Through several postings, we have had a universe with one person (Alph) with one desire (to gather stones). This is a universe with a limited number of stones, so Alph needs to spend half of his time scattering stones so that he can gather them again.
Recently, we introduced a second person (Bett) with no desires.
In our first model, we gave Alph two syringes. One had a red serum that would give Bett a desire to gather stones, and the other had a green serum that would give Bett a desire to scatter stones. I argued that Alph's one desire gave him a reason to give Bett an injection of green serum. This will cause Bett to scatter stones, allowing Alph to spend all of his time gathering stones.
In our second model, Alph tried to use incentives and deterrance to influence Bett's behavior. However, these tools are ineffective on a being with no desires. Bett had first to be given a desire - any desire. Furthermore, Alph needed the power to fulfill or thwart that desire. Then, Alph could agree to fulfill Bett's desire if Bett would scatter stones, or threaten to thwart Bett's desire unless Bett scatters stones. Again, the motivation to scatter stones came from Bett's desire.
In this third model, Alph will try to cause Bett to scatter stones by causing Bett to believe that scattering stones is good.
A belief does not need to be true to motivate action. A person who believes that there is a dragon outside that will eat him if he leaves his house will be motivated to stay inside. Similarly, Alph does not need to worry about whether the proposition “scattering stones is good” is true. As long as Bett believes it, he will scatter stones.
Or will he?
In order for the false belief about the dragon to keep our agent above inside, the agent also needs a reason not to be eaten. The belief that there is a dragon outside - by itself - motivates noting.
Similarly, for Bett to actually be motivated to scatter stones, he not only needs to believe that scattering stones is good, he must have a desire to do that which is good. Without that desire, the proposition “scattering stones is good” is just data - like the proposition that there is a dragon outside. It sits in the databank and does nothing – until it becomes useful for some end, to realize some desire.
There are those who claim that merely giving Bett the belief that something is good would be enough to motivate Bett. However, this view is filled with such metaphysical and ontological mystery that we should set it aside unless something compels us to pick it up. We can bring these metaphysical and ontological mysteries to the fore by asking, “What does it mean to say that ‘scattering stones is good’ is true, such that it can motivate an agent into acting just by believing it?”
Once we set this idea aside, we will discover that we never have a reason to pick it up again. We can simply let those metaphysical and ontological mysteries sit on the shelf. We can understand everything we are trying to understand using desires that determine the ends or goals of intentional action, and beliefs that select the means for those actions.
There is still a question of what it takes for the proposition “X is good” to be true.
In this set of postings, I am going to try to avoid talk of something being “good” or “bad” for a while – simply because it brings a lot of confusion into the story that we do not need just yet. I will be talking about it being the case that certain states of affairs fulfill desires. It will talk about facts where an agent has a desire that P and there is some state of affairs S where P is true in S. In this case, the agent has a motivating reason to realize S. In other words, S has value to the agent, grounded on the fact that the agent has a desire that P and P is true in S. I will also be speaking of this type of situation by saying things like S has value to the agent.
However, I will come to a point where I will be using the term “good” to refer to some of these relationships. But today is not that day.
For today, I will simply assert that we are sticking with the idea that desires provide the motivational force. Beliefs simply guide that force. Desires select the destination for intentional action, and beliefs choose the route. For Alph, merely causing Bett to believe that scattering rocks is good will not have any effect.
Friday, June 24, 2016
Through several postings, we have had a universe with one person (Alph) with one desire (to gather stones). This is a universe with a limited number of stones, so Alph needs to spend half of his time scattering stones so that he can gather them again.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 9:26 AM
Thursday, June 23, 2016
I am not a citizen of Great Britain, but I do have an opinion regarding Brexit - Britain's referendum on whether to remain in or leave the European Union.
First, I want to object to the idea that, "Simply because you are not a citizen, you are not entitled to an opinion on such a matter."
