BC’s referendum rules allow for an informed, confident choice

In a recent column, former BC Liberal staffer Keivan Hirji issues three complaints against the process to be used in the upcoming referendum on electoral reform. In this post I will explain these charges, and show why all three should be rejected.

Hirji’s first complaint concerns an alleged false dichotomy in the referendum question. A false dichotomy occurs when two alternatives are presented as exhausting all possible options, but other options are in fact available. The false dichotomy in this case, Hirji claims, is between support for the status quo and support for all three forms of proportional representation on the second part of the ballot. One might prefer MMP to FPTP, for example, but prefer FPTP to DMP, and the structure of the ballot does not allow for the expression of this kind of preference.

But to say that the first part of the referendum ballot presents two alternatives as exhausting all possible options simply because there are only two options on that part of the ballot is like saying that an ordinary election ballot presents three or four alternatives as exhausting all possible options simply because there are only three or four names on the ballot. Unless they include a space for write-in candidates, all ballots exclude possible alternatives. No fallacy is committed because the options on the ballot do not purport to represent all possible alternatives.

Hirji’s second complaint is that two of the three forms of PR on the ballot (dual member proportional and rural-urban proportional) are not in use anywhere in the world. To adopt either of these two system would be to treat the province “as a guinea pig in electoral experimentation”.

In fact, only DMP is truly untested; RUP would use two well-tried electoral systems in different regions of the province. Moreover, the phrase “guinea pig” is obviously loaded—compare Hirji’s description of the province as a lab animal with Justice Louis Brandeis’s memorable description of the members of a federation as “laboratories of democracy”. Laboratories undertake important experimental work. But notoriously, guinea pigs often suffer and die in laboratory experiments. For Brandeis, citizens are like the scientists and technicians who make use of the laboratory to make important discoveries. For Hirji, citizens are like lab animals who are used in the laboratory. Hirji’s analogy is meant to lead readers to feel that if we try out a new electoral system, we too may suffer and die like the guinea pig. However, Hirji declines to elaborate on his anticipated failure modes of proportional representation in BC. How on earth would any of these systems lead to consequences sufficiently dire as to justify the lab animal analogy? Without elaboration, this part of Hirji’s argument is nothing more than a crude appeal to readers’ fear and can thus be dismissed altogether.

Finally, Hirji complains that voters in the referendum will be forced to choose between electoral systems without knowing what the boundaries of the new electoral districts would be. Hirji compares this to choosing between vehicles without knowing any of their specifications. Again, this analogy is highly misleading.

District boundaries change all the time. They will continue to change regardless of whether voters decide that our electoral system should respect the principle of proportionality. Anyone who votes to retain first past the post is doing so without knowing what the district boundaries will look like several years down the road. By the logic of Hirji’s vehicle analogy, this means that these voters will be making a completely blind choice; not knowing the exact boundaries that single member districts will have in the future means not knowing anything about how FPTP will work in practice. That’s utterly absurd. So something must be wrong with Hirji’s analogy.

One problem is that district boundaries are not comparable to the full set of specifications for a vehicle. In fact boundaries are impossible to evaluate without also knowing the district magnitude (i.e. the number of offices to be filled) and the electoral formula. Hirji’s analogy makes more sense if district boundaries are treated as comparable to a subset of a vehicle’s specifications—they’re important, but they’re not the whole story. And if district boundaries aren’t the whole story, then voters can draw some reasonable conclusions about what would happen in the future under FPTP (e.g. majority governments formed by single parties that lack majority support) and under various kinds of PR (e.g. majority governments formed by compromise between parties that collectively won a majority of votes). Contrary to Hirji’s claims, BC voters do not have to make a blind choice.

A further problem with Hirji’s argument is that in BC, like the rest of Canada, district boundaries are drawn up by an independent, nonpartisan boundaries commission. Commissioners are mandated to set boundaries that allow for effective representation given a particular electoral formula, striving to achieve roughly equal voting power for all citizens while also taking into account the various natural communities of interest that comprise the province. The integrity of this process is unquestionable. And BC will continue to use this process whether or not we decide to change our electoral system. Even though we can’t say in advance exactly what the district boundaries will be if we stick with FPTP, we can confidently say that the boundaries will allow for effective representation. And if this is true under FPTP, it’s also true under PR. So to return to the vehicle analogy, we may not know some of the relevant specs in advance, but we do know that they’re guaranteed to meet our standards whatever we happen to choose.


