For the closing days of summer, I am posting every chapter of the first edition of Everything You Believe Is Wrong. My enemies ravaged the first edition, inserting typos galore while I was distracted in the service of our people. I here leave their efforts untouched, so that the insidiousness of their behavior is plain. Meanwhile, I am completely revamping and expanding the book, and looking forward to incorporating your comments and criticisms (no need to point out typos and grammar errors). The second edition will be glorious.
This is the Chapter 5: Voting. This is the longest and most difficult chapter, some of which has already appeared on the blog.
Have you heard of Mesd-su-Re? One of the participants of the Great Harem Conspiracy under Ramses III?1 No? I’m surprised you haven’t. Made all the news. The scandal was carved into all the better hieroglyphic columns. Are you sure he’s not ringing any bells? Mesd-su-Re? 1155 BC?
If you haven’t heard of him, then I’m not sure how you can help me. Because it turns out I need to know the length of Mesd-su-Re’s nose right before he died. It’s for a research project I’m working on. I don’t know the answer, but need it, so I thought I’d invoke the “wisdom of crowds” and run a little poll. Do me a favor and send my request to everybody you know, the more people the better. Have everybody write down what they think the length of this fellow’s nose was—in inches or centimeters, I can convert—and send it to me. I’ll take the average of all the answers. The result has got to be a pretty good guess of the actual nose length, right?
On second thought, let’s tweak the process and improve it. This Chapter, however deserving of the honor, is not likely to be read by multitudes, and so my little poll will not be well subscribed to. Suppose instead we run a well-funded national campaign to “raise awareness” of the importance of estimating Mesd-su-Re’s nose length. TV ads, radio spots, pundits, community organizers, teachers, bureaucrats all getting the word out about this most important subject. Hey, we might even get a celebrity endorsement. That’d really bring the numbers in!
It should work, shouldn’t it?
No. Of course not. If our respondents had no information other than the usual olfactory arcana we all possess—e.g., none of us has seen a human nose longer than, say, one meter, and we all know it impossible for a nose to have negative length—then there is no reason to suppose guessing-and-averaging is helpful. How could it be? If one person (perhaps yourself) does not know the answer, this is ignorance. Your guess will be of no real value. Agreed? If two people do not know, ignorance plus ignorance divided by two is still ignorance, or “mean ignorance” if you like. Averaging ignorance hoping to come to the truth, or something like it, is a fallacy which is well known, and sometimes goes by the name the Chinese Emperor’s Nose Fallacy. Because it has many forms, and is so popular we can also call it the Voting Fallacy.
Let’s look into the simple mathematical details of this fallacy. If we collect people’s guesses about Mesd-su-Re’s nose length, the numbers will have a minimum, maximum, and some arithmetic mean which lies between (or possibly at one of) these two extremes. This assumes not everybody guessed the same length, but it doesn’t matter if everybody did. To make the explanation easier, we’ll assume a range of guesses.
If people have no idea about the length except the rough bounds mentioned above, then the mean of the guesses is probably nearer the midpoint than the extremes, i.e. it will be near or at the center of the guesses. If the maximum guess was, say, six inches, and the minimum one inch, then the center of the guesses, and also likely the mean, will be three-and-a-half inches. Then, regardless of where the real answer lies, the error—the distance from guess to real answer—averaged across all the guesses will be the same as the error using the mean.
In other words, we take the mean of the guesses, and then, imagining it were possible, we calculate the error of this guess. It will be something like mean – truth. And then we take each individual error, guess_1 – truth, guess_2 – truth, and so on, and take the mean of these individual errors. Once we have even a modest number of guesses, the error of the mean and of the averaged individual guesses will be about the same.
This statistical result shows that crowds have no expected wisdom in subjects on which they are ignorant. You may as well use your own guess as the crowd’s. The so-called Wisdom Of The Crowd isn’t wise. Except in special circumstances.
That the wisdom of crowds can sometimes provide reasonable predictions is true, because it has been observed from time to time. But this strictly depends on the composition of the “crowd”. For instance, a group, a crowd, of economists might toss a predictive equation at a list of stocks and discover it sticks. That’s a form of wisdom. Two parents, which is not a large crowd but of satisfactory size for our consideration, might guess within minutes when little Susie will come home. A group of physicians might nail the day a patient finishes circling the drain. And so on. Crowd wisdom can be successful when people have information relevant to the answer.
If we ask a group of Egyptologists we’d almost certainly get a better guess of Mesd-su-Re’s nose length than if we ran, say, an Internet poll. If individuals in a group had considered or informed opinions on the question at hand like, “I don’t know exactly what the answer is, but from everything I’ve read, I think it’s about X plus-or-minus” then averaging these experts’ guesses might very well provide a superior guess to that of the average individual, in the sense that the error of the expert-crowd-wisdom guess is expected to be smaller than any individual’s error.
This finding is necessarily only an “in general” proposition, of course, because there might be in our crowd a person who knows the precise answer (to whatever question is being asked), and his answer cannot be beat. Plus, there will always be one answer in any group of guesses that is closest to the truth. That applies to any crowd, expert or not. Melding the correct answer with a sea of incorrect ones only dilutes the truth.
