On Philosophy

March 24, 2008

Paper: The Relative Strength of Political Obligations

Filed under: Papers,Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

A Theory of Political Obligation develops a theory that purports not just to be correct, but intuitive as well. Indeed there are certain intuitions that it does respect, but, problematically, people are of divided opinion as to whether political obligations exist at all. Thus a theory claiming that membership in society produces such obligations will be unintuitive to those who deny that political obligations exist, and denials of their existence will be unintuitive to those who think that they do exist. It may be that the intuitions of one of these two groups of people are simply in error, but this situation cries out for an explanation of who is wrong and why. Another, seemingly unrelated, open question facing the theory is how the obligations described by it fit with the other moral and prudential obligations we recognize. How do we determine which obligation takes precedence in cases where they conflict? While this technical issue might appear to have nothing whatsoever to do with conflicts of intuitions regarding the existence of political obligations I maintain, contrary to initial appearances, that a theory concerning how the political obligations described by the theory fit with our other obligations can be used to explain why intuitions concerning the existence of those obligations vary as widely as they do.

But before I get into those issues allow me to first describe the theory, since it is not the comparative strength of political obligations in general that I am concerned with here, only the strength of the political obligations as described in A Theory of Political Obligation. The reconstruction I will provide of that theory here deviates in two substantial ways from the original version, for reasons I will explain later, but I think that it is faithful to its essence. To understand the theory precisely, and to explore its foundational assumptions, perhaps it is best to start with a situation simpler than a full blown society. Consider then a single individual who has various inclinations and desires. Naturally we expect that their desires and inclinations will change, even over the course of a single day, as their mood changes and their attention directs them towards different things. If they straightforwardly tried to follow their inclinations and desires as they occurred to them no good would come of it; as soon as they were pursuing one course of action other ideas would strike them, motivating them to drop what they were doing for something else. Thus to manage themselves effectively individuals must have a way to manage their behavior in a way that overrules such transient mental fluctuations. One way that might be accomplished is through commitments; individuals commit themselves to a course of action via a decision which they then stick to unless there is an appropriate reason to set aside that commitment, something more than a change in attitude (as explained in A Theory of Political Obligation, henceforward abbreviated as TPO, pg. 127). Thus it seems appropriate to speak of such commitments as generating obligations to act as we have committed ourselves, since it seems that rationality, or at least practical rationality, would require us to do so, all else being equal (a claim which we can back up, if necessary, by appeal to the fact that without a habit of sticking to our commitments we would be unable to effectively manage our lives).

Such individual commitments have nothing to do with political obligations directly. But, just as there are individual subjects, so there are so-called plural subjects, collections of people that might be described as constituting a single body, and they too might have commitments that serve the purpose of self-regulation, and which generate obligations to obey them. But before I discuss those joint commitments a few words must be said about the plural subjects.[1] Obviously the goal of this reconstruction is to illuminate a theory that says something about political obligations, specifically about how political obligations can stem from membership. And so plural subjects, whatever they are, must include among their number the large bodies of people that in fact constitute societies that we live in. This rules out certain natural characterizations of what a plural subject might be, such as a group of people that acts as one, because while certain groups do fall under that description, such as a well-trained covert ops team, actual societies are large and fragmented. Their members often act in ways contrary to each others’ interests, and even who is a member is subject to constant change. A better characterization of the kind of plural subject we are after is, perhaps, a group of people whose well-being is interdependent, and who think of themselves as a single group. Thus nation states constitute plural subjects because of their economic and social structures, such that the fortunes of everyone tend to rise and fall together. But the set of blue eyed people does not constitute such a plural subject; they don’t consider themselves to be a single group, and even if they did their well-being wouldn’t be appropriately connected. And this characterization admits of smaller groups within the nation state which are tied together more closely, such as family groups, which surely counts in its favor (just as the original definition of plural subjects found in TPO does, see pg. 166, 173).

A joint commitment then is like an ordinary commitment in the following ways: it binds the group to a particular course of action (TPO pg. 134), we say that the members of the group are obligated to abide by the joint commitment (TPO pg. 156), and we might defend that claim by appeal to the necessity of such efficacious joint commitments in order for the group to manage itself[2]. The major difference between the two is, naturally, that the joint commitment is a product of a plurality of wills while individual commitments stem from the will of a single person. That difference will be quite significant when it comes to the details of how joint commitments come about; for example, in determining whether every member of the joint commitment has to actively will it into existence or whether it is possible for some of the members to just passively go along with it (TPO pg. 178 discusses this issue). Such questions are interesting, but are irrelevant to the current paper; here we will just assume that joint commitments do exist and are as described in the book. And given this account I assume that how such joint commitments can be said to give rise to political obligations is obvious and uncontentious; to manage itself the plural subject jointly commits to various political structures. It is thus obligated to obey the rules produced by those structures because of its joint commitment to them.

