Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Democracy: An intrinsic good or "only" a utilitarian one?

A British philosopher of science, Philip Kitcher, makes the argument that in at least some science issues, and specifically that of anthropogenic global warming, it's clear that democracy's "good" in general is "only" utilitarian, and that in the specific case of AGW, it has, at least right now, no intrinsic good at all.

In other words, to put this bluntly, sometimes, as in this case, democracy is bad.

Do we need this, or Kitcher to tell us that, though? Probably not.

Stereotypes about it aside, specifics of how democracy was structured in Weimer Germany show it was utilitarianly bad, in the end. Ditto for the fledging socialist democracy of Russia between the two 1917 revolutions.

When democracy in a specific situation is bad for structural reaons, that doesn't mean other versions of democracy would be bad in that situation. The more stable-post WWII Germany democracy might well have survived Weimar. A different Russian leader than Alexander Kerensky, western democracies not threatening a loan cutoff if Kerensky took Russia out of the war, or both, would have increased the survival odds for 1917 democracy.

That said, those historical issues all center on matters readily understandable by laypeople. The average citizen, though, as the SciAm blog points out ... just doesn't get global warming. Or other science issues.

Now, as the article notes, Kitcher's proposed solution is both expensive and unwieldy. Beyond that, psychologically, as Chris Mooney and others have noted, many people reason and argue to strengthen in-tribe beliefs, and Kitcher's program simply isn't likely to overcome that.

So, in a place like the U.S., a nonparliamentary democracy where the use of executive orders has steadily expanded over the last decades, how much democracy should a president "sacrifice" if he or she is really ready to "go to the mat" on this one?

I should add a bit about my philosophical inclinations, as part of why I think Kitcher has some good thoughts.

I'm an anti-absolutist in general, and specifically, somewhat related to this, an anti-idealist. So, I generally shy away from claims of things having intrinsic value, unless it's something like clear, evolutionarily-grounded questions of ethics.

At the same time, though, I'm not a utilitarian, certainly not ion the narrow philosophical sense, because utilitarianism has a boatload of philosophical problems, some of them ethical (as Sam Harris, probably unwittingly, demonstrated in "The Immoral Landscape.") What means are "allowable" to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number? If we decide, in dire emergencies, to "weight" needs of children vs. senior citizens, by how much do we do that? And who decide? How much of a supermajority, speaking of democracy, should be required for many "hedonistic" calculus" issues? Bentham, Mill and their followers, including Mr. Harris, basically ignore or dodge these and related questions.

So, really, my answer is that democracy doesn't have an intrinsic value, and that, in principle, we can never agree on how much utilitarian value most things in life do or do not have. That's kind of where Walter Kaufmann comes from on "Without Guilt or Justice" which pretty much demolishes Rawls, and by extension and indirectly, utilitarianism in general.

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