Should We Act on our Beliefs? The Vexing Nature of Responsibility, by Rik Peels

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine...' by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Brain illustration from The Principles and Practice of Medicine…’ by W Osler, 1904, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Some people think that voting for Donald Trump was a detestable thing to do, whereas others are convinced that we had an obligation to vote for him in order to get rid of the political elite. Of course, in explaining why they voted the way they did, people will appeal to their beliefs. Some of those will be factive: beliefs about such things as whether someone paid his taxes or whether someone gave full disclosure of certain emails. Other beliefs will be normative: beliefs about such things as whether America should pursue international political leadership or about whether it is permissible to use water-boarding techniques to extract information from prisoners.

People act on their beliefs. Obviously, that, as such, does not get them off the hook for the ensuing actions. Those who voted for Clinton believe that adherents of Trump should know better and vice versa—when it comes to the facts, when it comes to certain moral norms, or, more likely, both. Or, to give a few examples on which most Westerners agree: we believe that ISIS fighters also act on their beliefs, but that they should know better, and we believe that climate skeptics act on their beliefs, but that they should know better. If people were not responsible for their beliefs, it would seem improper to blame them for the actions they perform on the basis of those beliefs.

However, the idea of responsibility for our beliefs faces two big challenges. First, how can we be responsible for our beliefs at all? I am responsible for whether I treat my neighbor kindly or rudely, because I can choose or decide to treat her kindly or rudely. But I do not choose or decide to hold a belief. Nobody ever wakes up in the morning and thinks: “Today, let me form this or that belief.” Beliefs are things that are not under the control of our will. How, then, are we responsible for them? This is a controversial issue in contemporary analytic philosophy. One way to think of it is this: we are responsible for our beliefs, because they are the consequences of things over which we do have control, such as whether we gather more evidence, whether we are humble and pay attention to our prejudices and biases, and whether we try to become more open-minded.

Second, assuming that the first challenge can be met and that we are indeed responsible for our beliefs, we still face a deep puzzle about responsibility. As I said, people normally act in accordance with their beliefs. And that, it seems, is the right thing to do. One should not act contrary to what one believes to be the facts or contrary to what one believes one ought to do. Philosophers have even come up with a name for situations in which one succumbs and acts against one’s better judgment. Ever since Aristotle, they call it akrasia. One is akratic, for instance, if one believes that eating an entire bag of chips is bad, but one still does it. We don’t want people to be akratic. Rather, they should act in accordance with their beliefs.

Now, here’s the problem. If we are to hold people responsible for their beliefs, then, given that belief is not under the control of the will, it must issue from an earlier culpable act: one neglected evidence, one failed to enter into conversation with certain people, one was not open-minded, or some such thing. But, presumably, at that earlier time, one believed it was alright to neglect that evidence, fail to enter into conversation, or not be open-minded on that occasion. Thus, how can we ever hold people responsible for their beliefs and the actions performed on the basis of those beliefs? We are unwilling to give up holding people accountable for their beliefs. But it seems we are equally unwilling to give up the principle that people should not act contrary to their beliefs.

I am not entirely sure how this challenge can be met. But here are at least a few things we ought to note that can help in solving the problem.

First, it seems that if people act on their beliefs and there was no way they could have changed those beliefs – for instance, because they have been thoroughly indoctrinated or they suffer from a psychosis – we cannot blame them for holding those beliefs and for the actions based on those beliefs. Maybe we should take protective measures and perhaps even incarcerate them, but they are not morally responsible for what they believe or what they do.

Second, intellectual virtues or, as philosopher Linda Zagzebski calls them, ‘virtues of the mind’, steadily grow over long periods of time: open-mindedness, curiosity, thoroughness. And so do intellectual vices, such as dogmatism, conformity, and sloppiness. They gradually arise out of choices we make on particular occasions, such as whether we listen to someone and try to understand what things would look like from their point of view. These intellectual virtues and vices heavily influence our beliefs and, consequently, our actions. Thus, the more evidence we have that someone has had enough opportunity to develop these virtues, the more we can hold them responsible for their beliefs.