So crowds are not universal tools at filling in information holes. It should be equally obvious that when a crowd is fed and relies upon biased information the game is off.
Example. You might look at that jar of jelly beans or pennies (a long-time reader of my blog “DAV” reminded me of this example) and know that it can’t contain a million pennies, nor even a hundred thousand. We all know lots of things about pennies and jars, and many of us have or have had jars of change, so we are all experts of a sort on this matter. We could form a not-wild crowd-wisdom idea of the number. The average of our guesses in this case is likely to be a good guess.
Now imagine a mustachioed slickster stands by the jar and whispers to passersby, “Psst, buddy. There’s a solid cone of cork in the middle. It only looks like there’s a lot of pennies. Word to the wise.” You recall that this cork ploy is, indeed, an old-time carnival trick. The mystery man slips his finger across his nose and scuttles off. “Hey,” you think, “He might be in on it. This could be a hot tip!” Only our man is lying. There is no cork. The information is biased. If our slickster touts enough folks, the accuracy of the average will be far too low.
This kind of touting works in a more complicated way at horse tracks. If touters can find enough suckers to bet a certain way, the odds can be manipulated. This works, when it works, because race odds are formed by the money bet on the race. When it works, it proves crowds are susceptible to false and misleading information. Of course, our beneficent leaders would never use these gimmicks to tout stocks or other investments, right?
Voters, too, base decisions based in large part of information provided by the media, information which all can see is biased when produced by the “other side”. Voting is an appeal to the so-called wisdom of crowds.
These small examples are enough to prove crowd wisdom is of no worth when individuals in the crowd are ignorant of the subject matter, or when the crowd is based on experts fed misleading information. Averaging wisdom of the wise, or semi-wise, can and does work when the wise use unbiased information. But even pros can be misled. Generals must rely on their lieutenants. The bad news, already well known, is that propaganda works. That is why, after all, it is so often used, and why it will continue to be used. People, including experts, will come to wrong conclusions when conditioning on flawed premises.
Meanwhile, here’s the answer to the question posed at the beginning of the Chapter. Zero. In inches or centimeters, the length of Mesd-su-Re’s nose was a big skinny nothing at the end of his life. Ramses had it sliced off for daring to corrupt his harem. Ouch. He’s lucky that’s all he lost. The lesson is: don’t guess unless you have to, and when you do, be less confident.
On 7 March 1907, Francis Galton wrote a brief, but interesting article for Nature magazine entitled “Vox Populi”, which opened, “In these democratic days, any investigation into the trustworthiness and peculiarities of popular judgments is of interest.” This was true then, and it is true now, only it is more important these days.
Galton’s article revolved around a set of observations he made at a fair. Galton apparently liked democracies and sought evidence justifying them through the crowd-wisdom of voting. He said his results were “more creditable to the trustworthiness of a democratic judgment than might be expected.” Let’s see if that’s true.
The main purpose of Galton’s article, and in an earlier letter to the editor “One Vote, One Value”, was to advocate the median and not the mean as a routine summary measure of sets of numbers. This is an obscure statistical argument of little interest to the average reader (a pun), but I heartily and enthusiastically agree with him. But if you won’t mind indulging me for two paragraphs, we can come to a larger point. Arithmetic means, Galton wisely said, are subject to the wild speculations of “cranks”, which is to say, of lunatics, idealogues, and activists. These eccentrics are more likely, when asked to make guesses, to offer extreme numbers.
Recall the example of Mesd-su-Re’s nose length. Suppose we had three guesses by men in the street, say, 2 inches, 3 inches, and 42 inches. The arithmetic mean of these is (2+3+42)/3 = 15.7. The median, which is the center measure, is 3 inches. The median comes far closer to the truth (which was 0) than the mean. Medians are robust, Galton says, and we must agree. His analysis of the observations he chose nicely shows this. Thus endeth the math.
Galton’s observations were taken from a county fair and consisted of guesses of an ox’s dressed weight, in a manner similar to the jelly bean contest. Whoever was closest to the real weight won. Galton showed that the median of the guesses was close to the actual weight. And he marveled.
Many people reading Galton through the years have said that his analysis points to the wisdom of crowds. One man might not know a lot, but many man cobbled together do. Or so the story goes. But, strictly speaking, the wisdom of the crowds is a fallacy, as we saw.
If you ask a man who hasn’t a clue about the value of some thing, his guess is useless. This follows from the “no clue” premise: having some clue is not the same as having no clue. A group of clueless is just as ignorant as one clueless man. Forming the mean or median (or any other measure) from a collection of baseless guesses is no better than using the guess from any one man. Galton, good eugenicist that he was, would agree that this also has deep implications for democracy. But he never managed to draw that lesson.
When quoting from Galton’s paper in support of crowd wisdom, people often forget these words. Speaking of the “judgments” of the dressed ox’s weight, he said:
The judgments were unbiased by passion and uninfluenced by oratory and the like. The [then not unsubstantial] sixpenny fee deterred practical joking, and the hope of a prize and the joy of competition prompted each competitor to do his best. The competitors included butchers and farmers, some of whom were highly expert in judging the weight of cattle; others were probably guided by such information as they might pick up, by their own fancies.