I mentioned earlier that this reconstruction differs from the original theory it is based on and inspired by in two substantial ways; now that I have provided my reconstruction it is time to point out and defend those differences. One substantial difference is that in this reconstruction plural subjects are described in advance of, and independently from, joint commitments, while in the original version they are simply a way of referring to the people who are jointly committed (TPO pg. 145). This alteration exists to avoid the possible objection that the theory falls short of describing political obligation as we actually conceive of them, and that it instead describes only a similar notion mistakenly taken to be the real thing. Such a claim might be made because there are many people who are ordinarily taken to be members of political societies, such as infants, the mentally infirm, the apathetic, etc, but who are not members in terms of the original theory; given that they cannot be or are not part of the joint commitment they are not part of the plural subject. Under the reconstruction described here, in contrast, such people are part of the plural subject, so long as they don’t actively rebel against it, because they are still connected to other people in the right ways, and are thus obligated by the joint commitments made by those willing and able to commit and which are imposed on them[3]. This, I think, brings the theory much closer in line with an ordinary understanding of what constitutes membership in a political society and thus of who is subject to political obligations[4]. The second substantial difference is that to justify the claim that commitments in general, and joint commitments specifically, give rise to obligations the fact that they were necessary for effective self-regulation was appealed to, while in the original version of the theory the fact that joint commitments create entitlement to and ownership of future actions was appealed to (TPO pg. 154). Again, the alteration exists to avoid a problem, this time the problem that there is disagreement regarding whether joint commitments do actually create ownership of future actions (and whether ownership of actions, especially future actions, even makes sense, or whether it is more like claiming ownership of the number four, i.e. something that can’t properly be owned). Some may have different intuitions or demand an explanation for why joint commitments give rise to relationships of ownership and owing, or why ownership constitutes a motivating reason to act, that appeals to more than intuition. By providing an explanation of why such commitments should be honored as a matter of practical rationality such issues are avoided completely. Naturally I don’t want to categorically deny that the original theory may have the resources to address the problems raised here, but, even if it does, there are two advantages to this reconstruction for the purposes of this paper. First it leaves the claims of the theory about joint commitments and their obligations essentially unchanged; the same claims about the standing to rebuke and demand, the attitudes associated with joint commitment, etc all hold for the reconstruction since joint commitments are still taken to be essentially the same kind of a product of a plurality of wills as they were in the original account, it is only how they are linked to obligations that is substantially changed. Secondly, and equally importantly, issues concerning who is obligated and whether they are obligated arising for the original theory are effectively bracketed by the reconstruction, which allows us to focus solely on the strength of those obligations, the real purpose of this paper.[5]

But, however compelling this reconstruction is, it must be granted that the obligations stemming from joint commitments may sometimes obligate us to act immorally. Since we have a moral reason to reject any theory that tells us to do something immoral (perhaps by claiming that we are obligated to obey such immoral rules, all things considered) it is natural to assume that moral obligations outweigh political obligations. It is equally problematic to assume that political obligations are weaker than the obligations that stem from personal commitments; since personal commitments are so ubiquitous it would mean that there would rarely be a role for considerations concerning political obligation to play. Such difficulties open up a new kind of problem, namely how to determine when one obligation is more important than another. Some remarks are made concerning these issues (TPO 11.4 especially pg. 279), but they lean heavily on our personal intuitions. There it is argued that conformity to the joint commitment seems to be of great importance (perhaps because of its connection to the existence of social order), and thus that it trumps lesser matters. But this appeals to our personal judgment concerning how important the joint commitment and conformity to it is. And I’m not sure that this actually does reflect our natural judgments: speeding violates the joint commitment, but few take flaunting it in that way as particularly momentous or dangerous to the preservation to social order. Of course I certainly wouldn’t deny that we have intuitions about which obligations are more important, such as our intuition that ethical obligations are more important than political obligations, but I claim that these intuitions are not, by themselves, sufficient to settle this matter. Intuitions on these issues vary greatly from person to person, in all likelihood more so than intuitions regarding the existence of political obligations, since there is far more conceptual space in which they might diverge. Furthermore, these intuitions seem quite complicated: different kinds of obligations may be thought to have precedence depending on facts about the situation. And so intuitions do not clearly suggest a theory about the relative strength of obligations. In such a situation, where we lack a systematic theory to back up our intuitions, it seems to me that an appeal to them to settle a matter of such import may be in danger of reducing philosophy to opinion. I also grant that this may be a problem that can only be settled with a complete theory of obligations, which I don’t have the resources here to develop from scratch or to reconstruct from the writings of some other philosopher. Instead the strategy I will pursue to answer this question is a tentative one; I will pick out two different aspects of obligations, roughly understood, that suggest themselves as a basis for ordering obligations. I will pursue each of these possibilities independently, simply assuming that it is the right way, and the only way, to rank obligations. If both of these ways roughly correspond with the intuitive ordering we give obligations and with each other then I will take that as a non-conclusive reason to believe their pronouncements about the relative strength of political obligations.

One component of our rough understanding of obligations is that ideally it would be best to satisfy every obligation. Let us call a strategy that satisfies all of our obligations the ideal path. Since the ideal path is a goal we can assume then that it is best to be as close to the ideal path as we can, and so that when obligations conflict we should break our obligations in such a way that we stray from the ideal path as little as possible. But how to determine when one course of action brings us farther from the path than another is still up for debate. So let us consider for a moment agreements to engage in some action under specific circumstances. Such agreements would be of the form: “if circumstances C obtain then you must do action X”. And let us further consider a set of such agreements where circumstances C are all relatively trivial. One agreement might be to speak in iambic pentameter whenever we are on the second floor of a building, another might be never to sit down while wearing something red. To one extent or another these circumstances are all under our control; if I need to sit down, for example, then I can always remove whatever red item I am wearing. Now suppose that we find ourselves in a situation were these conditional agreements conflict. To stick to the ideal path in such circumstances we must act so as to ensure that one or the other of the conditions that brings the conflicting obligations into play stops obtaining, which would end the contradiction between them. To free ourselves from those circumstances will require a certain amount of energy or sacrifice on our part, which will vary from agreement to agreement and situation to situation. Thus when we find ourselves in a situation where the obligations stemming from such agreements conflict in this way we can say that we are K distance from the ideal path, where K is a measure of the difficulty in freeing ourselves from the easiest condition. And this kind of talk strongly suggests that when we fail to fulfill one of our obligations that the distance we are from the ideal path is equal to the difficulty that we would have had in freeing ourselves from that obligation. This gives us the rule that we originally set out to find; when we find ourselves in situations where our obligations conflict, and where we must break at least one of them, we should break the obligation that, in normal circumstances, it would have been easiest to legitimately release ourselves from.

