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What‟s so good about it?

 Our reading (by Nelson) offers one kind of
 „defense‟ of democracy – and discusses
 another possible option (by Pateman).
a) Democracy is valuable for its „legislative
   effects‟ – it tends to produce JUST
   legislation (Nelson)
b) Democracy is valuable „in itself‟ –
   because it produces certain kinds of
   responsible, mature citizens, for
a) Nelson

“I shall argue that democracy is desirable
    largely because of its good effects –
    because it tends to produce good laws
    and policies, or, at least, to prevent bad
    ones.” (p.158)
• In particular, Nelson adopts a Rawlsian
  position – that “justice is the first virtue of
• So, his claim is that democracy “tends to
  produce specific laws and policies that are
  just” (161).
• “The general idea is this: the tests that a
  law has to pass to be adopted in a
  constitutional democracy are analogous to
  the tests that a moral principle must pass
  in order to be an acceptable moral
  principle” (161).
• In other words, the procedures of
  democracy ensure the best outcomes in
  terms of just legislation.
• Nelson closely follows Mill‟s defense of
  representative government –

• According to Mill, “the ideally best form of
  government” is Representative
• This is not the best for all societies, but is
  the best for a society which is sufficiently
• For example, it will not be the best form of
  government if the citizens do not have
  sufficient will to take an active role in
  government – it depends on the
  participation of the citizens.
• What is the form of this government?

• According to Nelson, there are two criteria
  of good government – which tend to bring
  about the desirable outcome.
Two Criteria:

1.good government tends to promote the
  “virtue” and intelligence of its citizens;

2. The “machinery” of good government
  makes full use of the good qualities of all
  its citizens.
• Thus, the good effect is produced:

Government produces good decisions and
 good legislation – it promotes “the
 aggregate interests of society”.
• The crucial point to note is the idea that
  good, democratic government depends
  upon a certain kind of citizen – there are
  „democratic virtues‟ which must be
  inculcated in order to make democracy
• It‟s not automatic.

• US Presidential Elections – Voter
  Participation: Dropped from a 63% turn-
  out rate in 1960, to 51% in 2000, and back
  up to 59% in 2004.
• LegCo Elections in HK – 43% in 2000, up
  to 53% in 2004.
• In countries such as Australia, voting is
• If Mill, and Nelson, argue that democracy
  is the best form of government it‟s NOT
  necessarily because it will produce the
  best legislation all the time, or because it
  will protect everybody‟s rights and
  interests all the time, but primarily because
  of the kind of participation and open
  debate which it encourages.
• “The important thing about democratic
  government…is that the processes of
  decision-making and administration are
  carried out in the open…whatever is done
  will be done in public. Administrators and
  legislators will be forced to defend their
  actions in public.” (p.169)
• This may seem like a mere „ideal‟ – of
  course we know governments,
  administrators and parliamentary
  representatives are imperfect – they
  regularly deceive the public and try to
  cover up their actions; they regularly make
  arbitrary or unjustifiable decisions.
• So, it is an „ideal‟, yes, but:
• Once again, for Nelson (and Mill),
  democracy has within itself the means for
  bringing us closer to this ideal – “a major
  advantage of democracy is that it
  improves the character of its citizens.”
• And the closer we get to this ideal – of
  open, participatory government – the more
  likely we are to get the desired results.
• “The very process of open discussion leads
  people to adopt reasonable moral principles.”
• It leads to this both directly and indirectly – “to
  the extent that citizens already have good
  character, public discussion…results in good
  policy. To the extent that citizens lack good
  character, public discussion and debate tends to
  improve their character…” (p.170)
• Nelson concludes that this will tend to lead
  to morally justifiable policy/legislation –
  because the process of rational debate
  about public policy is similar to the process
  of rational debate about adequate moral
• He concludes that this is the best way to
  arrive at something like Rawls‟ idea of a
  “well-ordered society” – one which is
  governed by commonly accepted
  principles of justice.

• Note that this democratic theory, like
  Marx‟s theory, is not just a matter of
  designing a society which would suit our
  needs – but a matter of changing us at the
  same time as providing a particular form of
• One could say that many moral and
  political theories in the Western tradition
  are „perfectionist‟ in the sense that they
  include (more or less explicitly) plans and
  projects for changing (improving) people.
• Is this also true of Rawls? Or Marx? Or
  Plato? Or Aristotle?...

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