The Basis of Democracy
The Liberal Idea of Freedom.
by David Spitz.
University of Arizona Press. 210 pp. $5.50.
For some time there has been a strong revival of interest in the political theory of democracy. Starting with the publication in 1951 of the impressive Philosophy of Democratic Government by the late Professor Yves Simon of Chicago, many contributions, some of the first quality, have been made to the study of democratic principles. The main questions giving life to these books are: What are the social and cultural preconditions of a democratic political system? What moral values inhere in democratic practices? What moral ends should be served by democratic means? What moral standards provide the ultimate justification for a democratic political system? These questions have acquired urgency from a number of developments.
There is first the widespread movement in the emergent nations of the world to introduce or strengthen democratic institutions, in imitation of their former Western rulers; or at least to make certain democratic pretenses. Allowed the unbelievable delight of witnessing the deliberate creation of political forms and methods, political scientists have responded with serious thought, especially about the preconditions of democracy. Second, the labor of political scientists in the past thirty or forty years is now composing itself into a fairly coherent picture of the workings of democracy in America. In many ways, that picture does not correspond to pious expectations; and to the degree that it does not, appropriate adjustments in the moral theory of democracy seem called for and are being made. Studies of the formation of policy on all levels of government and in all branches underline the decisive importance of organized interests and private influence, and reduce almost to nullity the role of individual conscience or popular sentiment. On the other hand, studies of voting behavior indicate large amounts of apathy, ignorance, and irrationality in the mass electorate. The conclusion that apparently begs to be drawn—and a number of political scientists have drawn it—is that “the people” do not rule, and thank heaven for that. The most they have and the most they deserve is a vague final control over a few lines of (mostly domestic) policy: let political theory assimilate the political facts of life. Sometimes in disappointment, sometimes too casually, a harsh realism has indeed come to characterize American democratic thought.
Last, and most important, the onslaught of critical philosophy has induced a terrible self-consciousness about the justification of democracy. Claims for the superiority of the democratic form of government have traditionally rested mainly on moral grounds. Yet the status of moral claims of any sort has been subjected to rather shriveling treatment by logical positivists and others. How then to restate the case for democracy? One of the most interesting efforts has been made by Professor David Spitz of Ohio State University. In two earlier books—Patterns of Anti-Democratic Thought (1949), and Democracy and the Challenge of Power (1958)—Spitz ably championed democratic practice against fascist and aristocratic misrepresentations, and at the same time tried to clarify and assess its inevitable deficiencies. He was of the company of realists, but had measure and generosity. The present volume, a collection of articles and reviews published from 1949 to 1961, carries on the same fight, and gets in some good blows against the neo-conservatives. However, the real usefulness of the book comes from a few essays in which Spitz takes up the theme of the moral claims of democracy.
All his work makes it unmistakably clear that Spitz's ultimate commitment is to the dignity and welfare of the individual, and that he is a democrat because of this commitment. But he goes to great pains to disguise his position, not primarily because the exigencies of persuasion make that tactic preferable, but mostly because he believes that any commitment is philosophically suspect. Spitz therefore strives—and this is characteristic not only of him but of many other American political scientists—for the least moralistic defense of democracy possible. It is a defense of democracy that tries to do without the growth of character as its final argument. It is a defense that rejects or ignores such views as that democracy is more liable to pursue the common good, or can make by far the best claim to having rationality in decision and justice in outcome. It is a defense that goes out of its way to show that democracy does not mean that the people actually rule: the principle of self-determination has no place. It is a defense that throws away almost the whole tradition. What then does it make do with?
The answer is to think of democracy as essentially a process of social compromise, or as a procedure for permitting social changes to come about peacefully and conflicts of interests to be softened or resolved. The nature of those changes and compromises and the merits of those interests remain exempt from the scrutiny of the theorist, as long as they do not impair or threaten to abolish the process or procedure. The system responds to pressure, and interests benefit according to their strength. The system is sensitive to novelty, and facilitates the translation into political power of all other kinds of power. It thus turns out that the decisive, publicly stated argument for democracy is that it is the political system most likely to preserve domestic peace, once there are the appropriate social and cultural preconditions. In addition, civil liberties and legal protections are to be justified not as instrumental to the integrity of the individual and to his self-realization, but as necessary to the working of the democratic process. Changes and compromises emerge democratically only if all are free to speak and write as they please, to associate, to vote, to come and go. Within the limits of the law, the uses to which freedom is put do not concern the democratic theorist. No ideal of human character or social arrangement, no scale of priorities, upholds the process. In his private capacity, the theorist will have his opinions and fight for them. As a philosopher, however, he knows that it is philosophy itself which tells him to make peace the heart of the matter.
