On Philosophy

May 30, 2006

Better Than Democracy

Filed under: Ethics,Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:36 am

Often we evaluate a system of government based on how effective it is, or how many liberties it gives to a people. So to be different here I will evaluate systems of government based on how ethical they are. Just as we often judge an ethical standard by the worst kind of behavior that is possible under it, so will I judge political systems by the worst kind of laws (ethically) that can be passed under them.

Before I begin however I must note that the following arguments assume we all agree that there is some objective ethical standard to which all societies and people can be held. If one believed that ethics were simply a matter of convention then it would be meaningless to say that one government was ethically better or worse than other, since the ethical standards of a society are partly determined by its government and laws, and thus every society would have to be considered ethical.

Anarchy then is probably the worst political system, since literally anything is possible under it; the limits of behavior are simply the limits of the least ethical person in that society. Second to last is monarchy / tyranny. These systems are slightly better than anarchy since the laws passed can only be as bad as the ruler is, but since people can be extremely unethical it is only a little better in the worst case. Slightly better than monarchy is rule by a small group of people selected by some standard other than popular opinion (aristocracy, oligarchy, plutocracy, theocracy, ect). Generally the group will have somewhat of a moderating influence on the most extremely immoral proposals, but once again history has shown that groups such as these can still enact horrible laws. One step better than these systems is the republic, a small group of rulers regularly elected by the people. Having the population involved curtails some abuses, but it is still possible for the body of elected officials to act unethically, especially if they don’t care about re-election.

A significant improvement over the republic is the democracy. A democracy removes the possibility of corrupt officials by giving all governing decisions to the people as a whole. Still majority rule does not prevent unethical laws from being passed. Simply the fact that the majority of people share a desire does not make that desire right (since we aren’t conventionalists). It is easy under a democratic system for laws to be enacted that are unfair to small groups of people who are disliked by the majority. Even guarantees of rights cannot fix this potential problem, since it is always possible for those guarantees to be voted out of existence, or to simply be ignored. Of course these same criticisms apply to the republic as well, but generally bad rulers are more responsible for immoral laws than bad voters.

This pretty much covers all the political systems which have been put into practice, but this doesn’t mean that a better system is impossible to conceive. Let us work with Scanlon’s definition of an ethical action, namely that an action is ethical if it can be defended on the basis of principles that no one can rationally reject. If we apply this definition of what is ethical to the government then we should conclude that a government acts ethically when it passes laws that no one can reasonably reject. Therefore we might conclude that a system like the following would be ethical: every citizen who can pass a basic competency test (to prove that they are rational) is allowed to veto any proposed law. A law then can only be passed then when all citizens agree to it. You might think that this would make some kinds of laws impossible to enact; after all it is a fact of nature that people have irreconcilable differences of opinion on many issues. To get a law actually passed then the creators of possible laws would have to include benefits to groups that disagreed with the law in order to get them to stop vetoing it. Thus every law would become a compromise, where every person in society gets something they wanted out of it. This also agrees with an ethical principle I proposed earlier, that one should not take unless something of equal or greater value is given in return, because to pass a law that would take from anyone you would have to promise them something better in that same law or they would simply veto it.

Of course such a system probably isn’t workable in practice, but then again neither is democracy. Just as we settled for a republic instead of true democracy it might be possible to construct a system where elected representatives did the vetoing for us. However such considerations are outside of the scope of the arguments presented here.

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20 Comments

  1. Who would set the competency test?

    Comment by Igor Clark — May 30, 2006 @ 2:10 am

  2. I didn’t have anything exceptional in mind for the competency test, being a certain age and being sane are probably good requirements. Of course for an exact definition of who is sane we should probably ask the psychiatrists, but a good rule of thumb would be anyone not in an asylum. Of course you are wondering “might the competency rule be abused so as to corrupt the system?” Well if we started with a rule such as this for competency then there is very little chance of abuse, because to change it would involve passing a law, meaning that no one would veto it, and who would let a law go through that took away their right to participate?

    Comment by Peter — May 30, 2006 @ 2:20 am

  3. This post has many excellent points. Take Thoreau:

    That government is best which governs least

    The system you propose is probably the least efficient, but I don’t think that is bad. Basically all we need is “no murder” and “no theft”, and I think all sane people would agree to that.

