Wednesday, June 06, 2007

On naturalistic democracy

My subject in this post is naturalistic democracy. By that I mean an idea that Aristotle develops in the Politics, specifically along the lines of the following loci, taken together as a sort of argument:

1. I.1.1253a1 ff.: "Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal (zoion politikon). ... Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal who has the gift of speech. And whereas mere voice is but an indication of pleasure and pain, and is therefore found in other animals...the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and the inexpedient, and therefore likewise the just and the unjust."

2. III.1.1275a18 ff: "But the citizen whom we are seeking to define is a citizen in the strictest sense, against whom no such exception can be taken, and his special characteristic is that he shares in the administration of justice, and in offices."

3. III.4.1277b12 ff: "It has been well said that he who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander. The excellence of the two [commander and citizen] is not the same, but the good citizen ought to be capable of both; he should know how to govern like a free man, and how to obey like a free man -- these are the excellences of a citizen."

4. VII.3.1325b1 ff: "For the actions of a ruler cannot really be honorable, unless he is as much superior to other men as a man is to a woman, or a father to his children, or a master to his slaves. And therefore he who violates the law can never recover by any success, however great, what he has already lost in departing from excellence. For equals the honorable and the just consist in sharing alike, as is just and equal. But that the unequal should be given to equals, and the unlike to those who are like, is contrary to nature, and nothing which is contrary to nature is good."

I apologize for the somewhat slapdash presentation of these ideas, but put together I think we can see a theory emerge: (1) Every person (for Aristotle, "man") has the innate, natural capacity to communicate his ideas of the just and unjust through speech. (2 & 3) The citizen, then (he who is not a woman, child, or slave), being equal to his fellow citizens, is fit to share in the government of his polis and to rule and be ruled in turn. And, supplementally, (4) it is never better to exercise power tyrannically when one could do it moderately and in an egalitarian, participatory fashion, since equals deserve equal goods. And looming over all of this is the notion implicit in the designation of man as a "political animal," namely that it is a natural (and therefore good) thing to participate in the affairs of the polis.

This, I wish to say, is naturalistic democracy. Of course, we would not call it democracy now, for a myriad of reasons: It excludes women and those deemed to be "natural slaves"; it deprives (as we later find out) artisans and laborers of the status of citizenship, since these occupations make people ignoble and warped -- in a word, "unnatural"; and the society in which such a "naturalistic democracy" will eventually be founded is an aristocracy of equals living off the enforced, exploited labor of serfs. (Sounds a bit like Sparta, no?)

Still, there might be reasons for finding Aristotle's naturalistic, teleological (for this is undeniably what it is: a political ideal based on a notion of man's natural telos, or end) conception of participatory government appealing. Specifically, if we can think away all the unpleasant bits lurking beneath the surface, we come up with a fine idea indeed: That all people contain within themselves, "naturally," the capacity/drive/need/telos of sharing in the administration of common affairs. Using Aristotle's telos as our foundation, we might build up a normatively powerful argument for democracy. For if "nature" designed people for democracy, authoritarianism "unnaturally" deprives them of it. And if a population does indeed govern themselves democratically, we can say that they are successfully participating in a deeper, more thorough version of human flourishing than those who don't.

The problem with this view, it seems to me, is that it has virtually nothing but empty words working in its favor, but some potentially nasty drawbacks working against. By an empty word, I primarily mean "nature." What exactly is the force of this word for us now, and how much is it Aristotle's naturalistic thesis actually borne out in real life and real human history? Speaking in both a scientific and non-scientific sense, "natural" for us seems to mean (among other things, but primarily) something like "frequent, consistent." A "natural" human heart rate is such-and-such, a "natural" period of pregnancy is x months for y species, etc. And, to put it in a way that does not do full justice to the complexities of evolution, these "natural" statistics are not indicative of a "telos" of any sort, but are rather the sort of residual leftovers of the evolutionary process: it is "natural" for a giraffe's neck to be such-and-such a length because this particular species of giraffe managed to survive with this characteristic. These "natural" traits are not static but can change with environment over time.

When we try to mate this sense of "natural" qua "frequent" or "consistent" with "democracy," however, we find that democracy is anything but. For most of human history, populations have not been free and equal in government in the way that Aristotle espouses. Quite the contrary: The history of human civilization is mostly one of monarchy/minority rule, oppression, and exploitation (whether in rent-seeking or whatever else). The equivalent of this, it seems to me, would be to imagine viewing a vast forest of thousands of trees, in which all but one or two, placed randomly, are green and vibrant; the rest are twisted and dead. And this would hardly be a "natural" forest to us. Similarly, democracy does not seem to be a "natural" occurrence.

But perhaps this doesn't matter. Perhaps democracy really is in our nature, it's just foiled all the time, goshdarnit. But if this is so, where is the justification for democracy as a natural human characteristic? Perhaps in the fact that people under democracy describe themselves as happier and better off than other, less fortunate, brutalized people? But this doesn't take into account the hypothetical scenario of people living under a benevolent dictator, with all their needs supplied for and their worries assuaged. Might they not then be just as happy? You or I might say that we, at any rate, wouldn't be content living under a dictatorship, no matter how well-meaning. We would undoubtedly overthrow it, because we value freedom and democratic flourishing more than mere existence. But can we make this claim for all people? What counts out the rebuttal that we only say this because we have been taught in such-and-such ways, that we have certain values that inform these sentiments; in other words, that love for democracy is something learned and lived, not found "naturally"?

