Democracy may be one of the most admired ideas ever concocted, but what if it’s also one of the most harebrained? After many years of writing about democracy for a living, David Harsanyi has concluded that it’s the most overrated, overused, and misunderstood idea in political life. The less we have of it the better.
“Democracy” is not synonymous with “freedom.” It is not the opposite of tyranny. In fact, the Founding Fathers knew that democracy can lead to tyranny. That’s why they built so many safeguards against it into the Constitution.
Democracy, Harsanyi argues, has made our government irrational, irresponsible, and invasive. It has left the American people with only two options—domination by the majority or a government that can’t possibly work. The modern age has imbued democracy with the mystique of infallibility. But Harsanyi reminds us that the vast majority of political philosophers, including the founders, have thought that responsible, limited government based on direct majority rule over a large, let alone continental scale was a practical impossibility.
In The People Have Spoken, you’ll learn:
- Why the Framers of our Constitution were intent on establishing a republic, not a “democracy”
- How democracy undermines self-government
- How shockingly out of touch with reality most voters really are
- Why democracy is an economic wrecking ball—and an invitation to a politics of envy and corruption
- How the great political philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Burke and Tocqueville predicted with uncanny accuracy that democracy could lead to tyranny
Harsanyi warns that if we don’t recover the Founders’ republican vision, “democracy” might very well spell the end of American liberty and prosperity.
Rhett Allain writes: There is a reason Superman is called “super”. He has super-strength and super-speed. He flies, and he is mostly indestructible. He can shoot laser-like things from his eyes. Finally, he has some type of X-ray vision. Although comic book scholars have debated Superman’s vision before, let’s consider how it could work.
How Do Mere Mortals See?
There is one important aspect of human vision. In order to see an object, light has to go from that object to the eye (light in the visible spectrum). The light from that object can be either reflected light or the object can emit its own light. But either way, the direction of this light is from the object to the eye. This is important.
The eye is only a receiver of light—there isn’t some type of “vision ray” that shoots from the eye. I only point this out because it’s actually an idea that some people have about light. Ask yourself this question:
You are in an absolutely dark room (with zero light sources) for some extended period of time. What do you see after a while?
The answer is that you will see black and nothing but black. Black is the color our brains associate with the lack of light. However, many people will give an answer that you will some some stuff after your eyes adjust.
Perhaps their answer is based on their previous experiences (you rarely get an absolutely dark room) but also on their idea that the eyes do the seeing and can adjust to new situations.
What About X-Ray Vision?
We can make X-ray images. That’s not science fiction. Here’s how it works. If you take high speed electrons and shoot them at a metal surfaces, you can produce X-rays. X-rays are just like visible light except they have a much shorter wavelength (but they are still electromagnetic waves). But since X-rays have a different wavelength (and frequency) they interact with matter differently than visible light. This means that some materials (like human flesh) are partially transparent. You can use this to create an X-ray image by shining X-rays through a human and putting an X-ray detector on the other side. The X-rays don’t pass through bones as much as flesh, so you can get an image.
So, how could this work with Superman’s vision? If his eyes could detect X-rays like humans detect visible light, he would still need an X-ray source. Read the rest of this entry »
Are professional ethicists good people? According to our research, not especially. So what is the point of learning ethics?
Eric Schwitzgebel writes: None of the classic questions of philosophy are beyond a seven-year-old’s understanding. If God exists, why do bad things happen? How do you know there’s still a world on the other side of that closed door? Are we just made of material stuff that will turn into mud when we die? If you could get away with killing and robbing people just for fun, would you? The questions are natural. It’s the answers that are hard.
“Shouldn’t regularly thinking about ethics have some sort of influence on one’s own behaviour? Doesn’t it seem that it would? To my surprise, few professional ethicists seem to have given the question much thought.”
Eight years ago, I’d just begun a series of empirical studies on the moral behaviour of professional ethicists. My son Davy, then seven years old, was in his booster seat in the back of my car. ‘What do you think, Davy?’ I asked. ‘People who think a lot about what’s fair and about being nice – do they behave any better than other people? Are they more likely to be fair? Are they more likely to be nice?’
Davy didn’t respond right away. I caught his eye in the rearview mirror.
“Ethicists do not behave better. But neither, overall, do they seem to behave worse.”
‘The kids who always talk about being fair and sharing,’ I recall him saying, ‘mostly just want you to be fair to them and share with them.’
