Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Opinions and Inquiry

Chris Dillow argues against opinion as "just prejudice". This is why raw 'public opinion' is not the proper foundation for democracy. It has no normative significance; the mere fact that people believe something tells us nothing about what is true or ought to be done.

Similarly, a liberal education is not just about enabling students to express themselves. (As Chris says, "Selves aren't interesting." I'd disagree, but it's true enough in these contexts, at least.) Rather, what's interesting is intellectual inquiry. Students should be encouraged to draw their own conclusions, not because any belief will be magically "validated" by the mere fact of their holding it, but because thinking for yourself is the way to develop your rational discernment. The take-home item of value here is not the 'opinion' one forms, so much as the reasons that led to it -- and, even more, the discernment that enables one to appreciate these.

If there is to be a positive case for democracy (as opposed to simply showing it to be less bad than every alternative), it cannot rest simply on 'one man, one vote'. To have all opinions count equally in the tally is a feeble sort of equality, given the general worthlessness of opinions anyway. But to be granted an equal opportunity to participate in democratic inquiry -- to seek, offer and assess reasons in deliberation about the common good -- now that's something worth getting excited about!

At least, that's my opinion.


  1. How would you evaluate the weight of an individual's opinion? And would weighting votes matter in an election?

    Example: I volunteer with a local film society, proposing film series and voting on what the next quarter's calendar is going to be. We've been doing some experimentation to see how votes should proceed in a way that both maximizes the democratic process and the financial interest of the club.
    An interesting thing occurred at the last programming vote. We broke with the procedure of past votes, and went with a 22 point system--all 22 programming members who showed up for the vote had exactly one "point" per choice, with eight choices in total (one film per day, one double screening per week). In the past senior members with more responsibility in rentals and shipping as well as general film knowledge had more weight to their vote. But as this particular procedure turned out, the egalitarian vote aligned nicely with the senior members' choices (the voting wasn't "secret").
    So, if the rabble ends up making the same or similar choices as the cognoscenti, then how are weighted votes justified? This might be a badly formulated question, but I think you get the gist.

    On the side, as far as inquiry goes, the USA at least does an abysmal job educating its citizens equally.

  2. Richard,

    I can't tell if we agree or disagree.

    I certainly agree that we should be much more excited about participating in political inquiry--to seek, offer and assess reasons in deliberation about the common good--than in political involvement in the form of a single vote, a 200 millionth of a say.

    But why democratic?

    Is democracy the form of government that maximizes this form of political inquiry (or the capability of this inquiry? I have my doubts.

    For one, it seems that we can seek, offer and assess reasons in deliberation about the common good under any governmental style.

    For two, perhaps because I am a US-guy, I have a sense that democracy leads to a rather widespread political maliase--that citizens in different governmental styles often have greater political vigor and excercise their political inquiry to higher degrees.

  3. I agree that "opinion" does not provide a proper foundation for democracy, but is the "equal opportunity to participate in democratic inquiry" sufficient to ground democracy if we can be sure that most people will not make the effort to engage in that inquiry? And would this, if it were a fact, militate against the advocacy of democracy? I guess that what I'm trying to get at is this: If we try to ground democracy on the notion that it gives people an opportunity for inquiry that most will never take advantage of, then aren't we back at square one, since now whatever it is that makes the providing of that sort of opportunity somehow "better" than not providing it (whether people avail themselves of it nor not) will itself be the ground of democracy?

  4. Interesting comments!

    Jared - To clarify, I don't oppose equal weighting of votes. (It seems less bad than the alternatives.) I just think other features of a democracy (e.g. public debate) are more important. I also agree that there's plenty of room for improvement here.

    Jack - I see 'democracy' as a fairly loose term that invokes ideals of public participation in politics. So our (potential) disagreement may be merely semantic. Can you say a bit more about what "different governmental styles" you have in mind?

    Eric - I find it hard to predict how people would respond to a real democracy, but there's some evidence to suggest that they would be less "apathetic" (suggesting that our present malaise is really more a matter of disillusionment than apathy). For example, ordinary people selected to participate in "Citizens' Juries" left with a very positive impression of the process. I would like to see more such experiments in deliberative democracy. They could, in time, change the political culture.

  5. Richard-Come to think of it; the vote in the example I gave was proceeded by a large amount of discussion that I took for granted. That discussion surely influenced the outcome. In addition, everyone voting was committed to the project and wanted to make the best choice.

