Democratic Values In Practice

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In earlier chapters of The Public And Its Problems John Dewey described the social ideal of democracy as distinguished from the form democracy takes in an actual government. Chapter 5 begins his answer to the question how can we move from our current politics to forms closer to an ideal democracy. That could mean minor fixes to the current form, or adding similar institutions. But if the problems we need to solve exceed the capabilities of our institutions, then we may have to examine the entire structure and make major changes to produce new institutions, laws and regulations that can solve our problems.

The controlling factor must be the interest of the Public, using the term as Dewey does. Steps that bring more of a Public into the decision-making processes are improvements. That could just mean making it easier for everyone to vote, so they can participate at the level of selecting officials. It can also mean taking those interested enough into the decision-making process. That could be as simple as listening to their concerns. It could mean listening to their ideas about who should speak for them, who they trust, and to their solutions. And this isn’t just about government. For Dewey, democracy is valuable in all aspects of our social lives, work, Church, voluntary associations, and involuntary associations like Homeowners Associations.

Dewey offers the following working descriptions of democratic life:

From the standpoint of the individual, it consists in having a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which one belongs and in participating according to need in the values which the groups sustain. From the standpoint of the groups, it demands liberation of the potentialities of members of a group in harmony with the interests and goods which are common. P. 174-5.

Among the characteristics of democracy are liberty, fraternity and equality. These words make no sense apart from communal life. If society is just a large group of isolated individuals, equality comes to mean merely average, leaving no room for the brilliant, the incompetent, and the uninterested. Liberty means freedom from the bonds of community, ending in anarchy. Fraternity, brotherhood, is meaningless absent community. From this Dewey concludes that democracy is meaningful only in the context of community.

In the context of a community, fraternity becomes the conscious appreciation of the common goods created by our joint efforts and which give direction to our lives. Liberty frees us to flourish, to live our best lives in the company of others, and with their assistance and encouragement. Equality becomes the share of the jointly created goods accruing to each according to need and capacity to use, unhampered by other concerns.

Dewey uses babies as a way of understanding equality. We give babies what they need, not because they’ve earned it, but because they need it or because it makes them happy. When we do this across society, we are our best selves.

Group behavior arises naturally. People work together, live together, and interact. Community arises naturally as we begin to appreciate the contributions of our neighbors and see that they appreciate our contributions. To Dewey, the key point is not the physical actions or the emotions that might attach to them, but the moral implication. By “moral” Dewey means that community life “… is emotionally, intellectually, consciously sustained.” We pay attention to each other and to ourselves in our relations with others; and our community supports our drive to become our best selves.

In an early work, The Ethics of Democracy, Dewey discusses this moral or ethical vision of democracy.

There is an individualism in democracy … it is an individualism of freedom, of responsibility, of initiative to and for the ethical ideal, not an individualism of lawlessness. In one word, democracy means that personality is the first and final reality. It admits that the full significance of personality can be learned by the individual only as it is already presented to him in objective form in society; it admits that the chief stimuli and encouragements to the realization of personality come from society; …. It holds that the spirit of personality indwells in every individual .… From this central position of personality result the other notes of democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity – words which are not mere words to catch the mob, but symbols of the highest ethical idea which humanity has yet reached – the idea that personality is the one thing of permanent and abiding worth, and that in every human individual there lies personality.

This idea, that each individual personality flourishes only in the context of society, under its guidance and inspiration, is a brilliant justification for democracy.


1. The Republican Party is whole-heartedly committed to the view that society is a mass of isolated individuals. It’s an idea which has deep roots in the American psyche, the lonely settler, the Lone Ranger, the rugged individual, John Galt and Howard Roark, Homo Economicus, all are examples of this theory of human nature. In The Ethics Of Democracy, Dewey dismisses this theory.

Just as Dewey predicted, the consequences of treating humans as isolated grains in a huge sand pile are dire. The bulk of the Republican Party detests people who disagree with them, particularly what they call the Left, meaning anyone who sees systemic racism, gun violence, unfair taxation, crumbling infrastructure, climate change, abuse of workers, and Covid-19 as serious problems that must be solved, and can only be solved if we act as a community.

The idea of fraternity among all Americans is meaningless to the Republican Party. Equality is a sour joke, a tool to help the weak and the moochers. Liberty means freedom from laws they don’t like, and from social restraints. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity in Dewey’s sense have no place in Republican politics or discourse. For the entire party, there are no problems that require joint action, only pseudo-problems defined in right-wing spaces: attacks on Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head; unfounded and inexplicable fears of immigration, violent crime, and budget deficits. Take a look at this chart.

Dewey says that our individuality is formed by the society around us. This too is reflected in the Republican Party. Adherents are taught, and teach their children, to ignore science unless it produces results acceptable to the hall monitors at Fox News. Fighting Covid-19 restrictions, gun fetishization, attacking legislatures, these are regarded as manly and appropriate behaviors. Police attacks on random Brown and Black people, and protestors of all colors are righteous. Exactly as Dewey said, the result of hyper-individualism is anarchy.