Third, the flat-out principle that we should act on our beliefs might be too simplistic: it may need substantial qualification by taking into account serious doubts that one might have, whether or not one’s belief matches one’s emotions and desires, and whether or not there is substantial disagreement with others about the belief in question. This, as such, will not solve the problem, but such qualifications seem needed to do full justice to our intuitions about the plausibility of the akrasia principle.

The responsibility we bear for our beliefs is crucial for individual well-being and the flourishing of our societies. And yet, like so many things that are crucial in our lives, it is vexing and raises deep philosophical questions. We will need joint work by ethicists, epistemologists, psychologists, and sociologists to find satisfactory answers.

~ Originally published at OUP Blog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World, on November 19th, 2016

~ Rik Peels is Assistant Professor in Ethics and Epistemology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He is the author of Responsible Belief: A Theory in Ethics and Epistemology (OUP, 2016), editor of Perspectives on Ignorance from Moral and Social Philosophy (Routledge, 2016), and co-editor of The Epistemic Dimensions of Ignorance (CUP, 2016). You can read more on his personal website (Bio credit: OUP Blog)

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The Wisdom of Crowds: How Voting Produces a Better Society

It’s easy to feel discouraged in the United States of America sometimes.

Recently, I was chatting with someone who suggested that a meritocracy might be better than the democracy (of sorts) which we have now. A democratic republic, rather, and a degraded one: our government seems more dysfunctional than ever, overrun with ideologues and pawns of a few moneyed interests, and hyperbole and unreason holds sway over public discourse. A meritocracy, where rulers are selected based only on their qualifications, be it education, political experience, or business acumen, might prove a welcome change.
Meritocracy is, pretty much, just a theoretical form of government. I expect everyone believes it would be best to have wise and qualified leaders (if we must have any at all), and most think it’s good to try to put such people in office. No government exists whose constitution specifically requires that only the smartest people rule. But imagine a real meritocracy, with strict laws in place to ensure that only the most able, most knowledgeable leaders are appointed. Perhaps public officials would be selected by undergoing a series of tests, or elected by a panel of experts in relevant fields of knowledge. Wouldn’t this increase the chance that no dummies, however slick, charming, or pandering, would be allowed to hijack the government and, through their incompetence, ruin it for everyone else?
Not all that long ago, this sounded pretty good to me. When I returned to college awhile back and studied political philosophy, I was very much in the mood for it, or something like it. Like just about everyone else, it felt that I was constantly slapping my forehead (as I still do) over the ludicrous statements and bad laws our politicians were cranking out. Wouldn’t it be much better if they all had to take IQ tests, plus general knowledge tests in political and legal theory, history, English, rhetoric, and the rules of basic courtesy before they were allowed to run for office? (I’m willing to bet that no politicians who call for ‘citizenship tests’ for voters also call for ‘leadership tests’ for themselves.) Like you, dear readers, I have a deep respect for learning, and would be thrilled to see more of it make its way into our government and into our political discourse, let alone into our (to my mind) overly-materialist culture.

Yet through the years, the more widely I read, and the more I listen to politicians, scholars, and other influential people discuss and debate any given topic in any given field of expertise, it doesn’t seem likely that anyone exists, however brilliant, who could know or understand enough about any subject to craft public policy on their own. No one mind can hold all the relevant knowledge that should be brought to bear in crafting a good law. It’s not just technical knowledge that’s the problem: an expert in a field could, at least theoretically, access enough of that sort of knowledge on their own, from their colleagues, their library, and the Internet, though it still seems unrealistic that one person could put it all together in a reasonable time frame. The far bigger problem is that no one person could escape their own biases sufficiently to craft laws that are just for everyone.

