; he presents what it should be, and then discusses why actual governments fall short and how they could be improved.

Anyone wanting a detailed description of Plato’s views should just read the Republic; it is an excellent introduction to philosophy and was, in fact, originally written for intelligent readers of all backgrounds, not just professional philosophers. I will try to summarize his conclusions. A society has three basic functions: production, security and direction. In Plato’s ideal republic, most people would be artisans, tradesmen, farmers and so on, people who make things and sell and buy. This is because most people care most about their appetites; they have little interest in intellectual theory and prognostication, and little interest in earning medals. And in fact, without them, there would be no society. At the same time, Plato says that a society needs those things these producers have little personal use for. They are like the belly of the individual. Without appetite and a stomach, the person dies and cannot do much else; but with only appetite or with the appetite in charge, the person isn’t really a “person.”

To be a person, you need reason; and to be a well-functioning society, you need leadership to coordinate activities, make long-term plans and set general policies. A society without government would not really be a society at all, but just a bunch of people in physical proximity. Reason needs to be in control of the person if he or she is to be truly happy; and a happy society must have people who are led by reason in charge. Plato calls these people “guardians.” They are the so-called “philosopher-kings” that Plato is known for. They study philosophy, both the esoteric metaphysics and theoretical mathematics that serve primarily to free the mind, and the applied ethics and general principles of statecraft that are directly relevant to running the republic.

Just as there are some people who live lives of thought, and others who are doers and makers, there are a third sort who crave honor more than anything. They are the natural warriors. They don’t care about riches or about being respected as deep thinkers; they want to save the world and be respected for doing it. Again, Plato says that a person needs a sense of honor and ambition as much as he or she needs appetite and reason; and a society needs people who want to win medals and promotions and who value parades and admiration, provided it is for the right reasons. Plato would make these people “auxiliaries.” Their job in the republic is to defend the producers and the guardians from foreign threats, to enforce the laws written by the guardians, and generally to support the social order.   Plato here seems to be thinking of Sparta, which was ruled by a warrior class that did nothing but train for battle. Even their king lived in poverty that an Athenian merchant would have found appalling, because Spartans did not care for wealth; they cared only for the honor that came from bravery and success in war.

If Sparta was a society ruled by those Plato would have made auxiliaries, Athens was ruled by producers. Most of its public officers were chosen by literally drawing names out of a box; laws were written by random assemblies of a hundred or more citizens; and the army consisted of every able-bodied male, no matter what his “day job” might have been. Plato’s innovation was to try to combine some elements of Athenian society with elements of Spartan life, and to coordinate all of it with a professional class of thinkers who would devote themselves to studying statesmanship and morality. Without reason in charge, the militant auxiliaries would quickly become a threat to the producers and to neighboring states; or the producers would rid themselves of all leaders and restraint and fall into decadence. Those who care only for their own personal sensual gratification may be good and highly effective producers, but make terrible leaders. Those who care only for personal glory are a little better, but their society (like Sparta) is not much more than an armed camp waiting for the next war, and most likely brutally oppressing the producers the way the Spartan warriors regularly terrorized the Helot majority that did most of the farming and crafting that supported their society. To have a well-led society, you need professional and trained leaders, a professional and trained military, and professional and knowledgeable producers. No matter how successful a general or how rich a merchant, neither has the knowledge or temperament needed for effective leadership of society.

 

To be continued….

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 1

October 20, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Plato pt. 1

There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.

—–Plato

 

 

The first and most famous writing in Western political philosophy is Republic, written by Plato around 380 BCE. It is not only a political writing, and arguably may not even be primarily such; it is a philosophical tour de force, discussing ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, and esthetics as well as politics. Thus it is one of the most encyclopedic pieces of philosophical writing as well as one of the earliest, and for both reasons is often a cornerstone of “Philosophy 101.”

