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Fr. 485

January 21, 2014

Can individuals be motivated by liberal, universal values to respect the rights of others and foster cooperation? In other words, do these values possess sufficient substantive content to motivate self-interested individuals to (politically) virtuous doings in democratic society?

Whereas order and cooperation were secured by traditional authority in pre-democratic societies, be this religious, moral, political, structural or otherwise, with the shift to modern and contemporary democracy, there remains no such order to which a democrat might appeal to ensure peaceful interaction between its citizens. Indeed, this lack of guarantor might be thought to doom democracy to endless conflict between its individual agents as each seeks to assert herself and her interests to the detriment of others in lieu of cooperating. Such would, notably, prove the case on an economic level, where self-interested agents, no longer deterred by traditional authority and sanction, would be free to pursue their own ends without constraint.

It is this difficulty that comes out in the question, treated by Cunningham’s Theories of Democracy, of whether ethnic or national conflict is worsened by the open competition that democracy’s “level playing field” might promote. If democracy is inherently conflict prone and unable to regulate peacefully the “competition for scarce resources”, then there seems the need for constraints of some sort, “of which it seems only two varieties are available: moral and political” (Cunningham, pp. 63-64).

Those moral constraints would be put into place at the level of values, but some doubt lingers among certain strands of political theory as to whether values, such as equality, tolerance, etc., formal as they are, could prove effectively binding on individuals. Cunningham alludes to such doubt, prevalent amongst social choice theorists, when he writes that:

“The alternative of promoting universal liberal-democratic values favouring individual freedom or autonomy, equality of access to democratic procedures, pluralism, and tolerance among people engaged in competition for such things as profits or jobs is rejected by [Russell] Hardin, because he does not think people are capable of being motivated by such values” (Cunningham, p. 64).

Persuasive though the presentation of individuals as being driven uniquely by self-interest, Cunningham himself seems unconvinced by thinking of this kind and adds that:

“If, however, they are thus capable, and if a competitive society has undesirable consequences, then it seems that the values can and should be appealed to for the purpose of severely constraining competition. Or, more dramatically, competitive societies should be transformed into cooperative ones in accord with a liberal-democratic socialist alternative” (idem.). 

Although he does not linger on the issue any further, apart from noting that there are possible political constraints as well, it is safe to assume that Cunningham deems moral constraints at least conceivably viable without thereby necessitating some return to traditional societies and authorities. While this is worth remarking in itself, it also would be worth asking whether there is reason to posit such a sharp break between pre-democratic and democratic societies. Stout’s account of specifically democratic virtues and goods seems reason in and of itself to posit a greater continuity between more traditional societies and their democratic counterparts, particularly in their more pragmatic and participationist forms. Indeed, we might wonder whether we are right to even suggest that the democratic values and goods have at any point stopped motivating individuals by and large and this precisely in the same way that traditional values and authorities motivated individuals within pre-democratic societies.

Such is the tack taken by Charles Taylor in Sources of the Self, in which the author shows that modern and premodern values are closer in kind than we tend to think. This holds insofar as both turn on qualitative distinctions and (implicit) admissions of the incomparably good, i.e. hypergoods. Whatever its naturalist bent and profession, modern moral philosophy draws on some of the same moral sources within the individual as the premodern social order and, in this way, is capable of exercising a parallel authority and motivation over the modern individual.

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