Is Democracy Moral?

Presently democracy is often perceived as a political system with indisputable moral superiority over other systems. Other forms of political organization of the state appear as relicts of the past—the conviction prevails that sooner or later, together with the development of a global civilization, they will eventually be replaced by democracy. On the other hand, great perceptiveness is not necessary to notice phenomena within the framework of the contemporary democratic state, which constitute an open challenge to the moral order. In collision with the specifically understood idea of freedom, which is characteristic of democracy, universally recognized rules defining what is good and what is bad seem to disappear; they are replaced by the principle of respecting the subjective convictions of every person and by unlimited tolerance. The question concerning the moral dimension of democracy is, therefore, raised by itself, together with related matters: In what sense can we say that political institutions of the state are moral? Does an essential connection exist between the moral erosion in contemporary societies of the West and their democratic constitutional forms? If so, does democracy really possess irrefutable moral legitimacy—and to what extent?

The discussion on the question: “Is democracy moral?,” is, after all, as old as the democratic world. Around the year 430 BC, in the heyday of Athenian democracy, its outstanding leader and apologist, Pericles, proclaimed its virtues as follows:

Our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbors. It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possess. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next-door neighbor if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect. We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break (See: Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War).

More or less half a century later, Plato, the first great critic of democracy, was not so willing to praise democracy's influence on Athenian society. According to Plato, the democratic freedom praised by Pericles is nothing but anarchy, tolerance is acceptance of evil, depravity, and lawlessness—and the political equality of citizens is only a pretense, because despite everything, power rests in the hands of a narrow elite that is remarkably skillful at manipulating public opinion and at the same time immoral and incompetent in matters of crucial importance for the state (Plato, The Republic, Book VIII [557a –564a]).

The debate about the moral value of the democratic constitution has continued for centuries. Initially the supporters of Plato’s arguments predominated. Until the twilight of the 18th century, the opinion prevailed that democracy was one of the worst systems—the rule of the rabble and its specific populist “elite,” deprived of all virtues, both intellectual and moral, which are essential for wielding power. However, since the French Revolution, in the framework of Western culture, the opinion that it is precisely democracy, as a system that best respects the freedom of the individual, that is most deserving of moral acceptance, is playing an ever growing role. After World War I, this view became an outright dogma for countries within our civilization. It was characteristic that totalitarian states also took into account in their propaganda the widespread conviction of the moral value of democracy, announcing, that it is precisely they, and not the liberal democratic states, that best incorporate the democratic ideal. The collapse of totalitarian systems, first Nazism and then Communism, was greeted by some as a sign of the final triumph of modern democracy (See: Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History?," National Interest).

However, the last decade has weakened this naïve belief. At the beginning of the third millennium, the developed democratic states found themselves facing not only a new external danger (the threat of Islamic terrorism), but also their internal tensions had strengthened, putting into question the permanence of these states as well as the axiom of the moral superiority of democracy.

When raising the question of the moral sense of the democratic state, it is worth stressing that it is not meant as an assessment of the individual behavior of its citizens. The moral assessment of the behavior of the individual and the moral assessment of the political order, are two fundamentally separate questions. Man, as a free and rational being, constantly faces moral choices: looking from the perspective of the individual, it is of no great importance whether he makes these choices while in a democratic state or in any other type of state. The moral dimension of democracy is to be found, above all, in its axiological foundation—the values on which it rests and which are expressed through specific institutions of the democratic political order.

We must begin considering the question of “morality and democracy” by introducing additional definitions. First, one should remember that the word “democracy,” used as a name of the modern form of the state, is only an abbreviation for “a modern liberal state with a democratic political constitution.” The whole difficulty consists in the fact that, in the search for the axiological foundations of such a state, we are not dealing with a homogenous reality, but with a whole, composed of at least two essentially different dimensions: liberal institutions of the state of law and democratic political institutions, each of which is governed by a separate “logic” and rests on a different axiological foundation.