Democratizing political parties: Hazan and Rahat on candidate selection

Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 5.01.59 AMHazan and Rahat’s proposal, from Democracy Within Parties: Candidate Selection Methods and their Political Consequences, page 174

In previous posts, I argued that parties ought to internally democratic, but grassroots members’ perennial demand for direct, authoritative control over party policy cannot be met. Direct election of party leaders has also been a failed experiment in democratization; in practice, direct elections seem to have concentrated power in the hands of an increasingly remote central leadership. So what can parties feasibly do to improve their internal democracy?

A more promising avenue for reform has been suggested by political scientists Reuven Hazan and Gideon Rahat in their book Democracy Within Parties: Candidate Selection Methods and their Political Consequences. Selection of candidates for public office is the essential function of political parties—the thing that really sets them apart from interest groups, think tanks, industrial associations, service clubs, and other organizations of civil society. Democratizing the process of candidate selection, then, seems like the natural place to start when thinking about democratizing political parties.

But what would democratizing candidate selection actually involve? The simplest approach would just involve open nominations, local control of nomination contests, and inclusive membership rules. However, Hazan and Rahat argue that this maximally inclusive approach can have a perverse effect on intraparty democracy.

Parties are largely volunteer-run organizations, and so need to provide non-monetary incentives to attract and retain committed long-term activists. Traditionally these incentives have included opportunities for positions of power and responsibility within the party, up to and including the prospect of being selected for candidacy. A maximally inclusive candidate selection process precludes such incentives, threatening to reduce parties to a small professional core of officeholders and staff surrounded by a largely ephemeral membership that tends to dissipate almost completely between elections.

Without some degree of exclusivity, then, parties cannot possibly be loci of sustained, high quality democratic participation, independent of both the state and the broader society in which they are embedded. Parties need to strike a balance between inclusivity and exclusivity. Hazan and Rahat argue that in the context of candidate selection, this balance would best be achieved by adapting the classical concept of mixed government (i.e. a regime that incorporates features of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, so that the particular virtues of each basic regime type compensates for or corrects the defects of the others) to the nomination process.

The process Hazan and Rahat envision consists of three stages, proceeding from the most exclusive to the most inclusive. At the first stage, a screening committee would create a longlist of prospective candidates. This committee would be composed of senior party figures including retired politicians and veteran activists who do not have a direct stake in nomination contest, randomly selected rank and file members, and perhaps representatives of organized internal party factions, affiliates, and stakeholder groups. The exclusivity of the screening committee together with its balanced composition improves the conditions for serious deliberation; however, Hazan and Rahat stress that the function of the screening committee is only to rule out those candidacies that would harm the party, not to fix the outcome of the race.

The longlist would then be submitted to a nominating agency composed of party delegates elected for the purpose of amending the screening committee’s recommendations. By giving a special opportunity for influence to active party members, this second stage preserves incentives for members to commit to activism on the party’s behalf, yet it is also reasonably inclusive given that delegates responsible for the shortlist must be selected by the general membership.

At the third, maximally inclusive stage, the nominating agency’s shortlist is submitted to the whole membership in the nominating district, who have the final say on who should receive the party’s nomination. This third stage preserves incentives for party membership, creates an opportunity for member recruitment to activist roles, and maintains the benefits of mass participation (such as democratic socialization, opportunities for non-citizens to exercise political influence, and providing a counterweight to more ideologically motivated activists).

Above all, Hazan and Rahat stress that the final stage of the nomination process should be the most inclusive. In Canadian political parties, however, the final stage is the most exclusive—the party leader, a selectorate of one, has an absolute veto over the local party’s choice. In a sense, then, Canadian parties already use a kind of mixed regime, albeit one in which the mix seems to have been arranged so as to emphasize the defects and suppress the virtues of each basic regime type. But the principle is familiar enough. We just need to apply it properly.

Contested terms and equivocation in the electoral reform debate


Here’s an argument you might have seen before:

1. According to campaigners for proportional representation, my vote doesn’t count if I cast a vote for a losing candidate.
2. But in the last election, my vote for a losing candidate was counted.
3. So campaigners for proportional representation are wrong; a vote for a losing candidate still counts.

