Guide The Limits of Altruism in Democratic Athens

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And democracy also commits to the principle of considering its citizens worthy of political participation — with their voices heard and their votes counted.

Is it Possible to be Purely Altruistic?

Jacksonian America effectively limited citizenship to white men, yet incorporated poor and rural citizens as real political participants, against the objection of the preceding ruling elite. The Civil Rights era arose from African Americans defined as citizens according to the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments getting subjected to extreme forms of indignity by local practices and local ordinances that, we now recognize, contradicted both the spirit and letter of those amendments.

The Limits of Altruism in Democratic Athens by Matthew Christ, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble®

While often couched in the liberal vocabulary of universal human rights , the Voting Rights Act in fact provided a victory for the principle of civic dignity — for the right of citizens to participate in politics without fear of being subject to humiliation or infantilization. In terms then of Demopolis reaching the broadest possible range of communities, one further definitional question comes to mind. We certainly can image democracy as purely aspirational, with real democracy emerging only during moments of revolutionary upheaval.

In that imaginary, as soon as we reach any kind of institutional formation, democracy sells out and loses its potential for endlessly productive contestation. For crucial perspectival differences between how basic democracy and how present-day vernacular U. Here unceasing existential precarity in fact calls forth and crystallizes some of our most celebrated human capacities.

Here duties of democratic participation help us to recognize, appreciate, enhance the most prosocial such capacities. So here could you outline, however you see fit, your career-long effort to articulate these distinctly democratic goods, and to present these goods as potentially worth pursuing even independent of any altruistic or ethical rationale for them? Do you agree with him? In reply, I readily would concede that Hobbes has a real point. Human societies develop in order to allow people to live with basic security and welfare.

In any complex society, this requires some kind of constitutional foundation. Here the question inevitably arises: just how much and what type of constitutional apparatus do we need to achieve these baseline conditions?

Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule

But then how open should such a democratic constitution be to future change? I would answer: at least open enough to address shifting social conditions brought about by demographic trends, technological innovations, evolving cultural attitudes, new threats and opportunities. Demopolis does not specify the details of constitutional apparatus. A democratic constitution might result in a modern, elaborately administrative and highly regulated state.

Or at another extreme, it could align with the aspirations of radical social movements left or right that see an elaborate state apparatus as a threat. But in any case, Demopolis argues that we should seek to understand what makes democracy intrinsically valuable, which means moving beyond treating democracy as merely a more-or-less efficient instrumental means to higher ends. Demopolis argues that humans like other animals have a distinct kind of being, and possess certain innate capacities that constitute us as this specific kind of being. So what particular capacities constitute us as human?

I opt for a minimalist answer to this very big question. I search for common ground between Aristotle and his severest critic Hobbes. So any agreement between Aristotle and Hobbes on this question of human capacities should provide a good baseline. And as it turns out, they agree on the proposition that humans possess a distinctive capacity to use reason, a capacity which does not seem fully present in other animals.

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They agree on human communicative capacity, on our unique ability to use symbolic language systems in ways other animals cannot. Finally, and more controversially, I argue that Hobbes and Aristotle agree more than usually gets recognized about our capacity to construct and flourish within extensive and complex social systems — again in ways most other animals do not. I sense enough agreement between Aristotle and Hobbes, enough agreement among contemporary social and natural scientists, to allow me to claim human rationality, communication, and sociability as core human capacities.

Among forms of political order, democracy emerges as unique in calling on each of to use each of these capacities — as we reason, and communicate, to solve problems and create the society in which we all can live together. Suppose someone provided a cat all those things, yet kept it in a small cage for its whole life, never allowed to move around, to jump, to pounce. The cage denies the cat the ability to exercise its fundamentally feline capacities. For humans, living under a tyrant who rules over us, without our input, resembles the life of a cat in a cage. Does this appeal to the fulfillment of human capacities come across as potentially fraught in social-science conversations?


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Does the rhetorical naturalization of innate capacities raise fears that we might be reinforcing contemporary norms as previous naturalizing claims might have reinforced, say, culturally determined gender dichotomies, heteronormative imperatives, dubious racialized distinctions as much as positing historical facts? Or how might we reach a conclusive designation for what counts as a long-term species-benefitting prosocial capacity?

Or admittedly, this current question cluster might come across as too Liberal Studies to merit much consideration in your incisive book. First my book does assume that the Demopolis thought experiment has to be testable with the best science we have available. I go through that list of baseline human capacities in part to show that both Aristotle and Hobbes agree on this at least with contemporary natural and social scientists.

