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Morality Can’t Be Decided By Vote

These are all old arguments, but since Mr Obama has put us in the mood over the birth control controversy, it is best to revisit them.

The dominant thinking is that morality should be decided by vote. This follows from the premise that there is no universal moral truth or authority. 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 must then band together: the group that is the largest is the one that dictates what is moral and what is immoral. It seems group membership will ever be in flux, thus what is moral and immoral will ever change. Morality is therefore not universal.workmakesfree.jpg

This fails immediately for at least two reasons. The first is obvious: in order for everybody to agree that a vote should decide what is moral, since the principle “everybody gets vote” is a moral principle, it is then a universal moral truth, which violates the first premise. If you say that everybody does not have to agree with the 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 which began the argument thus false, it is not true that moral truth can be decided by a vote.

The second is related. Not everybody can vote so no morality can ever 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 (seconds) some will have died and others born. This changes the constituency and therefore implies a new vote should be taken every few seconds. If you say that voting should only take place at fixed intervals (say, a year) then this is another moral principle which is universal. Or if you say that representatives will vote for those unable, then this is another new moral principle; further, it is one that is universal, which also violates the first premise. Or you could say that those unable to vote do not get to decide what is best for them. This becomes yet another universal truth, etc. Again, moral truth cannot be decided by a vote.

It also fails because even if we accept that the universal moral principle that voting decided morality doesn’t count as violating the first premise, we have 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. Because a vote just decided that a 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 they change their mind, they are saying that the vote did not in fact decide what was moral. Thus, morality by vote must remain static once every question has been put to the vote. This is so even if, as they certainly will, circumstances change. If a new vote is taken it is admitting the old vote did not decide what was moral.

If instead of a vote “might” is substituted then nothing changes. For instance, instead of a vote deciding what is moral and immoral, the strongest decide what is moral or immoral. Those against the strongest will be defeated by the strength of the strongest: the sword rules. Thus it was not morally wrong that the Nazis killed millions of Jews, Gypsies, and Poles because the Nazis were the strongest. It was not morally wrong that Stalin and Mao deliberately starved to death millions because these men (and their allies) were the strongest.

In any case, if we decide that might makes right, then we have decided a moral principle, one that is universally true to boot. Thus the first premise again fails because there exists at least one universal moral truth. It fails yet again when we consider that to decide that might makes right implies a vote, which brings us 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.

These are the same arguments that show that Democracy, taken at its strict definition (everybody gets a vote), fails to be moral, incidentally. In order to work, Democracy must be modified to incorporate universal moral truths. Since we know, given the arguments above, that there are universal moral truths, it is up to us to discover what they are or suffer the consequences. This argument does not say that voting is not useful: but from it we infer that votes should be limited to subjects which are not universal moral truths, which we must accept as true period.

36 thoughts on “Morality Can’t Be Decided By Vote Leave a comment

  1. I believe everybody should get a vote not because it’a a moral principal, but because it’s the best way to settle diverging opinions. If anybody comes up with a better system to allow the coexistence of millions that each have a different way at looking at the world, I am open to the idea. In the mean time, we vote.

  2. David,

    To say “I believe everybody should get a vote” is to state a moral principle. Further, I’d bet that you do not believe that everybody should get a vote.

    The argument above does not say that voting is not useful: but it says that votes should be limited to subjects which are not universal moral truths. (I’ll put this in the text, or it’s apt to arise again.)

  3. David: Not all matter need to, or should be, voted on. The guvvy doesn’t need its fingers in every aspect of your life.

  4. I agree with you on that one Will, not everything should be voted on. My point is that the vote principal is not something absolute, and not a moral principal. It can change (and does change) with time. If someone can propose another mechanism to allow a heterogenous group to live together, it could be just as legitimate as a voting scheme. No morality there. It’s there by default, because we don’t have anything better. The chosen mechanism has to seen as legitimate by the group, otherwise unrest will result. It’s more management than morality. I see it as Realpolitik, which is based on practical considerations rather than on “idealogical notions or moralistic or ethical premises”.

  5. David,

    To claim that statements about morality are not moral statements does not make it so; indeed, it fails immediately. Statements about the best way to govern or to live are moral statements period. This is true whether or not this result is pleasing or desired.

