Tuesday, July 08, 2008

'Democracy' draft

I've just finished a very rough draft of my short paper: 'What is Democracy?' Here's the concluding summary:
This paper has explored the conditions under which a state might be described as truly 'ruled by the people'. We saw that the institution of majoritarian voting, even with universal suffrage, is insufficient, for this leaves open the possibility of rule by a sectarian majority faction. So we must move beyond formal institutions and consider also the informal political culture. Here I suggested two possible routes to fully-fledged democracy. The individualist route understands democracy as 'rule by (all) the people', which I argued may be realized in a deliberative-democratic society wherein citizens are receptive to being persuaded by each other as they trade arguments and opinions in the marketplace of ideas. The collectivist route, on the other hand, understands democracy as rule by 'the people' taken as a unified collective or 'public person'. Drawing on reductionist and constructivist understandings of personal identity, I suggested that this may be given a plausible, metaphysically non-extravagant reading, which merely requires a shareable and indeed widely-shared civic perspective to be driving the government. In either case, one ends up with a society that is 'ruled by the people' in a deeper and more philosophically interesting sense than could be achieved by looking at the formal institutions alone.

It could bear to be improved, so if you have time to read the whole thing, any feedback would be most welcome!


  1. Is there not a synthesis of these two positions?

    The individualist route seems to describe an ideal of the decision making process - whether to do this or that on a particular occasion.

    The collectivist route seems to describe an ideal of the law making process - settled overarching rules that reflect common moral positions and which can (homosexuality, death penalty etc) be changed but not as easily as simple decisions.

    Compare the situation in post-Periclean Athens, where the demos still had total active power through decrees (graphai), but its actions were constrained by a set of laws (nomoi) that could only be changed by a slower and more elaborate process.

    Anthony Zacharzewski

  2. Nicely done. Personally, I need more explanation or more background to fully absorb the section on "Constructing Persons and Peoples"--it seems as if formal institutions already strive to collectivize individuals without being aware of the metaphysical possibilities of such unity. I might even take that as the force behind Rousseau's arguments. In which case, why would your conclusion suggest we prefer a philosophical as opposed to legal, historical, or social studies of democracy? (Well, why, aside from the fact that you've already said "the ideal case [for synchonic democracy] is rational persuasion"?)

    I'm also curious as to why the term "will to power" popped up; it seems out of place given your immediate dismissal of majoritarianism.

  3. Richard, It's sounds like you've got a good start on an infeasibility argument for "rule by the people"...

    On the collectivist route, I suspect you're busted right here:

    "requires a shareable and indeed widely-shared civic perspective to be driving the government."

    First, there's a demarcation problem. Shared among whom? Who's in, who's out? Even a small amount of healthy pluralism is going to dissolve the integrity of your notional public person. And it strikes me that this view is basically incompatible with in-migration by people who do not share the civic perspective. So the implication is that collectivist democratic rule cannot survive a respect for mobility rights -- which I guess is a good argument against the desirability of democracy so construed.

    Is your response to the problem of majorities brutalizing minorities that once we get the exotic (but not extravagant!) metaphysics straight we'll see that minorities (and certainly not individuals) don't really exist?

    I feel like Aquinas' "On the Unity of the Intellect Against the Averroists" is relevant here.

    Maybe I should read more than your summary!

    Anyway, if you're interested in democracy, check out the issues of Critical Review discussing public ignorance (it's an ongoing theme of the journal) to help develop a robust sense of reality about just how wildly idealistic deliberative views are. When thinking about informal political cultures, it helps to look into the way informal political cultures tend to work.

    I know it's annoying for philosophy grad students to read outside of philosophy, since it mightn't help much career-wise. But the literature on democracy within philosophy is just saturated with a kind of moral-aesthetic Rousseauvian romanticism, which I find sort of embarrassing when I encounter it. So read Buchanan and Tullock's Calculus of Consent and Dennis Mueller's Public Choice doorstop as a tonic against the fluff that passes as democratic theorizing in philosophy departments. This stuff is to political philosophy what logic is to metaphysics.

  4. Will -- insofar as my paper here is pure conceptual analysis, it doesn't really matter if the conclusions turn out to be "wildly idealistic". You can, as you say, just take it as "an infeasibility argument for 'rule by the people'."

    (But I do also have broader interests in the subject, so I'll check out your references anyway. Thanks. Though I'm not under any illusions about the public's ignorance to begin with. That's why I tend to favour small-scale education-laden sessions like Citizens' Juries or Deliberative Polls.)

