Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

Democracy, Reason and Tolerance

In Philosophy, Political Theory on 2010/12/13 at 18:20

Written for my first graduate level course. Examining the relationship between Democracy and reason. Having read some Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, John Rawls, and my personal favourite, Richard Rorty, I answered the question “Need democracy have anything to do with reason and rationality?”


The question; “Need democracy have anything to do with reason and rationality?” is misleadingly simplistic. Democracy, on the one hand, seems to be a fairly easy enough term to understand. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines democracy “very generally” as “a method of group decision making characterized by a kind of equality among the participants at an essential stage of the collective decision making.”[1] Democracy is easy to define. Although there are gradiations and various different methods, a working political system can be fairly quickly identified as being either at least superficially democratic or not. The terms “reason and rationality” (which, for the sake of simplicity, I have taken here to be synonymous) are a bit more troublesome. We know what a democracy should look like at bare minimum, but is it possible to assertively state, in the context of politics, whether something is reasonable or not? What do we really mean when we say that something is reasonable?

If by “reason and rationality” we mean something akin to the goal of many in the Enlightenment, the answer to the question of whether or not democracy is in need of reason is no. For the sake of simplicity we will say that the goal of Enlightenment reason was/is certainty.  In the Enlightenment, the ultimate goal of thought, philosophy, science, and a result of the rest, politics, could be said to have been to achieve certainty of the truth of ideas based on a metaphysical conception that there is an ultimate truth to be grasped. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification, but I think it works for my purposes here.

The American revolutionaries, as well as the architects of many other democratic institutions, in crafting the founding documents of their new nation, appealed to the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” yet the legitimacy of the systems they established is not widely perceived to have collapsed as a result of the death of God and subsequent abandonment of the establishment of civil religion as a goal. Most atheists, meaning individuals who reject the existence of God in a monotheistic or deistic sense, would not question the legitimacy of a democratic government based on the fact that the constitution, which establishes the avenues to its right to govern, invokes God in one form or another. Secular societies throughout the Western world continue on in relative stability despite the fact that they were originally founded upon a metaphysical argument which invokes the divine in a way which is no longer considered necessary or even desirable. Most of today’s most influential thinkers on many subjects work under the assumption of the nonexistence of God and see God’s nonexistence positively, or at least neutrally. Obviously then, since the societies where the abandonment of the metaphysics of the founders is prevalent have not experienced an unraveling of democracy, democracy does not need reason as certainty.

So Enlightenment’s reason is to be put aside as being unnecessary to democracy, that seems simple enough. But what if when we say “reason and rationality” we mean something different than what the Enlightenment had in mind? What does reason have to do with democracy if metaphysics has become unnecessary to it? John Rawls makes an attempt at explaining what “reasonableness” means in a political setting by describing what he calls “Political Liberalism.” Rawls imagines a community of reasonable citizens who each possess their own comprehensive doctrines. These doctrines are comprehensive in that they are attempts at explaining everything of any importance whatsoever to the individual. Even if they are transitory or incomplete, each individual at some point falls back on some pre-assumed doctrine that can explain their experiences in terms they understand. These doctrines could be religious, philosophical, or moral, but the point is that they all contradict each other in important ways. What Rawls says makes these citizens reasonable is that they can assume that comprehensive doctrines other than their own exist and possess at least a bare minimum of validity.

This assumption on the part of reasonable citizens allows for the possibility of “reasonable pluralism,” that is, each is willing to listen to another and find areas where each comprehensive doctrine overlaps with the others in ways which allow for constructive discourse and action. This discourse and resulting action form what Rawls calls a “public political culture.” In this public political culture, politics becomes a sphere separate from the epistemological and ontological concerns of the various comprehensive doctrines held by reasonable citizens.  Although the background of political discourse is a patchwork of diverse doctrines that all disagree with each other on certain points, they are filtered and expressed publicly in a way so as to make the resulting political opinions that stem from them understandable and acceptable to someone who holds to an alternate doctrine. Citizens will often discover through this filtering process that many of their doctrines agree on certain practical points.

A Christian, a Buddhist, and an Atheist may all have different beliefs regarding what it means to be human, and all may have different ways of expressing the value they place on human life, yet all can agree that murder is wrong, at least generally speaking. This is what Rawls calls “overlapping consensus.” The parts of each comprehensive doctrine that agree with each other become the basis for discourse and any opinions expressed within the political sphere that cannot be expressed in terms that take a point within the overlapping consensus as their start, are not permissible unless they can be rephrased so as to be reasonable in this sense. There is no higher, divine truth that can be used as a measuring rod by which to judge comprehensive doctrines, rather each doctrine is judged within its interactions with others. The standard is created by the interactions between groups with different beliefs rather than from somewhere outside the entire process.

Rawls claims to have formulated a doctrine that works entirely within the domain of politics and “does not rely on anything outside it.”[2] In his reply to the critiques of his work by Jürgen Habermas, Rawls denies that his political philosophy is incapable of being freestanding without a priori metaphysical concepts. It would be easy to create a more comprehensive doctrine based upon Rawls’ purely political philosophy though. Both Rawls’ and Habermas’ ideas regarding democracy rely on a dialogical or, as Rawls calls it, omnilogical[3] model, that is, the rules and mores of a society in some way create themselves through discourse. The discourse of the society is a level playing field where no one viewpoint is considered inherently superior to another. Habermas’ political theory could be seen as being practically the same as Rawls’, but it differs fundamentally in that in Rawls’ description, the nature of political discourse does not have a profound philosophical meaning beyond politics, while Habermas’ theory of discourse seeks to be more comprehensive. As it relates to a discussion of democracy and reason, the disagreements between Habermas and Rawls demonstrates both that it is possible to draw certain philosophical conclusions from political theory and also that it is  unnecessary to do so.

