Richard Cooke, writing in the June edition of The Monthly ( The People v the Political Class, here ), condemns politicians for ignoring public opinion. His thoughtful and informative essay on the causes of the present discontent looks to the demise of two-party politics to restore substance to democratic ideals; but is there any basis for this optimism other than that it might restore integrity to political debate by challenging doctrines of party unity? His account of the problem, persuasive as it is, arguably ends just where serious debate begins.

The failure by most parties to distinguish issues of principle from ordinary, everyday matters of party policy – where unity is justified – means most politicians give up the responsibility to make conscientious judgments of controversial issues; instead they defer to party opinion, a form of moral self-subordination which is difficult to defend. Hence the apology, where Liberal views changed as soon as John Howard was replaced; no less egregious was the refusal by members of major parties to examine the evidence said to justify the Iraq War.

This misplaced loyalty conditions members to defer to party leaders – themselves vulnerable to hubris, focus groups and media advisers – and ignore their duty to the public, the source of their salaries and offices. It muddies both legal and moral issues because what counts is whose opinion prevails not which policy is right; it helps explain a prevailing ignorance of the precise reasons cited by Howard for refusing an apology and for going to war, as well as widespread acceptance of his bizarre claim that solicitor-client privilege justified withholding legal advice on the war.

But if who wins is more important than who should win, and party unity more important than acting in conscience on an informed judgment, no one should be surprised at the loss of trust and the debasement of public debate when members are forced to dissemble because their personal opinion, if they have formed one, cannot be reconciled with party policy.

By contrast, Edmund Burke’s theory of political duty insists members are representatives, not delegates – their duty is to serve the interests of constituents not do their bidding. This means acting on a conscientious judgment of what best serves these interests, not deferring to the opinions of electors, or indeed anyone else. The challenge Burke poses to contemporary politics is how far this theory of a non-delegable duty can be ignored in a modern party system.

Although Cooke cites Burke with approval, his assertion that the theory meant candidates ‘reflected the wishes of their constituents’ misreads the passage he cites from the famous Bristol speech. Perhaps this is why he misses what is intuitive but arguably of unique importance in Burke’s political philosophy – his sense that acting in good conscience is, in the end, the only way to take community values seriously.

But the problem goes deeper: the description of this theory as a ‘sentiment’ shows the inadequacy of a sociological approach to problems of political philosophy, including the duty of elected members. Theories of duty may well reflect sentiments but they are at heart interpretations of a responsibility – which no-one seriously denies – to serve the public. To contribute one must argue for the best interpretation of this duty; but this means a commitment to the enterprise and the values which give it meaning viz. fairness, human dignity, freedom, honesty, etc. Political theory is no more a spectator sport than politics itself.

This engagement also permits a clearer understanding of what democratic theory means: in its most defensible form it means that representatives of the majority have a stronger right to make the rules than any other person or group – but it says nothing about the wisdom or morality of the rules they make or the policies they support. These are justified by showing they are required by, or are in accord with, community values – not popular opinion; how else could we argue that this opinion is wrong? The difficulty many protagonists have with this distinction is well brought out in the author’s reference to David Marr.

But this logic of argument must undermine Cooke’s own conclusion that ‘… if the political class is determined to change Australia’s social contract, it has to do so with some semblance of consent. It will need to put the popular will on par with powerful interests’ (note the disengaged ‘if’). But the ‘popular will’ – if this means majority opinion and not something from the world of German Transcendentalism – is no more relevant as a justification than the interests of Cooke’s powerful groups. The real question is why we should treat either as a substitute for argument from shared values, including an ideal of fairness which insists government treat all citizens as having equal value.

If this makes sense the problem is not that politicians disdain public opinion, but that they ignore community values, which tell us whether and why this opinion counts. It is, for example, conclusive in deciding who should make the rules because this is the least unfair method, but it counts for nothing on matters of law and justice because these determine our rights, and rights are anti-majoritarian claims – they trump popular opinion just as they trump majority preference and interests. The fact that we have legal and political rights shows democracy does not give moral authority to a majority – if it did, those in power would be free to outlaw opposition parties and punish dissenters at will.

