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Arneson: Democracy is not intrinsically just

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Arneson. 2004. Democracy is not intrinsically just. Justice and democracy.

In Brief

Arneson says there is an independent standard by which to judge political outcomes, namely justice. Democracy may approximate that standard, but there's nothing valuable about democracy in itself (i.e. procedurally). If some other regime (maybe Estlund's epistocracy, rule of the wise) better approximated the standard, then we should favor that regime, regardless of whether it is procedurally democratic. Democracy is only valuable to the extent that it yields the right outcomes. Democracy, then, is a means, not an end of itself. (If it were an end of itself, it would have intrinsic value.)

Main Argument

Democracy is extrinsically, not intrinsically, just. It has the potential to be instrumentally just. The choice between democracy and autocracy should be decided according to the standard of best results. While evidence suggests that democracy is the best system for promoting just decision making, this is contingent and uncertain.

Note the intrinsic argument: Although we cannot ever know what is just or unjust, we can reliably distinguish fair from unfair procedures for determining how to cope with persistent disagreement. Democracy is a fair procedure.

While Arneson is clearly in disagreement with the argument above, his focus will be to argue against the more moderate claim that political institutions should be assessed by both the extent to which they promote just outcomes and according to the extent that they conform to standards of intrinsic fairness for political procedures. (Argues against moderation). Presents the intrinsic argument (labeled pro) and then counters with his argument (labeled contra)

Against the right to a democratic say

  • Contra (Arneson): There is no basic moral right to a democratic say because one does not have the basic moral right to exercise significant power over the lives of other people, to direct how they shall live their lives. One should have this right only if having the right is more conducive to the flourishing of all affected parties than any alternative.
  • Pro: Free and equal rational people would agree to each person's interests being given equal consideration in the design of institutions (basically an attempt to generalize Rawls--free and equal people behind a veil would agree that we have a democratic say)
  • Contra (Arneson): These ideal reasoners are choosing principles for a world in which human agents are not perfectly rational. Nothing prima facie puzzling about the thought that rational people would choose for some actual people to be denied equal rights to political power in order to produce the morally best results. People vary in their capacity to figure out and judge justice. In such a case, some autocratic constitution of society would bring about morally superior outcomes.

(Note that "rational" and "reasonable" aren't the same. Rational refers to rational choice, meaning that you can rank your preferences even if you don't have a reason for the ranks; reasonable means you have a reason you can give for your behavior/preferences. But the terms "rational" and "reasonable" are unfortunately not used rigorously in this summary.)

Must competence tests be objectionably controversial?

  • Pro (Objectionable): The claim that the specially competent should rule conceals a preference for some conceptions of justice and against others with just as much rational backing. Justice is morally arbitrary and should not be a criterion. Disagreeing about justice, reasonable people will disagree about propper criteria for competence and who is more competent to rule.
  • Contra (Arneson): if a reasonable person makes no cognitive errors and deliberates with perfect rationality, the reasonable people will be able to select the conception of justice that is best or tied for best. Competence can be assigned according to this form of justice selected.
  • Pro: But those other rational people who selected the non winning form of justice, should they be ignored?
  • Contra (Arneson): Yes, it shows no disrespect to me to notice that I am imperfectly rational and to make efforts to stop me from doing harm to others and myself. Mills: "No one but a fool, and only a fool of peculiar description, feels offended by the acknowledgment that there are others whose opinion, and even whose wish, is entitled to a greater amount of consideration than his." Example: Should we vote on how to protect New Orleans from floods, or should we give greater weight to the engineers' opinions? Just as non-engineers aren't competent to design flood gates, less reasonable people are less competent to discuss justice.

Democracy satisfies requirement of publicity

  • Pro: In a world rife with reasonable disagreement about morality and the good, it can be difficult to discern whether or not a government's policies conform to justice--specifically whether they consider all affected people equally. Autocracies fuel the suspicion that some people's lives are being counted as more valuable than others. Democratic societies satisfy publicity requirements better
  • Contra (Arneson): Publicity is not an intrinsic component of justice (ex: a secret plan to stop murders can be just). But Arneson also disagrees with arguments that autocracy is inherently incompatible with publicity. The process, requirements, and credentials of those involved in the selection of the ruling party can be made completely transparent. (For example, consider the Chinese imperial examination system.) Moreover, a just autocracy can make public its commitment to justice by bringing about policies that achieve justice.


The search for non instrumental grounds of democracy comes up empty. Good news for instrumental approach Arneson favors.

Comments and Criticism

  • Don't I have a right to influence policies that influence me? Then, by extension, do I not have a right to participate in government? Liberalism, then, seems to imply democracy. Well, maybe not. Liberalism implies that I have a right not to be interefered with unless I let myself--this implies that I have rights vis-a-vis my government, but not necessarily rights to control my government at all by voting.