  6. Regarding voting:

    EVERYBODY should (“moral value” on my part) review & ponder the early scene from the movie: “It’s a mad mad mad mad world.” http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=its+a+mad+mad+mad+mad+world+part+1&view=detail&mid=EE82464B388E000E7123EE82464B388E000E7123&first=0&FORM=LKVR1

    Specifically, the part about how the group that arrived at an accident scene & hears the dying words of an old man about buried treasure. Before the eclectic bunch charges off to find & get the treasure they undertake to vote about how the treasure should be split — in the interest of being “fair.” This seemingly straightforward effort leads to anarchy.

    All of which goes to show that the concept of “voting” can get very complex for even simple matters — because what constitutes “fair”/”fairness” will always be subjective and relative. The discussion about how to split the shares of a yet-to-be-uncovered-&-alleged-treasure runs from about time 22:15 to 28:00 at the above link.
    There’s a lot of truth in that joke.

  7. Morality *can* be decided by vote if the people decide it to be so.

    I don’t really think it is the best way to advance, discuss, develop ethics, but I’m no god.

    Luckily, such system is not in place, at least officially. What is in place is democracy, which lets people have a say in the process that ends up writing the laws we have in place. These should not be confused by “morality”, but they do share some basic concerns.

  8. Statements about the best way to govern or to live are moral statements period. This is true whether or not this result is pleasing or desired.

    I can’t believe this is happening: we do agree!

  9. Sorry for the spam:

    In any case, if we decide that might makes right, then we have decided a moral principle, one that is universally true to boot.

    And if we do not decide anything at all? There will be no “absolute moral principles” then. And since when is an absolute dependent upon the decision of a mortal?

  10. Luis,

    Obviously, to “decide nothing” is to make a moral decision. No escape there. Plus, I have given several reasons why morality cannot be decided by vote. You are welcome to rebut them with arguments stronger than saying, “Laughable.”

    I notice that neither you nor David has taken the challenge of saying that everybody gets a vote.

    Ken,

    Plus, it had the Three Stooges.

  11. Matt:

    While I agree with your conclusion, I am not sure you have framed the question in the most helpful way. It is not unhelpful but it doesn’t illuminate the hazards of the changing moral principles we face today. Let me illustrate.

    The Fifth Amendments says, in part, that we shall “not be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”. This is a law but it is rooted in moral principle. We didn’t vote on it, we accepted it as a condition for living within this polity. While the law can change under due process but the moral principle should not under the same due process. They do not fall in the same ambit.

    The Amendment is rooted, I suspect, in the moral principles embodied in the Biblical commandments (among other spiritual traditions) to not steal and not covet “you neighbor’s house, your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that belongs to your neighbors’”. It makes common sense as a basis for large numbers of people living together. So in that sense, it is “right”. In any case, it is what we collectively accepted when we either applied for citizenship or decided to remain citizens, whether passively or not.

    To pick a subject at random, let’s say that our politicians determine to redistribute earnings, for whatever reason. This creates a new moral principle which opposes those supporting the Fifth Amendment. Does voting for a new law that of coveting your neighbor’s possessions (e.g., earnings) make it moral? Is the question of “voting” even relevant?

    I suggest that linking moral process and political processes will lead to places we as a society do not want to go, starting with envy as a basis of public policy and anger as a source of political power. Seneca wrote about the dangers of linking anger and politics two thousand years ago and we haven’t learned much since.

    DavidC.

  12. Obviously, to “decide nothing” is to make a moral decision.

    So to not decide is to decide?

    So a mouse that fails to make a moral decision is making a moral decision?

    Etc.,etc. Logical fail, mr Briggs. Of course, you need this insanity of a premise for your whole edifice not crumble miserably. Which it does, of course, since what you just proposed here is insane ;).

    Plus, I have given several reasons why morality cannot be decided by vote.

    The point is not that it “can’t”. It clearly “can”, at least for the 99% of it, while the premise of democratic morality per se must come from other ways (like acknowledging it is the best way, in a non-democratic way). We could even imagine an absurd world where the population would vote if whether they want a democratic-driven morality or not. All that would follow would be “democratic”, if the vote was passed on and accepted.

    These are all technicalities that do not interest me much, since I also do not think democracy is the best tool to evolve ethics and morals, just like you. Unlike you however, I do not view Morality as an independent existing Platonic world just waiting for us to discover and marvel at it ;). I view it as a human-constructed structural tool. However, this is a different discussion, we were discussing if whether morality is or should be democratic (or not). In the conclusion (that not) we agree, we just arrive from different vantage points.