2. Only a few politicians, mostly local, do a decent job of involving the public in matters of public policy. Think about policing. What exactly do we as a community want to accomplish with policing? I bet the answer is different on the North Side of Chicago than the South and Southwest sides. But no one ever asks, and no one cares. We just keep doing the same things and throwing money at the problems.

3. I’m imagining a series of meetings in Churches and Schools around the city where people can talk about what they want in small groups, maybe with non-ideological facilitators, maybe live-streamed; taking in reactions from the public; more meetings. Then select from among themselves two or three people to meet with other similarly selected; talking and taking the new ideas back to their groups; meeting and discussing, trying to come to grips with this complex social problem. Maybe add some professional polling or non-ideological focus groups. Surely someone has better ideas than mine.

Democracy is possible. We just have to make it happen.

Dewey’s Aspirational View of Democracy

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In the last post we looked at John Dewey’s view of democracy based on The Public And Its Problems, which I called a functional view. He explains the minimum requirements for maintaining a democratic form of government. The text for this post is The Ethics of Democracy, published in 1888, when Dewey was 29 and a professor at the University of Michigan. It offers the uplifting vision of democracy that was missing in the prior post. [1]

This is a philosophy paper. I take it to be a statement of the ideal, grounded in the reality Dewey sees, but laying out his hopes for the future if we pursue this ideal. It’s aspirational, not descriptive.

Dewey doesn’t assert that there a foundational principle from which he can reason his way to his views. His argument responds to the ideas of other writers, using them as a way of demonstrating his own thinking. Dewey takes up the ideas of Sir Henry Maines in his book Popular Government, and Plato’s Republic. Plato and other ancient Greek thinkers took as the highest virtue is excellence, arete, in action and contemplation. I think it helps to keep this in mind as we examine this work.

Maine was a British jurist. Dewey reads his book to say that democracy is fragile, accidental, and bound to failure. Dewey quotes Maine saying democracy will end “… in producing monstrous and morbid forms of monarchy and aristocracy.” In short Maine writes a defense of rule by an aristocracy of the best people, which I assume he derives from Plato’s Republic. Maine says democracy is the rule of the many, by which he means a quantitative, numerical form of government derived from the votes of a horde of isolated atomized individuals, all acting solely in their own interest. Dewey says that for Maine, “Democracy is othing but a numerical aggregate, a conglomeration of units.”

Dewey compares society to an organism whose existence emerges from the actions of the people who make it up. Society exists only through the actions of its members, and we only know society by looking at the actions of the members. The success of the society depends on the success of the individuals and vice versa. Dewey claims that this view arises from the Republic.

Dewey thinks that our actions are mediated by our socialization (my word), so that in acting we are not isolated atoms. Instead, each of us is different way of expressing that socialization, and thus part of the group. Dewey thinks that the will of society is expressed in this way, through the combined acts of members. The will of society gains some expression through the functional definition of democracy as selecting and overseeing our officials.

The key point of the paper for me is Dewey’s explanation of the value of democracy, the ethical justification for it. [2] In the first part of the paper, Dewey compares and contrasts aristocracy and democracy, as if they were merely two possible forms of government.

Democracy, like any other polity, has been finely termed the memory of a historic past, the consciousness of a living present, the ideal of the coming future. Democracy, in a word, is a social, that is to say, an ethical conception, and upon its ethical significance is based its significance as governmental. Democracy is a form of government only because it is a form of moral and spiritual association.

Dewey says that aristocracy can make the same claims. But appointing the best and wisest doesn’t work. They become corrupt, or lose sight of the needs and desires of the majority. Every movement to greater democracy increases the number and diversity of the people who operate as the government and who oversee that operation.

Every forward democratic movement is followed by the broadening of the circle of the state, and by more effective oversight that every citizen may be insured the rights belonging to him. P. 21.

The aristocratic ideal is that the wisest force people into the spheres in which they can best serve the state. Dewey is appalled by the idea that the individuals in a society can be pushed around by anyone, let alone a group identifying itself as the best and wisest. He doesn’t say it, but the idea that the wisest know the needs of society is absurdly hubristic. In a democracy, people find their own way into what Dewey calls “their proper positions in the social organism.” P. 21. They take up roles in which they can best carry out the goals of society. They do this as individual persons, each with their own set of attributes.

There is an individualism in democracy which there is not in aristocracy; but it is an ethical, not a numerical individualism; it is an individualism of freedom, of responsibility, of initiative to and for the ethical ideal, not an individualism of lawlessness. In one word, democracy means that personality is the first and final reality. P. 23.

I think we would use personhood instead of personality. I think this means that the full flowering of the individual, with all the influence of society, is the driving force of democracy. It is from this personhood, this ethical individual, that other aspects of democracy emerge: including liberty, equality and fraternity. Dewey gives illustrations of the first two.

Liberty in the dominant view means the freedom to do as one chooses, without regard to any other concern. In this view, the law is meant to punish actions that society deems unacceptable.

