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Monday, 8 December 2008

Moral Issues and Direct Democracy

I have been involved in a discussion over at MacDoctor Moments on various aspects of the abortion debate, though in this post I don't want to talk about that issue. In the course of this discussion Chuck advocated for a policy of direct democracy to decide moral issues and it is this that I want to explore.

Before addressing direct democracy I want to look at the term "moral issue." Which issues are moral issues and which are not? What do people mean when they say this? Every piece of legislation is a moral issue to some extent. When legislators pass laws they have the power to restrict people's freedoms or impose obligations and they have the state to back up these expectations with force for non-compliance. The question as to whether or not they should pass such laws is always a moral one because prima facie it is wrong to coerce others by force. Of course there may be instances were the state is justified in making a particular legislative move but to say that the state is justified is to make a moral claim.

Those who refer to some issues as moral ones and others not, tacitly assume that unless one is talking about sex or something typically associated with moral conservatism the legislation the state passes is not moral. This is a very truncated view of what a person's moral obligations are.

Parliament has a standing practice of not using whips and allowing conscience votes on matters of "moral legislation." There is something almost machiavellian about this because it suggests that governing is an a-moral exercise; that on most issues either an MP's conscience has nothing to say or that an MP has no duty to do what is right but is rather obligatied to follow their peers. Proof positive that MP's have a lot in common with teenagers.

The arbitrary nature of this distinction can be seen in Chuck's examples, he cites the "anti-smacking bill" and "abortion" as moral issues. However, why is smacking a moral issue and assault not? Why is abortion a moral issue and not homicide (or appendectomies if you are pro-abortion)?

Consider taxation, surely one of the most fundamental issues of government. How is taxation not a moral issue? It involves appropriating other people's property, oft obtained by hours and hours of work, by force. Moreover, taxation is often used to support the poor. Surely the method and means of supporting the poor is a moral question.

Chucks reasoning in advocating for direct democracy involves a conflation between what is popular and what is just.

I think it is outrageous that any militant group can force legislation that is opposed by 80% of the people whether it is to do with smacking or abortion.
If we had direct democracy on moral issues instead of allowing these issues to be determined by fanatical pressure groups we would have better law.


If they [MP's] had a conscience they would support direct democracy and not be so arrogant.

Note the assumption that if the majority support something then it is unjust for any government to pass a law contrary to it. This is clearly false. If the majority supported looting Asian stores on Thursdays the legislature would have an obligation to refuse to legalise this. The government owes a duty to protect the property and liberty of Asian store owners, even if they are a minority, even if the majority demand it. However, Chuck says that it is arrogant for people to suggest that the majority might be wrong.

Now Chuck may seem like a colourful example who takes the whole concept slightly further than most but I think he is a good example of the inherent flaws in the binding referendum movement and his reasoning follows from their basic line of argument. Those who support binding referenda believe that if 51% of the population vote for something then the state is obligated to pass that directive into law. Further, the fact they want it binding is evidence that they think that any legislator who does not do what the majority wants is arrogant and above the people, they just don't phrase it like Chuck but the assumption remains.

However, the whole point of having a legislature is to ensure that justice prevails, not popularity or mob rule. The state has an obligation to protect the rights of all citizens, even unpopular minorities.

Democracy has its problems but it remains the best option. As Wolff argued in his adaptation of Plato's Republic (Plato was much more familiar with direct democracy than any of us are) if you had a medical problem you would consult someone with a degree of expertise in medicine, a doctor; you would not organise a vote on what the public think the appropriate diagnosis is. Likewise, why should those without a degree of expertise, the general populace, vote on matters of state when they are as ill informed about them as they are about medicine?

Of course power corrupts and anyone in a position of power must be subject to checks and balances. The doctor has to answer to the medical council and is ultimately answerable to the Minister of Health. In the same way the MP has to answer to the public and the public has the power to vote them out of office. However, one must be careful to not confuse the right to participate in choosing who will govern with a right to choose which specific acts of government will be passed.


  1. I note Chuck has responded to you on MacDoctor's blog. I will respond to him here as this is the appropriate place to discuss this post. I hope he will respond to me here so this conversation is not spread accross the net.

