Understanding Philosophy in the Real World: Brexit

My second semester of teaching philosophy 101 I had that student; the one that every teacher dreads. You know, the one that sits there all class with a scowl on her face and only opens her mouth to say “What’s the point? Why are we even doing this?”.  Next to math teachers, philosophy teachers probably have to deal with this the most. When handled incorrectly, this type of student can pollute the whole atmosphere of the class making the entire semester difficult. There are a variety of ways to handle such students. 

My response was to take her concerns seriously. If she couldn’t see the value and importance of what I was teaching, at least a quarter of the students were probably thinking the same thing. [That figure comes from extensively polling my intuitions]. From that point forward I promised myself that I’d begin each lesson with a real world issue where the philosophical concept of the day played a pivotal role. If I couldn’t show that the concept has real-world applicability and importance, I’d take it out of the syllabus. And that’s what I’ve done ever since. (Bye-bye Gettier epicycles…)

From teaching this way I’ve learned that philosophy is all around us in every aspect of our lives–even more than even I had imagined. You can’t see what you aren’t looking for. But if you grow accustomed to looking, you’ll be astounded with how embedded in philosophy our lives are.

With all that in mind I want to take the whole Brexit debacle as an opportunity to explore three closely related topics in political philosophy: (a) representative vs direct democracy, (b) idealization, and (c) voting rules. My aim is to show how philosophical decisions shape political events. 

(Here’s an excellent companion article by political philosophers).

Representative vs Direct Democracy

Pre-theoretically, most of us think of democracy as meaning something akin to self-rule. We, the people, are sovereign and so the rules that govern society (us) come from us, not from some external power. We (the governed) vote on the nature and content of the rules, policies, and institutions that we want to be governed by. In short, we self-legislate. 

Ok, so we self-legislate. How do we do that? Does each citizen need to vote every time a new law or policy is proposed?  Direct democracy is the idea that citizens vote directly on policy.  This may, at first blush, seem like a good idea. If I’m going to be governed by a law or bear the consequences of a policy, I want to have a say in it. In small organizations this kind of process makes sense. However, as an organization’s size grows from team or village-size to that of a modern nation-state, direct democracy will be hugely impractical for a variety of reasons. 

First, in a large political community the amount of time each citizen would have to spend voting on a daily basis would significantly undermine their ability to go about their work day. And it’s not just time spent voting. We might hope that citizens spend time familiarizing themselves with the relevant arguments and data associated with each issue. This again in hugely impractical given the breadth and depth of knowledge required to know everything about everything. If we want voters to be informed voters, not only would citizens need to set aside time each day to vote but they also have to set time aside to DO THEY’RE REESURCH!!!!11!!!. 

Besides, anyone who has spent more that 5 seconds in the comments section of the internet can tell you that what many people think is doing research is in fact a massive exercise in motivated reasoning. I find reading the comments section of most online articles to be the best possible argument against direct democracy. 

This leads us to the idea of representative gubbamint. Instead of each citizen giving up most of their day voting and doing research, they can pick someone who knows their interests and can represent them in gubbamint. This is what’s meant by representative government: citizens select representatives from their respective communities that are familiar with their interests.  Enter the politician. 

Brexit and Representative Democracy

Here’s the dealy-yo. It’s very doubtful that any political arrangement will be perfect (excluding putting philosophers in charge of everything). There will always be trade-offs. With representative democracy we overcome many of the shortcomings of direct democracy (I’ll discuss more of them in the next section). But we create new problems. 

First, since each citizen doesn’t actually vote on policy, the representative has to interpret what his constituency would have voted for. There are many ways interpretation can go wrong. And this doesn’t even include some subgroups’ disproportionate influence or that the representative can be constrained by party politics (which of course, they always are to various degrees). 

Another major problem with interpretation is that people can be mistaken about what’s in their own best interest. As a representative, do you vote according to what they actually say they want (even though it ultimately undermines their interests) or do you vote according to what a reasonable expert thinks would best advance their interests? I’ll deal with this problem in detail in the idealization section below.

