“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, July 22, 2005

what is it like to be a voter?

I am, stripped of a few eccentricities, a Keynsian liberal. However, I think liberalism's attempt to shake the existential edge off politics is futile and ultimately damaging. The left, when it is healthy, and the right, when it is not, both know that politics is all about dread and ecstasy.

That politics might be an existentialist errand is very much part of what I take to be the salient characteristic of contemporary election-based democracies. To get to that characteristic, let me quote a recent comment to one of our posts by Kmort, and then let me tell you why I believe his point is misguided:

“The Rousseauian impulse is I believe a big problem of yankee politics. Populism is as bad for authentic liberals as it is for the more intelligent conservatives. With a few higher standards for voting--say basic reading comprehension test at the polls (I would say ex-felons who pass it should be permitted to vote) or a college-degree requirement think of how much more accurate and meaningful the vote would be.”

If election based democracy is simply about input from those with an intelligent grasp of the issues, the “Rousseauian impulse,” which gives a free ride to those who have no such grasp, would seem fatally flawed. However, I don’t think election based democracy is about those with an intelligent grasp of the issues, at least if that grasp is defined in terms of having informed opinions about policy. In our opinion, a philosophical defense of democracy has to begin with a better description of how voting functions in a democracy in the first place. What kind of feed back is voting? I propose that we look for the answer to that question using Thomas Nagel’s essay, What is it like to be a bat?

Now of course Nagel’s essay doesn’t seem like it is about politics at all. It is about the narrow set of questions that are posed by the cognitive sci school to frame the problem of consciousness. And, famously, Nagel suggests that these questions do not pose the central problem of consciousness at all : “…the fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.”

What it is like questions grab hold of subjectivity, rather than deductive activity:

“We may call this the subjective character of experience. It is not captured by any of the familiar, recently devised reductive analyses of the mental, for all of them are logically compatible with its absence. It is not analyzable in terms of any explanatory system of functional states, or intentional states, since these could be ascribed to robots or automata that behaved like people though they experienced nothing.2 It is not analyzable in terms of the causal role of experiences in relation to typical human behavior—for similar reasons.3 I do not deny that conscious mental states and events cause behavior, nor that they may be given functional characterizations. I deny only that this kind of thing exhausts their analysis. Any reductionist program has to be based on an analysis of what is to be reduced. If the analysis leaves something out, the problem will be falsely posed. It is useless to base the defense of materialism on any analysis of mental phenomena that fails to deal explicitly with their subjective character. For there is no reason to suppose that a reduction which seems plausible when no attempt is made to account for consciousness can be extended to include consciousness. With out some idea, therefore, of what the subjective character of experience is, we cannot know what is required of physicalist theory.”

The defense of the participation of the people in the government has traditionally been couched in terms of their education and their information about the policy issues. The Kantian dictum about enlightenment -- that it is the people treated as adults, or grown into their adulthood -- is often taken to be about the people educated. Relieved of their superstitions by some suitable immersion in the bath of facts. However, to me the "adulthood" does not stand for a list of facts known. It stands for a complicated system of controls on behavior, for the capacity for a range of emotions, for imagination, for empathy, etc., etc. In the same way, defining the voters participation in the government in terms of checking things off the list of things known is much like defining the consciousness solely in terms of deductive or inductive mechanisms. Or, at a stretch, in terms of intentionality.

The picture I am against is like this: your educated voter looks up candidate x’s view on the issue of lowering or raising tariffs on the import of bananas, and looks up candidate y’s view of same, and – deciding which view accords with his own intelligent view of banana importation – votes accordingly. Votes, in fact, can be reduced to a digital function: for/not for.

I think this is a bare and distorted view of what voting is about, and how it functions in a democracy. The voter, on this account, merely confirms or disconfirms views represented by x and y. On this basis, we think, democracy has no real strength that would explain not only its survival, but its survival in competition with its rivals of all sorts. It would simply be a system with a lag in the decision making process, called an election, as opposed to say tyranny, where the lags are unpredictable, and are called the hysterical fits of the ruler. Since it is unlikely that any voter has the amount of knowledge to make a competent judgment about not only the banana import issue, but, say, subsidies to the ethanol industry and car safety standards and the proper foreign policy to assume towards Gabon, if election based democracies depended on a set of voters with competent listable knowledge alone, I wouldn't give it much chance of survival.

