The Open Mind

Cogito Ergo Sum

Posts Tagged ‘Rawls

The Imperative of Democracy For a Just Society

leave a comment »

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.


  1. Aristotle, trans. Terence Irwin (1999) Nicomachean Ethics, Second Edition.  Indianapolis:  Hacket, pp. 67-74, 76; 1129a-1132b, 1134a
  2. Immanuel Kant, trans. John Ladd (1999) Metaphysical Elements of Justice, Second Edition.  Indianapolis:  Hackett, 1999., pp. 29, 38, 30-31, 37
  3. John Stuart Mill, ed. Mary Warnock (1962) Utilitarianism and Other Writings.  Cleveland:  World Publishing Company, pp. 296-301, 305, 309, 320-321
  4. Rawls, J. A. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
  5. Christiano, T. (2006, July 27). Democracy. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from
  6. Gutmann & Thompson (2014) Moral Disagreement in a Democracy.  Arguing about Political Philosophy.  Routledge Publishing, NY (pp. 596-601)
  7. Mill, John Stuart (1869) On Liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green
  8. No author (n.d.). CONSTITUTIONAL DEMOCRACY. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from

On Moral Desert: Intuition vs Rationality

leave a comment »

So what exactly is moral desert?  Well, in a nutshell, it is what someone deserves as a result of their actions as defined within the framework of some kind of moral theory.  Generally when people talk about moral desert, it’s often couched in terms of punishment and reward, and our intuitions (whether innate or culturally inherited) often produce strong feelings of knowing exactly what kinds of consequences people deserve in response to their actions.  But if we think about our ultimate goals in implementing any reasonable moral theory, we should quickly recognize the fact that our ultimate moral goal is to have ourselves and everybody else simply abide by that moral theory.  And we want that in order to guide our behavior and the behavior of those around us in ways that are conducive to our well being.  Ultimately, we want ourselves and others to act in ways that maximize our personal satisfaction — and not in a hedonistic sense — but rather to maximize our sense of contentment and living a fulfilled life.

If we think about scenarios that seem to merit punishment or reward, it would be useful to keep our ultimate moral goal in mind.  The reason I mention this is because, in particular, our feelings of resentment toward those that have wronged us can often lead one to advocate for an excessive amount of punishment to the wrongdoer.  Among other factors, vengeance and retribution often become incorporated into our intuitive sense of justice.  Many have argued that retribution itself (justifying “proportionate” punishment by appealing to concepts like moral desert and justice) isn’t a bad thing, even if vengeance — which lacks inherent limits on punishment, involves personal emotions from the victim, and other distinguishing factors — is in fact a bad thing.  While thinking about such a claim, I think it’s imperative that we analyze our reasons for punishing a wrongdoer in the first place and then analyze the concept of moral desert more closely.

Free Will & It’s Implications for Moral Desert

Another relevant topic I’ve written about in several previous posts is the concept of free will.  This is an extremely important concept to parse out here, because moral desert is most often intimately tied to the positive claim of our having free will.  That is to say, most concepts of moral desert, whereby it is believed that people deserve punishment and reward for actions that warrant it, fundamentally relies on the premise that people could have chosen to do otherwise but instead chose the path they did out of free choice.  While there are various versions of free will that philosophers have proposed, they all tend to revolve around some concept of autonomous agency.  The folk psychological conception of free will that most people subscribe to is some form of deliberation that is self-caused in some way thus ruling out randomness or indeterminism as the “cause”, since randomness can’t be authored by the autonomous agent, and also ruling out non-randomness or determinism as well, since an unbroken chain of antecedent causes can’t be authored by the autonomous agent either.

