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Intellectual Heritage 51
Intellectual Heritage 52

Course Description


Course Outline and Reading List

Preliminary Midterm Examination Questions

Preliminary Final Examination Questions

Lecture Outlines

Course Description for Democracy

With the collapse of communism, our form of political community, liberal democracy, faces few challenges in the world today. But is it the best form of politics and society or the best we can hope for? This question can be answered at two levels. We can attend to our institutions of government and ask if they are best suited to give us what we want from government. This is how we usually consider our political arrangements. However, we can also examine our political and social life in a broader and deeper way. We can raise fundamental questions about the way in which human beings live under liberal democracy. We can ask: Is human happiness possible or likely in a polity and society like our own? Does politics play the role it should in our lives, if we are to be fulfilled? We can wonder, that is, not so much whether we get what we want from our form of political and social life, but what we should want from it. Of course, once our examination of our political and social life is raised to this level, we may also subject our customary preference for democracy to radical criticism.

This course will raise both sorts of questions about our political and social life by examining two fundamentally different conceptions of democracy. Each of these views can be found in the history of political thought and in contemporary debates about the ends and means of democracy. Our aim will be to explore and evaluate these two conceptions, which we shall call liberal democracy and participatory democracy. We begin an analysis of each form of democracy with an account of the conception of human nature and human rights upon which it is based. We will then see how these conceptions play a central role in both defining the proper ends of democracy and in explaining the actions and interactions of human beings in democratic polities and societies.

The course has three parts. In the first we will examine the theoretical defense and practical implementation of liberal democracy. A number of different varieties of liberal democracy will be examined. After a discussion of the different institutional forms of liberal democracy, we will see that there are two basic conceptions of liberal democracy, majoritarianism and pluralism. Within each of these two conceptions, there are a number of variants. We will try to examine the major theoretical disputes within and between these two types of liberal democracy. And we will try to determine which of the institutional forms fit best with the different versions of. After a consideration of the kinds of political conflict that arise in liberal democracies, we consider some of the dilemmas of contemporary liberal democracy and raise the question of how long liberal democracy can survive.

In the second part of the course, we turn to critics of liberal democracy who argue that neither our politics nor our society is democratic enough. These critics of liberal democracy have a double focus. On the one hand, they try to explain why liberal democracy can not attain the ends it sets for itself. On the other hand, they argue that true human fulfillment is impossible in liberal democratic polities and societies. Participatory democrats believe that various limits to democratic life are the ultimate source of both problems. Once again, we begin with an analysis of the classic theories which elucidate and justify the ends of this form of democracy. We will find two strands of contemporary participatory democratic thought. One derives from Rousseau and stresses the impossibility of satisfying our want for community in liberal democracy. The second was initiated by Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. It holds that liberal democracy stands in the way of self-development. That is, the Marxist and Millian traditions argue that liberal democracy prevents us from satisfying our want for the development and exercise of their faculties and capacities. After analyzing each of these theoretical arguments, we consider contemporary critiques of liberal democracy which draw upon them. Then we will briefly examine some of the empirical evidence about how participatory democratic institutions and practices work. We will have three aims here. First, since there are only a few, quite partial, examples of participatory democratic institutions in existence, it is sometimes difficult to have a clear understanding of what participatory democracy entails. We can overcome this by attention to the various experiments in participatory democracy, both those that have succeeded and those that have failed. Second in doing this, we will be able to test the various theories of participatory democracy against the limited experience we have of this form of political and social life. And third, we will want to consider some of the practical difficulties that will have to be resolved before participatory democracy can be realized. At the end of this part of the course we consider a set of arguments which attempt to show that deep problems exist in the participatory democratic tradition. For the arguments of Rousseau, on the one hand, and Marx and Mill, on the other, may be both internally problematic and in contradiction with each other.

The third part of the course proposes two intertwined solutions to the difficulties found in both liberal and participatory democratic thought. The first calls for reconceiving human nature and the role of politics along more Aristotelian lines. This form of thought rejects some of the common assumptions of both liberal and participatory democrats. And, in this way, it can form the basis of a more plausible argument for the introduction of some elements of participatory democracy into contemporary liberal polities and societies. The second solution is precisely to work out a way of combining participatory and liberal democratic political and social institutions. I will argue that, by doing so, the problems of both liberal and participatory democracy can be minimized, as each form of political and social life corrects and mitigates the deficiencies of the other.

This course then, seeks to make an integrated argument about the advantages and disadvantages of instituting different forms of liberal and participatory democracy. It will conclude with a broad program for political and social change. But in making this argument, I hope to fairly consider the range of considerations in favor and in opposition to the two basic democratic alternatives. In this way, I hope to help you come to your own conclusions.