Thursday, September 12, 2019


Didn't intend to write this.

Intended to write about Christopher Robin.

Wrote this instead.

If you want to read the beginning of the argument, which I wouldn't recommend, it is in the comment section beneath my piece about coups and referenda.

S.K is arguing that if you are not going to obey a referendum there is no point in having one; and that indeed going against a referendum involves a patronizing disregard for the opinions of ordinary people.

I invoked a famous play by Ibsen as a counter example.

The play is set in a beach resort. In Norway. At the beginning of the play, a pretty girl is eaten by a shark. The chief of police, having consulted with all the top shark experts, decides to close the beach, because the shark is bound to strike again. But the people of the town, who make their living selling ice cream and running hotels, have a meeting, and the democratic will of the people determines that the pretty girl probably wasn't eaten by a shark, or that if she was, there is no reason to think that the shark will come back, and that if it does, it is almost certainly a vegan shark. The police chief obeys the will of the people and the next morning a little boy becomes the shark's dinner.

This leads the police child to his famous conclusion:

“The majority never has right on its side. Never, I say! Who is it that constitute the majority of the population in a country? Is it the clever folk, or the stupid? I don't imagine you will dispute the fact that at present the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over. But, good lord! — you can never pretend that it is right that the stupid folk should govern the clever ones.”

There is also syphilis. And an excellent score by John Williams. Or possibly Edvard Grieg.

Now read on:

The proposition is "we must always obey the voice of the people". Once you have had a plebiscite you have to obey it otherwise there was no point in having a plebiscite in the first place and democracy falls.

This is currently the only argument being made for Brexit. No-one any longer pretends that there is any practical case for Brexit. The only argument anyone is making for Brexit is the democratic principal

Ibsen's story about the shark is an example of a trolley problem—a concrete ethical dilemma intended to interrogate a supposed moral principal.

Lots of people say that they believe in "the greatest happiness to the greatest number". We have to act like the sailor who found that both his remaining ships' biscuits had been nibbled by disgusting insects, and chose the lessor of two weevils.

But it turns out that if you give them a concrete example, a lot of people no longer chose the utilitarian path. Suppose you are the signalman on a railway and suppose that a train-full of children is hurtling towards a cliff edge. As signalman, you can move the points and divert the train onto a different track. But unfortunately a pretty lady has been chained to the other track by her wicked uncle, the Hooded Claw, who wants to steal her inheritance.

Do you pull the lever?

Most people answer "no". They think that if they were actually in that position they would rather do nothing and let the kids die than do something and directly cause the death of the pretty lady.

This doesn't prove that utilitarianism is wrong, exactly but it does prove that at some deeper level most people are deontologists.

"Oh, but as a matter of fact, a German officer is not in the process of raping my grandmother."

"But as a matter of fact I am not the acting Captain of a Star Fleet vessel, and my best friend has not been taken over by the Borg collective, so the question doesn't arise.

"No, you are mistaken, I have never been down the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and even if I have I certainly have never seen an injured man lying by the wayside, so it's a silly question".

"I have never stolen a loaf of bread in my life, and so far as I know there is no-one living who is my exact double and even if there is they are certainly not in any danger of being sent to the galleys in my place. It seems like a very unlikely set of circumstances, if you ask me."

Well, quite. But hypothetical questions are interesting precisely because they are hypothetical.

In Ibsen’s scenario Roy Schieder has to decide between acting on his own convictions and on the advise of experts and closing the shark-invested beach or following the democratically expressed will of the people and allowing it to remain open. I asked SK what they would have done in the police chief's situation and they wouldn't answer.

I deemed that "not answering the question" was the same as "not pulling the lever". The beach is left open. A small boy is eaten by a shark. 

What follows from this?

Should we say "The policeman did a bad thing by obeying the will of the people: he should have ignored it and done what the experts told him and what he personally believed was right."

