Democracy and the Ethical Life

Democracy and the Ethical Life: A Philosophy of Politics and Community (Second Edition, Expanded)

Claes G. Ryn
Copyright Date: 1990
Pages: 255
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  • Book Info
    Democracy and the Ethical Life
    Book Description:

    This study goes to the heart of ethics and politics. Strongly argued and lucidly written, the book makes a crucial distinction between two forms of democracy

    eISBN: 978-0-8132-2086-4
    Subjects: Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Prefatory Note for the 1990 Edition
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Claes G. Ryn
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
    Claes G. Ryn
  5. PART ONE: Democracy as an Ethico-Philosophical Problem
    • I Democracy and Manʹs Moral Predicament
      (pp. 3-26)

      The prevalent tendency among modern political theorists is to define democracy without reference to a transcendent ethical standard. Democracy is usually treated as a kind of procedural form, neutral in regard to the substance of the popular will. It is viewed as a “method” for making public decisions, a modus procedendi in Joseph Schumpeter’s phrase. ¹ This form of government, it is argued, does not imply a presumption in favor of any particular set of values beyond that which is necessarily embodied in the rules and rights which constitute democracy. In fact, democracy is sometimes regarded as the form of...

    • II Human Experience and the ʺScientific Methodʺ
      (pp. 27-50)

      The development of an ethical theory of democracy comes up against a number of modern preconceptions about what type of evidence may be accepted by the political scientist. As has already been stated, conscience will be regarded here as an opening to the transcendent purpose of human life. This understanding of conscience forms part of a general view of human nature, according to which man has a spiritual existence, a kind of self-awareness and freedom that is lacking in physical nature and in the animal world. Together with the type of ethical philosophy with which it is indissolubly bound up,...

  6. PART TWO: The Ethical Life
    • III The Duality of Human Nature
      (pp. 52-80)

      I have argued in a preliminary fashion that politics has a transcendent moral end and that a truly civilized society is possible only if the demands of the ethical life are recognized and respected. A treatment of the implications of that observation for democracy requires a more extensive explication of the ethical philosophy which is being advanced. More detailed answers must be given to these questions: what is the nature of the ultimate standard by which the quality of social and political life has to be judged and to which democracy, like other forms of government, must be adjusted? How...

    • IV The Ethics of Community
      (pp. 81-90)

      Man is by nature a social being, said the classical Greek philosophers. They are joined in that view by Christian thinkers. It has been a fundamental tenet of the tradition resulting from these sources that social life aims beyond cooperation for the attainment of material well-being and social peace to the realization of the good life. Against the background of the above analysis we are better able to understand the process by which this goal is approached.

      I have argued that man is capable of cooperation because of his ability to think symbolically. This ability, which makes possible the planning...

  7. PART THREE: Rousseauʹs General Will:: Moral Fact or Utopian Fiction?
    • V The Political Moralism of Rousseau
      (pp. 92-101)

      Having developed with some care the idea of the duality of human nature and the relation of ethical conscience to community and culture, we are in a position to examine in depth the implications of man’s moral predicament for the theory of democracy. The ethical reasoning should now be applied to the difficult question of which institutional arrangements can make popular rule compatible with the promotion of the ethical life. Our moral framework established, we shall turn to a consideration of one of the most influential answers to that question in Western political thought, that given by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in...

    • VI The Rebirth of Nature
      (pp. 102-116)

      In order to put the idea of the general will in the proper context, Rousseau’s concept of the state of nature needs to be examined. It is evident that it is central to his political thought and philosophical doctrine in general. In the First Discourse Rousseau argues that civilization has degraded and corrupted man. Deeply alienated from society, he identifies with the plight of the descendants of his own century who will beg “Almighty God” to “deliver us from the enlightenment and fatal arts of our forefathers, and give back to us ignorance, innocence, and poverty, the only goods that...

    • VII The General Will
      (pp. 117-145)

      It is assumed by Rousseau that the general will is not some sectional, particularistic, arbitrary expression of opinion. On the contrary, it is the very principle by which morality is defined. In spite of that, Rousseau frequently speaks of the general will as a mere aggregation or harmony of “private interests.” “It is what is common to those different interests which yields the social bond; if there were no point on which separate interests coincided, then society could not conceivably exist. And it is precisely on the basis of this common interest that society must be governed.” ¹

      Speaking of...