The next major problem takes a bit of background explanation. The whole point of democracy is self-rule. Ideally, the rules that govern us are represent our own will. Otherwise, to various degrees we are being coerced by what feels like (or is) an alien power. And nobody likes being told to follow rules they don’t agree with.  

As a political community grows in size and complexity each sub-community has proportionately less influence over the rules by which they will be governed. This is just a fact about numbers. If your community represents only 3% of the population then your political weight in terms of shaping policy is quite small. 

Add to the numbers phenomena the fact that the diversity of values also increases as political communities expand. In a small political community there are more personal interactions and shared ways of living. It follows that fundamental values will tend to be relatively homogenous and so political disagreement over fundamental values is less likely. As political communities expand however, the likelihood of disagreement over fundamental values increases. Pair this fact with a sub-community’s diminished political power to shape the laws and policies by which it is governed and you have a great recipe for political alienation. 

These concepts give us a helpful lens through which to understand the “take our country back” sentiment in Brexit (and “Make America Great Again” in US of A). The people who voted for Bexit don’t feel as though they have any say in the laws and policies that govern them and that those laws are (perceived to be) inconsistent with their own values and beliefs. And, they are right. If democracy is conceived of as self-rule, their communities have very little influence over the policy according to which they are governed. Second, they don’t recognize as their own the perceived values according to which they are governed (set by EU policy). 

This is not meant as a defense of Brexit supporters, only an explanation. That said, let me point out that the above reasons for resisting yet another level of gubbamint and for favoring local levels are probabilistic. There’s no logical contradiction between a local government, tyranny, and despotism. 

Furthermore, there are reasons to think that the same people who voted for Brexit voted against their own interests. (Aside from the philosophical ones discussed below, here are some empirical ones from a libertarian blog which one would expect to be against centralization).

Let me explain:


A naive view of people and politics suggests that people always know what’s best for them. But this is obviously false. Such a view assumes perfect information and perfect reasoning. A mere moments reflection on one’s own past or a perusal of the comments section of a vaccine article reveals that we can very often be mistaken about our own good. Thus, it looks like we have the makings of a dilemma: People make mistakes about their own good which implies that if we want to avoid bad policy experts ought to decide policy but at the same time democracy requires that citizens have a role in forming policy. We want to avoid coercing people–even if it’s for their own good. 

Deriving solutions to this dilemma is the meat and potatoes of political philosophy. One of the more popular methods is to suggest some degree of cognitive idealization. Let me explain: we know that real people have false beliefs and make bad inferences. That’s how they end up having false beliefs about what policy would actually best advance their interests. Proponents of idealization suggest that policy reflect what people would want if we (to varying degrees) idealized away their false beliefs and bad inferences. In other words, policy should be what people would want if they were rational and didn’t have false beliefs. 

Let me illustrate. I’ve decided that you are in charge of me but you can only apply rules to me that I consent to. I walk into a donut shop and I see all the delicious donuts. I want to order 3 donuts. I believe that I want to order and eat 3 donuts. It turns out that eating 3 donuts would actually be inconsistent with what I truly value: the maintenance of my health and washboard abs. 

You know this but the overwhelming olfactory and visual stimulation has overwhelmed by brain. I have false beliefs about what’s good for me. On a view of democracy where policy is set by people’s actual desires and beliefs, you must buy me the donuts. It’s what I actually want despite the fact that eating 3 donuts would be contrary to my core values (get it?) and interests. 

An idealization view, on the other hand, wouldn’t give me the donuts. The idealization view idealizes away my false beliefs and bad inferences (“I’m going to feel so good if I eat those 3 donuts”, “I’d be really happy if I ate all these donuts”). My belief that I want to eat 3 donuts is actually inconsistent with my more fundamental values (health and abs). Thus, if you prevented me from eating all three, it would not be contrary to democratic values. You wouldn’t be coercing me because the policy you are imposing on me is actually consistent with my own values if I just thought about it a bit more. I am still self-legislating. You’re just correcting for the vicissitudes of my passions. 

