Thursday, May 4, 2006

Ordinary usage and 'democracy' (Sean)

I'd like to hear others' thoughts on these questions:

On linguistic usage: Are most ordinary folk inclined to call some laws, policies, "outcomes" of political decision-making procedures "democratic" no matter what the procedure was? Are ordinary folk inclined to say that laws or policies are "undemocratic" even if the procedures that produced them involved citizens' participation, elected and accountable representatives, was transparent, backed by a majority, [fill in your notion of the purely procedural aspect of democratic procedure here], etc.? (Ignore, of course, the case of laws or policise that bear on procedures themselves, like laws imposing property requirements on voters.) As I see it, no one talks in the first way except Dworkin, Beitz, and a few others. The second usage might be less uncommon; repressing political speech can be called undemocratic. But this isn't a genuine example of the usage, I think, since opportunities to freely express oneself are connected to purely procedural aspects of democracy. Beitz's claim is that an outcome is undemocratic if it treats people inequitably, but that seems unmotivated by ordinary usage.

Substantive issue: why care about democracy?


Don said...

Well, I think common usage supports the view which you find rather misleading, or at least uncommon. This is not a usage I approve of, I should say. The word _democratic_ has come to mean a lot of things, but I think it is often now used to mean something like egalitarian-in-outcome. People, I think, hold that a policy is "undemocratic" when it fails to account for the equal interests of some class or group in some larger context. The confusion, or shift in meaning, is explicable, however: "one man, one vote" seems to have become "one man, one interest-to-be-weighed." One can see this, I think, in lots of pseudo-leftist activist movements which rally under the mantle of democracy; their goals, I take it, are not _usually_ for procedurally democratic practices, but rather for the interests of some (apparently) marginalized group. (This observation is tainted by the fact that many groups, though, take their goals to be multiple.) This shift in meaning is not confined to the left, of course. Conservative think-tanks use the term just as loosely. _Democracy_ often means _liberalism_; and _liberalism_ often means _justice-all-things-considered_. (Recall the confusion often glimpsed in GOV2030: Political Concepts.)

As to the substantive question: perhaps I'm not the right person to ask for a wholehearted defense of procedural democracy! But 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.

Sean said...


The usage of leftists to which you refer need not be a counterexample to what I say, if what you have in mind is a claim like this, "Until we eliminate these massive disparities in wealth, American democracy will be a sham". That usage can, and, I claim, in most cases should, be given a procedural interpretation: since economic power affects political power, there will be no true democracy, in which people have roughly equal say in the decision-making process, until the country is regulated by just laws of distribution. Things are complicated by the fact that many lefists think that if everyone did have equal power or influence in the legislative process then the laws would be more equitable. Given that belief, the fact that the laws are so inequitable might be thought to be evidence for disproportionate power, in which case one might say something like "Look at these unjust laws" when someone asks "Why is America undemocratic?".

I do not deny, of course, that 'democracy' is a contested term and lacks unequivocal content. But even vague terms can be used incorrectly and are based on patterns of use. An apple cannot be called democratic. I acknowledge the usage of applying 'democratic' to inegalitarian societies (as in Rawls), and the noun 'democracy' is used in the different ways you describe. But I am denying that many people say that (1) a procedure is undemocratic if it produces unjust outcomes, even if it produces those outcomes by referenda, votes by an elected legislature, etc., and (2) if a procedure produces just outcomes then it is democratic, even if the procedure was dictatorial. I find it very implausible that many people would affirm (2) and say, for example, that a totalitarian state decides matters by a democratic procedure if its laws are just.

Lucas said...


I don't think that anyone but Cold War apologists for Stalinism say that (2) is true; and I doubt that even they would make the claim that (2) is part of ordinary usage. In any case, Beitz, Dworkin, and Rawls neither commit themselves to (2), nor do they make the claim that (2) is part of ordinary usage. I think that only (1) is at issue in the disagreement you have in mind.

Sean said...

