Sunday, 13 April 2014

A Vote of Faith

     I want you to offer you a choice between two worlds.

     In the first, most people believe that democratic government is a sham, and that the real power is raw, brute force, the well-equipped and trained mercenaries doing the bidding of the power elite. Since it is much cheaper and easier to control people through deception, however, there is the window-dressing of democratic elections and representative government, all aimed at keeping the populace distracted and either content (with their token representation) or resigned to their powerlessness (either because they think they have lost the democratic process fair and square, or because they perceive that they can do nothing against the power elites). Since democracy and the rule of law are shams, almost no one bothers to try to call attention to the powerful and those few who do find it difficult to motivate anyone to do anything, because everyone knows they have no power and can do nothing.

     In the second, most people believe in democratic government and the rule of law. Fundamental to these ideals is the power of reason, of persuasion, of discourse. If there is a conflict, people expect to resolve it by reasoned argument with reference to "rights", by negotiation rather than violence. They obey the law because they believe that's what decent people do, and when people don't, they expect something to be done about it. Moreover, they obey the law because they trust that if the law turns out to be unjust, they can change it through the democratic process or the courts. While there is corruption and abuse of power in this world, the corrupt need to be especially careful and discreet, because they cannot rely on apathy or despair to keep anyone from doing anything about it.

     People in both worlds are not especially stupid. They both see their own world pretty much the way it is. In the first world, most people really are powerless and there is really is no point to political engagement and reasoned argument. In the second world, most people really do have some power if they are politically engaged with reasoned arguments.

     Which world do you think we actually live in? If you like to think of yourself as a cynic, a realist, wise, mature, experienced, and so on, you probably think we live in the first. And objectively, you're probably right. It probably is naïvely idealistic to think we actually live in the second.
     But which would would you rather live in? I don't think there's really much controversy here. The second sounds much more appealing, which is perhaps why it seems so unrealistic. Sure, we might want to live in a world of fair elections and responsible government, but isn't that just a pipe dream?

     Well, here's the thing to notice. The only difference between the two worlds is that in one, most people believe it's one way, while in the other, most people believe the opposite. All of the actual, tangible differences between the way the two worlds operate derive from those different perceptions. If most of us believe and act as if we are living in the first, then we really are in the first; if most of us believe and act as if we are living in the second, then we really are in the second. Your belief, therefore, is actually a kind of a vote.
      Now, I've often argued here that belief is not simply a question of choice. I believe something to be true not because I want it to be true, but because it appears to be so regardless of what I want. Moreover, I hold that it is preferable to believe the truth than a more palatable lie, so if we are in fact living in the first world and not the second, it is absolutely better to be aware of that objective fact than to deny it.
      This is where faith comes in. As I've also argued before, faith and belief are not the same thing at all. You may well believe we live in the first world. But you can "vote" for the second, as it were, by acting as if you believe that's where we live. Engage in the political process, even if you're sure it's a total sham, and assert your constitutional rights as if you expect them to be respected, even if they won't. Provide intelligent, reasoned discourse as if you expect people to take it seriously and think about it, even if you privately believe they won't.
     It's exactly like voting, in that we will only succeed if enough other people do the same, and there's a very good chance that our effort will be in vain and we'll lose the election. Our chances are better if we persuade others to join us, and that is what I'm trying to do here. Make that leap of faith, and vote for democracy, even if you don't actually believe it exists. 


  1. Thank you, Tom, for a clear explanation of the two points-of-view that will determine all.
    I am curious about the "me" who makes the decision one way or the other. Is this "me" so swallowed that I become what I believe, or am I still somehow distinct? And if both decisions seem to be just a game, who is the "me" that is playing this game, and who set it up, and why am I playing it at all? And if I fold up the board and go home, where is home?

  2. The "me" is an individual, all of whom make up the "we". And so long as we live in a finite planet, there's no renouncing membership in that "we"; we ARE going to have to coexist somehow, because there will be conflicts over resources or space or time or attention. Even the decision to go off and live a solitary independent life in the wilderness somewhere does not truly free one of the necessity of interacting with other interests, in that by withdrawing you do not acquire any practical right against those who might follow and try to mine the mountain out from under you. You're gonna have to find a solution to the problem of the existence of other persons somehow, and total withdrawal kind of undermines one's ability to argue one's case by reference to reason and rights.

    We can resolve our differences by reason or by force. That's the real choice. I'm recommending that we choose reason. If enough of us choose that way, it become reality.

  3. But surely this is still begging the question. Your answer assumes what we are and advises on a course of action. The only satisfaction it offers is an efficient social order
    for those who want an efficient social order. Is there any reason why we should want that? If it is just to make things go nicely-- nicely for whom? and Why?

