The will of the people: reconsiderations

In 427 BC, the Athenian assembly voted to put to death “the whole adult male population of Mitylene, and to make slaves of the women and children.”  The Mitylenians, once allies, had switched sides in a long, difficult war, and the Athenians were in no mood to be trifled with.  A ship sailed to communicate the verdict.

The next day “brought repentance with it and reflection on the horrid cruelty of a decree, which condemned a whole city to a fate merited only by the guilty.”  The assembly reconvened, and a famous debate ensued, at the end of which the Athenians voted narrowly to spare the innocent people of Mitylene.  A second ship set sail, and the crew so exerted itself that it arrived in time to prevent the massacre.

The Mitylene debate is usually seen as a fascinating glimpse into the workings of Athenian democracy.  I have a different agenda:  I want to know who was responsible for the two actions mandated by the assembly at Athens in 427 BC.

Suppose the massacre had taken place as originally decreed.  Who is the guilty party?  The assembly was made up of all citizens:  all could take part in debate, while each had one vote, and no more, in arriving at a decision.  A common sense judgment, then, would make the citizenry of Athens responsible had an atrocity occurred.  Responsible causally and therefore morally:  it agreed on an action, and the action took place as intended.

On this account, the will of the citizens of Athens, as a group, nearly caused the destruction of Mitylene.

Yet the common sense approach is open to criticism.  A group seems much more ephemeral and splintered than an individual:  can such an unstable unit display moral agency?  In fact, specific persons led the debate in the assembly.  Cleon spoke up most persuasively for the hard line, Diodotus for forgiveness.  Were they more responsible than the mass of citizens?  Wholly responsible?  In addition, neither vote was unanimous – the Mitylenians were spared by a small majority.  Was forgiveness the will of these citizens only?  If so, were they morally responsible as a group or simply as persons?

Is speaking of a “will” of the Athenian citizenry really a philosophical fiction?

I now resume my friendly dispute with Sophistpundit, who denies the reality of the will of the people, and has mustered strong arguments to make his case.  My intention here isn’t to attempt a point-by-point refutation, but to lay out the moral landscape for this issue as best I can, while keeping Sophitpundit’s arguments in view.

The operation of the will requires intention and action.  If I intend, for example, to hit you on the nose, and then hit you on the nose, I am morally responsible for your being hit on the nose.

A problem with individualizing all responsibility is that many actions are too complex or laborious to be performed by an individual.  On this principle, participants in immense crimes can rightly plead a small proportion of the guilt:  I was just obeying orders.

Adolf Eichmann, I’m sure, didn’t personally murder Jews.  He was a small cog in a large machine.  If all moral responsibility is individual, that should be the extent of Eichmann’s crime:  pushing a lot of papers that made the railroads to the extermination camps run on time.  I believe his crime was much more horrific, because it partook of the action of a group – of the bloody machinery of the final solution and the moral abomination that was Nazi Germany.

The massacre of the Mitylenians would have required a conquering army, a debate and vote in the assembly, a ship’s crew to convey the sentence, and a large number of executioners.  Any one of these could have pointed to the others to avoid personal blame.

Many actions can only be conducted by groups.  Full moral responsibility therefore falls on the group – and on each person in it as a constituent unit of the group – or it falls on no one.  Individuals can opt out of the group decision, at whatever cost to themselves.  But to insist on solely individual responsibility is to descend into a kind of Nietzschean nihilism.

Intent, of course, defines the will.  Sophistpundit’s critique of the will of the people is  largely a function of his skepticism that an intention can be sustained in the diffused, fragmented medium of a group.  The flounderings of the Athenian assembly illustrate the problem.  As a group, it was deeply divided and inconstant, reversing itself overnight.  Which vote represented the legitimate will of the citizenry as a whole?

Sophistpundit has also produced examples in which, despite a democratic process, the decision of the group can foil the intentions of the majority.

That human intentions are opaque and volatile I consider beyond dispute.  But this is a universal condition, not a special effect induced by group settings.  Like the Athenian assembly, individuals are divided in their intentions.  Like the Athenians, they sometimes waver and change their minds.  This too is beyond dispute.

If recent research is correct, we sometimes form intentions without knowing it.  If Marx was correct, our intentions are shaped by irresistible economic and cultural pressures.  If Hume was correct, and we are mere “bundles of sensations,” then our intentions are robotic responses to stimuli found in the environment.

Promoters of such ideas reject morality altogether in favor of “scientific” manipulation of people and things.  Here we circle back to nihilism:  there are no criminals or bad  persons, only victims of social disease.

The antidote to nihilism is integration:  enough cohesive moral force to sustain an intention, and attain agency.  I believe integration occurs at the moment of action, when all doubt and ambiguity cease, and we burst onto the world as the cause of a given effect.

The doubts and hesitations of the Athenians became irrelevant the moment the second trireme arrived in Mitylene to stop the massacre.  Their intent achieved moral force by the action of forgiveness.  Had the second ship arrived too late, the intent of the Athenians would have been drastically changed, but their doubts would still have lapsed into irrelevance.  Both actions were intentional – both exposed the Athenian citizenry, as a group, to moral judgment.

Similarly, I can hesitate at the store, but the moment I purchase the blue shirt my intention is clarified.  It may be argued that I was duped by an advertiser into buying a blue shirt:  that my intention was extraneous to my will.  But this is now irrelevant.  The action was mine.  I alone, not the advertiser, bought the shirt.  The advertiser’s trickery is merely one element – along with my hesitations, my need for a shirt, my taste for all things blue – in the composition of my intent to buy a blue shirt.

The foiled majorities in Sophistpundit’s examples aren’t really paradoxical.  I may have first intended A, but the moment I freely agreed to B and acted on it, my intention was clarified:  I intended B.  That was the will of the group, and mine as well.

Many actions are accidental or unintentional; others are muddled and confused.  Adults can tell the difference.  The Athenians explicitly voted to spare the Mitylenians, sent a ship to convey this message – and the Mitylenians were spared.  Any reasonable person will discern moral agency in these events.

There remains the problem of the bad law cited by Sophistpundit:  a mandate which clearly contradicts what most people wish to do.  The US government, for example, has vigorously extended property rights to intellectual products – music, video, text – while the public behaves as if these products were free goods.  Where is the will of the people?

Given our divided nature and our shaky hold on knowledge, bad laws are inevitable.  The expansion of property rights in the 1990s assumed a different world from what, in fact, transpired after the development of the web.  The decision to slaughter the disloyal Mitylenians seemed, to an anxious assembly, like justice.

When the will of the people results in flawed action – one that contradicts what most people really want – defections will follow.  A few defectors will be principled, like Martin Luther King breaking the Jim Crow laws.  Most will be creatures of opportunity, and will defect only when they think they can get away with it.  The moral distance between defectors, in a democratic system, can be great:  from saint to crook.  Much depends on the individual’s intent and the nature of the action.

Where bad laws are the norm, defections will become habitual, and democracy will disintegrate.

But an abiding virtue of the democratic process is that it imposes a feedback loop, a constant refreshing of the will of the people.  This increases the moral hazard of defection, but also makes it less likely.  The Athenians, as a group, reversed course and avoided committing an atrocity.  In the same manner, public opinion in the US can – and, I suspect, will – push for an adjustment in the law now favoring owners of intellectual property.

And it is this process, with its promise of perfectibility, that the public mind represents as identical to its will – with the law a product of the people’s will in action.


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