Democracy: What’s It Good For?

Robert B. Talisse on value, politics, and a new problem for us as citizens

Democracy is hard to love. It’s noisy, frustrating, often irrational, and reliably inefficient. What’s more, it is a dubious moral proposal. Democracy is the proposition that you rightly can be forced to live according to rules that you oppose simply because they are favoured by others. But that’s not all. Democracy apportions equal political power to citizens regardless of their capacity to wield it wisely. Thus, democracy involves the claim that you rightly can be forced to live according to rules that are supported only by others who are demonstrably misinformed, foolish, irrational, or worse.

Yet we tend to embrace democracy enthusiastically. Why? Winston Churchill once proposed the following rationale: despite all of democracy’s flaws, every other form of government that has been tried is far worse. Although this rings true enough, there’s less to it than meets the eye. We ordinarily don’t regard democracy merely as the least bad among terrible options. We typically think that democracy is something to be cultivated, expanded, promoted, and fought for. Such sentiments suggest a far more favourable appraisal of democracy than Churchill’s reasoning permits. Hence our question reemerges.

Philosophers distinguish between things that are good because of what they can produce and things that are good because of what they are. Things of the former kind are instrumentally valuable, those of the latter are intrinsically valuable. The distinction has obvious merit. After all, it explains the intuitive difference between, say, money and happiness. Money is strictly a tool; it is valuable because it can be used to buy things. In the absence of purchasable things, money is worthless. Happiness is different. Happiness surely has instrumental benefits, but its value is not exhausted by them. Happiness is valuable “in itself”, all on its own.

In which way is democracy good? As was already noted, when viewed instrumentally, democracy is a mixed bag. It is wasteful and lumbering; it frequently makes costly errors that are hard to correct. Moreover, although Churchill may have been correct to say that democracy is superior to the alternatives that have been tried, there is no reason to restrict the comparison in that way. A compelling instrumental case for democracy would have to consider all of the available alternatives, not only those that have been tried. It is not difficult to envision untried systems of autocratic rule that would likely outperform democracy. On a strictly instrumental view of the value of political systems, then, we must conclude that some of these forms should be tried. Thus, a strictly instrumental case for democracy is bound to be flimsy.

Perhaps, then, democracy’s value is intrinsic. The difficulty here lies with the elusiveness of the idea of intrinsic value. Once one moves beyond the intuitive difference between goods like money and happiness, the concept gets murky. What does it mean for something to be valuable in itself?

A response that goes back to Aristotle holds that whereas we desire money simply because we desire things that can be bought, we desire happiness full stop. Although this is commonly regarded as a satisfactory elucidation of the idea of intrinsic value, it ultimately does not accomplish much. For one thing, it prompts an immediate follow-up: what about happiness renders it a thing to be desired full stop? This question occasions a successor: does the distinction between instrumental and intrinsic value amount only to a difference in our desires? Here Aristotle appears to get things backwards. It might have seemed that we desire happiness in itself because it is intrinsically valuable. But Aristotle’s view has it that happiness is intrinsically value due to our desire for it.

In any case, the notion of desiring something in this self-contained way occasions notorious philosophical difficulties. We can avert these by asking simply: Do we favour democracy full stop? It’s not obvious that we do. Simply recall the most recent occasion on which your favoured candidate or policy lost in a crucial election. Our enthusiasm for democracy wanes when it produces what we regard as a flawed result. Accordingly, the idea that democracy’s value is intrinsic looks unpromising.

So, what’s so great about democracy? Perhaps the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental value is too coarse. Consider that sometimes it is part of the nature of a valuable thing to produce other good things. In such cases, a thing might be good largely because of the goods it produces, but it is nonetheless not merely a tool for producing them. To capture this idea, let’s introduce the idea of something’s value being bound up with what it is good for.

It might initially strike us that talk of something’s being good for securing other good things is merely a roundabout way of talking about instrumental value. We have already said that money is good for buying things; this is simply to note that money is instrumentally valuable. Still, there are more complex ways in which a thing’s value can reside in what it is good for.

For example, observe that both physical fitness and walking sticks are good for hiking. But fitness is good for hiking in a way that differs from the way in which the stick is good. Unlike the stick, fitness is not merely a tool for hiking; instead, it enables hiking in a way that contributes to the goodness of the hike. Fitness not only makes hiking possible; it also makes hikes invigorating and enjoyable. Notice also that hiking in turn contributes to fitness. We might say that the goods of fitness and of hiking reinforce one another. It is by means of fitness that we hike well; and hiking well enhances our fitness.

Turn now to the stick. Hiking does not enhance the stick, and in the absence of hiking, the stick is simply a piece of wood. The stick is hence strictly a tool for hiking. By contrast, fitness is partly constitutive of the goodness of hiking. We could say that hiking and fitness are bound up with one another; they are correlative goods.

Hiking and fitness are not unique in this respect. Friendship and enrichment provide another example. Friendship enables persons to enjoy certain kinds of enriching experiences; it is good for that kind of edification. Moreover, sharing such experiences among friends fortifies their bonds, deepening their friendship. This is part of the reason why friends often try new things together; they grow with one another. It moreover explains why friendships turn stale when they become rote; they stagnate, they can get “stuck”. Still, it would be an error to say that the value of friendship lies strictly in its being a tool for personal growth. Indeed, conceiving of one’s friendships instrumentally dissolves them.

