Defining Democracy

Defining Democracy

Method of group decision making characterised by a kind of equality among the participants at an essential stage of the collective decision making.

Key points: ‘collective’ therefore concerns a particular group; there can be lots of different groups both political and familial; normative weight is not entailed or implied; could be more or less deep i.e. formal definition ‘one person one vote’, or more robust including a definition of equality in the process of decision making; participation can be either direct on the part of the agent or indirectly through selected representatives.

Schumpeter is an example of a thinker that argues for a formal kind of democracy in which elites are representative of the people rather than the dangerous ambition of equality across membership of the group.

Rousseau is an example of a thinker who connects the formal kind of democracy with slavery, whereas robustly egalitarian democracies are the only forms that have political legitimacy.

Is democracy desirable at all?

Justification of Democracy

Evaluation of democracy can be along at least two different lines:

Consequentially – by reference to the outcomes of using it over other methods of political decision making; also can be termed instrumentalism

Intrinsically – by reference to qualities that are inherent in the method

Instrumental Arguments in Favour of Democracy

Two instrumental benefits are commonly attributed to democracy: relatively good law and policies, and improvements in the characters of the participants.

J.S. Mill argued that the democratic method of legislation is better than a non-democratic method in three ways: strategically, epistemically, and morally.

Strategically: democracy forces decision makers to take into account the interests, rights and opinions of most people in society. Each person in society has a little bit of political power, so more people have to be taken into account than in an aristocracy or monarchy.

Epistemically: democracy is more reliable in helping participants to come to the right decision. This is because there are more people in the process of decision making thus more sources of information and critique of the status quo. Thus, democratic decision making tends to be better informed than other forms about the interests of its citizens and the best ways in which to advance those interests.

Morally: because more people are encouraged to enter into the decision making process and are accorded political power, democracy encourages individuals to become more autonomous. In addition, people have to listen to the interests of others, to justify their opinions to others, and to take on other people’s perspectives to see their point of view.

Instrumental Arguments against Democracy

Plato believed that democracy devalued the importance of expertise in well governed societies. Democracy favours those who are expert at winning elections, and gradually this will dominate democratic politics at the expense of other expertise. As such, people in power may not have a clear handle on the different issues politics entails, they will just be good at appealing to the people’s sense of what is wrong or right, and so the state will be guided by poorly thought through ideas and leaders who are expert in manipulation.

Hobbes believed that democracy is inferior to monarchy because democracy fosters a destabilising dissension amongst members of the group. Because it feels that no individual makes a significant impact on the decisions being made, people are apt to not have any sense of responsibility for the quality of legislation in the state. Neither citizens nor politicians are directed toward the common good because they are too busy being manipulated by the process of representation.

Contemporary economic thought expands the Hobbesian criticisms, arguing that the majority of citizens are ill informed about politics and are often apathetic, leaving room for special interests on the part of the representatives to enter into the process of decision making thus furthering themselves rather than the majority. Contemporary economics theorists have also argued for the market to have near complete control over society on the grounds that more democracy has often resulted in serious economic inefficiencies.

Non-Instrumental Values (Intrinsic Arguments)

As well as being evaluated in terms of the outcomes or consequences of having/not having democracy, some people argue that it can be evaluated purely on its own terms i.e. morally desirable independently of it consequences.


Basic principles of democracy are founded on individual liberty; democracy is an extension of individual liberty into the arena of collective decision making.

1. An individual’s life is deeply affected by the larger social, cultural, or legal environment in which she lives.

2. It is only when she has an equal voice and vote that the individual will have some form of control over this larger environment.

§ Democracy is the only method of collective decision making that enables the individual to have a shot at self-government. A right to self-government entails a right to democratic participation. Moreover, the individual also has the right to get things wrong and by extension a group of individuals also have a right to make bad decisions for themselves too.

Whereas the instrumentalist argument would appear to diminish a person’s power in the process of making decisions and not find this morally problematic, the liberty argument points against this and says that our right to control our lives has been violated.

A major difficulty with the liberty argument is that it appears to require complete unanimity or consensus amongst the group with regard to the decision being made for to settle for anything less would be an imposition on an individuals environment that is not compatible with our right to self-government. The rouble is that there is rarely agreement of this strength on the major issues in politics. Decision making processes are supposed to settle matters of disagreement, but it is hard to see how they can do this whilst respecting every single individual’s liberty.

Democracy as Public Justification

The core principle of this approach is that laws and policies are legitimate to the extent that they are publicly justified to the citizens of a community where public justification is the result of free, rational debate amongst equal participants. Democracy is the context within which people give reasons for their decisions.

A major problem with this approach comes when we ask what happens when disagreement remains. A possible response to this is to say that weaker forms of consensus are appropriate for most instances of public justification i.e. there is consensus on general abstract reasons but disagreement about their particular interpretation; or there may be consensus on the list of legitimate reasons available but disagreement about the weight given to each reason.

Another problem presents itself when we ask about the need for consensus for though reasonable consensus among reasonable persons might be achievable, this does not entail actual consensus and there may well be unreasonable members of the community who can reject the terms in which consensus has been legitimated. The notion of reasonable is supposed to be fairly weak on this account and to work on the principle of reciprocity, whereby one only offers principles that others, who restrain themselves in the same way, can accept. Thus individuals are constrained from proposing laws or policies on the basis of controversial principles. One aims at the part of the whole truth that others can accept, and, as such, regulation is in a weaker sense based on overlapping consensus, thus obviating the need for complete consensus on every issue. However, it is still not clear why we should aim at consensus.


Proponents of equality argue that democracy is a good way of treating people as equals when there is a good reason to impose some form of organisation on their lives but they disagree about how best to do it. Democracy is thus a peaceable and fair compromise amongst those with conflicting claims to rule. This argument still falls prey to the argument against liberty, however, for how are we to agree in the first place on the particular form that democracy is to take? If it is by reference to a higher order, does that need to be democratically decided as well? Thus there is potential in this approach for an infinite regress.

Another argument is from the idea that public equality has a great value because all interests are taken into account equally when there is disagreement. Each individual has interests in living in a world that makes some sense to them that accords with their sense of how the social world ought to be structured. The principle of equality entails an equal say in determining common laws and policies under which the individual’s life is structured; if she does not have an equal voice, then she has grounds to claim that she is publicly being treated as inferior. However, there are a number of problems with this view.

1. Majority rule would seem necessary because it is neutral with regard to alternatives in decision-making. Unanimity tends to favour the status quo to the exclusion of persistent minority groups and ultimately the threat of majority tyranny.

2. Is the ideal of equality coherent, in particular in the modern state anyway?