These Truths: White Papers

A Unique Mission

Leslie W. Merritt, CPA, Executive Director, Foundation for Ethics in Public Service

At the Foundation for Ethics in Public Service we are concerned with ethical conduct at the local, state, and federal level. Let's start with a reasonable question: as it relates to maintaining high ethical standards, is government at any level doing a good job of policing itself? We see citizens across the political spectrum increasingly concerned with this question as government grows at all levels while the media watchdogs decline in number.

This is a critical question - from the courthouse to the White House. While the episodes that make news are often sensational and involve well known players, ethical failures are a broad-based problem. Prominent cases of corruption and ethics lapses have occurred on the federal stage in recent years, but citizens have a right to expect their public servants to do the "right thing" at all levels of government. In the tips we have received from a multitude of citizens since the establishment of the Foundation for Ethics in Public Service in May, we have seen a clear and troubling trend of allegations involving self-dealing at the local government level. For example, we have received several complaints related to economic development commissions - some from North Carolina and some from other states - where conflicts of interest and self-dealing are alleged. Frequently, these complaints are related to county or municipal governments as well.

Following embarrassing revelations about powerful state politicians, new ethics legislation became law in North Carolina in 2006. The statutes were passed with high expectations that the new law would prevent further embarrassing problems. Several years later, the impact of the Ethics Act has not lived up to expectations by any reasonable measure. There have been more than 70 referrals to the Ethics Commission with no further action taken and results that make a difference are hard to find. While we applaud the required training of government officials that is done, the Ethics Act has been more for show than effect. The North Carolina Ethics Commission does not even have the authority to prosecute bribery and many of the other issues that we think of as corruption. One very troubling aspect of the North Carolina law is the various classes of potential violators and how they are treated under the Ethics Act and outside of the Ethics Act. Higher level appointees and "public servants" can be charged and penalized by the Ethics Commission, either by formal complaint or mandatory referral. Legislators, however, reserved a class with privileged procedures for themselves. If the Ethics Commission were to ever make a case against a legislator it would have to be referred to the Joint Legislative Ethics Committee where the legislator's colleagues would ultimately decide his or her fate. Judicial Officials (e.g. judges and district attorneys) are under the ethical purview of the Administrative Office of the Court, State Bar, or the Judicial Standards Commission. A group not covered by the Ethics Commission, Legislative Ethics Committee, or Administrative Office of the Court- for example mid-level Executive Branch employees- may be investigated as needed by the Office of the State Auditor, whose findings actually are often more transparent.

Ethics commissions have been established in at least forty states. The purpose of these bodies is to provide external oversight by investigating claims of ethics law violations, issuing a penalty for violation of said laws if necessary, providing education to covered persons on respective state's ethics laws, and receiving/reviewing financial disclosure statements. Unfortunately, while perhaps well-intentioned, these agencies often do not have the authority, resources, or jurisdiction to conduct investigations into criminal wrongdoing as it relates to ethics matters. That is why the mission of the Foundation for Ethics in Public Service is so important: our goal is to help the media, especially investigative reporters, fill in the blanks where the ethics commissions cannot. With the number of investigative reporters in traditional media outlets dwindling, they can probably use all of the help they can get. Investigative reporters are vital to the liberty of this nation as well, so our aim is to serve as a solid and secure resource for them. With regard to ethics commissions, even a casual review of their efficacy highlights the limited action taken by various ethics commissions from across the nation. The types of matters they investigate and their input appear benign and of no consequence. While ethics commissions have important duties, they often cannot dig deeper into substantive ethics claims and worse, sometimes choose not to do so.

As powerful and complex as it is, government struggles to find the will and commitment of resources to police itself. In order to counter public corruption in our nation, we believe three main points are important moving forward: 1) lawmakers must put more "teeth" into ethics laws; 2) more resources should be assigned by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies fighting corruption; and 3) we must find ways to keep the media (especially investigative reporting) strong, supporting the media watchdogs on the job.

