Consensus Voting and Scanlon's Contractualism (A Case Study of The New School)
posted on: Tuesday, November 29, 2011 by Chase Stevens
In his 1982 work Contractualism and Utilitarianism, T.M. Scanlon, in an attempt to explain morality, formulated a new type of Contract Theory, building upon the work done by his predecessor Rawls. Scanlon's approach was novel: whereas contract theories posited before his time focused on what members of a society would mutually agree upon, Scanlon took the opposite approach by focusing on what people find unacceptable. This lead him to arrive at the following definition for a morally wrong act:
"An act is wrong if its performance under the circumstances would be disallowed by any system of rules for the general regulation of behavior which no one could reasonably reject as the basis for informed, unforced general agreement […] An act is wrong if it is forbidden by a principle which no one can reasonably reject."
To simplify, under Scanlon's contractualism, an act is wrong if and only if someone can provide a reasonable objection to it. Conversely, an act is acceptable if no such reasonable objection can be provided by anyone. One ought also to include objections that would arise if everyone was well-informed, or those that would arise if coercive forces were not in play.
Ignoring this contractualism as an explanation of morality, I would like in this piece to examine the implementation (plus minusve
) of Scanlon's "wrongness" criterion in consensus voting, via a case study of my former high school, The New School
("TNSK"), as well as how it handled (or failed to handle) cases or situations that serve as objections to said criterion.
First, however, I should provide some background. TNSK is a school run on democratic principles. The vast majority of decisions about the school and its governance (including such things as what classes are offered, the annual budget and the hiring of teachers) are made by students, teachers, parents, alumni (and alumni parents), members of the school's "Leadership Team" (on which I served from Spring of 2008 to August 2011), members of the Board of Directors of The New School Corporation (on which I served from Spring of 2009 to August 2011), and general members of The New School Corporation (i.e. anyone who has donated more than a dollar to the school). The majority of decisions made in the school (save for those made by the Board of Directors of the Corporation) are voted on or at least ratified using a voting system called "Fist to Five," a modified form of consensus voting.
When voting, a person can raise between one and five fingers or a fist. The one to five fingers represent the voter's amenability to the proposal, with five being particularly gung-ho and one being reluctant in the utmost, likely with several pressing concerns or objections. However, all votes except for a fist are forms of "yea", with the fist being the only true consensus-breaker. Although usually a proposal will be modified or, in some cases, dismissed because of low votes, the throwing of a fist by any single member of the voting body
is the only action that technically and absolutely bars the proposal from passing per se
Now, let's examine some objections to Scanlon. The first is not so much an immediate objection, but, rather, a question: What counts as a reasonable objection? Scanlon clarifies this a bit via several qualifiers. First, Scanlon deems it unreasonable to object to an act solely because it imposes a burden on yourself, whereas other acts would pose a greater burden on others. For example, suppose that I was a part of some club of five people which was going to increase its membership costs by four dollars. It would not be reasonable for me to object to this because I would be charged four dollars and to then offer an alternative in which everyone but me gets charged five dollars. Scanlon also says that reasons must be personal, not impersonal. As an example, an unreasonable objection to the paving over of a park would be that it "destroys the beauty of the city", whereas a reasonable objection might be "I would no longer have somewhere in which to play frisbee."
How did TNSK handle this? When I first started attending the school, there was no "reasonableness" criterion or criteria that had been established, at least to my knowledge [Edit: I was informed by a former classmate of mine that this was not, in fact, the case, and that displaying a fist has always required at least a moral objection to a proposal. However, I have left this section intact, for the sake of completeness]
. One could fist a proposal at will. Naturally, it would seem as though this is problematic, as anyone could hold up the entire governmental process for petty or even nonexistent reasons (although I can't recall an instance of this ever occurring). At some point, it was decreed (by the principal, not through democratic process) that, to put up a fist, one must have "moral objections" to a given proposal. This seemed problematic on several levels. Firstly, to require moral objections without specifying a system of morality is useless; one could easily say that their moral system was a kind of hedonistic solipsism that required they not do anything they didn't care to do. On the flip side, I was at the time and still am an error theorist
, which presumably left me with no right to object to anything whatsoever. Moreover, it wouldn't appear that one has to have a moral objection to very, very strongly refuse to accept or endorse a policy, or indeed for a policy to be worth objecting to. For example, let's say that there was a proposal to remove the roof from the school: although I may not have any moral qualms about this, it still seems like I should be able to object to this course of action and stop the proposal from going through. The final requirement of which I am aware (and which was also added without any democratic process) was that any person who fisted a proposal would have to come back later with an alternative proposal. I think this is very clearly fallacious, being tantamount to saying "Well, do you have any better ideas?" Simply because I am unable to think of a better proposal does not mean that I de facto
lose my right to object to a proposal. Again, an example: Suppose the school is facing a large deficit, and suppose also that I have no knowledge of fundraising or how to handle finances. I would still seem to be within my rights to object to a proposal that all the teachers be fired, despite not having any alternative proposal for alleviating the school's financial troubles.
The second objection to Scanlon I'd like to present is that of aggregation. Scanlon's contractualism is fantastic in that it helps us avoid scenarios in which we might consider allowing one or few to suffer greatly against their will to bring an even greater amount of happiness or benefit to others (for example: gladiatorial games). Consider the following, however: Suppose that there are two groups of drowning people. One group contains five people, the other group is comprised of a single man. There is a ship that can save either one group or the other, but not both, as a group will have to drown during the time it will take to save the opposite group. In this case, it seems that the lone man has very strong grounds on which to object to the captain of the boat saving the group of five, seeing as he would die. However, each of the group of five has the same claim. In this case would could say that the needs of the many (the group of five) outweighs the needs of the few (the man), but doing so would severely undermine the contractualist system that we've established. The same can easily be applied to TNSK: Suppose that there are five seniors, all of whom need a half-credit of math to graduate. Suppose also that the math teacher is already teaching seven classes, far more than is normally expected of a teacher. It would seem that all five students can reasonably object to a suitable math class not being offered for them (i.e. could fist a proposal that did not include a senior-level math class). However, the teacher also seems to have the reasonable objection that teaching an eighth class would present too much of a burden (and therefore could fist any proposal that did
include the additional senior-level math class). I remember clearly an example of this occurring some time during the first few years I went to TNSK. The school had been presented with an American flag by the Daughters of the American Revolution (if I remember correctly). There was a proposal made for us to purchase or otherwise obtain a flagpole and fly the American flag on it. One or two students, citing aversions to U.S. foreign and domestic policy as well as nationalism and patriotism in general, threw up a fist for the proposal. As facilitator for one of the many meetings we had on the subject, I asked for a fist-to-five vote on the proposal of not
displaying the flag we had been given, a proposal which a greater number of people fisted. Both this issue and that of what constitutes a reasonable objection pose a grave threat to the voting system employed by TNSK and, I would argue, to consensus-based voting systems in general.
As a final thought: If you're a current member of the TNSK community (or of any other democratic school that uses consensus voting) that found the above to be concerning (or even simply a matter worthy of discussion and contemplation), be you student, parent or teacher, I deeply
encourage you to bring up your feelings at your next student meeting, committee meeting, all-school meeting, or meeting of the corporation. Frank conversation regarding the tenets and foundations of governance at the school can only lead to a better and more open system. Of course, if you found this post enlightening, please check back regularly, as I plan on making this the first in a series of pieces examining TNSK's governmental structure, philosophical underpinnings, et cetera