During the past six years the world has seen the demolition of the Berlin
the end of Leninist socialism, free elections in Russia, and the coming of
stock exchange to China. The victory of Western democracy over Communism
has even led social critic and American foreign policy specialist Francis
Fukuyama to speak of the "end of history," the culmination of human
evolution in liberal democracy. But has democracy really solved the problems
human social life?
Does "The Right" Matter More Than "The Good?"
by Richard F. Moorton, Jr.
The Athenians invented democracy at the end of the sixth century B.C. with
the tenet of popular sovereignty exercised through direct participation of
the electorate. In the United States we modified this concept for the
nation-state by creating representative democracy, in which citizens are
represented by elected officials.
A crucial difference between now and then is that Athenian democracy arose
in an enchanted world, to use sociologist Max Weber's phrase, where human
beings felt themselves situated in an interconnected, hierarchically ordered
cosmos. People were defined by their places in the orderly cosmic topography
of relationships interjoining nature, animals, humans and gods. In this world,
"the good," whether conceived as the cosmic order, the will of the gods or
the traditions of human society, was prior to and entitled to make claims
on "the right," which may be characterized as the freedom of individuals
to choose. In this conception, the good of the part depended on the good
of the whole.
Modern democracy, on the other hand, arose in a world where the individual
was being gradually detached from her or his cosmic context by complex cultural
forces evolving in the Renaissance, the Reformation, Cartesian psychology,
scientific empiricism and the European Enlightenment.
The effect of this detachment was to weaken the sense of knowing the good
and the immediacy of its claims on the now insular human being. In this universe,
the humanity of persons was conceived less in terms of their location on
a moral map and more in terms of their ability to make choices suggested
by their own reason rather than outside authority. That is, the right came
more and more to be thought of as prior to the good.
These days, the question of the priority of the good or the right is still
disputed as part of a debate on the nature of democratic culture that has
profound implications for the future of democracy throughout the world. Posing
this question is at the heart of the global civil society project at Connecticut
Many American liberals (such as philosopher John Rawls) and libertarians
insist on the priority of right over good. They agree with Jefferson that
persons have certain inalienable rights simply because they are human, and
these proponents of the right insist that the individual's rights to life,
liberty and the pursuit of happiness must be the cardinal principles of
democratic society. Liberals also argue that human beings are so diverse
that they can never agree on what the good might be, so they must be left
free to choose their own conception of it.
Can our political system survive the clash between rights and responsibilites?
Communitarians on the other hand, (including such prominent thinkers as Amitai
Etzioni, who received an honorary degree from the college last year), argue
that rights are inextricably bound up with duties imposed by the social nature
of humanity. If we have unavoidable duties, especially duties to others,
the implication is that there is some good, some "ought" beyond our will,
that we should choose, even if it means that the freedom of our will is to
that degree restricted.
This implies that some goods are not private but public, held by the majority
of people in a culture. For examples, communitarians cite allegedly universal
virtues such as honesty, loyalty and reluctance to take human life. While
classical liberals see the individual in principle as isolable from others
and in important ways essentially private, communitarians see the individual
as inevitably contextualized in a society and a social tradition, as a being
inseparable from her or his story, which inevitably includes other persons
whose relationships are ordered by a social tradition.
Diversity vs. Community and the Debate on Multiculturalism
Both communitarians and liberals view one another's positions as highly
problematic. Liberals insist that the individual's right to choose is prior
to any traditional good, and they point out that our own tradition has been
hospitable to very dubious values that were paraded as goods, such as racism
and sexism. Communitarians counter that liberal democracy has produced an
inherently unbalanced and even unsustainable social order, a culture in which
everyone has claims, but no one accepts responsibility.
This debate has great relevance to the issue of multiculturalism in the United
States. In their quest for diversity, American liberals have been in the
forefront of a movement to make honored places for minority cultures in an
American life hitherto dominated by a mainstream, Eurocentric culture. The
diversity this movement seeks is to an extent compatible with the liberal
conception of pluralism, with one important reservation.
Liberal pluralism is predominantly individualistic. In this conception, a
plurality of persons will inevitably choose a plurality of goods, all of
which must be respected since there is no rational way of adjudicating between
them. But multiculturalism calls for a plurality of cultures, too, and cultures
are social systems.
African, Native American and Asian cultures are comparatively communitarian
systems to which the individualism implicit in the cultural ideal of pluralism
is relatively alien. Liberal atomism is potentially fatal to the tribalism
of African culture, the nature spiritualism of Native Americans and the intensely
familial organization of natives of China. This certainly does not mean that
Africans, Native Americans or Chinese must choose between loyalty to their
own cultural traditions and democracy. The first democrats, the Athenians,
were also a relatively communalistic people, in this respect more like Africans,
Apaches and Manchurians than modern Americans.
