Is extreme political violence ever justified?

Pictured: Antifascist militia fighter Marina Ginestà in Barcelona, July 1936

Through a mutual Facebook friend, I came across this Facebook post by John Faithful Hamer, a philosophy professor at John Abbott College:


I share Hamer’s distaste for loose talk about political violence, but I don’t like bad arguments either, and I think this argument is very bad indeed. But because it’s bad in an interesting way, I’m going to pick it apart in some detail.

To start, consider the claim “there’s gotta be stuff you just won’t do to your fellow citizens, even if you can’t stand them, even if they infuriate you, even if they make you sick.” This is the second sentence of the post, but it’s the conclusion of the argument he presents in the remainder of the paragraph. Taken at face value, I suspect that literally no one would disagree with this claim. But if no one would disagree with the conclusion, it’s not clear who Hamer is trying convince. One explanation might be that Hamer is actually caricaturing the view of people who advocate insurrection or assassination on the grounds that some person or group of people in power are especially dangerous or harmful, and insurrection or assassination are on balance more likely to succeed or otherwise preferable to the alternatives under the circumstances. People who advocate insurrection or assassination on these grounds do exist. Because it’s more likely that Hamer is trying to convince others that a view held by some people is wrong than it is that he’s trying to convince others that a view held by no one is wrong, I think it’s reasonable to proceed on the assumption that Hamer is simply caricaturing the target of his critique. The statement of the conclusion, then, should be revised to read something like “you should not kill or revolt against fellow citizens, no matter how dangerous and oppressive they are and what alternatives are available.” This conclusion looks highly implausible, but let’s have a look at the reasons Hamer offers in support of it.

As I understand it, the argument is something like this. In order for political communities to exist, members must observe norms that forbid certain means of achieving private (individual or factional) ends. A political community is not just a happily coincidental state of affairs where, at a certain time and place, the purely instrumental considerations of every individual and faction just happen to favour nonviolence ; rather it is a state of affairs based on a shared commitment to subordinate purely instrumental considerations to norms of group solidarity transcending individual and faction. With instrumental considerations thus subordinated, the prospect of short-term — or even long term — private gain is never sufficient to justify certain actions. Because such non-instrumental norms are partly constitutive of political community, violating them threatens the existence of the political community itself. Acts of violence against politicians are among the actions forbidden by these norms; acts of violence against politicians therefore threaten the existence of the political community. The destruction of a political community is a great evil, and it carries the promise of greater evils to come in the chaos that follows. This is why violence against politicians is always wrong.

If this is the argument, then the conclusion needs to be revised again. If Hamer’s argument is intended to support the conclusion that violence against fellow citizens is never justified, it is clearly invalid. At best, it might support the conclusion that violence against politicians is never justified. The suitably revised conclusion would then read something like “you should not kill or revolt against your own country’s politicians, no matter how dangerous and oppressive they are and what alternatives are available.”

This conclusion is also very hard to swallow — it implies, for example, that the Operation Valkyrie conspirators did wrong in attempting to assassinate Hitler. But regardless of how distasteful it is, does it actually follow from Hamer’s argument? I don’t think it does. His argument stipulates (plausibly) that political community can only be sustained if the people refrain from using violent means to achieve private goals according to the demands of strictly instrumental considerations. But this doesn’t rule out the use of violent means that are justified by public or non-instrumentalist considerations. These can include other constitutive norms of political community in general, such as the minimum demands of the concept of justice, or guiding norms of a specific political community (such as respect for certain key individual rights, or principles of collective self-government). For example, the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights even seems to invoke a right to “rebellion against tyranny and oppression” when others means have failed as part of the basis for protection of human rights by the rule of law. Hamer’s failure to deal with this possibility means it is possible for the conclusion to be false even if all the premises are true. The argument is not valid.

