Theories about the duty of politicians are important because they affect the lives of citizens. Upper House Member Tania Rattray said she voted against same-sex marriage becausemost Tasmanians did not support it (even though, as was pointed out, they might not oppose it). In doing so she is treating public opinion as a moral value in itself.

This is a view of political duty the great conservative philosopher Edmund Burke rejected in strong terms, describing it as a ‘betrayal’ of constituents. In an earlier paper I argued in support of Burke’s view that elected members should form and act on their own judgment and conscience. I argued that this should also apply in a modern party system.

The paper began by noting a possible source of confusion: democracy tells us that the majority havea better right to make the rules than anyone else, and in modern systems representatives of the majority have this right. Whether the rules they make are moral or just or wise or foolish is another matter, to be argued from community values. I wanted to emphasise that, despite Rattray, majority opinion has nothing to do with morality.

Comments on the paper suggest a need to clarify the meaning of ‘community values’, and to explain how this idea relates to Burke’s concern that elected members act on their own judgment and conscience, rather than popular opinion. Dr. Bonham highlights the problem; what follows is a brief sketch of the kind of explanation I believe any full defence of Burke would require.

It begins with a claim that a simple, descriptive account of a moral practice must give a central place to the values participants appeal to when they argue the merit of its laws, customs, political institutions etc. Hobbes argued that certain shared values – prohibitions against violence, theft and deception – were necessary for any form of social life; we now have a richer, more complex psychology of human nature, and ‘individualist’ values such as human dignity play a more prominent role.

However that may be, if there are no shared values, moral argument must be irrational; like arguing in different languages. It will also be offensive. But if there are such values, participants will dispute their meaning and requirement in concrete cases, as well as their importance in relation to other values they consider relevant; it will now make sense to ask if a given opinion, however popular or authoritative or in line with a conventional wisdom, is what ‘community’ values really require. One might contrast this with a more primitive society in which social cohesion rests on taboos.

This feature makes the term ‘values’ highly ambiguous and is one reason why the phrase ‘community values’ will often be suspect – a piece of rhetoric. Confusion arises from the fact that ‘values’ is used indiscriminately to describe community ideals such as fairness, freedom, wellbeing, integrity, dignity, honesty, compassion etc., as well as widely accepted interpretations of what these abstract values mean. In the latter sense one might speak of the Southern States prior to the American Civil War as having values condoning slavery.

But when ‘values’ is used in this ‘sociological’ sense, no one thinks it prevents anyone, including citizens of these states, from condemning the practice of slavery as contrary to the abstract values of fairness in point. Indeed, anyone who claims to argue from a moral position reserves this right to go back to first principles, because there is no other way to distinguish moral values from a consensus of opinion on moral issues, and everyone agrees that such a consensus may be wrong. We express this by saying that the values of Southern States, because they embrace slavery, are wrong.

This is why I agree with Dr. Bonham that Burke rejects ‘community values’ in this descriptive, that is to say non-committed and non-judgmental, sense. But it means critics of Burke must give up this reading in favour of one which makes some sense of his advice to act on conscience. The advice makes sense if one interpretation of such values is better than others; in which case politicians have a duty to search for and defend it.

This point calls for some elaboration because it is so often, as here, ignored. People participate in moral and political argument because they see it as an important practice, affecting all citizens; they assume others share this attitude, however much opinions may differ. It would be impossible to defend this if they thought, as some philosophers assert, that moral argument is just a more civilized version of dogs barking over a bone.

The assumption, rather, is that we have values in common, but differ over how they apply in particular cases. At a certain level of abstraction we all agree – no one denies the importance of fairness and justice, human wellbeing, freedom, honesty etc. But we argue over their importance, and in politics especially over fairness and freedom as competing values – in many political systems this issue will tend to define the major parties.

We argue over what these familiar values require – whether one form of democracy is fairer, or an official response to racial discrimination is justified, or whether our ideals of freedom and human dignity call for more or different programs to counter ignorance and poverty. We argue over both the weight and the point of values we hold in common.

None of this makes sense unless participants share a belief – even if its truth is widely disputed – that one interpretation is, in the end, superior; just as litigants in court believe one interpretation of relevant legal principles is more defensible – each thinks it is the interpretation which supports his case. (It is because all lawyers share this view that no-one thinks judges should toss a coin when there is no clear answer).

Critics who find it easy to dismiss Burke ignore this logic of moral argument; they seem not to realise how much their own contributions to public debate depend on it. This leads them to misread Burke when he talks about acting ‘on conscience’; they suppose he wants politicians to pray or meditate or consult a priest or guru or a lecturer in moral philosophy. He means nothing of the sort; he means them to form and act on their own judgment, not delegate the task to others.