His next sentence is key: “The average competitor was probably as well fitted for making a just estimate of the dressed weight of the ox, as an average voter is of judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes, and the variety among the voters to judge justly was probably much the same in either case.”
This conclusion does not follow, nor even come close to following, from the premises. The premises are this: a group of uninfluenced interested experts made guesses about a matter in their expertise. And they did well, even very well. Their errors were small. As we should expect and hope them to be.
Did you also notice the poll tax? The six-penny fee to insure “skin in the game”. Poll taxes are out of favor.
Contrast Galton’s “election” to a largely ill- or uneducated harangued and harassed and increasingly largely disinterested citizenry asked to vote in national elections, or to express an opinion on something as complex as a national health bill. Their guesses as to the “best weight” will be closer to the situation of guessing Mesd-su-Re’s nose length than guessing the weight of a dressed ox. We have all seen videos in which voters are asked who the Vice President is, or how many justices serve on the Supreme Court, and we see how the respondents flail and fail.
Galton was wrong. The average expert competitor is vastly more fitted for making guesses over matters on which he is expert than the average uneducated voter is of “judging the merits of most political issues on which he votes”. This judgment may well be true in small, local elections, where the average voter is or can be an expert. But it has not proved to be so for large elections, where most voters are anything but experts, and where the propaganda is thick and abundant.
Times change. The voting franchise in 1907 is not what it is today, and not what some desire it to be (some now call for children to vote, etc.), and it’s fair to say that Galton did not anticipate this. In his time, when voting was (let us say) a more specialized activity, his judgment was closer to being true. Mathematics, however, is not going to rescue the justification for one-man-one-vote.
Let’s consider more carefully the act of voting. At the time of this writing, there are in this great land of ours some 321 million souls. Another 12 million or so people are, as the euphemism goes, undocumented. If democracy is defined as one-man-one-vote then democracy does not exist in the USA for the very simple reason that only about seven out of ten adults are permitted to vote in elections, either national or local. And even those eligible are not allowed to vote on everything. Actually, these numbers are exaggerations because we do not let people under 18 vote (now, anyway). Yet people under 18, which includes infants and children, are people, too.
If we count all people, all live human beings, around one-third are forbidden to vote for candidates for office. Next consider the numbers barred from casting ballots in other governmental matters, in things like new laws, regulations, and the like. It’s monumental. Only the barest fraction directly participate. Is lack of participation scandalous? Is it an affront to Equality, that great and noble goal? Should we march?
In a “pure” democracy everybody votes on everything. We are thus not a pure democracy, but something else. We used to say “republic”. Now, a pure democracy is undesirable because it is absurd. It is absurd because most of us do not want infants and children voting, and we do not want citizen-wide votes on every matter which arises. Some form of representation is therefore necessary, on the premise that all-citizen voting is impossibly unwieldy.
Though we in the once United States are not a representative democracy, we still aim toward a pure one. The percent of citizens eligible to vote in presidential elections has been inching ever upwards, and so has the percent of voters who show up. Around 1850, about 20% of all citizens could vote in presidential elections, and by 2012 it was somewhere near 70%. The percent of all citizens (not just those eligible) who actually voted was around 15% in 1850 and hovered close to 40% in 2012.2 Some of these increases are due to structural changes, such as the Fifteenth (race) and Nineteenth (women) Constitutional amendments, but more interesting to us is the Twenty-Sixth (extending the vote to 18-year-olds). Some voices, in Europe and the States, call for votes on national matters to be extended to those as young as 6.3 These calls are still rare compared to the sounds heard for 16.4 Once you are in the grip of Equality, there is no excuse for barring anyone from voting.
Citizens through time have also been encouraged to vote in more matters, such as latterly for Senators (Seventeenth amendment), or directly for legislation, though thus far only at the State level (see e.g. California). This is in the direction of pure democracy; however, nobody, except possibly some academics, thinks we’ll ever get there.
It’s become a staple, as said above, to quiz dazed-looking folks as they exit polling stations in presidential and other important elections. It is not rare to discover few of these voters can name, for instance, members of the Supreme Court; even fewer can name the Secretary of State or persons in other offices. Some cannot even find major countries on a map, even their own. How many of these voters can define the difference between the deficit and the debt? Or could name the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party? Ignorance abounds, but still people vote. We tell them to. Stickers are issued so that the wearer can boast of having done his civic duty.
We are close to a wisdom-of-the-crowds situation, in that we ask people to cast judgment, i.e. make guesses, on matters on which they have little to no expertise. Asking a group of 16-year-olds where they would like to go for their Junior Prom, and we are dealing with experts, and therefore can have true crowd wisdom. Ask them if should we “ban guns” or, say, go to war with China if China invades Taiwan and the expertise vanishes.
Incidentally, does the word ignorant appear hurtful to you, possibly insulting? Then you have reached a point where you believe a lie by omission is better than hurting somebody’s (ill-informed) feelings. We are skirting the Hate Fact Fallacy.
Why do we vote in official elections? Or indeed elections of any kind? Because there are disagreements. Why are the disagreements? For two main reasons. Let’s look at both closely.
REASON ONE: people have the same goals, but there is uncertainty in how to bring these outcomes about. There are disputes over paths, but not destinations.
