Monday, August 16, 2010

R' Steinsaltz on Democracy

I came across this quote in the comments of XGH's blog.

"Democracy is based, strangely enough, on a religious principle. Democracy would be totally irrational unless we held firm to the belief that we have souls and that these souls are all equal to one another. This is because, as was written in Orwell's 1984, one can't rationally make the statement that all men are equal, and this is simply because it is obviously untrue. People are not equal from any point of view. Therefore, to create a society based on the notion that the vote of a wise and learned person has the same value as the vote of somebody who is unlearned and doesn't know what he is talking about; you must posit that they have equal souls. This is also true with respect to the rights of man as well. Why should a person who is the highest intellectual be regarded as equal to somebody who is ignorant or who is a criminal with respect, for example, to the right to be saved by a given medical procedure? So you see, this principle, this belief that people have souls and that souls are of inestimable, equal value, is the source of every social structure we hold dear."

The points he brings up are not unreasonable. Why should someone who is an idiot have the same right to vote as an intellectual? Yet in some ways I think it is also disingenuous. This is why: for most of history, the notion of democracy from ancient Athens to the birth of the United States did not give equal rights to every person living in the country. It is really a fairly recent occurrence that this idea took hold and frankly, I am not sure if it has been validated as a good idea. I think it is an idea that sounds good, but frankly sounds kinda stupid under scrutiny.


Blogger Tobie said...

So again, going to law geek for a bit since I'm doing a paper on this, but I think on some level there's a trade-off between getting the 'smartest' results and between getting the least biased results. You can argue that many people are too stupid to be able to contribute or for their opinions to matter, but if (from a utilitarian perspective), we think that their utility matters, then not letting them vote will tend to get their interests ignored to benefit the interests of the smarter people. So on issues that are totally technical and people all really have the same interest, then it makes sense for the smarter to decide, but a lot of the basic issues out there are pretty personal and value based and I'm not sure the informed necessarily have an advantage.

There's also a line of reasoning that the participation in democracy itself is utility, even for idiots, and tends to make them less idiotic, but that's another spiel.

August 16, 2010 1:17 PM  
Blogger billoo said...

Dear e-kevetcher,

stumbled along your interesting blog looking for some Goya! Don't know why we always have to explain the stumbling, but there you go! :-)

Can't say I agree with you though. Whether it has religious roots or is a 'fiction' (Iris Murdoch) I think the alternative (and that is the usual argument isn't it...democracy as the least worst system?) means basing rights on distinctive features: intelligence, race, nationality etc.

I'd be interested to know why you think it's a stupid idea.

Best wishes,


August 16, 2010 8:30 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Here's the thing... Take something like the gay marriage vote - the majority of the state in CA thinks it should not be legal, but the fed judge overrules. I am not taking sides on this particular issue, just making a point.

Or take segregation, or slavery, etc. The democratic process does not always mean justice and equality.

August 16, 2010 8:36 PM  
Blogger billoo said...

true, e-k, but what does "always" mean justice?! :-)

of course you're right, there's always the possibility of the tyranny of the majority, but isn't the idea of equality partly based on an opposition to that? If there's a belief in fundamental equality then how can a majority impose its view of what constitutes appropriate sexual orientation?

To take your other example: one could quite reasonably say, what if the majority voted for slavery (directly or indirectly) [or fascism, say...the FIS in Algeria being a case in point]. True, but the funddamental idea of equality underlying democracy (Charles Taylor) would surely be an argument against such votes?



August 16, 2010 8:48 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Hey billoo,

My point wasn't to argue the merits of democracy (in this post). All I was trying to say is that if Steinsaltz was trying to argue that democracy is based on the notion of equal souls, it doesn't seem to hold for 99 percent of the history of democracy. Surely all the societies which had restrictions of women suffrage or other classes of folks which did not have a right to vote, they still believed that women had souls, right?

Nice blog, btw.