And here’s another one:

1. “No taxation without representation” is widely accepted as a fundamental democratic principle.
2. My MLA does not represent my views.
3. So the status quo violates a widely accepted fundamental democratic principle.

Both of these arguments—one which you might have heard from supporters of first past the post, the other from supporters of proportional representation—are bad. They’re bad because they both commit the fallacy of equivocation.

The fallacy of equivocation is committed when the definition of a key term shifts over the course of the argument. In the first example, this is done with the term “count”. When “count” appears in the first premise, it’s used to mean something like “matter”. In the second premise, it just means that one’s vote was included in the numerical totals of votes cast. So the first argument can be restated as follows:

1. According to campaigners for proportional representation, my vote doesn’t matter if I cast a vote for a losing candidate.
2. But in the last election, my vote for a losing candidate was included in the numerical totals of votes cast.
3. So campaigners for proportional representation are wrong; a vote for a losing candidate still matters.

And this argument is obviously invalid; the second premise is a complete non sequitur and does not support the conclusion. The pro-PR campaigners cited in the first premise might be wrong that votes cast for losing candidates do not matter; the claim would have to be argued in any case. However, this argument does not provide good reason to believe that the pro-PR campaigners are wrong.

The second argument also commits the fallacy of equivocation, although perhaps in a less obvious way. The error is less obvious because political representation is a complex concept. On Hanna Pitkin’s highly influential account, for example, there are four basic views of political representation: formalistic, symbolic, descriptive and substantive. Descriptive representation requires resemblance between the representative and the represented (e.g. in terms of their political views), and this appears to the sense invoked in the second premise. However, it’s not clear that descriptive representation is the kind of representation demanded by the slogan “no taxation without representation”. In fact this slogan is often interpreted as a demand for formalistic or substantive rather than descriptive representation. So the argument can be restated as follows:

1. “No taxation without [formalistic or substantive] representation” is widely accepted as a fundamental democratic principle.
2. I do not have descriptive representation.
3. So the status quo violates a widely accepted fundamental democratic principle.

Again, once the ambiguity of a key term is resolved, the conclusion no longer follows from the premises. Of course, one might argue that “No taxation without [descriptive] representation” is a fundamental democratic principle. If one were prepared to do so, this argument could be made against the status quo:

1. No taxation without descriptive representation is a fundamental democratic principle.
2. I do not have descriptive representation.
3. So the status quo violates a fundamental democratic principle.

And this argument is logically valid. But the appeal of the original (fallacious) version of the argument is that it invokes a principle that practically everyone already endorses. The revised (valid) version lacks this virtue.

Fallacious arguments might convince someone, but they ought to convince no one. This is reason enough to avoid making them. But it’s not the only reason.

In this referendum, only one side can come out the winner. But ideally, both sides will come out of it feeling that the debate leading up to the vote itself involved a meaningful exploration of the political values at stake, thus conferring legitimacy on the result whatever it happens to be. Both of the examples of fallacious arguments in this post represent missed opportunities for this kind of exploration—in the first case, a missed opportunity for supporters of the status quo to explain what they believe makes votes matter, and in the second, for supporters of proportional representation to explain why it’s important to have representatives who reflect their views. It’s not every day that basic principles of our democracy are brought under this level of scrutiny. Let’s make the most of it.

Critical comments concerning Cullen’s contest

Last week, Nathan Cullen announced a contest in which his constituents will compete to have their ideas for a new law turned into a private member’s bill and introduced in parliament during the fall sitting. Cullen envisions the contest as a means of fighting cynicism about politics by demonstrating that voters can have real influence over their MPs. However, if this is the aim, then the contest is a poorly conceived instrument by which to pursue it.

As it happens, voters are already entitled to send MPs their ideas for laws. And obviously MPs should, as a matter of course, turn great ideas into private member’s bills—at least insofar as a reasonable ordering of priorities allows (after all, MPs have other responsibilities). This is supposed to be standard operating procedure for representative democracy, not a radical departure from it.

Although Cullen describes the contest as a unique demonstration of trust in voters, there is already plenty of trust to go around. We trust the public to select good representatives, and part of what makes a good representative is being judiciously responsive to the public between elections. This means we also trust the public to form and communicate views and preferences that tend to be worthy of response.