We will be releasing a three-part series of short essays that explain the value and necessity of a non-profit organization like ours working closely with the media. The subjects of the series will be 1) questions about the role and impact of state and federal ethics commissions; 2) the effectiveness of the North Carolina State Ethics Commission; and 3) troubling patterns that have emerged from complaints received by this Foundation in only five months. This series will highlight reasons why an organization such as the Foundation for Ethics in Public Service is not only desirable but necessary, since it is very difficult to legislate ethics and foolish to think that those holding political power will aggressively enforce ethics laws once legislated. The power and the will to hold our public officials responsible for their actions is in the hands and hearts of the citizens who elect and pay them. We are here for those who would choose to exercise that power and will to expose public corruption.

The Left/Right Debate and The Nature of Human Rights

Frank L. Perry, Ph.D., Director of Investigations and Public Affairs,
Foundation for Ethics in Public Service

I recall that one of the most prominently displayed portraits at Montecello, home of Thomas Jefferson, is that of John Locke. It is well-established that Jefferson incorporated Locke's position on human rights in his work on the founding documents of the United States. One of the most influential proponents of Locke in the latter twentieth century was Harvard's Robert Nozick, who begins his own argument for libertarianism, or the "minimal state", with this:

Individuals in Locke's state of nature are in 'a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave or dependency upon the will of any other man' (sect. 4). The bounds of the law of nature require that 'no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions' (sect. 6).1

Possessions, or the right to them, are governed by the labor theory of property, which presupposes that one comes to own a previously unowned thing by mixing one's labor with it, but with the "enough and as good left over for others" constraint. For Locke, more than Nozick, this is how the acquisition of property is morally justified.

Locke and Nozick - and so it would appear for Jefferson - opposed any "patterned distributional principles" since they appear to speak with one voice that persons have the right to choose "what to do with what one has" (Nozick). So, this tradition would hold that there is no obligation to enhance the condition of another, since there is no right held by others to exact such enhancement. Nozick, it is clear, holds that the right to property is more fundamental - from the moral point of view - than is the right to life. He states "...the right to life cannot provide the foundation for a theory of property rights."2

Here is the essence of the issue before us: Nozick, in promoting Locke - who of course influenced Jefferson - holds what he believes is Locke's view that one can do what he or she likes with what he or she has so long as others are not thereby worsened. There is no obligation to render aid. So construed, to have a right to something is simplified as follows: 1) Person A has a right to thing X, means that A acts rightly (morally) in doing, acquiring, or retaining X; and, 2)other persons B have an obligation not to interfere with A's doing, acquiring, or retaining X. That's it: that is what it means to have a right to life, to liberty, to happiness, to property. We act rightly in furthering our own interests as long as such action does not interfere with others' interests and rights.

According to a pure entitlement theory like that advanced by Nozick, presumably following Locke, if the owner of the only well in a dessert (or the only island in the sea) refuses to allow others to drink his water (or come aboard his island), then he acts wrongly because in so doing, the situation of the person in dire need of water (or that of a shipwrecked victim) is made worse. However, for Nozick, if a medical researcher who discovers a cure for a certain dreaded disease refuses to sell the medication except on his perhaps unreasonable terms, then his act does not make worse the situation of others. They will remain as they are if he refuses to make the drug available, just as they would be if he had never discovered it at all.

If any of us believe, as I do, that one reasonably could hold that the medical researcher has an obligation to either sell his drug at a reasonable price or give it away, then more is needed in order to understand the concept of human rights. Nozick denies this point of view based upon his conception of human rights which allows individuals to appropriate, acquire, retain, or generally do those acts which promote their interests, so long as such acts do not prevent others from so appropriating, retaining, etc. It is apparent, from a purely entitlement theory of rights, that the right of A to X entails - means - that B, C, D, etc. have an obligation not to prevent A from doing, acquiring, or retaining X. It is also apparent - and this point is essential - that there is no obligation actively to help others realize their rights, according to this point of view. So our obligations to others stop short of active aid, if this is all it means to have a right to something. So long as we act to promote our rights, and refrain from preventing others promoting theirs, no one is "made worse" for it. The medical researcher acts rightly in refusing to sell his drug at a price which would allow others who need it to use it, according to Nozick's "pure" entitlement theory of rights.