The question of success, here, is often obscured by the rhetoric of morality. Democracies are supposed to possess some moral superiority. I have my doubts about this. Any time a political system becomes dominant, you find intellectuals busy justifying the system as morally superior. So far, the most long lasting governmental arrangement known to man involved the ruler marrying his sister and being acclaimed, at some point or another, a god, before his dead body was embalmed and interred under a certain tonnage of rock. In my opinion, this doesn’t sound like the height of morality, although it makes for very impressive postcards. We think that the success of democracy, given the success of other governmental arrangements in the past, probably does not have to do with its moral status, and probably has more to do with structural qualities it possesses.

This is the reason I don't think voting is well described by the Lockean model. I don’t think voters are like that. I prefer the Nagel voter. The Nagel voter votes, of course, in the for/against mode. But the Nagel voter votes from what it is like to be him or her. This is why the motives of the Nagel voter aren't simply confirming or disconfirming, and why the appeal to him or her is going to be about the emotions around the issues, or the issues as passions. And why the idea that is sometimes bruited about by liberal commentators about injecting ideas into a race and the scandal of not doing so is wrong – not wrong morally, but wrong organizationally. When, for instance, in the last election, the Swift boat veterans threw mud at Kerry, it was a perfectly legitimate ploy. After all, we are voting for someone who is going to have mud thrown at them constantly. The people who believed the mud were likely not going to vote for Kerry anyway. But the people who were persuaded by that ploy were not persuaded so much by the idea that Kerry was, I don’t know, a coward or a traitor – it wasn’t the ideational content, in other words, that moved them – as much as they were moved by the response. This isn't to say the better man was elected. It is to say that politics is about electing politicians, not better men. And that the system's success is peculiarly linked to what makes politicians successful.

Of course, polls are not sensitive to these things: polls ask questions about itemized issues, in a pre-digested sentiential form. There are, of course, millions of Lockean voters out there, and they are variously scandalized by the lack of intellectual content in American political campaigns. And LI has sympathy for that indignation. In fact, my indignation is easily aroused about what I see as gross stupidity on the part of politicians. Or about lies. Etc. Of course, the latter is a good instance of the situatedness of a political slant. I find the lies leading up to the Iraq war very upsetting. But I find the lies Clinton used to cover up his sex with Monica Lewinsky very irrelevant, a proof, at best, that laws against sexual harrassment in the workplace have been badly framed.

Just as I don’t want to throw deduction out as the enemy of consciousness, we don't want to entirely junk the image of the well informed voter. But eventually, the voting input is about what it is like to be an Irish ex-cop in New York city, or what it is like to be a embittered ex writer and insane blogger in Austin, Texas, etc., etc.

So, in my example above, I am not as indignant about lies per se, due to my being well informed, as I am indignant because I am the type of person who gets indignant about certain lies at certain times, and that is finally due to my total situation. Now, if LI is right about this, it still begs the question of the social nature of that tacit knowledge. Votes are additive, whereas tacit knowledge is emergent. That's a perhaps inevitable discrepancy in social action. But I will reserve pondering that question for another time.

I will round this off with three paragraphs from Nagel’s essay that give us a sense of how the Lockean defense of democracy differs from a Nagel-like defense of it. The Lockean, remember, is one who, like the reductionist, believes the way to understand the functioning of a government is to find the elementary parts and their combinations. And, above all, to avoid the non-discursive. For the Lockean, the last sentence of the third paragraph in this quote contains an idea too shocking not to be wrong, since it seems to make it impossible to perfectly combine rationality and government. And, after all, if government is simply decision-making – with its past being a series of decisions made, and its future a series of decisions to be made - then the Lockean has to be right. But if what Nagel is calling experience is not a decision – if it is a style, a set of attitudes, unpredictable variations among language games – and if experience is what democracy depends on, then the decision to suspend a voter’s right to vote, or the decision to impeach the person voted for or in some other way suspend his voted upon term, has to be done with the utmost caution, since it injures the experiential core of democracy:

“In the case of experience, on the other hand, the connection with a particular point of view seems much closer. It is difficult to understand what could be meant by the objective character of an experience, apart from the particular point of view from which its subject apprehends it. After all, what would be left of what it was like to be a bat if one removed the viewpoint of the bat? But if experience does not have, in addition to its subjective character, an objective nature that can be apprehended from many different points of view, then how can it be supposed that a Martian investigating my brain might be observing physical processes which were my mental processes (as he might observe physical processes which were bolts of lightning), only from a different point of view? How, for that matter, could a human physiologist observe them from another point of view?10

... This is accomplished by reducing our dependence on individual or species-specific points of view toward the object of investigation. We describe it not in terms of the impressions it makes on our senses, but in terms of its more general effects and of properties detectable by means other than the human senses. The less it depends on a specifically human viewpoint, the more objective is our description. It is possible to follow this path because although the concepts and ideas we employ in thinking about the external world are initially applied from a point of view that involves our perceptual apparatus, they are used by us to refer to things beyond themselves—toward which we have the phenomenal point of view.