Although Liberals continue to pay homage to Burke as the father of conservative political philosophy, they join with other parties (and most journalists) in ignoring his idea of political duty and the role of conscience in defending community values and the rights they support – rights which define the line between mob rule and any democracy worth defending; this is a high price for the public to pay for party unity.

Why do politicians treat the values which ornament their speeches as less important than the views of party leaders? Is it because they regard them as matters of choice, useful to sell policies but not relevant to justify them? This would explain Cooke’s own disengaged stance and instrumentalist approach; his advice to ‘the political class’ to give greater authority to public opinion makes sense only if values such as freedom, honesty and fairness have no intrinsic importance – if there is no duty to take them seriously.

The idea that we are free to pick and choose our values, in part because it fits a culture wary of religious claims and intellectual pretention, and in part because it is easy to misread as an affirmation of tolerance and respect for others, is very much in fashion. One could ask almost any first year university class if they think we all have different values and find ready assent. But if we ask what would be the point of argument if each side can only insult the other by insisting their values are superior, we are likely to be met with blank stares.

Reflection suggests that argument on social and political issues makes sense because it is rarely, if ever, a confrontation between different moral systems, but a dispute over competing interpretations of values which, at a certain level of abstraction, we see ourselves as sharing; which is why, in real life disputes, we argue over the meaning and requirement of ideals of fairness not their validity – we also believe opinions may be right or wrong, not just sincere or disingenuous, self-seeking or altruistic.

The idea that one interpretation is better presupposes criteria for the purpose, and this is found in the institutional practice of the community – in the history of interpretations of the same values which are still justified by these standards; the integrity of argument rests on its overall coherence in this fashion. We see this in the role of consistency in everyday disputes, where critics point to what the Minister said yesterday to condemn the policy he supports today. Whether the policy is an exception or an inconsistency depends on whether both can be reconciled within the same scheme of principles.

This brief and crude sketch, provocative as it necessarily is, suggests why, despite the never-ending appeal of sceptical theories, it will always make sense to question popular opinion – along with legal rules, policies, social practices and public institutions – in light of community values.

Some philosophical critics find this conception of a social moral practice problematical: how can one interpretation be better if there is no way to ‘prove’ the claim – no agreed way to demonstrate or verify that it is, indeed, the best interpretation? This objection, which expresses a widely-held ‘positivist’ approach to what constitutes knowledge in the social sciences is, however, itself under attack: it must likewise defend this assumption against the arguments which support an interpretive approach.

There is now a rich philosophical literature on interpretivist theories; the Wikipedia entry under ‘interpretivism’ considers it as a theory of law which has been both influential and controversial for nearly half a century. This is largely true of the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy entry; both are, however, daunting – even incomprehensible – for readers unfamiliar with the ideas, terminology and dense manner of treatment.

Interpretivist theories of morality are more recent and likely to be even more controversial; they rest, however, on the same interconnected ideas and arguments which underlie this contemporary jurisprudence. This is not surprising given that both are largely the work of the late Ronald Dworkin, whose views are set out in Justice for Hedgehogs, Harvard, 2013. Reviews suggest it is likely to be close to the cutting edge of both moral and political philosophy for some time to come.

To return to the theme of this paper, suppose we were to assess the doctrine of unity by asking how the budget might look if members were asked to give priority to community values by acting, as Burke would have them act, on their own judgment and conscience. Suppose members of the Liberal Caucus were each given copies of the Audit Commission Report, asked to go home and read it together with whatever data, analysis and criticism they considered relevant, and come back with a detailed response in thirty days, but without consulting colleagues or knowing the views of party leaders.

Suppose (to make the exercise even more of a fantasy) they were asked to treat all citizens with equal concern and equal respect; this would rule out assumptions that people are poor because they lack character or a sense of responsibility or some other virtue. In light of this egalitarian principle members would need to inform themselves of the impact on those most disadvantaged by spending another thirty days listening to relevant groups – all reports would be confidential and anonymous.

Could we doubt that, if members were to act on this view of their duty to the community, the present budget would be different to that which, because of the doctrine of unity, insists members give priority to the views of party leaders? There would at least be a better understanding that, if equal concern is to mean anything, the budget must increase revenue by taxing the wealthy not cut spending on those in need.