Democracy is one of the fundamental British values that schools now have to teach children in the UK. But is it really such a good thing? Most people understand democracy as making decisions on the basis of counting votes. As a value this roughly translates as: if it is popular then it is right. But if a majority of people vote for a politician who denies the reality of man-made global warming that does not make this view right. Whether something is true or not cannot be decided by voting. Similarly, if a majority of people vote in favour of aggression against a religious minority, this does not make such behaviour ethically acceptable. It is a shocking but true fact that Hitler was democratically elected to power in Germany in 1933 when he was first appointed as chancellor after his party gained the largest share of the vote in an election. In practice democracy is often the moral equivalent of two tigers and a lamb voting about what to have for dinner.
A common response to criticisms of democracy is to quote Churchill from a speech in 1947: 'Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time'. Accepting this challenge, let us consider briefly another option one which is perhaps the most 'other' of other possible systems at the moment : 'theocracy' as championed by Iran, by the so-called Islamic State and previously by Tibet. If you look up the meaning of theocracy in the dictionary you will be told that it means 'rule by priests'. But this is a rather obviously motivated mis-representation of the kind that we commonly impose upon views that we do not like and cannot be bothered to take the trouble to try to understand. Just as democracy means rule ('kratos') by the people ('demos') so theocracy means rule by God ('theos') and those who support theocracy are probably very well aware that their priests are not God.
The superiority of theocracy over democracy can be brought out by considering the success of natural science. At the moment there is a competition between string theory and loop quantum gravity to see which offers the best account of the nature of matter. This competition will not be resolved by voting. Deciding on this issue requires dialogue and experimentation where the methods used and the arguments given are all open to public scrutiny. The expectation is that the relevant community of scientists will form a consensus around the claims that are best supported by the evidence. In this shared inquiry the voice that needs to win out is not the voice of one party or the other but the voice of truth. Implied in the success of science is the idea that there is a reality in itself that is not merely a human construction. For there to be knowledge there has to be a knower of that knowledge. The ideal of knowing the truth of things is also the ideal of a kind of perfect knower for whom all is revealed. Stephen Hawking was right when he wrote that science aspires to know 'the mind of God'.[i]
The ideal of a God's eye perspective [the truth of things] is a necessary ideal for there to be progress in science. However, there are good philosophical reasons for not accepting the ideal of truth that science generates. Just as we only see the landscape in front of us because we are standing within that landscape so we only ever have knowledge from a perspective. We can improve what our eyes see with instruments like telescopes and we can expand our perspective with networks, for example communicating by mobile phone with other people standing at different positions in the same shared landscape. These efforts expand knowledge but nonetheless the ideal of perfect knowledge or knowledge from no perspective whatsoever does not seem to make much sense.
This challenge does not undermine science since in practice we never need to claim to see things as they really are in themselves, we only need to claim that some hypotheses work better than others to explain observations in a context. For example experiments in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN might one day generate evidence that contradicts Gabriele Veneziano's string theory and fits best with Carlo Rovelli's quantum loop theory. But if this happens neither of these theorists will therefore imagine that they have really seen completely into the mind of God. They know that their theories are still imperfect and need to be developed but they have learnt that one of them fits the evidence better than the other at the moment. This is progress. Progress in science requires not only technical methods but also moral virtues. Science means really listening to other positions and being open to the possibility of changing your mind if necessary[ii].
The same sort of argument that can be made for the ideal of a Gods-eye perspective in science can also be made in the context of politics. When we say that a policy e.g caring for the elderly, is right and another policy. e.g abandoning the elderly to die alone, is wrong, we are not normally claiming that the correct view would get more votes, we are usually invoking a higher perspective. When judges, for example, have to make controversial decisions they do not think that it is acceptable for them to just follow their own opinion based on their background, they normally try very hard to put their own prejudices to one side in order to discern what is right [iii] Discerning what is the right thing to do involves trying to recreate, as far as this is possible, a perspective that is closer to God. The ideal behind a good political decision is one of perfect wisdom including perfect knowledge, as with science, but adding to this ideals of infinite compassion and a fairness untouched by any partiality.
In English the word 'good' comes from the word 'God'. Etymologically a good decision refers to a more godly decision, meaning a decision which best reflects what God would do in this situation. When asked to judge you have to think: well if I was God and knew everything, and understood everyone and had infinite compassion then what would I do?
If we translate the idea of God to be the personification and embodiment of a point of view that combines total knowledge, infinite compassion and perfect wisdom - then theocracy or rule by God is a no-brainer - it is certainly a much more convincing ideal than democracy.
The question theocracy raises is: how can we best discern the will of God? Here again we can learn from how progress in science works. There are no single simple fixed methods in science, the case for the appropriateness of any given method always needs to be made in the context of the inquiry. However, what is consistent across all sciences is a set of communicative virtues and practices: making arguments clearly and publicly, listening with respect to counter positions, and, above all, being open to learning from the other and being able to change one's position on the basis of evidence plus argument regardless of prior prejudice and self-interest.