Ordinarily, Cullen would act as gatekeeper, deciding whether or not an idea from his constituents is, all things considered, worth turning into a private member’s bill. This contest does not do away with the gatekeeper; it merely replaces an elected and accountable gatekeeper with “a volunteer panel of local business, faith, cultural and ethnic leaders”. What makes this contest remarkable, then, is not the trust it puts in voters but rather the mistrust it puts in representatives.

By portraying the opportunity for “real influence” as an exceptional event, Cullen encourages the perception that under ordinary conditions, voters have no real influence. And by removing himself from the process of evaluating the public’s suggestions for new laws and calling this “real influence”, Cullen encourages the perception that MPs are obstacles to—rather than facilitators of—democratic engagement. All this should be expected to feed voters’ cynicism rather than fight it.

Samuel Scheffler on the value of toleration

Screen Shot 2018-04-20 at 7.25.59 PM

Liberal societies value and promote toleration among people whose deepest convictions and ideals frequently differ and even conflict. One reason to value this kind of toleration is that it helps maintain social peace. But as Samuel Scheffler observes, members of liberal societies often see toleration as a something more than a pragmatically justified compromise. Rather, toleration comes to be seen as valuable in itself. Given that life under a regime of toleration constrains and may even rule out the pursuit of some of our deepest convictions and ideals, what explains the strength of our allegiance to toleration as a non-instrumental value? In this passage from “The Good of Toleration”, published in Equality and Tradition, Scheffler offers a compelling and insightful explanation:

In general, the shared experience of subjection to a common authority is a powerful basis for relations of solidarity. Many other forms of comradeship and solidarity, in addition to those among siblings, are also forged on this basis. Think, for example, of the relations among students in a classroom, soldiers in a military unit, or workers in a manufacturing plant. In each case, there is room for competition, rivalry, and even dislike—indeed, the full range of human interpersonal attitudes is available to the members of these groups. But, in addition, there is this: a tendency to solidarity deriving from the shared experience of living together under a common authority.

Obviously, we are not all siblings or comrades, and there is (for now) no common human authority to whom we are all subject. So when I say that there is a form of fraternity associated with participation in a regime of toleration, I do not mean to suggest that the model of siblings and comrades carries over straightforwardly to this case. However, although we are not all subject to a common authority, we are all subject to the idea of authority. That is, we must all confront the normative dimension of human experience. We all live in the shadow of norms, principles, reasons, and ideals that, rightly or wrongly, we regard as authoritative. And although our values vary, the experience of responding to normative authority—of trying to be guided by values and norms that we accept—is part of our common experience. And this too makes possible a form of solidarity—a form of solidarity that derives from the shared experience of subjection, not to a common authority figure, but to normativity or authority itself.

It is in this spirit, I believe, that the adherents of different religions sometimes feel a sense of solidarity with one another as participants in the common enterprise of responding to ideas of the sacred or the divine. More generally, the adherents of different values and ideals sometimes recognize one another as participants in the shared human enterprise of trying to live a good or worthy life—that is, of trying to live in accordance with norms and ideals that one perceives as authoritative. I say that they sometimes recognize one another as participants in a common enterprise, not that they must do so or that they always do so. To the contrary, this unifying form of recognition is easily blocked or disabled by any of the numerous factors that give the differences and divisions among people their salience. However, I believe that a regime of toleration, by enforcing the kind of mutual deference to one another’s values that I have been describing, encourages such recognition. Indeed, it does more. It gives concrete social expression to a compelling but abstract idea: the idea of an otherwise diverse people who are united by the common experience of confronting the normative or evaluative dimension of human life. In addition, it demands that we relate to one another in a way that acknowledges this bond that unites us. And when we do relate to one another in that way, the experience—for many—is one of fraternity or solidarity with one’s fellows. To the extent that that experience is rewarding, toleration comes to be seen as valuable in its own right. In this way, a regime of toleration that is initially accepted on purely instrumental grounds may begin gradually to attract value-based support and may come over time to be seen as intrinsically worthy. What began as a modus vivendi is transformed into a valued way of life.