Of course, appeals to nature can get used maliciously or deployed in ways that make some liberals myself included uncomfortable. But it seems very wrong to base our account of politics on a wishful, unscientific account of humans as uniquely among animals lacking inherent traits, as existing somehow outside nature — simply because we fear the consequences of political arguments acknowledging the characteristic natural abilities of our species.

The Demopolis thought-experiment depends on continued buy-in by its citizens. They must have reasons to obey its rules, to pay the considerable though I believe not overly burdensome costs of participatory citizenship. Different citizens might embrace the three basic ends of security, welfare, and non-tyranny for different reasons. I despise domination. Tyrants dominate, and so I reject any tyrannical regime.

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Matthew R. Christ, The Limits of Altruism in Democratic Athens.

I want free choices in how to live my life. I find intolerable the disgusting spectacles and drab parades that tyrants invariably sponsor. But whatever reasons a citizen has for preferring those basic ends, certain conditions become necessary. First, all citizens must participate, one way or another, in order to avoid an intractable free-rider problem: why should anyone work for the common good if others do not? Second, Demopolis must provide freedom of political speech and association, without which citizens cannot truly participate. Third, Demopolis must ensure political equality, because when a few grow much more influential than the rest, you get tyranny.

And finally, democracy requires that all citizens enjoy the condition of civic dignity, that they get treated with respect, as worthy of being citizens, or else formal freedom and equality become functionally meaningless — as we discussed in relation to the U. Civil Rights movement.

So Demopolis does need to establish certain conditions without which democracy becomes a sham. Yet these conditions need not start off as values. A very religious citizen might agree to support political freedom — not as a value, but as a condition which in turn sustains her own chance to practice religion without fear of tyrannical interference.

Returning then to your basic assumptions that democracy exists in a dangerous world and that it imposes compulsory costs, if I had to picture any generalized social identity most likely to embrace these two assumptions and therefore to work proactively to establish the foundational conditions you just outlined , it would be that of an immigrant. Historical studies would confirm that immigrants often have paid in exemplary fashion the participatory costs owed to the regenerative maintenance of U.

This gets to the question of how Demopolis sustains itself after its founding. Open borders pose questions for which I can see no good solution, so I assume that Demopolis exists within a bounded territory, and that citizens remain free to move across the border. Those who choose to immigrate to Demopolis, and who the state allows to reside within its border, must have the option of becoming citizens.

If a basic democratic society predicates its legitimacy on the idea of citizenship and political participation as inherent human goods, then it must allow anyone born or accepted within its territory the option to become a full-fledged citizen. But it also must demand that those choosing citizenship accept the costs of participation. Civic education will articulate those costs. Any potential citizen must positively affirm to take on the duties required of every citizen. Again, I consider this type of affirmation quite different from the tacit or hypothetical consent providing the basis for political legitimacy in various contract theories of government, from Hobbes to Rawls.

Demopolis avoids that language of consent.


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  • The requirement for immigrants to affirm, in a formal way, their willingness to take on citizenship duties seems familiar enough. An immigrant seeking to become a U. In Demopolis, native-born citizens likewise must assent to taking on civic duties. Of course many questions will arise about this implementation of assent: what about cognitively impaired individuals, for example?

    Demopolis focuses on the core definition of citizenship as a status that you cannot simply inherit because you happen to be born in a place. Rather, each citizen must choose and actively maintain this status through his or her activity. What of those who, having taken an initial civic-education course, consider the costs too high? Demopolis will offer such individuals the choice to remain, subject to civil authority and protected by the law. Because they benefit from participation costs paid by those who do choose citizenship, citizenship-eligible noncitizens may have to pay a higher tax rate, and may find themselves excluded from some public benefits.

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    That will depend on what the citizens decide. Finally, if somewhat cannot accept these costs, they have the option of exit. Demopolis , as you already have stated, operates on the abstracted, propositional plane of the meticulous thought experiment. Does it seem worthwhile sometimes to place its lucid, transparent mechanisms back into more murky historical circumstances?

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    Should any of those options seem fair or reasonable or worth pursuing? Again the type of democratic political theory presented in Demopolis ought to offer such a citizen a language to analyze his life experiences, and to express his intuitive and, by my lights, accurate sense that things have gone badly wrong. Here the analytic frame I offer differs somewhat from, but remains compatible with, the justice-centered frame and vocabulary of both mainstream liberal theory and various schools of critical political theory.

    Analytic democratic theory does not readily translate into specific policies, or operational plans for activists. But it should help activists to focus their attention on what the public realm currently lacks, and on which political means we could employ to remedy this lack. Here placing premises of basic democracy alongside realities of present-day liberalism points me also to questions of scale, and to a politics of representation.