These dimensions interpenetrate and influence each other, giving rise to characteristic tensions within the modern democratic state. Second, what we understand by the term “moral” also requires precise definition. Not only in informal speech, but also in a majority of philosophical texts, the words “moral” or “ethical” are used interchangeably with regard to human deeds and behavior perceived from the perspective of good and bad. The question of whether democracy is moral is simply a question about what good we can find in its foundations and what moral (ethical) values can be realized thanks to it. However, it will be much easier to grasp the axiological foundation of the modern democratic state if we use the precise differentiation of “ethical life” (Sittlichkeit) and “morality” (Moralität) introduced by Hegel into philosophy (Elements of the Philosophy of Right §155).

The Hegelian term “ethical life” originates from the Greek word “ethos” and stresses the communal dimension of human existence. The individual is never completely alone. He also never appears in an axiological vacuum, but always in a space regulated by a previously given system of values. Every individual human is born and grows up in some kind of elementary ethical community, that is, one which defines his basic way of understanding what is good and bad. In its essence, ethical behavior constitutes the expression of identification with one’s own community and is a testimony to being rooted within that community, in what is commonly recognized as correct behavior. The assertion that a deed is ethical (in other words, is in accordance with what is considered correct within the community), signifies that in its assessment we apply an internal, not external, yardstick of the specific community.

Therefore, it is possible that what is “good” according to us, could be considered as definitely “bad” by members of another ethical community. The Hegelian category “ethical life,” therefore, has a descriptive character—it describes the ethical identity of a community, not its value; it is free of any assessment making claim to universal objectivity and what goes beyond that, which within the framework of a given community, is considered as correct. It is also a category general enough that it may be applied to all cultures and epochs. As long as an individual behaves in accordance with the basic principles of his community, he behaves ethically–whether considering the behavior of a Christian martyr or an Islamic terrorist, a member of a horde of Neanderthals, or contemporary man (living according to values appropriate to a democratic community).

However, the Hegelian concept of “morality” has a much narrower scope and does not in the least describe a phenomenon as universal as the fact that we are rooted in a specific ethical community. It concerns the individual at a certain stage of his personal development, when he becomes his own absolute point of reference. The phenomenon of morality appears relatively late in history: it was not widely known in the ancient world, although a few individuals had the feeling for it (e.g. Socrates). It was included from the beginning in the Christian vision of freedom of conscience and individual salvation, but in principle, it did not flourish until the epoch of the Reformation, and only then did it become widespread enough to decisively influence the shape of our world. Morality—the most philosophically elaborated form of which was developed by Kant—-is the certainty of the individual that every good, before it may be recognized as a real and authentic good, must first stand before the tribunal of the individual’s reflective, critical consciousness and obtain its approval, which is fully autonomous and independent of all external authorities. A “moral” deed, therefore, means that it is recognized by the conscious, autonomous individual as being right. Therefore, whereas one may behave ethically without being conscious of it (by simply imitating the behavior considered to be correct in a given community), in acting morally, the decisive factor is that a self-conscious, sovereign, autonomous person acts. In the moral perspective, it is not the community and its values that are the absolute criterion of what is “good” and “bad” for the individual, but the opposite; it is the individual and his rational judgment which constitutes the final yardstick for the assessment of both his own community (its customs, aims, and value system), as well as the ethical principles of all other communities.

Taking into consideration the above distinction between “ethical life” and “morality,” let us look at the axiological foundations of the basic types of state. By the state, I understand here an institutional order organizing life in a given community, with supreme power at the forefront, which guards this order and the values on which it stands (if necessary, with the use of physical force which it has at its disposal). In other words, the state constitutes an institutional form, through which the community expresses and, at the same time, maintains its ethical content. Let us consider for a moment, three model situations: a state embracing an ethically homogenous community, a state of ethical minimum as a correct solution for an ethically diverse community, and the same state of ethical minimum, in which a democratic political constitution has additionally been introduced.