Plato’s answers do not always satisfy, and did not always satisfy even his contemporaries; but his writings set the agenda for philosophy down through the millennia. It is therefore fitting to start any discussion of political philosophy with Plato, hear what he has to say, and then examine how later thinkers have confirmed or rejected his claims.

No thinker writes completely in a vacuum, and Plato was particularly a man of his time despite his desire to speak only of the eternal Forms. He began his philosophical career as one of those young aristocratic men who followed Socrates around the Athenian agora, hanging on his every word as he interrogated the professional politicians, professors and other leaders of society. Socrates wrote nothing of his own, as far as we know, except perhaps a hymn according to one historical record; what we know of his actual beliefs comes to us through the writings and teachings of his students. As was common in the ancient world, his students were not shy about using the master’s name to try to give answers the master would have given if he had only thought about some problem, or if he had lived longer, and thus had explicitly taught on some subject he didn’t actually cover. They were not journalists in today’s sense, trying to capture the words and deeds of the great person without error or embellishment; they were more concerned with keeping the spirit of the great teacher alive so that he could continue to teach even after death. In the case of Plato, great devotion to the person of Socrates was joined to great literary talent and to great philosophical genius, the result being that we know that at some point Plato starts putting his own words into Socrates’ mouth but we don’t agree on exactly which parts are closer to the original Socrates and which are Plato’s thoughts attributed to Socrates. What we do know is that Plato wrote an extensive library of books, many of which survive to this day, and that almost all of them are written as philosophical conversations or debates in which Socrates is the main figure. They do not always agree with each other in content, and the style varies as well, reinforcing the impression that as Plato grew older his own thought became more independent of Socrates. But certain principles appear early and often in Plato, and are echoed in other writers who similarly knew Socrates. An early story is that the oracle at Delphi identified Socrates as the wisest man alive, and that Socrates decided that his only wisdom was to realize his own ignorance. Therefore, he devoted his life to exposing the ignorance of those who claimed to have knowledge, particularly the knowledge to tell others what was right and good. The professional teachers of his day, the Sophists, are generally remembered today as relativists; they taught as “good” whatever the local community said was “good,” while themselves noting that what was praised in one city-state was often abhorred in another. Socrates by contrast is said to have believed that there was indeed a real universal truth to be found, and a real sense in which “good” was an ethical principle that held true no matter what the society said. He thus claimed his own inquiries were his own attempt to educate himself, or to find a teacher who could show him the truth of how to live his life. However, he also quickly found that no one he encountered really knew this truth at all, since none of the important men he questioned was able to defend his views. He thus styled himself a “philo-sopher,” a “lover-of wisdom,” a perpetual seeker rather than an authority; and he called all his neighbors to become seekers as well.

History, including Plato’s own writings, reports that this did not sit well with the leaders he had interrogated and publicly embarrassed. Eventually, he was arrested and charged with corrupting the youth and not reverencing the gods. He was brought to trial in the waning days of Athenian democracy, when the Athenian people were fairly paranoid about finding enemies of the State and rooting them out. It is true that some of the young men who followed Socrates had turned traitor during the war with Sparta, which had ended a few years earlier with a humiliating defeat for the Athenians. At the same time, some of his followers had also proven to be patriots, and Socrates himself was nearly arrested by the pro-Spartan junta which briefly ruled before it was overthrown and democracy reinstated.