    Chuck states "Your ridiculous example of looting Asian shops could not happen under my proposal. I doubt if the majority would support such a thing."

    Chuck is naive. The majority is capable of supporting anything which is your whole point.

    It is a shame he will not explain himself here where people have read what you have written and instead insists of discussing it amidst a debate on abortion elsewhere.

    I found it funny that he claimed you had misrepresented his views when I read what he had done with yours. In any event you were speaking to the broader CIR movement and only using Chuck, as you stated, as a colourful outworking of that movement's philosophy.

  2. Scalia, below is the comment from MacDoctor's blog.

    "Madeleine, I have read what you infer on your blog quite incorrectly are my views on direct democracy. Did you bother to read my view on CIR? Your ridiculous example of looting Asian shops could not happen under my proposal. I doubt if the majority would support such a thing. Having said that I believe the majority would support the death penalty. That could not happen either under my proposal.

    If you read what I have had to say on this thread regarding direct democracy and wish to discuss it on your blog I would be glad to respond. However, if you want to totally misrepresent what I say I will not waste my time."

    Why do you not fully quote me?

    As I said ridiculous example could not happen under my proposal unless it was first voted by a majority of MPs. If you or Madeleine had bother to read what I stated on MacDoctor's blog I do not support CIR.

  3. Chuck said that the "ridiculous example could not happen under my proposal unless it was first voted by a majority of MPs."

    Again, Chuck is naive. The majority of MP's, like the majority of the populace, are capable of supporting anything - even things Chuck thinks they would not.

  4. Saclia, never mind the name calling. I will try to spell out my proposal so even you can understand.

    I will give you a little political history. There are two ways legislation is voted on. Most legislation is voted along party lines. Very few MPs ever cross the floor.

    Some legislation, one might call it moral legislation is not voted on along party lines but MPs have what is called a free. Under FPP there was some justification for this. MPs were meant to represent their electorates. In theory they could be punished at the election particularly if they were in a marginal seat. Under MMP half the MPs are not accountable.

    I can see no justification for a free or conscience votes at all under MMP. However, if we are going to have them I purpose that we have a referendum to ratify the legislation before it becomes law is a similar manner that an Upper House did when New Zealand had an Upper House.

    I fail to understand how my proposal would make it easier for bad legislation to be passed. All the same processes would have to be gone through such as three reading, public submissions and Select Committees. My proposal would be an extra safeguard. There would be no legislation if it did not get past the third reading.

    I hope you are able to address this proposal.

  5. I don't see any evidence that "better" law is passed via parliament rather than by direct democracy, especially given some of the self-serving laws recently passed in New Zealand.

    I do agree that just about all law is about moral issues, and as a moral subjectivist, I therefore believe all laws are subjective. Only the laws of nature aren't about moral issues, this from the site I referenced in the previous thread:
    "Objective morality is meant a moral view which claims that there exists a morality which is external to human beings. Much like the existence of a law of gravity, there is a moral law which exists independently of any conscious being. Hence, morality is not a human fabrication - it merely awaits to be detected. In contrast, subjective morality denotes the view that moral views are nothing but human opinions, the origin of which is biological, social, and psychological. Without conscious beings, there would be no such thing as morality. Furthermore, on the subjective view, it is not possible to deem a moral opinion "true" or "false" - since such assessments require some objective standard against which to assess. However, advocates of objective and subjective morality agree on the following issue: that meta-ethical statements can be true or false.

  6. Hi Chuck

    Now that you have spelt out the qualifications on your position, it seems to me that your position highlights nicely what bothers me about CIR.

    You define moral issues, in terms of conscience votes and suggest there is no justification for an MP voting in accord with their conscience in an MMP environment. That is your basis for CIR.

    To put it bluntly that basis strikes me as mistaken. I am inclined to think that one should never act against ones conscience. Donagan sums it up well “and act against conscience is always culpable [blameworthy]… the reason is simple. In acting against conscience a violation of the moral law is intended; and such intentions are always culpable, even though, because of the agents erroneous conscience, nothing materially wrong is done” To willingly do what you are convinced is morally wrong because all your peers in the house disagree with you, is an act of moral cowardice that should be condemned not praised.