REASON TWO: people have differing goals. One side one thing, the other the exact opposite (of course, there could be many sides, none the same, and each with a party). In national elections we often hear of the “shared” goal of “making a better country” or “ensuring out future”. Yet what these mean to each individual is subject to enormous and irreconcilable variance. There can be diametric opposites: people mean different things when using those same phrases.
Suppose we want to choose one of two men to “lead” the country—or company, or whatever (the number of men vying for the position is largely irrelevant). The man who wins has the job to implement, or to manage or guide, or at least attempt to implement, a set of shared goals.
Even if all voters shared the same goals of the country (or company, or whatever), then there still might be uncertainty over which man is the best to implement them. Hence there is a vote to make a formal decision. The voters all come with different ideas about the best man, but the ideas they consider to decide whom to vote for about the men and not the goals.
This is, of course, a simplification, because some goals of the organization will be crude and take loose forms, and opinions will differ over the desirability of these. Plus, not every many up for election will put the same emphasis on each shared goal. But with these simplifications, we can come to an interesting solution.
When there are shared goals and only uncertainty about who is best, the voters who lose the election will be unhappy that their man lost. In their opinion the best chance for implementing the shared goals was lost. But they will be comforted knowing that their goals will still be sought. The winners and losers still share the desire to reach the same destination. Little disharmony should result because of the election. The winners have no reason to belittle or distrust the losers. Everybody wants to get along. After all, the winners want the same thing as the losers; the only difference is that the losers think there was a better person or way to reach these same ends.
It could be, of course, that some losers value their estimate of the uncertainty over who was the best man more than they value the shared goals, but this is not what is found for the most part. And don’t forget that we’re accepting all share the same goals.
Next suppose there are no shared goals (where no means there are none), but still only two options for leader (or a limited number of choices). Each man running for office shares goals only with his own supporters. Each side will still have uncertainty about whether their man can implement the goals only their side shares. But each side only has one choice to who this man is.
Here, whoever wins, there will be only unhappiness. The losers will be deeply unhappy with the results, because they know none of their goals will be sought—at best, their goals can only be reached accidentally.
Since the losers desire different goals than those belonging to the winning party, and voting has not provided them a means toward these goals, the losers will begin to distrust voting itself. For good reason. Voting has failed them. Voting, from their perspective, provided the worst possible outcome. Voting gave the wrong answer. The winners will gloat and celebrate, because they know they will be moving toward the goals they desire, and away from the disliked, undesirable, or hated goals of the losers. The winners wanted nothing to do with the losers’ goals, a statement which follows from supposing there are no shared goals.
There will be no reason for the winners to court the losers, and every reason for the winners to be suspicious about the post-vote behavior of the losers. The winners may, of course, try to re-educate the losers into desiring their (the winners’) goals. Some losers may lash out, not seeing any other soution.
What’s even stranger is that when there are no shared goals, if the vote is close, the winners will also distrust voting. Why shouldn’t they? Voting almost lost them their prize! They will say to themselves “Do we dare risk allowing a group of losers to vote and possibly be in the position of implementing their unwanted, disliked, or hated goals? Wouldn’t it be better to disallow voting altogether?” Voting hasn’t exactly failed, the winners think, but they now regard it with grave suspicion.
In between these situations are those where there are some, but not all, shared goals between rival groups. Voting will be more or less acrimonious depending on whether there is lesser of greater overlap in these goals. Naturally, the different ordering of the desirability of the goals by each individual in the electorate will also temper tempers. The more shared goals there are, and the few unshared, the less bitter the results.
The same conclusion is reached by considering estimates of uncertainty of which man is best, but to a lesser extent. This is because it is the practice of candidates for offices of any kind to dispel uncertainty about their merit and claim that once elected they will somehow be gifted with practical omnipotence in implementing whatever goals are desired. This, in spite of all experience to the contrary, is even believed by many voters.
In many large-scale elections, a variety of goals is the rule. The problem is people can’t always remember all of them. Worse, it is usually considered the good policy of the rival parties to focus the electorate only on the unshared goals. This moves things in the direction of the second scenario in which there are no shared goals, but where it only seems as if there are no shared goals. Uncertainty in who is the best man is again irrelevant, because the goals between sides are made to seem entirely different.
As groups polarize over goals, a polarization which must come sooner or later the more the electorate resembles a pure democracy, then unless one side can convince the other of the sanity and righteousness of their goals, a split, possibly violent, is bound to occur. This splitting is not a logical necessity, so we are not in the place to label that split a fallacy, but it is, given history, a sensible prediction.
Shared goals, or mostly shared goals, and the maintenance and communication of as many shared goals as possible, is why voting works when it works, inside large or small groups. Voting can and does work and does not necessarily lead to splits.
Voting for a new leader in voluntary professional societies provides a good example. These positions are more or less honorary, and are in large part public relations-oriented. The majority of members are glad they don’t have to serve, plus all members have the shared goal of making the organization look good, thus enhancing their own reputations.
Elections rarely lead to trouble. When they do, it is because the directions the organization should take, according to its members, have lately diverged. This can happen when fields become more specialized, or when some members embrace a new theory or practice that leaves the traditional members cold. You won’t hear of marches or “cry-ins” or “days of rage” when a clique fails to have their man elected leader of a chemical society. But you might see the society cleaving into the Peoples Chemical Society and Chemicals for People Society.
