DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S017-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 17, 2018, from

Article Summary

Democracy means rule by the people, as contrasted with rule by a special person or group. It is a system of decision making in which everyone who belongs to the political organism making the decision is actually or potentially involved. They all have equal power. There have been competing conceptions about what this involves. On one conception this means that everyone should participate in making the decision themselves, which should emerge from a full discussion. On another conception, it means that everyone should be able to vote between proposals or for representatives who will be entrusted with making the decision; the proposal or representative with most votes wins.

Philosophical problems connected with democracy relate both to its nature and its value. It might seem obvious that democracy has value because it promotes liberty and equality. As compared with, for example, dictatorship, everyone has equal political power and is free from control by a special individual or group. However, at least on the voting conception of democracy, it is the majority who have the control. This means that the minority may not be thought to be treated equally; and they lack liberty in the sense that they are controlled by the majority.

Another objection to democracy is that, by counting everyone’s opinions as of equal value, it considers the ignorant as being as important as the knowledgeable, and so does not result in properly informed decisions. However, voting may in certain circumstances be the right way of achieving knowledge. Pooling opinions may lead to better group judgement.

These difficulties with democracy are alleviated by the model which concentrates on mutual discussion rather than people just feeding opinions into a voting mechanism. Opinions should in such circumstances be better formed; and individuals are more obviously equally respected. However, this depends upon them starting from positions of equal power and liberty; rather than being consequences of a democratic procedure, it would seem that equality and liberty are instead prerequisites which are needed in order for it to work properly.

    Citing this article:
    Harrison, Ross. Democracy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S017-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
    Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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