The problem with ‘the will of the people’

What is ‘the will of the people’? Does it actually exist in any meaningful sense? This phrase has been much used in recent weeks and months to refer to not only the result of the 2016 EU referendum, but more significantly to the perceived lack of resultant parliamentary action. This failure to ‘deliver Brexit’ is being interpreted by some people as a rejection of the supposed ‘will of the people’, and, as a consequence (and of great concern to many) as an excuse to turn on ‘the establishment’. I want to suggest that this phrase is at best a gross simplification of an incredibly complex process, a convenient metaphor that blinds us to what actually needs to happen to resolve our constitution crisis, but in reality is a phrase devoid of any useful meaning.

What do we mean by ‘will’? Traditionally the will has been understood to be a psychological faculty responsible for acts of volition, that aspect of the human mind which makes decisions and initiates motion or action. Let’s put to one side any discussion of the actual psychological processes that take place in the human brain / mind and accept that decisions are made and actions are initiated, and that we refer to this process as ‘the will’. There are two very important aspects of this process that get ignored when scaled up to a supposed aggregated ‘will of the people’: that ‘will’ is a psychological process that requires a mind, an actual brain; and that this act isn’t complete once a decision has bee made, but continues, and is modified, throughout the process of enactment.

A decision to do something requires a brain / mind, an entity that ‘the people’ as a body of people do not possess. There only exist individual minds. When a mind makes a decision it does so either out of habit, because that is what it usually decides to do in a given situation so why waste valuable mental energy contemplating alternatives, or (as I would hope happened when asked to caste a vote in the referendum) the various alternatives are contemplated, all the various arguments are weighed, and a decision is reached. When this decision is finally reached, and action (voting) takes place the complexity of the internal psychological debate is reduced down to a simple decision. The problem comes when an attempt is made to aggregate these simple decisions into a one off collective decision. When an individual mind makes a decision it tends to rationalise the process that brought it about and, in effect, bring all the dissenting aspects of the thought process into line. It constructs an internal narrative that makes sense, and gives meaning to the decision. As ‘the people’ do not have a collective mind, this process cannot occur. The dissenting voices remain. The supposed ‘will of the people’ remains, at best, an aggregate decision of 52% of those people who voted. It ignores the 48% who voted ‘remain’, those who did not vote, and those who were too young to vote.

There is, however, an even more important aspect to this attempted aggregation of individual wills into a collective ‘will of the people’ that is ignored. In most situations, for individual minds, making a decision to act is only the start of the process. To make this decision meaningful it needs to result in action. But when we attempt to enact a decision we often come face to face with reality. We often find that what we thought was a straight forward desire to bring something about, say, for example, to learn to play the piano or learn a foreign language, in reality proves to be far from straight forward. We may find that learning the finger movements required for the piano or grasping the grammar of a particular language either too difficult, or (more often), requires more time devoted to it than we have available. As a consequence of this experience we modify our original decision; we either choose a different instrument or language, chose a different course of action to fill our perceived need, or we abandon the project all together. Whatever the outcome of the mental process, it will result in our amending our original narrative (that made sense of our original decision) such that the whole process now make sense and our subsequent changes of mind, brought about by the discovery of the reality of the situation, are coherent. This is totally normal. We do it all the time. Decision making is an ongoing, and often highly complex process. But it can only happen in individual mind, not in the mind of the ‘will of the people’ which, after all, does not exist!

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