The idea behind this kind of argument, I gather, is to set aside views regarding the specific circumstances readers find themselves in; the argument should be equally acceptable to supporters and opponents of any particular politician or political group, because it seeks to render the identity and characteristics of any particular politician or political group totally irrelevant to the question of whether it would be appropriate to use some measure to oppose them or remove them from power. Similar arguments can be spotted popping up all over whenever the budget gets blocked, there’s a filibuster, a court ruling on some matter of public controversy, etc.; people will argue that no matter which side of the issue you’re on, you should agree that resorting to certain means is just beyond the pale. Such arguments are rarely rhetorically effective, and they’re rarely any good either. Hamer’s argument will (or at least should) fail to persuade serious proponents of extreme political violence. I agree that serious talk of insurrection and assassination is inappropriate (and obnoxious) — not because insurrection and assassination are wrong no matter what, but because they’re wrong under the circumstances. Effective arguments against the content of such talk cannot avoid engaging with the other side’s perspective on the circumstances or the relevant principles simply by appealing to a categorical prohibition against extreme political violence.

The rhetorical challenge of making the moral case against torture

Buchenwald_Eisenhower_torture_demonstration_63511.jpgPictured: Concentration camp survivors demonstrate torture techniques for Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton

Jeff McMahan’s points in this interview from a couple of years ago are worth revisiting in light of President Trump’s apparent enthusiasm for torture. It’s appropriate to have an absolute legal ban on torture, and an absolute ban needs the support of a strong moral foundation. But that support cannot be found in an appeal to an implausibly absolutist position about the moral status of torture. A truly compelling moral case against torture may be extremely difficult to make in the present political climate.

As McMahan argues, almost everyone agrees that it is at least sometimes permissible to kill in self-defence. So given that dying is normally worse than temporary suffering, it’s hard to see why torture would always be morally impermissible, even in self-defence. It does not follow, however, that any act of torture has ever been or will ever be actually morally permissible — the unusual circumstances under which torture can be justified may simply never arise —  or that the law should ever permit or excuse acts of torture. In reality torture has almost always been wrongful, and measures short of an absolute legal prohibition on torture are unlikely to provide sufficient deterrence against wrongful torture. If a court can be persuaded that a given act of torture was morally justified, a degree of leniency may be appropriate; however, the law should not give the authorities reason to think that they can escape punishment for resorting to torture as long as they can provide a compelling excuse. “To effectively deter wrongful torture,” McMahan says, “the law should make anyone contemplating torture feel that if he does so he will be sacrificing himself for the sake of morality.”

I find McMahan’s argument persuasive, but it leaves proponents of an absolute legal ban in a difficult spot just when the issue is more pressing than ever. The absolutist moral position “can seem morally obtuse, and therefore discrediting” to the absolutist legal position, but purely instrumental arguments that make no reference to human rights are not sufficient to support an absolute legal ban. By purely instrumental arguments, I have in mind arguments to the effect that torture does not produce reliable information, or that it fatally compromises potentially reliable sources of information. At most, these arguments establish that torture is usually not worth the bother; this is far short of establishing that torture should never be used. In order to reach that further conclusion, we need to appeal to something like a human right against wilful infliction of physical and psychological harm. And unless there is already widespread understanding and acceptance of human rights (in which case torture would be unlikely to arise as a political issue in the first place), it is difficult to articulate a plausible moral basis for instituting an absolute legal ban on torture in a catchy soundbite. Perhaps this difficulty helps to explain the otherwise bafflingly long life of torture as a live issue in contemporary American politics.

However, there is another, far more disturbing possibility to consider. Supporters of torture say it works; opponents say it doesn’t. It is usually assumed that this marks a point of disagreement between the two sides — that both sides have the same goals in mind, and that they disagree over the efficacy of torture as an instrument for achieving those goals (regardless of whether the matter of efficacy is morally dispositive). But there is one thing that torture works very well at, and that’s terrorizing the populace. In the past, I would have assumed that no one on the other side would explicitly endorse state terror as a legitimate policy aim for the US government. This no longer strikes me as a safe assumption.

Anderson on epistemology and public protest


Best wishes to the protesters on the streets today.

Some relevant thoughts from The Imperative of Integration by Elizabeth Anderson:

The epistemic powers of democratic practices are best understood in light of three features: diversity, communication, and feedback. Consider first diversity. Public problems and policies have asymmetric effects on different parts of the population. Those most familiar with these effects tend to be those most affected by them. This entails that knowledge relevant to the articulation and solution of public problems is asymmetrically distributed. Citizens are therefore epistemically diverse. To understand and solve problems of public interest requires that information held by diverse citizens from different walks of life be brought to the attention of decision makers—to voters at large, their representatives, and other government officials.