The rewards characteristically afforded by this way of life might be called the rewards of openness to the other. For some people, the most important of these rewards lies in the sense of enrichment that comes from developing an appreciation for forms of value that are realized in practices other than one’s own. Other people simply find it exhilarating to live confidently amidst the whirl of human diversity. For still other people, there are subversive and transgressive pleasures afforded by engagement with unfamiliar customs and practices. What underlies all of these rewards—what makes them available to the participants in a regime of toleration—is the kind of fraternity that is expressed in and realized by the practice of mutual deference to one another’s values. And for people who experience and appreciate the rewards associated with that practice, its value ceases to be purely instrumental. (pages 331-333)

Response to Tieleman, Anton and Plecas on proportional representation

15Tieleman’s secret stash of anti-PR arguments revealed

In their latest column, Bill Tieleman, Suzanne Anton and Bob Plecas claim that proportional representation would necessarily result in many MLAs being “appointed from the party list”; such MLAs, they allege, “would have no geographic riding, no constituents and no voter accountability.” These claims are demonstrably false.

While it is no doubt possible to design a proportional electoral system with these characteristics, there is no reason why a proportional electoral system must have these characteristics. As a matter of fact, most do not. For one, countries with proportional electoral systems are usually divided into a number of multi-member electoral districts. Others use a mix of single- and multi-member districts. Second, in countries that use the single transferable vote or so-called “open lists” to elect representatives in the multi-member constituencies, voters have at least as much control over which candidates from their preferred party are ultimately chosen for office as they do under our current electoral system. And one might even argue that STV and open lists actually give voters more control than they have under the status quo; after all, under our current system, each party can only present voters with one candidate in each electoral district, whereas these forms of PR allows voters to register preferences for different candidates from the same party.

The authors also repeat the canard that proportional representation leads to long delays in government formation following an election. While there have been a handful of news-making cases where the process takes a very long time, such cases are newsworthy precisely because they are unusual. In fact, depending on the circumstances under which a new government must be formed, the average duration ranges from about two weeks to a month. As BC recently proved, with a clear caretaker convention in place and the ongoing support of a professional public service, such delays are nothing to worry about.

Could electoral fusion work in Canada?

A sample ballot from New York. Note that the Conservative Party has nominated the entire Republican slate, while only half of the Democratic candidates have secured the Working Families nomination.

Given that major changes to the electoral system seem to be off the national agenda at least until the Liberals are replaced in office, or perhaps reduced to a minority in parliament, it may be worthwhile for proponents of reform to consider some other options. In this post, I’ll discuss one such option: electoral fusion.

Electoral fusion is a system in which the same candidate can be nominated simultaneously by more than one party. Such candidates are listed on the ballot separately with the label of each party by which they have been nominated. Votes received by that candidate under each label can be reported separately, but they are added together for the purpose of selecting a winner.

The practice of electoral fusion is largely confined to the United States. In recent years, the most prominent user of electoral fusion has been the Working Families Party, a small social democratic party formed in 1998 by labour and community organizations and activists from the similarly oriented but short-lived New Party. The WFP differs from most American parties in three major respects. First, it rarely enters any candidates of its own into competition, preferring to leave candidates from other parties to try to win the WFP’s nomination. Second, the WFP is explicitly organized on the basis of class interest, which wouldn’t be unusual in most democracies but certainly sets the WFP apart from the major parties in the United States. Fusion voting is especially important in New York, where at least five minor parties regularly issue endorsements of major party candidates.

The long-standing alliance between Labour and the Cooperative Party in the UK can also be viewed as a more restricted kind of electoral fusion, demonstrating that fusion can be viable in the context of the more cohesive parties that are characteristic of parliamentary democracies. Members of Labour are permitted to maintain dual membership in the Cooperative Party, and Labour candidates may seek the Cooperative nomination. The Cooperative Party, in turn, only nominates candidates from the Labour Party. Nevertheless, nominations are competitive — although the Cooperative Party may nominate only candidates from Labour, it is under no obligation to nominate anyone at all. Candidates who desire the Cooperative nomination must convince the party that they will champion the Cooperative platform in office. Candidates who secure both nominations appear on the ballot once, with their affiliation listed as “Labour and Cooperative”.