However, if there is an obligation - some obligation - to promote the rights and good of others, then this pure entitlement view (1 and 2 above) must be amended to include: 3) all other moral agents (persons) capable of influencing A's doing, acquiring, or retaining X, have an obligation to act compatibility with A's doing, acquiring, or retaining X.

1) and 2) absent 3) is a position held by some on the political right borne of concern that liberty may be violated or overridden by concerns for the overall social good, so that any encroachment of liberty is a creep towards socialism. This is misguided, for we may - I believe we in fact do - have an obligation to render aid, but not by claiming the existence of some social entity to which advantage or benefit is due. Socialism, or any creep toward it, can be avoided altogether once we understand that having a right to something means that others should help to promote it. We can deny that persons may be used to promote benefits for some social entity and accept the moral fact that we nonetheless are obligated to act for the good of others.

Imagine that Cain unjustifiably is trying to kill Abel. Adam, who is capable of preventing Cain from killing Abel, refuses to stop Cain. Isn't Adam under some obligation to act compatibly with Abel's right to life because of the nature of Abel's right to life? Would it not be wrong for Adam to refuse to aid Abel? A right is so important a claim, indeed the most important type of claim, that the obligation to act compatibly with its protection follows from the very nature of such a claim.

Put somewhat differently, one could argue that rights are of such value that only acting so as not to prevent their realization often is not morally sufficient. Adam's refusal to aid Abel can be construed as morally blame-worthy because something of extreme value, namely Abel's right to life, is allowed by Adam to be violated by Cain. Cain's action taken in conjunction with Adam's inaction is a sufficient condition (or the efficient cause for Aristotle) for Abel's death. Adam's refusal in itself is a necessary condition (or a contributing cause) for Abel's death. If Adam's intervention or action compatible with Abel's right had taken place, then Abel would not have died. If Adam attempts in some reasonable way to prevent Cain from killing Abel then he has performed an act which indeed it would have been wrong for him not to perform. We need not enter the realm of utilitarianism or socialism by weighing costs and benefits to society to deny the claim that we are not obligated actively to promote the rights and good of others so long as we do not violate their rights.

A contrary view to Nozick's is defended in "The Entitlement Theory of Distributive Justice" by Alan Goldman3. He claims that there is a significant moral intuition to the effect that a pure entitlement theory is not fair because of the injustices generated by it, which result in "economic handicaps and prospects of misery and deprivation." Many hold such a view today - and have historically - in that a fundamental difficulty with a pure entitlement theory of justice is that it seems inevitable that opportunities or the general well-being of some will be, or become, grossly limited. Goldman bases his criticism on the claim that "people are not entitled to socially contingent advantages they don't deserve."4 The son of John Kennedy, for example, did not "deserve" to be born a Kennedy or into a wealthy, socially advantaged family.

One need not hold Goldman's egalitarian position in order to share the basic intuition that we are obligated to redistribute goods and advantages to the extent - only to the extent - required to realize or make possible the realization of the rights of others. Since we have an obligation to act compatibly with the rights of others (remember Adam preventing Cain from killing Abel?), and if indeed all persons have rights to life, freedom, well-being, self-development, equal opportunity, etc., then we as individuals and the governments which we institute and maintain have an obligation to provide for the possibility of the realization of these rights, and not to consider ourselves as having fulfilled our moral obligation simply because we have not actively prevented their realization. Now we can say both that "economic hardships and prospects of misery and deprivation" are morally unjustified, and that persons are entitled to things (e.g. material goods, social status, etc.) which they do not, strictly speaking, deserve.