But, while this may seem unproblematic for the special kinds of agreements that I have been talking about, it may seem less plausible for other kinds of obligations, which don’t seem to have clear exit conditions. I agree that when it comes to ethical obligations that it doesn’t seem that they are escapable. But ethical obligations may be a special class of obligations, and, as inescapable, the difficulty of freeing ourselves from them is infinite, providing a justification for the intuitive claim that ethical obligations trump all other kinds of obligations. But when it comes to other kinds of obligations it does seem like there are ways of freeing ourselves from them. Consider, for example, the obligations generated by our individual commitments. It was already noted that a special act of will could overturn those commitments, and thus that the difficulty in freeing ourselves from such commitments is roughly proportional to the difficulty in making that particular act of the will. Similarly, agreements between two parties seem escapable as well, with the difficulty being equal to how hard it is to convince the other party to prematurely lift that agreement. (If you agree with someone to take certain actions it seems legitimate to say that you are no longer obligated to take those actions if you make them some offer such that the other party now agrees that you are no longer obligated by the terms of the original agreement.) Even the obligations to satisfy our own desires that stem from prudence/self-interest (or commitments we make to satisfy such desires, if such desires aren’t taken to intrinsically generate obligations) seem escapable, with the difficulty being how hard it is to change what we desire. It is no surprise then that there are ways to escape the obligations stemming from joint commitments, namely by leaving the plural subject, since the joint commitment applies only to that plural subject.

According to this theory making a judgment about how strong political obligations are requires a position on what it takes to leave a joint commitment, a claim that may itself be contentious. So let me begin with another thought experiment. Consider then a large plural subject, made of members who don’t all know each other. This plural subject is jointly committed to a number of different rules, one of which being that all the members must wear a particular kind of black hat. Because of this the members recognize each other by those black hats, since they don’t all know each other personally, and some of their rules exist to make sure that people wearing the black hats are honoring their commitments. Now suppose that a stranger arrives on the scene, who has no knowledge of this group, but who coincidentally happens to be wearing one of their peculiar black hats. The members of this plural subject may take this person to be another member and thus subject to their obligations, as well as outsiders who are familiar with the custom. However, it is quite clear that the outsider wearing the hat is not actually obligated, despite these perceptions, because they do not consider themselves part of the group or to be so obligated, even though everyone else takes them as publicly signaling their participation in that joint commitment, since this is the only thing that currently distinguishes them from the members[6]. What I claim this situation shows is this: whatever it takes to be a member of a plural subject it is at least partially dependant on the individual’s thinking of themselves as a member. This implies that all it takes to stop being a member of a plural subject is to stop considering oneself to be a member, which may be somewhat difficult because of habit, but not impossible.

I grant that some will disagree with this claim, and may think that the existing structure of the plural subject prevents such easy egress. Before I address such arguments let me first point out that they don’t win much in this context; one can physically leave actual plural subjects quite simply by making it to a border and renouncing ones citizenship[7]. In any case, one argument against this position might rest on the claim that, as someone who currently accepts the joint commitment, that they cannot so easily leave the plural subject through something as trivial as a change of attitude towards their own status as a member because they have accepted that they won’t (and are thus obligated not to), or that by not physically leaving it is understood that they agree to be part of the plural subject. But the problem with such rules is that they are predicated on the person’s being a member, and give them reason not to stop being a member. However, if they stop being a member obviously such rules cease to have any force. So while they are a member they aren’t breaking those rules, and when they aren’t a member they aren’t breaking those rules (because they apply only to members). Thus I conclude that such rules don’t have any real force since it is impossible to actually be in violation of them, no matter what you do[8].

Alternatively, the idea that cutting ones self off from a plural subject can be done via an act of will alone might also be argued against by appealing to the claim that the historical fact that we were once jointly committed still generates obligations for us, regardless of our current feelings about it. However, to hold that an obligation can depend on historical facts contradicts certain fundamental assumptions about obligations. Specifically, I take it as given that an obligation necessarily comes along with a motivating reason to act, even if that reason is not absolutely conclusive. Consider then a possible universe which is exactly like ours except that time in that universe began at a point equivalent to last Tuesday in the actual universe. Obviously there is no way to tell from the perspective of an inhabitant of this unusual universe whether it began on Tuesday or not, since after Tuesday events in that universe will proceed in exactly the same way as they do in the real universe. However, in this fictional universe there are no historical facts before that Tuesday, for obvious reasons, which is a substantial difference between the two, even if the inhabitants can’t be aware of that fact. Now if obligations could depend on historical facts then it would be the case that in this universe some such obligations would be thought to exist but would not, in actuality, since the historical facts they are thought to depend on, such as past commitments, are missing. But, as already observed, events in the two universes will proceed in exactly the same fashion; at least they will if our best scientific theories are right. Consequently, obligations dependant on historical facts must be epiphenomenal, i.e. without causal significance, since their presence, of lack thereof, has no impact on how events unfold. But if such obligations are epiphenomenal they can hardly be relevant to our reasons for action since their existence, and hence whether we act in accordance with them, has no observable consequences. This I take to be a reductio of the claim that obligations of any sort, and thus those stemming from joint commitment in particular, can depend on historical facts. Of course it is possible to bite the bullet and admit that obligations dependant on historical facts are independent of our reasons for action, but would be to make such obligations much weaker than supposed, not stronger.

In any case, to return to primary concern of this section, such an analysis of the strength of obligations makes political obligations seem relatively weak. Since freeing ourselves of our political obligations is relatively easy they rank among the other obligations that we are able to free ourselves of by what amounts to an act of will. Of course some acts of will are harder to make than others, and so I wouldn’t claim that every desire and personal commitment can trump political obligations. But it does seem that certain desires and commitments, which we hold to more firmly than our desire to be part of the plural subject, such as close personal attachments, may.

This brings us to the other strategy for evaluating the relative strength of obligations. The method discussed previously is very abstract; although the difficulty of freeing ourselves from particular obligations is obviously something that depends partially on the empirical world there is a sense in which it depends more on the abstract structure of that obligation itself, which brings with it the conditions that may free us of it. Such an abstract perspective on obligations is not to everyone’s liking. It is also possible to examine them from a naturalistic or empirical standpoint, focusing on the fact that obligations constitute a motivating reason to act. And it is easy to see the giving of reasons to individuals as the core of the obligation, and thus that which obligation is stronger ultimately comes down to which obligation constitutes a more psychologically compelling reason to act. Obviously few would embrace the idea that how people do act and decide which reason seems more compelling is necessarily how they should act. However, the idea that how people would act if they were exposed to all the facts and had reasoned correctly about them is how they should act does have some plausibility.