Electoral fusion provides for more freedom of political expression in the electoral process without the risk of vote-splitting or the need to to adopt a completely different electoral system. The practice is also compatible with alternative electoral systems, both proportional and majoritarian. Supporters of proportional representation may wish to consider pushing for electoral fusion as a partial fix for some of FPTP’s flaws, and possibly as a stepping stone to more fundamental electoral reform, while those who oppose proportional representation on balance may also be convinced that fusion would go some way towards correcting the admitted defects of FPTP that motivate supporters of PR.

Response to Bannister: What grounds human rights?

yMxyTIf God can make moral rules just as he pleases, can we be confident that those rules are going to be any good?

At The BC Catholic, Christian apologist Andy Bannister and humanist advocate Ian Bushfield have summarized arguments they presented in a recent public discussion on the foundations of human rights. Bannister argues that Christianity offers a superior account of how there could be such things as human rights, while Bushfield argues for the superiority of a naturalistic, pragmatist approach. To my mind, however, neither approach is adequate; while each contains a measure of truth, both ought to be rejected by theists and non-theists alike. In this post I focus on some of the problems with Bannister’s argument; in a future post I intend to present some objections to Bushfield. Because it is not apparent from Bannister’s statement that he views human rights as importantly distinct from other kinds of moral facts, in what follows I use these terms interchangeably.

Bannister’s argument is as follows. There are three possible positions on human rights. The first is that human rights do not exist in any robust sense. They are just made up rules with no justification beyond their instrumental value in securing conditions for survival and reproduction. The second possibility is that human rights exist, but they are not justified or explained by anything further. The third position is that human rights exist because we have been endowed with them by God, our creator, who made us in his image. The moral skepticism of the first position is unacceptable, and the second position is ad hoc and lacks true explanatory power. Only the third position supplies an adequate foundation for human rights.

This short argument suffers from a multitude of problems. The first problem is that Bannister assumes that there is something morally significant about the status of being one of God’s creations. The grounds of this special status are no less mysterious than the grounds of human rights — in fact, they seem to be basically the very same mystery. If so, then Bannister’s third position has no explanatory advantage over the second position.

Perhaps, however, this objection misconstrues Bannister’s claim that God endows humans with rights in the act of creation. Bannister may reply that God is in a position to determine what is right, good or valuable. When God creates human beings, he is not only assembling a bundle of material and spiritual substances which, by virtue of being assembled by God, thereby acquires value; rather, the act of creation also involves creating moral properties and attaching them to each bundle. On this view, there is nothing morally significant about the status of being one of God’s creations prior to God’s willing that moral significance into being.

Although I think this interpretation is a better fit with Bannister’s intended meaning, it raises a new problem: making God’s will the ultimate source of moral obligation threatens to turn God into the kind of “human rights fairy” Bannister earlier dismisses as an ad hoc pseudo-explanation.

Bannister might respond that there is an important dissimilarity between a human rights fairy and a conception of God as the source of moral obligation. We have independent grounds to believe that God exists, and if God exists, God could play the same explanatory role as a human rights fairy. So God is not invoked on an ad hoc basis to explain morality; rather, God becomes a candidate explanation for morality only after God is established as a candidate explanation for some other phenomenon.

I think this is an effective reply to the charge that Bannister’s explanation for morality is just as ad hoc as the human rights fairy. But the problem with the human rights fairy is not only that it is an ad hoc explanation, but also that it just doesn’t really explain much at all. Unless there are moral facts prior to God’s willing them into existence, the moral facts God chooses to will into existence — and even the choice to will any moral facts into existence — are arbitrary. So even if Bannister is right to claim that God could bring moral facts into existence, we still don’t have an explanation of why these moral facts — why any moral facts — exist. And if Bannister is right to claim that moral facts fundamentally depend on God for their existence, there is no explanation.

It will not do to reply that God is not just good but also loving, and a loving God would create moral rules that are best for us. “Best” is an evaluative concept. If there are no moral facts prior to God’s willing, then prior to God’s willing there is no fact of the matter about what is best for creation. Any set of rules imposed by God would count as the rules that are best for us, so the selection of those rules would still have to be wholly arbitrary even if they were selected by a perfectly loving being.

