Thought Experiment Tuesday: I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords.

Mercurial

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Is democracy is instrumentally valuable, intrinsically valuable, or both?

Something is "instrumentally" valuable if it is valuable because it allows us to access something else that is valuable.

Something is "intrinsically" valuable if it is valuable in itself.

Sometimes, a thing can be valuable in both senses - my father's watch may hold intrinsic value for me because it reminds me of him, for example, but it is also instrumentally valuable in the sense that I could sell it and use the money to buy something else of value, if I wished.


Democracy seems to have clear instrumental benefits - a democratic society will tend to be a more stable society, less prone to strife between different groups or sudden political upheaval, for example. A democratic society may also be a more efficient society - if we think that the best way to find out what is in the best interests of most people is to simply ask them via elections or referendums.

Most people agree that democracy has these, or similar, instrumental benefits, but is democracy also intrinsically valuable?

One way to answer this question is to use a thought experiment, imagining a world where we have all of the instrumental benefits provided by democracy, in a non-democratic context. For example:

The Alien Overlords

Imagine that you live in a world ruled by a extremely advanced aliens. Imagine:

1. That these aliens are entirely benevolent: they have only the best interests of humanity at heart, and will not oppress anyone or treat anyone unjustly.

2. That these aliens are extremely knowledgeable: they will know the best way to achieve whatever policy goal they desire, using the resources available. They are also psychic - they are able to read the minds of human beings in order to discern our preferences.

3. That those ruled by the aliens know all of the above, and know that the aliens will always remain as benevolent and intelligent as they are now.

The point of these assumptions is just to hold constant the instrumental benefits between both cases (technically, the benefits are probably much greater in the case where we are ruled by the aliens, but that doesn't make a difference to what follows).

So, the question is whether there is any (non-instrumental) sense in which it would be better to live in a world where we are ruled democratically, rather than being ruled by the alien overlords. Even if this would mean that our rulers aren't quite as benevolent or as knowledgeable as the aliens, would there be something valuable in the mere fact that we would be the authors of the laws to which we are subjected? If so, what is the best way to understand the intrinsic value of democracy?
 


ibis

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Even if this would mean that our rulers aren't quite as benevolent or as knowledgeable as the aliens, would there be something valuable in the mere fact that we would be the authors of the laws to which we are subjected?
A feeling of agency is very important to human beings. However, if your alien overlords are sufficiently good at their job, they would presumably supply that as well - perhaps through citizen's forums.

And, thinking about it, if the aliens are picking up the public preference through telepathy, it is still perfectly possible for me to persuade someone else of my point of view, and thereby act to change the overall balance of opinion - which is agency to the extent any ordinary citizen has it in a democracy, whether representative or direct.
 

EUrJokingMeRight

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Democracy as executed in Ireland is neither instrumentally nor intrinsically valuable for the electorate.

Democracy is instrumentally valuable for career politicians, political parties and their well resourced sponsors.

Democracy helps them get what they want legally without the prospect of prison getting in the way.
 

Mercurial

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A feeling of agency is important.
I agree.

Would you say you have a feeling of agency at the moment, with regard to the democratic institutions of the country in which you live?
 

Rural

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Personally I'd rather a Democracy, no matter how intelligent or benevolent the aliens are. I would need to feel like I was involved, even in a small way, in the process.

Anyway, the chances are these aliens are just fattening us up and making us as docile as cows in a field and then they will feed on us, no thanks! The choices we get at Election time are pretty poor, but.............



[See how I mentioned cows there?].
 

firefly123

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Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

It is the best of a bad lot when it comes to systems of government. If a benevolent race that can read our minds and fulfill our wishes took over then that is a far better system.
It reminds me of the matrix movie. If given the choice to live in happy ignorance or unhappy knowledge I honestly believe the vast majority would choose the former and those that chose the latter would come to regret their decision in time when they realise that there is nothing the can really do to change the way things are.
 

firefly123

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Personally I'd rather a Democracy, no matter how intelligent or benevolent the aliens are. I would need to feel like I was involved, even in a small way, in the process.

Anyway, the chances are these aliens are just fattening us up and making us as docile as cows in a field and then they will feed on us, no thanks! The choices we get at Election time are pretty poor, but.............



[See how I mentioned cows there?].
[video=youtube;SxI7B758XBQ]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SxI7B758XBQ[/video]
 

ibis

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I agree.

Would you say you have a feeling of agency at the moment, with regard to the democratic institutions of the country in which you live?
I would say I do, but largely because I'm aware of my status as a single voter, so I feel my effective agency is proportional to my democratic weight. I'm also aware that by making a larger effort, and going about it the right way, I could have more influence.

That's explained to a fair extent in the edited version of my post. I suspect that those who regularly mistake their personal views for the only possible sensible approach for everyone feel rather less empowered than I do, and would still feel disenfranchised under your aliens.
 

silverharp

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the data isn't fully in yet. In hindsight in the future the view maybe that democracy may have enabled the destruction of the countries that adopted it.
 

RodShaft

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Democracy is a much used word, with very few of those words defining what democracy actually is.

Here is my definition:

The rule of the majority with adequate safeguards for the minority.


Anyone got a better one?
 

RodShaft

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Personally I'd rather a Democracy, no matter how intelligent or benevolent the aliens are. I would need to feel like I was involved, even in a small way, in the process.

Anyway, the chances are these aliens are just fattening us up and making us as docile as cows in a field and then they will feed on us, no thanks! The choices we get at Election time are pretty poor, but.............