    Jack-It's probable that the malaise you speak of in our country--and I'm sure in all democracies--is due to the fact that politicians spend most of the time trying to trick voters into making decisions. It's not always a bad decision were tricked into making, i.e., global warming, where the scientific data 95% of us do not research is forced onto our consciousness by "information campaigns." But there are plenty of bad decisions we're tricked into, i.e., the suspension of habeas corpus.

    If I may answer for Jack, "different governmental styles" may be that mirage that arises from imbalanced debate; one is lead to believe that my opinion differs from yours fundamentally in such a way that one has to choose either R, or D (and heaven forbid you make the wrong choice!)

  6. Isn't there something to the old joke about Democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others? The problem is that folks keep trying to justify Democracy on its own terms as a kind of inherent good. I suspect one just as to justify it as compared to any alternative.

  7. My question was more hypothetical, and not really concerned with the emprical question, "would people in a 'real' democracy be less apathetic and more engaged." I was more interested in whether we could still defend democracy on the ground that it "provides an equal opportunity to engage in democratic inquiry" if we knew that most people wouldn't avail themselves of that opportunity. Of course, in any democratic society participation in public life will vary with the times (it usually seems to vary inversely with the satifaction of the people with their society or government), but if we could be certain that over time most people wouldn't take part in the inquiry for which democracy provides the opportunity, could we still defend democracy on the ground that it provides such an opportunity for inquiry?

  8. Ahkay, thanks for the clarification. It's a tricky question. I guess it depends on why the people are choosing not to participate. Certain barriers -- lack of time, education, etc. -- may cast doubt on the claim that any genuine "opportunity" exists here for them after all. But if it's a simple lack of interest, such that they don't care how their society turns out, then perhaps their non-participation is for the best. At least on first thought, I'm inclined to think that a good democracy need only to ensure that anyone who wants to participate in political inquiry can do so. What do you consider the main problems for such a view?

  9. Richard,

    My thoughts were muddled above. I was wondering two things. First, I didn't understand how you get from the goodness of political inquiry to democracy rather than communism, monarchy or some other style of government. This could be terminological.

    Second, I was confusedly asking whether political inquiry is good even in the absence of any political influence. Whether, for instance, in a country where the citizens have zero political influence, it is still good for them to engage in politial inquiry (or whether their political inquiry is still good). We certainly can imagine a country where the citizens have not political influence but have the means and eduation to engage in really meaningful and interesting discussion about the common good.

    My thought is this. I thought your point was interesting that political inquiry is far more exciting (and really, in my view, better) than political invovlement or political influence (at least in the form of voting). It would be interesting, however, if political influence were a precondition to the goodness of political inquiry. I have some intuition that it is. do you have any intuition in this area?

  10. Oh, I see! That is a neat issue. Here's a thought: political inquiry is supposed to be a form of practical deliberation, aimed at answering the question: 'What shall we (as a society) do?' The outcome of such practical reasoning is not a belief (as in theoretical reasoning), but rather an intention or action. Unempowered citizens, then, cannot do this.

    Having said that, they could still engage in some closely-related theoretical reasoning, say towards the question 'what is it that society ought to do?' This sort of reasoning could culminate in an inert belief, so even the disempowered can do it. But this is arguably a poor cousin of the truly practical deliberation mentioned above. (Hard question: 'Why?')

  11. "'What shall we (as a society) do?"

    Probably off topic but when I see this sort of question I always wonder what sort of answer is appropriate...

    I mean if someone says "there are theives what shall we do" - the easy answer is "stop robbing eachother"
    then there is the more common "get a thousand more police"
    or "stage a protest in favour of more police"
    and last of all "apply to become a policeman"

    the latter and possibly the one before are in our power as individuals the first few probably aren't.


  12. Right, a distinctively political decision (in this context) is a more 'collective' one, say about how to shape our public institutions, laws, state budgeting, etc. -- with the aim of improving incentives for each of us to make good (socially beneficial) decisions as individuals.

  13. Some issues really are matters of opinion.

    "Should Oahu develop its north shore more or leave it as a park?"

    There's no way to answer that question objectively. Accordingly, it should be left to the will of the majority.

    There's a difference between "aims" and "means." Democracy is a terrible way to decide means, since what is the best way to do X is an objective question. On the other hand, democracy is the only fair way to decide aims, since why else should we do something unless it helps achieve an aim of the people?


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