Dewey rejects this view. Society creates law, using that term in a broad way to cover statutes and formal rules of the state, moral and cultural demands and taboos, and informal rules of behavior. The law of a society represents its will at any time. The personhood of each individual is formed under the influence of this law. Today we would say that each individual internalizes the law. Thus the exercise of liberty by an individual is controlled by the law as instantiated in that individual. [3]

In this way, liberty is self-restricted, but at the same time, the individual is free to explore the limits imposed by the law, and to seek changes. The individual is required to follow the formal laws and rules, but is free to flout the moral and cultural demands and taboos, and the informal rules, subject, of course, to social sanctions, like shunning and shaming. At bottom, in a democracy, the law is not imposed by an external force. It is shaped by individuals as one of their social roles, and internalized. It’s function is to channel the exercise of liberty.

Turning to equality, the vulgar meaning is numerical equality, equal portions of each desirable good. Dewey says that in a democracy equality has an ethical meaning. It begins with the view that each individual person is equivalent in moral worth to every other individual.

Wherever you have a man, there you have personality, and there is no trace by which one personality may be distinguished from another so as to be set above or below. It means that in every individual there lives an infinite and universal possibility; … . P. 25.

This is the beauty of democracy: every person has the opportunity to become all that they can be, and those possibilities are unlimited. [4]


This is a strikingly contemporary vision of democracy. Dewey lays out a set of values associated with democracy that resonate with my own. I wonder how many Republican legislators would support Dewey’s understanding of democracy.
[1]The views in this paper did not change throughout his life.

At the core of his political thinking are the beliefs that science and democracy are mutually supportive and interdependent enterprises, that they are egalitarian, progressive and rest on habits of open social communication, and that powerful interpretations of liberal individualism and democracy have become ossified and self-defeating.

[2] See pages 19-24. I’m skipping a large part of this paper, There is a lot of it that is obscure. Some of the reasoning feels dated to me. I’m not familiar with the writings of some of the people he quotes. None of that detracts from my admiration for his overall conclusions.

[3] See page 23. I think I have summarized it correctly, but the language is obscure. Comments are welcome.

[4] This conception comports with the views of Elizabeth Anderson, which I discuss in this series. Anderson identifies as a follower of Dewey and a Pragmatist.

Freedom And Equality: Anderson Against Libertarianism

Posts In This Series. This post is updated from time to time with additional resources.

The first four posts in this series discuss two articles by Elizabeth Anderson explaining her view of freedom and equality. The text for this post is her chapter titled Freedom and Equality in The Oxford Handbook Of Freedom And Equality, available online through your local library.

In the last post I said that relational equality* is a principle of social relations, and not a principle of the distribution of material goods and opportunities. But as Anderson says, relational equality entails a certain minimum level of material distribution. Material redistribution is flatly rejected by libertarians**. It’s easy for progressives to forget that there is a philosophical basis for libertarianism, with well-known exponents, including Robert Nozick. Anderson takes on the libertarians in this chapter. She argues that freedom as non-interference, the ground of libertarianism, cannot justify a regime of private property.

In Part 1 of the chapter, Anderson describes different ideas about freedom and equality, and gives some examples. This section covers the ground of the first four posts in this series, and is easy to follow. In Part 2, she addresses the libertarian arguments justifying private property strictly on the grounds of negative liberty*, that is, freedom from interference.

Anderson starts with a brief discussion of taxes. In standard libertarian thought, requiring someone to do something is normatively different from requiring someone to refrain from doing something. Thus, ordering people to supply others with goods and services is different from ordering people not to take the property of others. Libertarians say that taxes raise revenue for the government which is used to supply goods and services to others, and so taxation is normatively wrong. The basis for this assessment is that income is associated with labor, so that making people pay taxes is directly the same as making them work for others. Anderson points out that this may be true of taxes on wages, but it obviously irrelevant to passive income, as that from investments, capital gains, mineral royalties, rents, bequests and interest.***

She points out that taxes on land rents can be justified as “respecting the property rights in the commons of those who lost access to privately appropriated land.”

But that’s just the first point. Anderson’s focus is on the priority of positive freedom in connection with property rights. This argument is more complex. First, she points out that even libertarians do not argue for absolute negative freedom with respect to property. Perfect negative liberty means that no one has the right to demand that the state assist in constraining an owner’s use of property. As far as I know, no one, even the most rigid libertarian, makes tsuch an expansive claim. Therefore the claim to private property is a right.

If claims to property are rights, then they entail duties in other people. If the owner excludes others from property, exercising the owner’s right to non-interference, then others lack the right to use of that property. Their right to use of that property is interfered with. On numerical grounds alone, this negative liberty of one person creates a massive net loss of negative liberty.

… to secure the right of a single individual owner to some property, the negative liberty of everyone else — billions of people — must be constrained. Judged by a metric of negative liberty alone, recognition of property rights inherently amounts to a massive net loss of total negative freedom.

To justify this massive net loss of negative freedom, we must look to other kinds of freedom. Positive freedom* supplies a good answer. Private property can improve overall economic outcomes for the many. Properly used, it can create greater opportunities for many. Receiving the benefits from improvements can encourage more of these benefits. Freedom from domination* is protected and increased when in a system of regulated private ownership which prohibits the use of private property to dominate others.

To use these arguments, though, we must prioritize positive liberty and freedom from domination over negative freedom. This, of course, was the point Anderson is trying to show.