[See how I mentioned cows there?].
Rural. Maybe you can put me out of my misery.

What happened to Alice?
 

Mercurial

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I would say I do, but largely because I'm aware of my status as a single voter, so I feel my effective agency is proportional to my democratic weight. I'm also aware that by making a larger effort, and going about it the right way, I could have more influence.

That's explained to a fair extent in the edited version of my post. I suspect that those who regularly mistake their personal views for the only possible sensible approach for everyone feel rather less empowered than I do, and would still feel disenfranchised under your aliens.
Presumably there are different ways of arranging democratic institutions that would give you more or less agency. For example, I would suggest that Irish voters have more agency than British voters to the extent that our PRSTV system allows for more nuanced decisions at the polls. In contrast, we may have less agency than, say, US voters (who also have a first past the post system) in the sense that the EU institutions limit what Irish politicians can and cannot do, whereas American politicians do not face such limitations (though other restrictions apply). [This is not to say that we have more or less agency in general compared to these other countries - just that there are differences in how much control we have in various ways]

At what point would you say you have "enough" agency? In other words, how much control do you think you need over your political destiny, in order for the democratic system to be truly valuable?
 

RodShaft

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May I enquire?

Who the fukk is Alice?
She's Bob's partner, usually.

But Bob seems to have gotten all tangled up with that slut Daisy this weather.
 

RodShaft

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Merc.

Only having a bit of fun. Your topic is definitely political philosophy this time.
 

Mercurial

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Democracy is a much used word, with very few of those words defining what democracy actually is.

Here is my definition:

The rule of the majority with adequate safeguards for the minority.

Anyone got a better one?
It depends on how many normative concepts you want to embed in your definition. For example, you refer to the rule of the majority, above, but that condition would be satisfied in a society containing a minority of adults who were not permitted to vote. In some cases, a society is described as democratic even if it fails to meet this definition (ancient Athens, for example, is sometimes called a democracy, despite the fact that only land-owning men could vote).

You also refer to "adequate" safeguards for the minority above, but it isn't clear what those should be (constitutions, perhaps ? Something more?), and whether their presence is part of democracy, or a counterbalance to the potential harm that democracy can cause.
 

ibis

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Presumably there are different ways of arranging democratic institutions that would give you more or less agency. For example, I would suggest that Irish voters have more agency than British voters to the extent that our PRSTV system allows for more nuanced decisions at the polls. In contrast, we may have less agency than, say, US voters (who also have a first past the post system) in the sense that the EU institutions limit what Irish politicians can and cannot do, whereas American politicians do not face such limitations (though other restrictions apply). [This is not to say that we have more or less agency in general compared to these other countries - just that there are differences in how much control we have in various ways]

At what point would you say you have "enough" agency? In other words, how much control do you think you need over your political destiny, in order for the democratic system to be truly valuable?
As you say, PRSTV gives the voter much more nuanced control over who gets elected locally - but you could argue that FPTP gives the voter a much more direct impact on the national government. And being in the EU does restrict our politicians' possibilities, sometimes in ways that we approve of, sometimes not. We voted into power the governments and MEPs who agreed those restrictions and for the areas available for restriction through EU referenda, but that does often feel a little too broad-brush.

So, as you say, it's not really a question of quantity that those differences pose, but one of detail. It's also not the case that I require my opinions to be reflected in policy for me to feel I have agency. I appreciate that my opinion is often neither the majority opinion, nor, often enough, one that it would be easy for the majority to share. You could say that my political passions are mostly harmonious rather than obsessive - something I also think is true of the majority of citizens - and that therefore I only require agency in proportion to my effort.
 

petaljam

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As you say, PRSTV gives the voter much more nuanced control over who gets elected locally - but you could argue that FPTP gives the voter a much more direct impact on the national government. And being in the EU does restrict our politicians' possibilities, sometimes in ways that we approve of, sometimes not. We voted into power the governments and MEPs who agreed those restrictions and for the areas available for restriction through EU referenda, but that does often feel a little too broad-brush.

So, as you say, it's not really a question of quantity that those differences pose, but one of detail. It's also not the case that I require my opinions to be reflected in policy for me to feel I have agency. I appreciate that my opinion is often neither the majority opinion, nor, often enough, one that it would be easy for the majority to share. You could say that my political passions are mostly harmonious rather than obsessive - something I also think is true of the majority of citizens - and that therefore I only require agency in proportion to my effort.
At the risk of going off topic a little, during the UK referendum campaign about PR, I used to frequent the BBC message boards (sadly now deceased) and was initially intuitively quite an enthusiastic proponent of the STV or something similar, but I have to admit that there was a very strong argument made by opponents to the effect that transferring votes, or parts of votes was unfairly favorable to those voting for unpopular parties.

It took me a while to get my head around the details, and I couldn't now reconstruct the whole argument myself, but it went along the lines that if you vote for someone who gets in, you just get one vote, whereas if you vote for a party that is put out, then your vote actually gets counted and recounted over and over, so you effectively have multiple votes (or perhaps it was parts of votes - as I say it was quite a technical argument being put forward) whereas those voting for the main parties just got one.

Back on topic, I agree that the only real interest of democracy is our feeling of agency, and that this is to some extent a false belief, so I would tend to think that a benevolent dictator who set things up so that people felt their wishes were being listened to would probably lead to a happier society than any workable form of actual democracy. (Because a democracy that required unanimous (or near unanimous) agreement would be
 


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