The fact is, I am entitled to an opinion on the moral concerns that are relevant in this decision. This is true in the same way that I have a reason to be concerned about a country that is rounding up and killing all of the Jews, or refusing to give voting rights to its black citizens, or practicing slavery, or systematically discriminating against its women. Moral concerns - insofar as they are moral concerns - do not end at national borders.
Furthermore, people are entitled to an opinion on matters that effect them. There is reason to believe that Brexit will have an effect far outside of England. It will certainly effect the European Union. In particular, it also has a lot to say about how nations are going to interact with each other. This, in turn, will have implications for international relationships elsewhere in the world. This, in turn, will have implications for human interaction and cooperation on a global scale - a scale at which important decisions have to be made.
On the moral side of the equation, one of the primary reasons being given for Brexit is, in effect, an appeal to tribal psychology. This is the psychological comfort that people find in dividing the world into "us" versus "them" and attributing to one's own group all of the good qualities, while seeing "them" as the victimizing and dangerous "other".
It is a part of human psychology, but it is not one of the good parts. It is the seat of a great deal of injustice, hatred, fear, and violence. It is something that each of us needs to fight against at all times if we are to create a peaceful and just society.
Brexit is both built on and feeds tribal bigotry. It grows from this disposition to hate "the other" and then feeds back on itself to further promote and nourish a fear and hatred of "the other". It is not a legitimate reason for England to leave the European Union. Instead, it is a reason for England to put some effort into tamping down these tribal sentiments and the ill effects that come from them.
Many of the other reasons for Brexit are, in effect, rationalizations by people who, being human, have bigoted sentiments that they do not want to admit to in public, and may even want to hide from themselves.
Much of the money Britain pays as dues for membership in the European Union is returned to England directly, and others come back to England in terms of economic and political benefits.
The European Union regulations that people in Britain complain about will still be in effect once Britain leaves the EU, and will still apply to British exports to the EU. British manufactures will still have to meet European Union standards for the same reason that car manufacturers who ship cars to the United States must meet American standards regarding safety, gas mileage, and pollution.
The weakness of these arguments suggest that there is some other motivation that is driving people into seeing them as having merit. It is not unreasonable to hold, at least in many cases, people are motivated to seeing these as strong arguments because they provide a useful cover to emotions and reasons they do not wish to admit they have.
On the side of international relations, it is no longer the case that we can pretend that we are a planet of isolated and independent tribes. From greenhouse gas emissions and the emissions that damage the ozone layer, to deforestation, to pollution that crosses national borders and enters the sea and air, to joint and universal responses to global economic problems, to preventing international corporations from playing one country off against another by forming a joint bargaining position against them, there are reasons for nations to work together.
The isolationist, "build a wall and pretend that we are somehow not connected to the rest of the earth" attitude is irrational - and dangerous.
Of course, every country that enters into an international organization is going to want to be the one and only dominant member that gets to dictate policy to all the others. This is true in the same way that anybody who enters into a civil society with others is going to want to be the dictator of that society. They will likely see themselves as a good dictator - unable to understand why others question their perfect wisdom and generosity. Yet, they will be disposed not to trust others to govern them.
This, too, is a part of human nature.
These psychological facts, like the bigoted tribalism discussed above - is another part of our psychology that works against our interests. We need to replace these attitudes with attitudes of cooperation and consideration, and with institutions built on negotiations that "will not always go our way". We need to recognize that it is, at best, immature to pick up one's ball and go home just because one did not get their way in their dealings with others. The mature country, like the mature individual, stays and tries to work things out.
Our global interdependence is growing. The number and size of issues that will require an international response will grow with it. We need to admit to this future and start to plan for it - not run from it and pretend it does not exist.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 9:04 AM
In my last post, I introduced Bett - a person with no desires - into a world that originally contained Alph with his one desire to gather stones. I also gave Alph the ability to give Bett a desire - either a desire to gather stones or a desire to scatter stones.
I then claimed that Alph's one desire to gather stones in a world with a limited number of stones to gather gave him a reason to cause Bett to scatter stones. Bett's stone scattering gives Alph the opportunity to spend all of his time keeping true the proposition, "I am gathering stones."