The key to Spitz's position is a theory of moral judgment. This is where philosophy enters to make the defense of democracy a formalist enterprise, all idealism suppressed. Spitz is convinced that the doctrine generally called moral relativism is correct. An old doctrine of many parts, moral relativism has often worked to make men more humane, and to liberate them from a superstitious attachment to their codes. In its best form, the doctrine teaches that though there are a few standards all societies must follow simply to make any common life possible (prohibitions against murder, lying, theft), the expectation is that societies will vary greatly from each other in their moral tone. For whatever reasons, different societies will exploit different human qualities, liberate some energies while subduing others; will interpret reality differently and therefore guide behavior by different beliefs. The only acceptable response to this variety is not disgust or condescension, but an enlarged sense of human possibility and a deepened sense of the tyrannous force of circumstances. Moral judgments made by one culture about another become suspect; but the quest for the essentially or uniquely human may go on. In its worst form, moral relativism teaches that values or standards have no necessary connection to human nature, or to reason or knowledge; that the expression of a judgment is merely an expression of feeling; that no rules govern moral discourse or the use of evaluative words; that the foundation of any system of values is an arbitrary choice; and that consequently everyone is entitled to judge as he pleases: “it's all relative.”
Spitz's thought has touches of the best and worst in relativism, together with other relativist ingredients. He is driven to his relativism by the weaknesses he sees in every absolutist doctrine—for instance, natural law; he would be an absolutist if he could, but since he cannot, he must be a relativist. To be an absolutist means that one can prove that his standards of moral judgment are correct, as one can prove that sugar will dissolve in water. But no one has ever proved the validity of his values to Spitz's satisfaction. No one is therefore allowed to make a special claim for his values. It is only human to have values; but Spitz's own, those of a welfarist democracy, are not subject to discussion, are not meant to appeal to reason or to be intellectually persuasive or defensible, and are to be put aside in favor of a basically non-moral rationale for democracy. There is no way of proving that democracy is morally superior to any other form of government, or that in a democracy one faction is morally superior to another. Spitz admiringly cites some silly words by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “. . . all law means I will kill you if necessary to make you conform to my requirements.” “. . . there is no superior arbiter—it is one of taste—but when men differ in taste as to the kind of world they want the only thing to do is to go to work killing.”
Spitz seems to think that if there were some transcendental source for it, a moral principle would be proved valid. But that a principle coincides with, say, God's eternal will does not touch the question of its validity; such a coincidence only provides motives to obedience, like fear or love. Rather, the validity of a moral principle or judgment is proved when its derivation from an ultimate standard or from some ideal of human character is demonstrated. The very concept of morality, in turn, rules out certain ultimate standards like “might makes right,” “justice is the interest of the stronger,” “some men can be treated as means only,” “the reason of state is beyond good and evil.” Moral men when they make a political judgment must depend only on some kinds of ultimate standard: the common good, the survival of society, the greatest happiness of all, the elimination of avoidable suffering, the good life. One is not free to go beyond such considerations and still think that one is offering a moral argument. The contest between democracy and fascism is not between moral equals, between forces equally desirous of being moral. The choice of an ultimate standard is problematic, but certainly not arbitrary.
Furthermore, the real perplexities in moral discourse involve not so much the choice of ultimate standards, but other things. For example: the difficulty of interpreting the ultimate standard, which is always stated in the most general language; the difficulty of deriving secondary principles from that standard for the sake of practical application; the difficulty of doing all the things the standard seems to require because good things may be incompatible with each other; the differences in knowledge between moral disputants; the differences in moral sensibilities. A strong characteristic of democracy is that it institutionalizes these perplexities. It allows for the free play of divergent interpretations, applications, sensibilities—within constitutional limits. But the strife in democracy is more like a family quarrel than the clash of ignorant armies by night.
It is not just a boast, it is a statement of fact to say that democracy, above all other systems, is moral in its procedures, and maximizes the chance that the dictates of morality will be embodied in policy.
The upshot of all this is that common morality requires a man to accept democracy, when the preconditions for it are present. There is no philosophical need to defend democracy on narrow, non-moral grounds, or to put it on a moral level with dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. At the same time, the results of the democratic process must be judged by the same ultimate standard used to judge the process itself. Extraordinarily hard as it may be to do so, competing policies must be evaluated, if only tentatively, in the light of the traditional democratic—or liberal, humanist, radical—highest end: the cultivation of human individuality, the enabling of men to enjoy what. Mill called the “higher pleasures.” There is no philosophical warrant to deprive democratic theory of its idealism. And without its idealism it is a poor, crippled thing.