August 16, 2010 9:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yes, e-k, I think you're right there. Women had souls but only half a mind or something [I'll resist the joke here because this is serious...I think the same argument is made by some muslims when it comes to the value of a woman's testimony at a court of law] just as black people weren't fully human under the Constitution (two-thirds?) and the 'Red Man' wasn't even considered human!

Who is fully rational-and therefore fully human- has always, I guess, been one way in which to rule out certain groups (Hugh Brody, 'the other side of eden'). And as you rightly say, in practice citizenship has always been qualified (property, for example). Maybe the problem from the outset has been with the notion of "the people"?

Perhaps I misunderstood. I thought you were talking at the level of 'principles', 'beliefs', and 'ideas'(and that their validation was a secondary question). I mean, many religions have advocated principles of equality, peace, and justice but in

Anyways, thanks. Good talking with you.

Take care,


August 17, 2010 1:07 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Sorry, Billoo.

I can certainly spout off about peace and equality, but frankly I am just not educated enough about what has already been written.

But talking specifically about the original topic, it just seemed very tenuous to say that democracy came about because of the belief that people have souls and all souls are equal in some intangible way. From looking at the history of democracy, it looks to me like it came about from the natural need of people to try to control their own circumstances - meaning allocation of common resources, communal policies like war, legislation of social values, etc.

August 17, 2010 6:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, yes, you may be right e-k about the origins. I don't know.

I'm not sure if it is so tenuous, though. I haven't read him, but I think Walzer makes this point in his book about saints and, if memory serves me correctly, the Puritan radicals may have given a boost to the idea of equality and democracy (see C. Hill's wonderful book, 'The world turned upside down').

Don't get you, though. The allocation of common resources is a problem that has always been around. I don't see why that should necessitate democracy. I mean, the allocation of common resources can be (and has been) done by centralized authority-not through democratic consensus-as well

August 17, 2010 7:40 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

>Don't get you, though. The allocation of common resources is a problem that has always been around.

The point I was trying to make is that it's similar to the way condo boards are run - everyone who lives in the code gets to decide how they allocate their assessments - do they put on a new roof this year or do they spend the money to resurface the parking lot. Sure you can have the president of the condo board just make that decision, but most people feel like if you pay your dues you should have input into the decision...

August 17, 2010 7:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

don't follow your example. sorry. not from the states.

But if I understand you correctly, I'm not sure that I agree with you. I mean, lots of people pay into the welfare state and do not (until recently) feel that they should have an input into how resources are allocated. The system has largely been one of 'command-and-control', centralized decisions, trust., etc.

the point is, in any modern democracy there are a range of distributive principles/mechanisms (to borrow elster's phrase): Fundamental equality at the political level, but when it comes to law, say, an understanding that qualifications are important or, in the case you allude to, when it comes to the distribution of common resources (health, education) then the state *can* decide.

Not saying that it *should*, just questioning whether such an allocation mechanism is necessarily incompatible with democracy (which is what I take you to be saying?) and what is meant by your use of the word "natural".



August 19, 2010 12:13 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Sorry, billoo, I think we are talking past each other. I was addressing the origins of democracy, not modern democracy. Maybe that's why my example didn't make sense.

My original point was that positing equal souls as the necessary condition for democracy is not needed. Other socio-economic explanations can be just as credible.

August 19, 2010 6:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

okay, e-k, I see what you're saying (sorry for being so thick!). And yes, of course, you're right. The Greeks had some form of democracy but equality was qualified (and there was slavery). But where I slightly disagree with you is that the logical conclusion to the *idea* is democracy in the modern sense. I mean, the 'self-evident truth' that all men are created equal may have sounded like a joke-given slavery and segregation-but the idea was, and is, a stirring one.

For those of us who have lived under martial law it still seems the best system-flawed though it is. The alternative is a system based on those who claim they possess the truth, not those who are searching for it.

August 19, 2010 10:26 PM  

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