Why democracy is Necessary for Flourishing

small d

Before you write me that there is a typo in the title, don’t bother. The small “d” is intentional. I am not writing about the big sense of Democracy, as in Democracy versus Socialism or any other political ideology. I want to focus on democracy as a particular way of interacting at all scales from families all the way to nations. If we are to flourish as both individuals and a global community, we must change our routine behaviors, that is our norms, such that the unintended consequences that are producing unsustainability and the growing departure form our common visions disappear entirely or shrink to a point that they become insignificant.

It is clear that we cannot solve our problems, if unsustainability or the loss of any part of our American Dream is deemed a “problem,” by applying the standard methodologies derived from our unreflected reliance of positive knowledge and its fruits in the form of technology and rational decision-making (technocracy). The clarity of this statement derives from both a philosophical/systems stance that argues that no problem can be solved by restricting our thinking and choices to the knowledge domain that we used in creating the conditions causing the problem (paraphrasing Einstein’s famous quote), and the practical/experiential sense that we observe the situation as worsening.

As I have written elsewhere, the way out of this dilemma is to start thinking and acting distinctly differently. Not just any old way, for example, relying on miracles, other than the familiar positivism, but thinking and acting pragmatically. Pragmatism is an extraordinarily powerful way to shape the beliefs that underly normal behavior, but, because we only rarely consciously use it, have many misconceptions about it. The nature of the beliefs that pragmatism creates is what makes it so important, not the method itself.

Pragmatism has a very interesting history. It grew out of the work of C. S. Peirce, a nineteenth century American logician and philosopher. Peirce began his investigations with an inquiry about how ideas (concepts) became fixed in the mind and then formed the ground for habitual behavior. This connection, made by others than Peirce, is critical to understanding how persistent problems arise and how they can be eliminated. Peirce was interested in individuals but the same connection between beliefs and routine behavior guides collective behavior. Institutional norms (routines, habits) are the result of enacting the rooted beliefs shared within the institution.

His colleague and fellow pragmatist, William James’s affirmation that if, under certain conditions, a belief creates actions that makes one happy, the belief can be accepted as true. So if a belief in the existence of God makes life satisfying in many ways, then it is not necessary to be able to prove this by rational or scientific methods. In practice, the conditions James set forth are largely overlooked. To accept such a belief without an acceptable proof, the consequences of the choice to believe or not has to be live, forced, and momentous. It has to a matter of serious concern (live), unavoidable (forced) and make a real difference (momentous). For atheists, the question of the existence of God does match any or all of these conditions

James’s criteria for accepting a belief is not the same as other pragmatists, although it might seem so, and he has been criticized for it as a consequence. The “standard” notion of pragmatism is that a concept (belief) that produces satisfactory results when used to underpin action can be accepted as meaningful (right, not true). Peirce’s so-called pragmatic maxim ties a meaningful concept to the sum total of all the effects (desired and not) it produces.

Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

Such meaningful beliefs come with another condition, different from James’s criterion. The beliefs must be generated by a rigorous inquiry by a community of interested parties, that is, people concerned about the outcome, not the belief. Pierce thought the process should follow scientific methods, but others relaxed the process, but not the rigor or community aspects.

The key difference between James and the rest is that James’s “truth” had to work only for the person considering the outcomes. It did not matter how badly the rest of the world might fare. He completely ignored the possibility of unintended consequences outside of the context of the believer. Pierce and Dewey argued for a community that included all those with an interest in the outcome, so, if an inquiry produced a belief that pleased some but not all, the inquiry would have to continue until some sort of consensus were reached.

Peirce would not accept a jihadist’s claim of the existence of a God instructing him to slay the infidels as pragmatically meaningful since he (Peirce) presumably would have an interest in remaining alive. This is one reason why one should be careful in quickly accepting beliefs made under James’s criterion. Both James’s beliefs and those of conventional pragmatism can be called faiths (small f), but they are categorically distinct, a very important difference.

The rightness of a pragmatically derived belief springs from its origins from a community of inquirers, perhaps including some acting as agents for others. If it produces an outcome all are happy with, it carries normative legitimacy. If the outcomes are normatively desirable, the belief they are based on can be considered right, but not necessarily true. John Dewey tied democracy and pragmatism together arguing that all who have an interest in the outcome (everybody in a democratic nation) should be involved in the inquiry, and that pragmatic beliefs, not ideologies should form the foundation for collective action.

Scientific beliefs could be considered as pragmatic, that is, meaningful, within the scientific community. Peirce thought so. But since science has been accepted as producing truths about the world, scientific beliefs (theories) are also considered to tell the truth. For non-scientists, who are non-interested, non-inquirers, such beliefs may not be accepted as true or meaningful with serious societal consequences. Creationism and climate change denial are two such current cases. Flourishing depends on having a world view that avoids unintended consequences bearing on individuals and on the whole of society. Only pragmatic experience can do that, but pragmatism won’t work without a democratic core of interested and concerned people.

ps. I have been reading texts about existentialism this summer and, although pragmatism is rarely mentioned, this broad area of inquiry and action seems to me to be very similar in its focus on concrete, not abstract experience, when human beings are concerned. When the richness of concrete experience is reduced to abstract concepts, something always get omitted. The result is the appearance of unintended consequences. When almost everything we do as a society is based on abstractions or theory, those unintended consequences have become what we now call unsustainability.