The trial of Socrates took place in the same way every important decision was made in Athenian democracy. A large jury, generally 501 randomly chosen free male citizens, listened to advocates for and against the proposition—in this case, the proposition that Socrates was guilty of capital crimes and should be executed. Normally, the defendant in such a trial would give as eloquent a speech as possible, often reciting one written by a professional. He would appeal for mercy, perhaps having his wife and children come on stage with him in rags even if they were in fact quite wealthy, to try to sway the emotions of the jurors. Socrates rejected that plan and refused the speech a friend offered him. Instead, he taught the audience and his accusers. He brought one of them up before them all and asked him to recite the details of his crimes, poking holes in his claims and suggesting that even his accusers didn’t believe what they were saying. Instead, he argued, they were simply embarrassed by his lifetime of needling them. He had made them look foolish by exposing their ignorance, and they wanted revenge. Instead, Socrates argued, he should be seen as a benefactor of the city, who sought nothing but the moral improvement of the citizens by teaching each one individually to seek the good. His questions were like the sting of a gadfly, which might stir a lazy cow to action; his only purpose was to make people think about what is good or evil so that they might act for the good. He therefore insisted that the charges against him were nonsense, insincere, and false; far from undermining the city, he was actually its chief benefactor. Still, the jury narrowly voted to convict. Under Athenian law, at that point both sides had to propose a suitable punishment. When his accusers demanded his death and the jury asked Socrates what alternative punishment he would recommend, he suggested they give him free meals for life like they would for an Olympic victor or military hero. Given those two choices, the jury chose death. He accepted the sentence, submitting to the laws of the State and the will of God, and was executed.

I would like to draw four main points from this story (which is drawn primarily from Plato’s Apology and also agrees with Xenophon’s account, both apparently eyewitness accounts of the trial of Socrates):

  1. Socrates, though avoiding usual “political activities” such as seeking office or making speeches in the assembly. Still, he regarded himself to be a political citizen and even a moral activist.
  2. He was brought up on political charges by leading politicians, so his trial and execution was a political event.
  3. He was subversive in undermining respect of certain leaders, but submitted to the laws of his country even to his own death.
  4. The overall impression of the presentations is that democracy failed. Democracy, not just particular individuals, tried and executed Socrates unjustly.

This last point is particularly important for the later development of Plato’s political philosophy. His writings, as well as Xenophon’s, depict Socrates as basically patriotic. Yes, he was unconventional; yes, he did embarrass some political leaders by exposing their ignorance and hypocrisy; and yes, some of his followers were disloyal and even treasonous. Still, he himself died in obedience to the laws of Athens. Plato came away from that thinking that democracy is inherently unjust. In democracy, demagogues driven by personal ambition, greed and vanity manipulate the mob, which is itself motivated by passions and appetites rather than rational thought. Neither the leaders nor the followers have any interest in justice or even a conception of what this is, so that they conspired together to kill their greatest benefactor and teacher. Therefore, Plato concluded, the only way a just society could ever exist would be if power is held not by the majority, but only by those few who have the moral and intellectual capacity for leadership.

To be continued….

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? (introduction)

October 10, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? (introduction)

 

No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

—–Winston Churchill

 

 

In philosophy, it is generally considered a good and worthy strategy to start with a thesis to which everyone can agree, and see what can be learned from closely examining that notion. One thing everyone seems to agree on is that everyone in the other political tribe is a f—ing moron. Since the parties are pretty evenly divided (Democrats supposedly have more numbers, but Republicans have Congress, most state legislators and governors, and only recently slipped from controlling the Supreme Court to sharing power evenly), that means that, if we provisionally accept this judgment as true, half the country are idiots, whose votes count just as much as the smart, moral, caring and good people who agree with you.

Why should this be? Or perhaps better, should this be? One news report quotes a professor of political science as saying:

 

We go in assuming a baseline among students, which is that they are uncritically, unreflectively fans of democracy, right? America is a democracy, we all love America. Democracy is good. This election season, that baseline—-my experience has been—-can no longer be assumed…[1]

 

 

Half the country, according to polls, believes that colleges are actively trying to subvert American democracy, and have been doing so for years. In fact, this professor and others report that until this year they’ve just been able to assume that their students had such immediate faith in democracy that there was no need to sell it. Now, a generation is coming into our colleges who are looking at the nastiness, the accusations of vote-rigging and vote-suppression and political intimidation and even violence, and those young people are basically ready to say, “Well, democracy had a good run; but I guess it’s time to find something that works.” And why shouldn’t they? Half our government—-the party that runs the Congress and most of the states and half the Supreme Court—-has been telling them for years that democracy has failed and is failing. Now, they feel they see the proof with their own eyes.

