There are quite a few words from the language of morality in current use, such as 'promise', 'pledge', and 'vow'. In the past all of them would have indicated a solemn commitment, and would not have been made if there were impossible impediments in the way of fulfilment. But now they are used quite lightly and carry no assurance of fulfilment, even if backed up by other colourful expressions dripping with sincerity, such as 'dying in ditches'.
Gordon Brown's favourite was 'vow', but surely he wasn't so deluded as to think he was in a position to bring about what he vowed. I suppose he spoke of his 'vow' because 'I would really quite like it if…' hasn't got the same ring to it as 'vow'. In any case 'vow' is much shorter and snappier for a tabloid headline. Manifestos are an especial problem. They are drawn up to please the faithful and perhaps to attract the wavering so they usually involve commitments to huge amounts of spending which are not likely to be available. It would be more honest (what?) to say that these are aspirations, or indicate a direction of travel. But we do not like uncertainty.
There is currently an interesting version of all this, and it concerns the meaning of 'democracy'. I was privileged to attend a debate a few weeks ago in Glasgow University Union in memory of Charles Kennedy. The motion was something like: This House holds that Scotland should support Brexit
. Not a motion likely to be carried in that venue. Anyway, one of the speakers argued that there had been a democratic vote in favour of leaving the EU and that you cannot mess with that. In other words, even if the post-Brexit situation is worse in every way than it was before the vote that is something to be managed. You cannot modify, soften or dilute a democratic vote. Call it 'crashing out' if you will but that is what democracy requires. This is an interesting position, but it seems to me to be elevating democracy to the status of an absolute value.
When I was a tutor in moral philosophy in the long ago, students never tired of telling me that there were no absolute values, that morality was just a matter of opinion. Indeed, the more learned students who had read some Nietzsche told me that God is dead so everything is allowed. I would ask them: If everything is allowed does that mean it is okay if I nick your wallet or if someone molests your girlfriend? No, it didn't mean that. What came out of it all was not a return to absolute values but a view that some kinds of conduct are wrong because they harm others or they break faith. And it was usually agreed that sometimes there could be problems if two things that were right conflicted with each other so you had to make decisions that not everyone would agree with.
Now I am not going to get into the much more that needs to be said here, but perhaps enough has been said as background to the question of the moral status of a democratically-reached majority. Democracy is certainly a moral value but is it an absolute value? It is often said, but worth repeating, that Hitler was democratically elected with a much greater majority than there was for Brexit. J S Mill in his essay On Liberty
speaks of 'the tyranny of majority opinion'. If democracy can be a tyranny, it can hardly be an absolute value. I suggest that the value of democracy should be weighed against other values, such as ensuring workers' rights, having safe food, environmental standards, and keeping the peace among quarrelsome nations.
There is another point. It might be said that what is at stake in the current situation is not just democracy but a commitment to obey the outcome of a democratic vote. But that is contentious. There was a view at the time that the vote was advisory, a view which is consistent with a representative rather than a direct democracy. But that view has since disappeared in the shouting which has followed. And even if we agree that it was a 'commitment', has it to be taken more seriously than the 'commitments' of manifestoes? Perhaps, but there is yet another issue: what counts as a democratic vote?
There must surely be more to it than putting a cross on a ballot paper. An analogy might help here. I am currently on the (long) waiting list for a cataract operation. I have received a preliminary examination in hospital to ensure I am an appropriate patient. But I have also been required to sign a document which lists all the many things that could go wrong. In other words, consent for a serious medical procedure requires information as well as agreement. Without an understanding of the relevant information agreement does not count as consent. Is there an analogy here with democratic voting? Far from being warned of the dangers, we were told that leaving the EU would be the easiest thing. We could have the benefits of the Club without being members.
It is sometimes maintained that to take this line is to suggest that many Leavers were too stupid to understand the disadvantages of leaving. No, it doesn't (although listening to some interviews with random members of the public suggests to me that some were). All it does is to suggest we were not adequately informed so could not give a valid consent. E M Forster entitled a collection of essays Two Cheers for Democracy
. Granted the system of voting we have I think two cheers are generous.