Under such an assumption it is also natural to assume that people usually have access to the pertinent facts and that they usually reason successfully, so that, unless special circumstances are involved, general patterns in human behavior reflect how people should act (modulo any widespread defects in human reasoning). According to this view then obligations stemming from certain kinds of prudence/self-interest and ethics are relatively strong. It should be obvious why obligations to oneself are strong under this view, so let me just say a few words about ethics. There are many people who would claim that ethics is a weak kind of obligation under this view, or that there isn’t any reason for them to be ethical, except for the fear of punishment. However, simply looking at the majority of human behavior indicates that when it comes to face to face interactions ethics usually has a strong say in the matter, especially with respect to core ethical principles such as not killing each other. Naturally there are occasional exceptions to this rule, such as anti-social personalities, circumstances of extreme desperation, and impersonal cruelty. But in such cases we can attribute actions that seem contrary to what is ethical to defects in reasoning, overshadowing by stronger obligations to survive, and a lack of awareness concerning all the facts about the suffering of other people, respectively. Thus it seems justifiable to claim under this method for comparing obligations that the reasons ethics provides are fairly strong ones.

The obligations generated by joint commitments seem much weaker in comparison. Obviously some joint commitments, such as the commitment to drive according to certain conventions, we will have to set aside, since obeying them accords with prudence, and so it is hard to say which of the two is really giving us reason to act in accordance with them or which is responsible for the strength of that reason. Instead I would like to turn our attention towards rules that seem contrary to ethics or to prudence, such as tax law. A simple inspection of such rules reveals an interesting fact; not only do the rules exist, but punishments for breaking them are enforced as well. But why do such punishments exist? Clearly there is no need to threaten to punish people who act against their own commitments or own self interest; people have reason to act in accordance with those obligations and so they generally tend to. And while there may be punishments for acting unethically the considerations discussed above reveal that such punishments exist to influence the behavior of the minority who act irrationally rather than the majority who will rarely consider actually acting unethically. But, when it comes to the rules stemming from joint commitment alone, punishment seems necessary, since many would conclude that it was rational for them to break unenforced laws when it would be to their substantial advantage. It would be absurd to think that many would pay their taxes if the associated punishments were never actually doled out. This doesn’t mean that joint commitments don’t constitute reason to act, but it does imply that, in general, those reasons are weaker than those that substantial self-interest generates, such that punishments need to be enforced so as to give people additional prudential reasons to conform to the joint commitment. Indeed there is data to support this claim: crime statistics suggest that roughly 1% of the population will engage in substantially unethical behavior (either acts of violence, theft, or fraud). In contrast NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse) estimates that over 40% of the population has illegally used controlled substances on at least one occasion[9], which seems like a serious breach of the joint commitment given that simple possession for a first time offender can result in jail time. This implies, in terms of the general analysis of the relative strength of obligations introduced at the beginning of this section, that the obligations created by joint commitments are weaker than those generated by people’s persistent desires (or personal commitments associated with such), given that most people are swayed by those desires over the joint commitment in many circumstances.

Now this is not to say that the obligations generated by joint commitments are absolutely the weakest possible. It does seem likely that when it comes to our inclinations or fleeting desires that people in general would favor the joint commitment over them (although obviously this is an empirical claim, subject to confirmation). This seems to give the obligations of joint commitment roughly the same strength as they had under the previous strategy considered, namely that they are somewhere between commitments associated with our strongest and weakest desires. Since these two substantially different approaches to evaluating the strength of political obligations agree, at least roughly, if not on every detail, it seems to me that this gives us reason to believe these assessments, as mentioned earlier.

This might seem unintuitive to some, but, even if it is, this analysis has other virtues, namely that it can explain why people disagree as to whether political obligations exist at all. I postulate that people have different expectations as to how strong an obligation has to be to really count as an obligation. Some have a high standard for what counts as an obligations, and this explains why they feel that obligations should be substantially recalcitrant to the will[10], a somewhat strong kind of obligation, and may be disposed to deny that our individual commitments generate obligations, since those obligations are very weak by any measure. People with such intuitions may therefore be led to believe that political obligations don’t exist, since they are a weak sort of obligation. But others have a lower threshold when it comes to obligations, such that they consider almost everything that generates reasons to act, including personal commitments, to be obligations. They are thus led to believe that political obligations exist, since they are stronger than that threshold. In this way the theory of political obligation can be reconciled with a range of intuitions concerning the existence of those obligations without denying that anyone is substantially wrong or confused, so long as we are willing to grant what the two strategies for analyzing the strength of obligations developed in this paper concluded, that political obligations are a relatively weak sort of obligation, which at least I find intuitive.


[1] This is the first major divergence from the theory presented in TPO. There plural subjects are defined just as the people who are involved in a joint commitment (TPO pg. 145).

[2] This is the second major divergence from the theory presented in TPO. In the original version obligations are argued to exist because of considerations of owing and ownership of actions (TPO pg. 157).

[3] Obviously the original theory can describe these people as having imputed obligations (pg. 41), but that is quite clearly not the kind of obligation that we are interested in. A satisfactory solution of the membership problem, I maintain, must demonstrate that members of society, which includes people such as the apathetic, the mentally infirm, etc, have real obligations. It is trivially obvious that all members of society have imputed obligations, and if such obligations were enough for a successful solution to the membership there would be no need for an involved theory concerning joint commitments at all. And so it would seem that a solution to the membership problem which assigns to some members only imputed obligations is not a complete solution.

[4] It also neatly solves the objections that Simmons raises, that the account in TPO doesn’t work given the largely passive nature of membership, and which substantial effort is made to avoid, for example at TPO pg. 178.