    The the problem in parliament is not that some MP’s do what they believe is right even when it’s unpopular. It’s that frequently they do what they know to be wrong because it gains them popularity. Your suggestion is thoroughly backwards.

    Parliament is not there to do what is popular, nor does it exist to simply provide the people with whatever they want provided enough people want it. If it were there would in fact be no justification for parliament. I am not morally required to do anything simply because lots of other people want me to. Governments exist to uphold justice that is to protect people’s rights and punish acts of wrongdoing. It’s because it does this that I am required to obey it.

    The way to minimise bad legislation is to vote for people who have the ability to accurately discern what is right and wrong the requisite prudence to applies these principles accurately and the requisite courage to do so even if doing so makes them unpopular. NZ has not done this because they want politicians who will satisfy various wants in the form of various election bribes and are willing to support scoundrels in order to get what they want. Your proposal in fact takes us further from where we should be not closer.

  7. Hi Matt

    Thanks for your reply. You were probably delayed due to Madeleine’s medical problems. I hope she is well.

    Although I can understand you may have limited time I would appreciate if you would read what I say on your blog before you respond.

    You said, “That is your basis for CIR”.

    I stated on you blog, “If you or Madeleine had bother to read what I stated on MacDoctor's blog I do not support CIR.”

    So why infer at the very least I am proposing CIR?

    It would also help if could write so the ordinary person can understand you. Who is “Donagan”? Should I be expected to know who is?

    You say

    “The way to minimise bad legislation is to vote for people who have the ability to accurately discern what is right and wrong the requisite prudence to applies these principles accurately and the requisite courage to do so even if doing so makes them unpopular.”

    We presently have a system where one votes for a party not an individual. If one loses in their electorate they get in on the list.

    I did not say that MPs should not vote against their conscience although in fact they often do. That is how our Parliamentary system works. The vast majority of votes are along party lines. There will often be time an MP will vote along with his or her party although they oppose their party’s policy in one particular area.

    Intentionally or otherwise you have twisted what I said. I would define a conscience vote as a free vote or one where MPs are not obliged to vote along party lines. I maintain that there is no longer justification for a free vote under MMP where half the MPs are not accountable to an electorate. To say that I am advocating that MPs should vote against their conscience is greatly misrepresenting what I had said.

    For the foreseeable future we are likely to have some form of proportional representation. We are highly unlikely to get MPs of the high moral stand you would like to see.

    Free votes are likely to continue on many privates members’ bills and legislation the government of the day chooses.

    What I am proposing is an added safeguard not CIR.

    There almost would have been a different and from my point of view a better result if such a safe guard was in place for the legislation on smacking, prostitution, civil unions, and the drinking age.

    With our present lot of fallible MPs and the policy of free votes on certain issues what objection do you have for my proposal for an extra safeguard? That is the legislation must be ratified by the voters before it become law.

  8. Referenda could help weed out immoral legislation, or make undesirable legislation more difficult to pass. For example in Europe referenda have been helpful in resisting enlargement of EU powers and centralisation, including obviously the Swiss decision not to be part of the EU.

    The most significant way to improve legislation is to make it easier to repeal legislation and harder to pass it. So citizen's initiated referenda should be allowed to force repeal of unpopular legislation, while citizen's ratification referenda should be required to get legislation passed.

    Imagine if we could annually vote on which acts passed during the year should be repealed or stayed? or if we could strike down laws passed long ago, such as the Income Tax Act?

  9. David, thanks for your support. I must say though that I do not see how it would be practical for all legislation to be ratified by a referendum. Even if it was possible over the internet I doubt if it would achieve a good result. Everyone would like to see low taxes as well as adequate health care. It the State does not provide health people will die.

    I am only purposing ratifying referendum where there has been a free vote as opposed to one along party lines.

  10. M said, "Democracy has its problems but it remains the best option".

    I thought your discussion on cultural relativism raised some good points. Therefore, I do not understand why democracy is the best option, as it almost always drifts into cultural relativism.

    Given that we live in a society where people have diverse ethical and political views, the important ethical question is not whether morality is objective or subjective, but who has the right to impose their morality on other people. Democracy is just a system for a majority to impose their morality on minorities, or more often, for a minority to impose their views on the minority.

    What is the ethical basis for forcing people to accept a paricular moral standard?


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