"In any case, Beitz, Dworkin, and Rawls neither commit themselves to (2), nor do they make the claim that (2) is part of ordinary usage." I won't speak of Rawls, because I think he's in a separate category ('justice implies democracy') than Beitz and Dworkin ('democracy implies justice'). I interpret as much as they can be harmed, then the procedure is not in any way democratic or unfair, and (2) if all of the interests are satisfied perfectly, the procedure is perfectly democratic and fair. These are idle possibilities that are never realized. In other cases, one can appeal to these interests to justify statements like 'this procedure is less fair or democratic than that one' or (as is more often the case with Beitz) 'neither of these procedures has a greater claim to being fair and democratic than the other'. Given that interpretation of complex proceduralism, it does not imply the second statement from my last comment; but it would seem to imply statements like this: a totalitarian state that produces just outcomes is not completely and utterly undemocratic; if a totalitarian state produces just outcomes, its decision-making procedures are more democratic than if it produced slightly less just outcomes. I think those two statements are absurd, almost as absurd as (2) from the last post.

Although Beitz gives us no guidance on how to weight the three interests, one might have thought that they should be weighted equally. In that case, a totalitarian state that produces perfectly just outcomes is just as democratic as a... let's call it a direct, "referendum"-based system, to keep things neutral, in which everyone has an equal vote and the interest in recognition is perfectly satisfied, but which produces very unjust outcomes (holding constant the interest in deliberative responsibility). That consequence is also absurd, so we should either reject an equal weighting of the interests or complex proceduralism.

Don said...

To reply--. I actually do think a lot of people affirm your (2), i.e., that a procedure, while, e.g., dictatorial, is _democratic_ as long as the outcome or policy reached is equitable. I am not defending this use; I am partial to your understanding of _democratic_. But I think the usage we seem to want is not widely held.

And I think that many people will affirm your (1), since many hold that, if a procedure reaches unjust outcomes, then it didn't adequately involve the relevant parties. This is not, I think, a surprising slide. Rule-by-the-many can be shifted to rule-for-the-many; when a policy is not _for_ the many, then it is not _by_ the many, and so it is undemocratic.

The leftist group you have in mind isn't the one I did. If it were, then I'd agree that no counter-example would be posed. This dispute over what _some_ groups have in mind might be a dead-end, however, since we might just be arguing about mysterious and controvertible agendas. So let me try to chart what would make the slide to your (1) unsurprising. I can't argue for the popularity of (2); but I think your post should easily admit of an explanation for (1).

I think a lot of groups might clamor for some change in policy without clamoring for a change in the resources that would make a difference for political participation. They might just clamor for a change in _how_ resources are used by the regime.

And they might do so in the name of _democracy_, exactly from the belief you cite as complicating: (S) an unjust outcome is taken as general evidence of a flawed procedure, in which case an unjust outcome is never produced by a good procedure. If, then, there is an unjust outcome, it must have come from a bad procedure. When an outcome is inequitable, it must, on this view, stem from a flawed procedure. And there's your recipe for the slide: if one holds to (S), then one is given the resources to affirm your (1): insofar as a policy is inequitable, it must be undemocratic. The culprit is (S), which you readily take as often motivating. In response to the believer in (S), you might argue, "But the procedure isn't undemocratic" [as you wave your hands at slides on political participation and resource allocation]. His response will be, "But then the institutions you think are _democratic_ can't be properly-so-called, because (S) rules out the chance that unjust outcomes could be produced by democratic means."

Now, (S) need not slide into (2), since (S) allows that just outcomes might be produced by flawed procedures; and so (S) fails to explain how Lucas's Stalinist might be motivated. I can't say much more about (2): but we might just entertain the confusion between (a) rule-for-the-many and (b) rule-by-the-many. (1) argues that ~(a) means ~(b). But it would not be surprising to me to find someone who thought that ~(b) means ~(a). We might consider such a person to be a radical democrat, and such people are not rare, I think.

Sean said...

The diagnosis of the slide you describe sounds a plausible psychological narrative, although I still don't think that it's a slide that many competent English speakers commit.

I'll respond to your comments on the substantive issue later this weekend after I've written a bit more of my paper on Beitz.

Josh Cherniss said...