Philosophers have discussed the merits and demerits of democracy almost as long as “philosophy” has existed. The first sustained political treatise, Plato’s Republic, was written as Athenian democracy was collapsing. Later Greek and Roman philosophers wrote extensively about the relationship between citizen and State, rulers and ruled, and whether self-rule was desirable or even possible. As the Roman Empire transitioned from pagan to Christian, an entirely new tradition of political thought entered the conversation, and political thought in Europe became an ongoing synthesis of Greek, Roman, Hebraic, and pagan traditions. Some of these traditions allowed for far more individual autonomy and social mobility than did others, but none were what we would really call “democratic.” Still, the notion of democracy did not vanish completely, returning in religious communities such as the Quakers that rejected human authority over others. After the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Enlightenment began the project of looking for human-based political theories to replace Christian theocracy. British Empricism gave us the totalitarian monarchism of Thomas Hobbes, the representative democracy of John Locke and the utilitarianism of David Hume, among others. As the nineteenth century rolled into the twentieth we saw the rise of Marxism and fascism. The Twentieth Century has been called “The People’s Century” because it saw the rise of democracy and the collapse of colonialism, and growing millions gained the freedom to exercise political power in their own countries; yet for much of that century it was openly debated whether democracy or totalitarianism would ultimately triumph. By the end, it seemed that democracy had won and the popular press tossed around terms like “the end of history;” the thinking was that humanity had resolved the tension between the State and the individual, and that the rights of the individual had been admitted to be fundamental. Even as the 21st Century began with religiously-inspired terrorism, no one seriously thought that they posed a serious threat. As Christopher Hitchens put it, terrorists could unleash events, but the progress of civilization would not be stopped. And the religious zealots themselves admit that the task of overthrowing democracy to establish theocracy is humanly impossible; they rely on a faith that God will miraculously intervene to slaughter all their foes and give them the ultimate victory and domination over others.

And then came the presidential election of 2016. Republicans routinely claim that the election of Hillary Clinton will mean the end of democracy and the end of the United States. Since this is the same group that claimed the same thing about Obama, that claim lacks credibility to most people; but to the 40% or so of Republicans who believe Obama is a secret Muslim sleeper agent waiting for his chance to destroy America, the vow by Clinton to “continue the progress made by Obama” sounds like a death threat.[2] On the other hand, Republicans have been talking about taking up arms to kill liberals since the beginning of the Tea Party Movement, including various threats by GOP candidates to use “Second Amendment” remedies to get rid of Harry Reid or Obama or Hillary Clinton, threats by Republican governors to call up the National Guard to fight off “federal overreach,” and a multitude of militias and Sovereign Citizens threatening or even committing violence and terrorism. Now, they have a candidate for President who openly talks about removing constitutional protections for free speech, who urges his supporters to attack protestors and promises to pay their legal bills, who regularly retweets posts from a variety of white supremacist militants. Almost overnight, then, we went from believing democracy was the ultimate culmination of the forces of history, which was opposed only by lunatics bent on some sort of magical return the Middle Ages, to a situation where millions of Americans believe that democracy is in fact under attack and could be destroyed in a few months. And even elected officials, such as the governor of Kentucky, talk about the possible need to resort to violence and force if the election turns out the wrong way and conservatives don’t win.[3]