[5] A further advantage, in my eyes, is that the reconstruction is essentially free of any appeals to intuition since it is ultimately supported not by intuitive definitions, but rather by appeal to empirical facts, namely that certain strategies, i.e. honoring the joint commitment, are practically effective. I concede though that not everyone would consider that an advantage.

[6] It might be argued that historical facts might set them part from the group, such as the fact that they didn’t enter into that commitment in the past, but I take it to be impossible for the existence of an obligation to depend on historical facts, a claim I will argue for subsequently.

[7] I find this to be an unsatisfactory measure because it varies by location and wealth, which seems highly unintuitive to me, as it seems unjust to hold the poor and those unlikely to be born farther away from the borders to a higher standard. Indeed if our society makes them more obligated I would think that we were doing something substantially wrong.

[8] This also can be taken as an argument that agreements aren’t kinds of joint commitments since agreements don’t work this way. Indeed I would take this line of argument to provide reason to believe that agreements are given their obligating power, including the obligation not to unilaterally back out of particular agreements, by external social constructs and conventions that are independent of particular agreements, thus making skipping out on the agreement contrary to practical rationality because one is still subject to the larger social structures (assuming that we haven’t left the joint commitment as well), which frown on such behavior.

[9] According to a 2001 study.

[10] Although in TPO it was argued that obligations stemming from joint commitment were substantially recalcitrant to the will I have argued against that claim here, since it follows from the fact that such obligations are partly dependant on our present mental state that certain acts of will can rid us of them.

December 7, 2007

The Hidden Rationality Of Voters

Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

The fact that democracy often doesn’t live up to the expectations many people have for it usually results in one entity or another being blamed for its deficiencies. Who gets blamed depends on the individual doing the blaming, but sometimes the voters themselves are considered to be the weak link. Obviously the media plays a large role in the outcome of elections, as people are likely to vote for the candidates that receive the most attention. Additionally voters seem to have a habit of voting strategically, meaning that they will tend to vote only for the candidates that seem most likely to win, even if they personally prefer someone else, to the detriment of small parties. And the strategy of some voters seems not to be to vote at all. Together these facts might seem to point to the voters as the weak link in democracy; if they would just vote for the candidate that they actually preferred then the outcome of the democratic process would be closer to the social optimum. By not acting as they “should” the voters make it impossible for democracy to work properly, and so it is only their own fault when it doesn’t, or so it might be claimed.

I will grant that most people appear to vote strategically and to be heavily biased by the media. But the fact that people behave in that manner and that it isn’t a manner best suited to democracy doesn’t necessarily mean that it is voters who are at fault. We can imagine hypothetical political systems that require the individuals within them must act in ways significantly against their best interests to work, say by giving up a hand in order to vote. If such a system doesn’t work in practice it is not the fault of the individuals living under it, even though they could have made it work if they had chosen to, it is the fault of the system for being ill-suited to the people living under it. On the other hand if it turns out that voters really don’t have a good reason to vote “strategically” then we can assign blame to them, and say that they suffering from mental defects that prevent them from acting appropriately, which they should try to overcome. To determine which is the case in reality we must examine “strategic” voting and its origins more carefully.

Let’s begin by just assuming that voters are perfectly rational, and if it turns out that the perfectly rational person would vote strategically then obviously we can’t fault actual people from doing so. Furthermore let us assume for the sake of simplicity that the perfectly rational person attempts to maximize the expected value of their actions, which means that they act so as to obtain the largest reward, proportional to its probability. Whether that is actually the perfectly rational course of action is a matter of some debate, but it is close enough for our purposes here. So what is the expected value of voting for any given candidate? One way to calculate that value is via the following formula: (value of that candidate winning – value of some other candidate winning) * probability that, with all other votes counted, the candidate will be one vote away from victory – the cost of voting, with the expected value of not voting simply being 0. Obviously to make this calculation we need to estimate a number of things that we can only know with certainty after the election is over. We need to estimate the number of people who will vote, in order to partially determine the likelihood of a single vote mattering. We also need to estimate what percentage of people will vote for each candidate, which allows us to calculate both the value of some other candidate winning, which we can take either as the value of the most likely candidate other than the one under consideration winning, or as some weighted sum determined by the value of the other candidates winning and their likelihood of winning if the candidate under consideration loses, and to calculate the probability that the vote cast will make a difference, as that is more likely in close races than in those where one candidate seems far ahead. On first glance this might seem to imply that no rational person would vote, since the probability of one vote making a difference is very low given the number of people voting. But since people do vote we can charitably assume that they are rational and that the cost of voting is very low, or that the cost of voting is offset by hidden benefits, such as a sense that one has fulfilled their civic duty.

If this accurately models how the perfectly rational person would vote then they would vote strategically, and thus the voting behavior of the average person would be vindicated. Allow me to explain. First of all it demonstrates that the ease at which the media seems to be able to distort voting behavior can actually be explained as part of rational voting behavior. When I was discussing how the rational voter would evaluate their options I mentioned that they needed to be able to estimate how other people would vote. And one way of generating such estimates is to pay attention to the media, because you can assume that the media will show people the candidates that they are the most interested in, and that other people’s voting behavior will be influenced by it as well. Which means that the candidates portrayed as the most electable will receive the most votes simply because the rational voters expect their votes to make the most difference by voting for one of those candidates. It also explains why people are more likely to vote in close races, because it is much more likely for a vote to make a difference in a close race than it is where one candidate is clearly in the lead. Thus in a close race the voter gets more value out of their vote. And, finally, it explains why people vote for candidates that aren’t their first choice, but who are more likely to win, over the candidate they like best if that candidate seems far behind. Obviously it would be better for them if the candidate they liked best won instead of their second or third choice. However, we must also take into account the fact that if their first choice is significantly behind then it is extremely unlikely that a vote for them will make a difference, and so voting for their second choice may be many times more likely to make a difference. Thus, unless they prefer their first choice many times more than their second, an unlikely situation, it will be rational for them to vote for their second choice.

