How important is democracy for realizing a society that is just? It seems to me that democracy is an important if not vital component of any just society, because any principles of justice that a society seeks to abide by should be established through means that are also fair and just, and thus those principles (or the laws that instantiate them) should be a legislative product resulting from the deliberation and input of every citizen that is to be bound and protected by such standards. In this post, I’m going to argue for this position by illustrating how reasonable principles of justice are more likely to be realized (if not only realizable) through a democratic form of government over any other system, and by showing how a democratic system for legislation is the most effective way of protecting and improving principles of justice once they are established in a society. It’s important to note that I am not arguing that all forms of democracy are necessarily capable of achieving a just society, but rather I’m arguing that some form of democracy is necessary to do so. One major objection to my overall contention is the argument that democracies can lead to a form of majoritarianism that may oppress minorities and restrict their basic rights, thus precluding even any semblance of justice. This objection is a very serious one that ought to be considered and so I’ll conclude my argument by responding to it accordingly.
Reasonable principles or descriptions of justice as proposed by many philosophers and other important political figures such as Aristotle, Kant, J.S. Mill, Rawls and others, generally encompass a number of different concepts such as: liberty, freedom, fairness, equality, desert, mutual respect and consideration, and moral rightness, among others.1, 2, 3, 4 I tend to agree with Rawls’ views in particular, where principles of justice revolve around some set of equal rights that is maximally extensive, including equal access and opportunity of holding various political offices and positions. What’s most important to note about Rawls’ views is the concept of fairness and how the principles of justice can be derived from the original position, i.e., from behind a veil of ignorance.4 If we apply this reasoning to determine what is in fact fair from the perspective of a collective of citizens that hold different sets of values, it stands to reason that the best one can do is to try to find some kind of an overlapping moral consensus that is informed by the very same set of citizens. It seems that the only political system fit to accomplish this task is going to be some form of a democracy, because only in democracies can the citizens take direct action to influence legislation that is compatible with that overlapping consensus.5 No other political system allows their citizens to have this kind of power. Furthermore, since all people can only have an equal say in some kind of democratic society, it’s hard to imagine how any other system used to establish principles of justice could have a higher level of fairness.
Maintaining and protecting the principles of justice that are implemented by a society is arguably just as important as establishing them in the first place. Moreover, if the current established principles of justice (or laws) in a society are at any point perceived as being unjust in light of new information or a change in the overlapping moral consensus of the people that comprise it, there needs to be some mechanism to modify them accordingly. I would argue that democracy is the most effective way to achieve both the protection of, and the capability of modifying or improving, any implemented principles of justice or laws that instantiate those principles.
To illustrate this point, we can simply imagine that there are two societies, one democratic and one non-democratic, and for the sake of argument we can assume that they both have established principles of justice. Now let’s consider that some new law has been proposed in both societies that, if enacted and implemented, would result in some gross form of injustice. I think it’s evident that the democratic society has the best chance of maintaining (or restoring) their established principles of justice because a majority of citizens have the greatest chance of influencing future legislation and/or any future political representation in order to block or reverse the legislation that would have led to any injustice. If the fate of this decision was merely left in the hands of some subset of people in power, even if it could result in a just outcome, it is less likely to for the simple fact that the interests of a small group in power are statistically less likely to result in a mutually desirable outcome for everyone when all else is equal. Similarly, if we were to imagine that the overlapping moral consensus changed in both societies, once again, I would argue that democracy would prevail as the best system for modifying or improving any laws in place so as to better conform to any modified principles of justice. This would be the case because the most thorough way to determine which laws or principles of justice should replace the old ones, would be to survey all members of that society through a process of moral deliberation6 — a task best fit for a democracy.
