Jan 30, 2011

Philosophy and How to Live a Meaningful Life

This discussion at Leiter Reports seems to me to miss the point entirely. The question under discussion is whether contemporary philosophy addresses the question of how to live a meaningful life. There was general agreement that it does, with works like Nagel's Mortal Questions, Susan Wolf's Meaning in Life and Why it Matters, Thomas Hurka's The Best Things in Life, and Frankfurt's The Importance of What We Care About being cited as evidence for that claim. While those works do concern how to live a meaningful life, there are two points worth bearing in mind.

First, many of the books on this question are written by philosophers who are fairly late in their careers. Wolf's, Frankfurt's, and Hurka's were published in their late 50's. Nagel goes against the trend, as Mortal Questions appeared in 1979 when he was 42. One explanation for this is that interest in this topic has picked up in the past few decades, and older philosophers are generally more likely to publish books than younger philosophers. Another possibility is that this may not be a 'safe' topic, relative to others; it would then be more likely to be written about by philosophers with already established careers. I suspect that there's some truth in both of these suggestions.

Second, there's a deeper point here. While these books certainly deal with the issue of what a meaningful life consists in, it is less clear that they are aimed at answering how such a life, once identified as good or meaningful, can be lived. It may be that there is not much to say about the latter, or at least not much philosophers can say; maybe it is a question for psychologists. It is quite misleading, however, to suggest that only doing the first thing is sufficient. Some philosophers, including some of those with Wittgensteinian sympathies, have written about philosophy as therapy, so this is certainly not a matter that has been ignored by the discipline. Whether or not contemporary philosophy adequately addresses this question-- how to live a meaningful life, once we identify what such a life consists in-- is to my mind an open question, and one well worth pursuing.

Jan 24, 2011

The fallacy of the deciding vote

There is an obvious fallacy that is repeated by people who should really know better, including political philosophers:  the fallacy of the deciding vote.

For example, Thomas Christiano writes in Rule of the Many (25-26): "In the democratic case I am free to choose between two outcomes when my vote is the deciding one. The trouble with this argument is that this condition is virtually never satisfied. In large democratic societies, the winning option almost never wins by less than a thousand votes or so. In those cases, my vote does not decide the issue. Since I rarely, if ever, cast the deciding vote I will virtually never be free to choose the outcome."

Do you see the fallacy? The fallacious reasoning looks like this:
(1) There is an election in which the margin of victory is, say, one vote.
(2) There is one particular vote (e.g. "my" vote) that decided the election.

But (2) doesn't follow from (1) at all! (1) only implies that for any vote given to the winning side, subtracting that vote would change the outcome. But there is no one vote such that it is true of it and only it that removing it would change the outcome. (The only exceptions are votes of 1-1 or 1-0.)

No matter how large or small the election, with the two exceptions just noted, no one casts the deciding vote. You see the fallacy of the deciding vote from academic works on political philosophy to Hollywood films like Swing Vote, in which Kevin Costner's character "decides" the election. It's a popular fallacy, but not less the fallacious for being so.

As for why people are tempted by the fallacy, I think media coverage of elections in recent years plays a part. Turn on CNN during an election and you find exit polling data-- e.g., with 95% of districts reporting, Obama is favored 52% to 48%-- suggesting that the earlier votes somehow matter less than the later votes, with the later votes "deciding" the election. I imagine it'd be less tempting to perpetrate this fallacy in an age where elections were simply reported in the newspaper.

Democracy: Intrinsically or instrumentally valuable?

When we distinguish political activity narrowly construed from political activity in a broad sense, we can give an interesting argument that democracy lacks intrinsic value. Or so I will argue in this post.


First, a quick recap of my last post. I gave an argument against the view that a policy's being democratically selected by a majority gives citizens a reason to endorse or follow the policy. The argument left open an instrumental view of democracy's value, however: on this view, democracy is valuable insofar as it instantiates goods such as justice, equality, or liberty, promotes the common good, etc., and any other system that did so just as well would be just as valuable and give citizens just as much reason to follow the policies enacted by the system. It also left open a view on which a supermajoritarian democracy has intrinsic value.


Now I want to suggest that we should doubt any view, majoritarian or supermajoritarian, according to which democracy has intrinsic value. We begin by distinguishing what I will call narrow political activity from political activity in a broad sense. I'm involved in narrow political activity when I do things like vote, run for office, and exercise the official capacities of an elected position. Broad political activity, on the other hand, includes the whole panoply of ways in which citizens exert influence in the civic realm: writing op-ed pieces, spouting off on talk radio shows or in town hall meetings, arguing with neighbors, helping one's children learn virtues of justice and prudence, being a good (or bad) example for others in one's community, and so on. All these things, and many more besides, are in a sense political activity, but they go far beyond narrow political activity. 