But it might be argued that this analysis of the perfectly rational voter is missing something important. Isn’t a society in which everyone votes for their preferred candidate based only on reflection on the candidate’s individual qualities desirable, since it will lead to socially optimal choices and diminish the ability of money to influence the outcome of elections by buying media time? I agree that it is desirable, and it would be nice to live in a world where everyone voted that way. However, just because we desire to live in such a world doesn’t necessarily mean that we should vote that way, because if we are the only ones motivated by these considerations then we will just be throwing our vote away by getting less value from it than we otherwise could have. To illustrate allow me to present a contrived scenario to illustrate why optimistically voting is a bad idea. Consider then a set-up with a large number of people in which everyone has the option of either paying $1000 to a central pool or contributing nothing. If everyone pays up then everyone will receive their $1000 back plus and additional $1000. However, if some people don’t contribute then those who fail to contribute will receive $1 and those who contributed will lose their $1000. What is rational to do in this situation? Well, it depends on what we think other people will do. Unless we have talked to everyone before hand, and trust them to take the actions that they have said they would, we must estimate that there is a chance, however small, that any given person won’t contribute. Since there many people present the probability that someone won’t contribute is thus high, and so it is rational not to contribute. This illustrates how our expectations regarding other people’s likely behavior must be taken into account when we are deciding what to do, and not to be dazzled by what might happen if everyone acted in a certain way, because we know they probably won’t. So to reflect the fact that a world in which everyone voted “honestly” is somewhat desirable we might add an additional term to calculating the value of voting for the candidate that is preferred over the others, the value of such a world times the probability that voting in that way will contribute to bringing it about. Since that probability is very small, as the majority of people will continue to vote strategically since it benefits them to do so, and thus it doesn’t really affect the results already established.

So, given that the rational voter will vote strategically, you can hardly blame people from doing just that. Thus if strategic voting is bad then the system is bad for encouraging that behavior; it is not the voters who are at fault. I’m not even convinced that strategic voting is intrinsically bad, although the fact that voting behavior can be influenced by an easily purchased media is somewhat disturbing. But, unfortunately, we can’t just ignore the media when deciding how to vote, because we need some estimates in order to vote rationally, and a bad estimate based on the media attention given to the candidates is probably superior to no estimate at all. But that is something we might be able to fix, in a relatively easy way. Instead of forcing people to develop their own estimates about how other people will vote from a biased media and polls the government could create a web site that tracked the popularity of the candidates (the government would have to run it to prevent the possibility of corruption and cheating in general). Obviously such an online poll would affect the way people eventually vote, but it at least this way that influence will be a result of accurate information without an agenda.

October 22, 2007

Considering Collective Choice

Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

Any group of people must, from time to time, make choices as a group, meaning that the choice will affect all of the members of the group and it can only be made “once”, in the sense that part of the group can’t make the choice one way while the remaining members make it the other way. Thus what to eat for lunch is not a collective choice, everyone is able to make that choice individually without concerning themselves with the choice made by anyone else. In contrast deciding what color to paint the lighthouse, or whether to build a lighthouse, is something that can only be decided once (as “compromise” color schemes are hideous) and, given that it affects everyone, must be decided in a way that reflects everyone’s preferences.

In order to deal with collective choices let us first divide them into two kinds, those that are simply a matter of preference and those for which there is, in an objective sense, a right or wrong choice. Which color to paint the lighthouse is simply a matter of preference, the only effects of this choice are how happy people are with the way it ends up being painted. In contrast, whether to build a lighthouse is a matter of objective right and wrong, either building a lighthouse will be good for the town or it won’t; people on both sides of the issue are not divided on the basis of whether they like lighthouses, but on the basis of whether they think it is good for the town (at least ideally, in actual situations there will always be some for whom this choice is of immediate advantage or disadvantage, such as the people who will be asked to construct it, and they will probably not have the town’s best interest in mind). Given the differences between these two kinds of choices it may very well be the case that the same decision procedure is not suited for both, and so I will examine them separately and then determine afterwards whether a unified procedure can properly address both kinds of choices.

First I will examine the case where the choice is purely a matter of preference, because that is the easier of the two to deal with. Our decision procedure (for both kinds of choices) should be designed to make the choice that is best for the group. Since these choices have no significant consequences besides how happy the members of the group are with them all we need to consider when designing this decision procedure is how to ensure that the group is maximally satisfied. Thus simple voting (one voter one vote) is a reasonably decent way of deciding the issue. Simple voting is, however, slightly deficient for two reasons. First of all it doesn’t reflect that people don’t all care about every issue equally, and so in some situations it may be better to give a significant minority that really cares about the issue what it wants rather than a largely apathetic majority. Simple voting also makes it possible that certain small groups won’t get what they want on any issues, simply because they always happen to be in the minority, and thus are effectively alienated, which is not something that is good for the group as a whole. To overcome these problems we may turn instead to a system that combines voting with bidding. Specifically each voter would have a supply of votes (replenished at regular intervals) that they can use to bid on various issues. The total votes bid are tallied and the side with the most total votes wins. The people who voted for the winning side lose the votes that they bid on the issue, while the losers get their votes back. Obviously in this system how much the voters care about the issues is taken into account because voters are free to divide their votes unequally, and in fact are expected to do so. Thus a passionate minority can get what they want when competing with an apathetic majority because they will bid more of their votes on that issue than they do on others, while the apathetic majority is concerned primarily with other issues and will allocate their votes to them instead. And a minority that loses on a regular basis will soon find themselves with an overabundance of votes, allowing them to bid more and more votes on the issues they care about until eventually they win.