(Having written the following, I realise that it probably doesn't actually contradict anything written thus far, or tell anyone anything that they show signs of not knowing; but I do hope that I've at least articulated some general considerations relevant to this discussion that perhaps haven't been directly addressed. I've also probably said some things that some or all will want to take issue with. Given this group, I'd be surprised, and disappointed, if I hadn't. But sorry if much of it seems either obvious -- or wrongheaded -- or both.)
On the question of 'ordinary usage', I think we need to be careful: I agree that words tend to be used in certain ways that give them a vaguely determinate meaning -- or a limited range of accepted or recognised meanings -- and that any use of the term should be compatible with that usage. Still, I think that political theory which appeals to ordinary usage runs up against two possible (though hardly fatal) problems: first, that 'ordinary usage' is, while not completely boundless or indeterminate, still often vague, various, confused, contradictory, etc.; and second, what 'ordinary people' (however one might define that) say is an empirical question, and I'm not sure that we're well positioned to pronounce on what that is, in general, from our own position (I've had very few conversations about the meaning of democracy with 'ordinary people'; and I'm not sure that I'd find the term used in the same way by 'ordinary people' in different places.)
All of this is just to say that I think one should canvass the ways that terms such as democracy tend to be used -- and have tended to be used throughout history -- but one shouldn't expect that doing so will necessarily yield a definition, or allow you to determine which of two possible alternative definitions is correct, or whether a particular account of democracy is wrong. I also think that, when we political theorists try to analyze such terms, we are (or should be) trying to serve two often divergent goals: trying to be faithful to the way the word is used by members of our society, so as to keep our analyses rooted in political reality; and trying to define terms in as sharp and clarifying a way as possible, so that they can do analytic work well.
I also think that it's worth noting that the debate over the meaning of democracy that you're looking at here, Sean, as well as other and earlier ones, is itself a political debate (this is still more true of some of the earlier debates -- e.g. those during the Cold War).
My own inclination, with these considerations in mind, is to try to avoid adopting a definition that will be incompatible with a widely accepted usage of the word (and with the historical uses of the word that we endorse or that have informed our own present outlook); but within the parameters set by that, to select the definition that one thinks will do the best work, that will produce the best results. Any definition should be defended in those terms, and not just as being the most compatible with ordinary usage. That said, I tend to agree with Sean's argument about the meaning of democracy -- not because I think it better tracks ordinary usage (which, as I said, is an empirical question I don't feel able to answer), but because I prefer to define terms such as democracy more narrowly so as to keep them as distinct from other values or concepts as possible. This in turn reflects my own preference for a piecemeal approach, and tendency towards value pluralism. Those who don't share these proclivities, though, may find this unappealing.
And, indeed, even I think that democracy shouldn't be defined in exclusively procedural terms, but also in terms of valuing a certain sort of equality of relations between citizens (this is reflected both in Cohen's 'democratic society' and in Tocqueville's definition of democracy as characterised by equality of condition). That being the case, I can see the point in claiming that democratic processes that produce deeply unequal conditions between citizens (when I say 'deeply unequal', I mean that equality of standing and of political rights, as well as equality of condition or power or material wellbeing, are violated) are 'undemocratic' (whether truly democratic procedures would produce such results is itself an open question; but I see no reason for holding, a priori, that they wouldn't.)
Ok, I've gone on too long, to too little purpose.

Josh Cherniss said...

P.S. Oh, and welcome aboard, Lucas!

Sean said...

I agree with your remarks on appeals to ordinary usage. I posed these questions about usage mainly out of curiosity; Lucas and I agree that how people use the term 'democracy' is not the most pressing concern for democratic theory and is too difficult to characterize, because of its diffuseness, to be of any help. But we still disagree about the usage question, and I would like to know who is more tuned in to ordinary usage and who is in the grip of a philosophical theory.

Lucas said...


Your characterisation of the "slide" strikes me as being on target. I suspect that many people have those thoughts in just the way you've laid them out. Though with Josh, I would not try to offer more evidence for it than is already given by its plausibility as a narrative.

Sean, you say:

"a totalitarian state that produces just outcomes is not completely and utterly undemocratic; if a totalitarian state produces just outcomes, its decision-making procedures are more democratic than if it produced slightly less just outcomes. I think those two statements are absurd, almost as absurd as (2) [i.e., "if a procedure produces just outcomes then it is democratic, even if the procedure was dictatorial"]."