Or should we rather say "The policeman did a good thing by obeying the will of the people because the will of the people is always to be obeyed without question. It is better that one child be eaten than that the will of the whole people be circumvented."

Do we say "We should obey the will of the people even though it is clearly stark raving mad. The law which says 'obey referenda' overrides the one which says 'prevent children from being eaten by sharks'."

Or do we say "We should obey the will of the people because as a matter of fact, the people can never be wrong or mistaken. The fact that the people want a thing is sufficient evidence that the thing is right, and if the facts say otherwise than the facts are undemocratic."

SPOILER: Everyone knows that we will in practice go with the last option. The people voted to let the little boy go swimming. The people are always right. It follows that there was no shark. It follows that no child was killed. Richard Dreyfuss was engaged in project fear. The dead boy is Fake News. The body you saw being pulled out of the water was a crisis actor. This is literally what would happen and what is already happening. That is the world we are now living in. That is the inevitable result of blind allegiance to the people's will.

Of course, Ibsen's conclusion that majorities are always wrong is not literally true. If it were then you could infallibly arrive at the right decision in all cases by having a vote and going along with the minority view. I don't think that is workable. In a multiple choice question, would you go with the second most popular option, or would you go with the option which had least votes? Or do you look at what the majority votes for and do the opposite? And anyway, pretty soon, people would be smart enough to work the system and refrain from voting for the position they agreed with. Like when Miles Morales deliberately got 0% in a test and the teacher realized that the only way of doing that was by knowing all the correct answers.

Anyway, the claim is not that the majority is always wrong, only that it is never right.

So: the example of the shark establishes that it is morally justifiable to disobey the will of the people when the will of the people is fucking stupid. (This would also apply in the case of, say, a health spa where the water was infected with tuberculosis. Just saying.) That is: there is at least one circumstance in which the will of the people should not be obeyed. So the proposition "the will of the people must always be obeyed" falls: the most we can say is that the will of the people must usually be obeyed, or that it must be obeyed except in the most exceptional circumstances, or in short that the will of the people must sometimes be obeyed and sometimes not.

So, very boringly, the question becomes "how do we find out that if this is one those cases where the will of the people should be disregarded?". And the boring answer is "By looking at the evidence; by asking hard questions of the experts; by applying our innate moral judgement and whatever moral authorities we believe in; by discussing it in great forensic detail in a committee or a court room."

A long time ago, about last Tuesday, none of this would have been necessary. We would not have had to introduce sharks and TB infested water and out of control trolley cars into the question. We would merely have pointed out that referenda would not have approved the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the extension of the franchise to women, or the abolition of hanging. In those far off days, no-one would have dreamed of saying that we should have carried on locking up gay people on general democratic principles. At least, no one worth paying any attention to. Nowadays populism is all the rage and it is only a matter of time before someone says that it was undemocratic of Wilberforce to abolish the slave trade until this drastic step had been approved by the will of the people as expressed in a referendum.

Interestingly enough, SK says that the hyper emotive question of capital punishment is one which it would be sensible and reasonable to put to a referendum. And indeed, people who like strangling people have been saying for sixty years, very probably correctly, that a referendum on the subject would result in a pro-strangling majority.

It seems to me that this is a desperately bad augment and demonstrates the exact problem why referenda are never a good idea.

Capital punishment, simply as such, does not exist. What exists are particular laws and constitutions which allow people to strangle other people under certain specific circumstances. If you repealed the 2001 Human Rights act and restored the death penalty for high treason, piracy, naval sabotage and impersonating a Chelsea pensioner, then you would have "brought back" capital punishment. If you repealed the 1963 murder act and restored the death penalty for five specific and rare categories of murder, you would have "brought back capital punishment". The state of California has capital punishment: it asphyxiates serial killers at the rate of about one a decade. China has the death penalty: it thinks nothing of shooting several hundred people for tax evasion and corruption every Monday before breakfast. A certain vocal minority of Boris Johnson's supporters thinks that Remain voters should be hanged, specifically from lampposts. (Which seems a little impractical. They ought to watch that film with Timothy Spall.)

