22 February 2010

Article: Bioethics and Deliberative Democracy: Five Warnings from Hobbes

Griffin Trotter, "Bioethics and Deliberative Democracy: Five Warnings from Hobbes" ("Journal of Medicine and Philosophy", 31 [3], June 2006: pp. 235-50).

Abstract: "Thomas Hobbes is one of the most ardent and thoroughgoing opponents of participatory democracy among Western political philosophers. Though Hobbes's alternative to participatory democracy – assent by subjects to rule by an absolute sovereign – no longer constitutes a viable political alternative for Westerners, his critique of participatory democracy is a potentially valuable source of insight about its liabilities. This essay elaborates five theses from Hobbes that stand as cogent warnings to those who embrace participatory democracy, especially those (such as most bioethicists) advocating for deliberative democracy based on a rational consensus model. In light of these warnings, the author suggests an alternative, modus vivendi approach to deliberative democracy that would radically alter the current practice of bioethics."

The full text of the article can be read free of charge here:


Excerpts: "Unlike Hobbes, I have no particular disdain for democracy. My intention here is to improve our conception of it. To that end, I will employ Hobbesian notions as leading ideas. [...] Hobbes is uniquely prominent among Enlightenment philosophers for his critical stance toward democracy [...]. He believes, first of all, that participatory democracy is difficult to carry off on a grand scale, and always devolves into rule by an aristocracy of vain-glorious public personalities [...], the most adroit manipulators of public sentiment will hold power and use this power in the way power is typically used – to serve their individual ends (whether these ends be egoistic, as Hobbes frequently presumes, or of the nature of imposing a comprehensive moral vision upon dissenting subjects). [...]

"Hobbes [...] worries about the politicization of ordinary human activities. The purpose of the state, on his view, is to carve out a secure area where such activities can be conducted without hostile interference. [...] [P]ublic advocacy [...] is profitless, not merely because it cannot succeed in producing a robust moral consensus, but more importantly because liberty and individual felicity would be enhanced by allowing opposing individuals and groups to establish their own practices, free from government interference and from each other [....] Democratic processes strongly tend to enhance both government's power (ability to enforce obedience) and its dominion (scope of things enforced). Because the citizens of a democracy participate in its rule, they tend to confuse dominion with liberty [...].

"In participatory democracy, many are involved, each with their own particular interests, desires, and objectives to which political power is an available means. [...] Each of these mini-demagogues is potentially capable of converting his/her personal concerns into political issues. Cooperation with disinterested demagogues is negotiated via a quid pro quo (well illustrated in the United States by our congressional earmarks) – begetting layer upon layer of political accretions. As we have witnessed in recent years, the metastasis of public projects eventually produces an unwieldy workload that overwhelms elected officials. Rather than viewing this predicament as a signal to scale down government, these officials create committees, commissions, and agencies – filled with political allies and authorized to create or enact more rules and prohibitions. [...]

"Insofar as citizens conflate their political dominion with their liberty or their felicity, they will tend to conjure grand visions of what they can achieve with like-minded political allies (against the will of dissenters). The typical result, on Hobbes's account, is a suffocating profusion of collective thinking. [...] Hobbes spends quite a bit of time delineating the ways in which public discourse amplifies realistic personal fears into irrational public hysteria. [...] The credo seems to be that it is better to do something coercively in large aggregates than to do it by consent in small groups. [...]

"[P]olitical processes aimed at moral consensus exacerbate each of the aforementioned dangers of participatory democracy. Founded, as it is, on the false claim that extensive moral consensus is possible, the quest for consensus requires multiple layers of deception. Citizens must be deceived into believing that the opinions of statesmen or moral experts are morally authoritative for the whole group (Hobbes's sovereign would never pose such a ludicrous claim). They must be deceived into believing that their well-being is enhanced by acquiescing to the purported moral consensus. And they must be deceived into believing that this acquiescence is in important respects autonomous and voluntary (despite the obvious fact that it is coerced). [...]

"Hobbes's critique of democracy-by-rational-consensus, and its bioethical counterpart, opens the door to a much longer and more difficult discussion. [...] Real political discourse is fractious; it involves the whole gamut of moral, immoral, and amoral human motives; and it succeeds primarily by producing cooperative activity, not moral consensus. Hobbes prefers monarchy over participatory democracy primarily because he thinks it is less apt to produce tyrannical accretions of government power and dominion, leaving citizens and diverse moral communities at relative liberty to chart their own moral destinies."

I read this as a libertarian take on democracy.

Griffin Trotter, who received both an MD and a PhD in Philosophy, is Associate Professor in the Department of Health Care at Saint Louis University.

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