What would be a philosopher’s take on the British EU Membership Referendum?
Answer by Graham Hackett
Frank; where to start? I could write a large essay on political philosophy, and compare the value of decisions which are taken by majority vote with those which are taken by knowledgeable experts. Also, I could hold forth on whether a simple once-and for all majority referendum is better than a lengthier more measured procedure. For example, in the USA, changing an important matter like an article of the constitution requires extended discussion, and consent by two thirds of state legislatures. Deciding on whether to leave the EU or stay would merely require a simple majority of the UK electorate.
I would like to look at the question of the referendum from an ethical viewpoint. Have we an obligation to vote? We all know that the results of votes can lead to important results; governments can fall, wars can be started and lives lost. Remember that before he assumed power and banned all elections, Hitler and his Nazi party were elected by the German people. So it does seem that we have some kind of obligation to make our voice heard in the referendum. However, it is difficult to see where this obligation might come from, unless we quote Gilbert Harman’s view about the contractual nature of moral obligation and argue that voting is one of the obligations we implicitly contract to perform if we belong to a democratic state. Note that this would make only the act of voting a moral obligation, not the direction of our vote.
Also, the decisions we might take in an election or referendum might vary from being disastrously wrong to being brilliantly beneficial. Just look at the majority voting decision to call the NERC polar vessel “Boaty McBoatface”. The director of NERC felt that this compromised the reputation and integrity of his organisation so much, that he felt he had no option but to ignore the democratic choice in favour of the name “RRS David Attenborough” – which had only been the fifth most popular choice in the electors list. What does this tell us about democracy, and its ability to deliver correct decisions?
So far, this might suggest that a decision to actually cast a vote is actually a correct moral decision, a Kantian duty perhaps. However, it leaves us in the difficult position of having to say that voting in the referendum is (arguably) a moral duty, but the collective nature of these votes might be a disaster. Of course, this is a problem for all elections, and that the importance of the decision to be taken in an EU referendum just exacerbates it
So we have not only a duty to vote in the referendum but a duty to carefully deliberate our decision. But good intentions are not enough. A benevolent 1933 German voting for Hitler might act from good intentions, thinking that Hitler would not only restore the integrity of Germany, but also contribute to world peace. So voting for whether we leave or remain in the EU is different from what program I choose to watch on the TV. Or what meal I order in a restaurant. These decisions only affect me, and are nobody elses business. However, your choice to leave or remain in the EU is very much my business, not just yours. Peoples voting decisions can cause hurt to other innocent people, so that it just seems plain wrong to say, as many people do, “go out and vote; It doesn’t matter if you know little about politics. The important thing is to vote.”
The result of the above is that I would hold that voting in a democracy is a public moral duty. However, because of the importance of the results of such decisions as that of remain or leave the EU, I would qualify this by saying that it is a public moral duty to vote well. What would voting well mean? I would argue that it places a heavy obligation on voters to pursue a policy of “due diligence” to ensure that they are convinced that they are morally and epistemically justified in the decision they have taken. As an elector, can you put your hand on your heart and claim that you have sufficient warrant for your belief? Can you truly say that you have done enough work to claim that the decision you are about to vote for will be for the public good?
You can see that this is a tall order, and makes democracy one of the more difficult political systems to pull off. Whenever I contemplate decisions such as the one in the EU referendum, It becomes pertinent to ask whether democracy can cope with it, and whether a simple blunt mechanism like a majority referendum can cope. There is no justification for believing that a majority decision will be the better because of the size of the majority in favour.
But what are the alternatives?