In trivial elections, like where the office should hold its annual party, the losers will dislike going to the same boring hotel they went for the last three years. But because there are so many other shared goals by being a member of the office, losers won’t quit or be fired over the vote. The goal of best meeting place isn’t that important overall.
Again, in elections with few to no shared goals, acrimony must be the result. It will do almost no good to console the minority with, “You must respect the process.” Why should they? They are in the minority and the process has done them one in the eye. The only strategy the losers have left is to convince members of majority to abandon their goals, and adopt those of the minority, in the hope that when the next election is held the minority will win. Good luck doing that when the majority is aware of that possibility and moves to block these efforts.
This, finally, is where the fallacy lies. That voting “works.” This is not an unconditional promise. Voting works, yes, but only in the those situations when the culture is largely shared. When there are sharp divisions, voting must and will fail some people. It is insulting and demeaning to hear at the time of election loss how voting worked. It did not. Call this the Voting Works Fallacy.
In major elections there are always a pool of “undecideds”, people whose attention all sides court. Though there is a feigned love for these folks when wooing them, there is also disdain toward them because they have not chosen a side. Not a side about the level of uncertainty of which candidate will do a better job, but of the side of the set of goals.
It is forgotten these people are those folks who still believe they are in a mono-culture. They don’t hold the “extreme” goals the other two sides do, but instead share the majority of “non-controversial” goals both sides actually hold but fail to consider. For undecideds, the election is more about uncertainty in reaching the shared goals, who is the best man, and not in aiming for one set of goals over another. This suggests it would be well to entice these people by appealing to these shared goals and boasting of a candidate’s greater chance (reducing uncertainty) in reaching these shared goals. That doesn’t happen much. Instead, the candidates and their parties more usually try to convince the undecideds to embrace their set of goals. This is effective to some degree, but guarantees greater disharmony after the election.
Every move toward greater democracy thus will—but not necessarily must: this is a contingent observation—increase discord. Widening the electorate fails to cause an increase in discord only when the new voters added largely share the same goals as the current voters. When they do not, it increases discord.
Consider that is was once much more likely for people within States to have a shared cultures than with the country as a whole, if only because States are comprised of smaller groups. So that when the States’ mandate to elect Senators by legislatures was removed to the populace, elections become more tumultuous. As expected.
Similarly, it cannot be that 16-year-olds will share the same goals as, say, 60-year-olds. Lowering the voting age must increase the possibilities for factions, and so will increase turmoil. Likewise, increasing immigration (by whatever means) of people who do not share the same goals as current residents (e.g. the desire for Sharia versus Christian common law) must necessarily cause difficulties and fractures. Diversity is our weakness, as far as voting is concerned.
It’s worth noting, as most scholars have, that once this bifurcation process gets started in a democracy, it always tends to the same violent end, unless something exterior or external occurs which re-unites the people.
At last we return to the Wisdom Of The Crowds and voting. Recall that crowd-wisdom is a form of averaging. Voting is averaging: votes average guesses of who will be the best man for a job. This works when the crowd is operating on (largely) unbiased and relevant information, when they have more than a clue about the answers, and only have small uncertainties that vary from person to person. Elections for small-town council members are a good example. So is voting where to go to lunch.
We saw that Wisdom Of The Crowds is a fallacy when the crowd is ignorant of its subject matter, such that it cannot reliably provide accurate guesses, i.e. good votes. Votes in elections which contain a small portion of ignorant voters will in general wash out, as long as these ignorant people are voting based on their ignorance.
For example, a guy walks by a polling place and discovers to his surprise that it’s election day. He walks in and votes for names that were most pleasant sounding to him, and not just for a party he has been told to support. Voters doing this cancel each other out, on average. These types of voters won’t represent a large swath of the electorate, however, mainly because of the next point.
Crowds often vote after having assimilated biased information. Averaging biased votes gives biased results, like in the pennies-in-a-jar example. A good proportion of the indigenous populants in democracies imbibe willingly large drafts of misinformation from sources far more dubious than the mustachioed man at the carnival. Examples are numerous and well known. Turn on the TV and behold: the reader can be forgiven for assuming propaganda is the sole reason for television’s existence. Bias abounds, especially in those elections in which the lack of shared goals looms.
Increasing the electorate by adding people who are easily misled by (let us call it) targeted disinformation can only increase polarity. As the proportion of a population eligible to vote increases, both ignorance and susceptibility to bias must increase. This result assumes the tacit premises that intelligence is subject to variation, which most accept, and that the young are less wise and more easily swayed than the old, which everybody believes. Well, almost everybody.
The result, no matter which way we come at it, is that the closer a country comes to a pure democracy, the larger the mistakes it is capable of making in voting and the more divided the population will become over time. And the more likely irreparable rifts develop.
The solution to avoiding acrimony is not to eliminate voting, but to discover how to increase and maintain shared culture. I’ll let the reader decide what that is.
There is a strain of thinking among scientists (and other intellectual leaders) that morality should be decided by vote. The idea won’t be stated in these naked terms; instead, it will be said that whatever is moral is what the majority does to contribute to survival. Not the majority in some a specific time and place, but in all times and places, across all men through time. Morality can therefore be discovered by scientific measurement with reference to theories about survival, evolution, and biology.