By contrast, Rattray assumes her duty is to do what constituents want. They may, on reflection, want her to use her talents to serve their interests as well as respect the values they share, both tasks which require her to form and act on her own judgment. This is the core idea in Burke’s theory of political responsibility.

It may help to clarify this feature if we consider the implications of a practice once rare but now common among civilized nations; this is the formal apology by governments for an abuse of rights by past officials, even if it was decades ago and those responsible acted in good faith at the time.

Premier Lara Giddings has recently apologised to the victims and families of forced adoptions. She did not see herself as citing ‘today’s’ values to judge policies and attitudes which were justified by the values of yesterday; she was affirming that forced adoptions were always wrong, even if welfare authorities and churches (and perhaps the public) then had a different view.

Confusion on this matter was rife during the debates over the apology for the ‘stolen children’, much of it arising from a failure to distinguish an excuse from a justification. John Howard’s inability to see the difference is one reason why he rejected the proposal, and did not attend the apology as a former Prime Minister.

It is this feature – the right of citizens to question the morality as well as wisdom of conventional opinion – which underlies the claim that private conscience is the ultimate safeguard of public values, and justifies the priority Burke gives it. While I question his views on social justice, democracy and conservatism as a political principle (much of it a reaction to the excesses of the revolution in France) I believe he did get this right, and that it is incompatible with the present doctrine of party unity.

I would add that my own reading of Burke supports much of what Dr.Bonham says about him. I must also agree with Kev Rothery that Andrew Wilkie’s achievements as an independent are remarkable; they confirm the value of Burke’s theory of political duty as a model for all elected members, not just independents.

Turning to the comments, it is clear the term ‘acting on conscience’ is a source of confusion because of its religious, spiritual and psychological overtones, and because ‘conscience votes’ are traditionally reserved for matters about which people have deeply personal and religious convictions. It is clear, however, that Burke meant only that politicians act on a conscientious (honest, informed and personal) judgment.

On this reading Dr. Bonham is closer to Burke than he thinks. I have no doubt Burke would exclude ‘politics’ – strategies and tactics to win elections – as irrelevant in judging the merit of legislative proposals (this is clear from his speech at the end of his term for Bristol and may explain why, despite huge parliamentary talents, no one would give him a Ministry). Burke clearly excludes community values in the second, ‘sociological’ sense discussed. So these exclusions do not, as Dr Bonham asserts, ‘trump the judgment and conscience stuff’, they exemplify it.

Kev Rothery raises interesting questions, including the difficult issue of compulsory voting, but I would comment on only one matter: although I share his belief in the basic goodness of people, this cannot support Rattray’s deference to public opinion because the opinions of good people are also affected by ignorance and prejudice. This was clear in the early stages of homosexual law reform, when public opinion was prejudicial.

John Biggs reminds us that ‘thirty five out of our 40 politicians didn’t count heads or take any notice whatsoever of the large majority of Tasmanians who were opposed to fast tracking the pulp mill.’ The implication is they should have counted heads – in which case we must reject Burke. I don’t think so. Burke cannot criticise them for failing to act on a majority view, but he might do so for ignoring the environmental values this view is based on. Otherwise we have no answer if the case is reversed and politicians must try to protect old-growth forests, or pelagic fish stocks, from a public opinion bent on exploitation.

TGC made a plea to keep things simple, and should not be discouraged if his own efforts did not succeed. The issue can be simply stated: if politicians believe they should do what most people want, what happens if they want what politicians know will harm the community,or is contrary to values the community wish to live by, and which they share?

Burke saw himself as a simple, practical man not a ‘dabbler in abstractions’. He was given to citing Prudence as a guiding principle and was widely seen as a brilliant pragmatist. This may explain why no one has put a simpler theory than his injunction to judge policies on their merits. Perhaps he understood intuitively that there is no other way to respect community values in the first (and only relevant) sense discussed above. But while the duty can be put in simple terms, to explain and defend it is another matter; it raises questions about the nature of moral argument which continue to engage professional philosophers and perplex ordinary people.

Whether, as John Hayward says, politicians ‘overwhelmingly act on self-interest’ is a matter of opinion and we should try, even when provoked beyond measure, to avoid projection. I see no compelling evidence that they are, as a group, less conscientious than the rest of the community, including those of us who contribute to blogs.

In which case it is reasonable to suggest that standards may improve if we clarify the duty they owe the public, and ensure it is more compatible with values we hold in common.