Philosophers need to contribute to this discussion. It is clear that many millions of Americans have in fact lost faith in democracy. Hillary Clinton caught a lot of flak for labeling half of Donald Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables,” but in fact polls indicate she is mathematically correct: on a variety of issues, about half of Donald Trump’s supporters express racist, homophobic, and otherwise intolerant views and delusions.[4] And as Clinton admits, about half of is supporters don’t. Perhaps, like Mike Pence, you don’t think racism or intolerance or contempt for America’s heritage as a nation of immigrants and nonconformists merits the word “deplorable.”[5] Or given that half of the conservative candidate’s base falls into this “basket of deplorables,” perhaps you don’t want to offend them. What cannot be denied, however, is that roughly half of Republicans think democracy is destroying America, because the majority is voting to weaken “traditional values” of white patriarchy. That’s millions of people. Add to that the millions more who think democracy is failing because it led us to the Trump candidacy and the empowerment of the deplorables, and that’s almost a landslide. In these circumstances, philosophy is needed. Political science tends to ask, “How is power gained and used?” in a value-neutral way. Philosophers need to step in ask, “SHOULD power be gained and used in this way?” Philosophers can ask the questions about value, whether and why democracy is “good” even if you don’t like the results of the last or next election. And they have a history of analyzing and debating these concepts that goes back thousands of years, which can inform and guide today’s debates.

To be continued….

[1] Sam Sanders, “How Do You Teach Politics during an Election that Defies Convention?” Morning Edition (NPR) Oct. 6, 2016 (http://www.npr.org/2016/10/06/496826307/how-do-you-teach-politics-during-an-election-that-defies-convention)

[2] Louis Jacobson, “Do 59 Percent of Americans Believe Obama is a Muslim?” Punditfact Nov. 23, 2015 (http://www.politifact.com/punditfact/statements/2015/nov/23/arsalan-iftikhar/do-59-percent-americans-believe-barack-obama-musli/)

[3] David A. Graham, “Matt Bevin’s Apocalyptic Warnings of Bloodshed;” The Atlantic Sept. 13, 2016 (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/matt-bevin-clinton-blood/499754/)

[4] Charles M. Blow, “About the Basket of Deplorables,” New York Times Sept. 12, 2016 (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/12/opinion/about-the-basket-of-deplorables.html?_r=0)

[5] Matthew Nussbaum, “Pence Declines to Call David Duke ‘Deplorable’”; Politico Sept. 12, 2016 (http://www.politico.com/story/2016/09/mike-pence-david-duke-deplorable-228049)

Plato on Music Education: How American Idol is Destroying America (pt. v)

September 12, 2013

What is Plato’s remedy?  The ultimate cure is to take God, rather than man, as the measure of all things.[1]  Saying that does not help us very much today, however, because there is so little knowledge of God and maybe less shared opinion; anyone who claims to be following God can safely be assumed to be following his or her own fancy.  Plato’s God was a god who was rationally known and philosophically approached, not one who could be created out of literal readings of myths mixed copiously with political slogans and party loyalties.  Before God can be the measure of all things, we need to be the sort of people who can have a possibility of genuinely seeking God or recognizing God once we bump into him/her/it.

Suppose we take Plato’s prescription to heart.  In recent years I have noticed two trends in K-12 education:  an increased interest in “character education,” and a slashing of education in the arts.  But what would good, quality education in the arts, particularly music, give to our children?  They would learn that sometimes it takes time to achieve something.  It takes practice.  And it often takes cooperation with others; the first violinist or first trumpet or first soprano still needs the rest of us if the music is to be as full as possible.  They would learn to admire skill and talent more than auto-tune and YouTube fame, as their own efforts at making music revealed to them just how difficult good music is (and how easy and unimpressive the other sort is).  They would learn to accept the judgment of those who know.  They would be exposed to good music, the music of the ages.  By this I don’t only mean classical music, although this is often part of learning music for the simple reason that it is public domain.  When I was a child in public school, we learned folk songs.  These are simple tunes, easy for a child to understand; they are also part of our cultural heritage, the melodic thread connecting generations.  Now, children don’t know the songs children knew for years or centuries; their parents can instead buy “Kidz Bop” and teach their children to love the musical ephemera of the Top Forty list.[2]