Let us first imagine a state—here we can call on any political organism of the ancient world as an example–whose members are also members of the same ethical community. Common agreement prevails as to what behavior is correct and what behavior is improper. Concern for their own community is for them the greatest good, one may therefore say, that the community is something divine to them—after all, it is not a coincidence that ancient societies almost always had local protective gods from whom they usually derived their mythical genealogies. Power in such a state plays the role of the guardian of the community, guarding it not only from external danger, but also, above all, guarding its internal identity, its “ethos,” its specific way of life and the value system pervading it. Even if the ruler, as a guardian of something divine, is not formally the highest priest, he nevertheless holds a function totally permeated by a sacral dimension. In a natural way the political and ethical-religious order constitute here one inseparable whole.

Within the framework of the system of a community’s ethical behavior, there of course exist things of greater and lesser importance. Acts of direct aggression towards one’s fellow-citizens are obviously inadmissible and severely punished. However, in behavior which belongs to the sphere of customs, some acts, although perceived as ethically improper, are considered not to be very threatening and are tolerated. On the other hand, other acts are met with total condemnation, since they violate what is commonly understood as the core of the identity of the community. The internal task of state power is to prevent the most dangerous violations of public customs and to remove from the community those who, for some reason, do not observe the customary norms and, by doing so, undermine the very essence of the prevailing ethical order. The basic aim of the state, an aim which is ethical through and through, is therefore to cleanse the community of people, who, although physically present in it, actually (i.e. ethically) do not belong to it. Such cleansing can be perceived in the theocratic Jewish state (the order to annihilate the people of Canaan), in Athenian democracy (charges of impiety, which, among others, Socrates was accused of and punished for), as well as in the much more complicated political organism of the Roman Empire (the persecution of Christians). This same mechanism of state power, where the defense of the community’s identity is considered its ethical duty, also survived into the Middle Ages, giving rise in effect to internal crusades directed against pagans, Jews, and heretics—nowadays it can also easily be observed, for instance, in some Islamic countries.

The model of a state that supports a specific pattern of ethical behavior and customs can function efficiently in a homogenous society, or at least in one, where a single religion prevails and where there are no fundamental controversies concerning the most important matters. However, it turns out to be completely insufficient when, in the confines of one political organism, ethical-religious diversification appears. Such a situation existed in the epoch of the Reformation. With more or less equal forces of competing beliefs, attempts to restore and impose by coercion the ethical unity of the state led, in effect, to incessant civil wars. In order to put this to an end, a completely new model was proposed besides the solutions based on the old model (the principle cuius regio eius religio). The new model was based on the recognition of ethical diversity within the framework of the state, or in other words, on the principle of respecting religious freedom.

One of the first to sketch such a vision was Thomas More in 1516 (before the wave of bloody conflicts flooded Europe), in his famous description of the best system prevailing on an unknown island, Utopia. The mythical founder of this state, the victorious leader, Utopos, easily defeated the natives, because religious wars constantly raged between them.

So immediately after his victory he made a law, by which every one was free to practice what religion he liked, and to try and convert other people to his own faith, provided he did it quietly and politely, by rational argument. But, if he failed to convince them, he was not allowed to make bitter attacks on other religions, nor to employ violence or personal abuse. The normal penalty for being too aggressive in religious controversy is either exile or slavery.

What is the ethical foundation of a state, whose foremost principle is respect for religious freedom? This foundation creates something that is common for all, something that is an unquestionable value for every community regardless of what its specific lifestyle is. The important thing here is, above all, the guarantee of personal safety and of freedom to cultivate and publicly express one’s ethical and religious convictions. In this new model, the state resigns from supporting in full the specific ethos of one or other community and limits itself to the protection of the essential minimum, guaranteeing peaceful coexistence of diverse ethical communities which can still compete with each other, however, no longer by sword, but by word and testimony, within the framework of the one political order accepted by all.