In democratic theory, public communication of information relevant to articulating and solving public problems is often called “deliberation.” That term may unduly narrow our conception of democratic communication to the kinds of relatively sober talk that take place in a congressional hearing or around a negotiating table. Such discussions are essential to democratic inquiry. Often, however, bringing matters to the attention of the public requires communicating with loud voices, in large numbers, with theater, drama, and symbolism. It may require disrupting the normal routines of citizens so that they sit up and listen. This is why the right to mass public assemblies and demonstrations is such a critical feature of democracies.

Restricting communication to quiet rooms governed by norms of subdued and polite conversation can be a means the powerful use to suppress the communication of grievances. Consider the difficulties blacks encountered in North Carolina. White elites in North Carolina prided themselves in upholding a kinder, gentler style of white supremacy than in the Deep South. They saw the unequal race relations they enforced as amicable, grounded in norms of civility. But they rigged the rules of civility to block any polite way for blacks to express their legitimate demands. They characterized blacks who demanded desegregation as rude, unruly, and irresponsible. They selected, as purported spokesmen for the black community, “responsible” blacks whose economic dependence on white employers made them reluctant to challenge segregation. “Credible” blacks had to express their claims in such mild, indirect, and apologetic terms that whites could represent their own neglect of black interests as an accommodation of black claims. Civility provided excuses for endless stonewalling. Time and again, North Carolina’s activists had to resort to sit-ins, strikes, and demonstrations to force white elites to pay attention to their demands.

The necessity of disruptive communication is closely connected to the epistemic consequences of segregation. When advantaged groups are able to segregate themselves from the disadvantaged, they lose personal contact with the problems of the disadvantaged. They become ignorant. Enclosed in secure enclaves, insulated from the problems their segregative practices impose on others, they become complacent and insular: those people’s problems are not ours. Disruptive demonstrations are needed to break through these walls of complacency, insularity, and ignorance. They prevent the advantaged from continuing their everyday routines. They make “those” people’s problems everyone’s problems. Only so will the advantaged sit up and listen, and thereby learn from those from whom they have closed themselves off.

[from pages 98-98; endnote numbers removed]

“You don’t enjoy petty violence on as many levels as I do”


I’ve seen lots of tweets like this today:

I don’t especially care that Richard Spencer got punched — I’m filing this incident next to that time Buzz Aldrin clocked a moon landing truther — but if you think anyone is even a tiny bit safer because Richard Spencer got punched, you’ve totally misunderstood the nature of the threat he poses. Just admit you enjoyed seeing an awful man get hit, because you’re a normal person. Don’t validate the pearl clutchers; there’s no need to carry on with the feeble attempts to find some kind of deep principled justification for this, because it’s just not that big a deal.

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as tastiness is of batches of cookies

rawlscookie2Pictured: Rawls formulates his second principle of justice as fairness

John Rawls was basically the Cookie Monster:

Jack also had a taste for oatmeal cookies served with tea. Recently, I spent part of an afternoon with him as his wife went out to play tennis. She left a large cookie for him. As I got up to leave, he asked me to go look through the kitchen cabinets for a bag of oatmeal cookies, which he asked me to leave with him as I left. I guiltily complied. The next afternoon, he asked me if I wanted more than the two cookies I had eaten. I told him that, as good as they were, I had better not eat any more. He then announced definitively to his wife, “Mardy, Sam wants another cookie, and I think I’ll have another one, too.”

From Samuel Freeman, “John Rawls: Friend and Teacher”, reprinted in Appendix B of Justice and the Social Contract: Essays on Rawlsian Political Philosophy

Deliberative democracy and the owl of Minerva: a response to Aikin and Talisse


Pictured: Reasonable citizens deliberating

In the latest issue of The Critique, Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse have an interesting article on a phenomenon they refer to as the owl of Minerva problem. Roughly, the idea is that the tools we use to evaluate the quality of arguments submitted in public political debate are necessarily retrospective. This is because as soon as we acquire those tools, they get turned loose in first-order disputes. And as soon as that happens, we need new tools to evaluate arguments that deploy those evaluative tools. The cycle repeats indefinitely. To the extent that “deliberative democracy” (in which political outcomes are strongly connected to the outcomes of inclusive processes of reasonable deliberation) requires citizens to have tools with which they can evaluate arguments currently before them, this problem may be fatal to the deliberative ideal.