As a ripe example, scientists will say murder is wrong because it works against the theory of inclusive fitness. Inclusive fitness is a measure which increases the chance for survivial, and murdering decreases survival odds to zero. For our purposes, it does not matter what these theories are, just that they are offered as explanations for morality.
On the other hand, most of us would rebel against the idea of putting right and wrong to general vote. It could work out, for instance, that, after a long weekend where much beer has been drunk, the majority suddenly decides to vote that murder is fine. Voting for what is moral is just not on.
We can’t leave morality to scientists. Opting for morals to be decided by scientists is still to decide morality by vote, though a vote without troubling people to go to the ballot box. We let a majority of scientists decide the vote based upon theory. Since we learn elsewhere that because (as all swear) science if self-correcting, it therefore changes. What is moral on one scientific theory today is immoral on the self-corrected scientific theory of tomorrow. Morality is in flux and theory-dependent.
Scientists, in any case, are not consistent about theories of surivval, because in no way can, for instance, abortion be moral if survival (“passing on genes”) is the goal. Yet it is clear a clear majority of modern scientists would support women killing their bewombed children.
After scientists come politicians and governments, who put morality directly to the vote in specific times and places. The majority gets to decide whether, in Ireland for instance, same-sex “marriage” is now moral or is to remain immoral.
Those who say, even implicitly, that morality is decided by a vote also are likely to say there are no universal moral principles, i.e. practices that are right or wrong regardless of what anybody thinks of them. With these people, there is no ultimate moral authority. The universe is indifferent, and all morals are nothing but arbitrary customs.
Yet if there is no universal moral truth, then everybody gets to decide for himself what is moral and what is not. Conflicts will arise between individuals who decide oppositely or differently. Groups of individuals who think similarly will then band together: the group that is the largest dictates what is moral and what is immoral. Since history shows group membership is ever in flux, what is moral and immoral will ever change. Morality is therefore not universal.
Morality, however, is certainly universal. Here’s why.
This argument that morality is not universal, but can be decided by vote, fails immediately for at least two reasons. The first is obvious: in order for everybody to agree that voting should decide what is moral, we must presuppose the moral principle “everybody gets to vote to decide morality”. But that presupposition proves there is at least one universal moral truth that is not had by voting—that all get to vote—which violates the first premise.
On the other hand, if you allow disagreement on the everybody-votes principle, then you have decided another universal truth: that morality should be decided by vote even if not all agree that morality should be decided by vote. Since the premise “Morality is not universal” is false, it is not true that moral truth can be decided by a vote.
The second failure is related. Not all people can vote, thus no morality can be decided upon. For instance, the very young and those that are senile or otherwise mentally incapacitated will not know how to vote. The principle states that all morality must be put to a vote: since not all can vote, no vote can ever take place. And even if all could, at this moment in time, actually vote, after some small amount of time some people will have died and new ones born. This changes the constituency and therefore implies a new vote should be taken after every birth and death.
If you say that voting should only take place at fixed intervals, then you have admitted another moral principle which is universal. Or if you say that representatives will vote for those unable, then this is another universal moral principle. Or you could say that those unable to vote do not get to decide what is best for them; what is best is left for their representatives. This becomes yet another universal truth, etc. Again, moral truth cannot be decided by a vote.
That morality is not universal also fails because even if we accept the universal moral principle that vote-decided morality does not violate the first premise, we find that after a vote has been taken on a particular moral question, the losers do not accept that the question just adopted is, in fact, moral. They may abide by the rules resulting from the moral vote, but that is different.
Yet because a vote decided that the thing is moral, and because we have decided that votes decide morality, that thing is moral period, so that nobody can change his mind about it. If anybody changes his mind, he is saying that the vote did not in fact decide what was moral. It only decided an arbitrary rule. Morals decided by vote must remain static once every question has been put to a vote. This is so even if, as is certain, circumstances change.
If a new vote is taken, it is admitting the old vote did not decide what was moral. It only decided a temporary rule. Further, the losers must instantly abide by the new morality, and assert as vigorously as the majority, that the new morality is right and true.
There is the further problem of deciding the boundary of the vote. The constituency was one boundary. How much must it change for the old morals to be put to new votes? Geography is a natural boundary. What is moral here might not be moral there if votes differ.
Here’s the kicker: if you say that a remote constituency voted wrongly, you have admitted voting cannot decide morality, and that morality is not mere custom. You must agree that whatever a group decides is right is right by virtue of the group deciding it. If in your own constituency the majority decides it would be moral to slit your throat for the entertainment value of the act, because the act was decided fairly, you must stretch out your neck meekly.
If instead of a vote, “might”, i.e. force, the threat or use of violence. is substituted, then nothing changes. If instead of a vote deciding what is moral and immoral, the strongest decide what is moral or immoral. Voting here is not the raising of hands, but the raising of arms. Those against the strongest will be defeated by the strength of the strongest: the sword rules. Thus it was not morally wrong that the Soviets killed millions of Christians because the Soviets were the strongest. It was not morally wrong that Mao wiped out millions of Chinese because Mao (and his allies) were the strongest. Their acts did not become wrong until a greater strength than theirs arose.