  4. I assume you're capable of language and reason, and that you have interests and desires that relate to the physical world around us. I assume that those interests and desires may come into conflict with the interests and desires of other minds. That's pretty much all I need to assume to make my argument.

    Now, I'm not offering "an efficient social order" as some inherent good. Perhaps you prefer a world ruled by force rather than reasoned negotiation, and if you do, I cannot persuade you otherwise using reason. All I can say is that if you opt for force over argument, you can offer no reason why I shouldn't preemptively shoot you.

  5. I am very glad that you are arguing for reason in society, and I certainly do not like the degree to which force is the bottom line. I just am not satisfied that peaceful co-existence is enough. Many very dysfunctional families have achieved peaceful co-existence. But what they have is sad and empty. In other spheres, people get along, but they are sad and empty. Why sad? Why empty?

  6. That's beyond the scope of this discussion. Peaceful coexistence also doesn't ensure that people get enough vitamin C, or that they write better poetry, or that they're not inconvenienced by heavy snowfall.

    We either respect autonomy and personhood (by adopting principles of civil discourse and democratic rules) or we do not. If someone else's life is sad and empty, and you can offer a way to improve it, great. I submit you'll have a better chance at success in improving human happiness and fulfilment in world 2 than in world 1.

  7. You are so utilitarian!

  8. On many issues, yes, but I was responding to the concern for empty, sad lives. If you deem that to be an important consideration, then presumably you will want to choose the world in which more people have happy and fulfilled lives.

    I have not offered a Kantian justification for why you should choose World 2, because I assume it's kind of self-evident that World 2 is based on respect for autonomy.

  9. Why does it seem like your world is everybody masturbating?

  10. In World 2, everyone is masturbating. In World 1, everyone is either raping or getting raped.

  11. I guess you are right that World 2 is better, but do you see why it seems empty and meaningless?

  12. I see what you are trying to do, which is to hijack a conversation about the choice between democracy and despotism into yet another attempt to persuade me to accept Jesus as my personal saviour.

    Please don't. I wrote the above post because I wanted to address the question of apathy: why bother voting, why bother engaging for social change when we have no power to affect anything?

    That is an important question in this world. I believe people should think seriously about it, and discuss it, and make an informed choice between these two worlds. If they choose World 2, they should understand that involves some degree of commitment and sacrifice: they need to get involved and informed and engage in the process, or at the very least not acquiesce when other people flout it.

    Is that not an important message? Or is there only one conceivably important message to you, the message of salvation, that warrants interrupting and pre-empting every other question?

    Think very carefully about that, because it speaks volumes about your choice with respect to Worlds 1 and 2. If you believe you are entitled to ignore other people's interests and harangue them into accepting your authoritative book of How Things Must Be, if you believe you are justified in silencing conversation on all topics but your own, then you are not actually committed to the principles of World 2. You say, "I guess you are right that World 2 is better," which is pretty tepid.

    Fine. Let me convince you, on your own terms. The standard for "empty and meaningless" that you apply to find World 2 wanting should be applied to both worlds for any meaningful comparison. If World 1 is even slightly less "empty and meaningless", then maybe your lack of enthusiasm for World 2 might be justified.

    Why do you find the idea of everyone masturbating unsettling? Presumably you mean that people are acting to gratify their own desires and needs, without regard for others. And yeah, that seems morally bleak, if that's all that's happening. It'd be nicer if people actually cared about something other than themselves, whether it be each other or God or whatever. In fact, I agree, but let's go compare World 1.

    Remember that World 1 is one in which conflict is ultimately resolved through unprincipled coercion, whether those with power get what they want, regardless of any principled argument the weak may offer. (Principled argument may work, but only if the strong already accept the premise of World 2, or if the argument shows that it's actually in the strong's best interest to agree, in which case the argument is not one of principle but self-interest.) In other words, World 1 is founded exclusively on self-interest. This is clear when you think about how coercion works. Do as I say, or there will be consequences that YOU do not like.

    In that sense, everyone in World 1 is furiously masturbating all the time. The weak do the will of the strong not because it is right, not because they value the strong and respect their judgment, but because being fed feels better to THEM than being beaten. Every choice is made on the basis of pure self-interest.

    Contrast this with World 2, which is founded on the principle that something can override self-interest. If the weak can provide a principled argument showing that the strong ought to do something because it is right, even if it may not be in the strong's personal interest to do so, then the strong (in World 2) will do it.

    In other words, if you want a world in which people are concerned about morality or each other or anything at all other than their own personal gratification, you ought to embrace World 2 and reject World 1 with whole-hearted zeal, not some lukewarm "Yeah, I guess..."

  13. If you ever come to wonder what "Anonymous" thinks about a thing, signal that in your post. I will keep reading from time to time, but I do not intend to reply any more. Thanks for many interchanges. Love, Anonymous