In this post, I wish to give Alph a new set of ways to influence Bett's behavior - incentives and deterrence.
In order to have the option to use incentives and deterrence, Bett first has to have some desires of his own.
Alph would be providing Bett with an incentive by offering to fulfill one of Bett's desires if Bett would, in return, perform some action that fulfills one of Alph's desires.
So, for example, let us give Bett a desire to eat chocolate and give Alph control over a supply of chocolate. Alph can then say to Bett, "If you scatter some stones, I will give you some chocolate." Bett's motivating reason to make the proposition, "I am eating chocolate" true becomes a motivating reason to scatter stones.
Similarly, Alph would be providing Bett with a deterrence by threatening to thwart one of Bett's desires unless Bett performs some action that fulfills one of Alph's desires.
In this case, let's give Bett an aversion to pain or, in other words, a "desire that I not be in pain." Alph threatens to make true the proposition, "Bett is in pain" unless Bett scatters stones. Bett's reason to avoid a state in which he is in pain becomes a reason to scatter stones.
These exchanges work the other way as well. Bett can refuse to scatter stones unless Alph gives him some chocolate, or unless Alph refrains from any action that causes Bett to experience pain.
Even if it is the case that the only desire Bett has is a desire to scatter stones, this can be used to create incentives or deterrence if Alph ever comes up with a reason to do so. Assuming that Alph controls the pile of stones that has been gathered, he can tell Bett, "I will give you access to these stones to gather if you will do something for me." Similarly, assuming Bett already has access to the stones, Alph can threaten to take away Bett's access unless Bett performs some action that will fulfill one of Alph's desires.
There is no morality in this system. These tools of incentives and deterrence belong to the realms of law and economics, not morality. They are the instruments of coercion or of trade. However, without morality it is not even possible to determine which is which.
We must also take care at this point not to sneak any morality into our understanding of this relationship. Alph's control of the pile of stones he gathered does not depend on any type of natural right which Bett feels a reason to respect. It can only mean a physical ability to keep Bett away from the gathered stones. Similarly, Bett's desire to scatter stones would give him a reason to kill Alph if he could, and by doing so he can get to the gathered stones that Alph is protecting.
Still, in the case where Alph has a desire to gather stones and Bett has a desire to scatter stones, they have no reason to engage in these types of exercises. It is enough for each to leave the other alone, leaving Alph to gather the stones that Bett will scatter, and leaving Bett to scatter the stones that Alph will gather.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 7:53 AM
Wednesday, June 22, 2016
We have a universe with one person (Alph) and one desire (to gather stones).
Recall that his desire to gather stones is a motivating reason for him to make or keep true the proposition "I am gathering stones."
Let us assume that there is a limited number of stones such that Alph has to spend half of his time scattering stones so that he can gather stones again (return to making true the proposition "I am gathering stones").
Now, I am going to plop a second person down on this world - Bett.
Bett has no desires.
However, we are going to give Alph two syringes; a syringe of red serum, and a syringe of blue serum. The red serum will cause Bett to have a desire to gather stones – making Bett like Alph. The blue serum will cause Bett to have a desire to scatter stones.
I would like to repeat that Alph has only one desire – a desire to gather stones. Furthermore, we are using Williams’ concept of reasons:
There is a reason for A to φ iff there is some desire the satisfaction of which will be served by his φ-ing.
This means that Alph has a reason to give Bett the red serum if and only if this will serve his desire to gather stones. The same is true of injecting Bett with the blue serum.
Alph’s desire to gather stones provides him with no reason to inject Alph with the red serum. The red serum will actually put Bett in competition with Alph for gathering stones – effectively leaving Alph with half as many stones to gather. When it comes to scattering stones, both Alph and Bett will have a reason to wait for the other person to scatter stones and then gather the stones the other scattered.