If we decide that might makes right, then we have decided a moral principle, one that is universally true even absent might! Might makes right is another universal moral truth not decided by might (or vote). If we consider that to decide that might makes right implies a vote, we are brought right back to the beginning. If you say that nobody has a choice and that might makes right is imposed upon us by the strong, then you have deduced yet another universal moral principle, namely that nobody has a choice. And so, etc.
Morality is therefore universal. It only remains to discover what universal moral principles are true and which false.
The same arguments we just met show that democracy, taken at its strict definition (everybody gets a vote), fails to be moral. In order to work, democracy must be modified to incorporate or base itself upon universal moral truths. In particular, it cannot ever allow a vote on morality. If it does, it introduces the unnecessary risk of error. Sooner or later a democracy, or any system that allows voting on morality, will come into moral error. Ours certainly has. Our very own government, joining something of a worldwide trend, once voted to ban alcohol because the government concluded drinking was immoral. This was not its first, nor its last, grievous error.
Since we now know that there are universal moral truths, and we cannot vote on them safely, it is up to us to discover what they are—or suffer the consequences. This is not to say that voting is not useful; but we can infer that votes should be limited to subjects which are not about universal moral truths. Moral truths are those that we must accept as true and inviolable.
It follows that when a government votes on a moral truth directly (as through a legislature) or indirectly (as through a court), and it rules that the immoral is to be considered moral, or that the moral is to be considered immoral, we have no duty to believe the government. We have instead the duty to oppose the government. Thus when the government says, “You must claim these two men are married”, you must not agree, for this is an absurdity. The excuse “I was just following the law” will not wash.
We have reached our fallacy. Agreeing with an authority on a matter of morals when the authority is wrong because they are the authority, and thus you have no “choice” but to agree, is the Just Following Orders Fallacy. This only applies to moral matters. If your government tells you to shoot an innocent person, you must not obey, but if your government asks you to act on some other non-moral matter, the level of agreement and capacity and necessity to act are all contingent matters subject to change based on the situation.
It is not likely on Judgment Day you will have to explain why you paid your taxes, even though the government uses some of that tax money for evil ends. For instance, ours gives money to Planned Parenthood, which in turn gives money to government officials seeking re-election, who once re-elected, vote to fund Planned Parenthood. But you might have to explain why, if you worked at Planned Parenthood, you killed so many of the lives inside would-be mothers.
The Validation Fallacy is growing at the same rate religion is dying. People have to justify their acts in some way, even if these justifications are nothing more than repeating “I want it” said loudly or often enough until one is convinced of an act’s propriety. If religion cannot fulfill the function of providing a shared cultural moral framework, something else must.
Sometimes the government steps in to provide this framework, as it did in those countries which announced two men may marry. But because government is slow to catch up to changing desire, other outlets are often sought to justify acts. The internet, and in particular “social media”, has stepped in to perform these traditional duties.
If you can find at least one person who “validates” your “existence”, i.e. says what you’re doing is good, then what you are doing is therefore good. This is the Validation Fallacy. Good does not necessarily mean the Good, but merely acceptable or without lawful penalty. The Validation Fallacy is a species of the Voting Fallacy wherein the pool of eligible voters is expanded to all persons, and the winning decision is taken as at least one (non-self) vote in favor of the position you desire.
This is why semi-anonymous on-line connections have been so productive of dissension. It takes only a few clicks to find like-minded souls who condone whatever it is you want, what you know is wrong or sketchy, but what you want to get away with. You want to be told what is wrong, is right.
So-called communities—a perversion of the word community—form on-line, and sometimes spill out into the world. These are organized around all sorts of maladaptive behaviors, or as we used to say, of sinful acts. An actual community shares an entire culture, not a fraction; it is comprised of all individuals in a region, not just some. The residents help each other, rely on and fight with each other, and keep each other in line in all matters of life. An on-line faux community of, say, those who share a lust in some non-reproductive sexual activity, is the opposite of a community. The group exists only to facilitate its own madness such that the madness becomes the central focus of its ardent members.
There is an essential difference between email lists of chemists and one of “furries”. Chemists will share, perhaps, formulas and tips on how to mix acids and bases. They won’t seek to validate each others “existence” as chemists, as if chemists were are sort of human being instead of a profession.
Furries seek validation. These are people who dress in animal costumes and who believe, to more or less extent, they really “are” non-human animals. This often comes down to copulation, too. Simulated, that is, since the consequences of actual copulation are to be avoided at all costs. The group will pass around tips on how to stay strong in furry beliefs. They do this because they recognize what they are doing is foolish and that there are no such things as furries. Validation must be constant and grow ever stronger because Reality is relentless.
You will not find on-line “communities” of people discussing “being” newspaper subscribers, even though you might find such people chatting of their love of the printed word. You will find “communities” of people who are convinced they are the opposite sex, and want to be told they are right.
The Validation Fallacy is therefore a metaphysical fallacy that falsely attributes a characteristic to group of people as if that characteristic were truly essential. Man has two legs, essentially, as part of his nature, though mishaps occur and some men have fewer. If a man loses a leg after falling under a train, or perhaps even purposefully sawn off by a quack surgeon, the world does not suddenly declare that men do not by thier nature have two legs.