Within the literature there is dispute over just how much idealization we should do. If we idealize too much then the resulting policies won’t be recognizable to the imperfect people they end up governing. Thus, although consistent with their interests, they will be perceived as coercion by an alien power. 

Others advocate some version of moderate idealization. Kevin Vallier suggests we idealize only in so far as actual people can recognize their own core values and beliefs in the resulting policy. The criticism of this view is that we still sometimes get people voting for bad policy if they have bad/false core beliefs or racist/zenophobic/homophobic values. 

Idealization and Brexit

Idealization gives us another lens through which to understand the Brexit vote. The vote was a referendum; i.e., direct democracy. In other words, there was no opportunity to correct (if need be) people’s votes with idealization. If it turns out that it would actually be in most Brits’ actual interest to stay in the EU, too bad. There’s no way for a representative to correct for the error. 

The fact of the matter is that even most (all?) experts aren’t clear on what the consequences of Brexit will be and so it’s hardly likely that people in the general public made this judgment in an informed way.  Really, the vote was a “feel-off”. Votes were more likely the result of raw emotion than any kind of informed deliberation over trade offs between values and likely consequences. 

If we take the reports in the media seriously,  there now seems to be growing buyers remorse among some of the no-vote contingent. The immediate adverse effect on the British economy (and people’s pension funds) is making people seriously reconsider whether they voted on good information and whether their “no” vote was actually consistent with their core values, desires, and interests. 

Voting Rules

The quick about-face points to another issue in political philosophy: Voting rules. For many political issues, timing is everything. Poll people at two different points in time–even days apart–and you can get very different results. For example, if you’d polled Americans pre-9-11 about extending executive powers, the overwhelming majority would have said no. Just a few days after 9-11, many saw no problem with it. Now, it’s being called into question again. 

This points to the idea that for major national-level decisions, you want some kind of voting rule in place that ensures the will of the people is stable and not the product of short-term current events. The Brexit referendum used a one-time majority rule vote. That doesn’t do much to hedge against the vicissitudes of the unwashed masses. 

Consider also, about 70% of the country turned out to vote, just over half of which voted “no”. That means about 35% of the population determined the fate of the remaining 65%. In the US constitutional reforms require 2/3 majority in both legislative houses (read: representative democracy/idealization). The higher bar ensures the changes reflect the publics’ stable attitudes. The one-time majoritarian referendum does not. 


There are legitimate concerns with representative democracy in diverse large political communities. One’s proportionate influence over policy diminishes and one must coexist within a greater diversity of values. When people lose the ability to shape the policy and institutions by which they are governed–even if it’s in their own long-term interest–they push back. No one likes to be told how to live by a perceived-to-be alien power. It’s not unreasonable to believe that as we add layers of government, institutions become less representative of local interests and values. Autonomy is undermined. Of course, these are probabilistic assumptions and the ultimate truth will vary across actual cases.

It’s logically possible to believe both that all of the reasons for voting for Brexit are valid and still maintain that it is in the British public’s own interest to stay (on balance). In fact, at least some observers suggest that there will be less rather than more overall autonomy with BrexitAt the end of the day, we’ll have to see how it plays out. 

My own tentative view is that the world of nationalist isolated nation-states has had its chance. A casual look back at history tells us that what Europeans gain with the EU is so much greater than what they lose. I submit that Brexiters are confusing relative costs for absolute costs. They see the costs of the current state of affairs on their self-determination. And they are without a doubt right. But these cost are being considered as absolute costs. In fact, the costs must be weighted relative to the alternatives. And as I’ve already mentioned, we needn’t look too far into history to see the costs of a nationalist Europe. 

Finally, we should ask what Brexiters are trying to achieve. What is their metric of success? How will they know if it was a good decision? None of this is really clear beyond a greater sense of self-determination even if on the whole they end up worse off. If so, we can make sense of the Brexit vote through the eyes of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man:

I would not be at all surprised, for instance, if suddenly and without the slightest possible reason a gentleman of an ignoble or rather reactionary and sardonic countenance were to arise amid all that future reign of universal common sense and, gripping his sides firmly with his hands, were to say to us all, “Well, gentlemen, what about giving this common sense a mighty kick and letting it scatter in the dust before our feet simply to send all those logarithms to the devil so that we can again live according to our foolish will?”  