On the other hand, Alph’s desire to gather stones does provide him with a reason to give Bett the blue serum, giving Bett a desire to scatter stones. Under this arrangement, assuming that both work at the same speed, Alph will no longer have to spend time scattering stones in order to gather stones again. Bett will be scattering stones for him, allowing Alph to spend all of his time gathering stones. In other words, Alph will be able to do a better job of keeping the proposition “I am gathering stones” true if he gives Bett the red serum.
There is an important fact here that I want to shine a light on.
Alph has no sense of altruism or fellow feeling. Alph has no interest in Bett's welfare or the quality of Bett's life. Nor does Alph has any interest in cooperation for its own sake, no love of fairness, and no sense of duty or obligation. Alph's interest in Bett is limited to Bett's usefulness - his ability to scatter stones so that Alph can gather them.
Nor is it the case in this example that Alph is giving Bett any sense of empathy or sympathy, no interest in Alph's welfare, nor any sense of duty or obligation.
Yet, Alph's desire alone is enough to give him a reason to establish a cooperative system with Bett whereby Alph gathers the stones, and Bett scatters them.
It will turn out that empathy, sympathy, communal interests, and altruism, and distinctly moral sentiments are all unnecessary when it comes to establishing a system of morality. They may be put to good use where they are present. However, morality can exist even where they are absent.
Those who equate the discovery of altruism or empathy or a sense of fairness or justice in humans with the discovery of the foundation of human morality are mistaken.
I am going to continue to leave these types of sentiments out of this equation for a while, just to show what we can accomplish without them. I will eventually come to argue that the only things necessary for morality are (1) intentional agents with (2) some malleable desires where (3) those desires can be molded through rewards and punishments.
I also want to note that, while Alph is, in a sense, treating Bett as a means only (which is all he can do), he is not forcing Bett to do anything that Bett does not want to do. That is to say, he is not sacrificing Bett's interests for his own ends. He is, instead, giving Bett ends that compliment his own ends.
We do not have a moral system yet. At this point, Alph’s action of giving Bett an injection of blue serum more comfortably fits under the institution of medicine. No praise or blame, no rewards or punishments, are due to Bett in virtue of his lack of interest in either gathering or scattering stones. Instead, Alph merely has a reason to give Bett an injection.
Even here, one may argue that we do not even have a reason to claim that Bett has any type of illness, for which the injection of red serum may be thought of as a “cure”. However, we will discover that in our own larger and more complex society we will tend to talk about situations much like this in medical terms.
However, my interest is in morality. In the next post on this subject, I will take another step in that direction.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:43 AM
Tuesday, June 21, 2016
I am about to add a second person to this imaginary universe. Before I do, I would like to review what we have.
We have a universe with one person (Alph) who has one desire (to gather stones).
Desires are propositional attitudes. That is to say, they take as their object a proposition - a sentence capable of being true or false.
A desire is a motivational force directing the agent to make of keep true the proposition that is the object of the desire. So, for example, Alph's desire to gather stones motivates him to act so as to make or keep true the proposition, "I am gathering stones."
Note that this is different from a desire that the stones be gathered. With respect to Alph's actual desire, having a large pile of stones is merely an unintended consequence of the desire to gather stones. It bears the same relationship to the desire to gather stones as getting or causing pregnancy has to having sex. It may be a cause of the action, but it is not the reason for the action.
I am using Bernard Williams' account of what it means to have a reason.
A has reason to φ if and only if A has some motive which will be served or furthered by his φ
On this account, Alph has a reason to gather stones. He has a desire to gather stones that would be served by gathering stones. If he runs out of stones to gather, then he has a reason to scatter stones, since that is the only way he can make true again the proposition, "I am gathering stones." Alph also has a reason to avoid a crippling injury or death where these would prevent him from making or keeping true the proposition, "I am gathering stones."
These other goods - scattering stones if the supply of stones to gather runs out, avoiding crippling injury or death - are instrumental goods. They provide or preserve the means necessary to make or keep true the proposition, "I am gathering stones." They are not valued for their own sake, but for their usefulness.