In this way Rawls is in agreement with much of the theoretical political sentiments of Richard Rorty. The comprehensive doctrines that form the background noise of discourse need not be “liberal” to be admissible to political discourse, but they must bend towards what I have chosen to call “liberality.” Establishing overlapping consensus requires the imposition of a liberalist vocabulary on discourse.  To become reasonable citizens in Rawlsian politics is similar, and related to, becoming an ironist in the Rortian sense. Rorty thinks of comprehensive doctrines as different vocabularies, truths that are created through language rather than discovered through intuition. Individuals employ different vocabularies in different settings, but their personal comprehensive doctrine is contained within what he calls a “final vocabulary.” Ironists hold to their final vocabularies lightly, and thus are able to adapt their worldviews to new realities without significant difficulty. They are capable of adopting or creating new vocabularies to tackle new issues as they arise, and do not fear the loss of old vocabularies as they are replaced be new ones.

For the ironist, an issue is not solved so much as a problem is re-described. Rorty contrasts his ironist with a metaphysician;


“The metaphysician thinks that there is an overriding intellectual duty to present arguments for one’s controversial views – arguments which will start from relatively uncontroversial premises. The ironist thinks that such arguments –logical arguments- are all very well in their way, and useful as expository devices, but in the end not much more than ways of getting people to change their practices without admitting they have done so. The ironist’s preferred form of argument is dialectical in the sense that she takes the unit of persuasion to be a vocabulary rather than a proposition. Her method is re-description rather than inference…So the ironist thinks of logic as ancillary to dialectic, whereas the metaphysician thinks of dialectic as a species of rhetoric, which in turn is a shoddy substitute for logic.”[4]


Different doctrines are to be thought of as ways of thinking of things, as vocabularies, rather than as static definitions of the way things “really are.” Rorty’s irony dismisses truth as something that exists somewhere, somehow independent of language, as irrelevant pragmatically. In the spirit of Rorty’s irony, we could then abandon the terms “reason and rationality” in favor of terms such as tolerance, or liberality. If this is what we mean by “reason and rationality” then democracy surely must be in need of it to survive. Rationality as tolerance is an essential part of a working democratic system in that if the citizenry was, for the most part, incapable of being tolerant of conflicting views the entire system would collapse in either chaos or stagnation. The ability to understand, at least in some small way, the point of view of others is a vital human quality, it is what makes possible the existence of even the most primitive societies. The more complex thought and language becomes, the more complex a society may be and, therefore, the more there is need for toleration of different interpretations of the world.

We should do away with the notion of reason and rationality in democracy. Tolerance, irony, and liberality are the necessary features of a thriving democracy, not some profound metaphysical reason for being. A democracy need not be rational in the sense of adhering to a transcendent logic, but it must be coherent in that it is consistent in adhering to an internal logic that does not require any philosophical justification. Rawls effectively re-describes what it means to be reasonable in politics, but perhaps he would have done better just to replace the word with tolerance or liberality from the beginning. Calling someone a “reasonable citizen” seems clunky and potentially misleading. Tolerant citizens seem more appealing and straightforward. But what of the question; why democracy in the first place?

We find ourselves within a tradition dedicated to the idea of democracy, and all alternative forms of government seem unappealing in that they can not protect our individual liberties in the way that democracy can, so during peace time in Western republics democracy is a matter of contingency. What about countries where democracy has not taken root? What about times when matters of security and expediency seem to demand a streamlining of the process of governing that require a curtailing of democracy? Why should we remain dedicated to fostering democracy there and then?

Here we can turn to solidarity. As Rorty describes it, solidarity is “the ability to see more and more traditional differences as unimportant when compared with similarities with respect to pain and humiliation – the ability to think of people wildly different from ourselves as included in the range of ‘us.”[5] Hannah Arendt’s account of Eichmann in Jerusalem provides an example of a total failure of solidarity. Eichmann, a Nazi bureaucrat who was captured decades after WWII and tried in Jerusalem, simply failed to think deeply about the lives of the people he was sending to their deaths. He lacked any solidarity with his victims. He could make excuses for his behavior and justify his role in one of history’s greatest crimes to himself because he refused to think about the pain and humiliation that the individual Jews he sent to their deaths would endure. The problem was not that Eichmann needed to read a treatise on the precious nature of the human essence embodied in every individual.  He didn’t need to be convinced of the metaphysical wrongness of what was going on. He didn’t need his culpability in the entire endeavor spelled out for him logically. He simply needed to take the time to think about the suffering he was causing.

Democratic systems have simply been demonstrated to be the most effective political means of protecting the liberties and well being of people. Under a dictatorship, even a benevolent one, individuals suffer the pain and humiliation of being less than as free as possible. A system where people are not equal in decision making lends itself to a collapse of solidarity because people draw more distinctions between themselves instead of less.

Some of the most seemingly profound questions of political theory seem to have little to do with actual politics. Once we move past the idea of there needing to be reason and rationality in democracy, we can focus instead on being tolerant citizens who seek to preserve and advance the fundamentals of democracy not because it makes sense, but because of the freedoms it provides and the solidarity with others that it can foster.