    Comment by conlangaday — May 30, 2006 @ 9:31 am

  4. “To get a law actually passed then the creators of possible laws would have to include benefits to groups that disagreed with the law in order to get them to stop vetoing it. Thus every law would become a compromise, where every person in society gets something they wanted out of it. This also agrees with an ethical principle I proposed earlier, that one should not take unless something of equal or greater value is given in return, because to pass a law that would take from anyone you would have to promise them something better in that same law or they would simply veto it.”

    Although I do agree with you that small groups do get discriminated against in democracy and that the majority can vote for horrible things, I disagree with the quote above. In a system such as you describe, people could be threatened by brute force (or even slain) because they do not agree with what everybody else does. People would be shunned by their peers and would be subjugated to oppression. It really sets up anybody who disagrees for bad things to happen to them. Also, give the power to veto to members of the mafia and you have a problem :).

    These ARE good ideas, don’t get me wrong. But your article is about bringing ethics into government, and you’d have to have ethics already to form a government such as you describe, and much of the world doesn’t have that, sadly.

    Comment by Josh Taylor — June 4, 2006 @ 6:56 pm

  5. “In a system such as you describe, people could be threatened by brute force (or even slain) because they do not agree with what everybody else does.”

    Generally one would assume that there would be laws passed against such actions. Otherwise the same could be said about any system of government. I would also argue that the world as a whole does have ethics, not the same ethical standards of course, but relatively close. Most of what you might categorize as unethical action is really just uninformed action. It is really just a few individuals are act unethically.

    Comment by Peter — June 4, 2006 @ 7:05 pm

  6. To be honest, I think your proposed system of government is so impractical as to be itself immoral. Let’s say there’s murdering happening. Someone says, ‘Let’s stop the murders!’ The murderers say, ‘No,’ and the murder continues. I suppose someone could just murder all the murderers, but that’s just vigilantism. In the end, a system of absolute consensus works out to “everyone does whatever he/she thinks is right,” which is no government at all. I haven’t studied it thoroughly, but I think I’m with Hobbes on this one: government that’s unable to keep life from being nasty/brutish/short is no government at all.

    Comment by Carl — June 4, 2006 @ 8:45 pm

  7. Also, this system is biased towards inaction, but it isn’t clear why inaction is always preferable to action in the case of less than 100% consensus (which is to say, in all cases in the real world). We could propose an alternate system in which all proposed laws are accept unless 100% of people object to the law. Such a system would be the mirror image of this one, but in practice, it probably wouldn’t be appreciably more dysfunctional.

    Comment by Carl — June 4, 2006 @ 8:54 pm

  8. It would only be vigilantism if there was a law against it, and if murder is legal obviously there would be no laws against it. But anyways I already mentioned that this is simply an analysis of the ETHICAL nature of a system of government, not its practicality, judged by its worst possible behavior. To make the system practical you would have to get unanimous consent within small groups of people to pick representatives, who repeat this process until the governing body is small enough to effectively make laws.

    “it isn’t clear why inaction is always preferable to action in the case of less than 100% consensus”
    It’s based on Scanlon’s arguments about what makes an action ethical, and its not that the action is preferable, which might imply desirable, but that it is objectively “the right thing” morally. I suggest you read his article “Contractualism and Utilitarianism” for a defense of his criterion. Also in general any system that reduces bad behavior will reduce behavior in general.

    “We could propose an alternate system in which all proposed laws are accept unless 100% of people object to the law.”
    You could propose such a system, but it would be much much less ethical, which is all I care about in this discussion. For example I could propose a law to the effect “anyone who disagrees with Peter dies”, and then as long as I voted for it the law would become official. I might even be able to enact it in a democracy if I had a good enough PR department, but I think we would both agree that such a law would be ethically wrong. However you could never pass such a law under the system I have proposed, and that is an example of why I claim it is an ETHICALLY superior system.

    Comment by Peter — June 4, 2006 @ 9:11 pm

  9. “Let’s say there’s murdering happening. Someone says, ‘Let’s stop the murders!’ The murderers say, ‘No,’ and the murder continues.”

    Peter, that’s why I said people would be unsafe in a system such as you propose. Also, you don’t seem to grasp how powerful people are when nobody opposes them but a few people. If a huge group want something really bad and they find out that the only thing that’s keeping what they want from them is some guy saying “no”, they’ll get what they want, trust me :). The reason a lot of politics in the United States is screwed up right now is because a large group of people are uninformed about a situation or just do not grasp it 100%. They ridicule anybody who speaks out against them. In your system the ridicules would become killings. Political parties would turn into organized crime and society as we know it would crumble and fall.