So as to avoid a long digression, I’m not going to expound upon all the details of free will and the various versions that others have proposed, but will only mention that the most relevant version that is tied to moral desert is generally some form of having the ability to have chosen to do otherwise (ignoring randomness).  Notice that because indeterminism or determinism is a logical dichotomy, these are the only two options that can possibly exist to describe the ontological underpinnings of our universe (in terms of causal laws that describe how the state of the universe changes over time).  Quantum mechanics allows either of these two options to exist given their consistency with the various interpretations therein that are all empirically identical with one another, but there is no third option available, so quantum mechanics doesn’t buy us any room for this kind of free will either.  Since neither option can produce any form of self-caused or causa sui free will (sometimes referred to as libertarian free will), then the intuitive concept of moral desert that relies on said free will is also rendered impossible if not altogether meaningless.  Therefore moral desert can only exist as a coherent concept if it no longer contains within it any assumptions of the moral agent having an ability to have chosen to do otherwise (again, ignoring randomness).  So what does this realization imply for our preconceptions of justified punishment or even justice itself?

At the very least, the concept of moral desert that is involved in these other concepts needs to be reformulated or restricted given the impossibility and thus the non-existence of libertarian free will.  So if we are to say that people “deserve” anything at all morally speaking (such as a particular punishment), it can only be justified let alone meaningful in some other sense, such as a consequentialist goal that the implementation of the “desert” (in this case, the punishment) effectively accomplishes.  Punishing the wrongdoer can no longer be a means of their getting their due so to speak, but rather needs to be justified by some other purpose such as rehabilitation, future crime deterrence, and/or restitution for the victim (to compensate for physical damages, property loss, etc.)  With respect to this latter factor, restitution, there is plenty of wiggle room here for some to argue for punishment on the grounds of it simply making the victim feel better (which I suppose we could call a form of psychological restitution).  People may try to justify some level of punishment based on making the victim feel better, but vengeance should be avoided at all costs, and one needs to carefully consider what justifications are sufficient (if any) for punishing another with the intention of simply making the victim feel better.

Regarding psychological restitution, it’s useful to bring up the aforementioned concepts of retribution and vengeance, and appreciate the fact that vengeance can easily result in cases where no disinterested party performs the punishment or decides its severity, and instead the victim (or another interested party) is involved with these decisions and processes.  Given the fact that we lack libertarian free will, we can also see how vengeance is not rationally justifiable and therefore why it is important that we take this into account not only in terms of society’s methods of criminal behavioral correction but also in terms of how we behave toward others that we think have committed some wrongdoing.

Deterrence & Fairness of Punishment

As for criminal deterrence, I was thinking about this concept the other day and thought about a possible conundrum concerning its justification (certain forms of deterrence anyway).  If a particular punishment is agreed upon within some legal system on the grounds that it will be sufficient to rehabilitate the criminal (and compensate the victim sufficiently) and an additional amount of punishment is tacked on to it merely to serve as a more effective deterrent, it seems that it would lack justification, with respect to treating the criminal in a fair manner.

To illustrate this, consider the following: if the criminal commits the crime, they are in one of two possible epistemic states — either they knew about the punishment that would follow from committing the crime beforehand, or they didn’t.  If they didn’t know this, then the deterrence addition of the punishment wouldn’t have had the opportunity to perform its intended function on the potential criminal, in which case the criminal would be given a harsher sentence than is necessary to rehabilitate them (and to compensate the victim) which should be the sole purpose of punishing them in the first place (to “right” a “wrong” and to minimize behavioral recurrences).  How could this be justified in terms of what is a fair and just treatment of the criminal?

And then, on the other hand, if they did know the degree of punishment that would follow committing such a crime, but they committed the crime anyway, then the deterrence addition of the punishment failed to perform its intended function even if it had the opportunity to do so.  This would mean that the criminal is once again, given a punishment that is harsher than what is needed to rehabilitate them (and also to compensate the victim).