When I meet an ethicist for the first time – by ‘ethicist’, I mean a professor of philosophy who specialises in teaching and researching ethics – it’s my habit to ask whether ethicists behave any differently to other types of professor. Most say no.
I’ll probe further: why not? Shouldn’t regularly thinking about ethics have some sort of influence on one’s own behaviour? Doesn’t it seem that it would?
To my surprise, few professional ethicists seem to have given the question much thought. They’ll toss out responses that strike me as flip or are easily rebutted, and then they’ll have little to add when asked to clarify. They’ll say that academic ethics is all about abstract problems and bizarre puzzle cases, with no bearing on day-to-day life – a claim easily shown to be false by a few examples: Aristotle on virtue, Kant on lying, Singer on charitable donation. They’ll say: ‘What, do you expect epistemologists to have more knowledge? Do you expect doctors to be less likely to smoke?’ I’ll reply that the empirical evidence does suggest that doctors are less likely to smoke than non-doctors of similar social and economic background. Maybe epistemologists don’t have more knowledge, but I’d hope that specialists in feminism would exhibit less sexist behaviour – and if they didn’t, that would be an interesting finding. I’ll suggest that relationships between professional specialisation and personal life might play out differently for different cases.
“We criticise Martin Heidegger for his Nazism, and we wonder how deeply connected his Nazism was to his other philosophical views. But we don’t feel the need to turn the mirror on ourselves.”
It seems odd to me that our profession has so little to say about this matter. We criticise Martin Heidegger for his Nazism, and we wonder how deeply connected his Nazism was to his other philosophical views. But we don’t feel the need to turn the mirror on ourselves.
“No clergyperson has ever expressed to me the view that clergy behave on average morally better than laypeople, despite all their immersion in religious teaching and ethical conversation. Maybe in part this is modesty on behalf of their profession.”
The same issues arise with clergy. In 2010, I was presenting some of my work at the Confucius Institute for Scotland. Afterward, I was approached by not one but two bishops. I asked them whether they
thought that clergy, on average, behaved better, the same or worse than laypeople.
‘About the same,’ said one.
‘Worse!’ said the other.
No clergyperson has ever expressed to me the view that clergy behave on average morally better than laypeople, despite all their immersion in religious teaching and ethical conversation. Maybe in part this is modesty on behalf of their profession. But in most of their voices, I also hear something that sounds like genuine disappointment, some remnant of the young adult who had headed off to seminary hoping it would be otherwise.
In a series of empirical studies – mostly in collaboration with the philosopher Joshua Rust of Stetson University – I have empirically explored the moral behaviour of ethics professors. As far as I’m aware, Josh and I are the only people ever to have done so in a systematic way.
Here are the measures we looked at: voting in public elections, calling one’s mother, eating the meat of mammals, donating to charity, littering, disruptive chatting and door-slamming during philosophy presentations, responding to student emails, attending conferences without paying registration fees, organ donation, blood donation, theft of library books, overall moral evaluation by one’s departmental peers based on personal impressions, honesty in responding to survey questions, and joining the Nazi party in 1930s Germany. Read the rest of this entry »
A Movie for All Time: Groundhog Day
Re-running this Feb. 2005 cover story, year after year, is a tradition at NRO. It’s a thoughtful and entertaining review, for a beloved cult movie that’s gotten an unusual amount of attention, for a comedy, over the years, since its release in 1983. Both serious and funny (it’s funny first) Groundhog Day is also moral, and spiritual, in ways we don’t expect. Every religion, creed, faith, philosophy known to man claims the movie’s message as its own. In scholarly theological circles, no less, it’s generated a lot of ink, and a lot of discussion. This article is a good summary of all that.
Jonah Goldberg writes:
Here’s a line you’ll either recognize or you won’t: “This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.” If you don’t recognize this little gem, you’ve either never seen Groundhog Day or you’re not a fan of what is, in my opinion, one of the best films of the last 40 years. As the day of the groundhog again approaches, it seems only fitting to celebrate what will almost undoubtedly join It’s a Wonderful Life in the pantheon of America’s most uplifting, morally serious, enjoyable, and timeless movies.
When I set out to write this article, I thought it’d be fun to do a quirky homage to an offbeat flick, one I think is brilliant as both comedy and moral philosophy. But while doing what I intended to be cursory research — how much reporting do you need for a review of a twelve-year-old movie that plays constantly on cable? — I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my interest.
Reason and faith go hand in hand in the pursuit of truth, but it’s the belief systems employed that serves as that pursuit’s moral grounding.