The Democratic Fallacy?— A Dialogue

Jim and Sara have just left the philosophy class they take together and are walking on campus.

Jim: I heard some people talking on the bus, saying they want to see Bernie Sanders contest Hilary Clinton’s nomination at the Democratic convention. They think he’s been screwed over by the way the delegates are partitioned, among other things.

Sara: I heard something like that, too. I’m sympathetic, but I already heard complaints about how undemocratic that would be.

Jim: Undemocratic? Hell, this isn’t a democracy anyway; and I don’t mean it’s a republic—people often try to seem smart by pointing out that the US is not a democracy but a republic. But, c’mon, it’s not either—more like an oligarchy.

Sara: Right?! And I know that for many around here what I’m about to say will be akin to recommending we strangle the nearest baby with an America flag, but I’m not so sure about democracy anyway.

Jim: Hah! Really?! Aren’t you in good company with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Didn’t they all hate democracy? Plato, in particular, saw Socrates’ death as the result of democracy and so for him democracy is nothing but mob rule, right?

Sara: Thank you! I guess I can say what I really mean then?!

Jim: Well, of course! Like I said, you’re in good company, though Aristotle was a son-of-a-bitch about women and slaves, and I don’t think Plato and Socrates were much better. What was that line of the poets, again? You know, the one you told me about that Aristotle quoted, “The virtue of a woman is silence.” Fucker! Anyway, you certainly can say what you mean! Don’t be silent with me!

Sara: Yeah….don’t get me started on philosophers and women! —What I wanted to say was that I’ve long wondered why democracy isn’t simply the committing of the appeal to the majority fallacy?

Jim: Ah! That’s the fallacy of believing something is true simply because a majority of people believe it. I think I see, but tell me what you mean.

Sara: Well, as you said, the appeal to the majority fallacy essentially says that something is true or right because the majority of people think so. It’s a fallacy because something is not necessarily more likely to be true just because the majority favor it. So, say it turned out that the majority of people denied climate change, that would not mean that the climate is not really changing. They could deny it all they wanted all while they drown in the rising sea levels or die of extreme weather, and so on!

Jim: Right! But, and I know you haven’t finished making the connection to democracy yet, isn’t it true that the majority can sometimes be a reliable, if defeasible, guide? So, for example, say you’re in a country where you don’t read or speak the language and you’re in a bar, you’ve had three beers at this point, and you need to go. How do you know where the bathroom is or which to use?

Sara: Well, I’d watch to see who went where, I guess.

Jim: Right! And the same would go for the other laws, customs, rules, etc., of a foreign place, wouldn’t it? I mean, you’d rely on what the majority was doing and saying to know what you should do or say.

Sara: I see what you’re getting at. Yes, but that’s because in such a case I’m working under the assumption that everyone, or most everyone, around me isn’t foreign and thus knows something I don’t. Your questions remind me of a passage from Plato’s Laches that has stuck with me. If I recall correctly Lysimachus and Melesias are trying to decide what’s the best way to educate or bring up their sons. They ask Laches and Nicias, retired generals, for their opinions. But the generals disagree and since Socrates is there they decide to ask him, Lysimachus hoping that Socrates will break the tie vote between Laches and Nicias. And to this Socrates responds something like, “What?! You’re going to do what the majority of us three says? But shouldn’t you do instead what the expert in the matter at hand says? And are any of us experts?” And the exact line that sticks with me is when Socrates says, “So I think it is by knowledge that one ought to make decisions, if one is to make them well, and not by majority rule.”

Jim: That’s great! And so in the case of the foreign town, the assumption is that everyone, or nearly everyone, else knows where to go and how to act. But in the case of the climate change deniers what makes it fallacious is that the majority of folks are not knowledgeable about climate change. So, even if a majority of folks denied climate change, the mere fact that it’s a majority does not give us good reason to believe that there is no such thing as climate change, since we’ve no reason to think they know what the hell they’re talking about. Other way ‘round, the majority of climate experts claim there is climate change, and thus that is good reason for us non-experts to believe it.

So now I want to hear you bring this back to the issue of democracy!

Sara: Well, let’s see…it seemed clearer to me before your questioning! Heh heh. Um….. Let’s see…as we’ve seen, appeals to the majority are not always fallacious. The basic form of the appeal to majority types arguments is something like: The majority believe P, therefore, P is true. This was then fallacious depending on whether the majority are in a position to know (as I think Douglas Walton puts it) about P’s truth. If they are, then it’s not fallacious; if they aren’t, then it is fallacious.

In the case of democracy isn’t the form something like: The majority vote for S, therefore S should lead or be enacted as law? So, perhaps there’s a disanalogy where in the first case it’s a question of P’s being true and in the latter a question of S’s being appointed to lead or enacted as law. Perhaps though we can make it more analogous if we frame democracy as saying: The majority believe that S is the best thing to do, whether having S as leader or law, therefore, S is the best thing to do, whether having S as leader or law. So put, is democracy, then, a form of the appeal to the majority fallacy? Won’t it depend on whether the majority of people are in a position to known whether S really is the best?