All societies are made up of people with different personalities, different points of view, different belief systems, different circumstances of life. Each, therefore, has different interests and different responsibilities, and have different rights they hold most dear. It’s not possible for any one mind to fully understand how the rights, responsibilities, and interests of all interact and conflict. Not only that: a wise leader must effectively predict the entire chain of events that might result from enforcement of the law, or system of laws. We might say well, of course, no one knows all these things. So what we need in order to create an effective meritocracy is many leaders, not one or just a few. Between them all, a governing body of a large number of experts should be able to work out these problems as least as well as the public at large, and probably better.
But here we run into problem of numbers. Aside from the inevitable clashes of ego, think of how many ‘meritocrats’ it would take to adequately take all of the relevant knowledge, all the possible outcomes, all the values and interests of all of its citizens into account while crafting legislation. Is it likely that any one group, so unrepresentative as they are of the general population, could create a society in which the rights and interests of all of society, rich and poor, educated and otherwise, men, women, and children, laboring and not, of all races, are fairly and equally represented? Could they do this even in theory, given the facts of human psychology? Almost everyone, almost all of the time, automatically favors their own interests and those of their peers over those of other groups, and it makes sense that they should. For one thing, they understand why their own interests are as they are, because they arise from their own particular life experience. For another, everyone is prone to availability bias: people form beliefs and make decisions based on examples they themselves can readily call to mind. Therefore, we are intellectually hostage, so to speak, to whatever set of information and experience we are privy to. However much we try to expand our knowledge of the world, we are always limited. These, and myriad other quirks of human psychology, make it inevitable that no one human being on their own, or a relatively small group of human beings, could make sufficiently fair, impartial, and fully informed decisions on policies that effect everyone.

Let’s consider pre-Revolutionary France for an extreme example of how a meritocratic but short-sighted few, ruling over a non-participatory citizenry, can bring about societal collapse. France, like other European societies at the time, was ruled by a heritable meritocracy of a monarch and an aristocracy, and an appointed clergy, who all had the wealth and leisure, unavailable to most people, to afford an education. These ruled a populace which they kept in strict subjection, for the people’s own good, of course. Yet these meritocrats could not put themselves into the sabots (wooden clogs of the peasantry) of the majority of the people. (The Estates General, made up of representatives from various classes, advised the king, but had little power to begin with, and it decreased over time; the Third Estate, made up of the poorest members of  French society, had the least power, and the burden of taxation fell almost entirely on them.) As they saw it, the classes of society were properly kept in their place to fulfill their respective roles, and to undermine this structure would be to undermine the delicate balance of a functioning society. They were proven wrong: the intolerable condition of their lives caused the laboring classes to revolt and overthrow their rulers. While the monarch, the aristocracy, and the clergy considered themselves best suited for rule, they lacked the knowledge, the insight available only through the experience of what it takes to make the life of a laboring person not only bearable enough forestall rebellion, but satisfying and remunerative enough to encourage more productivity. They lacked the epistemic humility that wise people have. If the ruling elites were more informed, say, by the input of the people they ruled over, perhaps they could have thought of ways to harness human energy and facilitate creativity as market societies would later do. But since they shut themselves off from the input of the majority of the population, their policies were ill-informed and short-sighted, and their society eventually collapsed. This was the fate of so many undemocratic societies, that it seems most likely to be the fate of all.

‘But wait a minute!’ you may object. Why would we expect better results in a democracy, when it’s at least as likely and probably more, that the average person’s vote is based on just as narrow, less-than-fully-informed self-interest as that of the aforementioned meritocrats?

In a democratic system, individual voters don’t have to be fully informed about everything for their votes to be valuable. Since the vote crowd-sources knowledge from the entire population, each person, even if voting out of narrow self-interest, informs society of the things they know most about. Our votes tell each other what we want, and indicate why. By the way people vote, we discover what individuals have learned from their own life experiences, from the work they do, their area of study or expertise, their family and peer groups, and the demands of the environment in which they live. We learn what people believe, what their interests are, how far they’re willing to go to help each other out, and where they want the line drawn to protect themselves. We learn how much people know (and how much they don’t), what values they hold, and what kind of leaders they admire.