Aikin and Talisse are two of my very favourite political writers, and I enjoyed the article. But I also disagreed with almost everything in it.

The formulation of the owl of Minerva problem in Aikin and Talisse’s article seems to me to be based on an implausible kind of linguistic determinism — essentially reducing critical thinking skills to knowledge of specific metalanguage — which produces a contradiction in their argument. The identification of critical thinking skills with knowledge of specific metalanguage is what causes the infinite regress they’re worried about, whereby the public’s ability to analyze arguments effectively enough for collective decisions to be based on reason-giving must always lag one step behind the arguments being used. But if critical thinking is so reducible, it should be impossible to identify phenomena requiring new metalanguage. The fact that it does seem to be possible to identify such phenomena has two possible implications. The first is that critical thinking may involve a substantial component of know-how (in addition to declarative knowledge of analytical metalanguage) that is sufficient (at least jointly with some minimum amount of knowledge of specific metalanguage) to generate new metalanguage to deal with new problems. The second is that all problems in argumentation can be analyzed upon mastery of a relatively small and easily acquired analytical vocabulary; new metalanguage may be generated for the sake of convenience, but the phenomena it is concerned with are easily grasped in terms of the basic vocabulary. In either case, the infinite regress would be halted in its tracks.

So perhaps Aikin and Talisse’s theoretical case for the owl of Minerva problem can be set aside. But their theoretical argument is inspired by empirical concerns regarding the quality of public deliberation in actually existing democracies. Does the ease with which metalanguage is appropriated as a tool in first-order disputes pose a challenge to the feasibility of deliberative democracy? The force of Aikin and Talisse’s empirical conclusions depend on the truth of the claim that the deliberative ideal is so widely endorsed (at least as an aspiration) as to be a defining feature of contemporary democracy; if the deliberative ideal is not widely endorsed, then widespread violation of its constitutive norms in political life should come as no surprise. The argument offered in support of this bold claim, however, is not very convincing.

I think many deliberative democrats would bridle at the suggestion that any contemporary democracy truly aspires to — let alone instantiates — the ideals of deliberative democracy. Aikin and Talisse’s claim that our democratic practices only make sense if we really do (currently) aspire to deliberative democracy only gives support to the claim that we aspire to deliberative democracy if our democratic practices do in fact make sense. But why suppose that our democratic practices make sense? If the values of deliberative democracy have not shaped our democratic practices, then a nonsensical, historically and culturally contingent, slapdash hodgepodge of practices is exactly what we should expect. And if actually existing democracies neither instantiate nor even aspire to the deliberative ideal, the shortcomings of actually existing democracy as evaluated from the deliberative perspective have no bearing on the feasibility of that ideal.

Perhaps Aikin and Talisse are actually only claiming that particular democratic practices — not our democratic practices considered collectively as an overall regime — depend on the deliberative ideal for their intelligibility. There are two problems with this. First, particular practices based on the deliberative ideal may be compromised by other practices based on other ideals, or on no ideals at all. If non-deliberative practices compromise deliberative practices, then this only casts condemnation on the non-deliberative practices. Second, Aikin and Talisse’s examples of particular practices that ostensibly depend on the deliberative ideal for their intelligibility strike me as very weak.

For example, are television panel debates to be understood as actual debates in the deliberative sense? Aikin and Talisse seem to take this as self-evidently true. But it seems much more likely to me that pro-and-con panels are normally set up so as to attract a broader viewing audience. The “debate” serves mainly to present contrasting positions, not to deliberate about them. Nor do such faux debates do much to facilitate the overall processes of public and private deliberation; the presentation of each side tends to be cursory at best. On non-commercial television, panel debates tend to be more productive, not because both sides reach an agreement, but because they allow for a more thorough presentation of pro and con positions and the reasons that favour them, and for modelling realistically decent (though not ideal) political argumentation. This contrast between commercial and non-commercial television seems to support the notion that panel debates do not proliferate because of widely shared deliberative values, but because there is a commercial incentive for the bare representation of both sides on television.

