My last word on political philosophy (hopefully): chase no more

The fundamental question of politics concerns power: is power an end unto itself?

If it is, politics is fundamentally about managing power. It involves creating and managing social practices that determine who wields power and the extent to which they wield it. In principle, power could be exercised with an eye to true, good or best outcomes, but, so long as power is seen as an end unto itself, gaining, maintaining and exercising power will always trump the true, the good, or the best. Inevitably, this kind of politics is or will become authoritarian because any balance of power will always eventually be upset in favour of someone or some group.

If power is not an end unto itself, politics is fundamentally a form of inquiry. It involves creating social practices that have the best chance of identifying true, good, or best outcomes. It is unlikely that any set of social practices will always identify true, good, or best outcomes, but the shared commitment to social practices that aim for these kinds of outcomes can, nevertheless, justify abiding by outcomes even when we or others disagree with them. This kind of politics relies on both the expertise of the individual and the wisdom of the crowd.

In principle, we could empirically determine which of these two approaches to politics works best for human flourishing. In practice, however, people who think power is an end unto itself are little interested in empirical justification. For them, the experience of power is the most important consideration. It trumps all other considerations, including empirical evidence.

The human propensity to treat power as an end unto itself is, I think, the essential challenge of all politics. The authoritarian urge seems to be primordial, in an infantile sort of way, and can manifest itself in anyone and everyone, wherever they happen to fall on the conventional political spectrum. It also seems highly unlikely that there is any particular set of social practices that will exorcise the authoritarian urge from human existence. Instead, we must constantly work to correct, inhibit and contain it whenever and wherever it might emerge.

We must also accept that people who treat power as an end unto itself are not interested in facts, figures, argument or reason unless these are used to buttress their own power. Accordingly, it is appropriate, I think, to use power to contain or dispose of those who treat power as an end unto itself. However, if we are successful, we must be careful to remember that it does not prove that we are right and they are wrong. It only shows that we are sufficiently powerful to contain or dispose of those who would use power to contain or dispose of us, whatever the merits of our beliefs and values may be. A successful exercise of power proves nothing about the truth, value or merit of anyone’s beliefs. Might does not make right, even if it is our right that it serves.

*

At some point in their growth and development, all things being equal, most humans will be able to make effective judgments about most matters that relate to them. No person will always be right but no person will always be wrong either. Furthermore, between right and wrong, there will always be many different judgments a person can reach that, all things being equal, are reasonable even if they are not wholly correct or wholly wrong.

Similarly, when a majority of people who are effective judges independently reach the same conclusion about some state of affairs, all things being equal, the fact of that independently shared judgement is the best evidence we have that the conclusion is correct. We can’t say with absolute certainty that the conclusion is correct but, in most cases and as a general rule, we should tentatively accept that the conclusion is probably correct even if we or others disagree with it. At the same time, we should also accept that we may learn in the future that the conclusion is incorrect. That is simply the nature of inquiry, political or otherwise.

It is the interplay between the effective judgments of individuals and the wisdom of the crowd that drives and shapes any politics conceived as a form of inquiry. The ultimate aim is to develop social practices that make the most of both. Practically-speaking, this means we should expect our social practices to evolve and change over time. We must always be ready to propose and test new ideas, mechanisms, and institutions and we must give up on the idea that any one person or any one group of people can, could have or will ever identify the one and only true form of government for all time. To do otherwise is to simply give up on the hope that our understanding of the world and each other grows and evolves over time.

*

Politics does not only happen at the ballet box or when parliament is in session or between the commercials of the nightly news. It happens wherever we live, work and play. It happens whenever we decide together how we are going to live, work, and play. It happens wherever and whenever we answer in word and deed the question: is power an end unto itself?

Our answers shape our lives, our communities, our society.

*

It takes only a moment of reflection to realize that we live most of our lives in authoritarian communities, organizations and institutions.

We are born into families that are authoritarian. We are educated in institutions that are authoritarian. We work at jobs that are authoritarian. Our political system is run, administered and governed by authoritarian individuals, groups and institutions. Our economy too.