So it’s not that the average voter must be wise or fair for their vote to count, though it’s better that they are, since this speeds up the process of creating a better government. What matters most is that society as a whole is well informed. A society can only become knowledgeable enough to create a government that’s well-functioning, impartial, and more conducive to the flourishing of all of its constituents, by this crowd-sourcing of information. Since no one mind, or no few minds, can hold enough information or understand enough points of view to do what’s best for everyone, it’s everyone who must provide the necessary knowledge.

This utilitarian argument, by the way, is not meant to replace moral arguments in favor of democracy: that proper respect for the moral equality of all persons entails the right to vote, or that it’s incumbent on all good citizens to fulfill their social obligations through political participation, and so on. I offer it as one of many excellent reasons to prefer a democratic system of government over any other: not only because it’s morally enlightened, it’s also the most practical. Democracy is best because it works best, and the evidence of history bears this out. In modern democratic societies, for example, war is relatively rare, since the transfer of power from one leader to the next is peaceful. Generally, the burdens of war disproportionately fall on the majority of society while a relative few reap the benefits; very few wars in history were revolutions that benefited the majority the most. For those of us dismayed at how many wars we still wage nowadays, compare the state of the world today with the history of Europe : nearly every time a ruler or rulers died, by fair means or foul, either a war would break out to decide who should rule next, or the new ruler(s) would embark on a war of conquest to prove their supremacy, or the favored religion of the new ruler(s) was forcibly, and bloodily, imposed. Most of Europe was at war most of the time, century after century, until their monarchies, aristocracies, and theocracies were replaced with modern, democratic, and largely secular governments. Modern democratic societies, while sometimes at war with other countries, aren’t at war with each other, and there are far fewer wars overall as a result.

Let’s consider a modern example of how not voting not only leads to more oppression, but to well-intentioned yet bad policy resulting from self-imposed ignorance: the disenfranchisement of convicts. Those convicted of serious crimes are punished with the loss of some of their civil rights, at least for awhile, and this often includes the right to vote. While I understand the deterrent effect of many types of punishment, including the loss of some rights and privileges, the loss of the vote does little good in this respect. Each individual prisoner loses little when they lose the vote, but society loses a lot: as we punish criminals by taking away their right to vote, we undermine our society by making it that much less informed.

As we are only significantly realizing now, our criminal justice system is not only rife with mistakes, but with affronts to human dignity and assaults on human rights. For example, we’re discovering that our ‘common-sense’ reliance on eyewitness testimony and police interrogation techniques has led to an unacceptable rate of false convictions. We’re finally discovering that our ‘tried-and-true’ methods of police interrogation and psychological questioning routinely generate false testimony and false confessions. This includes 20%-25% of exonerations for serious crimes based on DNA evidence (an alarming rate, since relevant DNA evidence is available only in a substantial minority of cases). There are a wealth of examples of people convicted because of the brain’s ability to create false memories, especially if an authority figure or medical ‘professional’ induces them, or because eyewitnesses misunderstand or misremember what they saw. Consider the rash of cases in the 1980’s and 1990’s where scores of childcare workers were falsely convicted of ritualistic child rape and torture. Or the Norfolk, Virgina murder/rape case, in which four grown military men (who had passed mental- and bodily-health tests to join the Navy) were coerced into giving contradictory confessions. The list of problems with our justice system does not end there, not by a long shot: there’s our long history of junk forensic science, prison overcrowding, official indifference to prison rape, solitary confinement-induced mental illness, and law-enforcement policies which generate higher recidivism rates and help turn petty criminals into hardened, violent ones through over-punishment.