Many children, of course, will not be able to fully participate in music of any sort.  Some are deaf, as I am becoming; some may just be tone-deaf.  Plato didn’t value the representational arts much, but perhaps we should.  Why is drawing in school only sanctioned for kindergarten?  What is gained by subjecting oneself to the discipline of working with hand and eye, learning in the process what is truly beautiful and truly difficult and impressive?  What Plato did value was dance.  Why is our physical education aimed at winnowing out the klutzes through the years, to produce a few star athletes for the high-school teams, instead of making all fit “to dance with head and limb”?[3]

Shows like American Idol are the esthetic versions of “Wikiality.”[4]  “Wikiality” is the idea that reality is whatever the rest of us agree is true.  If we all agree that Africa has more elephants than it did ten years ago, then it is true.  Who is Britannica to tell me that George Washington owned slaves?  I have a right to say and believe whatever I want.    The problem is, however, that sometimes people die because of this attitude.  The whole “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida is based largely on a factual falsehood; it was intended to correct an injustice of a man arrested for killing a looter, except (1) the “looter” seems to have just been a random, lost, drunk construction worker, and (2) the man who killed him was never arrested; traditional “self-defense” law was all that was ever needed to resolve the case.[5]  As a result of this legislative exercise in Wikiality, Florida now has a law that is routinely used by violent criminals to avoid arrest.[6]  I will leave it to the reader to come up with more examples of laws passed and justified by factual untruths; whether you and I agree as to what are convenient lies and what are disputed truths, I don’t doubt that everyone agrees that politicians routinely reject reality and insert their own delusions.  And from the “Stand Your Ground” laws to the county commissioners who eliminated fluoride from the drinking water (apparently believing Dr. Strangelove was a documentary) to dozens of other cases, this sort of epistemological nihilism is not just an individual saying “I have a right to believe what I want;” repeatedly, people who believe what they want to believe rather than what can be shown to be true cause real harm to others, and impose their fantasies on the rest of us.[7] Think of it as the legislative equivalent of the Sanjaya Effect; instead of bad music being forced on viewers of American Idol while good singers are shunted off to obscurity, bad laws are forced on all of us while good policies are buried in partisanship and ideologically-driven relativism.

Did American Idol kill Trayvon Martin?  No, not really.  Did the disregard for any standards or truth beyond one’s own personal preferences, a disregard fostered by the social media/mass media melding of which American Idol is a prime example, lead to the creation of a bad law that ultimately contributed both to his death and to the circus that whirled around it?  Yes.


[1] Laws, book IV, 716 c-d

[2] “Toxic”?  Really?  That’s what you want on a kid’s album?  “Kidz Bop 6”

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pt. 3, “On Old and New Tablets.”

[5] Ben Montgomery, “Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law was Born of 2004 Case, but Story Has Been Distorted;”  Tampa Bay Times April 14, 2012 (http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/floridas-stand-your-ground-law-was-born-of-2004-case-but-story-has-been/1225164)

[6] Kameel Stanley and Connie Humburg, “Many Killers Who Go Free with Florida ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law Have History of Violence;” Tampa Bay Times July 21, 2012 (http://www.tampabay.com/news/courts/criminal/many-killers-who-go-free-with-florida-stand-your-ground-law-have-history/1241378)

[7] Anna M. Phillips, “Pinellas County Commission Votes 6-1 to Return Fluoride to Drinking Water;” Tampa Bay Times November 27, 2012 (http://www.tampabay.com/news/localgovernment/pinellas-county-commission-votes-6-1-to-return-fluoride-to-drinking-water/1263426).