    Comment by Josh Taylor — June 4, 2006 @ 9:11 pm

  10. “To make the system practical you would have to get unanimous consent within small groups of people to pick representatives, who repeat this process until the governing body is small enough to effectively make laws.”
    So basically democracy, eh?

    Comment by Josh Taylor — June 4, 2006 @ 9:14 pm

  11. “So basically democracy, eh?”
    No, basically a republic, except that officials vote and are elected via the veto method instead of the democratic method. Why do people confuse republics and democracies so often?

    Comment by Peter — June 4, 2006 @ 9:23 pm

  12. “They ridicule anybody who speaks out against them. In your system the ridicules would become killings.” No, I assume people would have previously instated laws against killings, because they probably would kill each other until they all approved such a law. If you are going to argue that the SYSTEM is unethical because there are people within it who are willing to break the rules, well then all systems are equally unethical because any group of people might decide to break the rules in any system. Since I am not analyzing the ethics of the people but the ethics of the system and the laws it makes I have omitted such considerations. If we wanted to consider which systems people would behave ethically the best under, well that is a completely different topic, and more of a psychological question than a philosophical one.

    Comment by Peter — June 4, 2006 @ 9:28 pm

  13. As it stands I think my objections are a) it’s useless to talk about the ethicality of a system apart from its effects and b) government by its very nature is premised on the idea on non-consensus. If everyone agrees, “Let’s do X,” or “Let’s not do Y,” why would we need laws at all? Everyone would already be doing X and not doing Y naturally, so a law would be pointless. Government is necessarily the imposing of a view point about the nature of the good life on the population. In modern governments, we structure it so that the majority are able to pursue their version of the good life reasonably well, and the minority are inconvenienced as little as practical, but to completely refrain from imposing a viewpoint isn’t government, it’s anarchy. Utopian anarchy, perhaps, but anarchy nevertheless.

    Comment by Carl — June 4, 2006 @ 10:03 pm

  14. a) Yes, I am talking about the ethicality based on its worst possible effects. Generally this is how a system of action or principles is judged, why not judge the government in this way?
    b) Just because our current systems don’t reach a consensus doesn’t mean that it is impossible. Impractical perhaps, but once again this is a theoretical discussion.

    “In modern governments, we structure it so that the majority are able to pursue their version of the good”
    What the majority wants is not necessarily ethically good. It may be, it may not be. Genocide and slavery is generally perpetrated by the majority, but that doesn’t make it right. Why should we want a system that has the possibility to rule unethically?

    Comment by Peter — June 4, 2006 @ 10:14 pm

  15. “Why should we want a system that has the possibility to rule unethically?”

    These seems like a double standard is being used to judge the unethicality of systems. My objection to your system is that it will inevitably result in unethical outcomes. The objection to representative democracy seems to be it might result in an unethical outcomes.

    Of course, even ignoring the practical impediment to action in such cases where acting would be more ethical, the total consensus model has the same theoretical risks as representative democracy — in theory it’s possible that 100% of people in the nation could decide to conduct genocide against another nation, or if you’re proposing a world government, against those unable to vote due to mental incapacity. Is this unlikely? Yes, but it’s also unlikely that 2/3 of people in a representative democracy will condone genocide.

    Historically speaking, the Nazis gained power with explicit support from less than 50% of the population. They also conducted their genocide in secret at least in part because of fear of disapproval of the masses. (Though certainly the masses were aware that something was being done to the Jews, few were aware quite what.) I could be wrong, but I would be surprised if any genocidal group could gain support from much more than half the population without exerting the threat of violence against those that disagree. In any event, once the desire for genocide becomes great enough, it doesn’t matter what kind of government is in power, an angry majority will make its will evident — with disasterous consequences!

    As I’ve said before, “the only insurance for the continued existence of a liberal [read ethical] state is the promotion of a liberal [read ethical] polity.” Such promotion is essential, but unlikely to gain unanimous approval. As such, I don’t think a government of perfect consensus can be considered ethical except to the degree that you presume that the population already is perfectly ethical, but “if men were angels…”.