In response, I do not think that people like Beitz or Dworkin need to think that these statements are true in order to commit themselves to the truth of (1), i.e., "a procedure is undemocratic if it produces unjust outcomes". That is because they might affirm all three of the following propositions:

(A) In order to be democratic, political decision making procedures must be fair, according to the standards of fairness that apply to them.
(B) Both pure procedural and outcome-oriented standards of fairness apply to such procedures.
(C) Pure procedural fairness requires equal participation of some kind (e.g., 'one person, one vote'), but does not require that every person have exactly the same prospects of getting the outcomes he or she wants (hence, gerrymandering can be fair in the pure procedural sense; and it is democratic if, in addition, its consequence is to produce outcomes that are fair).

I think this position is consistent with the usage you contest; and it rules out benevolent dictatorships as being undemocratic.

Sean said...


The position you describe is reasonable and does not have the absurd consequences I imputed to Beitz's position. But it is not Beitz's position. The position you describe says that in order to be fair, a procedure must satisfy outcome-based criteria of fairness. But you're speaking of necessary conditions, whereas Beitz is not concerned with necessary conditions of fairness, but with making comparative judgments based on weightings of the different interests. Although he never says this explicitly, you might take it as implicit in his discussions that a necessary condition of a procedure having any claim at all to being fair and democratic, or of being democratic and fair in some measure, is that it satisfy the interest in recognition, or some other purely procedurally-oriented interest, to some extent. You are then making it a necessary condition of a procedure being fair to any degree that it satisfy this interest to some degree. That would rule out the case of the benevolent totalitarian state, if the state was completely totalitarian. But to what degree must it satisfy the interst in recognition? Unless you make this threshold especially high, you will still have counterintuitive examples of basically totalitarian states, which make some concessions to the interest in recognition, but have greater claims to using fair democratic procedures because of their just policies than do misguided democracies.

Admittedly, once you start making these amendations to Beitz's position, but retain the commitment to an unspecified weighting of the interests, it becomes more difficult to criticize the position, because the position has fewer determinate implications. If there is any analogue to an unfalsifiable hypothesis in normative political theory, complex proceduralism is a leading candidate. "This matters in some way, but that matters in some way, too; resolve conflicts by using your intuitive judgment." Surely political theory has has more to offer against pre-theoretical, intuitive approaches to politics than that!

Don said...

A few notes to clarify my comment (at 5/5/06, 4.14P)--.

I take the cautionary notes which Josh and Lucas have given as true. Luckily, I ain't claiming much more than merely anecdotal evidence.

I sought to show how the slide to Sean's (1) and (2) can be easily (but not rightly) done, so that I could show how "competent" Anglophones might embrace the usage about which Sean is skeptical. To that end, I supplied a "psychological narrative" about what might motivate such a slide.

Sean has an intuition against (1) and (2) in common political understanding; I have the intuition that (1) and (2) are more common than he thinks. This is an empirical question about which we can say little more. But I gave that narrative to show how it is not unreasonable to affirm (1) or (2), given some assumptions which seem motivating, i.e., to show how "competent" Anglophones can affirm (1) and (2) quite sensibly--though not justifiably, all-things-considered.

But the point of my post was not simply to supply that narrative. I wanted to point out an interesting feature of Sean's previous post. If I read Sean's comment rightly, then Sean claimed that lots of activists embrace what I called (S) and that few people embrace (1). I wanted to show how (S) supports (1), such that it is puzzling how Sean admits of (S), but not of (1). By my lights, Sean should, by virtue of (S), be amenable to the claim that (1) is very popular.

So in sum: the affirmation of (1) and (2) seems pretty unsurprising, as I've said. But what's more: Sean's own comments regarding (S) seem to show that Sean himself can easily countenance (1) as within common political understanding.

Sean said...


S (an unjust outcome is evidence of an undemocratic procedure) "supports" (1) only in the sense that it explains why someone might be errantly led to accept (1). I think few people are errantly led to accept (1) because of S, although many people might appear to accept (1), when they are in fact saying S, e.g., "This procedure is undemocratic," "Why?", "...because it produces unjust outcomes", where the person takes the question to be asking for their evidence, not for a logical derivation.

Again, all of these hunches about usage apply only to the phrase 'democratic procedure', not to phrases like 'democratic society' or 'democratic culture', much less to 'democracy.' I agree it's an empirical question, and all of this is more or less idle speculation.

Don said...

Sean, I am very puzzled. Your (1) says: If a procedure produces unjust outcomes, then that procedure is undemocratic. My (S) says: An unjust outcome is evidence of an undemocratic procedure. I don't see how (S) fails to support, inerrantly, (1).

