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We voted that you should pay, so pay up— or else!

So runs Huemer’s initial example in considering whether political authority is justified by democracy: you’re out with a group of people at a restaurant and when the bill comes someone suggests you pay, and the motion is carried on a vote. Since we do not think this would be right, nor do we think you’d thereby be under any obligation to pay, it is clear that anyone who thinks democracy justifies political authority has to explain why what is wrong here is right for a democratic government.

(Previous posts in this line: here, here, here)

Before we get off on the wrong foot, Huemer concedes that ‘relatively speaking, democracy is admirable. In large and obvious ways it is superior to all other know forms of government’. But, and it is a big but, ‘it does not solve the problems of political authority’. This takes me to a comment made by Dr Frame at the end of the last post in this line ‘The way you describe it, contract thinking either justifies political authority, or it doesn’t.’ That is exactly right, but let’s be clear why I describe it like that: it is because it is a logical truth, of the form of excluded middle. Similarly, either democracy justifies political authority or it doesn’t. That is the question at issue. And perhaps I should clarify this further, because we don’t want to get it muddled with an entirely separate defence of political authority. The question here is whether democracy alone justifies. We must not muddle this with a defence that appeals to the good or better consequences of democratic government. Whether consequences justify political authority is a question for a later occasion.

Huemer considers two lines of argument: from the ideal of deliberative democracy and from equality. Starting with the first, Cohen’s account of a deliberative democracy is one in which deliberation unconstrained by prior norms determines the rules, reasons are offered for proposals,  equal voice is had by all and consensus is aimed at but majority vote carries if there is no consensus. Huemer points out that no actual government remotely approaches this ideal and that consequently none are legitimate on this view. Even setting that aside, were this really right then we could go back to the restaurant example, except that now we all deliberated in this ideal manner, and now you would be under an obligation to pay and we could force you if you refused. But that is obviously false just because you ‘have a pre-existing prima facie right not to be subjected to coercion. Deliberation, however fair and reasoned, does not by itself eliminate that right….the deliberative process does not constitute a reason in itself for suspending individuals’ prima facie rights’. It seems to me that that last point is the crucial point: for deliberative democracy to justify political authority would require such deliberation to have a moral power that it entirely lacks.

Christiano’s argument from equality is that we are obliged to treat one another equally, not as inferiors, such treating requires obeying democratic laws, and hence an obligation ‘to obey democratic laws’ is entailed. The first premiss is derived from the claim that ‘justice requires giving each person his due and treating like cases alike’ which is fairly uncontroversial.  However, a great deal turns here on the respects in which people are alike and unalike and whether these respects underpin or undermine the use of equality in the grounds offered for the second premiss.

I shall now summarise some of the difficulties Huemer poses for the second premiss. The argument for one part of the second premiss (equals) goes via a claim that treating equally requires ‘supporting the equal advancement of their interests’. The problem here is that this is either absurdly demanding or inadequate to the justifying obedience. It is absurdly demanding because anything but dividing our resources equally among everyone is not equal advancement, so ‘I must give away nearly everything I own’. But if we retreat from this then this cannot explain why, whilst I am free not to give a further £50 to a charity that would do some significant good with it, I am not free to withhold £50 of my taxes even if it would do less good in the government’s hands.

The argument from equal advancement goes by a claim that such advancement requires supporting democracy by obedience to the laws. Yet even if we grant that democracy is required for equal advancement it is factually false that my obedience is required, since my obedience makes essentially no difference.

Christiano also claims that only democratic equality (as opposed to, for example, equalization of resources or of liberty rights) respects his publicity principle: that justice must be both done and seen to be done. Unfortunately on a strong interpretation (each must see that it is both equal and just) this is impossible and on a weak interpretation (each sees that it is equal and it is in fact just) other conceptions of equality are not ruled out by the principle alone.

