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there are many areas, especially politics, where instead of scientific methods of experiment and proof, the public debate desperately needs arguments about values, which we can expose to each other in the awareness that yes, there are right and wrong answers, but that nobody can know for certain whether they have landed upon them.
Perfection, ideals, absolutes, are unknowable - at least on this world. So there is no building of Jerusalem.
Consequently a need for pragmatic acceptance of rules of debate and a willingness to lose gracefully.
Richard Dawkins's anti-democratic prejudice should warn us of dangers ahead
10 JUNE 2019 • 7:00AM
Like other hardline Remainers, Dawkins questions the very foundations of democracy
Here’s a question for you. It’s easy to work out the value of d when we know the values of a, b, and c, and that the proportional relationship between a and b is equal to that between c and d, right? Known as ‘the rule of three’, the ability to complete such a calculation was one of the tests John Stuart Mill suggested wannabe voters should face before being allowed to access the ballot box.
Richard Dawkins’ recent pronouncements on the topic of voting ‘qualifications’ hardly demonstrate original thinking. Here, he joins a prestigious set of thinkers, encompassing Mill and others, and dating back at least to Plato. Focusing on the premise that “under-age people” aren’t allowed to vote because they are “unqualified”, even though “there must be some adults less qualified than some under-age people”, Dawkins asked his Twitter followers, “Is age the only practical threshold or could others be devised?”.
Under-age people can’t vote. Whatever our criterion for thinking them unqualified (eg insufficiently developed reasoning powers or knowledge) there must be some adults less qualified than some under-age people. Is age the only practical threshold or could others be devised?
Now, we Leavers are used to having our academic prowess questioned in relation to our ability or eligibility to vote. Brexiteers are constantly described as ‘stupid’ and much worse, often by those seeking to overturn the referendum result on the grounds that the people “did not know what they were doing”. As well as stoking division in our society, this emphasises a fundamental misunderstanding about democracy.
There is a particular irony to Dawkins’s wrongheaded focus on ‘qualifications’. In the tweet above, Dawkins outs himself as a prime example of why excellence in one area doesn’t simply translate into excellence in others. His grasp of zoology may be top-notch, but his ruminations on democracy would be trounced — not least in terms of awareness of the literature — by almost any A-level politics student sitting their exams this week.
Like his religious pronouncements, Dawkins’ tweet also reflects the basic error of assuming that the scientific method is the only route to truth, sadly common amongst today’s scientists-turned-political-sages — check out Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now for a 500-page example. Rather, there are many areas, especially politics, where instead of scientific methods of experiment and proof, the public debate desperately needs arguments about values, which we can expose to each other in the awareness that yes, there are right and wrong answers, but that nobody can know for certain whether they have landed upon them.
The biggest flaw displayed by Dawkins’ tweet is not a lack of sophistication, or even an understandable failure to grasp the limits of scientific expertise, but an extremely serious category error. The democratic process is not fundamentally about being ‘good’ at voting, or bringing about the ‘right’ decisions. As with those people who ask what they gain when they vote, to think that democracy is a system we should use because it provides the ‘best’ means to certain ends is to get things seriously back-to-front.
Democracy, when instituted properly, is a process that respects our fundamental political rights. It respects our right to participate in political decision-making, to run for office, and to hold our political representatives to account. These are rights we each hold, equally — as full members of a political society — regardless of our qualifications, or personal characteristics, including age, as long as we’re past the age of majority.
All of this goes much beyond voting. Our involvement in the whole deliberative process represents the way in which our capacity for moral reasoning is something beyond intelligence or skill — a capacity that is an essential, wonderful feature of us as human beings, born free and equal. And for all the potential flaws in democracy’s mechanisms, it is the best political manifestation of this fundamental equality that we all share. It shouts out loud from the rooftops that we all matter, and that we all matter equally.
So, none of my criticisms of Dawkins make me want to push him out of the polling booth — however poor his understanding of political matters. He has the exact same right as any of us to be involved in the democratic process, and we must defend that, even as he rails against us.
Reasoned argument — and an overriding human commitment to the good — will, as ever, win out, showing why people like Dawkins are not only fundamentally wrong when they make eligibility to vote a matter of ‘intelligence’ - but their approach should warn us of great danger ahead.
The tradition Dawkins follows leads back to Plato’s philosopher-kings and Mill’s maths tests. It also includes the arrogant thinking of those intellectuals who wanted to restrict entry to the academy and the franchise on the grounds of wealth, gender, and race — and who pushed for ‘fashionable’ ideas like eugenics. And it seems evident today in the idea that Leavers are mostly elderly idiots, swayed by rhetoric, whose deaths will tidy up our polling.
Like other extremely clever people before him, Richard Dawkins simply cannot comprehend the idea of the fundamental equality of all human beings. One explanation is that his cleverness doesn’t extend that far. The other, sadly more likely, is much darker — that he just doesn’t like it.
Rebecca Lowe is director of FREER, and author of a recent paper entitled ‘Why Democracy: Taking political rights seriously’.
Democracy relies on a willingness to "play up, play up and play the game", lose gracefully and look forward to the next match to get a different outcome. It is endangered by appeals to the heart, to fear, that demand that winning is the only thing and that the end justifies the means. Those two poles define the difference between traditional conservatism in Britain and the British left.
On the Continent the difference is between a left that shares the same tendencies as the British left but where conservatism is driven by the need for perfection, where order is the ultimate goal.
Freedom requires the tolerance of chaos.