  13. Libs believe that cultural and moral relativity are absolutly true. They ignore the logical contradiction.

    And you ignore what “Libs” actually have to say on that matter, so you can continue to pretend you outsmart them.

    In fact, “Libs” never say that moral relativity is absolutely true. What I say is that “absolutely True” is gibberish talk. There is nothing “absolutely true”.

    Is this an “absolute truth”? Of course not, since I’ve already established that such truths are gibberish. It’s like every other truth: a statement that is consistent with the data and interpretation we have. There always resides the possibility of revision. “Always”? Is this “absolutely true”? No, since I can also imagine the possibility of one day we arrive at an “absolute truth” with no need of further revision. Alas, I’ve yet to see any such “truth”. The best people have ever come near this are truths that are quite needless to “change” given the facts and maths we have. Which may sound similar, but they are not logically equal.

  14. DavidC,

    Good clarifications. I should have been clearer. I meant only to demonstrate that morality cannot be decided by vote. Except the instances mention (which cannot be universal moral truths) I do not say which are the real universal moral truths.

    Luis,

    Mice don’t decide morals. And, yes, to say, “I will decide not to decide what is a moral truth” is a statement about morality and also a decision.

    Mortality cannot be decided by vote. As you say, people do vote, but they are not voting on morality. The decisions of the vote might be moral ones, but they are not deciding moral truths in these votes. For instance, the vote might decide to call a behavior moral which is really immoral.

  15. If X is passed as law, and people decide to go along with it, then you have ethics. It’s what the group has decided. Morality isn’t passed or decided upon.

    Two conflicting ethical perspectives can, in theory, be resolved through logical discourse (i.e. a court of law). That’s not usually the case when it comes to moral issues.

    Stealing property, as an ethical rule, definately has its roots in morality. Most of us, for moral reasons, believe that stealing another persons property is wrong. Those that refrain from stealing the property of others ONLY because it is ethical would be, by definition, psychopaths.

    Ray: Ethics and morality are definately relative. Most parents I know would sacrafice a total stranger if it meant saving the life of their child. Some would do the same for a sibling, a parent, a neighbour, a country-man, an ethnic member, member of the same species, etc…. 🙂

  16. For what it’s worth, I see morality as a personal decision, and thus claim that there can be no such thing as “group morality”. Now, there may be a set of principles to which individuals of a group can subscribe and that *guides* individual decision making (and thus individual morality), but I think that’s different than group morality.

    I would argue that the fact that homicide is illegal isn’t what stops most people from killing others. On the other hand, you would hardly call an illegal lane-change immoral. Yet it is possible to construct circumstances under which killing another human being would be considered by many to be the moral choice (for example, protecting an innocent child from a drug-crazed murderer or rapist, where the option of apprehension is not available), and where changing lanes in an illegal fashion could be part of an immoral act.

    Contrary to what many believe, I do not subscribe to the theory that we are merely automata mindlessly executing some preordained program, but that we, individually, can and must daily make moral choices and that the pattern of those choices is what separates us from the animals (or not).

    Of course, I wouldn’t presume to even begin to claim I could prove a single word of that — a fact that I think strengthens, rather than weakens, the general argument.

  17. Morality is a really hard discussion. The definitions get in the way. If you get everyone to agree on the definition and the definitions of the words defining the definition, we might get a decent “consensus”, but then we have to get into that definition also.

    Moral is that which statistically causes a society to survive better.
    Immoral is that which statistically causes a society to survive less well.

    Lots of squishy ground in between.

    Putting systems in place that cause resources to flow unnaturally?

    Free is always unnatural. Helping others is not unnatural.

  18. @ David Charlton – re thinking that we shall “not be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation” … is a law but it is rooted in moral principle.

    Not Really.

    The principle of basic property rights (including oneself — habeous corpus) can be deduced by logic & by observing what happens when such principles are undermined.

    A good discussion on that is at: http://www.libertymind.com by a forensic psychiatrist that wrote the book, “The Liberal Mind, The Psychological Causes of Political Madness” (“TLM” for short). It’s a good book if you don’t mind the somewhat academic tone.

    ALSO, besides the social-brilliance-portrayed-as-comedy of “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World” noted above there was also a good episode on the TV series of the Paper Chase where the contracts law professor sets up a competitive project in which student teams must compete for limited references…leading to campus chaos…and thus illustrating, painfully, the necessity of rules & binding agreements.