The argument for the other part of the second premiss (not inferiors) goes via a requirement to respect the person and judgement of others. If you disobey the law you are placing your judgment above that of others thereby treating them as inferiors rather than giving them the respect they are due. A telling point that Huemer makes here is that surely, in the restaurant example, it is they, not you, who are disrespectful, whereas the argument would need it to be the other way round.

‘On the face of it, the disrespect for persons and the violation of equality involved in issuing and carrying out …threats [against those who do not follow the law] are far more palpable that the supposed disrespect shown by those who do not comply with the laws’.

We must not have in mind cases such as laws against murder or theft. It is supposed to be the democracy alone that justifies the political authority, the combination of the obligation to obey the government with the legitimacy of the government to rule and to enforce its rule by coercion. If democracy really does justify then it does so independently of the content of the laws: ‘advocates of democratic authority explicitly claim that one must comply with a democratic decision regardless of whether the decision is in itself just’. For this reason Huemer detects an internal contradiction:

‘it is impossible to justify political authority if the moral principle that is supposed to general political obligation also rules out political legitimacy. In this case, the principle is that justice prohibits treating others as inferiors. If this shows the existence of an obligation to obey democratic laws, it shows much more clearly the illegitimacy of most of those laws in the first place’.

I have run over this rather quickly but I think Huemer is right: there is a deep problem here, perhaps deeper than he brings out in focusing it on one part of the argument for the second premiss. The respect due to persons will be overridden by some laws that a democracy may create but if democracy alone is to justify political authority the content of the laws cannot be bound sufficiently by the respect due to persons. Hence incipient tyranny lies in democracy when it is taken to be the source of political authority.


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4 Comment on this post

  1. Anthony Drinkwater

    I’m sure, Dr Shackel, that the arguments you outline are correct as an attack on a view that democracy is the SOLE justification for political authority.
    But I doubt that this gets us very far. In fact it appears to me to be another Huemerian straw man : who seriously believes in this manichean view that there is (or should be) one and only one justification?
    Life is more messy than that.

    You quote and write : «’The way you describe it, contract thinking either justifies political authority, or it doesn’t.’ That is exactly right, but let’s be clear why I describe it like that: it is because it is a logical truth, of the form of excluded middle. Similarly, either democracy justifies political authority or it doesn’t.»
    Yes, but the law of the excluded middle applies only to the question of whether democracy ALONE justifies political authority.
    If your argument were extended to conclude that democracy has no role in justifying authority, it would be more a question of creating a false dilemma, IMHO.

    1. Nicholas Shackel

      No straw men arguments are in play. A straw man argument is an argument that no one is actually making. Huemer is throughout addressing arguments that are actually being made: here arguments made by Cohen, Habermas and others in the case of deliberative democracy and arguments by Christiano, Wolff and others in the case of equality. So your claim that Huemer is addressing straw men is flatly false.

      Your second point is fair enough so far as it goes, but this is the significance of the point I made in the first post on this book: the burden of proof is on the person who claims political authority is justified. So Huemer can respond by asking you who is offering some kind of combination argument and what exactly that argument is. In the absence of that argument, his showing the failure of the arguments considered here combined with the location of the burden of proof does indeed suffice to conclude that democracy has no role in justifying political authority.

      1. Anthony Drinkwater

        You are certainly better-read than me, but if Habermas argued that democracy was the ONLY source of political authority, why would he write “Deliberative politics acquires its legitimating force from the discursive structure of an opinion- and will-formation that can fulfill its socially integrative function only because citizens expect its results to have a reasonable quality” ? («Between facts and norms» 1996)

        1. Nicholas Shackel

          It looks like what he is saying is that what explains deliberative democracy justifying political authority is it being constituted by ‘the discursive structure of an opinion- and will-formation that can fulfill its socially integrative function only because citizens expect its results to have a reasonable quality’. This is not identical to what Cohen takes to constitute deliberative democracy but it is clearly similar. Huemer’s arguments are against the power of such constituents to justify political authority by offering cases in which the constituents are present but no obligation arises and coercion is not justified.

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