Plato on Music Education, pt. IV: “American Idol” and the corruption of America

September 6, 2013

     Is American Idol corrupting America, or it is revealing its corruption?  Which came first:  a corruption of esthetic standards that led to moral and epistemological nihilism, or an epistemological relativism that led to a collapse of first moral, and then esthetic standards?  Plato’s Laws suggests that the consumer-based, pleasure-driven culture is the root of all the problems.  People believe they are entitled to say, do and believe whatever they want.  And unlike Plato, I think that politically, they probably are so entitled; but morally, they are not.  Cardinal Ratzinger’s famous sermon against the dictatorship of relativism argues that anyone today who dares to suggest that there is such a thing as Truth risks the ire not only of the mob, but also of the cultured elite.[1]  We are supposed to be postmodern and pluralistic; the idea that some things are just plain true is seen as oppressive.  When I was in college, it was the Left that was generally heard denouncing “cultural oppression” and championing relativism; today, it is more often the Right that denounces the “liberal elite” with their charts and graphs and facts and fossils.  I don’t have to argue about the absurdity of allowing something like human-made climate change to morph from a scientific question to a political shibboleth.  Everything I would argue about the corruption of American society is illustrated in this one news story:  According to a recent political poll, Louisianan Republicans are uncertain whether Barack Obama or George W. Bush is more responsible for the poor federal government response to Hurricane Katrina, which struck in 2005.  In response to a 2013 poll:

Q2 Who do you think was more responsible for the
poor response to Hurricane Katrina: George W.
Bush or Barack Obama?
George W. Bush ……………………………………… 28%
Barack Obama………………………………………… 29%
Not sure …………………………………………………. 44%[2]

So, is it just a matter of opinion which president was more to blame for the response to a natural disaster that occurred four years before Obama took office?  If anything is a matter of fact, shouldn’t it be something that occurred not only in the historical time/space continuum that we all inhabit, but even within the lifetime of most of us?  Yet, faced with the choice between factional, party-driven epistemology and agreeing with the obvious, the vast majority of Republicans are either unsure who was to blame for government actions that occurred in 2005, or are absolutely certain that they should blame someone who was nothing more than a powerless junior Senator at that time.  Sure, maybe they have a legal right to say something obviously false and stupid; but do they have a moral right?  If “morality” means anything more than “I like this,” then surely we have a moral duty to seek truth and to live according to that truth; even a consequentialist ethic must recognize that the likely results of choosing delusion over fact will be disastrous for everyone affected, eventually.

            Clearly, we are never going to adopt the legal system Plato advocates, where music is regulated by the state and only government approved tunes, rhythms and lyrics are allowed.  And I don’t think we would want to, either.  Plato was deeply suspicious of change, unless it was known ahead of time that it would be change for the good.  Like many Greeks, he admired Sparta’s unwavering adherence to the laws and customs of its founders.  But a few years after Plato’s death, Sparta and all the Greek poloi were conquered by the innovative, inventive, upstart Macedonians.  And a few years after that, Alexander the Great continued that innovative and ambitious spirit to sweep aside Egypt and Persia and more.  The paradox is that of course, as Plato said, all change is bad unless it is change from bad to good—-that is a tautology—-but prior to making the change, we cannot really know what will turn out for the best.

            But just because we embrace change and a more dynamic culture does not mean we need abandon all notion of truth and goodness.  And make no mistake, that is just what we have done.  We live in a world where so-called “conservatives,” the people who regard themselves (and are regarded) as defenders of “truth, justice and the American way,” freely and gladly wallow in relativism and nihilism.  There is simply no other explanation for why the vast majority of Republicans in Louisiana would deny that it was a Republican president who was in office in 2005 and therefore was responsible for the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.  They do not want it to be true; “man is the measure of all things;” therefore, it never happened.  But Plato would ask, how could it be otherwise?  How could any people who have practiced self-indulgence and thrown off first esthetic standards, then factual investigation ever do other than fall into full-blown epistemological and moral relativism?


[1] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, homily at the mass for the Papal Conclave, April 18, 2005 (http://www.vatican.va/gpII/documents/homily-pro-eligendo-pontifice_20050418_en.html)

[2]In Louisiana, Clinton keeps up, Governor Falls”   August 21, 2013 (http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2013/08/in-louisiana-clinton-keeps-up-governor-falls.html#more )

Plato on Music Education, pt. III: The Results

August 29, 2013

            If we accept the idea that pleasure is the only standard of goodness, where does this principle stop?  Plato says that if that is our standard in esthetics, it will become our standard in ethics as well.  One who becomes accustomed to enjoying bad music because it gives pleasure and rejects the notion that there might be standards will also come to reject the idea that there are standards of good or bad deeds, beyond the pleasure they give the doer.[1]  And conversely, one who learns that personal taste must be educated before one can judge beauty will also be prepared to learn that he or she must learn moral principles before he or she can judge virtue.

