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Arneson: Democracy is not intrinsically just

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

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

(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?

Democracy satisfies requirement of publicity


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

Comments and Criticism

Research on similar subjects


Arneson, Richard (author)Political TheoryDemocracyVotingNormative Theories of Voting

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