So: you can't simply have a referendum on "capital punishment". So far as I can see you have two options. Either your referendum says "the next time the government reconsiders the criminal justice laws, do you give them permission to consider strangulation as one possible criminal penalty for certain crimes?" The government would then go away and look at all the arguments in favour of capital punishment, of which there are none, and say "We've had a very good look at this, but we've decided that the present system of life without parole being the worst possible punishment is working just fine."

The other option is for the government to have the long, boring discussion first, and to come up with a parliamentary bill which includes strangulation as one of the options. They could then ask the public to approve or disapprove of that specific law. So the question is not "in a general way, would you be okay with us occasionally strangling someone?". It would be more like "do you endorse section 53 of the criminal justice (strangulation) bill?".

I understand that this is how the Irish system works. They don't take a popularity poll. ("Gay marriage—love it or hate it?") They say "Here is a new law that the government has written, which changes the definition of marriage in the following way, with lots of dull small print about divorce and adoption and inheritance. Do you endorse or reject this new law?"

Now, the Irish system has the advantage of not being obviously insane. But legislation is by definition long, boring and difficult to understand: so you are asking Seamus Public to endorse or reject something he has probably not read. The MPs have spent hours and weeks and months in committees listening to evidence from lawyers and psychologists and people who have been murdered, and gone through the law with a fine-tooth comb to make sure that every single word makes legal sense. How is it sensible to give people who were not at the meetings the final say?

And then what happens next? Suppose the motion put before the Popular Will is, in effect, "go through Criminal Justice laws; delete 'life imprisonment'; replace with 'death sentence'." Does this bind all judges for the rest of time to hand down death sentences where they would previously have sent people to jail? If a judge hands down a lessor sentence, or accepts a plea of mitigation, or if the Queen or the Home Secretary commute a sentence, is the Daily Hate within its rights to say "Traitor! Enemy of the People! Hanging Means Hanging!" And what about five or ten years down the line? After the tenth or twentieth innocent person has been strangled? Is the government of the day entitled to say "we've looked at the evidence, this isn't working, we are going back to how we were before and sending murderers to prison"? Is the Daily Hate not allowed to say "the people gave you a one off irrevocable instruction to start strangling people: if you go against it you are an enemy of the people!"

Enemy of the People is the title of the play about the shark, incidentally, although most experts now think "a public enemy" is a better translation. There's also one with a duck in it.

There is more.

SK says that the question of capital punishment could reasonably be put to a public vote because it is a question without a correct answer. It depends on fundamental moral values, apparently. 

This is of course exactly what people who are on the losing side of an argument always say. No-one ever says "Oh, I am afraid I just have a gut feeling that the world is round and there is no way you can convince me otherwise, nor should you want to. We will just have to agree to differ." It is Tony Blair, when his positive case for invading Iraq falls apart, who says "I just happen to kinda feel sincerely that killing Saddam is the right thing to do, and only God can judge me." It is David Cameron when he has exhausted the sensible arguments in favour of first-past-the-post elections who says "This is not the kind of question that you can answer rationally. I just know deep in my heart that single transferable vote is unBritish".

I reject the idea that one's support for or opposition to capital punishment necessarily rest on unarguable moral assumptions. I think that one can demonstrate that capital punishment is wrong in principal and useless in practice by the use of logic, evidence, moral principles, and common sense. Hanging enthusiasts would doubtless wish to point out flaws in my logic, challenge my evidence, and cast doubt on my moral principles: this precisely proves the point that it is the sort of question about which you can have an argument. (It was Prof Lewis's go-to example of "a question on which good people can disagree", a thing which is "not certainly right, but not certainly wrong either".)