Perhaps I am missing how you mean (1). Is (1) saying that un-democracy is what an unjust outcome consists in, and vice versa, i.e., that they are the same concept(s)? If so, then I misread your (1). But if (1) says that an unjust outcome just allows one to call a procedure "undemocratic," then (S) seems inerrantly to support (1). (I haven't read closely all of the previous posts between y'all, so I might have missed something crucial, I admit.)

To say that an unjust outcome is evidence of un-democracy (or, rather, an undemocratic procedure) is to say that an unjust outcome cannot be produced by democratic means. Now, what we mean by "cannot" depends on how you take "evidence." Footprints in the shape of a human foot are evidence of a human step insofar as
one should not reasonably expect an animal to have human feet--insofar as an animal cannot have human feet. If one is not reasonably to expect that unjust outcomes were produced by democratic means, because unjust outcomes are evidence for an undemocratic procedure, then one holds (S) in a way which would imply (1). If a human footprint is good evidence for a human presence, and if a human presence is what would produce human footprints, then: when I come across a human footprint, I can say that the productive presence was human. And when I come across an unjust outcome, I can call the productive procedure undemocratic. My point is that what's doing the work in (1) is actually (S).

But if I am reading your previous comment rightly, then is your (1) meant to argue that injustice and non-democracy are coextensive concepts? If that's so, then I think we agree (about (S)'s erroneous slide to (1)). Also: I just want to make it clear that I'm no longer arguing for the empirical aspect of this, just about the conceptual relationship between (S) and (1).

Sean said...


Yes, there's no disagreement between us. I agree with everything you wrote. I should have made it more clear that (1) was stating an (alleged) conceptual relationship between justice and democratic procedures.

Lucas said...

I don't know whether it's better to start a new post, or paste this here.

"Venezuela's Chavez proposes referendum on holding office until 2031"

Associated Press

Caraca, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez said Saturday that Venezuelan voters should have the chance to decide whether he should govern the country for the next 25 years.

Speaking at a stadium packed with supporters in central Lara state, Chavez said he would hold a referendum to put the question of his remaining in office to Venezuelans if the opposition pulls out of upcoming presidential elections.

"I am going to ask you, all the people, if you agree with Chavez being president until 2031," he said.

It was not clear if Chavez was talking about holding a legally binding vote to eliminate term limits or proposing a plebiscite.

Chavez said Friday that he said he might seek "indefinite" re-election through a referendum if the opposition boycotts the presidential vote.

"I would call a national referendum to have the people decide if I can continue here indefinitely or if I have to go after six years," he said.

Opposition leaders accuse Chavez, a former paratroop commander first elected in 1998, of becoming increasingly authoritarian and opening dangerous divisions along class lines in Venezuela — the world's fifth largest oil exporter.

The Venezuelan Constitution allows a president to be re-elected only once in immediate succession. Chavez is eligible for re-election to another six-year term in December, but if he wins he would not be able to run again in 2012.

Polls indicate Chavez is likely to win the Dec. 3 election, and international observers have signed off on recent votes as fair.

Four government opponents have announced plans to run against Chavez, although not all have agreed to participate in primaries to choose a single opposition candidate.

Sean said...

So is it unclear whether he is proposing ending term limits or extending the length of his term? My impression from the article was that it was the former, but maybe I misread it.

The latter seems much more offensive, at least to our democratic sensibilities. For the sake of argument let's assume that Chavez can be counted upon to do a better job of producing just outcomes than his rivals. Does Beitz have any resources for objecting to an extension of his term limit to 25 years? Presumably the burden falls, as usual, on the interest in recognition, but I'm not sure how he would articulate the objection. Are you? Maybe there is no objection if we make this assumption about Chavez and his rivals.

Lucas said...

I forgot to mention earlier.

Aside from closet-Stalinists, Richard Arneson holds a position that implies Sean's (2), i.e., "if a procedure produces just outcomes then it is democratic, even if the procedure was dictatorial."

This is because he thinks that a political procedure can be fair only in virtue of the fairness of its outcomes; and that if it is unfair in virtue of its outcomes, then it is unfair tout court.

See his "Democratic Rights at the National and Workplace Level", reprinted in Copp, Hampton, and Roemer(?), eds., The Idea of Democracy (1993).