I can now introduce a dilemma. Either the intrinsic value of democracy includes only narrow political activity, or it also includes broad political activity. (The normative significance of a majority or supermajority selecting a policy has to come from somewhere. Does it come from the fact that citizens voted for it? Or do other ways in which they influence the choice of policy matter?) The first option draws a sharp normative boundary between narrow and broad political activity: the former is valuable in a way the latter is not. I cannot begin to imagine an argument that could justify this, especially when one considers that it's very often the case that broad political activity is more influential than narrow political activity. Paul Krugman and Ross Douthat have far more political influence through their New York Times columns than by voting in presidential elections. A similar point probably holds for most of us as well. We have more influence by just talking with friends and neighbors than we do by marking a ballot. So much, then, for the first option.


The second option is also problematic. Suppose that both narrow and broad political activity are intrinsically valuable. This in itself does not seem problematic to me, but it does seem to loosen the connection between the value of political activity and the value of democracy. Broad political activity is of course possible in any political system, provided it allows a sufficient degree of First Amendment type freedoms. Maybe democracies are better at protecting such freedoms, but that's irrelevant since we're asking about the intrinsic value of democracy. If broad political activity is intrinsically valuable and (in principle) possible in any political system, its value does not in any way ground the intrinsic value of democracy. The sole ground for democracy's intrinsic value must then be narrow political activity. As I argued above, however, that position is indefensible given that it draws an inexplicable contrast between broad political activity as intrinsically valueless and narrow political activity as intrinsically valued. 


Both options, then, have been found wanting. Whether the democracy is question is majoritarian or supermajoritarian, the claim that such a system has intrinsic value must be rejected. We thus have an even stronger argument than given in the last post. If democracy has value, it must have it instrumentally.

Jan 20, 2011

A problem for majoritarian democracy

Does the mere fact that a democratic majority chooses a policy provide citizens of the democracy with a reason for endorsing or following the policy, or must that justification come from the fact that the policy embodies certain goods like justice or equality? I will argue that there is a strong reason to reject the first option, a reason that has surprisingly little to do with political philosophy at all.

Let's give the view under attack a name.
Majoritarianism: The mere fact that a policy is democratically selected by a majority gives citizens a reason to endorse or follow the policy.
When I say the policy is democratically selected, I mean to imply that the ordinary democratic requirements of universal and equal suffrage are met, that the election was not rigged, and so on.

To show the problem with majoritarianism, I need first to introduce a result that Philip Pettit discusses in his 2006 Analysis article, "When to defer to majority testimony—and when not": majorities can endorse a set of inconsistent propositions, even when none of the individuals in the majority holds an inconsistent set of propositions. This is easy to see from an example Pettit gives (p. 83):
“Take three people, A, B and C, and consider how the majority judgements might go on three simple propositions, p, q, and p&q. A and B may support p, with C against; B and C may support q, with A against; and so, if they are individually rational, A and C will reject p&q, with only B in favour. A majority will support p, a majority q, and a majority not-p&q. A majority will support a semantically inconsistent set of propositions. And this will be so, despite the fact that each of the members of the group has a perfectly consistent set of beliefs.”

When we translate Pettit's example into the political sphere, we conclude from majoritarianism that each citizen has a reason to endorse or follow policies p, q, and not-p&q, when those policies are democratically selected by a majority. This is contradictory. The same result does not affect supermajoritarian views, such as this one:
Supermajoritarianism: The mere fact that a policy is democratically selected by a sufficiently large supermajority gives citizens a reason to endorse or follow the policy.

One complication with the case is that legislatures don't usually enact contradictory policies. (This may be true at one time but obviously false historically. Prohibition, for instance, was enacted and then repealed.) But this really doesn't matter. Majoritarianism cannot plausibly limit itself to what is actually democratically selected (which could be thwarted by some catastrophe that prevents a vote from taking place), but rather what a majority of the legislators actually favors. As we learn from Pettit, this can be contradictory.

A further complication: Pettit suggests that the problem affects only beliefs that are connected to others. Political beliefs are presumably paradigmatic examples of embedded beliefs, however, so this is not a point that undermines my argument.

Finally, one might object that the contradictory cases are rare or non-existent in practice. This is irrelevant, however, since the question concerns what normative significance they would have were they to occur.

The moral is that majoritarianism, as I've defined it, fails. An instrumental version of majoritarianism would escape the argument, since presumably contradictory positions cannot instantiate any substantive goods like justice. Supermajoritarianism is probably wrong as well, but that's a separate question.