Now one could argue in the latter case that there are other types of justification to ground the harsher deterrence addition of the punishment.  For example, one could argue that the criminal knew beforehand what the consequences would be, so they can’t plead ignorance as in the first example.  But even in the first example, it was the fact that the deterrence addition was never able to perform its function that turned out to be most relevant even if this directly resulted from the criminal lacking some amount of knowledge.  Likewise, in the second case, even with the knowledge at their disposal, the knowledge was useless in actualizing a functional deterrent.  Thus, in both cases the deterrent failed to perform its intended function, and once we acknowledge that, then we can see that the only purposes of punishment that remain are rehabilitation and compensation for the victim.  One could still try and argue that the criminal had a chance to be deterred, but freely chose to commit the crime anyway so they are in some way more deserving of the additional punishment.  But then again, we need to understand that the criminal doesn’t have libertarian free will so it’s not as if they could have done otherwise given those same conditions, barring any random fluctuations.  That doesn’t mean we don’t hold them responsible for their actions — for they are still being justifiably punished for their crime — but it is the degree of punishment that needs to be adjusted given our knowledge that they lack libertarian free will.

Now one could further object and say that the deterrence addition of the punishment isn’t intended solely for the criminal under our consideration but also for other possible future criminals that may be successfully deterred from the crime given such a deterrence addition (even if this criminal was not).  Regardless of this pragmatic justification, that argument still doesn’t justify punishing the criminal, in such a way, if we are to treat the criminal in a fair way based on their actions alone.  If we bring other possible future criminals into the justification, then the criminal is being punished not only for their wrongdoing but in excess for hypothetical reasons concerning other hypothetical offenders — which is not at all fair.  So we can grant the fact that some may justify these practices on pragmatic consequentialist grounds, but they aren’t consistent with a Rawslian conception of justice as fairness.  Which means they aren’t consistent with many anti-consequentialist views (such as Kantian deontologists for example) that often promote strong conceptions of justice and moral desert in their ethical frameworks.


In summary, I wanted to reiterate the fact that even if our intuitive conceptions of moral desert and justice sometimes align with our rational moral goals, they often lack rational justification and thus often serve to inhibit the implementation of any kind of rational moral theory.  They often produce behaviors that are vengeful, malicious, sadistic, and most often counter-productive to our actual moral goals.  We need to incorporate the fact that libertarian free will does not (and logically can not) exist, into our moral framework, so that we can better strive to treat others fairly even if we still hold people responsible in some sense for their actions.

We can still hold people responsible for their actions (and ought to) by replacing the concept of libertarian free will with a free will conception that is consistent with the laws of physics, with psychology, and neurology, by proposing for example that people’s degree of “free will” with respect to some action is inversely proportional to the degree of conditioning needed to modify such behavior.  That is to say, the level of free will that we have with respect to some kind of behavior is related to our ability to be programmed and reprogrammed such that the behavior can (at least in principle) be changed.

Our punishment-reward systems then (whether in legal, social, or familial domains), should treat others as responsible agents only insofar as to protect the members of that society (or group) from harm and also to induce behaviors that are conducive to our physical and psychological well being — which is the very purpose of our having any reasonable moral theory (that is sufficiently motivating to follow) in the first place.  Anything that goes above and beyond what is needed to accomplish this is excessive and therefore not morally justified.  Following this logic, we should see that many types of punishment including, for example, the death penalty, are entirely unjustified in terms of our moral goals and the strategies of punishment that we should implement to accomplish those goals.  As the saying goes, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, and thus barbaric practices such as inflicting pain or suffering (or death sentences) simply to satisfy some intuitions need to be abolished and replaced with an enlightened system that relies on rational justifications rather than intuition.  Only then can we put the primitive, inhumane moral systems of the past to rest once and for all.

We need to work with our psychology (not only the common trends between most human beings but also our individual idiosyncrasies) and thus work under the pretense of our varying degrees of autonomy and behavioral plasticity.  Only then can we maximize our chances and optimize our efforts in attaining fulfilling lives for as many people as possible living in a society.  It is our intuitions (products of evolution and culture) that we must be careful of, as they can (and often have throughout history) led us astray to commit various moral atrocities.  All we can do is try to overcome these moral handicaps the best we can through means of reason and rationality, but we have to acknowledge that these problems exist before we can face them head on and subsequently engineer the right kinds of societal changes to successfully reach our moral goals.