One final point must be made, albeit even more philosophical but necessary and practical in the present context. Nozick, as Goldman points out, intends that his theory of human rights, especially his theory of property rights, be seen to follow from Immanuel Kant's rule "never treat another as a means without his consent." Kant in fact says, in his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative, by which some have said he put his finger right on the nature of morality, "treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only."5 Kant did not say simply, "don't use people." Kant would not hold that some redistribution of goods, for example, is necessarily using as a means only those taxed in order to facilitate or make possible limited redistribution. It is also clear that excessive redistribution, beyond a moral minimum required to act compatibly with the rights of the least advantaged, is morally unjustifiable, since others have rights - that is are entitled to - those goods and advantages they have labored for or maybe have been bequeathed. The battle between the so-called left and the so-called right in the United States - indeed throughout the world - is a conflict whose battle lines are all too often confused and unnecessary. The concept of human rights this country was founded upon, properly construed and fully unpacked, requires rendering aid, but not to the extent whereby some are used and correspondingly lose rights held by them. Morality, or ethics, in the political realm is real and practical, but it is not morality writ large. The complete conception of human rights advocated here6 is the benchmark for legitimate constitutional democracies, and clearly neither excess nor defect championed by other positions are defensible. Charity, supererogatory acts (beyond duty), and certainly rendering aid at the interpersonal level may be promoted by government, but by the very nature of such acts, and by the nature of human rights, may not be required by governments. But I suppose the battle will go on, as misguided as ever.


1. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974, p. 10.

2. Nozick, p. 179 ftn.

3. Alan Goldman, "The Entitlement Theory of Distributive Justice", in The Journal of Philosophy, vol 73 (1976), pp. 823-835.

4. Goldman, p. 826.

5. Immanuel Kant, The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. L.W. Beck. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959.

6. Professor R.M. Lemos, University of Miami, greatly assisted me with this explication of the concept of human rights.

Morality and the Case for Democracy

Frank L. Perry, Ph.D., Director of Investigations and Public Affairs,
Foundation for Ethics in Public Service

The American tradition of political thought presupposes the truth of the claim that it is only in a democracy that the possibility of individuals attaining their complete good exists, and that other forms, for example elitism, allow no such possibility. Conceived in this way, a democracy promotes, or at least makes possible the promotion of, a greater good than any other form of government.

A distinction has been made in the history of ideas between naturalism and non-naturalism. The question which the issue addresses is, in what does an individual's complete good consist? Naturalism claims that this good consists "simply in the attainment of a purely naturalistic good, such as happiness or the satisfaction of natural non-moral desires."1 Non-naturalism consists in the claim that our complete good consists in a moral non-natural component "such as moral freedom or moral goodness as well as a naturalistic component."2 Strictly speaking, the latter position is called moderate non-naturalism, since it can be distinguished from a non-naturalism which holds that there is no non-moral component of one's complete good. Kant, Rousseau, Locke, and Hegel are moderate non-naturalists in the sense indicated, and so it is clear that the framers of the American Constitution were, for the most part, moderate non-naturalists. But why hold a moderate non-naturalism in political thought?

Perhaps it is self-evident that an individual's complete good consists in more than a naturalistic component such as pleasure or happiness-- it also consists in a non-natural component which may be adequately referred to as moral goodness. Moral goodness is possible only if one can be free to do his or her duty or to fulfill his or her obligations. Further, what is meant by moral goodness is just what Kant meant by it, namely virtue, which consists in action from a conception of duty, irrespective of its results, or irrespective of the pleasure afford by it for the person. The question of the moral goodness of an act can only be answered by answering a further question, namely what was person A's reason for doing x? Since this latter question has moral significance which is not brought out by questions relating to the results of action, it seems appropriate to claim that our complete good does not consist solely in the latter. This conception, then, of the complete good simply makes a distinction between what results an act has, and the reason the act was done. Since the latter can have moral worth apart from the former, they cannot be reduced to the same value.