Yet if those convicted of crimes had been informing the rest of us, through their votes, of their inside knowledge of the criminal justice system, the sooner we could have had the opportunity to recognize and correct these errors. It took centuries for policy makers and researchers and scientists to discover how prevalent, and how serious, these problems are, or to care enough to find out. Of course, it’s important to be tough on crime, and all members of a society have the right and responsibility to protect themselves and their loved ones. But this interest in self-protection must be balanced against the interests of those who have suffered the ill effects of over-zealous, ‘tough-on-crime’ policies. Every time an innocent person is convicted of a crime, the guilty one remains free to commit more, and every policy that encourages the abuse of prisoners and raises incarceration and recidivism rates, the more injustice we commit, the more criminality we foster, and the more taxes we pay.

None of this is to say that merit doesn’t matter, of course it does. In modern democratic societies, we not only vote directly for specific laws and taxes, we vote for representatives, specialists whose job it is to be better informed on the issues than the average person, or have expert advisers, or have achieved a higher level of education. A democratic republic such as ours can be seen as a type of meritocracy, since the idea is that the people, as a whole, elect representatives based on their merits as well as on the likelihood that they will best represent their constituents’ interests. But even so, the fact that they are voted in by all of the people still ensures that the whole range of interests are represented, and the widest possible range of knowledge is brought to bear.

To return to the degraded state of the United States’ democratic republic: the problem isn’t so much that uninformed voters are dragging the country down, though I think they, too, can impede progress. The bigger problem is that the votes of most people count less than ever, in this era where buying power makes right, and where the interests and values of the majority of people are not adequately represented. For example, we have a problem under-regulation, where powerful financial interests have over-ridden the interests of most of the population. These few financial interests, who have grown to such gargantuan proportions that they hold most of the nation’s capital in their (virtual) vaults, gamble with it freely for the sake their own personal gain, to the detriment of the nation’s economy, and of the world’s.We also have a problem with over-regulation, where special interests of a powerful few successfully hijack government, through financial enticements and pressure on elected officials, for the express purpose of crushing their competition. Here, again, the interests of most of the people are trumped by the outsize influence of a moneyed few.

Here’s my two cents on the matter: VOTE! You matter! Your interests, your input matter! Don’t just throw your hands up in the air, sigh, stay home, and play into the hands of those who have, in recent years, been throwing up roadblocks to keep certain people from the polls, disproportionately effecting the poor, those disabled by age or illness, and otherwise disadvantaged people. After all, do you think it’s likely that such an effort would be made by those in power if voting doesn’t matter? Think about it.

Listen to the podcast edition here or on iTunes


Sources and Inspiration:

Berlow, Alan. ‘What Happened in Norfolk.’ New York Times Magazine. August 19th, 2007.

Childress, Sarah. ‘Why Voter ID Laws Aren’t Really About Fraud’. Oct 20, 2014. Frontline.

‘Day-care sex-abuse hysteria’. (2014, December 29). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

‘Estates General (France)’. (2014, October 5). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Fontevecchia, Agustino. ‘As New York City Crushes the Food Truck Business, Mexicue Pushes a New Model’. Forbes. May 23rd, 2014. ‘

Fraser, Scott. ‘Why Eyewitnesses Get It Wrong’ TED talk. May 2012

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York 2011.

Lightman, David. ‘Wall Street crisis is culmination of 28 years of deregulation’. McClatchyDC. Sept 15th, 2008.

Loftus, Elizabeth. “The Fiction of Memory” TED talk. June 2013.

‘Meritocracy’. Wikipedia, The Free EncyclopediaJan 8, 2015.

Mills, Steve and Maurice Possley. ‘Man Executed on Disproved Forensics’. Chicago Tribune, Dec 9th, 2004.

Perrilo, Jennifer T. and Saul M. Kassin. ‘The Lie, The Bluff, and False Confessions’. Law and Human Behavior (academic journal of tje American Psychology-Law Society). Aug 24th, 2010.