The habits and practices of politics are like any other. We learn from doing and, if authoritarianism is all we do, then, our politics are also authoritarian, whatever we might think of the ribbons and bows of periodic elections. Elections are also an instrument of authoritarianism.

*

I want to tell a noble lie. I want to claim that we need only conceive of politics as a form of inquiry to ensure everything will always work out well for everyone. Unfortunately, inquiry doesn’t work that way. We can make better or worse judgements based on the evidence, but there is nothing in and of itself that can definitively point the way to the best outcomes for all people for all time. There are no guarantees.

We also can’t avoid the use of power and there is always — always — a risk that we will abuse it, even when we use it judiciously and cautiously. Nothing can absolve us of the responsibility of the wrongs we may do even when we intend to do right. There are better and worse ways to avoid the abuse of power, but there is nothing in and of itself that will prevent all people for all time from abusing power. Again, there are no guarantees.

And, perhaps, after all these years, that is all political philosophy I need.

I suspect now that I may have wanted much more than that only because I also wanted there to be some kind of secular magic that would guarantee the best outcomes for all people for all time and that would also absolve me of any responsibility to attend to the unintended consequences of my well-intentioned actions. I suspect I also wanted to avoid the messy and uncertain business of winning friends, influencing people, and fighting enemies. I hoped also, I think, that I might bequeath to the world some magical words that would help solve all problems everywhere. I would then be free to enjoy the beauty of the day safe in the comfort that I had done all that I could to do to make the world a better place without ever breaking an egg, pulling a trigger or currying favour. I see now that I was chasing a chimera, a wild goose, and a dragon all in one.

*

I am suddenly reminded that my very first essay in political philosophy was written in grade eleven or, perhaps, grade twelve. It was a short paper that attempted to explain what Marx had meant by the notion that religion is “the opiate of the masses.” I don’t remember if I wrote anything noteworthy, but I do remember struggling to write the paper. I also remember enjoying very much the struggle to write it. I also received a good mark. It’s easy to imagine that the struggle and the reward made me feel important — perhaps, even special. It probably provided a heady rush of meaning, purpose, and distinction at a time of lonely adolescence. Like opiates everywhere, it soothed and it distracted and, like junkies everywhere, I remember that first fix with a mix of fondness, regret, and understanding.

It has been said before and it will be said again: “In my beginning is my end.”

Thesis Redux: The Competency of the Majority: Our Best Chance for the Best Society.

In July of 2005, I realized I was FUCKED! Capital F, capital U, capital C, capital K, capital E, Capital D, exclamation mark, FUCKED!

In six months, my funding would run out and I was expected to submit my PhD thesis. One problem: I had no thesis to submit.

Let me be clear: I was not FUCKED! because I had left everything to the last minute.

On the contrary. I had done a ridiculous amount of research, thinking, and writing. Unfortunately, after all that research, thinking, and writing, I was forced to conclude that contemporary political philosophy had gone down a blind alley.

John Rawls, a philosopher whose work I still admire, is credited with renewing an interest in political philosophy as a branch of moral philosophy. By the time I started studying political philosophy seriously, he had already begun to rethink that part of his work I would say is distinctively moral. By the time I was done thinking and writing about his rethinking, I realized that the moral part of his work was fundamentally flawed and so was the idea of a distinctively moral political philosophy.

To put it as simply as possible: if we don’t think it’s appropriate or effective to use the one true religious morality to organize society, why would it be appropriate or effective to employ any other kind of one true morality? Fortunately and unfortunately, I managed to make my point in a single chapter that would eventually become a peer reviewed article.

And I still had the damn thesis to write.

I thought very seriously about calling it quits then and there. Clearly, my philosophical journey had come to an end and, unfortunately, I hadn’t yet managed to produce a thesis. Mix into my malaise a whole lot of discontent about the university system and it didn’t seem to me like there was much point in finishing the thesis.

