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)?
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.