    Fundamental to any “moral” value system is some underlying basis for consistency. Where values are fluid, though they may seem otherwise from moment to moment, chaos & anarchy invariably result….in a pattern that can quickly become indistinguishable from sociopathic behavior…which it so happens is exactly what is observed with extremely Left-leaning liberal/progressive polices when left to run amok.

    Inevitably, trade-offs & sub-optimal goals in specific areas are necessary to achieve an overall optimal system. This is where “Liberals” miss the point — always pursuing myopic goals to enhance some minor issue that inevitaby guarantee sub-optimization at numerous levels & overall. Real success is never achieved for any duration…but they’re always fixing things & making things better.

    TLM addresses this rather well.

  19. Mice don’t decide morals. And, yes, to say, “I will decide not to decide what is a moral truth” is a statement about morality and also a decision.

    This is not what you said earlier. You said it was a “moral decision”, while it is not. This rephrasing of yours can be counted as a concession, so I won’t torture you more on your mistake ;).

    Mortality[sic] cannot be decided by vote. As you say, people do vote, but they are not voting on morality. The decisions of the vote might be moral ones, but they are not deciding moral truths in these votes.

    Yes we agree on this point, since the paradox you invoke is robust. However there are some subtle points here worthy of discussion. The paradox mentioned in your post is only “robust” if we deem the “Voted Morality” as absolute ;). If we deem it as the “Standard Democratically Voted and Probably Not Very Well Morality”, then the stakes are off, personal disagreement with the “Standard” becomes possible, changing minds becomes possible, etc.,etc.

    However this is very academic. The mere thought of a “Voted Morality” reeks of a surreal mix between radical democracy and Totalitarianism, quite a contradiction. We get to vote on what we ought to think.

    For instance, the vote might decide to call a behavior moral which is really immoral.

    But I do not recognise the meaning you bring with the word “really” there. You are invoking, summoning an imaginary “Real” immorality, when morality only exist in the minds of people. If all the people deem a certain behavior “moral” (and when I say “all” I mean in “all space-time”), then it is moral, by definition. I know you disagree with me on this, but hey that’s life.

  20. Are you suggesting that only universally true morals can be considered morals? Or, should the title of this post be “Universal Morality Can’t Be Decided By Vote”?

    And is it logically incorrect to suggest there’s one universal moral truth, namely that might makes right, and all subsequent morals aren’t universal. If you fight against the strong and win, you’ve shown the moral to be true, and if you lose, you’ve also shown the moral true.

  21. @Ken It is pretty clear to me that the Fifth Amendment is a law. It is very necessary law. And one whose value ought to be obvious. It is also deducible by logic, as you point out. My only point is that we did not vote on it. Not in the sense expressed in Matt’s article.

    So if we vote for an law which in its implementation opposes the Fifth Amendment, are we ipso facto voting for a new morale principle? I think that is the core of the question that Matt is trying to wrestle to the ground.

    It seems clear that our current administration hopes so; that using envy or covetousness will engineer enough support to abandon or at least dilute the principles behind the Fifth Amendment, which in due course could become a new principle; “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”.

    DavidC.

  22. “If all the people deem a certain behavior “moral” (and when I say “all” I mean in “all space-time”), then it is moral, by definition.”

    Then you would have to take a survey of all people in all space time to determine if some behavior is moral. That’s going to take forever. Dr. Briggs is correct that mice are not moral agents. Mice don’t debate with cats on the morality of cats eating them. They just run.

  23. I’m surprised that noone has yet quoted Churchill in this discussion.
    In a speech in the House of Commons on 11 November 1947, he said:

    “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government . . . except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

    While I agree that the claim of minimal badness for democracy as a form of government can legitimately be regarded as a moral position, I do not see that as implying that “morality should be decided by vote”. And while it does seem to me that the former is, in our parts, “the dominant thinking”, I actually can’t think of anyone I know who espouses the latter.

    As LuisDiaz pointed out voting on laws is not the same as voting on morals.

  24. A moral code which results in the death of the practitioner is an evolutionary dead-end. If every individual on the planet were to adopt a self-destructive moral code, then the entire concept of “morality” would be moot. A moral code must be based upon the preservation of the individual practitioner.