We can apply what has been learnt from the success of science to politics. We cannot start in politics from a Godlike or perfect perspective [iv]. People value different things so what might seem like justice to one might not be considered justice by another (dialogue-and-equality.html). However we can develop ways to decide what is more just and what is less just in a context. In practice, this can mean an open and transparent public debate exploring the different arguments backed by evidence. However, as with science, the success of this public dialogue approach depends not only upon procedures but also upon the moral character and communicative virtues of those participating. Decision makers - potentially all of us - need to have the capacity to really listen to other points of view with an open mind such that we are able to learn new things and change our minds regardless of prior prejudices, self interest and tribal identity.
A dialogue is never just between people, it also always generates a kind of witness position [v]. Bakhtin refers to this as the 'superaddressee'. The term 'superaddressee' sounds a bit technical but this is not a very complicated idea but a simple truth of experience. Try listening to yourself speak when you have to explain yourself to someone you respect and care about but disagree with. You will find that you do not only listen to your own voice, you also find yourself concerned about how you think the other person is hearing your words. However, you do not know for sure how they are responding so in reconstructing their perspective you find yourself listening to your own arguments as if from the outside, as if you were a witness listening to the dialogue. Often you can see holes in your argument and correct it as you go along. Sometimes you might see, for the first time, what is really motivating you. As Bakhtin puts it, even if the other person does not understand what you are trying to say, the witness or 'superaddressee' does. This is why it is possible to come away from a dialogue feeling frustrated that you expressed yourself badly but nonetheless clearer in your own mind about what you really think and feel.
Science focusses on what is true regardless of what the majority of people think. In the same way, in politics we should try to make good decisions - not just popular decisions. In the absence of a God perspective the best way to know what is true in science and what is good in politics is through free and open dialogue between all relevant perspectives such that the position best supported by the arguments and by the evidence can win out. In politics at least this dialogue is not merely cerebral but includes feelings and intuitions that arise from the extended embodiment of reconstructing in oneself how it feels to be the other. Dialogue here is a kind of self-transcending machine. It might not allow us to reach directly into the mind of God but it can expand our vision and extend our sympathies.
Democracy, when understood as rule by the people, is vulnerable to being interpreted either as counting the votes of lots of individuals each of whom is said to be equally entitled to their own opinion however ill-thought through this opinion is or, sometimes even worse, it is the will of 'the people' understood as the community of those who speak my language and think just like me (the ideal of the one mind and one heart of the German 'volk' claimed as an authority to act by Hitler, for example).
Dialogue has been associated with democracy over the years but I think that it implies a very different idea of authority. In place of rule by the people, dialogue gives us the ideal of rule by what is true and right - not as absolutes or mere ideas but as the discovery of what needs to be said and what needs to done to take us forward in this situation that is here in front of us right now.
Implementing dialogue as a system of government is not easy. In some areas of science, over the last 250 years or so, real progress has shown that rule by dialogue is possible. In law courts and in parliaments there have been examples of rule by dialogue but also examples of the failure of dialogue. Recent experiments with 'citizens assemblies' suggest ways to inject more rule by dialogue into politics [vi]. Colleagues like Michael Hogan are exploring the potential of technology to support more effective collective decision making[vii]
Trying to improve the future through politics often feels like starting from the wrong place. The key players have always already been shaped in ways that mean that they often seem closed to the possibility of truly learning from others. Perhaps education, more than politics, is the discipline with the greatest potential to shape the future. Education for dialogue, especially when this includes global dialogue, is a way to teach children how to transcend egotism, tribalism, and prejudice. The key dialogic skill that we need to teach is not how to ask good questions or how to critically unpack arguments, important as such skills are, but the more fundamental ability to allow oneself to be led forward by the emergent voice of what is most true here and now in the dialogue and what is most right to do here and now in this situation. In teaching dialogue we can expand minds and expand hearts, but we can also lay the human foundations for a future where politics might one day reflect some of our highest hopes and ideals instead of, as now so often seems to be the case, reflecting only our lowest common denominators.
[ii] McIntyre, L. (2019). The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience. Mit Press.
[iii] Dworkin, R. (2013). Religion without god. Harvard University Press.
[iv]Sen, A. K. (2009). The idea of justice. Harvard University Press.
and also Smith, A. (2010). The theory of moral sentiments. Penguin.
[v] Wegerif, R. (2019) Towards a Dialogic Theory of Education for the Internet Age. In
Mercer, N., Wegerif, R., & Major, L. (eds). The Routledge International Handbook of Research on Dialogic Education
[vii] Hogan, M., Hall, T., & Harney, O. (2017). Collective intelligence design and a new politics of system change. Civitas educationis. Education, Politics, and Culture, 6(1), 51-78.
Wegerif, R., Doney, J., & Jamison, I. (2017). Designing Education to Promote Global Dialogue: Lessons from Generation Global—a Project of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Civitas educationis. Education, Politics, and Culture, 6(1), 113-129.