Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Moral Disagreement in a Democracy

  • Amy Gutmann (a1) and Dennis Thompson (a2)

Moral disagreement about public policies—issues such as abortion, affirmative action, and health care—is a prominent feature of contemporary American democracy. Yet it is not a central concern of the leading theories of democracy. The two dominant democratic approaches in our time—procedural democracy and constitutional democracy—fail to offer adequate responses to the problem of moral disagreement. Both suggest some elements that are necessary in any adequate response, but neither one alone nor both together are sufficient. We argue here that an adequate conception of democracy must make moral deliberation an essential part of the political process. What we call “deliberative democracy” adds an important dimension to the theory and practice of politics that the leading conceptions of democracy neglect.

Hide All

1 These three characteristics may be seen as informal statements of criteria defining the moral point of view, or the formal conditions of right. See Baier Kurt, The Moral Point of View (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958), pp. 187213; and Rawls John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 130–36.

2 Our use of the standard of reasonable rejection owes most to Scanlon T. M., “Contractualism and Utilitarianism,” in Utilitarianism and Beyond, ed. Sen Amartya and Williams Bernard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), pp. 103–28.

3 Once the classic example of a people with an amoral if not immoral culture, the Ick, anthropologists now think, were unfairly maligned; they seem to be morally no worse in attitude and behavior than most cultures. See Edgerton Robert, Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony (New York: Free Press, 1992), pp. 68.

4 Hobbes Thomas, Leviathan, ed. Oakeshott Michael (New York: Macmillan, 1962), ch. 4, pp. 3940.

5 It is no longer plausible to claim as a matter of historical fact that “all moral theories have hitherto been the product of the economic conditions of society obtaining at the time.…[M]orality has always been class morality; it has (usually) justified the domination and the interest of the ruling class…” (Engels Friedrich, “On Morality,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2d ed., ed. Tucker Robert C. [New York: Norton, 1978], p. 726). One can, however, make these claims true by definition. The economic conditions of a society, for example, are an important part of what causally produces moral theorists and influences their consciousness, and therefore moral theories are, in this weak sense, the product of the economic conditions of society obtaining at any particular time.

6 Hume David, A Treatise of Human Nature, 2d ed., ed. Selby-Bigge L. A. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), Book III, part II, section ii, pp. 484501.

7 Although Hume suggests that extreme scarcity would eliminate moral conflict, we should consider both moderate and extreme scarcity as sources of moral conflict. Extreme scarcity need not render disputes over justice beside the point. See Clayton D. Hubin's discussion in “The Scope of Justice,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 9, no. 1 (Fall 1979), p. 18.

8 Although a society where people utterly lack generosity and fellow-feeling would be a strange society indeed, moral conflicts can also arise among complete egoists. Suppose that some of the egoists “work hard to create valuable objects from the moderate store of raw materials that nature provides.” Genuine moral conflicts may break out among these ruffians, each of whom argues for his or her fair share. Even if they argue from self-interested motives, their arguments nonetheless can have genuine moral content. See Hubin, “The Scope of Justice,” p. 10.

9 Philosophers who have developed versions of this view in recent years include Berlin Isaiah, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 118–72; Nagel Thomas, Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp. 128–41; Williams Bernard, “Ethical Consistency,” in Problems of the Self (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 166–86; and Walzer Michael, “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol, 2 (Winter 1973), pp. 160–80. For a sample of views on both sides, see Gowan Christopher, ed., Moral Dilemmas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

10 We do not attempt to argue for any general moral foundations for democracy here; we take it for granted that at least one of the moral justifications for democracy that political theorists have presented establishes its superiority over nondemocracy. Our focus is on the comparative moral merits of different conceptions of democracy, and on only one aspect of that question: their comparative capacities for addressing moral conflict. Some discussions of the general justification of democracy that we have found helpful include Dahl Robert A., Democracy and Its Critics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989); Held David, Models of Democracy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987); Lively Jack, Democracy (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1975); Nelson William, Justifying Democracy (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980); and Pennock J. Roland, Democratic Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979). We also rely on our own earlier discussions of this topic: Gutmann Amy, Liberal Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980); Thompson Dennis, The Democratic Citizen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970); and Thompson, John Stuart Mill and Representative Government (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).

11 We take Robert Dahl as a paradigmatic procedural democrat, in part because his subtle form of proceduralism recognizes that “the democratic process is… itself a rich bundle of substantive goods” (Democracy and Its Critics, p. 175). Other proceduralists who specifically defend majority rule include Spitz Elaine, Majority Rule (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House, 1984); and Rae Douglas, “Decision Rules and Individual Values in Constitutional Choice,” American Political Science Review, vol. 63 (1969), pp. 4056. More generally, the pluralist tradition in American political science, beginning most notably with the work of David Truman, provides numerous examples of proceduralism.

12 An assumption of political equality seems to lie behind Locke's defense of majority rule in the Second Treatise, ch. 8, section 96, in Locke John, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Laslett Peter (New York: New American Library, 1965), p. 375.