What about the claim that “bias, spin, derp, lying, flip-flopping, glad-handing, and all the rest” can only be regarded as vices from the deliberative perspective? This is clearly false. Bias, for example, tends to be regarded as a political vice when it favours an opposing group, threatens the stability of one’s political coalition, leads to rash decision-making, etc., not simply when it compromises a politician’s objectivity or reasonableness. When bias works in one’s favour, we call it something like loyalty or being principles, and it is often regarded as a political virtue. It seems just as easy to give non-deliberative accounts of the rest of these vices. To my knowledge, habitual dishonesty has never been publicly regarded as a political virtue under any system of government. Unless the deliberative ideal has been with us since the dawn of political society, it must be possible to criticize behaviour like lying and flip-flopping from a wide range of perspectives.

Part of the problem with Aikin and Talisse’s empirical argument is that they seem to be working with far too broad a conception of what deliberative democracy entails, eliding what is actually distinctive about it. Deliberative democracy is more than using just arguments in the democratic process; in Joshua Cohen’s words, it “ties the exercise of collective power to reason-giving among those subject to collective decisions.” But in existing democracies, the exercise of collective power more often seems to be linked to the interests of the rich, the organizational success of competing political groupings, and the aggregated unreflective preferences of the electorate. In short, the exercise of collective power is tied to the outcome of power struggle. Political life is power struggle because our societies are unjust; the distribution of wealth, liberties, opportunities and other goods does not conform to reasonable standards. By definition, an unreasonable state of affairs cannot be defended reasonably. But this unjust state of affairs we find ourselves in obviously has many defenders in political life. To the extent that they defend an unjust state of affairs in the political sphere, they are not entering into reasonable debate. Why then should their opponents conduct themselves strictly according to the standards of reasonable debate?

Achieving the deliberative ideal requires eradicating or somehow neutralizing the gross inequalities that pervade existing democratic societies and turn political life into a true battleground. Until this happens, it makes little sense for voters or politicians to always conduct themselves according to the norms of deliberative democracy. As Ken MacLeod put it, we put ourselves at a serious disadvantage when we mistake a fight for an argument. If public debate is and ought to be conducted as a fight, then it is no surprise and no cause for special concern if the tools of argument are appropriated as weapons of war. This phenomenon does not call the feasibility of the deliberative ideal into question. The last word goes to Cohen again:

Deliberative democracy is a normative model of collective decision-making, not a universal political strategy. And commitment to the normative ideal does not require commitment to the belief that collective decision-making through mutual reason-giving is always possible. So it may indeed be the case that some rough background balance of power is required before parties will listen to reason. But observing that does not importantly lessen the attraction of the deliberative ideal; it simply states a condition of its reasonable pursuit.

A better way for the prime minister to connect

william_hogarth_028Pictured: Probably not the best way

Late last week, Justin Trudeau announced that instead of attending Donald Trump’s inauguration or the World Economic Forum at Davos, he’ll be embarking on a cross-Canada town hall tour, meeting with members of the public in order to reconnect with Canadians and ensure that his government stays in touch with their priorities and concerns. The cynical perspective on this story, which casts the tour is transparently nothing more than an effort to counter perceptions that Trudeau is unduly influenced by wealthy donors to his party, has been well covered already. While this may very well explain what the prime minister is up to, I’m more interested in a normative issue: is the prime minister’s national tour actually desirable from a democratic perspective?

To be clear, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the prime minister going out and meeting people, but I do think there’s something wrong with the prime minister going out and meeting people as a means of reducing the democratic deficit. At best, his approach seems to reflect serious confusion about the nature of parliamentary democracy; at worst, a disturbingly populist conception of how democracy ought to be.

I’m both puzzled and troubled by the suggestion that this tour is necessary in order to connect with the public and hear their views and concerns. Representing the public at the national level is one of the functions of parliament; if the prime minister himself feels an urgent need to stage an ad hoc series of public meetings like those planned for this tour, he must have very little confidence in the capacity of MPs and local party offices to execute this crucial function.

Even supposing that this lack of confidence is justified, it’s hard to see how the national tour could improve anything. Having the chief executive hold the occasional series of town halls is no long-term solution to a breakdown in the bonds between MPs and the public on one hand, and between parliament and the executive on the other. A tour of this kind will always be an unusual event; direct communication with the public is not part of and should not be added to prime minister’s already hefty set of official responsibilities. But attention to the views and interests of the public should be a regular feature of political life, not a newsworthy exception to the rule. Only MPs are capable of giving the public this kind of attention — through correspondence, casework, holding formal and informal meetings, being present at a range of community events, etc. The special relationship this establishes between the public and their representatives is what gives MPs the credibility and political legitimacy they need to effectively fulfill their roles as parliamentarians.