Instead of libertarian negative freedom as the primary principle of society, Anderson offers a social contract view of private property.

In this picture, the principles of right are whatever principles persons would rationally choose (or could not reasonably reject) to govern their interpersonal claims, given that they are, and understand themselves to be, free and equal in relation to one another.****

Generally people would choose a regulated system of private rights so as to ensure reasonable economic efficiency, order, and maximum positive liberty and freedom from domination. In this setting, individual rights are not grounded in selfish interests as in libertarian thought, but in the reality that we all have “a common interet in relating to each other through a shared infrastructure of individual rights.”


1. As I read this section, Anderson is trying to show that prioritizing negative freedom, meaning noninterference, is not a solid foundation for a decent society; and I think she succeeds.

I have never thought libertarianism was sensible. In high school, I read Anthem by Ayn Rand, which I took to be an anti-communist screed, mildly enjoyable and short. In college, I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, and I realized that Rand was actually arguing for radical selfishness. The books are badly written and laughably simple-minded, and impossible to take seriously. Essentially libertarians want social protection for themselves and their property, but think it is theft if taxes are used for anything besides protecting them and their rights and giving them stuff. Their society looks like the Gilded Age, when state and federal governments called out the militia to attack striking workers. Let’s just skip past all the jargon. As a practical matter, Libertarians need to explain why those workers should support their ideal society. A similar question should be asked of today’s plutocrats and their enablers.

2. The tax question is a good example. I noted Anderson’s view of earned vs. unearned income issue, and her argument based on the principles of social contract theory. Social contract theory is the idea that we as a group implicitly agree to certain rules and institutions, surrendering some of our rights and accepting some duties, in exchange for protection of our remaining rights and creating and maintaining social order.

The justification for this theory is that life is better in such a society. In a democracy we select our leaders and can vote them out. This is a form of freedom from domination by government, and to the extent we can force government to act, it frees us from domination by employers.

“Taxes are what we pay for civilized society” as Oliver Wendell Holmes said. For now, I’ll just note that in Modern Money Theory, Holmes is not quite right. In nations that issue their own currency there is no connection between spending and revenue. In the MMT model government spends money into the economy and taxes bring some of it back to the government; and this is done for several reasons, including stabilizing prices and the value of money. That model seriously undercuts the primary argument that taxes are extracted from the successful to buy stuff for losers.

* These terms are discussed at length in prior posts

**Thus we are regularly treated to the idiot claims that taxation is theft, and that affirmative action is an unfair benefit to minorities and to the working class.

*** One thing I love about Anderson is that she never limits herself to a list of three examples followed by etc. Here she identifies 5.

**** This starting point is similar to the Veil of Ignorance of John Rawls in A Theory Of Justice.

Freedom And Equality: More on Equality

Posts in this Series. For those interested, I update this post from time to time with additional resources that help flesh out what may be unfamiliar ideas.

The text for this and the previous post is Elizabeth Anderson’s chapter Equality in The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy, available online through your public library. In the previous post we saw that Anderson describes equality in terms of social relations rather than in terms of material distribution. Relational equality is opposed to social hierarchies. She describes three forms of social hierarchy, command, standing, and esteem, and tests them against the pragmatic values of the good, the righteous or just, and the virtuous or moral. She concludes that these hierarchies are neither good, just, nor virtuous. Next she takes up the arguments of defendes of hierarchy.

Proponents of social hierarchy cannot justify the extremes of social hierarchy, slavery, serfdom, peonage. So they try to defend the less egregious cases. In evaluating these arguments, it’s helpful to think of concrete situations, rather than mere abstractions, because the actual practice of thee social hierarchies has direct impact on real humans. These hierarchies exist in government and other institutions, public and private. Anderson hersolf applies these ideas to the world of work in her book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), 2019, Princeton University Press.

Defenders of social hierarchies argue that command hierarchies are the only solution to certain kinds of social problems. Specifically, they argue that social order can only be maintained “… under a division of labor in which those competent to rule issue commands and others obey.” Egalitarians point out that almost everyone has the ability to participate in a democratic form of government. There is no obvious way to select those capable of command, certainly not on typical grounds, which she describes as “inscriptive group identities such as such as race, ethnicity, caste, class, gender, religion, language, citizenship status, marital status, age, and sexuality. In the real world, these defenses are nothing more than legitimating existing hierarchies of dominance.
Defenders of hierarchies of esteem and standing argue first, that there are differences in virtue among people; some people are more deserving than others, justifying differences in esteem and standing. Second these defenders argue that differences in esteem and standing act as incentives for more productive workers. Following Rousseau, Anderson writes almost poetically:

// Equal citizenship status in a republic provides such a ground. When fellow citizens meet in the public square, they meet as co-sovereigns—as co-creators and guarantors of the republic that makes them free and independent. Each can stand erect before everyone else; no one has to bow and scrape before another. Everyone basks in the glory of the republic they jointly sustain. This basal equality of esteem, of the free citizen and the recognition of that status with all its rights and dignity by fellow citizens, constitutes the essential background condition for the practice of republican virtue*. Thus, genuine virtue requires an underlying equality of esteem.**//

Anderson sees no reason for hierarchies of standing. Rewarding achievement with special material benefits, special privileges or exemptions from constraints binding others leads directly to people seeking those benefits directly instead of by cultivating virtue.