There are two objections to this conception of the complete good, i.e. to moderate non-naturalism. The first is that we cannot be virtuous in the required sense because all so-called moral acts arise from reasons which are deeply tied to self-interest or self-satisfaction. This traditional complaint consists in the claim that the non-natural moral component as defended here cannot be part of an individual's complete good, since all reasons for acting are self-gratifying. And, as Kant puts it, "maxims which place the determining principle of the will in the desire of personal happiness are not moral at all and no virtue can be found in them."3

The position which denies the possibility of virtue in this sense has been adequately refuted by Bishop Butler in the eleventh sermon of his Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel (London, 1726). Butler's famous thesis is that self-love need not in the least be conceived of as being incompatible with benevolence. His main argument for this consists in pointing out the distinction between the object of "particular appetites and passions" (which are "external things themselves") and "the pleasure arising from them." A similar argument more recently has been advanced by Thomas Nagel in his The Possibility of Altruism. Nagel shows that a desire to act in accordance with the needs, interests, rights or good of others need not be that which motivates such action (the implication being that it is the person's need to satisfy his or her desire which is the reason for such action). As Nagel puts it, "in so far as a desire must be present if I am motivated to act in the interest of another, it need not be a desire of the sort which can form the basis for a motivation. It may, instead, be a desire which is itself motivated by reasons which the other person's interests provide. And if that is so, it cannot be among the conditions for the presence of such reasons."4 The distinctions brought out by Butler and Nagel put to rest the first traditional objection to moderate non-naturalism.

The second and more important objection to the acceptance of this concept of the complete good comes from Utilitarians. Mill adequately summarized the objection when he wrote that virtue is a part of happiness in that it is desired as "an instrument for the attainment of happiness."5 According to Mill, “those who desire virtue for its own sake desire it either because the consciousness of it is a pleasure, or because the consciousness of being without it is a pain, or for both reasons united."6 Further, on the will, Mill remarks that “this state of the will (i.e., virtue) is a means to good, not intrinsically a good; and does not contradict the doctrine that nothing is good to human beings but in so far as it is either itself pleasurable or a means of attaining pleasure or averting pain."7

How does one argue for the claim that virtue or moral goodness is intrinsically good apart from and in contrast to the results of actions which issue from a good will? Perhaps the least troublesome move would be the type made by Ross against those who claim that only pleasure is intrinsically good. Would we not be inclined to say, asks Ross, that given two states of the universe equal in the presence of pleasure or happiness and equal in their absence of pain, that if one of these states also contained moral goodness and the other did not, the first would be preferable to the second?8 A negative answer here would probably be met with the response that those who say “no" do not understand the nature of moral goodness. Mill is committed to the negative answer, but would probably be quick to point out that virtuous acts tend more towards the promotion of pleasure, in which case we have imagined an impossible comparison. But such a reply rests upon the false or at least questionable assumption that it is self-evident that only pleasure is intrinsically good. Indeed, such an assertion commits one (a) also to claim that all “virtuous" action is based upon a desire by a person for the resulting pleasure produced by such an action (cf. for example Mill’s Utilitarianism, page 41 col. 1, where he discusses how to ‘awaken the will to virtue’), and, of course (b) the claim that only pleasure is intrinsically good. Assertion (a) commits one to the position that is adequately refuted by Nagel and Butler, and assertion (b) seems to be a claim without proof.

In common usage, that which is intrinsically good is good apart from the consequences which that good produces. (This is Ross’ conception, page 68, The Right and The Good). Moral goodness, or virtue, consists in the quality which desires of a certain sort have. What precisely this quality is may be a matter of some dispute, but, generally, the quality or nature of these desires is such that (a) some good for another person or persons is sought or (b) the performance of some actual duty is sought. Some morally good desires do not seek only pleasure for another person, but other goods, which may either be neutral with respect to pleasure, or may indeed be painful. It is generally recognized that it is better, all things being equal, for a person to know a painful truth than to be pleasantly deceived. (Obviously there are cases where lying is preferable, if telling the truth would produce a significant degree of pain or harm. However, except for perhaps a few types of cases, truth -telling is of more value than is lying, even though the value of the former is not measured, strictly speaking, by the degree of pleasure it produces.)