And thus we can set the easy cases aside. Unfortunately the hard cases, situations where there is an objectively right and wrong way to make the choice, are not so easily dealt with; certainly voting is not the optimal decision procedure. If we vote on such decisions what we get will simply what the group thinks will make them happiest, but what they think will make them happiest may not actually be what will really make them happiest, or the group may irrationally prioritize short-term happiness over long term effects. A similar situation arises with happiness and knowledge in individuals. In general people act in whatever way they think will make them happiest. And certainly believing some things (such as that there is a treasure chest in their backyards) will make them happier than others. But believing things because they make us happy is a bad way to be happy, because often those beliefs will lead us to do things that result in unhappiness, canceling out the happiness that we achieved by believing them. To solve this problem we resolve to ourselves to believe only what is true and then, operating on the basis of those facts, satisfy our desires in every other area except what we would like to believe. Deciding what to do as a group when there are matters of fact involved concerning which outcome will genuinely be best for the group on the basis of collective preference is similar in many ways to deciding what to believe on the basis of which beliefs make us happiest. Which is not to say that every member of the group is voting on these issues solely on the basis of preference, but some of them may be, and many more may be misinformed (possibly because of the few who do have a vested interest), and because of this the vote may favor something other than the optimal choice. Of course it may be that this is simply the best we can do, but let us first consider other possibilities.

Given the analogy to the problems facing individual decision making it may seem that we need to impose some kind of reason on our collective desires, so that this reason will decide what is the objectively best way to satisfy our expressed collective desires. Of course we already have sources of reason as part of society, each individual is able to reason, some better than others. And so it may seem that a way to solve this problem is simply to get some individual or individuals to decide how to best satisfy our collective desires. This is essentially the traditional solution to the problem, namely deciding that someone should direct the group and then giving them the power to do so. But this solution is notoriously problematic. First of all it is hard to get the group to select the best leader (the person who is the best reasoner about how to satisfy the group’s desires). And, more importantly, it is hard to make this leader actually reason about how to best satisfy the group’s desires rather than their own desires or the desires of the people who put them into power. Because of these problems it appears to me that relying on a leader to reason about the group’s desires may be only slightly better than simply voting directly on the issues.

Since the problematic nature of that solution stems from trying to put individual reasoning over collective desires we might be inclined to improve it by putting collective reasoning over collective desires. But what collective reasoning consists in is not immediately obvious. I can, however, tell you what it isn’t; collective reasoning isn’t allowing the group to decide on the facts of the matter by voting, that is simply allowing collective desires to manifest themselves about what they would like to be the case. Since collective reasoning is not something that we actually engage in on a regular basis perhaps the best I can do is provide a speculative account as to what collective reasoning might be (which will have to be evaluated by someone else as to how well it reasons). To exploit the intelligence of the whole group in a way that doesn’t end up illegitimately reflecting individual preferences it would seem that we need to proceed in something like the way individual reasoning does, by breaking down the problem into smaller tasks where preferences don’t play a role and allowing the results of those tasks to inform our choice. Thus reasoning itself involves essentially three steps: breaking the problem up into smaller tasks, completing those tasks, and then using those results to solve the problem. And reasoning in this way can be done by a group. A number of people could be asked to complete each of the steps and their results are averaged, and thus the group decides what is to be done as a whole, as each individual solves only part of the problem. For example, when deciding whether to build a lighthouse first a number of people would be asked to divide the problem up into smaller tasks. Then a second group would decide which of those divisions into tasks was the best. Then each task would be given to a group to complete, and so on. Obviously at some points in this process a consensus may not be forthcoming. For example, people may be genuinely divided on which effects of the lighthouse’s presence (economic, aesthetic, etc) matter. Such cases are thus revealed to be a matter of individual preference (or at least that there is no better way to decide them) and can then be put to a vote in order for the process to proceed, and so this method of decision-making subsumes that which we use to decide matters of preference. To put such a system into operation would probably require computer automation in order to be efficient (and to avoid corruption). And thus, in action, it would probably be rather spooky, since the system, entirely unintelligent in its own right, would decide what to do for the whole group, apparently out of “nowhere”. Whether this way of dealing with collective choices is actually better than voting on them or allowing a single individual to lead is a matter that probably has to be decided by an empirical investigation or mathematical modeling. Certainly writing the software to test the theory would be an interesting challenge, and may be something that I may turn to in the future.

August 31, 2007

Making Kings

Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

A monarchy ruled by a wise and just king or queen can be far better than any other form of government. This is because a wise king can act as a combination of the best features of all possible systems of government. For example, a wise king listens to their people, thus making the government responsive to their wishes, the best feature of democracy; but a wise king also knows when to ignore their wishes, when the people as a whole are making a bad choice. A wise king doesn’t cater to the extremes of society, but instead creates compromises that everyone can be satisfied with. And a wise king balances the advantages of free markets and making those markets serve the people.

Wise kings are wonderful, but they are also rare. And the problem with monarchies is that a bad king can make the system worse than any other possible form of government. And so, being risk adverse (and because power tends to bring out the worst in most people), we usually stay away from monarchies. If only we had some way to identify who would make a wise king, and who wouldn’t be corrupted by power, then we could simply put them on the throne, and not trouble ourselves any longer with trying to improve already complicated political systems, made complicated by their need to thwart the inevitable corruption of the various individuals who participate in them.

Unfortunately I have no way of identifying such individuals, nor does anyone else to the best of my knowledge. However, instead of running around trying to find the perfect king, we could simply make one instead. Obviously I am not talking about a computer, such technology is a long ways off. But we do have the most of the genetic and psychological tools required to make biological kings. Such a project is actually quite feasible, and only requires a small amount of future technology. The first step is to create the best possible genetic foundation for our kings, which means creating a gene set that contains predispositions towards intelligence, ethical behavior, and so on, and lacking any predispositions towards violence and selfishness. This is perhaps the hardest part of the project, and the part that requires technologies not yet developed, since the influence of various genes on behavior is not fully understood yet. And to make use of those genes we will need a way to create people from them, again a technology not completely developed yet.