    Comment by Carl — June 5, 2006 @ 1:07 am

  16. “My objection to your system is that it will inevitably result in unethical outcomes.”
    The difference here is that I am judging the SYSTEM based on the actions of the SYSTEM (i.e. laws). What you are doing is judging the system based on the actions of the PEOPLE, even if they happen to be against the laws.

    It seems then that you would be happiest in a monarchy + police state which had an ethical leader since then there would be a 0% chance of unethical laws being enacted and it would be hard for people to break the laws and act unethically. As for genocide many of these: http://www.genocidewatch.org/genocidetable2005.htm have been supported by the majority of the population. It still didn’t make them right.

    Comment by Peter — June 5, 2006 @ 1:40 am

  17. As a general rule, in internet debates try to avoid attributing disreputable beliefs to your opponent, as it tends to lead to inadvertent flame wars.

    Anyhow, I’m still not sure what sense it makes to talk about a system divorced from its actual results.

    Yes, the most ethical system possible would be one in which those who knew with absolute certainty the objective nature of ethics imposed such ethics on society. How could it not be the most ethical system, given that we’re specifying that they impose only the best ethics? However, since such absolutely certain objective ethics are not forthcoming, it’s not worth concerning ourselves with it. Given that we humans have limited information, it’s more worthwhile to ask, “how can we use our limited information to build good enough systems?” not, “how can we embark on a pie-in-the-sky system that would be perfect if we had more information but will lead to crippling results in the partial lack of such information?”

    This same problem comes up in different fields. In computer science, the whole problem with computer is that what they can do, they do perfectly, but all too often something imperfect comes and breaks their expectations. Similarly, in learning a language, the temptation is to learn how to perfectly translate things word by word to and from one’s native language, but in practice, it’s far more rewarding to understand things at the sentence and paragraph level, and use that knowledge to contribute to your word by word understanding. We have “paragraph” knowledge of what a good system would be like — no murder, no chaos, etc. — so we should use that to help us understand the atomic elements of a good system, not the other way around.

    Comment by Carl — June 5, 2006 @ 2:17 am

  18. You seem to have confused this blog with a social science blog. Just as mathematicians are interested in studying Euclidean geometry even though it is not realized in the real world; so I am, as a philosopher, interested in studying abstract systems of government, even though they are never perfectly realized in the world. Ideally one uses theoretical observations to guide practical implementations, not practical considerations to guide the theoretical discussion. If we were considering practical systems of government the monarchy is probably the best for the following reason: which system is more likely to give you ethical leaders, one in which they are selected randomly (effectively by birth), or one in which individuals must complete for power (democracy/republic)? It seems obvious to me that practically the republic will end up being run by people who know how to manipulate public opinion and who have a thirst for power. On the other hand in a monarchy you might get lucky and have good leaders.

    Comment by Peter — June 5, 2006 @ 2:29 am

  19. I understand where you’re coming from with the philosophy-doesn’t-have-to-be-practical angle, but I still serious when I ask, how can you consider a system to be ethical if has unethical results. There are certain branches of philosophy which are worth pursuing whether they have practical results or not, such as ontology or causation. Whether or not a correct understanding of those fields turns out to be important, it’s good for people to study them just to satisify their curosity.

    However, when you talk about ethics or political theory, people intend to use the results of such philosophy for some practical end. What you’ve said here can be taken as a kind of null hypothesis — “If all else fails, so long as people are ethical, then the best government is a no-government in which people only act with perfect consensus.” This is true as far as it goes, but the practical applications of this are so out of whack, it hardly seems worth stating this other than to cover our bases. “Yes, if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” OK, fine. But what next?…

    Your system (in theory) can’t prevent genocide any more than a republic can in theory, since it is possible if unlikely that 100% of the people could agree to do genocide against some other nation or some other unethical act that even unianimous consent can’t make right. So, the ethicality of the consensus system is grounded on the pre-assumed ethicality of the people. That’s well and good, but let’s go further and find a system that works for the real world.

    I take it that your goal here is finding the right “atoms” to build a system from in order to get an entirely ethical system. However, as I suggested before, it might be more fruitful to start with the “paragraphs” of what would a good system look like, and then use that as a spring board for discovering what kind of atoms should be used to build those structures.

    Comment by Carl — June 5, 2006 @ 3:19 am

  20. I find this interesting because on an ethical scale I rank these systems exactly opposite.

    Comment by Joel — June 7, 2007 @ 1:10 pm


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