The idea of the prime minister going on a national tour like this in the name of democracy, then, strikes me as perverse. It undermines MPs’ special status as public representatives while encouraging us to view the executive as occupying that role instead. As noted above, this shift necessarily leads to downgraded expectations about public participation in national politics simply because there are necessarily fewer opportunities for the public to interact with the executive. By striking at the root of MPs’ legitimacy and credibility, this shift also reduces their ability to speak and act with a healthy degree of independence in caucus, in committees, in the Commons chamber itself, and in various less than formal (but no less important) political venues. Such changes should worry the prime minister as much as anyone; MPs are the executive’s line to the public, so cutting off MPs from the public cuts off the prime minister as well.

The extent to which MPs today are really less in touch with the public and less able to assert their independence in parliamentary life is debatable. For example, false consensus bias may account for some of the perception that politicians are out of touch, and simple nostalgia may encourage the perception that this is increasingly the case. But regardless of whether things are getting much worse or staying about the same, I think there’s clearly a lot of room for qualitative and quantitative improvement on both these scores. So in that respect, Trudeau’s goal of strengthening the connection between Canadians and our government is a laudable one. What my criticism of the national tour implies is not that this goal should be abandoned, but that it ought to be pursued by different means. Rather than vainly trying to substitute the executive for MPs in the role of public representative, the government should be looking for ways to support MPs in this role. To that end, I have two suggestions.

First, enact the original version of Michael Chong’s Reform Act.

In its original form, the Reform Act established a formal process of leadership review by a party’s caucus in the House of Commons, initiated by a petition signed by fifteen percent of caucus members. A simple majority vote would be sufficient to remove the sitting leader and begin the selection process anew. A second component of the act curbed the leader’s disciplinary powers over caucus, removing his or her ability to unilaterally expel members from caucus. Instead, expulsion would follow similar rules as the leadership review process. The third component removed the requirement for candidates nominated by riding associations to have their nomination endorsed by the party leader. Instead, a nomination officer elected by each riding association would sign off on nominations, which would ensure that any candidate purporting to represent the party in an election would have the local party’s endorsement but prevent interference in local nomination contests by party leaders.

Taken together, these reforms would have significantly empowered MPs to hold party leaders accountable, reducing the threat of arbitrary, capricious or purely self-interested exercise of disciplinary authority while preserving a sufficient degree of party cohesion. It could reasonably be hoped that increasing the autonomy of MPs — often perceived, even by themselves, as little more than mouthpieces for their leader’s office — would enhance their credibility as public representatives. Although the Reform Act was eventually passed, in its final form it was weakened so badly that In essence, all it did was affirm the ability of political parties to adopt these internal changes voluntarily — an ability they’ve had all along. Unsurprisingly, no party has done so. The exaggerated form of party discipline that dominates in Canada is a response to the political environment, and unilaterally adopting the measures outlined in the Reform Act entails significant political risks. The obvious solution is to make adoption of these measures mandatory.

Second, establish a special development fund for electoral district associations.

EDAs possess considerable potential for democratic engagement, but little incentive and scarce resources with which to exploit it. In many cases, their only function is to nominate candidates and run the local election campaign (often according to an extremely strict playbook drawn up by the national campaign office). But EDAs’ ubiquity, approachability and small scale may be especially conducive to a kind of human-scale, deliberative democratic practice that often seems missing in political life. Royce Koop has documented how MPs can draw on the executive of their local party association to improve the quality of representation they offer; conceivably, EDAs without MPs may also be able to improve their competitiveness and provide an alternative channel of representation to neglected constituencies within their ridings. Besides being worthwhile in its own right, one could hope that this would encourage a “race to the top” among parties to strengthen their local ties across the country.