These considerations suggest that a thing’s value can lie in its capacity to enable something else of value, which in turn reciprocates. This third way of being valuable – being “good for” other goods – strikes a middle path between instrumental and intrinsic value. Although it recognises that something can be good in more than a strictly instrumental sense, it does not make use of the idea of something’s good being self-contained. When a thing’s value lies in its being good for something else, its good lies with the contribution it makes to other things of value. This contribution distinguishes being “good for” from being merely an instrument.

Perhaps democracy’s value lies in what it is good for. On such a view, democracy’s value resides in its capacity to foster important correlative goods. What are these correlative goods?

Let’s start by thinking about what democracy is. We typically define democracy in terms of its institutions and procedures – elections, votes, majoritarianism, representative bodies, and the like. However, it is difficult to make sense of these without appeal to an underlying moral ideal that they serve. To be specific, democracy is the fundamental moral ideal of self-government among social equals. Democracy proposes that a stable and relatively just social order is possible in the absence of dictators and kings. It is the claim that through processes of political representation and accountability, citizens can rule themselves as equals. Democracy thus is more than a form of government; it is a kind of society in which no one is another’s master, but each an equal author of a shared political order.

This is why even though in a democracy we sometimes must accept political decisions that we regard as misguided, none of us is ever required to submit simply to political power. Even after the votes are counted, those who find themselves on the losing side are entitled to continue objecting, criticising, and calling government to account. Even in the face of electoral defeat, we therefore remain equals.

At any rate, that’s the ideal of democracy. We all know how far from ideal existing democracies tend to be. Nevertheless, ideals are important because they provide a potent basis for social aspiration and critique, a public stance from which one can object to existing conditions as inadequately egalitarian and thus insufficiently democratic. Accordingly, to be more precise, we can say that a democracy is a society organised around the working aspiration for self-government among political equals.

The crucial point at present is that by creating a political order in which equals rule themselves by way of representative and accountable government, democracy sets the conditions under which we can pursue other valuable things. In freeing us from the dominating gaze of omni-present politics which characterises authoritarian orders, democracy supplies social conditions in which we can devote our individual and collective lives, at least in part, to projects and ambitions other than politics. In other words, because we are political equals, we can build relationships beyond our political roles and see one another as something in addition to political actors. As equal authors of a shared political order, we can exercise authorship of our nonpolitical lives by cultivating valuable relationships with others – relationships of creativity, support, fidelity, love, and care that have little if anything to do with politics. It might seem odd, but democracy’s value lies in its being good for enabling valuable relationships beyond politics. We could go so far as to say that the importance we place on democracy is explained, at least in part, by its ability to secure the political and social conditions under which we can flourish together not only as citizens, but as human beings.

Importantly, the good of such nonpolitical relationships reciprocates; democracy is enriched when it is conducted against their background. To explain, in a democracy, there will be ongoing disagreement over the proper understanding of the most important values, including justice, liberty, autonomy, and dignity. Among democratic citizens, disagreements over these matters remain disputes among equals. Consequently, citizens must stand up vigilantly for their political commitments while also recognising that, within a broad spectrum of opinion, citizens championing competing views will sometimes legitimately get their way. Put in these terms, we see that democratic citizenship involves a demanding civic ethos according to which being right about even the most important values does not by itself entitle one to get one’s way in the political arena.

In order to sustain the stance required by this ethos, citizens must be able to see one another as something more than political rivals and allies. They must view one another as also persons striving to live valuable lives according to their own best lights. Valuable social relationships beyond the travails of democratic politics enable citizens to maintain their commitment to the equality of those with whom they are politically opposed. Put differently, unless democracy is conducted within a broader environment of valuable nonpolitical relationships, when the political chips are down, we will find ourselves unable to regard our rivals as nonetheless our equals. The civic ethos of democracy dissolves. Under such conditions, democracy devolves into a kind of cold civil war. Hence, in order to perform well as democratic citizens, we must cooperate together in contexts beyond the travails of politics; we must be able to regard our fellow citizens as more than merely citizens.

I have been arguing that democracy’s value lies in its being good for fostering valuable human relationships organised around ideals and aspirations that are themselves not political in nature. I have suggested further that the good of such relationships is correlative with democracy; relationships of that kind make a distinctive and essential contribution to democracy’s flourishing. Hence our initial question finds its answer. We value democracy because the equality that it embodies is a constituent of the aspiration to live valuable lives.

If this account is correct, a surprising implication follows. In my recent book, Overdoing Democracy, I document trends by which our social environments have been colonised by our partisan political identities. It is no stretch to say that in many contemporary democracies, individuals’ entire lifestyles – everything from where they live and shop, how they get to work, the kind of work they do, where they spend their holidays and weekends, and how they decorate their homes – now tightly reflect their politics. This has led to a condition where the social spaces citizens inhabit in their day-to-day lives are increasingly likely to put them in contact only with others who share their politics. What this means is that individuals are more and more behaving in ways that publicly express their political allegiances, but under conditions that are politically homogeneous. As the horizon of social interaction shrinks in this way, we begin to regard those who hold political ideas that differ from our own as increasingly alien, inscrutable, irrational, and dangerous. In short, we lose sight of what our political rivals are nevertheless our equals; thus, the capacities that we need in order to uphold the democratic civic ethos deteriorate. In short, when the whole of our social life is organised around democratic politics, we undermine our ability to perform well as citizens.

The ubiquity of democratic politics is democratically degenerative. Hence the surprising upshot: if we want to contribute to the flourishing of democracy, we need to acknowledge that, even in a democracy, we cannot live well by politics alone. We need occasionally to step back from democratic politics and together attend to other things.

Robert B. Talisse is W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University and author of Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Political in its Place (Oxford University Press, 2019).