April 7, 2012

The Pseudo-Voltaire Principle

Voltaire famously didn't say, "I disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." There is, however, something quite important in the sentiment, which Voltaire of course endorsed, and it can be generalized beyond the case of speech. Call the following the Pseudo-Voltaire Principle:

It often happens that there is an agent S and domain of action A such that:
(a) S has the exclusive right to make decisions with respect to A, so that it would be morally wrong for anyone to attempt to interfere with S's implementation of her decisions with respect to A.

and

(b) It is very likely that S will frequently decide badly with respect to A.


Say that the Pseudo-Voltaire Principle applies to a domain (yes, the concept of a 'domain' is quite vague here; the examples which I will introduce shortly will hopefully help) just in case people who are likely to decide badly about that domain nevertheless ought to be allowed to decide about it. A clear example is the original one from the pseudo-Voltairian saying, speech: everyone has the right to decide what to say, and it would be wrong for anyone to try to interfere, but people are very likely to say things that are false, which is to decide badly about what to say. Of course, it gets even worse than this: people say things that are not only false but absurd, offensive, wicked, etc. But it would be wrong to try to force people only to say things that are true, coherent, tactful, and virtuous.

Being a libertarian, a Christian, and a Kantian (about ethics) all at once, one of my core beliefs is that the Pseudo-Voltaire Principle applies to nearly all domains. The fact that someone is going to decide badly (or is in the process of deciding badly) just isn't a reason for taking away from him the right to decide (unless, of course, he is deciding on behalf of others; then the others should take that responsibility away from him). However, it seems that, as a matter of history, or social psychology, or something, it is nearly impossible to get the Pseudo-Voltaire Principle stably embedded in a culture. That is, it doesn't seem to be possible, over the long term, to get the Principle accepted in public discourse. The rejection of the Principle can lead to either of two outcomes: either we hold that, no matter what the decision-makers decide, they must have decided well - i.e. that there are no objective standards for the goodness of choices - or else we hold that these freedoms need to be taken away from people who decide badly. In the US, there is moderately strong adherence to the Pseudo-Voltaire Principle for speech, but in most other areas we don't seem to be able to hold onto it. Here are two examples:

Religion. Religious toleration is really one of the great achievements of classic liberalism as a movement. Originally, the idea was that we needed to use reason and debate rather than force of arms to convince people about religion. So the idea was that the Pseudo-Voltaire Principle applied to decisions about what religion, if any, to follow. That is, although most people will choose a false religion, that is nevertheless their choice to make, and it is appropriate to use persuasion, but not force, in trying to steer people in (what one takes to be) the right direction. However, we seem now to have overbalanced and there is a strong tendency in our culture (especially here in West LA) to take the view that any decision about which religion to follow is as good as any other. Insofar as religions make factual claims, and to decide well would be to follow a religion whose factual claims are true, this commits one to a strong (and incoherent) form of relativism. At the same time, attempts to use persuasion (not force) to convince others to make a different religious choice are often regarded as somehow violating the principle of religious toleration. On the other hand, there of course really are some people out there (though not as many as certain alarmist sources on the cultural left claim) who want to impose certain religious choices on others in a variety of ways. None of these are nearly so serious as what was going on prior to the rise of classic liberalism: no one is trying to force everyone to join and attend the established Church on pain of incarceration or anything. But there are people who get upset about, e.g., oaths of office not being taken on a Bible, or government meetings not beginning with prayer, or people (including the government) referring to 'the Holidays' instead of 'Christmas.' This is, I suppose, because they don't want to allow others to make poor religious choices. We seem to have trouble holding the Pseudo-Voltaire Principle: there is pressure to tilt to one side or the other.

Sexuality and Reproduction. The idea for this post actually came to me as a result of a discussion about the relationship between feminism and the 'sexual revolution.' It seems that a large segment of our society just can't swallow the idea that it is up to individuals to make their own choices about sexuality and birth control without also swallowing the idea that any choice in this area is just as good as any other, so they don't seem to be able to grant individual freedom in this matter without also rejecting traditional moral views about it. But why should that be? Why can't it be the case that people just have the right to make poor decisions? Our political discourse on this subject (which has, of course, come back with a vengeance over the last several weeks) seems to presuppose that either (as the liberals say) any choice is as good as any other or (as the conservatives say) we need to get involved in somehow restricting people's choices. This is a false dilemma. The middle way is to endorse the Pseudo-Voltaire Principle.

I don't mean here either to be endorsing every aspect of the traditional view about what it would be to decide well in these areas (after all, there is no one traditional view), or to say that absolutely anything goes in either of them (when it comes to religion, human sacrifices are out, and when it comes to sexuality there must at least be a restriction to consenting adults), but what I am saying is that I insist on holding together the view that most people choose badly in these areas, and the view that it is their right, with which no one ought to interfere, to choose as they wish. I don't understand why people, and societies, have so much trouble holding these views together.

Posted by Kenny at April 7, 2012 9:53 AM
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