To this end, a certain amount of funding could be earmarked for the development of local party associations, on a “use it or lose it” basis. These funds could be used for outreach activities, skills and leadership development, holding public meetings, and so forth. An untargeted subsidy to political parties is likely to be consumed by national party offices, and as Peter Loewen has argued, this tends to make national parties less engaged with the grassroots. Earmarking funds for local party development, on the other hand, would tend to enhance the influence of the local parties from two sides: on the one hand, it would give EDAs the incentive and resources to carry out local party-building activities beyond nominating candidates and campaigning for office, while on the other hand it would continue to require the national office to solicit funds from the membership.

My suggestion might be criticized on the grounds that EDAs are inevitably filled with partisans; empowering EDAs, then, just boils down to empowering partisans, and hence may actually damage the quality of local representation. This objection should be taken seriously, but I take a more optimistic view. The idea that empowering partisans necessarily comes at a cost to the quality of local representation stems from observing traits — e.g. insularity, dogmatism, subservience — that would tend to be systematically undermined by the reform I’m proposing here.

Summing up, I’m perfectly happy to take Trudeau at his word that he’s going on this trip because he thinks it’s important for the government to stay in touch with the people. But I don’t think the way he’s going about it makes much sense in the context of Canada’s form of democracy. Trudeau’s personal touch is not what’s needed to soothe the country’s democratic malaise; our problems are institutional, and they call out for institutional solutions. The right way for Trudeau to ensure that the government stays in touch with Canadians would be to call everyone back to Ottawa and pass these reforms.

What belongs on a ballot paper?


The image above. showing sample ballots from Ireland and Malta, is from Electoral Systems: A Comparative Introduction by David M. Farrell. A charming but puzzling feature of both is that they list the occupation and address (or at least the approximate area of residence) of each candidate, along with their names and party affiliations. The information can be seen more clearly on these scans:


ballot4.jpgI don’t know how common it is for ballots to list candidates’ occupations and addresses, or why Ireland and Malta include this information. My best guess is that it’s got something to do with STV; with a preferential ballot and large multi-member electoral districts, voters may want to try to ensure that the makeup of their district’s delegation is representative of the district’s diverse geographically and socioeconomically based interests.

Although STV may account for the continuation of the practice in Ireland and Malta, it turns out that Canada used to print this information on ballots too. John C. Courtney writes that the practice only ended in 1970, at the same time that party affiliation was added to the ballot design. Of course this information is still collected, and there’s a site you can use to search the occupations of Senators and Members of Parliament going all the way back to Confederation (fun fact: only two confectioners have ever served in the House of Commons). But Courtney, writing in 1974, makes a strong case that something important was lost when this information was removed from the ballot, and makes me wonder if it would be worth bringing it back:

The justification for occupations listed on the ballot … is a good deal more subtle than one might at first suspect. Do we not, with increasing frequency, it seems, criticize modern governments for being far too much a creature of parties not enough the result of the efforts of individuals? Have we not now taken one more step, this time in law, in giving support to such a criticism by having sanctioned the removal of a person’s occupational description from the ballot and its replacement with the label of a political group? Once again the particular is submerged by the general and one piece of evidence which serves to remind us that politicians something more than “party” candidates alone is lost. Politicians are, after all, men and women from varied backgrounds with a great range of interests, talents, and occupations. We should do our best to recognize them as such.

Does the universe exist for entertainment value?


Creation of the universe in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

Here’s a video of a squirrel stealing a chocolate bar. It’s funny.

Cognitive biases can have bad consequences, but without them we wouldn’t be able to enjoy funny animal videos like this. After all, there’s nothing inherently funny about an animal seeing something it wants and then taking it. All the humour in this video is due to reflexively attributing human-like mental states to the utterly alien mind of the squirrel.

Maybe cognitive biases are a bit like certain recreational drugs. They can really mess people up, but they can also give people fun new perspectives on things and send them into fits of giggles. And they’re here to stay, so instead of just moaning about them or trying to get rid of them, we should pursue policies including education and institutional reforms that promote safe and responsible use.

Now this occurs to me: A lot of entertainment (especially magic and comedy) runs on cognitive bias. If these forms of entertainment produce unique goods, then certain goods can only be realized if there are finite beings, because only finite beings could be subject to cognitive biases. And if it is in the nature of certain goods that they can only be realized if there are finite beings, an infinite being has reason to create finite beings. If an infinite being would bring it about that all goods are at least potentially realized, then an infinite being would create finite beings. So what I’m getting at is that if God created the universe, they created it because of funny animal videos.

