A common view set of views about democracy holds: (1) democracy is the best form of government because it grants citizens equal say in making the law, (2) democratic regimes have a special kind of authority that others lack, and (3) that citizens have a moral duty to obey (some) democratic laws because they are the outcome of an egalitarian procedure (so: (2) because (1)).
In “Democratic Equality and Political Authority“, Daniel Viehoff aims to justify these views or what he calls the “egalitarian authority claim” (EAC)”:
That we are obligated to obey democratic laws because they made democratically, via procedures in which all of us had an equal say, and by disobeying them we would fail to respect the equality of all.
Justifying EAC has two important functions:
(1) It can help us understand what kinds of political equality are normatively central for democracy.
(2) It may vindicate why democratic regimes have a special kind of authority (and thus why actual democratic regimes may have fewer authority gaps than others).
To justify EAC, we need an explanation of why democracy makes a distinctive contribution to authority.
Viehoff’s article has six sections:
(I) explains authority and democracy, (II) and (III) refute two prominent arguments connecting democracy and equality, (IV) and (V) develop an alternative argument for democracy, and (VI) uses this account to justify and specific account of the limits of democracy.
- Authority and Democracy
Authority is the power to bind another by issuing directives that are valid even if substantively mistaken. Authoritative directives provide content-independent and preemptive reasons for action.
Democracy is a procedure for making binding legislative decisions, in which all have equal say. In a democracy, Viehoff assumes both that (a) all have the right to vote on laws or representatives and (b) all share have legal equality. Many actual states, including nominal democracies, fall short of (a) and (b).
- Equality as Fairness
Here, Viehoff considers and rejects the argument that formal equality implies democracy.
According to the fairness argument, formal equality requires that we not grant ourselves special privileges, and this implies a duty of fairness to obey democratic decisions, since doing otherwise would be granting ourselves special privileges or some kind.
The intuitive appeal here is to the claim that obeying democratic decisions is treating ourselves the same as we treat others.
There are two versions of the argument:
(A) holds that when we fail to comply with a democratic decision, we are denying the judgment of others and replacing it with our own.
This is confused: we always make our own judgment, even when we obey democratic decisions.
(B) holds that obeying a democratic decision means treating other people’s judgments as each counting equally as reasons for action, and failing to obey means taking only our own judgment as a reason.
This is mistaken: we can think that justice requires us not to do as the democratic decision requires. That does not involve taking ourselves to be particularly important.
Thus, formal equality does not explain democracy.
III. Equal Public Respect
This means that egalitarians ought to offer an account of the egalitarian relationship(s) established by democracy and its (their) value. Thomas Christiano offers one such account.
According to Christiano,
(1) We all have a preeminent interest in being treated publically as equals
(2) However, this interest cannot be satisfied simply by achieving substantive justice, since (a) our reasoning capacities are fallible and (b) we disagree about substantive justice.
(3) We therefore need a compromise path to realizing this interest: some way in which everyone’s judgment rather than their interests are treating as publically equal.
(4) Democracy provides a way of doing just this, since it gives each’s judgment an equal and positive stake.
Viehoff thinks this argument fails.
The problem lies in the assumption that if each citizen has a reason to advance others’ interests in public respect, then they also have a reason to obey democratic decisions. The problem with this assumption is that granting equal status to people’s votes is not an appropriate way to respond to the value of others’ judgments.
We have reasons to respond to respect others’ capacity for judgment by protecting and promoting that capacity. But, we do not have reason to respect the actual exercises of that capacity as content-independent reasons.
Viehoff rejects two replies to this argument:
(1)That respecting the capacity for judgment requires retreating their judgments as correct (this makes it impossible to understand the central case where democratic authority is invoked: where we have a reason to obey although we disagree) and (2) that respecting autonomy means letting others determine in part how we live together (doing so also involves a loss of autonomy – our own- which is not offset by the benefit).
Thus, Christiano’s argument fails. We need a different approach to the egalitarian justification.
- Relational Equality
Viehoff offers an alternative: the justification of democracy lies in relational equality and the value of democracy lies in, not in the reasons it tells us to act on, but in the considerations it disallows us from acting upon.
In this section, Viehoff argues for that relational equality requires us to set aside certain kinds of consideration, such as unequal power, when making decisions together. In the next section, he shows that a concern with excluding such considerations provides the basis for justifying the authority of certain persons or procedures.
First, Viehoff argues – or rather mostly stipulates – that certain egalitarian relationships are intrinsically valuable. He then suggests we investigate what such ideal egalitarian relationships require.
They require three conditions: (a) the parties express equal concern for one another, (b) the parties in the relationship have equal rights, and, most crucially for our purposes, (c) non-subjection.