    • VIII Utopian Dreams and Harsh Realities
      (pp. 146-152)

      It has not been my purpose to deny that Rousseau’s concept of the general will has features which connect it with the real, transcendent standard of morality of which most men have some awareness. I have only tried to show that in its central inspiration this concept owes more to Rousseau’s utopian-romantic imagination. What is genuine ethical insight in his thought, for such there is too, is subordinated to and vitiated by the spurious, subjectively inspired tendency of his philosophy as a whole. To a degree, subjective bias enters into all intellectual undertakings. The point is that, although offered under...

  8. PART FOUR: The Ethics of Constitutional Democracy
    • IX Constitutionalism and Popular Sovereignty
      (pp. 154-165)

      So far we have sought mostly by elimination to determine how popular self-government can be made compatible with the needs of the ethical life. I have tried to show that Rousseau’s influential theory of democracy does not come to grips with man’s moral predicament. Only because he denies that man’s baser inclinations are a part of the essence of human nature and assumes the morality of the spontaneous popular will can he advance his notion of plebiscitary rule, according to which the majority of the moment is allowed to set public policy. If it is true as I have argued...

    • X The Spirit of Constitutionalism
      (pp. 166-181)

      Insofar as it is compatible with the needs of the ethical life, democracy seeks to promote a certain quality of popular will. This leads us to the role of the constitution. It may be viewed in analogy with the rules or principles which the individual person adopts for his “private” behavior. Aware of his own moral and other weaknesses, he gives sovereignty not to his impulse of the moment but to standards of conduct which he has pledged not to change or abrogate on whim or under the pressure of passion, but only after careful and sober deliberation. A constitution...

    • XI Constitutionalism versus Plebiscitarianism
      (pp. 182-198)

      It is not my purpose here to develop a set of constitutional prescriptions. I have used the American constitution to illustrate a general principle and not to assert that in the American context its provisions offer the practical solution to the problem of making democracy compatible with the needs of the ethical life. The Constitution does tend to restrain temporary popular majorities in a way conducive to the emergence of government by “consensus.” It does so without giving tyrannical veto power to a self-seeking, dedicated minority. A majority which is not merely transitory and partisan, but capable of putting sustained...

    • XII Democracy, Leadership, and Culture
      (pp. 199-204)

      If popular rule without effective constitutional restraints is an ethically unacceptable notion, popular rule under such restrictions offers no guarantee that moral motives will be promoted. Constitutional restraints are a necessary but not sufficient condition for the furtherance of community. Everything turns on the absence or presence of what I have called the spirit of constitutionalism. It will emerge only in a people of advanced spiritual culture.

      Referring to the United States but making a general observation, René de Visme Williamson argues that “the Constitution functions as a mirror for the national conscience.” ¹ The constitutional norm serves as a...

  9. PART FIVE: A Postscript
    • XIII The Common Good and History
      (pp. 206-231)

      This book has sought to determine to what extent and in what form democracy is compatible with the ethical imperative of human existence. In arguing for a fundamental distinction between constitutional and plebiscitary democracy and demonstrating the ethical deficiency of the latter, it has set forth a general understanding of the way in which the transcendent moral order affects politics. To the extent that politics is influenced by ethical conscience, it helps to build up the common good, a quality of life to which one may also refer, stressing its more intimate form, as community. The meaning of the common...

    • XIV The State of Democracy
      (pp. 232-240)

      To write of the ethical potentialities of Western democracy in the closing years of the twentieth century may be to write about missed opportunities. It is an open question today whether constitutional democracy will be able to maintain itself into the next century. There are many signs that its ethical, intellectual and cultural foundations are eroding. One of the effects of a historical understanding of ethics and politics is to sharpen the awareness of the origins and preconditions of particular social and political arrangements. Forms of government are only partially the result of intellectual design. Even when extensive deliberation goes...

  10. Index
    (pp. 241-245)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 246-246)