Sen, ‘The Idea of Justice’, Chapter 15, ‘Democracy as Public Reason’

In chapter 15 of The Idea of Justice, “Democracy as Public Reason,” Sen defends the idea that democracy is a universal value. Can democracy flourish outside the west? One reason for thinking it can’t is that it (supposedly) has never done so before. To answer this charge, Sen distinguishes between the “institutional structure of the contemporary practice of democracy,” which is “largely the product of European and American experience over the last few centuries” (pp. 322-323), and the political ideals that underlie it. By the former, Sen seems to have in mind the institutions of electoral conflict (competitive elections, secret ballots, political parties, etc.). But these institutions, Sen argues, are simply the latest effort to institutionalize certain fundamental ideals, ideals of “political participation, dialogue and public interaction” (p. 326). These ideals, Sen suggests, are well-nigh universal in their appeal. But once one sees that the institutions are of use primarily as means to the realization of deeper ideals, then one has reason to avoid running the former and the latter together. In particular, one should not assume that because a certain type of institutional structure is up and running (i.e., there are elections, the votes are counted properly, the loser concedes power to the winner) that a satisfactory level of democracy has been achieved. This has been done by many comparativists, such as Sam Huntington. To do this is to focus (once again) on niti to the exclusion of nyaya.

Sen believes that an overly-institutional focus on democracy has caused particular trouble at the global level. John Rawls and Thomas Nagel may be right that there are no democratic global institutions–indeed, no institutions at all comparable to states. But this need not mean that there is no way to realize democratic ideals such as public discussion internationally. There already exist tentative practices of global deliberation, and they are worthy of support and encouragement, whatever the proper scope and limits of international institutions.

Of course, globalized public deliberation is only conceivable if the ideal of public dialogue has universal appeal. Sen believes that this ideal does have deep roots all around the world, including in areas that have little experience with popular elections. Of course, Sen also suggests that the divide between western and nonwestern experiences with democratic institutions is not as clearcut as the democracy-is-a-western-value story would have it. India was inspired by ancient Greece to experiment with formal democratic institutions (at least on a local level) long before the barbarian tribes of northern Europe. But societies have undeniably assigned value to public reason–the ideal underlying these institutions–for a very long time, and virtually everywhere. Sen illustrates this point using the Indian experience. He also discusses the Middle East in this context.

Sen concludes the chapter with a few words about the role of the media in a democratic society. (The transition to this topic is a bit abrupt.) Obviously, to the extent that the idea of public reason underlies and democratic practice, the media matters quite a lot. Sen argues that a well-functioning free press 1) enables the free expression of ideas, which is intrinsically valuable; 2) spreads information and subjects it to critical scrutiny; 3) protects the weak by subjecting the strong to the gaze of the public eye; 4) facilitates the formation of common values by the public; and 5) contributes to the pursuit of justice (though this last contribution is not clearly specified).

I have two concerns regarding Sen’s argument. First, he is rather sketchy in his account of the values that he believes both underlie modern democratic institutions and are shared by virtually all societies and cultures in the world. As noted before, his list of values includes “political participation, dialogue and public interaction” (p. 326). These values are not obviously interchangeable; one could have public participation without effective discussion and deliberation-as California does with many of its statewide referenda. But sometimes he mentions “participatory governance” alone (p. 323). More frequently, he speaks of “government by discussion,” to use Walter Bagehot’s phrase, as the ideal that underlies democratic institutions. Indeed, throughout most of the essay–especially in his discussion of the media–he treats public reason as the sole relevant ideal. (Hence the chapter’s title.) But many democratic institutions do not obviously promote public reason without thereby putting their democratic credentials in jeopardy. Ancient Athens, for example, employed large randomly-selected juries which decided without any deliberation; they also employed randomly-selected administrative boards. These institutions were highly participative, but not very deliberative. (Athens enabled deliberation in other ways.)

More critically, one can have some form of public dialogue without much democracy. Rawls’ “consultative hierarchies” surely allow people to express their views, even though they may have no institutional mechanisms (egalitarian or otherwise) for registering them. And Sen’s expansive understanding of “public reason” seems to include just about any system that allows people to talk without getting punished by someone. This is particularly the case in his discussion of the Middle East, where he runs together “public reasoning and tolerance” as if they were the same thing (p. 333). He presents a good deal of evidence that the Muslim societies of the Middle East were quite tolerant of religious difference. But this is far from establishing that these societies enabled public reason, much less that these societies had a significant democratic component.

Second, Sen relates democracy to justice in this chapter (as he does in most of the book) via the idea of public reason. But while the relationship remains important to him, he says very little about it in this chapter. Perhaps he believes that what he has said in earlier chapters is sufficient, but as this is the first chapter in the book to focus upon democracy, it would have been nice to have seen him review and expand upon his account for the connection between democracy and justice, and how public reason relates to both. It seems clear that Sen believes that democracy can be of value for both intrinsic and instrumental reasons, and that both of these contributions that democracy can make are contributions to justice. But that seems to make the ideal of democracy a sub-ideal of the ideal of justice. If that is Sen’s point, it would be nice to hear him say so explicitly. This would make justice the central underlying value of democracy; public reason would then be important because it contributes to justice, and the contribution it makes to democracy would then be part of that. But at times Sen seems to treat democracy and justice as distinct values, and public reason as somehow making a separate contribution to both. This seems both intellectually unsatisfying and inconsistent with the relationship he does sketch in earlier chapters between democracy and justice.

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About Peter Stone

I work in various contemporary areas of political philosophy, including democratic theory, theories of justice, rational choice theory, and the philosophy of social science. My present research project deals with the virtues and limitations of random selection.
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