It may perhaps be true that some people maintain their support for or opposition to capital punishment regardless of the arguments one way or the other. This may be what SK means by "fundamental moral values". One guy says "I know that capital punishment has no tendency to reduce the murder rate; is more expensive than prison to administer; and will certainly result in the killing of many innocent people; but I don't really care, I just kinda like the idea of bad people getting strangled." The other guy says "I know that natural justice and retribution are sound moral principles; I accept that some people are so wicked that they will never reform and I concede that killing someone is hardly less cruel than incarcerating them for life, but I don't really care, the idea of the state employing someone to ritually strangle other people disgusts and appalls me." If anything, these are aesthetic premises rather than moral ones. I think that killing someone in cold blood is ugly; you think that the suffering of a bad person is beautiful.

You might, I suppose, go a stage further and say that all of our so-called-arguments are really only ever post-hoc justifications for our aesthetic preferences. You say that you are concerned with deterring crime, but really, you just have a gut level liking for hanging people. I say I am concerned with the possibility of killing an innocent person, but really, I am just squicked out by the idea of executions. It might even be that all arguments are like that. We just as well abandon all that pesky evidence and logic and vote with our guts.

That's another reason why referenda are so dangerous. In order to justify them we have to reduce complicated questions to gut feelings and then say that gut feeling are the only feelings which matter.

I think this country has had quite enough of experts.

I agree with A. J Ayer that moral questions can't be answered in a vacuum. The question "Is capital punishment right or wrong?" is literally meaningless: you have to ask "Is capital punishment right or wrong according to Christian morality?" or "according to the universal declaration of human rights?" or "according to the principle of the greatest good to the greatest number?" So it might be that after carefully weighing up all the pros and cons we find that I am opposed to capital punishment because I am a Christian, and you support capital punishment because you are a utilitarian. But it doesn't follow that no communication is possible and we might just as well have a straw poll and find out whether my lot outnumber your lot. We could have a grown-up discussion about whether our present constitution requires us to base our decisions on Christian or Utilitarian principles; and if that fails; about how we decide which set of principles should be enshrined in the constitution; and whether that is itself an ethical question, and so on "back to the original and highly controversial creation of the universe".

But perhaps there are "beliefs" which are even deeper and holier and more axiomatic than "I am a Christian", "I am an humanitarian", "I am a Tottenham Hotspur supporter." Perhaps we are looking for a unified field theory of morals. If you say "Anyone who has killed anyone else must be killed", I can say "And why do you think that?" If I say "No-one should kill anyone else under any circumstances", you can say "And what would happen if everyone agreed with you?" Perfectly good questions with perfectly good answers. As long as you can carry on asking questions, you haven't got to a first principle. Why is the sky blue? Because of the way the atmosphere refracts the visible spectrum. Why does the atmosphere refract the visible spectrum in that way? Because of the chemical properties of the gases which it is composed of. Why is the atmosphere composed of those gasses...

But if we keep digging for long enough, perhaps we will discover some fundamental bottom level gut
level archetypal irreducible heartfelt foundational beliefs that can never change or be questioned. Maybe it is like, I don't know, gender, or your True Name: a thing which is part of you on the inside and which no one else can know or challenge. The Bishop of Woolworths talked about The Ground of Our Being and said that these irreducible heartfelt foundation beliefs are what we are really talking about when we talk about God. And perhaps your fundamental bottom level gut level archetypal irreducible heartfelt foundational beliefs are different from my fundamental bottom level gut level archetypal irreducible heartfelt foundational beliefs. Perhaps my FBLGLAIHFB says that what is ultimately of value is Freedom. And perhaps your FBLGLAIHFB says that what is ultimately of value are Extensive Collections of Different Varieties of Rare and Exotic Newts.

Newts versus freedom.

Freedom versus newts.

Across such a chasm there can be no further communication.

Whereof we cannot speak thereof we should be silent.

I'm done.

I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn.

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  1. "This would also apply in the case of, say, a health spa where the water was infected with tuberculosis. Just saying."