Point (b) above asserts that some desires are such that a person seeks to fulfill his or her obligations, aside from considerations of pleasure, or knowledge, or something of the sort. Person A’s desire to fulfill a duty to B to keep A’s promise does not in itself necessarily consist in seeking to promote B’s pleasure or B’s knowledge.

Moral goodness, consisting of desire’s of the relevant sort, has nothing whatsoever to do with actually maximizing or acting compatibly with happiness or pleasure, and may often not be related to the promotion of understanding or some other good. As has been pointed out frequently in the history of ethics, desires are peculiar in that no action need result in order for the nature of the desire to be understood. Desires are what they are regardless of whether or not they ever actually produce any good (or evil). What is essentially good about human conduct is not “the material of the action and its intended result, but the form and the principle from which it results. What is essentially good about human conduct consists in the intention, the result being what it may."9

If these moral desires or intentions need not necessarily arise for the sake of affording pleasure for the person (Nagel), and if such desires are good apart from their intended results (Kant), then it is very difficult indeed to deny the claim that virtue is intrinsically good. The intrinsic goodness of virtue appears to be on at least as firm a footing as the intrinsic goodness of pleasure, and given the considerations above, a denial of this would simply, and quite justifiably, lead to the retort that one just does not understand what moral goodness is. So it appears that there is sufficient justification for the claim here that our complete good consists in the two distinct components of happiness and moral goodness. That they are distinct is sufficient to justify us in assuming the essential correctness of moderate non-naturalism.

It is rational to promote a greater rather than a lesser good (one can reduce the opposite of this to absurdity). If the conception of good which is central to moderate non-naturalism is superior to those conceptions central to naturalism and extreme non-naturalism, then it is rational to act compatibly with, as far as political organizations are concerned, the institution and maintenance of that form of political organization which at least makes possible this greater good. Thus, given two forms of government, for example elitism and democracy, the moral justification of government greatly favors democracy if one’s complete good consists of virtue and happiness. Elitist forms of government, and indeed all other non-democratic forms, do not allow as much virtuous action on the part of individuals with respect to the laws and powers which govern and control them. Indeed, voters, for example, often act self-interestedly and not from considerations of the good of the political body. But certainly this is not always the case, and it is not evident that this is almost always the case. Elitist forms of government, of course, do not preclude the promotion of an individual’s moral goodness with respect to interpersonal conduct. Yet all non-democratic forms of government do preclude the possibility of persons exercising moral goodness as fully as in a democracy with respect to the political body. When laws are made for individuals as opposed to them being made by individuals, only something less than the complete good of persons is possible.

A democracy, by definition, is that form of political organization in which the rules and laws which govern individuals are determined by those individuals. The members of a democratic form of political organization therefore, have the responsibility of governing the body politic, and, more importantly, this responsibility is placed on the shoulders of everyone, not just a few. In an elitist form of government, this responsibility is upon the shoulders of a few, and for that reason something important is missing. If these arguments for moderate non-naturalism are sound, that which is missing in any non-democratic form of government is the possibility of the complete realization of the moral component of every person’s complete good, that is, virtue or moral goodness. If the full realization of this moral component is possible only in a democracy, wherein the individuals who are governed share equally the responsibility for the kinds of rules and laws which govern them, then a democracy is not only morally legitimate but morally necessary.

The history of political thought is replete with those who hold that so long as two forms of government are equally consequentially maximal, one is as morally justified as the other. This claim is short-sighted, and tragically wrong. Even so, there remains one further difficulty with democratic theory according to some, rendering democratic governments indeed not consequentially maximal. This is the so-called problem of the heteronomous minority, and this historically significant objection10 to the moral legitimacy of a constitutional democracy must be addressed. The alleged problem has to do with the claim that when, in a democracy, the will of the majority is decided, those individuals who are in the minority lose their moral autonomy. Thus, the heteronomous minority must submit to laws against which they have voted. Some political thinkers claim that this problem is insurmountable for a majoritarian democracy, and therefore, only a unanimous democracy is justified. On any given issue, either everyone must consent to one resolution of the issue, or, it seems, the issue must remain unresolved until the time all agree on its resolution.