That (a) and (b) are not jointly sufficient Viehoff argues by example: suppose both conditions obtain and (1) one party nevertheless makes all the decisions in the relationship and (2) has a disproproptiate power to determine the course of the relationship. That relationship hardly would live up to the egalitarian ideal, although it could be consistent with (a) and (b).
What is missing is non-subjection; that is, rough equality in the interactions that make of the relationship. Non-subjection requires a commitment of the parties to having equal power and to refraining from invoking unequal power as a reason within the relationship.
This kind of parody is threatened by power asymmetries, either internal or (more commonly) external to the relationship: think of the way a husband in a sexist society can use his greater economic standing or political clout to dominate a relationship, for example.
One way to achieve non-subjection would be to only enter into relationships with social equals. This is obviously unattractive.
An alternative would be to rely on either (a) external restrictions and protections against leveraging power (e.g., spousal property regulations) or (b) internalized norms that shape the deliberations of the parties, leading them not to consider certain reasons.
The value of relational equality is distinct from other, similar values such as (1) equal freedom (as a requirement of justice) and (2) self-rule or autonomy. Regarding (2), Viehoff argues later that, while egalitarianism explains why democratic procedures have special authority; self rule may explain why we prefer certain procedures to others
Moreover, the value of relational equality provides a justification for setting aside certain valuable ends, in order to preserve the egalitarian character of the relationship. If we are committed to a certain ideal of a Christian, but nevertheless egalitarian, relationship, and you are a church deacon, using your authority and knowledge about scripture might promote the one good, and the expense of equality.
Finally, the value of relational equality also applies to public, as well as private, relationships because (1) it is a shared view that it does, and (2) (a) politics regulates private relationships, and (b) private relationships with those who make the law may undermine equality when they are unequal.
- Relational Equality and Democratic Authority
Viehoff now turns to the second part of his argument: that a concern with excluding certain inegalitarian considerations provides the basis for justifying the authority of certain persons or procedures.
First he considers whether two features of political life -the fact of disagreement and the need for coordination- are jointly sufficient for political authority.
The argument would be: if we have reason to coordinate in order to achieve some valuable end, then we have reason to obey a common authority.
Viehoff suggests that while some might have coordination-based reasons to obey, this account leaves significant gaps in the authority of laws. It is hard to see how it establishes a duty to obey for all members.
The argument assumes that once there is a de facto authority, each of us will be contribute to coordination by following its rules, however suboptimal. Here are two exception cases:
(A) There is a coercive authority which enforces a poorly designed scheme for coordination. I have some coercive power, and can bring about a better one.
(B) I lack coercive power on my own, but could relatively easily make a small adjustment that would make things slightly more just or improve coordination.
Thus, the demand of coordination under disagreement is not sufficient for establishing authority. It also matters how coordination is achieved. We want it to be achieved without subjection, for subjection would undermine our egalitarian relations with one another. This provides us with a content independent and preemptive reason for obeying an authority.
The nature of this authority might be easy if we all agreed on the common good and shared a conception of justice. Given disagreement though, this kind of coordination will elude us. We need a fallback: namely, an egalitarian decision procedure- one in which parties have equal say- that we can treat as authoritative.
Accepting such a procedure is sufficient to achieve coordination with subjection. They will each comply with a cooperative scheme and will do so without letting the nature of that scheme by determined by unequal power advantages.
In addition, accepting an egalitarian procedure is necessary for coordination without subjection. Unless the procedure is egalitarian, we will not share equal control in our relationship in the requisite manner.
So far, Viehoff has argued the procedure is authoritative. But what of its outcome? Viehoff thinks so too; it follows also from the need to achieve non-subjection in the relationship (369-370).
Viehoff concludes the section by arguing this account of authority is distinct from others in that (1) it does not depend on consent or (2) expertise. Moreover, it is not open to the objection that egalitarian personal relationships do not usually have duties to obey because, in this case, the procedure is external to the relationship.
- Limits of Authority
Viehoff argues that this account implies three kinds of limits of authority
(1) Procedures that fail to be egalitarian lack authority in the requisite way (though, this admits of degrees and if complying with them could bring about more egalitarian procedures in the long run, we might have reason to comply even if deficient procedures).
(2) Procedures not likely to reach the correct conclusion –it might be too unjust or harmful to other goods to justify the benefits of submission (see p. 373 for a point about this case).
(3) When voters or officials act for the wrong reasons, then there is a failure of equal concern. This, Viehoff thinks, explains complaints about the tyranny of the majority, And it suggests that the duty to obey democratic laws implies the duty of citizens to exercise their vote conscientiously. (This part of the account strikes me as implausible).
Finally, Viehoff (in his conclusion) suggests that reasons of equality are not the only reasons to consider in establishing a democratic procedure. Other (e.g. epistemic (Estlund) reasons) might be relevant to deciding why we should opt for democracy rather than a coin-flip. But egalitarian reasons are distinctly relevant to democracy’s authority.