The danger of all three hierarchies is that the holders of high positions will use them for personal benefit, and will seek to pass them on to their offspring or their favorites regardless of talent or virtue, directly, as we see politicians handing their positions to their children, or indirectly, as by establishing standards for the hierarchies that favor their children or protégés. I hardly need to provide examples. Worse, once people become used to their position in these hierarchies, some of them will exploit those below them without compunction, and with no accountability.


1. Anderson says that these egalitarian arguments are better for showing the failures of the current system that for creating a new one. She points out that democracies have the potential to overcome these hierarchies, but only in practice can we find the proper means to do so.

In general, pragmatists argue that the proof of value is in the doing. Each solution engenders its own problems, problems that are rarely foreseeable, so the role of the people as an electorate is to seek solutions to the new problems or to take other routes to the desired goal. There are no permanent solutions to these problems, only approximations, best guesses, and constant evaluation.

Anderson considers herself a pragmatist in this sense. She argues in favor of democracy, which enables people to select their leaders and creates means to hold those leaders accountable. In that setting, the exercise of power is not domination: the people can throw out and otherwise punish bad leaders. For example, the US Constitution provides for impeachment of the President, Vice-President, and all civil officers, which includes all judges.

Social hierarchies resist change other than those benefit the entrenched dominant class. They are static. At its best democracy is dynamic. It is never complete. It is a project, a human project. People decide on what is important, and find ways to move toward those goals. There is a kind of organized conflict inherent in democracy, as people urge different goals and different paths to those goals. That conflict is evidence of life, and is only a threat to those who benefit unfairly and unreasonably from the existing arrangement.

2, Anderson argues for relational equality over equality of material distribution. But she is obvious that relational equality requires some material redistribution. That redistribution is subject to social determination, but should include at least sufficient food, clothing and shelter to maintain personal dignity, open access to all educational and job opportunities, additional assistance to those who have not had that access in the past, and special attention to those who are disadvantaged by illness, genetics and other causes beyond their control.

4. This piece by Anderson is beautifully written and quite clear. I have not attempted to cover all the richness of her argument.

*This term relates to the Roman Republic, not to the US party of that name. I discuss this point in an earlier post in this series.

** Richard Rorty makes similar poetic arguments in Achieving Our Country following Walt Whitman, the poet of democracy. See the additional materials in the Introduction and Index To Posts.

Freedom And Equality: Relational Equality Against Social Hierarchies

Introduction and Posts in This Series with additional resources

The first two posts in this series discuss the idea of freedom from domination as used by Elizabeth Anderson in a chapter she wrote for The Oxford Handbook of Freedom and Equality, which you can find online through your public library, I hope. With this post, I begin looking at the concept of equality as she uses it. In subsequent posts I will examine her thinking on managing the relation between freedom and equality.

Anderson says that the type of equality relevant for political purposes is relational equality, as opposed to material equality. Material equality is the idea that we should all have the same quantity of resources, and no one actually advocates this, or anything like it, despite right-wing shrieks about socialism.

Relational equality is defined against social hierarchy. To get a better understanding of this idea, I turn to another chapter by Anderson, Equality, published in The Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy. Anderson argues for an understanding of equality as an “ideal of social relations”. In contemporary thought, including not least contemporary philosophical thought, equality is considered as a principle governing distribution of economic goods. The discussion is often based on the ideas of John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. Rawls has been interpreted as requiring some level of equality of distribution, leading to tedious (my word) discussions of what, how much, and who is deserving of such redistribution.

Anderson argues that relational equality is a much more accurate description of what egalitarians actually work for, what they actually are doing.

A Side Note On Method

Anderson considers herself a pragmatist in the tradition of John Dewey. Another of Dewey’s disciples, Richard Rorty, wrote

Dewey’s philosophy is a systematic attempt to temporalize everything, to leave nothing fixed. This means abandoning the attempt to find a theoretical frame of reference within which to evaluate proposals for the human future.*

This means precisely that human beings created all the moral and ethical principles that we use to measure good and evil, right and wrong, moral and immoral, decent and indecent, acceptable and unacceptable, edible or inedible, taboo and prized acts, included and excluded groups, and every other pairing of measures. Every social structure is created by humans. There is no external, no objective set of principles for any of these purposes. There are only human beings struggling with themselves and others to structure their mutual existence. It means that human beings create their own future.

That’s not to say that we don’t have standards for making decisions. We most certainly do. But we have to recognize that others are perfectly capable of forming other coherent standards that disagree with ours, and that living with others necessitates accommodation to their plans. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have absolutes in our lives, but it may mean that we do not attempt to impose those on others.

Anderson works from the principle that social choices are matters of argument among members of society. She says that choosing between relational equality and social hierarchies is a matter of values. She sets out the values she thinks are important and argues about which is superior in terms of those values. This kind of argument appears regularly in her work.

Social Hierarchy

By “social hierarchy”, I refer to durable group inequalities that are systematically sustained by laws, norms, or habits.