The next step is to take this genetic template and make a large number of individuals with it. Each individual is raised separately from the rest in highly controlled ways. Their upbringing is designed to condition them to make the best use of their genetic potential, to desire to make the people happy, to properly manage the economy, and so on. Basically all the attributes we expect to find in a wise king. Now admittedly we don’t know exactly what kind of upbringing will produce a wise king, but that isn’t a major problem. We can try out a number of different ways of raising our candidates, which we try on groups (in order to determine the average effect). How successful a particular formula for raising a candidate is can be determined by letting them believe that they are king and seeing how they react to various situations. We take the upbringing of the group that performs best and raise another generation of candidates using variations upon it. This process is repeated until a formula is found that produces the best possible kings.

And once that is completed we can make as many wise kings as we need, simply by raising another generation according the formula we have discovered whenever we need more. Since we now have an overabundance of wise kings the best way to make use of them is probably to let them rule in parallel, meaning that we let a number of them be king simultaneously, and if one of them makes starts ruling in a way contrary to the rest we can remove them from power, on the assumption that some random factor has led to them being a less than optimal ruler. And since we have so many it isn’t necessary to have them rule for life, each can simply rule during their prime and be replaced, another safeguard against unforeseen events leading these kings to become bad rulers.

I suspect that the primary objection to this plan would be that it is inhumane. Certainly it could be run in an inhumane fashion, but it needn’t be. Assume that we only wish the kings produced in this fashion to rule until they are thirty. If that is the case then we have no use for our test subjects or actual kings past that point. And so there is nothing stopping us from letting them retire and go their own way after that age, with appropriate compensation. So while their lives may have been less than perfect until that point it is possible to compensate them so that overall they are better off then people who haven’t been raised in this way. Secondly we must consider whether life itself is valuable. If it is then implementing such a program is the good thing to do, because as part of the program we create a number of people who would have no chance to exist otherwise. Thus the program could be good both for society and for the individuals that are part of it. And that’s the best kind of win-win.

August 11, 2007

Societies Of Adults And Children

Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:00 am

No government is a good fit for every possible society. For example, if society was composed mostly of people who had strong unethical tendencies then the best government would be one which kept as much power as possible in the hands of the few good people, and which had the ability to closely monitor its citizens in order to catch any criminal behavior. But of course that government is not a good fit for us, because our society is composed of mostly of people who are ethical, or at least not too unethical.

More interesting is the distinction between governments best suited for societies of adults and those best suited for societies of children. Of course I don’t mean to literally designate adults and children by the use of these terms. Rather I mean to point to a distinction between people who act as we tell children that adults should act, versus people who act as children in fact do act. An “adult” then, in this context, is someone who puts effort into learning about the world so as to make better choices, and who has other interests besides personal pleasure including, at the minimum, the wellbeing of other people and of society as a whole. A “child”, in contrast, is interested almost exclusively in their own happiness, and thus, as a consequence, spends little time learning about the world. By the terms I have picked it is clear that I disapprove of “children”, but to be honest that is more of a personal bias. I am not interested here in arguing that one is better, rather I intend just to examine what kinds of governments fit a society composed of them best. Every society contains a mix of both types of people, but here I am considering societies that contain significantly more of one than the other.

As I see it a society of adults is best suited to democracy. Democracy can be problematic, but only when voters are ignorant, vote exclusively with their self-interest in mind, and/or vote because of party loyalty instead of honest preference. But of course adults, so described, suffer from none of these problems. An adult makes for an excellent voter, they do their research on the issues and listen to the relevant experts rather than relying only on their own opinions. Also adults will often be unhappy in situations where they don’t have some say in government. Since they know that they are responsible it feels unfair to them if all the power is given to a small group of people.

Children, naturally, are ill suited to democracy. In a democracy they will simply vote themselves unhealthy amounts of ice cream. But what kind of government is best for them is a matter of debate. Some abhor any thought of “paternalistic” government, reasoning that people get what they deserve, but I have a hard time buying into that idea. So the problem then becomes to devise a government that keeps the power out of the hands of the mostly incompetent populace without opening the doors to tyranny. Representative democracy certainly isn’t the solution, since children will simply vote in whoever promises them the most ice cream. But neither is a benevolent monarchy, because we can’t guarantee that everyone who inherits the throne will be a good leader. My personal favorite solution is a meritocracy combined with a scheme in which power is divided, hopefully preventing any single individual from grabbing all the power and rewriting the rules. But I won’t pretend this is the only possible solution.

The question then arises: which are we, adults or children? Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but I think here at least (USA) the answer is children, a fact I blame on the consumer culture. Which of course sounds like an empty reason, since some people seem to blame the consumer culture for everything that goes wrong in the world, but I think in this case it is an honest complaint. In a capitalist economy it becomes necessary to encourage so-called artificial wants when technology reaches a certain point. You see, as technology becomes better it becomes possible to make extremely long lasting versions of all the basic goods that people need. Which means that people won’t be motivated to spend much money at that point. Of course they will spend some money on luxuries, but most people will focus only on one or two things (on their hobbies), and hence the spending they do will be limited. And that would be a disaster, because without customers businesses can’t make money, and so they would go under, or at least shrink in size, increasing unemployment and contracting the economy. To prevent this companies use advertising to make people want to buy more stuff, stuff that they otherwise wouldn’t necessarily want otherwise. Usually newer and more fashionable stuff to replace their old and unfashionable stuff. Unfortunately a byproduct of this is that it encourages people to be more self-centered, to care more about their material wants and less about everything else, essentially to encourage them to be children rather than adults. Is this bad? I withhold judgment. But it means that while democracy may have been the best fit for us at one point it no longer is, we either need to grow up again or change governments.

As a final note I would like to make a methodological observation, specifically about why this kind of analysis is likely to work (by this kind of analysis I mean thinking about the dispositions of the average agent and considering what kind of government would be best for them). Obviously if it is to work we must assume that most people share a common disposition; nothing interesting could be said using this kind of analysis about a society that was made up of a broad spectrum of people in equal proportion. However, we should expect there to usually be a dominant disposition, because most societies have a dominant culture, and every culture holds certain dispositions up as better than others. And this gives us the required homogeneity.

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