There is no intrinsic value. A state in which, "I am gathering stones" has value for Alph in virtue of his desire to gather stones. However, nothing in this state generates a reason for anybody else (if they should exist) to realize or preserve such a state. A reason to realize a state in which a desire is being fulfilled requires a desire that desires be fulfilled, or some other desire made true in a state where a desire is being fulfilled.
Note that not even Alph is motivated by desire fulfillment. Alph is motivated by a desire to gather stones to realize a state in which, "I am gathering stones" is true. It is, "I am gathering stones" that has value for Alph, not "My desire that I am gathering stones is fulfilled."
We should also note that Alph, in this case, has no reason to enter a Nozickian experience machine that will stimulate his brain and feed him the illusion of gathering stones. Such a machine cannot make or keep true the proposition, "I am gathering stones." Similarly, a parent who cares that his children are safe and happy cannot settle for an experience machine feeding him the illusion that his children are safe and happy. His desire motivates him to seek the actual safety and happiness of his children.
If the reader thinks that Alph is wasting his life pursuing a meaningless end, then this would be because the reader is appealing to her own desires. The reader is saying, "I would not want to life that life." This is true, but it is a separate issue. The fact that Alph is content gathering stones does not imply that the reader - with the reader's own set of desires - would be or should be content with a life of gathering stones.
Nor does the reader's discontentment imply that Alph has a reason to shun a life of gathering stones. Such inferences are mistaken.
There is no morality in this world. There is one end - Alph's end of gathering stones, a number of means, and some unintended consequences.
I am about to drop a second person into this world. When I do, we will look at what is required for a rudimentary morality - though not right away.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 7:44 AM
Monday, June 20, 2016
[Author;s Note: This is intended to be inserted between posts 0010 and 0011.
It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Section III)
The nature of beliefs and desires that I am using in these postings owe a great deal to David Hume.
Given what we have already discussed, we can make sense of Hume's claim noted above.
We have been postulating a universe with only one being (Alph) having only one desire (to gather stones). To understand Hume's quote, let us change this one desire to an aversion to being in pain. This is all the agent cares about.
In this, I have already provided an example very much like that of the second claim that Hume made above. I have discussed a case in which Alph has only one desire - a desire that the planet Pandora B (a planet that will contain only plant life; no animals) come into existence.
In a situation where Alph could bring this planet into existence by pushing a button that would destroy himself, he has a reason to push the button and no reason not to. In this case, Alph is choosing his own destruction to realize a state of affairs in which the planet Pandora B exists.
To explain the first claim that Hume made, let's put Alph in a situation where he has two options. He knows that he is about to get a scratch on his finger. However, he can avoid this scratch by an action that will bring about the destruction of the world.
We will need to stipulate that the destruction of the world will cause Alph no pain - and Alph knows this. If it did, then Alph's aversion to pain would give him a reason to avoid the destruction of the whole world.
It is also important to add that Alph, in this case, has no desire that can only be fulfilled if the world continues to exist. If he had such a concern, then that would give him reason to avoid the destruction of the world.
We must even take from Alph the desire to gather stones since, if the world was destroyed, Alph would no longer be able to keep or make true the proposition, "I am gathering stones." Thus, having such a desire gives him a reason to avoid bringing about the destruction of the world.
All we have is Alph with an aversion to pain, and pain that can be avoided by (painlessly) destroying the world.
In such a situation, Alph has no reason to prevent the destruction of the world in order to prevent even a mild pain that would result from a scratch on his finger.
There are, according to Hume, only two roles for reason in directing action.
First, When a passion, such as hope or fear, grief or joy, despair or security, is founded on the supposition or the existence of objects, which really do not exist. Secondly, When in exerting any passion in action, we chuse means insufficient for the designed end, and deceive ourselves in our judgment of causes and effects. Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it.
Let me put this quote into the language I am using for these posts.
First, reason can tell an agent with a desire that P whether P is true in any state of affairs S. If it is, then reason informs the agent that she has motivation to bring about S.
