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
b) Democracy is valuable „in itself‟ –
because it produces certain kinds of
responsible, mature citizens, for
“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
• 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
• “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
• 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.
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
• 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?...