Anderson adds that social hierarchies are durable, they persist through generations. They are group-based: one group is superior, the other inferior. They are typically based on broad categories, race, gender, sexuality, citizenship and so on. She identifies three kinds of social hierarchy, hierarchies of command, hierarchies of esteem, and hierarchies of standing.

In hierarchies of command, the inferior class is subject to arbitrary and unaccountable control by the superior class. The inferior class must obey the orders of the superior class without questioning. Inferiors cannot exercise their liberty without the assent of the superior class. This is the opposite of the non-domination I discussed in the two previous posts in this series. This hierarchy is undone when the inferior class is able to govern itself directly or democratically.

In hierarchies of esteem the superior class stigmatizes the inferior class. The inferior class is marked for disdain, ridicule, humiliation and even violent persecution.

In hierarchies of standing, the interests and voices of the superior class are given great weight in social decision-making, legislation, and enforcement of laws and rules. The interests of the inferior class are given little or no weight in such matters.


Anderson follows John Dewey’s scheme of values in the following passage.

The realm of values is divided into three great domains: the good, the right, and the virtuous. Each is defined in relation to the perspective from which people make judgments about each type. Judgments of goodness are made from a first-person perspective—that is, from the perspective of one enjoying, remembering, or anticipating the enjoyment of some object, individually or in concert with others (“us”). The experience of goodness—the sign or evidence of goodness—is one’s felt attraction to an appealing object. Judgments of moral rightness are made from a second-person perspective, in which one person asserts the authority (in his or her own person or on behalf of another) to make claims on another—to demand that the other respect the rights or pay due regard to the interests of the claimant and to hold the other accountable for doing so. Judgments of moral wrongness, therefore, are essentially expressible as complaints by or on behalf of a victim that are addressed to agents who are held responsible for wrongdoing. The experience of encountering a valid claim of rightness is that of feeling required to do something, of being commanded by a legitimate authority. Judgments of virtue are made from the third-person perspective of an observer and judge of people’s conduct and underlying dispositions. The experience of virtue is one’s felt approval or admiration of people’s character or powers as expressed in their conduct. Citations omitted.

This is a lot to process. Perhaps the first step is to try to apply these ideas to your personal thinking about social issues. Consider the family separation policy applied to asylum seekers by Trump (Miller). When I think of it in terms of the good, the right and the virtuous, I immediately see that it makes me want to act, to demand justice. It makes me despise the people who instigated this policy and the people who carry it out. Therefore I perceive it as neither right (just) nor virtuous. I also see that it is evil, the opposite of good; it doesn’t make me happy, it makes me angry and hostile.

On the other hand, to judge from Twitter and what I see of Fox news on comedy shows, there are plenty of people who don’t see it that way. Is it possible to have a discussion of values with such people? Is there an argument that the policy is good or right or virtuous? Am I prepared to admit such arguments might be worth considering?

Relational Equality Against Social Hierarchies

This is the central argument of Anderson’s chapter. Anderson claims that egalitarians argue that social hierarchies are bad on all three counts. In general, social hierarchies are not right ( meaning they are unjust) towards the people placed in the inferior class and thus to society as a whole. They are morally wrong (virtue) towards both superior and inferior classes because it devalues the human worth and potential of the inferior class and inflates the worth of the superior class. And they are vicious (not good) because they treat the ideologies supporting this class distinction as good when we can see that those ideologies are corrupt.

In the case of esteem hierarchies, egalitarians argue that all human beings are entitled to a basic level of esteem and equal access to higher levels of esteem. As to hierarchies of standing, egalitarians argue that all humans should be treated equally before the law, and should have a basal level of standing in other settings.

With respect to command hierarchies, egalitarians argue that the primary justification is the idea that some humans are fit to rule and other are fit only to follow. Egalitarians say that all humans possess a basic level of self-government sufficient to enable them to participate in decisions about their lives and work, and “…entitle them to reject systems in which others wield unaccountable power over them.”

These ideas may not be comfortable. The arguments may seem unanchored, because there isn’t a Ten Commandments or any other seemingly objective standard. I’ll have other comments in the next post.

*Rorty, Achieving Our Country, p. 20. This is a great book, an antidote to the despair that alternates with cynicism that infects the American left. I may do a series on it, but it’s easy to read, barely theoretical and mostly an impassioned argument for hope for the future based on the best ideas of the American Project.

Freedom And Equality: Freedom From Domination Part 2

Introduction and Index To Posts In This Series


I began this series with a discussion of Freedom With Honor: A Republican Ideal by Philip Pettit, 64 Social Research, Vol. 1, P. 52. I want to emphasize the nature and importance of honor in this paper. Pettit says that decent societies

… do not deprive a person of honor. Specifically, they do not undermine or jeopardize a person’s reasons for self-respect. More specifically still, they do not signal the rejection of the person from the human commonwealth: they do not cast the person as less than fully adult or human.

… To be deprived of honor is to be cut out of conversation with your fellows. It is to be denied a voice or to be refused an ear: it is not to be allowed to talk or not to be treated as ever worth hearing. People differ, topic by topic, in how far they are thought worth listening to; they enjoy lower and higher grades of esteem. But to be deprived of honor is to be denied the possibility of ever figuring in the esteem stakes; it is to be refused the chance to play in the esteem-seking game.