For example, let us assume that the destruction of the world would, in fact, cause Alph to experience pain, at least for a short while. When reason informs Alph of this fact, Alph would come to be averse to destroying the world - but only because Alph has an aversion to the pain that he would experience as a part of that destruction.
Second, reason can tell an agent with a desire that P that an act Q will realize S, where P is true in S. When this happens, then reason informs the agent that she has motivation to realize Q.
In other words, reason can inform Alph that the pain that would come from a scratch on his finger can be avoided if he performs an action that will (painlessly, in this case) destroy the world. If this is the case, the agent will wish to perform that action. Yet, here, too, it is the agent's aversion to pain that provides the motivation.
I will argue later that, contrary to Hume, there is a third sense in which a passion can be judged unreasonable. However, this will only happen when passions come into conflict, and agents have the capacity to choose whether or not to have (or to create in others) various passions. Consequently, it is not a fitting discussion for our current situation where we have an agent with only one desire. We will return to this possibility after we have introduced more desires, more agents, and the possibility of choosing desires.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 8:02 AM
Sunday, June 19, 2016
In "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives" (The Philosophical Review Vol. 81, No. 3 (Jul., 1972), pp. 305-316), Philippa Foot identified three relationships between doing the right thing and the motives of the agent.
Two of these relate to the traditional distinction between hypothetical and categorical imperatives. The former involved performing the right act because it gained the agent some benefit or advantage - because it was, in a sense, "profitable" for the agent to do so. The latter involved performing the right act because it was the right act - because it was the right thing to do.
The third option that Foot introduced to this discussion was performing the right act for its own sake. It involved performing an act of charity because one actually cared about the person who would benefit and telling the truth because one simply wanted to deal honestly with others. These count as hypothetical imperatives because it is the concern for others or the desire to deal honestly with others that provide the motivation for the action. However, in some cases, we judge such a person as being more moral than the person who acts on duty.
However, there is a question still left unanswered. What OUGHT we to desire?
In spite of all that has been urged in favor of the hypothetical imperative in ethics, I am sure that many people will be unconvinced and will argue that one element essential to moral virtue is still missing. This missing feature is the recognition of a duty to adopt those ends which we have attributed to the moral man. We have said that he does care about others, and about causes such as liberty and justice; that it is on this account that he will accept a system of morality. But what if he never cared about such things, or what if he ceased to care ? Is it not the case that he ought to care?
We should not that it is clearly the case that not everything an agent DOES desire is something the agent SHOULD desire - something that gives the agent moral credit. An agent may desire to play computer games, or even value belittling and bullying others. That he values these things does not make them moral. There are only certain types of desires - concern for others, aversion to deceit, aversion to taking the property of others without their consent - that gives a person moral credit.
What distinguishes the desires an agent does have from those that provide moral credit?
After asking the question, Foot does not provide an answer. It is sufficient for her purposes to note that a person does not have these desires "because they ought to". A parent who cares for a child does not care "because he ought to" - he simply cares about the child. A person who values honest dealings with others does not value honest dealings with others because he ought. It is one thing to say that an agent ought to engage in honest dealings with others because he ought - quite another to say that he ought to engage in honest dealings with others because he values it for its own sake, which is because he ought.
This blog goes a bit further than Foot did in this article by providing an answer to the question, "What ought a person to desire?"
On the account defended in this blog, there are certain desires that people generally have reasons to promote. These are desires that tend to fulfill other desires. They promote these desires through a system of rewards and punishments, where praise works as a type of reward and condemnation as a type of punishment.
To the degree that agents act so as to obtain the reward or avoid the punishment, this is outside the realm of morality. This fits more in with law and economics. Morality enters into the picture when this system of rewards and punishments causes people to value things for their own sake. Culture - in praising some and condemning others - promotes in people an interest in the well-being of others for its own sake - as one of the agent's ends. The aversion to deceit or to taking the property of others without consent becomes internalized so that the aversion overrides any reasons that may emerge to engage in deceit or to take the property of others without consent.
