The Ethics of Democracy

The Ethics of Democracy
The fetishization of majority rule per se has numbed what should be our pri-
mary concern for the preservation of individual rights. If political decisions
intrude upon what should be left to the choice of free individuals, it does not
much matter if such tyranny is the result of one person’s usurpation or of a
majority’s usurpation of such rights. While “the consent of the governed”—the
right of a people to cashier its political leaders—is a great bulwark against tyr-
anny, the essential question is what social and individual ethics are necessary
for democracy itself to have value. A democracy worth having depends upon a
commitment to legal equality, limited government, responsibility for the conse-
quences of one’s actions, mutual forbearance, and the acknowledged rights of
the individual. Diminutions of these operational values harshly degrade the
value of democracy itself and dangerously increase the dangers of democracy.
The eighteenth-century Western European Enlightenment produced two mark-
edly different accounts of that “social contract” which, in the views of many,
legitimized political authority. In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Du Contrat Social
(1762), individuals free in nature but facing problems whose solution required
cooperation created the basis for political society by surrendering all of their
“natural” liberty in exchange for the political right to be governed by the general
will, that is, in Rousseau’s meaning, the general interest of all as decided only by
those who sought the good of all. The political crime was to put one’s own inter-
est above the good of all, to betray one’s f‌iduciary obligation to that greatest polit-
ical good. In Cesare Beccaria’s Dei Delitte e Della Pene (On Crimes and
Punishments [1764]), the social contract entailed surrendering the least possible
natural individual liberty to a government, however derived, that could ensure the
conditions of exercising one’s individual choices in peace and in security.
Rousseau’s Contrat Social was not a commonplace reference or touchstone
until the French Revolution, when its apparent view of a moral political society
was embraced by the Jacobins. From then on, it became a foundational text of
modern political thought. Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments was a remark-
able success from the start and appeared in the leading European languages. In
the f‌irst year and a half after its publication, it was translated into best-selling edi-
tions in English and French. It was avidly read and commented upon by political
and legal thinkers, including John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Jeremy
* Alan Charles Kors is Henry Charles Lea Professor Emeritus of History at the University of
Pennsylvania. He is a scholar of European intellectual history.

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