    "Is your response to the problem of majorities brutalizing minorities that once we get the exotic (but not extravagant!) metaphysics straight we'll see that minorities (and certainly not individuals) don't really exist?"

    No, it's that any brutalizing majority is ipso facto not acting on a civic perspective; they are acting as oligarchs, not democrats. (It's not easy to qualify as a democracy - 'rule by the people' - on my account.)

  5. Richard, your paper begins quite nicely, but the unfortunate trial to understand Rousseau's "public person" lessens its value.

    I generally hold the view that sets are nothing else than their elements (or the sum of them) and not something emergent. So I cannot see the possibility of an assumed public person which is supposed to be more than the citizens of a state.

    I already have difficulties recognizing how the reductionist approach of Parfit could afford a interpretation of Rousseau which is to be non-reductionist.
    Then, there is not something like a general maxime which persists while one adopts a deviating one for a moment or commits an action contradicting to the general maxime. One only has this maxime in this moment and that maxime in that moment.
    Analogously to that, there is not something like a general public person which exists in spite of some deviating components who endorse views which contradict to the supposed views of the public person. I also do not see how you wanted to determine the limit of when the number suffices to count as general.
    By the way, your view that not all must share the opinion of the public person to belong to it stands in remarcable contrast to your correct statement at the beginning that not democracy is imperfect if a part of the population is excluded from contribution to to the process of formation of political will.

    As a result, I cannot see any sense in constructing persons in general and constructing a public person in particular.

  6. Richard,
    I wonder why you committ yourself to the view
    that instanteous existents are the fundamental
    your reductionist take might have to be compromised as there are quite powerful arguments that not all properties of extended objects can be reduced. For example mass properties don´t generally reduce.(cf.Hawthorne,Three-dimensionalism p.95)
    wouldn´t your view lend support to hyper-individualism, so that the real push and pulls are done by the momentary stages.
    Apart from that,
    I am curious whether you hold in general that
    only a restricted kind of Ontological Anti-Realism is tenable and why you think so.
    On the more "political aspects of your paper,I find myself fully agreeing with you.

  7. I think, there are still two contributers to your blog waiting for a reply, Richard.

  8. Oh, thanks for the reminder.

    Paul - right, the point of the Parfit stuff was precisely to set up a reductionist interpretation of Rousseau. For there to be a 'public person' just is for the individual citizens to be related in the right sort of way (to have the right sorts of civic commitments, etc.). There's not any further substance to the social organism. But my thought is that there may nonetheless be an idealized civic perspective (the 'general will') which each citizen aspires to be normatively bound by, just as in the personal case we aspire to live out a perspective that extends beyond just the present moment. It is in virtue of this commitment that their individual beliefs about the common good - which may, after all, be mistaken - may be overridden without necessarily thereby disenfranchising them. (It would be possible to disenfranchise them, I suppose, e.g. through some form of systematic exclusion. I'll have to think more about what the precise conditions of this would be.)

    BigTicket - yeah, I'm drawn to hyper-individualism as a matter of fundamental metaphysics. I'm just assuming that as a basic premise of this paper though (since I find it intuitively plausible, at least); I'll need to explore the issue in more depth elsewhere.

  9. Thanks for your reply, Richard.

    On the more philological aspects: The general will interpretation of Rousseau fits better to what I know of him than the "public person".
    I have never read Rousseau himself, but what I read in secondary literature is that Rousseau endorses the view that the general will (volonté général) is what we wanted if we were omniscient, wholly-rational etc. Indeed, this notion is compatible with reductionism. But on the other side, it does not seem to request hyper-individualism - although Rousseauian literature supposes that there must be a kind of transformation from the individual wills to the gereal will.

    The Rousseauian general will has always left me a bit helpless. It is supposed to correspond to moral duties or, rather, to be them. But I think morality does not result from wholly-rationality, or in other words: morality is not a matter of reason but of will. Of course, the moral duties can only be explored by reason, but I am indepted to the Kantian view that even when I know I can decide to act against them
    This is why I think that the Rousseauian general will is a mistaken approach to explain morality.

    One could argue if one aspires to be obliged by moral duties, but it sounds a little odd to me. Certainly, the happiness of many people increases if they can give a sense to their lives (what could be a dark notion of morality). But this idea is not necessarily connected to happiness, and some guys do not seem to feel the need for it at all (just think of Shakespearian villains such as Iago).

    I still do not understand hyper-individualism. What do you think of statement that sets are only their elements?


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