Those who still find Bannister’s argument persuasive on balance may at this point wish to bite the bullet and accept a view of morality grounded in arbitrary divine commands. Before doing so, however, it is worth considering some further options. Nihilism, brute explanation and divine commands do not exhaust the options for understanding morality, and Bannister’s neglect of these alternatives is puzzling, especially given that the idea that moral facts depend on God has faced noteworthy challengers even within his own religious tradition. The influential Early Modern philosopher and theologian Samuel Clarke, for example, argued that while God’s will was always perfectly congruent with moral truth, moral truth was not dependent on God’s will. Moral truths, according to Clarke, are necessary truths, knowable by reason:

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 2.55.49 PM.png(from A Discourse of Natural Religion)

Morality is not a simple matter, Clarke acknowledges, and in some cases the distinctions between right and wrong may be very fine indeed. We have reason to pay attention to divine revelation concerning moral truth, because God’s perfect knowledge of morality can help us navigate the hard cases. But when it comes to certain elementary truths, Clarke says:

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Drawing on the philosophy of Plato and working with the methods of natural theology (i.e. deriving theological truths from reason rather than revelation, mystical experience, or analysis of sacred texts), the 17th-century Christian philosopher Ralph Cudworth likewise argued forcefully against the idea that morality is dependent on the divine will. The idea of absolute authority over the content of morality, Cudworth thinks, generates a paradox:

The right and authority of God himself, who is the supreme sovereign of the universe, is also in like manner bounded and circumscribed by justice. God’s will is ruled by his justice, and not his justice ruled by his will; and therefore, God himself cannot command what is in its own nature unjust. And thus have we made it evident, that infinite right and authority of doing and commanding any thing without exception, so that the arbitrary will of the commander should be the very rule of justice itself to others, and consequently might oblige to any thing, is an absolute contradiction, and a non-entity; it supposing nothing to be in its own nature just or unjust; which, if there were not, there could be no obligation nor authority at all. (from The True Intellectual System of the Universe)

Instead, Cudworth follows Plato in positing an abstract, mind-independent property of goodness — what Plato called a “Form” and Cudworth an “Essence” — as the basis of moral truth; God’s perfection ensures that his will is always exercised in conformity with essential goodness. While imperfect beings like humans are less reliably moral, the basis of our moral knowledge — rationally grasping the eternal essence of goodness — is ultimately the same as God’s.

Immanuel Kant, also a theist (although not an orthodox Christian by the time he developed his mature moral philosophy), developed a very different account of the objectivity of morals. In contrast to realists like Clarke and divine command theorists like Bannister, Kant argued that the source of moral authority must be found within moral agents themselves. But this does not mean that the dictates or morality are relative or otherwise mutable.

According to Kant, we are free only when our wills are not determined by “alien causes,” i.e. causes that are external to ourselves. This rules out the possibility that we could be free when we act according to whatever our strongest impulses happen to be, because these impulses are determined by external natural causes. Nor can random action make the will free, because the very notion of a randomly acting will is incoherent. It follows, by process of elimination, that the positive definition of freedom must be autonomy or self-legislation, i.e. action that is determined by a law that we give to ourselves. This law cannot be a hypothetical imperative because hypothetical imperatives are based on our particular interests and inclinations, and these in turn are naturally determined. And if the law is not a hypothetical imperative, then it must be a categorical imperative, which is the moral law. Therefore we are free only when we govern ourselves according to the moral law.

Clarke’s realism, Cudworth’s Platonism, and Kant’s rationalist constructivism are just three alternatives to Bannister’s grounding of moral truth in God’s will. All of them were proposed by people who believed in God, so they are at least compatible with Bannister’s broader religious beliefs. And because none of these alternative theories of morality presuppose or entail the existence of God, they are also compatible with secular humanism. Because Bannister fails to address these alternatives — let alone the multitude of realist theories originating within the field of secular ethics — his claim that Christianity offers the only secure foundation for morality lacks adequate support.

Emergence, explicability and necessity


According to panpsychism, mind is ubiquitous and fundamental. To support their position, contemporary panpsychists rely in part on what Michael Della Rocca calls an explicability argument — an argument in which “a certain state of affairs is said not to obtain simply because its obtaining would be inexplicable, a so-called brute fact.”

