Sunday, May 7, 2006

More substantive issues in democratic theory (Sean)

The substantive question in my last thread on the ordinary usage of 'democracy' and its cognates didn't get much airtime except for a short comment by Don to which I'll now respond. In response to my open-ended question, "Why care about democracy," Don wrote,

"...the quick answer is, I think, a more prudential dislike of autocratic (albeit benevolent and equitable) regimes; a second answer is that citizens might be owed the opportunity for the _ownership_ of what their political communities do, in their name or for their sake. Perhaps."

I was intrigued by the second answer, but right now I'm curious to know how Don responds to the following hypothetical example in light of the first answer. Suppose that you, Don, have studied theories of justice, virtue, etc. for your whole life, and now, at some ripe old age, you have the opportunity to seize political power and establish yourself as a dictator. You can recruit whomever you like as an advisor (suppose that Finnis and Raz or even Aristotle are still alive at this point). Don't you and your cadre have as great a claim as anyone to know what laws should be passed? Let's also assume that you ran for election and only got .001% of the vote. Would it be right/just/legitimate for you to take power? If you wouldn't take power, it seems inappropriate to label your reasons for not doing so "prudential" reasons--don't you know that you'll do as good a job as anyone?


Don said...

Sean, I laughed quite loudly as I read your post here. I particularly liked how my Council of Elders was a veritable Pantheon of Political Perfectionism.

Also, I have to admit to giving a misleading response. I thought your "substantive" question was about what reasons the "common folk" summon in grouding their love of democracy. I mixed your "ordinary usage" question with your "substantive" question to form a "substantive question regarding ordinary-users." So my answer was, perhaps, shocking insofar as I misread the question as about reasons not my own. That was the spirit in which I wrote that answer.

As to my own reasons to value democracy: I'm not quite sure. And so I'll take up the gauntlet and defend the suppositions, with some modifications, you cited and I articulated.

Let me put aside, for the moment, the case you put to me, since I think that some of the features of that case might muddy the waters. Instead, let me start with the following case.

(A) If I were born into a community in which there was no tradition of democratic governance, and in which I had no (strong) reason to think that the regime in place governed poorly (in substance) or that it might be predictably corrupted, I would not feel the grip of democratic procedures.

In light of (A), I'd say that democracy's appeal stems from prudential considerations about wise governance. If I had reason to doubt the wisdom of the regime's officials, then I'd want democracy, if I held democratic procedures to be better at preventing corruption or ensuring wise or equitable policies.

(We might consider that the historical growth of democracy might have been tied to direct refutations of divine-right theories or to direct modifications of some of the premises of those theories. And so, if divine-right or patrimonial notions of governance are not held, then we might be faced with an interesting gap: the roots of democratic appeal might have lost their luster: we have cultural and historical affinities for democracy, which affinities might be baseless. Perhaps.)

We feel something of the tenuous relationship between democracy and good governance, when we think about emergency situations in which democratic procedures (or consent-based procedures) are sacrificed for some immediately necessary or extremely valuable action. (I shouldn't need consent to trespass over my neighbor's lawn in order to reach a drowning baby, for example.) Or when we think that a certain community, by virtue of material or cultural disparities, might be ill-suited to democratic norms. (A community of very many, very poorly educated hunter-gatherers might be poorly situated for democratic norms concerning, say, the foreign policy between that community and some industrialized technocracy.)

Now, back to the case (say, "(B)") you put to me. If, in (B), I had every reason to think (i) that my coalition would govern more wisely than competitors and (ii) that the populace would not resent my flouting election results, and so (iii) not become recalcitrant to (good) governance, and (iv) that I was not violating any laws-of-the-land which had already secured the fair rules of cooperation, then I would have little reason to avoid seeking power (barring any special obligations to the contrary).

But it is unlikely that these criteria could be met. It is unlikely, especially in light of the way you set up the case. This is why I think (B), as you put it, might "muddy the waters."

If Don & Co. have _just_ as much a claim as anyone else to power, i.e., no reason to think that we'd govern _better_ than real competitors, then (i) isn't fulfilled. And if the community already has electoral procedures in place, to flout the results might contravene (ii), (iii), and (iv). Criteria (ii) and (iii) might be understood as "prudential"; criterion (iv) might be understood as "deontic," not because democracy is an absolute norm of some kind, but rather because I might have already (implicitly) agreed to some process of elections as a fair means of arbitration and decision, which means _settles the matter_ by positive law. Because I can't quite see through the features of (B), I can't quite give a univocal answer: I see good prudential and good deontic reasons not to take the throne.

Sean said...

