The Paradox of Democracy

In order for democracy to be acceptable, it needs to be combined with legal protections for the rights of minorities (gays, atheists, et al), or else there will be a tyranny of majority rule. But these protections cannot be made subject to the will of the majority or they lose their point and force. So, they must stay in place even if the majority opposes them–which is undemocratic. Therefore, democarcy is acceptable only if it is not absolute. A tolerable form of democracy cannot be consistently democratic. The problem is that democracy and individual rights are at odds with each other.


Now that really is a taboo word. You must never call anyone stupid! But aren’t some people just plain stupid? And isn’t stupidity the source of much of the world’s misery? I’d like to see a “Stupidity Science” movement in which the phenomenon is studied and taxonomized and explained–and remedied. I am certainly not a relativist about stupidity; I think stupidity is an objective trait. Maybe we all all stupid sometimes–but some people are stupid a lot of the time. Stupidity, as I mean it here, refers especially to the opinions and utterances of people who should know better. As the old saying goes: “It would only take a minute’s thought…but thought is a difficult thing and a minute is a long time.” In the end, of course, stupidity is about character, not IQ.


I was surprised the other day to discover that the “Founding Fathers” (silly phrase), especially John Adams, were quite opposed to democratic government, deeming it mob rule. The Constitution was mainly designed to protect individual rights from any form of tyranny, including majority rule. The reason was the stupidity and selfishness of the average person. This set me to wondering how much of the present state of politics and culture in the USA is the result of misguided democracy. Successful democracy depends upon an adequately educated electorate, unprejudiced and altruistic: but these conditions are not always satisfied by the voters out there. In fact, there is no requirement in the US political system for a president to have even a minimum of education, or even to be able to read and write. Maybe if recognized experts, unelected, were given some political power, the current ills might be mitigated.


What I really think about religion is that the less said about it the better. I’d rather discuss almost any other topic. Debating it always leaves me feeling faintly nauseated. However, religious belief does connect with a topic that does interest me: psychological manipulation. As it happens, I have a new book (very short) coming out on it next month, called–wait for it–Mindfucking. In it I analyze this concept, just as we analytic philosophers are supposed to. People I mention it to think I must be being funny or provocative, but it is actually quite a serious work, with many a ponderous formulation. I’m interested in how our minds can be manipulated–by other people, the media, governments, whole disciplines. Perhaps one’s main intellectual responsibility is to ensure that one’s mind has not been fucked by outside forces intent on manipulation and control. Let me invite my esteemed commentators here to enter their thoughts on the topic of mindfucking–a healthier subject than the one lately occupying this digital location.

Atheism Tapes

I well remember that sunny morning a few years ago when Jonathan Miller came to my apartment in New York to discuss the non-existence of God. We had been friends for a number of years, and had discussed a great many topics, but we had never, except glancingly, ever spoken about religion. We knew about our shared atheism, but the subject didn’t seem to warrant much attention; in the Miller-McGinn world it was a non-existent topic. So our conversation that morning, which went on for a good two hours, was fresh material. It was a smooth and easy conversation, with much humor and mutual understanding. And yet we were attacking the foundations of what billions of people find essential to living happily (or that’s what they think). In earlier centuries, or in other places, we would have been gruesomely executed for having such a congenial chat.

It is often forgotten that atheism of the kind shared by Jonathan and me (and Dawkins and Hitchens et al) has an ethical motive. Or rather two ethical motives: one is ethical repugnance at the cruelty, tyranny and oppression of organized religion over the course of human history; the other concerns the ethics of rational belief—how we are obliged to form our beliefs about the world. The first motive is familiar and needs no commentary from me. The second is less widely appreciated, but for some of us it is crucial to the whole discussion. We believe, as an ethical principle, that beliefs about what reality contains should always be formed on the basis of evidence or rational argument—so that “faith” is inherently an unethical way to form your beliefs. To believe “on faith” is to believe that the world is a certain way (contains a god etc) without the support of either empirical or logical justification. This violates the ethics of belief—how you ought to arrive at your convictions. That, for us, is the original sin of theism; and from this sin the other sorts of sin arise—religious intolerance, persecution, violence.

In the Atheism Tapes you will see this ethical perspective amply displayed. Atheists through the ages have been moved by a moral imperative: to uphold the rationality of belief. Wishes can never replace justification as a ground of conviction. Contrary to the popular myth, atheists are not people who have abandoned the idea of the moral good; they are people with a particularly clear sense of what moral goodness requires. From our point of view, the typical theist has already done something morally wrong simply in being a theist.


I just wrote a review of Against Happiness by Eric G. Wilson for the Wall Street Journal. It’s an interesting and provocative book, arguing that American culture is far too obsessed with happiness and not respectful enough of misery. The author admits to his melancholic tendencies, but celebrates them, rather than lamenting them. The general point is that gloom produces insight, creativity and depth, while happiness is bland and static. It raises the question in my mind of whether utilitarianism might have neglected the fact that melancholy can sometimes be a good thing–both instrumentally and intrinsically. Instrumentally, because it can lead to wisdom, creativity etc; but also intrinsically, in that a certain sort of melancholy might be good in itself. What do people think?

Two Types of EE

Let “weak ethical egoism” be the doctrine that it is wrong to count other people’s interests as having more weight than your own like interests, i.e. acting like a “martyr”. Let “strong ethical egoism” be the doctrine that it is wrong to count other people’s interests as having ANY weight in a case of conflict with your own like interests. Weak EE proceeds from a principle of impartiality in which your interests are not subordinated to the (like) interests of others, and it looks like plain common sense. But strong EE violates such an impartiality principle, and thus is plainly immoral.


I’m teaching Kripke’s “Naming and Necessity” as part of my Mind and Language class this semester. In reviewing it, I was struck by footnote 2, in which Kripke acknowledges some of his influences. He writes: “[Rogers] Albritton called the problems of necessity and a prioricity in natural kinds to my attention, by raising the question whether we could discover that lemons were not fruits. I also recall the influence of early conversations with Albritton and with Peter Geach on the essentiality of origins.” This is quite a strong acknowledgment to Albritton, especially given the centrality of these ideas to some characteristically “Kripkean” doctrines; indeed, the question about lemons contains the key idea of the Kripkean view of natural kinds. I mention this not to take anything away from Kripke but only to note the important role of Albritton, which I haven’t seen duly noted. Since Albritton published so little in his life, despite his philosophical fertility, I thought this footnote to him worth mentioning. And he was a friend of mine when I was visiting at UCLA. I wonder how much of this stuff he had figured out without ever publishing on it…