When individuals vote on a certain issue, their very act properly construed presupposes that each will act compatibly with the outcome of the vote. If a certain individual A takes part in the voting process, and, after finding out that he is in the minority on that issue, decides that he will not act in accordance with the majority's wishes, A properly would be said to have acted in bad faith. That is, voting is to be properly understood as presupposing a prima facie obligation to act compatibly with the outcome of the vote. Individual A, if he claims that he has a right to vote and a right later not to act in accordance with the outcome of the vote, may be compared to an individual who makes a promise and later thinks he/she may rightly break it at his/her own personal whim. Neither person understands the nature or what he or she is doing. Voting presupposes a prima facie obligation to act compatibly with the outcome of the vote, just as making a promise presupposes (in fact means) recognizing a prima facie obligation to keep the promise.

If a person votes, he or she acts autonomously (i.e. with moral freedom) only if he or she acts in accordance with the prima facie obligation to act in accordance with the outcome of the vote, which the very act presupposes. Indeed, this argument leads to the claim that voting allows for the possibility of greater moral autonomy or freedom on the part of the voter, whether or not he or she happens to be in the majority.

Given the nature of democracy, the only way in which an individual can be more morally autonomous (or "free") is in the state of nature. But, since anarchy - or the absence of any government - in fact restricts or denies freedom for the weak or for the disadvantaged, then the constraint that is required in a majoritarian democracy is little price to pay for a greater good.

Finally, the concept of unanimous democracy itself is incoherent. With the latter, it is supposed that only when all consent to a certain way of resolving an issue, can a democracy be considered legitimate. But imagine that a certain society, comprised of one hundred persons, decides that the time has come for them to adopt a rule of the road. Enough cars have been acquired by the members of this society to make it necessary to decide upon whether persons should, when driving, stay to the left or stay to the right. Suppose that ninety-nine persons vote that the rule of the road "stay to the right" be adopted, and one person votes for the rule "stay to the left." Those who abhor the concept of majoritarian democracy in favor of unanimous democracy would require that either the society allow the one individual to drive on the left side of the road, while requiring the others to drive on the right, or abandon the issue all together and allow all one hundred person to drive where they will. This is utter nonsense, and shows again that in placing so much emphasis on a defective conception of personal autonomy or "freedom" there can be a tyranny by the minority. In putting so much emphasis on the status of an individual's autonomy or moral freedom, it is implied that the individual's good is the highest good and that all other goods are secondary. In our example, this position results in the claim that the opinion of the one individual is weightier than that of the ninety-nine. That is, since the freedom of each is seen as absolute, the will of the one will be a weightier consideration than the will of the rest. This 'resolution' of the problem of the heteronomous minority is evidently absurd.

It is essential for reasonable political discourse, no matter the topic, that autonomy or moral freedom be conceived as a right, but not an absolute right, since it properly may be overridden in order to promote a greater good. It becomes clear that majoritarian democracy is in no way illegitimate but in fact is morally required, and is the only form of political organization that can be justified from the moral point of view.


1. R.M. Lemos, Rousseau's Political Philosophy (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1977), pp. 226-239. See also Lemos in his "A Moral Argument for Democracy" in Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1976), pp. 57-74. Dr. Lemos personally assisted me greatly with the framing of this case for democracy.

2. Ibid.

3. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Practical Reason, trans. L. W. Beck. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1936, p. 202.

4. Thomas Nagel, The Possibility of Altruism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 8, emphasis mine.

5. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, With Critical Essays, ed. Samuel Gorovitz. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971, p. 39.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., p.41

8. W.D. Ross, The Right and The Good. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930.

9. Immanuel Kant, The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. L.W. Beck. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959, p. 33.

10. See Robert P. Wolff's In Defense of Anarchism. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

"Democracy is the only system that persists in asking the powers that be whether they are the powers that ought to be." - Sydney J. Harris

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