Perry, Marvin. Western Civilization: A Brief History, Vol II: From the 1400’s. Boston: Wadsworth, 2009,

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Had Declined. New York: Viking Penguin, 2011

Activism is Not Enough: As Long As We Keep Shopping and Don’t Vote, It’s Our Fault Too!

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, a wonderful place to live. It has a rich culture and a thriving music and arts scene and nightlife. It’s surrounded by great natural beauty in all directions: from oak forests to redwood groves, from chaparral to sandy beaches and sea cliffs. It has a fascinating history, plentiful and delicious food, beautiful architecture, and balmy weather. It’s also a liberal ‘bubble’, with an appetite for activism and, for better and for worse, a penchant for righteous outrage.

I admire and identify with the history and the culture of activism. Like the reformers of history and of today, the brave people who fight to create a more just world are among the finest the human race has ever produced. But I’ve been feeling something a bit lacking in activist movements lately. They still march in the streets, and we join them there and online by signing petitions for reform, posting blog pieces, and sharing videos bursting with righteous indignation. It’s exciting, it’s attention-getting, it makes the news. Historically, take-it-to-the-streets activism has been key in achieving the most important reforms (and breaking away to form our own nation in the first place!). The Occupy Movement, for one, was inspiring, and exciting, and it appeared that we were finally witnessing a harbinger of real change.

Sadly, it seemed to fizzle out before any substantial reform was achieved. Why? Because it wasn’t followed by practical action, which, of course, is much less exciting. Demonstrations of protest don’t do much lasting good unless they’re backed up by real, widespread change in attitudes, behavior, and civic engagment. Right now, the activist community is mainly pouring its energy into marches, inspiring songs, signs, slogans, and speech, and a few into blocking highways, smashing windows, and taunting riot police. But for actual reform to happen, we need to turn our collective accusatory gaze back on ourselves and realize we are the problem too…

How can we be the problem while we’re working and calling for reform? Because we keep supporting bad business through what we choose to buy, and we’re not reforming government by showing up at the polls.

It’s like protesting an assassination after we pitched in to pay the hit man and did nothing to stop him as he stole the getaway car.

For example, we’ve long known that many of our smartphones, tablets, and other gadgets are made in factories where people work terribly long hours for little pay, in conditions we’d never put up with ourselves. And we know that many or even most of our discarded electronics end up in some country, state, or town unprotected by regulations, or whose ‘recycling’ systems are really not effective in keeping up with the deluge, at keeping toxic heavy metals and chemicals out of the water supply, the ground, and the air. So we’ve signed online petitions and shared testimonies of abused workers on YouTube and Facebook. Yet we buy every new gadget as fast as they come along, throwing away our ‘old’ ones (cracked screen? doesn’t have the new games on it? too thick now since the new ones are 1/4″ thinner?) and buying a new one whether we ‘need’ it or not. When we purchase these things, we fund all operations of the companies that make them, and we send them the signal that we’ll buy them no matter how much their products pollute and how they treat their workers.

We also know, from the wealth of scientific information gathered and presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and our own National Climate Assessment, that we’re polluting our air to levels that present great threats to the health and future food security of ourselves and our progeny. We’ve also seen how air and other pollution causes respiratory ailments and even death in humans and animals, from pre-1970’s, pre-Clean Air Act Los Angeles, California, to Beijing, China of today. So again, we sign online petitions and share videos and speeches, and call on regulators to crack down on corporate polluters, on factories (industrial and farming), auto manufacturers, and the trucking industry. Yet it’s the commuter cars we drive and the emanations from animals we eat every day that pollute the most. We drive everywhere we want to go whether or not we need our car to get there, and gobble up more meat than is healthy for us and for the planet, all the while insisting that gas and meat stay cheap.

