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December 15, 2016
The Boaty McBoatface controversy, although seemingly innocuous, made conspicuous a concept that would become the subject of greater concern to Western consciousness throughout the course of 2016: democracy.
On 17th March 2016, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) launched its ‘Name Our Ship’ campaign, which hosted votes for suggested names for a newly planned research vessel. This campaign was particularly democratic insofar as any candidate could be submitted and put to vote. This resulted in some rather charming entries, such as ‘RSS Jules Verne’ (3 votes), but it also encouraged the whimsy of the masses and gave rise to ‘RSS Boaty McBoatface’ (124,109 votes) – by far the most popular suggestion.
One month later, after an unprecedented blast of PR exposure for the NERC, the decision was made and we can expect the RSS David Attenborough (11,023 votes) to be operational by 2019. The decision to overrule the public vote sparked minor outrage, with some labelling it an affront to democracy. One commentator went so far as to claim that "the people should get what the people want" despite admitting that the popular choice was "a bad idea, voted for by idiots" (Heritage, 2016).
This article raises some interesting philosophical questions – namely: if we are to understand democracy as 'the (majority of) people getting what the (majority of) people want,' should no further qualifications be added to this principle in order to make it more nuanced, more precise? Should there not be some kind of caveat with respect to people's capacity to recognise what's in their best interests? To put it simply: what is the significance of the relation between education, freedom and democracy?
This philosophical concern is over 2000 years old, taking up a significant proportion of Plato's famous political treatise, the Republic. In this work, Plato argues that the education of its citizens is the bedrock of the ideal polis – the maximally just city-state. That is, proper education is the vital ingredient that, once established, would be sufficiently conducive to the propagation of the ideal polis:
And surely, once our city gets a good start, it will go on growing in a cycle. Good education and upbringing, when they are preserved, produce good natures, and useful natures, who are in turn well educated, grow up even better than their predecessors, both in their offspring and in other respects, just like other animals. (Rep, IV, 424a-b)
This is because, according to Plato, if people are properly educated they become good and reasonable. As such, they will therefore be able to recognise the constituent requirements for the ideal polis and organise themselves into these structures and modes of living of their own volition:
...the final outcome of education, I suppose we'd say, is a single newly finished person, who is either good or the opposite. (Rep, IV, 425c)
...for if by being well educated they become reasonable men, they will easily see these things for themselves. (Rep, IV, 423e)
We can clearly see that, for Plato, education is of vital significance for the successful operation of the ideal political system. Moreover, once this significance is recognised, it becomes immediately apparent that education bears an essential relation to the second of our concerns: freedom. That is, on the Platonic account, proper education entails a greater degree of freedom for those who receive it. This is because those who are properly educated warrant no governmental interference insofar as they can and do identify and conform to the optimum conditions of life. As Plato says:
It isn't appropriate to dictate to men who are fine and good. (Rep, IV, 425d)
As such, it could be suggested that the Platonic political setup endows people with a greater degree of individual liberty and representation than that of modern day democracies. That is, although Plato's political vision is technically not a democracy, the only role played by its ruling class of 'philosopher kings' (Rep, V, 473c-d) is that of installing and safeguarding this initial requirement of education. Once this is in effect, the people effectively govern themselves.
Alas, Plato's ultimate vision is not democratic, but how might his strict commitment to education play out in democratic scenarios? And to what extent is his urgent emphasis on education compatible with modern democracy?
In the case of Boaty McBoatface, the Platonic model would have ensured that 'RSS David Attenborough' (assuming this was the most suitable choice) would have been selected by the majority – in fact, it would have been selected by everyone.
As mentioned above, this example might appear trivial, but it does have implications for the more serious political controversies of 2016. Problems highlighted during the post-mortem of the European Referendum, such as widespread misrepresentation, might not have occurred if the stress Plato placed on education was in effect today. People would have simply rationally and independently identified the correct resolution without recourse to the vying campaigns of conflicting governing bodies. Moreover, for Plato, there would have been no conflicting alternatives, as reason would have guided everyone to the same conclusion.
Plato's strict emphasis on education evidently alleviates some contemporary problems. It does, however, rest on an underlying presupposition: the suggestion that there is such a thing as the correct resolution. Plato subscribes to this view because he claims values to be objective features of reality. Unfortunately, this metaethical position is not immediately compatible with our modern scientific worldview. Does this mean we have to abandon any attempts to incorporate a potentially freedom-enhancing way of thinking into contemporary political thought? Or is there a way of accounting for Plato's commitment to education without recourse to a problematic metaphysical worldview? The answer to this question, I suggest, will determine the applicability of Plato's theories to the political landscape of today.
Plato, Republic. Trans. G. M. A. Grube, revised by C. D. C. Reeve. In "Plato: Complete Works". Edited by John M. Cooper. (Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company 1997).
Heritage, S. (2016, April 19). "Boaty McBoatface: Tyrants have crushed the people's will". URL: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/19/boaty-mcboatface-tyrants-have-crushed-the-peoples-will. Accessed: 13 December 2016.
National Environment Research Council. URL: https://nameourship.nerc.ac.uk/. Accessed 13 December 2016.
George Webster is a graduate of the University of Warwick, having completed the MA in Continental Philosophy in October 2015. He is currently applying for funding in order to further his research into accounts of metaphysical immanence, such as those found in Spinoza, Hegel, Heidegger and Deleuze. He is interested in how systems of value issue from such accounts, as well as how they explain subjectivity and the distinctly ethical character of human being. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org