  2. Thanks. I am pleased at least one person understands my nonsense.

  3. In, the shark example, there are a number of technocratic questions: is there a shark? will it return? will it eat people? would closing the beach keep people out of the sea? are there other things we could do that would mitigate the risk? These should be decided by the experts: in this case the shark experts and the police chief, acting together, seem best placed to decide. But there is also an overriding political question: Should we allow a risk to the lives of poor people to prevent rich people from taking actions which will make them money? It seems to me that this should be decided democratically (and ideally in the affirmative). Given the assumptions of the film^H^H^H^Hplay the answer to this political question will determine whether the beach should be closed. But, noting that I am not an historian, I think that it was well into the 19th century before the UK started giving answers to this question that I agree with. It may be that limitations on who had the vote meant that the early decisions were not made democratically: again I'm not an historian. But, you reference the US gun control debate in your piece, where the democratic answer to the analogous question still appears to be no. Although democracy in the US gets this wrong, I can't think of a better way to answer the question, other than delegating all such questions to me: and I suspect that many Americans would object to that.

    I can't see any reasons to answer the democratically relevant question at the town level rather than the national level, so none of the relevant questions can be decided by the will of the townspeople. Therefore we shouldn't hold a referendum: S.K. is right that you shouldn't hold referenda that you are going to ignore.

    On the question of direct versus representative democracy. I agree that it's generally better for decisions to be made by people who've been briefed by experts and thought about the effects of their decision. However, there's another major difference between direct and representative democracy that you don't seem to have considered. Because representative democracies end up with voters picking a party, a minority that really cares about a subject can effectively outvote a majority that doesn't care about it very much. In that situation it makes sense for a party to endorse the minorities views. They can then pick up more voters from the minority that really cares about it than they lose from the majority for whom it's a minor concern. When they get elected the minority gets its way. I don't know which of these effects resulted in the progressive victories from representative democracy that you describe.

    Returning to the Brexit referendum, the decision to hold the referendum was one of those where a minority captured a political party to get its will enacted. In 2015 something like 10% of the population thought that the relationship with the EU was one of the most important issues facing the country. If we'd had a referendum to decide which topics were worth devoting this much attention to then we wouldn't be in this mess. But the 10% that cared captured the Tories, and here we are.

    Finally, the results of a leave vote in the referendum were entirely foreseeable, although not, to the best of my knowledge, foreseen. No competent government would have held the referendum we had, because of the high risk that, if leave won, we would end up where we are, unable to find a way to leave that parliament can support, but unwilling to defy the referendum and remain. If we were going to hold a referendum, we should have required the leave side to pick a specific way of leaving first. Note that none of our representatives seem to have made this point at the relevant time, which rather weakens the 'its better to have well informed people make the decisions' argument for representative democracy.

  4. When I say, "Torturing a small child just for the fun of it is wrong," I do not mean to refer to any system of morality. I am not saying it is wrong within Christianity - though it might be - or that it is wrong in Utilitarianism - though again, it might be. I am saying that it is wrong, full stop.

    Ultimately you do in any discussion hit a FBLGLAIHFB, but this ought to be something that nobody and no major moral system seriously dissents from (except perhaps psychopaths) such as "courage is a virtue" or "we ought to believe what is true." It certainly isn't anything as complex as "Anyone who has killed anyone else must be killed" or "No-one should kill anyone else under any circumstances." You will find, in most discussions, that you rarely have to go as far back as first principles. Most moral disagreements are actually disagreements about facts and only rarely about moral principles.

    Anyway, Ayer was wrong and Lewis was right. It is not the case that asking "is capital punishment right or wrong" is literally meaningless. It is plainly meaningful. I think your view basically boils down to Error Theory. I.e. we mean to be referencing an objective morality with our moral statements (and again, at least sometimes contra Ayer, we obviously are), but there is no objective morality so it's all an error and a mistake. Error Theory is not obviously wrong, though I believe it is.

