The Good Society and its Enemies

Kieran Marray, OULC member, takes on the argument made in Jamie Tarlton’s previous piece that democracy should be considered a goal in its own right to the exclusion of other aims.

In his article “Bridging the Gap to Socialism”, Jamie Tarlton argued that the idea that democracy “should be a means to an end rather than an end in itself” is “worrying”. Though I agree with much of the rest of his piece about finding common ground with political opponents, I personally find this statement worrying. There are many reasons why treating democracy as an end in itself seems to be fundamentally flawed. One reason which I shall focus on is that it entails accepting some conclusions which should be repugnant to anyone on the left.

I shall start by quickly unpacking what I take Jamie to mean, before showing that what it might entail is in fact repugnant. I shall treat the “means to an end” statement as entailing that what makes a democratic process good or not is the consequences that it brings about (whatever one takes to be “good” consequences), whereas democracy being an “end in itself” as it being something which is good simply by virtue of occurring rather than due to any consequences it brings about. I shall take as given that, as people who identify as politically on the left, when considering what is “good” we care about the welfare of people to some extent. This might not be an absolute consideration; one might give weight to equity or other considerations too, but it seems to play at least some role.

Now, consider the following case:

The Government of Torturers

The population of Absurdia freely and openly elect a government unanimously by the most ideally democratic process possible. The franchise is complete and the election is entirely free and fair. The government which was elected had pledged to torture anyone below the poverty line, and proceeds to do so.

It seems as if one should be repulsed by such an election; no doubt you are. Now consider an extension case:

Choosing the Government of Torturers

You are given the choice of a system of government for Absurdia; perfect democracy or an imperfect form of democracy. You know with complete certainty that if you choose perfect democracy, the government of torturers will be elected as above and proceed to carry out their torture. You also know with complete certainty that if you choose otherwise, they will not be elected and the torture will not be carried out.

It seems repulsive that one should say that the choice of perfect democracy would be the most morally correct. However, on the unqualified view of democracy as an end in itself it must be the choice which is morally best. Democracy is good in virtue simply by being democratic; therefore the choice of perfect democracy must be more morally right than the imperfect democracy. One might try to refute this by arguing that the process itself is good, but that the population of Absurdia simply make the wrong choice given the process. This has no bearing upon this example however; one knows that they will choose this given the choice of system of government yet is still forced to say that this choice is the most correct option. Anyone who argues simply that democracy is “an end in itself” rather than a “means to an end” to some extent seems forced therefore to accept repugnant conclusions of this type as morally correct.

This might seem to be a little abstract, but such stylised examples seem to have implications for potential real life choices. Firstly, they are useful in drawing out our intuitions about classes of cases such as this by exposing these intuitions. If you believe that the choice of the government of torturers would not be morally right, it seems as if you have the moral intuition that democracy cannot simply be good “as an end in itself”, even if you do not explicitly recognise it. If you did not, then you would not be repulsed by cases in which democracy brings about awful consequences, even such stylised cases. Secondly, similar cases may in fact occur. Luckily, in many of the current democratic states around the world, there never seems to be the option of democracy entailing conclusions which we would describe as repugnant in this sense of the word. Though they seem bad in many cases, it seems as if no government will be elected in the near future on the platform of explicitly torturing the poor. Yet it is entirely feasible to imagine individuals or societies in moral dilemmas such as whether to prevent the free election of a fascist government. I hope that I would oppose the election of such a government, and I hope that you would as well.

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