One strong objection to my argument (i.e. in short, that democracies are an important if not necessary component for a just society) is the argument that democracies can lead to a majoritarian populace that may choose to strip minorities of their basic human rights and liberties, and thus enact some form of injustice. One could take this objection even further and argue that a majoritarian populace could (perhaps unknowingly) enact legislation that strips every citizen of some or all of their basic rights and liberties.7 Now this is certainly a reasonable objection and one that is worth careful consideration. However, this argument can only be successful if it can be shown that there are only non-democratic forms of government that guarantee (or at least do a better job of) establishing, protecting, and/or improving the principles of justice (or the laws that instantiate them) in a society. I haven’t yet seen anyone satisfy the burden of proof required to support such a claim (even if it is a reasonable objection). In addition, this objection must hold up to the most robust form of democracy at our disposal to demonstrate a fortiori that all other forms of democracy are likewise insufficient and that they are all demonstrably worse than at least one non-democratic alternative.
Now I will grant that this objection is particularly applicable to a pure democracy, where there are no protections whatsoever against majority rule oppressing minorities’ rights. However, most forms of democracy that exist today are some kind of democratic republic or constitutional democracy, whereby a constitution is put into place to protect some set of inalienable rights that majority rule can’t overturn.8 While this solution isn’t fool proof, it is nevertheless an effective safeguard to limit majoritarian tyranny while retaining the aforementioned maximally-just benefits of democracy. Furthermore, one could employ a deliberative democracy, which stresses the need to justify the laws enacted that would instantiate any sought-after principles of justice. A deliberative democracy accomplishes this justification and helps to resolve moral disagreements (to the best of our ability) through a process of open and inclusive moral deliberation, helping to encourage citizens to form a more well-rounded perspective on public policy.6 What better way could there be to achieve a just society than to have equal rights to vote on legislation combined with the societal expectation of justifying any proposed laws through open critical discourse and moral deliberation with one another? What better way could there be to find the overlapping moral consensus that Rawls pointed to, as idealized in his original position?
As such, I believe the majoritarian objection fails not only because there are democratic systems with safeguards in place to help prevent these kinds of majoritarian problems from occurring (such as a constitution), thus limiting tyranny at least as well as any non-democratic government could, but also because even in the absence of these safeguards (which are of course limited in efficacy), deliberative democratic institutions can further reduce the risk of oppressive tyranny of the majority by their having to justify their positions/votes with the other members of society through moral deliberation. Combining these two institutions — a constitution and moral deliberation — into one democratic framework, would provide a robust rebuttal to such an objection and also provides a good template of democracy that further supports my overall argument.
In conclusion, I’ve argued that democracy is a vital component for just societies because it offers a means of deriving a society’s principles of justice, through the laws that instantiate them, in the most fair and equitable way known, and because of its strength to adapt to societal changes in order to maintain justice in light of a shift in overlapping consensus or as a possible counter-response to unjust legislation enacted. In addition, it can in principle provide a way of maximizing justice through institutions that encourage (if not mandate) the use of moral deliberation to justify the votes of any and all citizens. Among other benefits, this latter principle provides a way of helping to sort out and distinguish between political claims that are self-interested from those that are actually in the public’s best interests. In doing so, it offers a platform of transparency and dialectic that helps to prevent injustices from coming into fruition.
- Aristotle, trans. Terence Irwin (1999) Nicomachean Ethics, Second Edition. Indianapolis: Hacket, pp. 67-74, 76; 1129a-1132b, 1134a
- Immanuel Kant, trans. John Ladd (1999) Metaphysical Elements of Justice, Second Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1999., pp. 29, 38, 30-31, 37
- John Stuart Mill, ed. Mary Warnock (1962) Utilitarianism and Other Writings. Cleveland: World Publishing Company, pp. 296-301, 305, 309, 320-321
- Rawls, J. A. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
- Christiano, T. (2006, July 27). Democracy. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/democracy/
- Gutmann & Thompson (2014) Moral Disagreement in a Democracy. Arguing about Political Philosophy. Routledge Publishing, NY (pp. 596-601)
- Mill, John Stuart (1869) On Liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green
- No author (n.d.). CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://www.civiced.org/resources/publications/resource-materials/390-constitutional-democracy