    1. Well, until well into the 20th century, school children were routinely subject to punishments which would certainly be regarded as "torture" if they were inflicted on criminals today. And a fairly large number of people seem to think that this was quite a good idea and only stopped because of health and safety gone mad, etc etc.

      Contributors to the British press were very specific about what they thought ought to be done with Robert Thomspon and Jon Venables.

      I believe that children have been subjected to the more tortuous forms of the death penalty in the United States in living memory.

      A lot of people think that if there was a ticking bomb hidden somewhere in New York, it would be okay to torture the person who knew the location, and his family, and his children in order to ascertain the location of the bomb.

      And clearly not everyone who says or does these things is a sadist or a psychopath: so evidently the insight that torturing children is wrong "full stop" is one that has been vouchsafed to you but not to the whole human race. (Unless, of course, it is simply a tautology. If we define torture as "that form of treatment to which no child should be subjected" then it is trivially true that no child should be subjected to torture.)

      I suppose in fact you must have a series of incontestable intuitions -- hurting people is bad; it is sometimes okay to do bad things for good reasons; the badder the bad thing is the gooder the good reason must be; doing bad things to children is worse than doing bad things to grown ups. But the places where the lines are drawn is highly contestable.

  5. To give an example, "If you make a promise, then you ought to try to keep it." This is a self-evidently true moral proposition. As W.D. Ross says, "the nature of the self-evident is not to be evident to every mind however undeveloped, but to be apprehended directly by minds which have reached a certain degree of maturity, and for minds to reach the necessary degree of maturity the development that takes place from generation to generation is as much needed as that which takes place from infancy to adult life."

    I am arguing that "if you make a promise, you ought to try to keep it" would be true in any society or, indeed, in any possible society. It is both self-evident and necessarily true in any society or indeed any universe which contains moral actors. It is possible to imagine a society in which no promises are ever made, but I maintain it is impossible to imagine a society where promises are made but the society believes that the promise-maker is under no obligation to try to fulfill his promise.

    I liken moral propositions to epistemological propositions or mathematical propositions and deny that they are any more mysterious than those. For what it's worth, we know through surveys that the majority of professional philosophers agree with me on the broad strokes (if not the details). Moral philosophers are particularly inclined to agree with me. I believe this is mostly because all philosophers and all laymen can see that the "problems" of moral philosophy also apply to epistemology, but virtually no one denies that there is such a thing as epistemological truth. I attribute the popularity of moral nihilism to an unconscious double standard. People wish to make moral judgments on other people (so they then apply their moral realist principles), but also wish to evade moral responsibility themselves (so they then back into moral skepticism or moral nihilism in that case).

  6. Indeed, Socrates. And suppose I have taken an oath to always obey my commanding officer, and my commanding officer tells me to start killing civilians.

    When you took the oath, there was an implicit reservation that it would not apply if your commanding officer told you do things which were against the traditions of the British army.

    And suppose I have made a promise to remain faithful to my husband for my whole life, and he has started to beat me and spend time with other women.

    It is bad thing to break your wedding vows; but a circumstance can occur in which keeping them would be a greater evil than breaking them. Everyone who enter into marriage knows that there is in practice a legal process through which they can be released from their vows.

    Suppose I met a stranger on a train and frivolously promised to help him murder his mother.

    Murder is a much greater sin than oath-breaking; and because you are honourable man, the stranger knew that the promise was not intended seriously.

    It seems to me that you are saying that you can break a promise if it would require you to do something dishonourable or illegal; and that a promise to do something wicked or dishonourable does not count; and that you can break a promise if the results of keeping it would be very bad indeed, or if the external circumstances have changed. That is to say, you should keep your promise so long as there is not a very good reason why you shouldn't; or in short, that you should sometimes keep promises but sometimes not. And since presumably you would obey your commanding officer automatically if he commanded you to do something sensible and honourable; I do not understand what this thing called "keeping a promise" amounts to.

    Also: Machiavelli.