And so on, and so on, and so on. We want one thing, but do another. We say we want the world to be one way, but our actions help guarantee it won’t come to pass. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but here it is: we can’t justifiably blame corporations and the government for institutionalized racism, radical income inequality, pollution, climate change, poor wages and working conditions, poverty, and other social ills while at the same time we’re funding their operations, and are too politically apathetic to send more than a symbolic message by voting in the change we want.

There are two main ways we are undermining our own calls for reform:

We are a market-driven society, for better or for worse, and the market will always deliver what we want to buy, eventually. If we keep buying it, it will keep being made, whatever the good it does, or the harm. If we want things that cause harm, they will be made, ever more so as we keep buying them. And if we shop around for the lowest price, down prices will go, whether by benign means (improved technology) or not (driving down wages). Capitalism brings us wonderful things: safer and better machines for all kinds of purposes, warm comfortable clothing and plentiful food, information-sharing devices to educate and entertain, and best of all, technology that can better our lives while reducing waste. But it brings awful things as well: the supply and demand for plastic bottles and convenient packaging is trashing rivers and seas and killing fish; electronics, designed to quickly become obsolete and full of heavy metals, turns into masses of polluting trash our limited recycling systems can’t keep up with; plentiful, cheap meat pollutes the air and water and encourages animal cruelty; cheap fuel drives climates change and wars; cheap goods of all kinds drive down wages, degrades working conditions, and lead to overconsumption and massive waste. We know this, yet keep the demand going by gobbling it all up as quickly as they supply it.

Here’s an aside to my fellow progressives, liberals, and everyone who loves our world and don’t want to trash it: don’t pretend that recycling bins and boutique ‘green’ products will do the trick. Currently, recycling programs are akin to a cheap plastic Band-Aid applied to a gaping wound. Most recycling processes create nearly as much, sometimes even more, pollution than new products and packaging created in the first place. (Read this fantastic article by Andrew Handley: informative, succinct, and eloquent.)

Secondly, we are allowing the few, most moneyed interests to take over our government with scarcely a murmur. The ballot box, historically the most powerful tool for voicing our collective will, is being abandoned. We are voting in fewer and fewer numbers every year, with depressing results. I understand the Russell Brand type of argument, to ‘drop out’ of politics as an act of protest against systemic government corruption. But I don’t agree with his conclusion. It may be the case, as he points out and as we discover anew every voting season, that many or all of the candidates aren’t terribly inspiring. We may find that many of the initiatives won’t seem to do all the good we’d wish. But consider these facts: historically, the reforms sought by the great activist movements mostly became law because they continued their march right to the polls, and either voted in those laws themselves through referendums, and the rest were achieved indirectly, by voting better leaders into office. And think of what happens when we don’t vote. As someone who considers myself politically progressive, I’ve been dismayed as here in California, such laws as Prop 8 passed, banning gay marriage, because more people opposed to this unjust law (later overturned by the courts as unconstitutional) didn’t bother to get to the polls; ideologues, lavishly funded by a few interest groups, voted in droves while believers in liberal and progressive values (including many who held protest signs, I’ll bet) stayed home. For the same reason, capital punishment is still legal in California and marijuana use (other than medical) is not. I was also dismayed by the most recent general election, in which candidates that are aggressively status-quo and anti-reform were elected to office in droves. Why? Again: those who poll in favor of reform did not show up at the polls.

It’s true that too many candidates are overly motivated to please the interest groups that fund them, and don’t pay enough attention to the rights and the will of the average citizen. But that’s not just because of the money (initially provided by us, by the way, via the market): these candidates have been made well aware that we’ve grown a little too comfortable to make the effort to vote them out. So they make speeches to please us, and then we pass them around online and think we’ve done our duty. On election day, we stay home, and the next day, it’s business as usual.