  25. Luis Dias says: 17 February 2012 at 12:01 pm
    …it is the best way to advance, discuss, develop ethics,…

    Matt, I cannot agree with your assessment of ‘vote.’ Also, you muddy the water when you fail to distinguish between ‘morals’ and ‘ethics.’ Street-corner money/drug exchanges follow strict morals – violate the code/mores: you die. Here, the ‘vote’ consists of standing on the corner; walk away, and you leave that Intentional Community {IC}, to join an other IC. We each decide/vote, with each choice; neither mice nor alley cats exhibit morals: instincts rule, here.
    I find this post and its comments a hard row to hoe: each contributor approaches from a different direction, with little agreement on definitions. My confusion/contribution:

    principle, Constitutional amendments express foundational principles for law-givers.
    ethics, Principles follow from ethical examinations.
    laws, and Laws might be written based on ethics; typically NOT, in democracy:
    morals mores – street-corner, Hollywood, USMC – determine behavior.
    behavior Lecit/illecit, punished/rewarded, ethical/non: IC behavior is Moral.

    Thank you, Luis, for first introducing ‘ethics,’ tonight. John RT

  26. “The dominant thinking is that morality should be decided by vote. This follows from the premise that there is no universal moral truth or authority. If there is no universal moral truth, then everybody gets to decide for himself what is moral and what is not.”

    This is flawed thinking. It assumes all voters are supremely intelligent and can vote in the best interest of all others.

    Morality is those actions and behaviors that lead to the good health and well-being of individuals and communities. Morality is therefore based upon decisions that promote the health and well being of both individuals and communities of individuals.

    Those who are in denial of good health or simply don’t care will hopefully be in the minority. Thus the vote enables the majority to trump the weaker links in society. If the deniers of good health reach a majority, then the society will collapse and eventually a new society will emerge from the ashes.

    Words of caution; be careful what you ask for. You might get it.

  27. “Statements about the best way to govern or to live are moral statements period. This is true whether or not this result is pleasing or desired.”

    So I think it is reasonable to argue that about the way to govern, we will need to get things settled one way or another, be that brute force, voting or other. About how to live though, maybe we could try a bit of everybody deciding for themselves?

  28. A moral code which results in the death of the practitioner is an evolutionary dead-end. If every individual on the planet were to adopt a self-destructive moral code, then the entire concept of “morality” would be moot. A moral code must be based upon the preservation of the individual practitioner.

    The evolution by individual persons argument can only work if moral code is genetically determined, in which case there are universal (at least to humans) moral truths, just not external moral truths. Even if morality is genetically determined, it doesn’t follow that all moral codes which can result in the death of the practitioner are evolutionary dead-ends, only those which result in the deaths of all practitioners before reproduction. (From the point of view of evolution) a moral code which mandated that each individual commit suicide after parenting 10 children would be viable, despite being “a self-destructive moral code”. A common question in moral codes is the exact opposite, what level of individual self-destructiveness can the group demand/tolerate in the name of group benefit.

  29. Briggs, can you define “universal moral truth”? You mention this: “in order for everybody to agree that a vote should decide what is moral, since the principle “everybody gets vote” is a moral principle, it is then a universal moral truth”. This seems to infer that a universal moral truth is defined as a moral that everybody agrees to, if someone doesn’t agree with the moral, it’s not universal. I was thinking that a universal moral truth is something transcendent of human agreement.

  30. “A common question in moral codes is the exact opposite, what level of individual self-destructiveness can the group demand/tolerate in the name of group benefit.”

    Groups do not exist. Only individual human beings exist. A group has no more metaphysical imporatance than any one member.

  31. Groups do not exist. Only individual human beings exist. A group has no more metaphysical imporatance than any one member.

    that is an argument, although it raises serious questions about the nature of existence and how existence is defined. to go any further you have to help me by providing what I lack the imagination to produce, a definition of existence which excludes groups and includes moral codes. alternately we could just consider the nature of existence a non-issue because existence is such a restrictive state.

  32. “…. a definition of existence which excludes groups and includes moral codes.”

    Groups are perceived through the observed, similar behavior of individuals. But groups, as such, do not “exist” apart from the individuals — just as “running” and “jumping” do not exist independent of any given entity. Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Atheists, Buddhists, NFL Football teams, etc. exist only in as much as individuals can be observed to behave in a certain, defined manner.

  33. I can understand the non-existence apart from individuals argument, but this non-existence would also apply to moral codes. I’m also not certain it is wise to start down the perceptional route in defining existence since it usually leads to either existentialism or objectiviism. To continue exploring moral codes we either 1) consider non-existence to be a non-issue or 2) find a way to define existence in which moral codes exist but groups don’t.

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