13 A prominent example is Ely John Hart, Democracy and Distrust (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).

14 For critiques of procedural democrats such as Ely, see Cass Sunstein R., The Partial Constitution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), esp. pp. 143–45; Waldron Jeremy, “A Right-based Critique of Constitutional Rights” (unpublished manuscript); and Dworkin Ronald, A Matter of Principle (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 5765.

15 Barry Brian, “Is Democracy Special?” in Democracy and Power, Essays in Political Theory I (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 29, citing his early discussion in Barry, Political Argument (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), p. 312.

16 Barry, “Is Democracy Special?” p. 30.

17 Ibid., p. 30.

18 Two other features of the railway-car example, and other cases in which majority rule seems the right solution, are worth noting not only because they are important in technical discussions but also because they are so rarely satisfied in real political circumstances. In such cases: (1) only one question is the subject of decision; and (2) the question offers only two, dichotomous alternatives (such as “smoking” or “no smoking”). When there are multiple decisions to be made or more than two alternatives (“smoking,” “no smoking,” “smoking at certain times only”), as there almost always are in political life, then there are also likely to be procedures other than simple majority rule that are reasonable ways of resolving the controversies. Plurality rule, for example, may be a reasonable way of resolving disagreements with more than two alternatives. See Barry, “Is Democracy Special?”

19 In his opinion for the Supreme Court in United States v. Caroline Products Co., 304 U.S. 144,152–53 n. 4 (1938), Justice Harian Stone wrote that “prejudice against discrete and insular minorities may be a special condition, which tends seriously to curtail the operation of those political processes ordinarily to be relied upon to protect minorities, and… may call for a correspondingly more searching judicial inquiry.”

20 Barry, “Is Democracy Special?” p. 37.

21 Ibid., p. 38.

22 Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics, p. 167. Stuart Hampshire, who in his most recent writings is a thoroughgoing proceduralist, may disagree, but he also may not think that democracy is necessary to justice; see Hampshire, Innocence and Experience (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989). He argues for the need for procedural justice, but never claims that the procedures must be democratic to be just.

23 Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics, p. 162.

24 See Riker William, Liberalism against Populism (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman and Co., 1982); and Arrow Kenneth, Social Choice and Individual Values, 2d ed. (New York: Wiley, 1963).

25 David Miller discusses how deliberation can overcome the potential arbitrariness in democratic decision making that is revealed by social choice theorists, in Miller, “Social Choice and Deliberative Democracy,” Political Studies, vol. 40 (1992), pp. 6063.

26 Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics, p. 167.

28 We take John Rawls as the paradigmatic constitutional democrat; although obviously others have written more extensively about the legal and judicial basis for such a vieiv, Rawls provides the most sophisticated and cogent defense of the rationale for constitutionalism. Furthermore, we find so much of his theory compelling that it is important for us to try to distinguish our own view from his. Other constitutional democrats we have found helpful include Tribe Laurence, American Constitutional Law (Minelo, NY: Foundation Press, 1978); Dworkin Ronald, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977); Dworkin, A Matter of Principle; and Dworkin, Law's Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986).

29 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 356.

30 Rawls John, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), p. 291.

32 Ibid., p. 229.

33 Ibid., p. 230.

35 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 234.

36 The process we describe is a simplified version of the constitutional and legislative stages of the rarely discussed “four-stage sequence” in A Theory of Justice, pp. 195201. The scheme, as Rawls outlines it, is intricate and elusive. We are less concerned with its details than with the general strategy of resolving specific moral conflicts that it represents.

37 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 201.

38 See, e.g., Dworkin, A Matter of Principle, pp. 971, and Law's Empire, pp. 355–99.

39 Harris v. Macrae, 448 U.S. 297 (1980).

40 Bargaining among interests may be a morally appropriate way to resolve some political issues, where only competing interests are at stake and where resolving their differences should be primarily a matter of negotiation, but deliberation typically will be necessary to figure out when such bargaining is justified, and when it is not.

41 For other discussions of the basis of deliberative democracy, see Cohen Joshua, “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy,” in The Good Polity: Normative Analysis of the State, ed. Hamlin Alan and Pettit Philip (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), pp. 1734; Fishkin James, Democracy and Deliberation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971); Larmore Charles, Patterns of Moral Complexity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), esp. pp. 5966; Manin Bernard, “On Legitimacy and Political Deliberation,” Political Theory, vol. 15 (08 1987), pp. 338–68; Mansbridge Jane, “Motivating Deliberation in Congress,” in Constitutionalism in America, vol. 2, ed. Baumgartner Sarah (New York: University Press of America, 1988), pp. 5986; Sunstein Cass, The Partial Constitution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 133–45; and Thompson, The Democratic Citizen, ch. 4, pp. 86119.

42 Mill John Stuart, Considerations on Representative Government, in Collected Writings, vol. 19, ed. Robson J. M. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977), ch. 3, p. 68. For discussion of empirical evidence that supports Mill, see Thompson, John Stuart Mill and Representative Government, pp. 3843, 4953.

43 For a defense of teaching deliberation and an examination of some of its institutional implications, see Gutmann Amy, Democratic Education (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), pp. 5052 and passim.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 34 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 394 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.