Monday, June 04, 2007

Value Cocktails

Amartya Sen (from "Democracy as a Universal Value," Journal of Democracy 10.3 [1999] 9):

Indeed, we can distinguish three different ways in which democracy enriches the lives of the citizens. First, political freedom is a part of human freedom in general, and exercising civil and political rights is a crucial part of good lives of individuals as social beings. Political and social participation has intrinsic value for human life and well-being. To be prevented from participation in the political life of the community is a major deprivation.

Second, as I have just discussed (in disputing the claim that democracy is in tension with economic development), democracy has an important instrumental value in enhancing the hearing that people get in expressing and supporting their claims to political attention (including claims of economic needs). Third--and this is a point to be explored further--the practice of democracy gives citizens an opportunity to learn from one another, and helps society to form its values and priorities. Even the idea of "needs," including the understanding of "economic needs," requires public discussion and exchange of information, views, and analyses. In this sense, democracy has constructive importance, in addition to its intrinsic value for the lives of the citizens and its instrumental importance in political decisions. The claims of democracy as a universal value have to take note of this diversity of considerations.

Remarkably, Sen gets through the paper without telling us much about what this value is that has these different aspects. The closest he comes to pinning it down is, "Democracy has complex demands, which certainly include voting and respect for election results, but it also requires the protection of liberties and freedoms, respect for legal entitlements, and the guaranteeing of free discussion and uncensored distribution of news and fair comment" (pp. 8-9). That's probably as close as anyone is going to get to pinning down democracy as a value; but precisely what it suggests is that 'democracy' as a value label is just a label for a mixture of different values. A special cocktail, one might say, that comes of blending a number of different values into a single draught. There's nothing wrong with value cocktails -- we have lots of them, and are constantly coming up with new ones. 'Candour', once popular, fell out of favor, and 'integrity' comes in, a slightly different cocktail, to fill its place at some point. People continually are proposing various alleged national characters and national spirits as new tonics for what ails us. But the notable thing about these is that they are usually contingent blends of universal values, or at least purported universal values, not universal values themselves; when the tonics get advertised as universal they start looking like nostrums peddled by quacks (sometimes very successful quacks, perhaps). So it seems to me that it is perhaps more correct to say that 'democracy' is a used equivocally, sometimes for the value of free and fair franchise, sometimes perhaps for other simple values (like certain key rights), and sometimes for various value cocktails of the sort Sen proposes. Nonetheless, given the popularity of this particular cocktail (or family of cocktails), particularly in political discourse, Sen's identification of its three value-dimensions is useful.