Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Truth, Autonomy, and the Value of Democracy

There is, of course, good reason to be truthful. I’m strongly inclined toward Kantian deontology in moral theory, so I’m inclined to think that the most important reasons are of a non-consequentialist variety. But I’m not going to discuss those reasons. Instead I’m going to discuss some less philosophical, less fundamental reasons for being truthful in politics in particular.

What makes democracy valuable? Why, that is, is democracy a good (perhaps even the best) type of government? Here’s a suggestion: because it is the type of government that is maximally respectful of the autonomy of its citizens. Recognizing the inherent right of self-determination of every (adult) person, democracies attempt to maximize the degree to which such self-determination can be realized. Of course given that there are many individuals in any democracy, it is not possible for each one to completely determine policy. The best we can do, it seems, is to give each individual an equal say in determining policy, or at least an equal say in electing those who determine policy.

So what exactly—or, at least, approximately—is involved in respecting someone’s autonomy in matters of this kind? Let’s think about an analogy. Doctors are supposed to respect the autonomy of their patients. This does not mean that they leave all of the technical details of treatment up to the patient. Rather, it means that they must leave certain types of decisions up to the patient. In a case, for example, in which a decision must be made between undertaking a more effective but more painful treatment and a less painful but less effective one.

It is a mistake to think that what is important in a case like this is the mere act of making a choice, and hence a mistake to think that one is merely obligated to allow individuals to make choices. The doctor does not fulfill her obligations merely by allowing the patient to make a decision. Consider, for example, a doctor who lies to her patient. Suppose, in fact, that she lies to him about the evidence, exaggerating the likelihood that he has disorder A rather than disorder B, and using various rhetorical tricks to influence him to choose treatment 1 rather than treatment 2, even though an objective assessment of the evidence indicates that her diagnosis is wrong and her preferred treatment is sub-optimal. The doctor’s obligation to respect her patient’s autonomy requires that she allow her patient to make an informed decision. And that, of course, means that she fails to discharge her duty if she distorts the evidence she presents to her patient.

Similarly, political leaders are obligated to present the electorate with accurate information about important matters of policy. To distort the evidence in order to manipulate citizens’ decisions is no better than denying them all say about policy-making. If I agree to let you choose between A and B, but I lie to you about the respective virtues of A and B in order to manipulate you into choosing as I want you to, then I have not given you a genuine choice and I have not respected your autonomy. This is no better than giving you no choice at all.

Events of the last three years have made it important to reflect on matters of this kind. We have recently been asked to decide whether we respect our own autonomy enough to demand leaders who respect it. The majority of us seem to have answered in the negative. Which is to say that we seem to have autonomously chosen to give up our autonomy, freely chosen to give up an essential part of our freedom. By choosing leaders who routinely lie to us about even the most important matters of government, and about even those matters concerning which honesty is most crucial, we have, in effect, elected to (temporarily) cut the heart out of our democracy. We are like a man who re-hires a doctor with a history of lying to him about his most serious and life-threatening medical conditions. And of lying for the worst reasons and with the most disastrous results.

My countrymen have made a decision which, try as I might, I simply cannot construe as reasonable.


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