Therefore we can abandon it in favor of another, and still be thinking about the same things. Experience itself however, does not seem to fit the pattern. The idea of moving from appearance to reality seems to make no sense here. What is the analogue in this case to pursuing a more objective understanding of the same phenomena by abandoning the initial subjective viewpoint toward them in favour of another that is more objective but concerns the same thing? Certainly it appears unlikely that we will get closer to the real nature of human experience by leaving behind the particularity of our human point of view and striving for a description in terms accessible to beings that could not imagine what it was like to be us. If the subjective character of experience is fully comprehensible only from one point of view, then any shift to greater objectivity—that is, less attachment to a specific viewpoint—does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.”


kmort said...

Thank you for the reference, but I am not sure what your enthymeme ala Nagel really entails. It seems to be this: since mind is not reducible to physicality and consciousness is not yet explainable, Citizen Homie, who appears to be a violent illiterate moron, might possess insights or intuitive knowledge beyond the quantifiable or specifiable.
I guess, but why can't he demonstrate this intuition on a little pre-vote screening test. The test needn't include vector calculus or even french irregular verbs, but say something requiring a high school graduate level of intelligence to pass.

A great political theorist I am not, but it often appears to me that American political writers and academics continually overlook the agency issue: is a citizen qualified to vote simply by attaining the age of majority? I don't think so; certainly not in some LA county school districts with 30-40% drop out rate.

I am not really qualified to speak on the mind-body problem, but I think anyone involved in education or politics agrees people are making decisions (as you seemed to when discussing Tversky and "Prospect Theory"), and thus some political decisions are better than others--better in the sense of more efficient and more conducive to an equitable society. Would say a HS math teacher teacher ask for a show of hands to a hard trig. or algebra problem? That may sound far-fetched but I think that is analogous to democracy by popular vote: the country asks for a show of hands from the mob and then lets the mob vote in a dumbfuck like GW Bush; in some sort of logocracy, and the dumbfuck candidate (and the dumbfuck voter) would have been eliminated via educational/psychological pre-screening and not allowed to campaign. I guess that is not very philosophical but seems quite pragmatic and indeed somewhat traditional (I think Plato warned against the popular vote in his discussion of various types of tyrannies). VI Lenin and the bolsheviks and mensheviks were aware of this problem, were they not--do you open up voting to everyone? Pity and assist the agricultural peasant, yes, but let him have equal power to Comrade Lenin ? I think not.

(Nagel's essay is interesting, though I think many cognitivsts would disagree--the bio-chemical basis of intentionality, for instance, is demonstrated fairly effectively by comparing mental states before and after a pint of vodka.)

roger said...

Kmort, again, you are using general intelligence as a criteria, against which I am using the sum of the existential parts of the voter. Because, after all, that is what is in question in democratic governance. To my mind, you are confusing two functions: the delegative function -- the infinite number of wonks that churn out policy - and the representative function. Testing is not, I think, going to happen in any case as a criteria for voting, so I'm concerned with that only as the imaginative limit of a more general political prejudice about the way democracies work. In fact, that dumbfucks like Chester Alan Arthur, or Warren Harding, or Bush are tossed up by the system shouldn't surprise anybody. Monarchies tossed up child kings, autistic kings, and senile kings. Monarchy, however, survived these creatures. So one wants to know what structures made that possible. I want to apply the same question to democracies.

So my idea is that the ability to gather information that is, to use Platonic terms, doxic, as well as epistemic, makes democracy work. It is an open society in Soros', and Popper's, sense. And so it would be actually damaging to the system to pre-select the imputs it gets vis a vis voting. I think that damage is being done in various ways, but that is a topic for another time.

Anonymous said...

Hey, landed on your blog, nice stuff. I found a cool new tool for our blogs... www.widgetmate.com It helps get latest news for our keywords directly on to our blog. I added it on mine. Worked like a charm.