But none of these communalistic peoples had any conception of the radically
autonomous individual pursuing private ends that is so characteristic of
the dominant school of modern liberalism. The danger in promoting minority
cultures in America on the terms of liberal pluralism is that we will create
in the United States an apparent diversity, masking the underlying homogeneity
of a culture of the radically autonomous self. In the name of preserving
minority cultures, we would destroy them at their root. This United States
would be inhabited by a melange of peoples of many colors but deracinated
of their communal cultural traditions by American individualism. This is
not a theoretical construct. It is an actual process already well underway,
yet many Americans would approve, since it is precisely this assimilation
to the American spirit that makes one American.
"...to affirm democracy as the best form of government
need not imply that nothing better lies beyond it."
At first glance, communitarianism seems more hospitable to the real uniqueness
of minority cultures in the United States or disparate cultures all around
the world (especially when they are communalist, as they almost always are)
than liberalism, for all of its championing of people different from the
majority. But there is a problem here, too. Communitarians do not seem to
provide adequate mechanisms for critiquing from the outside those moral choices
that are sanctioned by a given culture in a multicultural world. If a particular
culture is on the whole satisfied with its practice of clitorectomy or infant
exposure or cannibalism (or, to give voice to other cultures' criticisms
of us, abortion, atheism or pornography), is that the end of the matter?
Most communitarians would say no, but they have some difficulty in coping
with such cases since they conceive of moral judgments as situated in specific
traditions. In such a conception there are obvious problems with outside
judgments of a moral habit that can only be understood and evaluated in its
own cultural context.
Hope for Enchanted Middle Ground
In his book Liberal Purposes, the political philosopher William Galston
has made a bold attempt to bridge the gap between liberalism and communitarianism
by abandoning the neutral stance of liberalism toward the good and deriving
a series of liberal goods from a theory of universal human nature. These
liberal goods include life, development, fulfillment, freedom, rationality,
social relationships and the satisfaction of desires. For Galston, the right
must come to terms with the good. If valid, his universal human goods would
enable us to make cross-cultural moral judgments.
As a liberal thinker, Galston still favors the individual, and thus his ideas
undercut the values of communal subsocieties in the United States and communal
cultures abroad. But unlike many modern liberals, he does not categorically
reject the idea of the spirit intrinsic to many traditional cultures and
to the roots of our own culture. Instead, he follows Hegel in identifying
a realm of "absolute spirit," consisting of art, religion and philosophy.
"Each of these, although it affects and draws sustenance from the political
sphere, in part escapes and transcends it," he says.
If by the transcendental we mean an imponderable something greater than human
beings, in relation to which human beings realize their meaning, it is probably
fair to say that all cultures have an intuition of the transcendental (though
not necessarily a theistic one) that plays a vital role in their traditional
conceptions of the moral order.
As democracy spreads throughout the world, it is contemplated by people,
sometimes of great intelligence and learning, who evaluate it in the context
of some transcendental conviction. These convictions take many forms, but
in essence they are all varieties of the view that the world is enchanted
-- mysteriously interordered in a morally meaningful way.
The Western intelligentsia no longer publicly maintain any variety of this
conviction. In part, this is due to the natural tendency of democratic culture
to conceive the good too narrowly. Long ago Plato pointed out that a pluralistic
democratic polity is driven by an internal logic to organize itself only
around what its intellectually and temperamentally diverse people have in
common -- the needs and passions of the body. For Plato there was, potentially
at least, a remedy implicit in human nature, the capacity of the rational
part of every person to align these passions to the purposes of the spirit
and the order of the universe. But to do this the mind must look beyond the
Galston rightly points out that the domain of the political is the immanent,
the here and now. The founding fathers of the United States would have
emphatically agreed. Through the separation of church and state, they kept
religion in the private domain because it is too important to be entrusted
to politics. Marx was so sure that the immanent was everything that he attempted
to abolish the private sanctum of the transcendental and turn all of human
life into the public, political realm. The fall of Marxism has an implication
that most intellectuals have not yet drawn: the failure of the repudiation
of the transcendental.
As we people of the West engage the world in a great conversation about the
nature of democracy and humanity itself, we should remember that to affirm
democracy as the best form of government need not imply that nothing better
lies beyond it.
Richard Moorton is an associate professor of classics at Connecticut
College and heads up the "Civic Virtue and the Future of Democracy