Man has always and everywhere–whoever he may be–preferred to do as he chose, and not in the least as his reason or advantage dictated; and one may choose to do something even if it is against on’s own advantage, and sometimes one positively should. One’s own free and unfettered choice, one’s own whims, however wild, one’s own fancy, overwrought thou it sometimes may be to the point of madness [. . .]

All man wants is an absolutely free choice, however dear that freedom may cost him and wherever it may lead him to…  

4 thoughts on “Understanding Philosophy in the Real World: Brexit

  1. Thanks, Ami. I've been wondering, what are my interests? It seems writers usually have my economic interests in mind, maybe my health or happiness or freedom to pursue my goals, etc. I think that doesn't capture all the significant motivations for many people. I'm thinking of interests like preserving (or restoring) the moral character of society. Submitting to God's will. Suffering for the sake of the gospel in a world that is not my own.For example, pro-life advocates accept that comprehensive sex ed and access to contraceptives dramatically reduce abortions (what is nominally \”in their best interest\”). But because it tacitly accepts that teens will have sex before marriage, many still promote abstinence-only programs, knowing this will result in more abortions (and no reduction in teen sex, either, but that, too, is not the ultimate \”interest\”).Back to Brexit, I think the surface interests (jobs, economy, leverage, etc.) may often be subordinate to unconscious interests (cultural purity, following a strong authoritarian leader, clear and certain (even if false) answers, etc.).


  2. Hi Tim, In figuring out our interests it's less likely that we're mistaken about our core interests than we are with our instrumental and peripheral interests. In other words, most of us have a pretty good grasp on our core values but for a variety of reasons we can err in terms of the policies and laws that best achieve those core interests. Of course, in the article I'm generalizing. There's good empirical research showing vast differences between voters in terms of how informed they are. Unfortunately, those who are least informed are in the Dunning-Kruger zone and their vote counts just as much as the informed voter! Here's from an article I linked to (philosophers on Brexit): once we control for demographics, low-information and high-information voters have systematically different policy preferences. For instance, low-information voters favor protectionism and oppose immigration, while high-information voters favor free trade and reduced restrictions on immigration.And you are right to point out that it's not fair to suppose the only interests people have are economic. I agree with your assessment that the economic reasons are probably playing second fiddle to other unconscious (or unstated) interests.


  3. Ami, thanks for the prompt to read through that article. Not done with it yet but it's thought provoking! My thoughts are aimed less at the (high- or low-info) individuals making choices, and more at those who comment on (or draft statements to appeal to) them. I often hear something like \”those dolts are voting against their own interests!\” My fear is that if we don't make an effort to tackle the underlying value differences — in addition to economic concerns — we'll have little luck getting low-info voters to trust, or even take notice of, the info that is available.


  4. Hey, Ami!I do My Research for Voting / Election Time. I might not like Politics or really care for it, but, I do care about who Our Leaders are going to be. So, as small as my research is, I'm prepared when it comes to Voting / Election Time.I don't understand what Brexit is all about, but, it did make me sad, when I saw The News Media about it. I think in part that if you are going to Vote, always make sure you know what you are doing. Don't Vote, out of curiousity or frivolious thinking. Voting affects millions of People across The World Globe. It affects Our Lives.Having said that, I know that Britain was good when they were an independent Country, as History states. I have Faith that they will use their newly acquired independence for good, again. At least, we can hope. Time will tell.Choices. Yes. We have The Freedom to Make Choices. But, always remember with that Freedom, comes The Consequences of those choices. If we are Mature Adults who make choices, also remember to be responsible for the consequences that come with Your Choices.Hoping both Otis & You are doing well. We miss and love you!Always,Cathbodua59 (Anthony & Arlene) 🙂


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