Diverse communities recognize, admittedly, such a state as their own, but they certainly do not have a feeling of full unity with it, as in the former model where the state community was the ethical community. Here the experience of dual membership appears: membership of the ethical community of co-thinkers of one’s own religion and, at the same time, membership of the political community, whose members are ethically diverse people who have different customs and subscribe to different values. This division, inseparably connected with the introduction of the new model of the state, accompanies our civilization up to this day—the split between the ethical and the political community constitutes an important factor in the identity of modern man. On the one hand, he accepts a range of state functions which are limited to an ethical minimum; on the other hand, however, he would naturally like the ethical principles of the community with which he identifies to define the way of life of the whole state community. For the recognition of the principle of religious freedom does not at all mean that we resign from the hope of achieving a state of ethical unity, it only means that along the road to unity we renounce the use of violent means, including the instruments of coercion that are found in the hands of the state.

A few centuries had to pass for this new model of the state to triumph in our civilization. Above all, it was the theoreticians and practitioners of classical liberalism who were responsible for its propagation. It was they who defined more precisely how one should understand the ethical minimum which the modern state of freedom is to guard. This necessary minimum embraces elementary rights protecting life, the inviolability of the body and of property (See: Locke, The Second Treatise of Government §6 and §123 [everything which guarantees the individual the feeling of personal security]), as well as the right to freedom to act (See: J.S. Mill, On Liberty [freedom of thought, speech, action]), allowing people to act freely and cooperate in the public space, provided that their activity does not violate the same rights of other people. The model of the state enforcing citizens to fulfill ethical obligations is replaced by the model of the state of law—a state which guards the abidance of elementary rights of man and principles of justice.

It could, therefore, seem that, in this way, the ideal and universal solution has been discovered: the design of a safe and peaceful common home, where there is a place for all ethical and religious communities, or at least for those for which the life and freedom of the individual has an essential value. The creators and first defenders of this model envisaged this common home as being wide open and were prepared to grant religious freedom not only to Christians of different denominations, but also to Jews, Muslims and Pagans—in other words, to all people of good will who, believing in the permanent ethical order, attempt to live in harmony with it. All the more, one should stress the fact that, at the same time, they warned us loudly against individuals for whom religious freedom means freedom from religion, or in other words, simply: from ethical relations with others. “Lastly, those,” wrote John Locke, “are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all” (Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration). In order to avoid confusion: the atheist in the understanding of that time was not so much an agnostic of goodwill, but rather today’s nihilist—someone who consciously scorns the customs of his own community or, in other words, a person who is persuaded to observe the binding order exclusively due to fear of punishment. These warnings against rootless people who do not feel bound to any ethical community seem quite prophetic from today’s perspective.

The problem of a state of ethical minimum, therefore, is in the fact that its sense may be understood in two ways, in other words, that it may be penetrated by a dual spirit. Naturally, the main aim of such a state is to guarantee conditions in which people may live in security and peace, in accordance with their conscience, realizing their own idea of a good life. There is, however, a fundamental difference between whether the guaranteed freedom of conscience serves the realization of one or another vision of the common good (which is implicitly contained in the concept of religious freedom), or, whether it supports the emancipation from all ethical obligations. In the case of the latter, the principle of freedom, which lies at the foundations of such a state, is no longer a principle of freedom of conscience—we are dealing rather with the principle of freedom of an outlook on life, which treats as equal diverse ethical outlooks and attitudes (or rather one attitude, which takes on many shapes), radically cutting off interpersonal relations. It is not necessary to add that this last interpretation remains in striking contradiction with the intentions of the above-quoted “founding fathers” of the modern state.

Within the framework of this same state of ethical minimum there can, therefore, exist and co-exist two completely separate societies: the first one, consisting of diverse ethical communities and embracing both religious people of various beliefs as well as irreligious people who are sensitive to the common good; and the second, a society of extreme individualists and egocentrics. The distinction between the two societies is marked not only by the fact that the former recognizes and takes care of a system of values much richer than that which is protected by the state of ethical minimum, but above all, in the attitude of either group towards basic values, or also rights, which are contained in that minimum. It is one thing to respect the elementary rights of another human because they constitute a part of our ethical identity—admittedly only a small part, but an extremely important part—and thus to perceive respect for them as an obvious good, and it is another thing, when we do not violate these rights only in order to avoid the consequences of such deeds which would be unfavorable for us. A political community which joins people who are ethically rooted, even if internally deeply diversified, has a chance of becoming a community of friends. However, a political community of rootless people can only be a community of enemies, who are held by the reins of social order by common fear.

