The Ethics of Democracy was a short article written by John Dewey. He wrote was an extraordinary thinker and provided us today with ideas that are still in action. I decided to write on this article specifically because I am very interested in the founding of the United States and how our founding fathers chose democracy and why. Hopefully Dewey will give more insight into the ethical reasons, based on the era the book was written 1888, behind why he thinks democracy is so important. First off we need to lay down the basis of Dewey's ideas.
Pragmatism, the idea that no idea is set in stone and should be revised relative to the next situation. Dewey constructs his essay with three main arguments against criticism of democracy. The first is the belief that democracy is based on it’s quantitative nature, or the “rule of the many”. The second regards the nature of social contract theory and its application in society. The third is that democracy seemingly creates non-social individuals in the social and political system. Dewey starts the essay by discussing the need for reevaluation of the “apparent contradiction” in democracy.
He states “the more men see of democracy, the less they like it” (p. 182). Dewey addresses this “contradiction” by arguing that society needs to appreciate the theory of democracy rather than its practical use in it’s application in society. I find it interesting that one of the first ideas found on page 183 deals with something that I see happening in today’s democracy. He mentions that Sir Henry Maine’s says the fundamental nature of democracy is one of which only leads to “monstrous and morbid” forms of aristocracy.
This is something that I find is happening here in the Untied States and has happened basically since it’s inception. I’m beginning to think that democracy is just a mask that the ruling or upper class put on to make the lower and middle classes feel like they have a say or voice. First, we have Dewey’s analysis of Aristotle’s definition of democracy and how it differs from Maine’s (p. 185). Maine says that democracy in inherently problematic because you will never have any amount of people who will have a common will.
Aristotle used a a number in his definition “the rule of many” however what Maine does not realize is that it is not the number, whether a few or many. Dewey says that Maine left out a crucial component in his understanding that Aristotle realized men are instruments of the law, and it is ultimately the law which governs the state (p. 184). I think that this is correct and Maine should not have left this out as it represents how democracy is applied in society. It’s not just total unruliness in that no political organism can have common will if all are in control.
Second, we have Dewey’s ideas surrounding social contract theory. Social contract theory is the idea that men are simply individuals without any social relations until they form a contract, or a government, much like religions do between god and the people (p. 186). However Dewey thinks this definition needs expanding. He states that the essence is not simply the idea of just forging a contract, and goes beyond thinking of the theory as simply the joining of separate individuals (p. 186).
The theory of the “social organism” rejects isolated individuals, and distorts the idea of social contract theory and or the “reality of Being, of society, and of Others” (p. 186). In interpreting democracy as “sovereignty chopped up into mince meat” as Maine does (p. 186), Dewey argues that society becomes “dissolved to the point of annihilation. ” The fact of the matter is that, “organically” (as Dewey likes to describe it), man is a social being (p. 186). The notion of society is mad into a single idea by the act of being a society.
Third, is that democracy seemingly creates non-social individuals in the social and political system. Which is something that I really had a hard time conceiving. However Dewey brought up points that made it clear as to how critics of democracy could have this point. He points out that “social organisms” are made to be mechanical in nature. A person is just a vote to sway the law in one direction or another. I like this argument the best as he describes how “modern” education is the culprit for making people think this way (p. 188). That is that they are nothing more than a political instrument.
I would like to read more on his thoughts on modern education in the near future. Dewey argued for democracy against three main criticisms. The first is the belief that democracy is based on it’s quantitative nature, or the “rule of the many”. The second regards the nature of social contract theory and its application in society. The third is that democracy seemingly creates non-social individuals in the social and political system. He mad a very convincing argument however in the current climate of politics I wonder if his view would be different.