But then, for some reason, I thought about all the people who had supported me over the years with their encouragement and letters of recommendation and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I owed it to them to do my best to finish a thesis and submit it. Fuck.

So, I went to work, refashioning what I had produced up to that point. I had learned, during my extended tarry in university, that the tenor, tone, and point of a paper — and thus presumably a thesis — could be completely changed with only a few key revisions. After some gnashing of teeth, some pounding of head against wall, and several false starts, I stumbled upon my first good — and, in retrospect, totally obvious — idea.

The Government of Canada had provided me with fists full of cash to undertake my research and, thoughtfully, they had forced me to write down what I intended to do with that money in order to get it. I thought, “hey, I might as well produce the work I promised to produce five years ago”. I dug up my one page outline and it looked feasible. At least, I now had a plan of action.

Then, I had my second good idea. If I was correct to think that contemporary political philosophy had gone down a blind alley and if I was correct to think that I didn’t really want to become a part of the university system, I had absolutely nothing to lose by thinking big. If I was going to fail, I might as well go down in flames.

So, I rearranged the work I had done in such a way that it allowed me to do some good old fashioned first philosophy. That’s right, I decided to get all Rene Descartes up in here. I would assume nothing, start from scratch, and reason my way to the best approach to society’s organization.

Then, I had my third good idea. No more hobby horses! If you are going to start fresh, I said to myself, start fresh!

Because I had arrived at political philosophy via my fretting about the the existence of God and via my fretting about the nature of truth, I was predisposed to look askance at anyone who talked about truth, knowledge, and certainty. As a result, I had more or less ignored a vein of work in contemporary philosophy that had reexamined Condorcet’s Jury Theorem, which [take a breath!] demonstrates mathematically that a majority decision based on the independent judgments of a sufficiently large number of sufficiently competent persons is the best estimation of which of two or more proposed courses of action is the best available, and [breathe!] it was this theorem that would eventually be the keystone of my thesis.

I can’t say when I realized the theorem was the keystone of my thesis because I was coming to understand the theorem — and the new work on it — as I worked on the whole of the thesis. Six months of almost non-stop work later and contrary to my own expectations, I managed to submit a thesis. I even managed to submit the damn thing a few days early.

All in all, I was pretty satisfied with the thesis I submitted, however, I had included a lot of material simply because it was a thesis being submitted for a degree. There are certain expectations of what a PhD thesis is meant to look like and I dutifully met them. Then, to get my thesis past my examining committee, I dutifully added even more material. As a result, the document that was eventually accepted, bound, and deposited as my thesis, from my perspective, was unnecessarily bloated. I resolved to cut it down to a size that accords with my philosophical aesthetic rather than the one dominant in academic culture.

And, finally, after many fits and starts, I did!

And here it is, if you care to read it, distributed round about the sixth anniversary of when I first submitted it — the end of January 2006. Holy fuck! Has it really been six years?

After reading and rereading the text over these last few weeks, there are for me two lingering concerns.

First, the writing is a bit tortured and is, I think, characteristic of someone who spent far too much of his life earning “A’s” to pay the bills. If I had more patience, I would rewrite it word for word but, ultimately, my goal has been to create a text that is more like the version I would have submitted if I hadn’t had to meet the expectations of the academic community and, unfortunately for the courageous reader, that’s just the way I wrote back then. And still do sometimes, I will admit.

Second, and more importantly, in the years since completing the thesis, I’ve come to take much more seriously the idea that we human primates have a hard time thinking and acting independently. I still think that the level of independent thinking required for Condorcet’s theorem is possible and even feasible, but I now recognize that it is pretty tough for most people to think, judge, and act independently most of the time. We are, after all, tribal primates and it is, I think, the struggle between independent judgement and tribal groupthink that — for both good and for evil — is the engine of human history.

If you have the time and inclination to read The Competency of the Majority: Our Best Chance for the Best Society, I welcome all questions and comments. I should also say, if you read only the fairly short introduction and conclusion, you will pretty much get the gist of it.

Download The Competency of the Majority: Our Best Chance for the Best Society