Our intuitions diverge about what you should do when your conditions are fulfilled, but given the fulfillment of these conditions your view that you should rule isn't as absurd as I wanted to paint it. In my opinion, it's condition (iii), that the populace will "not become recalcitrant to (good) governance", that significantly dampens the offense of your hypothetical power grab, because (iii) comes close to articulating a deontic reason for democracy that many democrats accept: the laws that govern us should depend on what laws we believe are acceptable. (iii) is ambiguous between "the populace accepts my rule" and other interpretations like "the populace grudingly abides by the law out of fear". So to test your democratic credentials let's also assume that this is the case: the vast majority of citizens think you and your wise men are illegitimate rulers and you're laws are unjust. They comply with the laws solely out of fear. Does this change anything?

Don said...

My democratic credentials are quickly expiring. But I don't know whether I had any to begin with. This response will surely torch whatever cards I had in my wallet.

My meaning in (iii) was a prudential one: if the populace is deeply recalcitrant, then extraordinary means would be required to compel adherence. These means might dampen other projects and sap other resources, all of which might be essential to promoting the common good of the community. And so: if the folks comply out of fear, I wouldn't univocally seek the throne, since, _prudentially_, I might consider my ruling them as a Pyrrhic victory, the losses of which might threaten their own good.

Another aspect, which complicates matters for a natural-law theorist, arises in this case. The law is meant to compel behavior, but that compelled behavior, while not immoral, lacks moral value, since it is done _for the wrong reasons_. If I were successfully to compel their adherence, but without enriching (perfecting) them (or their ethical lives) a bit, I would have to consider ceding power to a second-rate regime which (a) directed, but not merely compelled, good behavior (by more perfectly meeting criteria (ii) and (iii)), which behavior (b) was less completely in adherence to the common good. E.g., a prohibition on drugs, backed by brute force, might score no advantages over a permissive law which was attended by educative and formative programs meant ethically to dissuade hedonistic obsessions. If the permissive scheme met with more drug use, but more ethically-valuable drug avoidance, the permissive law might very well be more choiceworthy.

To sum: if (iii) is met by a populace which cooperates out of fear, but without consuming resources markedly differently from a competing regime, then I will still need to wonder whether or not their cooperation scores me any points over and above the competing regime's policies. So you're right to put pressure on (iii); lurking behind it is (iii.5), which requires that I note how behavior instantiates moral goodness, something close to your _deontic_ version of (iii). What a natural lawyer must see, then, is that, while the law can rightly be used to compel good behavior, resources must be spent to show the moral value of the law in question. Such resources can be provided by the state itself, or by institutions within civil society. Democratic procedures might be one way of ensuring that the regime, not only perfects its citizens' behavior, but also seeks to perfect their moral lives.

Thanks for this, Sean. It's been good in showing me an interesting research-gap in natural-law theory. Finnis and Raz and George have spilled lots of ink showing how perfectionism works with liberalism; but perhaps they (or I) should think about how perfectionist premises require, or are well-served by, democratic checks.

But I wonder whether the criterion, (iii.5), which I countenance is vastly different from your deontic version of (iii). I think they might differ in crucial ways. And so, to answer your question more directly: if the citizens score no "morality points" by cooperating with the second-rate (but majoritarian) regime (if, say, the second-rate regime actually _compels_ immoral behavior), I'd still take the throne--perhaps even univocally.

Sean said...

Fortunately, democrats are a forgiving bunch and you'll be able to renew your credentials sometime in the future. The cards are cheap to reprint. But there's still some work to be done in figuring out how far you've wandered off the path. I'm not sure if the distance is as great as you think.

You say there is some value to citizens obeying the laws for the right reasons. I think this value will never be realized unless you allow it to be partially realized when people obey the law for "good enough" reasons. For example, if the real reason not to kill innocent persons is that human life is an intrinsic good, you should attach worth to citizens obeying laws against murder not only if they do it for this reason, but if they do it because they think a rule permitting killing innocent people couldn't be accepted by everyone as a universal law; or because they think that killing people is incompatible with expressing proper respect for them, etc. Aren't these Kantian reasons for not killing people close enough to the actual reason that the value you have in mind is partially realized when people obey the law for these Kantian reasons? It can't be that this value is instantiated only when people think exactly like Finnis does, or whoever it is that speaks the truth, right?

Assuming that you answer affirmatively, would you allow me to put the point in this way: for some set of relevantly similar conceptions of justice, it is better when people do what they ought to do because of their affirmation of these conceptions of justice (i.e., for "good enough" reasons) than when they do it solely because they've been coerced into doing it?

If you accept that claim, then you are closer to accepting this claim: procedures for producing collective decisions are legitimate only if everyone who holds a reasonable conception of justice can rationally accept them, given their other reasonable commitments; they are illegitimate when citizens with reasonable conceptions of justice have no reason to accept the laws except for fear of punishment.

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