Honor in this sense is perhaps the most important human need after our material needs are met. Pettit does not offer examples at first (his examples are discussed below), so I offer this one. Martin Luther King was instrumental in the strike of the Memphis sanitation workers; he was murdered while working on it. Here’s a Smithsonian article on the strike, which features this thrilling image.

I Am A Man

David Remnick of the New Yorker recently worte: “W. E. B. Du Bois wrote that Andrew Johnson’s unwillingness to enact policies to give freedmen land, a decent education, or voting rights resided, first and foremost, in “his inability to picture Negroes as men.”” I don’t know if Dr. King and the other organizers were consciously thinking of this quote, and I don’t know exactly what they meant by the words on the signs. But to me, the men in this picture demand recognition as a human beings. These men were willing to die rather than endure second class status. They insisted on being recognized as equal participants in society. Fair wages were an issue, but that’s not what the signs demand. They are not inferiors begging for fair treatment, or dependants asking for a higher allowance. They are each on of the Men in All Men Are Created Equal. They demand what Pettit would call honor.

Once you notice the demand for this kind of honor, you see it everywhere. This is from an op-ed by Moira Donegan in The Guardian on Jeffrey Epstein:

He was protected by the broad cultural antipathy toward treating sexual abuse as real harm, the often hostile reaction to the premise that teenage girls should matter as much as adult men.

This is from a piece on being a good customer at a restaurant, also in the Guardian:

There are strategies galore for dealing with rudeness, which mostly end with a waiter spitting in your food, but the main reason you should behave properly as a diner is that you are human and so are they.

Denial of honor in societies based on noninterference

Pettit says a society which prioritizes freedom as non-interference can permit institutional humiliation, domination, and denial of honor, even in a constitutional system supposedly based on equality. How? Imagine you are charged with making laws in such a society. You will recognize that all laws are interferences with the freedom of your members. They will have to observe laws, they will be penalized if they violate them.* You will recognize that some forms of interference are unlikely, and others unlikely to cause what you consider serious injury. You will not want to pass laws to limit the freedom of your members unless you are certain that the benefits will outweigh the costs of enforcement.

In that situation, some people will have the ability to interfere with the liberty of others. People will know that those others can interfere with their freedom, even to dominate them. That in turn leads to servility: the effort to avoid domination, and to ingratiate themselves with the dominator. He offers this example:

Think of the way Mary Wollstonecraft deplores the “littlensses” and “sly tricks” and “cunning” to which women are driven, in her view, because of their vulnerability in relation to their husbands.

It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are, in some degree, independent of man; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of natural affection, which would make them good wives and mothers. Whilst they are absolutely dependent of their husbands they will be cunning, mean, and selfish.

Cites omitted.

This “cunning” is dramatized in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen**.

“Elizabeth Bennet,” said Miss Bingley, when the door was closed on her, “is one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art.”

“Undoubtedly,” replied Darcy, to whom this remark was chiefly addressed, “there is a meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.


1. In current usage, the word honor means formal respect, and we reserve it for special occasions: to honor the victorious US Women’s soccer team; to honor a dead war hero. In our usage, it is something we do woth respect to others, not something we seek or need for ourselves; it’s not as a personal matter. We occasionally use it to describe a goal for individuals: to live honorably. Pettit uses it more like a combination of political and social equality. In our political discourse, the word equality is contested, sadly. I’m going to use the term civic dignity, which is clumsy but at least not contested, and which seems to me to capture the essence of Pettit’s term honor. I will also use the words honor and dignity together to convey the idea.

2. It’s fascinating to read this material in the context of Trump and the Republicans. They flatly reject the premise that all humans are entitled to civic dignity. It reminds us that we have to fight, literally, for honor for all if we want to keep it for ourselves.


* Pettit also says that taxes are a violation of negative liberty, and that citizens will be taxed to pay for enforcing all laws. This is true at the state level, but not at the federal level. See, e.g. Beardsley Ruml, Taxes For Revenue Are Obsolete.

** The context of this passage is that without quite saying so, Austen makes us understand that Caroline Bingley wants to attract the affections of Mr. Darcy. This isn’t the first time she has attacked Elizabeth, and it isn’t the last time she uses cunning to reach her goal. It’s passages like this one that make Pride and Prejudice worth multiple readings.

Attacking The Neoliberal Ideology

The organizing question of the first phase of my neoliberalism project was how neoliberalism became the dominant discourse in the US. We looked into the dogma of neoliberalism and some of its pillars, particularly neoclassical economics, especially William Stanley Jevons. We looked at history, with Veblen, Arendt, Polanyi and others. I looked at Foucault, the Frankfurt School, and Pierre Bourdieu, and then read a bit of current Marxism through Wood, and a more or less orthodox defender of capitalism, Scott. These readings led to my current view.

I began the project with the view that the post-WWII economic system had morphed into neoliberal capitalism in the 1970s. I now think of our current economic system as capitalism operating with few constraints and having coopted government to act on its behalf and against the interests of most Americans. The removal of restraints and the coopting of government were driven by an ideology, neoliberalism. The ideology was created by a small group, mostly economists. It explains and justifies domination by wealthy capitalists and inspires acceptance of that domination by most Americans.