A brilliant description of precisely such a “community of fear” was presented by another “founding father” of the modern state, a radical representative of the second attitude (not “ethical”, but “egoistical”), Thomas Hobbes. According to him, “one must therefore lay it down that origin of large and lasting societies lay not in the mutual human benevolence but in men’s mutual fear” (See: Hobbes, De Cive). Mutual fear gives rise among individuals to certainty that they are equal, because for each one of them it is equally important to maintain their own existence. On the foundation of the common consciousness that everyone’s personal safety must especially be subject to protection, a state community arises, guaranteeing all citizens equal rights. Hobbes’s justification of this equality deserves, however, special attention: “Those who have equal power against each other, are equal; and those who have the greatest power, the power to kill, in fact have equal power. Therefore all men are equal to each other by nature” (Ibid.). Nobody revealed more bluntly than Hobbes the essence of the relations which weld together such a community. It is a community of people who believe themselves to be equal and grant themselves equal rights, but the whole sense of the mutual recognition consists here in the fact that as a person, in other words, as a legal subject of the law, basically only a potential murderer is acknowledged, i.e. a man who is strong enough and can be dangerous enough to other people, that they have to take him into account. One cannot help noticing that the attempts which we observe today to exclude from the protection of the state those who are not yet, or no longer in the position to constitute a threat to others, is only a logical consequence of such an interpretation of the principle of legal equality.

As it turns out, the modern model of the state is so capacious that it can also function in conditions of the disappearance of interpersonal ethical ties—in a world where homo homini lupus est. In this case, however, the binding agent will not be the internal ethical conviction of the individual, but solely his fear of the external strength of state power, which, with the use of the sword, forces the observance of the rights of the individual and maintains the rules of justice. It could be said that the weaker the ethical ties in such a state, the greater the need for a strong and just authority. However, if this also weakens, society returns to the state of nature—the state of bellum omnium contra omnes.

As we know, the modern state was formed first as an undemocratic state of law. Initially, the conviction of the essential value of religious freedom and personal security of the individual was not at all accompanied by the consciousness that everyone has an equal right to a share in power. That is, after all, understandable. The model of the state minimum based on the idea of religious freedom, although it does not at all exclude democratic procedures of decision-making, does not however especially differentiate nor promote a democratic constitution, because it knows and respects other hierarchical forms of social order. This model assumes, after all, the existence of ethical communities within its framework, whose internal order is far from democratic. An individual belonging to an ethical community does not treat his ethical convictions as a subject of absolutely free debate, but as something which is given and binding, something which is to be guarded and served. The ethical attitude is, therefore, an attitude of service—service to the community and to its corresponding values. Ethically rooted individuals know full well that matters exist that are not subject to their power, matters completely independent of their consideration—this then teaches them distance and protects them from an idolatrous belief in democracy.

The road to a democratic state of law opened only when the idea of freedom of an outlook on life, in other words, the moral autonomy of man, had moved aside the idea of religious freedom and, in its place, began to play the role of the axiological foundation of the ethical state of minimum. It was, after all, the first modern political thinkers who were responsible for this—most notably, the above-mentioned Hobbes, who in creating the theoretical foundations of the new model of the state, took as a starting point not the existence and conflict of different ethical communities, but the rivalry of egocentric, autonomous individuals. The replacement in philosophical argumentation of the concept of religious freedom by the idea of autonomy deprived it of an important point of reference to everything that conditions the individual and that transgresses it. As a consequence, the perspective of the political community embracing diverse religious and ethical communities was almost unnoticeably replaced by the vision of the state as an association of morally autonomous entities—abstract isolated individuals, torn from their natural communities and thus deprived of their ethical roots and context. In precisely such a vision—the vision of a state, whose only value is moral autonomy of the individual and whose only care is to ensure that all citizens can develop safely and freely—this model has today become an almost universally accepted.