In sum: so long as we put our own ease, comfort, and desire for luxuries ahead of our principles, we are stuck with the world that results. If our political system continues to grow ever more corrupt and our laws fail to protect the vulnerable, the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised, and the environment, yet we don’t vote the bad politicians out and the good laws in, we are to blame too. If corporations and other businesses make harmful products, endanger and underpay their workers, funnel all profits to a few at the top, and pollute, deforest, drive species to extinction, and hasten global warming, yet we keep buying their products, it’s our fault too. If police precincts become ever more militarized and continue to employ overly violent and coercive tactics on the streets and in the interrogation rooms, and we don’t vote them or those that appoint them, out of office, then we’re giving our tacit consent. If our political leaders, prosecutors, and judges continue to make, enforce, and uphold laws that are contrary to our constitutional rights, our best interests, and scientific evidence, and we keep putting them in office (or do nothing while special interest groups put them in office), then we aid and abet them with our neglect.

So what do we do about it? Do we all become ascetics, deny ourselves all pleasures that might conceivably cause harm, subsist in ‘hobbit homes’? Do we obsess over politics, wring our hands in despair daily or cast them in air as we give up in hopelessness? This doesn’t seem tenable: we want an easy, pleasant life filled with hope, comfort and plenty for ourselves, our loved ones, our children, for everyone.

Yet if we want our progeny and the rich, vibrant, diverse world of living things to survive and flourish, we need to change our habits. Our main stumbling block is this fact about human psychology: it’s extremely difficult for us to act idealistically when the long-term ramifications of our actions are not emotionally, immediately apparent at the time. But be it easy or be it hard, we need adopt new and better practices, or the world we love will suffer from our neglect. I’m as stuck in bad habits as much as anyone else, so I’m not playing a blame game here. When it comes to consumer waste: I’m lucky in that I worked in a salvage and recycling operation for some years, and that experience turned me off from enjoying shopping for cheap gadgets, and made me more frugal and more likely to preserve the tools I have for as long as I can repair them and make them work. (There’s nothing like working in a resale warehouse, or salvaging quality reusable goods from a mound of broken cheap crap and trash at the dump, to change one’s perspective on material goods. Now, in the rare occasions I go to Target or a department store, I perceive mostly a mound of thinly disguised future garbage.) But I continue to buy too many things with unnecessary packaging, I still drive my car more often than I really need to, and I buy and eat too much factory-farmed meat. When it comes to politics and law enforcement: I usually don’t do nearly enough homework on the issues or on candidates before I vote, and I miss valuable opportunities to make a difference by engaging in local politics, where individuals can have the most influence.

Let’s make a pact to honor our activists, and to join their ranks as true ones, by living out our desired reforms. Let’s stop buying water and drinks in plastic bottles and packaged goods so long as there’s an alternative; if enough people do this, companies will pay heed and provide their goods through better delivery methods. Let’s stop buying so much stuff, period, and divert our money to businesses and institutions that deliver quality goods that last and public goods that all can enjoy. (Less malls and big box and discount retailers, more small businesses, quality goods made to last, public works, humanitarian projects, and museums.) Let’s stop glorifying wealth and the trappings of wealth more than its due. Let’s vote in every election, for candidates and referendums that best represent our values: if we demonstrate that we will only vote for those that deliver on their promises for reform and will vote them out if they fail, the political arena of competition will shift as it favors less corruption.

Let’s put the act back in activism.

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Sources and inspiration:

Ariely, Dan. ‘The Long-Term Effect of Short-Term Emotions‘. Mar 23, 2010.

Brand, Russell. ‘On Revolution: “We No Longer Have the Luxury of Tradition”‘ Oct 24, 2013.

FlorCruz, Jaime. ‘Listen Up Beijing. This is What You Can Learn From Los Angeles About Fighting Smog‘. Dec 9th, 2014.

Handley, Andrew. ‘10 Ways Recycling Hurts the Environment‘. Jan 27th, 2013.

Parsons, Sarah.’Electronics Recycling 101: The Problem With E-Waste‘.

Silverman, Jacob. ‘Do Cows Pollute As Much as Cars?