Jim: Hmmmm….right. So, in the case of our presidential election we have to ask whether “our fellow citizens” are in a position to know who is best to lead the country, right?

Sara: Yes! And holy shit, hahahaha, they’re so not experts on that! And isn’t this where Plato thought that the majority of people are simply going to be self-seeking hedonists, after what is most pleasing to them alone and from a place not ruled by reason but by desires that have overcome the restraining voice of reason?

Jim: Hahaha. You know Plato better than I, but that doesn’t sound far off. And damn! Think about how capitalism and technology have honed our selfish desires making things all the worse! And on top of it, there’s all of the fear-mongering that politicians rely on to try to sell us on their positions.

But something does occur to me now. Haven’t we forgotten an important disanalogy between democracy and the usual cases of the appeal to the majority fallacy? That is, we’ve framed democracy as saying something like, Since the majority think S is the best, S really is the best. But isn’t part of the point, or maybe even the main point, of democracy not only to try to find the best law or leader, but also to allow citizens to be self-determining?

Sara: What do you mean by “self-determining?”

Jim: I mean the idea is that each voter has a say in who is going to lead or what laws they will be subject to, among other things. So, instead of merely being a follower or a subject to forces wholly controlled and determined by others, a participant in a democracy asserts their will and desires by helping to determine how things are going to go in the democracy.

Sara: Yes, ok. Well, it’s tricky, right? If you have a vote, you get to participate in the process, but it’s not clear to me from that that you really have a say. Your “say” only counts if enough other people agree with you!

Jim: But that doesn’t matter, does it? I mean, in regard to having a say. For you, as an individual, do get to say what you think by your vote. Why think that “having a say” means “fully determining what happens”? If that were the case, then the only way to have a say would be to be fully in charge, like a boss or king even!

Sara: Or a white man under patriarchy!

Jim: Hah! Indeed! That reminds me. The other day I saw a sticker that said, “Carry yourself like a mediocre white man!” I died!

Sara: Holy shit! That’s good. Hahahhaha. I want that sticker! It explains so much behavior!

But seriously, think about a house in which the husband is fully in charge and the wife not at all. We’d say, she has no say in what happens. But in another house in which they share things equitably, we’d say they both have a say in what happens. My only point is that having a say doesn’t seem to mean being fully in control, though, of course, if you are fully in control, then you’ve got a say—you’ve got “all the say”!

Jim: That’s true. Hmmmm……

Sara: And, too! Presumably in a democracy you can speak aloud and try to persuade others that your candidate or a law is the best!

Jim: Right, but isn’t that also part of what concerned Plato about the masses? I mean, particular if they’re not well educated, isn’t the concern that they can be easily swayed by either the candidates or law sponsors or by those with the wealth to buy ads, etc.? So, unlike your example with the equitable voice of the husband and wife, in a democracy things are likely not to be equitable in terms of whose voice counts given the unequal influence people can have on others when they have power, through either wealth or being in an influential position—kinda like when a boss emails everyone in the office “just to let them know” that their son’s soccer team is selling candy to raise funds. Not to mention unequal access to opportunities to participate in the democratic process because of barriers of race, class, and gender that are rooted in historical conditions and much else.

Sara: True, but now haven’t we gotten away from the main issue? I mean, the issue we were discussing isn’t whether a democracy provides for an “equitable say” but whether it allows for a say. In other words, the main issue that we’ve been discussing is whether a democracy allows for each citizen to have a say versus the idea that the main or only point of a democracy is to pick the best candidate or law. Right, or no? I mean it’s true that in an ideal democracy there would be equitable conditions for all, but that isn’t the main issue, though it’s important.

Jim: Right. Those—picking the best candidate and having a say—were the two ways of understanding democracy that we were considering. But I can’t help but think that democracy creates the illusion of participation in what happens. I mean, you’re bound to be in the majority often enough that you have the feeling that you’re helping to determine what happens, and thus you have a say, but I’m just really skeptical with all of the corruption, the ability for the powerful to legally influence things in their favor, and the fact that your vote is but one of millions, that you really have any kind of say after all, or a say that is worth anything.

Sara: Well, if you’re right, then are we left saying that a democracy is good for, or supposed to be good for, choosing the best candidate or law but not for each voter having a say?

Jim: Hmmm…I don’t know….I still think that the purpose of a democracy is more to give each citizen a say, to participate in self-governance, not to choose the best leader or law. It’s just that it doesn’t do that very well, particularly now.

Sara: Ok. But let’s go back to the question of whether democracy is essentially an appeal to the majority fallacy. We agreed, I think, that whether something is an instance of the appeal to the majority fallacy is dependent upon whether the majority is in a position to know.

Jim: That’s right.

Sara: So, wouldn’t it follow then that whether democracy in a country is an instance of the appeal to the majority fallacy, depends on the position to know of the citizens voting? And what is it that they have to know? Isn’t whether a particular candidate or law is the best?

Jim: Right. But what does that come to?