            And if subjectivism in esthetics leads thus to relativism in ethics, why should it stop there?  Plato argues that things may be valued because they have a “charm,” or for their rightness in some sense, or for their utility.[2]  For example, good food is tasty, but it is also nutritious.  To value food only for its pleasure-giving capacity would lead one to choose cake over fruit every time.  Sure, many of us do this; but do any of us really think this is wise?  We know that we must look to the objective truths of the world, and not merely to how we feel, if we are to judge correctly.  But the pleasure-driven person, by definition, does not do that.  He or she has thrown off all authority, and all self-control.  Without temperance, one becomes a fool as well as wicked, for one will reject unpleasant truths and unpleasing truth-tellers in favor of flatterers and comforting lies.  Moral subjectivism leads inevitably to epistemological relativism.  First beauty, then goodness, and finally truth all cease to have any meaning for the intemperate pleasure-seeker.

            I have no doubt that if Plato were alive today, he would be appalled by American Idol, Dancing With the Stars and all similar programs that allow (nay, encourage) the untutored mob to impose its tastes over the judgment of the knowledgeable.  No one meant any wrong in doing this.  It is just an inevitable result of market forces.  Television networks want to make money, and can do so with cheaply-made “reality” TV and contest programs more easily than with expensive, talent-intensive, quality programming.  They make money by selling commercial time; programs are just sugar-coating to get consumers to swallow the all-important commercials.  Making the programs more interactive is just another way to get people to tune in.  Furthermore, phone companies make money when people use their services to text their votes in.  But what is the effect?  In its extreme, we can call it the “Sanjaya Effect:”  a talentless, comically inept performer beat out many better artists based, allegedly, on votes cast ironically or out of pity or some other motive, rather than for any honest assessment of who was “best.”  Even the producers of American Idol were taken aback, and revamped the voting process to reduce audience input.  A show that was designed to elevate mob taste over expert judgment began to backpedal, as it discovered that not only does the mob not know what is good, it doesn’t even always care.

            Dancing With the Stars offers an even better illustration of the corruption of society.  In 2010, Bristol Palin advanced to third place, despite a manifest mediocrity.  Some voters directly stated that they voted for her out of pity or sympathy, saying things like, “Of course Erin’s a better dancer—she’s a professional.  But look at Bristol, just getting out there and trying her best.”  In Plato’s day, a judge who gave the prize to any but the best would be cursed by the gods; they swore before Zeus, but in today’s “competitions,” respect for standards or the spirit of sportsmanship has been replaced by self-appointed judges who vote whimsically—-or worse yet, factionally.  To Plato, the greatest danger to the state was factionalism; he had witnessed how party politics tore apart Athenian democracy, and his Laws warns repeatedly of the dangers of factionalism.  Party politics were no different than treason, in Plato’s view.  But many of the people who voted for Bristol Palin allegedly did so out of loyalty to her mother and the GOP, rather than to the rules of ballroom dancing (and yes, ballroom dancing is a competition and it has rules, just as much as ice dancing or gymnastics).  They would doubtless answer that, whatever their reasons, those reasons were theirs; they have a right to vote for whomever they wish, and besides, it’s all just a matter of taste and taste is personal:  “there’s no accounting for taste.”  Plato would reply that the rejection of true standards of artistic beauty in favor of politics or the sympathy of one mediocre soul for another is not “just taste;” it is a moral failure, a deliberate preference for the bad over the good.

To be continued….


[1] Laws book III, 699d-701c

[2] Laws, book II, 667-668