Neoliberalism began to take over in the early 1970s when the post-WWII economy faltered. The rich began to pour money into pushing the theory that free markets are crucial form of freedom. One important reading on this subject is Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. Driven by huge sums of money, neoliberalism appears to be nothing more than another effort by the dominant class, meaning the rich and powerful, to justify its dominant status both for itself and for the subjected class, meaning the rest of us.

As an aside, I note that economists see themselves as uniquely positioned to explain the workings of society to us drudges, barely able to lift our heads from the machinery of production and shake the noise from our brains so we can hear the fruits of their genius. In support, I offer Friedman’s take on racism from Capitalism and Freedom,3 p. 94.

… [T]here are real problems in defining and interpreting discrimination. The man who exercises discrimination pays a price for doing so. He is, as it were, ”buying” what he regards as a “product.” It is hard to see that discrimination can have any meaning other than a “taste” of others that one does not share. We do not regard it as “discrimination” or at least not in the same invidious sense if an individual is willing to pay a higher price to listen to one singer than to another, although we do if he is willing to pay a higher price to have services rendered to him by a person of one color than by a person of another. The difference between the two cases is that in the one case we share the taste, and in the other case we do not. Is there any difference in principle between the taste that leads a householder to prefer an attractive servant to an ugly one and the taste that leads another to prefer a Negro to a white or a white to a Negro, except that we sympathize and agree with the one taste and may not with the other? I do not mean to say that all tastes are equally good.

In the second part of this series, I intend to look at two issues. First, what do academic studies say about ideologies, especially their creation, and their effect on those who adopt them. Second, what can be done to attack an ideology and dislodge it.

As to the first part, I have several hypotheses.

1. Ideologies are cognitive structures shared by a large number of people. People use them to to to orient their choices, to justify their actions, to explain the outcomes of their behaviors, and to explain themselves to others. They become tools to understand society as a whole. Ideologies do not spring magically into the collective mind. They are constructed by humans, and reflect the personal interests of the constructors to a greater or lesser extent.

2. Ideologies have meaning only when articulated. People may share a set of structures, but it’s when they begin to use the structures to talk about, and thus to share, their a) guides to behavior, b) public justifications for their actions and c) explanations for outcomes, that the ideology can be seen to dominate the discourse.

3. The people who articulate the structure can make it work for their benefit by careful construction of the tenets of the ideology.

4. Once the tenets are established, people reason with them instead of considering the actual facts of a situation.

5. Once an ideology is articulated, it becomes possible to see the real organizing principles, the interests served, and the people responsible. The organizing principles may never be articulated by the creators. This leads to the double movement of ideologies, identified in the case of neoliberalism by Philip Mirowski’s. See, e.g., Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste.

I’ll be looking at literature on ideologies to see whether any of these intuitions are correct.

As to the second part, dislodging the discourse, there seem to be two opposing views. One is that you can’t replace something with nothing, so you have to have a replacement ideology before you can hope to dislodge the dominant ideology. The other pole is that first you change the facts on the ground for the better. This shows people that the old ideology produced bad results. That makes room for a new ideology that explains the good outcomes. The second view seems to be motivating the new breed of Democrats, who want change to meet problems, but aren’t interested in adopting a replacement ideology. Of course, plenty of Democrats cling to their “We’re neoliberals, but not ugly like those Republicans” mantra. This includes most of the current leaders of the Party, who are hooked on big money from corporate interests.

I don’t like either view. I think you have to have some explanation for changes besides meeting pressing needs in order to have a coherent program. Even in the early stages of change, there should be motivating principles. Fortunately as I struggled to get started on this part of the project, I found this fascinating article in the New Yorker, a profile of the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson titled The Philosopher Redefining Equalitysd. It seems to me that she teaches a number of the ideas that I have written about, including the pragmatism of John Dewey who I wrote about at FDL, and what it means to be free in a system where capitalists control much of our lives. I’ll be reading her work and commentary in dealing with the second part.

Finally, a word about current politics. I think the motivating principle of neoliberalism is that the rich should be in charge of everything, not just the economy. In current political discourse, people, including me, say that many Democratic politicians, including Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, are neoliberals. It’s important to understand the reason I think this way. I don’t think Democratic politicians believe that the rich should run everything. They do, however, privilege what they call “market solutions” and tweaks to the current system over the massive change that is obviously needed. They may not be neoliberal in principle, but they are neoliberal in action. To me this is a meaningful distinction. It means that any Democrat is a better choice than any Republican, but that it’s possible to be better. I worry that if there are no articulated principles for evaluating new policies, there is a danger that neoliberal principles will be used. I see PAYGO as an example of this concern.

Now that the Democrats have taken the House and seem to have momentum going into the election cycle, these distinctions are critical. We need to have this discussion openly, and without regard to the defenders of the dominant class. After all, the dominant class is the tiniest of minorities. It has no justifiable claim to its dominance, and we need to make that obvious.

Update: I forgot to thank Eureka for a comment that crystalized my thinking about how to proceed.