One reason that panpsychists reject the idea that consciousness is a strongly emergent property of certain functional or physical states, for example, is because strong emergence would be brute. If consciousness is strongly emergent, there is by definition no reason why consciousness should pop into existence when certain states are instantiated. Put the pieces — neurons, computer chips, beer cans — together in the right way, and then — poof! — all of a sudden, consciousness happens, and that’s the end of the explanation. According to the explicability argument, this gives us good reason to reject the claim that consciousness is strongly emergent.

But why stop there? If consciousness is neither reducible to nor strongly emergent from the physical, what explains why there is consciousness? The only remaining options seem to be that the existence of consciousness is a brute fact, or that consciousness necessarily exists. The explicability argument used to rule out strong emergence, however, also seems to rule out consciousness being a brute fact. This leaves three possibilities. Either explicability arguments are illegitimate, there is a principled reason to accept the explicability argument against strong emergence while rejecting the explicability argument against brute consciousness, or — most plausibly, I think — consciousness is a necessarily existent phenomenon.

Does convention really forbid the disallowance of provincial law?


Here’s something interesting about a relatively obscure part of the Canadian constitution. You know the powers of reservation and disallowance? Probably not, because if you were born after 1961 neither of them have been used in your lifetime, so here’s a summary. Basically reservation empowers a lieutenant governor to pass a provincial bill up to the federal government to be approved or quashed, while disallowance empowers the federal government to quash a law that has received assent at the provincial level (as long as this is done within one year). These powers were used willy nilly for a time following Confederation, but were increasingly regarded as intrusive, undemocratic and contrary to the spirit of federalism. The last time a provincial bill was reserved, the federal government approved it on principle despite almost certainly disagreeing with the substance (Diefenbaker was PM, while the reserved bill originated from the CCF-controlled legislature in Saskatchewan). While the provisions on reservation and disallowance are still in the books, the usual story is that they’re obsolete by convention.


In 1992, a major package of constitutional reforms — the Charlottetown Accord — was submitted to a referendum. Among these reforms, sections 55 and 90 of the Constitution Act 1867 — the provisions of the Act that define the powers of reservation and disallowance as they apply between the provincial and federal governments — had been rewritten. The new version omitted the power of reservation but retained the power of disallowance. This seems to undermine the usual story that the power of disallowance is obsolete by convention.

Why? Recall that a constitutional convention is an unwritten, non-justiciable (meaning it can’t be enforced by the courts) constitutional rule that exists only in virtue of being recognized and treated as binding by the political actors to whom it applies. To say that the power of disallowance is obsolete by convention is to say that the relevant political actors recognize and treat as binding a rule that forbids the use of the power of disallowance. If disallowance is forbidden by convention, then the legal rule permitting disallowance is of no use. But if the legal rule permitting disallowance is of no use, why would you deliberately redraft the relevant provisions to retain the rule permitting disallowance? The only reasonable conclusion, I think, is that the rule permitting disallowance as a matter of law was retained with the intention that disallowance ought to be permitted, full stop.

If this was the intention, then the inclusion of the rule permitting disallowance suggests that disallowance is still permitted as a matter of convention. That’s because Charlottetown represented just about the broadest elite consensus you can imagine. Every major political party and all the provincial governments supported it; it failed to pass only because it was defeated in the referendum. We can conclude, then, that the power of disallowance was acceptable to most of the political actors to whom an anti-disallowance convention would apply. This means that as of 26 years ago, there was no convention forbidding the use of disallowance. So the claim that there is now a convention forbidding the use of disallowance can’t depend on the observation that disallowance hasn’t been used in a long time — after all, that was true in 1992 too. To conclude that there is now a convention against disallowance, something must have happened in the last 26 years that indicates disallowance is now regarded as forbidden. As far as I can tell, nothing like that has happened. I conclude that disallowance is still permissible both as a matter of law and as a matter of convention.

That’s not to say that Trudeau could ring up Julie Payette tomorrow and start quashing provincial laws all over the place. I concede that the use of disallowance would be contrary to the prevailing political mood, which currently favours a more decentralized kind of federalism. But a constitutional convention is more than a prevailing political mood. Moods are more changeable, for one. And over the course of Canadian history, the prevailing mood has at times favoured the practice of a considerably more centralized kind of federalism. If and when the pendulum swings back in that direction, it is reasonable to think that the power of disallowance could be exercised regularly once again.