The connection between the idea of moral autonomy and the demand for democratic governments seems obvious. The idea of autonomy contains, above all, a factor of sovereign power: my power above myself and above everything that concerns me. If there exists an area in which I have no influence and which represents the limits of my rule, then my freedom and my human nature have not yet been fully realized. As an autonomous being I am lord of myself and I decide about myself, therefore, I have to decide not only about my private affairs, but also about all affairs which are connected with me in one way or another—including matters which are subject to the activities of state power. From this perspective, the demand for participation in power appears to be an outright moral imperative of every individual—and the introduction of democratic political institutions its obvious consequence.

The gradual transformation of the state of law into a democratic state of law, which has taken place during the last two centuries and which continues to take place at an accelerated rate today, is not an external or accidental thing, but is a reflection of the deep transformation of its axiological foundations. The project of the state of ethical minimum—friendly and open to various ethical communities, whose goal (with full respect for freedom of conscience and pluralism of ethical approaches) is the common good—has collided with (as much indicates) and is effectively displaced, by the project of the modern democratic state, built from beginning to end on the idea of the moral autonomy of the individual. In this second case, it is difficult to even talk about a state of ethical minimum. It is not an ethical state, because the ethical perspective is completely absent here, and the moral perspective replaces it—the perspective of an entity who treats its autonomy, its independence from all external authorities, as the absolute axiological foundation. Nor is it a minimum state. From the perspective of people rooted in ethical communities, elementary rights of man, which constitute the axiological core of such a state and in the framework of which they are subject to protection, can only be perceived as a small, minimal part of their much richer value systems. However, in the eyes of the autonomous individual, these rights appear rather as its axiological maximum, since besides them there is no longer anything that the individual would be prepared to recognize as absolute good for himself and which he would be willing to submit himself to. All other permanent obligations: laws, customs, and norms of behavior are treated by the individual simply as superfluous obstacles to freedom. From the point of view of autonomous individuals, the task of the modern state, therefore, is to support the full collection of values with which they identify and which they accept. This is why, although the range of content which constitutes the axiological foundation of the moral individual is minimal, the project of the state which he identifies as his own is basically a state of axiological maximalism, or (to use different language) a fundamentalist state. It is not surprising that, just like every state with maximum tasks, it will be taken advantage of by the “community” of moral, but ethically rootless individuals, as a tool to remove their ethical rivals from the public sphere and thus to impose within the state, a situation of axiological unity on a minimal level.

Hence, although the model of the democratic state of law is undoubtedly the most moral of all models of the state, because it is built from beginning to end on the axiological foundation of the moral autonomy of man, such a claim could arouse deep concern, since it is at the same time a project not only closed to the ethical dimension, but clearly hostile to it.

Therefore, the conviction that the liberal-democratic model of the state, which our civilization has developed and brought into life, signifies the crowning of history and the final triumph, at least on the level of ideas above other projects of organization of social life, is an enormous illusion. History has not yet ended, and this is not because new external rivals have appeared. When in 1989, Francis Fukuyama wrote: “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism” (See: Francis Fukuyama, "The End of History?," National Interest), he did not notice that the real “clash of civilizations,” a truly significant conflict of ideas, goes on within the framework of this same Western civilization. This struggle is about the sense and aim of the liberal democratic state of law, about whether its liberal character should be expressed in the promotion of freedom responsible for the community, or in support for the idea of autonomy understood as liberation from all external (including ethical) limitations; or whether it should be a state of ethical minimum, or of maximum possible freedom; or finally, whether it should be a state of law with a solid framework, in which the appropriate institutions of a democratic political system function and are subordinated, or whether it is to turn into a democracy for which the principles of the state of law will sooner or later appear to be a superfluous limitation.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This is an excerpt from the book The Clash of Civilzations or Civil War by permission of the author. All rights reserved. 

Featured Image: HatschiKa, Austrian Parliament Pallas Athene Detail, October 2014; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Zbigniew Stawrowski

Zbigniew Stawrowski is Professor at the Institute of Political Science at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University and the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. He is also the Co-founder and director of the Jozef Tischner Institute in Krakow.

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