Here’s one possible objection. An infinite being must be infinitely good. Infinite goodness necessarily involves the realization of all possible goods. So if there is something an infinite being is not capable of, that thing must not be necessary for the realization of any good, and it follows that anything that does require something that the infinite being is not capable of in order to be realized cannot be a unique kind of good.

However, I think this objection assumes a voluntarist conception of the good, whereby what is good depends on the will or nature of an infinite being, rather than the other way round. But suppose we reject voluntarism, and instead view the good as defined by standards that hold independently of what an infinite being wills. We can then say that infinite goodness involves the realization of all possible goods to the extent that this is logically possible. This makes it conceivable that the realization of all possible goods could be outside the realm of possibility for an infinite being.

Of course there are all sorts of other possible objections one could raise from various theological perspectives; the idea that God was under any kind of obligation to create the universe seems to conflict with the doctrine of divine sufficiency, for example. As it happens, though, I don’t think the universe was created by an infinite being, and my point isn’t really theological anyway — it’s humanistic. Humans aren’t perfect; we struggle with a wide range of limitations, from the mildly irritating — “if we were truly created by God,” Dara O’Briain asks, “why do we occasionally bite the inside of our own mouths?” — to the truly tragic, and the effects of cognitive bias are found across that whole range. Regardless of how our various imperfections actually came about, the fact that even if we had been designed by a perfect being we would still have this particular imperfection may help us overcome some of the frustrations of the human condition.

Is physicalism consistent with our best physics?


In my last post, I discussed an alleged inconsistency between interactionist substance dualism and our most successful theories of fundamental physics, referred to collectively as “Core Theory” (a term coined by Sean Carroll, I believe), and I concluded that there is no necessary inconsistency between the two. According to my argument, if mind-body interaction occurs, then the physical effects of mind-body interaction will already be among the phenomena that Core Theory describes. The fundamental laws of physics are, in other words, determined in part by the interaction of mind and body, implying that interaction between mental and physical substance occurs everywhere that our fundamental laws of physics apply.

This implication may seem hard to believe; however, in order to avoid violating Core Theory themselves, physicalists too must accept something very much like it. Physicalists believe that there is only physical stuff; mind is viewed as a product of or identical to a certain kind or arrangement of physical substance (e.g. a human brain) — it is a complex but fundamentally physical phenomenon. With respect to the relation between basic physical phenomena and mental phenomena, many physicalists endorse some kind of emergentism, i.e. the view that mental phenomena emerge from suitably arranged basic physical entities, but are not reducible to or governed by the same basic laws as those entities. Emergence purports to explain why it seems so hard to explain how the mind could be constituted by the kinds of basic entities — quarks, photons, electrons, etc. — that populate our fundamental theories of physics: suitably arranged, certain complex physical objects come under the jurisdiction of a different set of fundamental physical laws. Because these laws are fundamental, they cannot be inferred from any amount of knowledge about lower-level physical entities and the rules they play by. Emergentism also offers an escape route from the threat of epiphenomenalism, the view that mental states make no difference to anything that happens in the brain; emergent mental states have causal powers over and above the causal powers of the physical entities from which they emerge.

Unfortunately, the emergentist variety of physicalism seems to face the same problem as interactionist dualism. The worry is that if distinct causal powers emerge in the brain, the behaviour of matter in the brain will not conform to the predictions of Core Theory. Perhaps, on closer study, it will turn out that there are local violations of Core Theory in the brain. If so, emergentists are off the hook, but so are interactionists, and physicalism loses a major advantage over dualism. If, as I think is more likely, no violations occur, emergentists are in a tight spot. Assuming epiphenomenalism is unacceptable, then any independent causal role for consciousness must already be accounted for in the fundamental laws of Core Theory. This implies that the fundamental laws of Core Theory are determined in part by the causal contribution of mental states emerging from physical substance, and the apparent uniformity of these laws across space and time implies that the effects of emergent mental states pervade time and space. The bottom line is that in order to be consistent with our best physics, a plausible kind of physicalism must — for almost the exact same reasons as dualists — take mental phenomena to be partly constitutive of fundamental natural laws as described by science.

Further reading

See section 8 of “Consciousness and its Place in Nature” by David Chalmers for an alternative formulation of the problem I discuss in the third paragraph.