Sara: Well, let’s ignore the issue of a law for now and focus on the issue of a candidate for office. Wouldn’t the citizens need to know both about the details of the office in question and whether a particular candidate is actually well-suited to the office in question?

Jim: Maybe. What does “well-suited” come to here though? Does it mean that they are actually qualified for the position, in the sense of having the right skills, for example, or does it mean that they say what the people want to hear? Those aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but they seem to very easily come apart. I can’t help but think of Trump as an example of someone who isn’t really qualified to be president, given his experience and skillset. But he certainly seems to tell a large number of people what they want to hear. To be fair, though, most candidates could be accused of telling people what they want to hear. But it’s still messed up to me that people think that what makes someone qualified for office is whether the candidate holds the same opinion as they on some one or even merely a couple of issues, for example, abortion or same sex marriage. There’s so much more going on in the world and in the US; how can a person’s views on one or two issues tell you that they’d be good at handling all the other issues, many of which have a much greater impact on people?

Sara: Right! And it’s the “what they want to hear” part together with people voting on a couple of issues that makes me think of Plato’s comments about the masses being self-serving hedonists with their passions in charge. But I worry. We seem to be saying that in order for democracy not to be a fallacious enterprise, then the voters need to be qualified to vote—and that “qualified to vote,” particularly given the history of the US, can be a rather dangerous concept, as we can see with the history of voting rights in the US. Women and people of color have had to struggle ridiculously hard to try to achieve equal opportunity to vote, and they still do. I remember seeing a test from the 60s or early 70s that Black Americans had to pass in order to be able to vote; I think it was in Alabama. It was crazy as hell! The way the questions were formed it was nearly impossible to get them right in the time allotted.

Jim: Ah, right….. Damn. How would we go about deciding who should vote in a way that was equitable and fair? That issue just pushes me back toward the other understanding of the point of voting in a democracy. That is, it isn’t so much to pick the best candidate or law, but rather to allow people to participate in the process, to allow them to have a say, as small as it might be. If that’s the main point of a democracy, then the qualifications and the issue of whether democracy amounts to an appeal to the majority fallacy are besides the point, aren’t they? So, again, what’s the main point of a democracy supposed to be?

Sara: Well, couldn’t it be both? To pick the best and to allow people, individuals, to have a say? The picking the best part requires that the citizens are in a position to know—if it’s not going to be fallacious—which is something that seems terribly difficult to judge, but does that mean that we shouldn’t even try?

Jim: No. Not necessarily. Just because something is difficult to do doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do it! But…. hmmmmmm…..I just thought of something that makes it all the more complicated. Does being “in a position to know” mean that one cannot be wrong? This is what I mean: in the case of being abroad and watching others whom one assumes to be in a position to know, one assumes that they actually do know where things are, what to do and say, etc., by virtue of their being in a position to know. And we assume that they are in a position to know, that they have such knowledge, because of their time living in the city in question. If two people had the same experiences in the city, which is what is supposed to put them in a position to know, yet they disagree about where something basic is or what to say or do in a given situation, we’d be really confused, wouldn’t we? For they both, by virtue of their equal experiences, are supposedly in a position to know.

Do you see the issue now for what we’ve been saying about a democracy? We were saying that through the right kind of education, people would be in a position to know, that is, to say who the best candidate or law is. But if this case is analogous to the other case where we are abroad watching others whom we assume to be in a position to know, then shouldn’t everyone who has had the same education be in the same position to know in a democracy? And, thus, just as we would be surprised if the two people in the foreign town who have had the same experiences disagreed as to where things were, or what to say or do, we’d be surprised if two people who were supposed to be in a position to know who is the best candidate or law disagreed. Yet, isn’t such disagreement about candidates or laws to be expected even in a properly educated populace?

Sara: Ah, damn! That’s a really interesting point. Perhaps what it means to be in a position to know is different in the two different contexts, knowing a city and its ways vs. knowing the best candidate or law. Maybe the former has stricter requirements regarding being right than the latter. Maybe it comes down to what counts as justification in the different contexts. That is, what it means to be justified in knowing where things are in a city, or what to do or say, is stricter since those things are more clear cut, more easily identified, than picking the best candidate or law.

Jim: Excellent! Yes! There is a definitive and easily ascertained difference between which door leads to the kitchen and which to the bathroom in a restaurant in a foreign city in a way that there is not such a definitive and easily ascertained difference between which candidate is going to be the best, for example. In part this is because what counts as “the best” is itself going to be up for debate and colored by different views regarding things like conceptions of welfare, freedom, and virtue, among other things. You remember all the things Sandel talks about in his book on justice?

Sara: Oh, that’s good! Yes. People may well be educated and in a position to “know,” i.e., they may be capable of skillfully navigating all of the issues necessary to intelligently work out who is best, without that meaning that everyone who is in such a position will agree or that any of them will get it right.

Jim: Yes! ….Oh, damn. We’ve both go to get to our classes. Let’s talk about this more later, Sara.

Sara: Indeed. I’ll message you later. Take care.

Jim: Bye!

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