Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Right and wrong in political philosophy

Sage comments "I can imagine a true or pure democracy, like Rousseau suggested wherein, if we find ourselves on the minority end of a vote, it simply means we're in the wrong." I have no idea whether or not Sage represents Rousseau fairly here, but I myself have a deep philosophical objection to the premises that underlie this comment. I think that questions of right and wrong are by and large irrelevant to political philosophy. If I find myself on the minority end of a vote, it means only that my position will not be enacted into public policy. It does not ever, no matter how you slice it, imply that I'm in the wrong. It implies only that I've lost that battle on that day. I might actually be wrong, but just that I've lost a vote doesn't therefore imply that I'm wrong. Right and wrong are, philosophically speaking, independent of popularity.

The point of political philosophy is not, in my not in the least bit humble opinion, to ensure that the right decisions get made. It cannot be, because I can't think of any independent standard of right and wrong; if there were an independent standard then we should actually use that standard, instead of relying on the messiness and complexity of politics. The point of political philosophy is, I firmly believe, to figure out how make the right sort of wrong decisions, to "err on the pro side of the hole."

I advocate democracy not because I believe the people as a whole are any wiser or more intelligent than any elite. I advocate democracy because if we are going to make errors, I would prefer that the people themselves err, that they make popular errors.

Of course it's also true that after about five millennia of government and organized society (at least organized in writing) we have learned a lot of deep truths about forms of organization that work and don't work. It seems desirable to have for example freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, privacy, and a great deal of individual liberty insulated from not only the privilege and power of the elite but also from majority opinion. There are certain mistakes that have been made in the past that could be made again, even by the people; it is no compromise of democracy, I think, to formally exclude actions that have already been identified as errors from the domain of legitimate democratic action.

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