Suppose a group of men began tying pirate stumps to their rumps, and they called those stumps “third legs”. They insist the third leg is real, and because it is accepted as real, it follows they are no longer men, but otherkin (an actual word). They have become different creatures than men, because men do not have three legs. But they do. They are therefore not men, but something else.
This is, of course, absurd. Even though each of these otherkin validate each other by “voting”, we all recognize that the stumps are accidental to their being, i.e. not essential. They are not truly part of man’s nature. The stump people would rightly be seen as deluded, even if their antics are harmless.
If the stump people didn’t call their wooden appendages legs, but penises, then the world would not laugh. Everybody would agree that some men really do have wooden penises. Having a wooden penis would then make these people not men, but new kinds of creatures, creatures who should be celebrated and who should take pride in their ability to inflict splinters. These creatures would claimed they are discriminated against, and thus they need validation.
When sex enters the picture, reason and sanity exit. There is nothing in or essentially part of mankind that makes any person have to engage is sodomy, or have to pretend to be the opposite sex, or to have to sport a wooden penis. These are all accidental behaviors that do not need validating. And, anyway, validation (as voting) does not prove an act moral or good.
The It’s Only Normal Fallacy is one of the easiest to spot, and to kill. When somebody says we should accept a certain act as moral or good because that act is and has often been found throughout history, he commits the fallacy.
The fallacy is most often heard as a justification for the licity of non-procreative sexual acts. This, incidentally, explains the euphemism “sex education”, which is largely about training people how to avoid the consequences of actual sex. It is sex non-education. Anyway, homosexual acts, it is said, must not be bad because they have always been with us. Not every culture had or has them, but most do. Therefore, such acts cannot be wrong.
Well, murder, rape, robbery, and mayhem of all sorts have always been with us. Every culture has them. These cultures have managed to carry on, even in the midst of these acts. Therefore, murder, rape, and robbery are not immoral.
This fallacy’s obvious stupidity has not kept it from being employed. Probably because when the fallacy is used, listeners find it compelling. Perhaps it’s because it is based, in some bizarre way, on envy. They got away with it, why can’t we? Desire is a better explanation, though; i.e. the Meta Fallacy. I want it is the true crux of the argument.
It’s odd this fallacy is so widespread. After all, your mother tried to talk you out of it, probably on many occasions. It’s a shame her lesson didn’t stick. “Everybody else is doing it/going there/has one!” If everybody jumped off a bridge, would you, too? Yet you will insist on kicking your mother’s unimpeachable logic to the curb and say, yes, I’m jumping. Because everybody else did. It’s not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop at Reality.
Mere frequency, i.e. an act’s rarity or normality, can never be the basis of morality. Millions more cheat on their taxes than commit sodomy, so tax cheating is good? We’re not arguing whether tax cheating is less wrong than sodomy, which it almost certainly is, but we’re arguing that because tax cheating is common it cannot be wrong because it is common. This is absurd, as is saying sodomy is good because it is ubiquitous or that it was found in other cultures.
Was this Mao’s reasoning when he decided to slaughter millions of his compatriots? “Stalin did it, so why shouldn’t I? He’s beloved of many Western intellectuals, and don’t we all deserve love?” Not that I’m equating the press with the gleeful bloodlust of communist leaders, but many a journalist argues (with himself) “Hey, the other guy substitutes opinion for factual coverage, why can’t I? I’d like to win the hearts of my colleagues and be eligible for awards, too.”
The It’s Only Normal Fallacy is thus akin to the Broken Windows Fallacy, which is used by your lower class of criminal everywhere. “Say, Jamal, that window is broken and hasn’t been repaired for some time. Why not spray a little graffiti on the building? After all, I could be called an artist by intellectuals.” Crime begets crime and immorality begets immorality because of this fallacy. Broken windows encourage crime because they implicitly tell criminals that crime is allowed, or that it at least goes unpunished. Since nobody cares, is it really a crime? Everybody else is doing it. Why can’t I?
Pornography is everywhere and free, facts which might lead a conspiratorially minded person to conclude that someone or some thing is behind it. Forget that. Viewing it no longer carries any opprobrium. It is even encouraged in some quarters (some researchers say it is “healthy”), and it is encouraged because it is ubiquitous. It is judged not wrong in part because of its easy availability. Everybody is doing it, why can’t I?
The prevailing mores of a culture are not right or wrong because they prevail. They must always and in each case be judged individually. This ought to be plain to all. If the frequency of a behavior is a measure of its moral goodness, then tossing your enemies into ovens or volcanoes, if it is common and accepted by that culture, cannot be judged wrong.
Moral relativism is false. And everybody believes it is false, too. All you have to do prove that to any person claiming to believe in moral relativism is to find the areas which, to him, cannot be compromised on. Your opponent will always have many. At the least, he will probably scream like a little girl when you grab him by the throat and threaten to rip his heart out as you disclaim “My ancestors were Aztecs, and you’re about to be sacrificed.” It’s a sure bet that he then professes the universal disapprobation of murder.
- … III?1
- … 2012.2
- … 6.3
- … 16.4
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