Morality is, then, a system of hypothetical imperatives. It is that system of hypothetical imperatives (desires and aversions) that people generally have reason to promote using rewards such as praise and punishments such as condemnation.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 7:00 AM
Saturday, June 18, 2016
In his address to supporters, Bernie Sanders listed some objectives for his followers to work on in the years ahead. Many have merit, but a few deserve some second thought.
One of these is to abolish the system of super-delegates.
In the Democratic Party, about 85% of the delegates assigned the task of selecting the Party's next Presidential candidate are elected by people in primaries or caucuses. The remaining 15% are super-delegates - people who have been given a vote based on the fact that they have won an important public office (House of Representative, Senate, President, Governor), or a high-ranking position within the Party.
The primary argument against super-delegates is that they are undemocratic. They have the power to override the will of the majority as they have expressed it in their vote.
Yet, right next door, in the Republican Party, we have a living example of the merits of super-delegates. They provide a check against a wholly unqualified candidate getting the nomination - one with a potential to not only inflict significant damage to the Party, but who might get elected and inflict significant harm to the nation and the world.
Because the Republicans did not have a system of super-delegates, the nation itself is in peril - as is the global economy and world peace - with the potential election of Donald Trump.
We should note at the beginning that, in a vast majority of the cases, the super-delegate system will be a system not worth worrying about. If the super-delegates were ever going to decide an election against the will of the voters, it would have done so in 2008. There, the establishment candidate could have made the argument that she was the best, most qualified candidate, and she arguably even had a majority share of the popular vote. Yet, the super-delegates went with the popular choice.
In that case, the popular choice was a good choice.
What matters would be a case in which the popular choice is a Trump-like candidate; an entertainment figure adept at public manipulation but unfit to be President.
The idea that the popular vote should always prevail has long been known to have a significant problem - a tyranny of the majority. The majority is not always right. Sometimes, if is important to set up some sort of system to review the majority's decisions and judge if they actually make sense.
A principle that has been put into place in American politics is a system of checks and balances. No "branch" is given unbounded control over everything. Instead, each branch has an ability to nullify the work of a different branch. For example, the Supreme Court is an unelected, undemocratic check on the tyranny of the legislative and executive branches.
Super-delegates are not all-powerful. They have the ability to overturn a popular vote only if the popular vote is close. If the popular vote shows sufficient strength, then the super-delegates may not be able to override the will of the majority. They are useful only in a case of a relatively close election, and only to the degree that the super-delegates themselves are united.
Furthermore, the people have the power to influence and even select the super-delegates. As I have already mentioned, these are the people who have their status in virtue of having won a popular election or have been elected into a position of responsibility in the party. If the people wish to replace them, the people have the power to do so.
This has all of the earmarks of a system of checks and balances. Neither of the two groups - popularly elected delegates or super-delegates - has absolute power. Either can be checked and balanced by the other, under the appropriate circumstances.
This does not imply that the super-delegate system as it exists is perfect. We still have reason to ask some questions.
Is 15 percent the right size? Is it too big or too small? Remember, the 15 percent will often be divided - it does not vote as a solid block. If the popular elected candidates are supporting a Trump-like candidate, it would take substantial agreement among the super delegates to put a quality candidate in his place.
Is the selection criteria for picking super-delegates the best available? Perhaps, rather than draw super-delegates from the pool of successfully elected Democrats and office holders, a pool of super-delegates should be drawn instead from typically marginalized groups as a tool for protecting minority rights. It is, after all, one of the purposes of a system of checks and balances to protect from a tyranny of the majority.
Well, these are some thoughts. In short, I do not hold that Sanders and his supporters will be making any significant progress by ridding the Democratic party of super-delegates. Furthermore, if it does wish to rid the party of undemocratic institutions that not only have the potential but have the proven capacity to distort the will of the voters, it would focus on caucuses instead. Evidence abounds that this is the area where the will of the majority of the voters is most likely to be overridden by rules that keep a substantial number of potential voters from participating.
Posted by Alonzo Fyfe at 5:44 AM