In any case, the naturalistic case for democracy seems to me to be unfalsifiable, and thus not prima facie very interesting. Please don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that democracy isn't good, desirable, beneficial, etc. I'm just saying that these ideas might come from learning, experience, reflection, culture, ideology, whatever you like -- but not from "nature." To call democracy natural would be to fall prey to the old problem of deriving an "ought" from an "is," and in this case it's too unconvincing an argument to accept.

But let's examine some of the potential downsides of calling democracy natural. The first point is that in doing so we might be accepting too uncritically an idea that was formed in a specific time and place, in the context of a specific range of values and presuppositions. And by this I mean in 4th century Greece, by a member of the social and economic elite. This supposes that there is much more than "nature" at work. It could be that a number of factors -- geographic, economic, social, military -- converged to create the emergence of the Greek city-state system, in which the question of political decision-making in relatively small, more-independent-than-dependent communities was of tantamount importance. Aristotle may have been attempting to find a way to justify the rule of society by himself and those like him, to the exclusion of menial workers, whose jobs would ideally be "staffed" by communities of natural slaves imported from Asia. This is all beginning to look rather unpleasant.

Furthermore, we might consider the fact that while the rhetorical weight of "natural" is relatively useless ("We're all living so naturally! How pleasant!"), the weight of "unnatural" is decidedly not. One can think of many perverse and pernicious uses of the word "unnatural": "This neighboring community consistently fails to live up to our conception of democracy, which of course we all know is natural. What shall we do with them?" "This area of the world is unnaturally undemocratic. Let's 'naturalize' them; it's according to nature's plan, after all." Or, more mundanely: "You choose not to participate to the extent I do. There must be something unnatural about you, while I of course am living a more flourishing life." There is much here to give pause and worry, I think.

Plus, while we might battle for something which is natural (if not frequent) in the form of democracy, why do we battle against something which is both natural and frequent? For example, the infirm: It is "natural" for cancer patients, people with AIDS, people with certain disabilities, and others to die sooner rather than later. Yet if they choose to attempt to live on as long as they can, we will/should/can aid them in their fight against the natural outcome. "Natural" events, both in terms of what they seem "naturally" designed to do and in their frequency, aren't necessarily imperatives to act in a certain way. We have to judge them against our other values. Perhaps this is an absurd counterargument, and I invite people to test it. Otherwise it seems pretty strong to me.

I'm running out of time, and so I'll leave the question open. What do we think of an idea like naturalistic democracy? I obviously have spoken against it, but I'm interested to hear what others think. We've had discussions of human nature before, but I hope this presents a new way of thinking about it.


Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

I'm with you here in your critique, but I must admit that I also like the "natural" stuff, for instance, the analogy between eudaimonia and flourishing dogs and horses. It's nice to think that being healthy, well-rounded and intelligent is good not because we like it but because it's what humans should do. But, when we consider what a flourishing dog is good at, it's usually the things that we as humans appreciate in dogs. So we run into the trouble of saying that we like so and so because they are exhibiting the characteristics of our ideal human--which seems almost platonistic in some way.
So, in the end, we run into some serious Nietsche-Hegel shit about not having any where to base our values (Turtles all the way down). To bring the discussion back to democracy, we can only say that we like democracy because it brings out the aspects in humans that we like, or it results in things that we believe are good for humans. I guess it comes down to the feeling that democracy is good because so many people like it.
So I'm not sure that we have anywhere to go once we abandon naturalistic ideas about things, but perhaps that's OK. After all, ideas themselves have often been more dangerous than the lack thereof.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

Marxism certainly is (read: was) a powerful argument for democracy on a naturalistic as well as "scientific" basic. The problems of alienated labor, so it goes, are devastating precisely because of man's natural inclination to work (something like Arendt's conception of homo faber), and that a radically democratic, communist arrangment would solve this.

I don't much care for establishing democracy based on this view of human nature. When I think about man-as-producer vis-a-vis former Communist regimes, it's easy to be horrified. The Soviet Union's conception of economics, after all, was something like "Comrades! Rape the earth for raw materials because that's what humans do!" Production as a basis for democracy can, it seems, often turn into man's pure assertion of power over nature. At least in the example of the Soviet Union, the democratization of the factory became massive, command-oriented population transfers of people in order to maximize what the Soviets thought was man's nature. It's a rather hideous case study, but there is something perverse about the Marxist ideology of homo faber and its realization in Communist states--the wars against the peasantry, the environmental devastation, and the general lack of human flourishing.

Habermas, from what I understand, seems to take off from this last point. Rather than conceive of man as producer, Habermas seeks to reframe his nature as a communicator. Man talks. (Exactly as you have quoted Aristotle as saying, interestingly enough.) I'm not quite up-to-snuff enough to lay out Habermas' telos completely, but I think even without him one can see the "natural" relationship between communication and an egalitarian society. It's there in the more Millian and utilitarian conception of the "Marketplace of Ideas," as well as in certain pragmatist proposals for a society based on the model of the scientific community.

As much as this austin/Rorty postmodern thinking is hard to refute, it's nonetheless important to realize that these naturalistic defenses of democracy are very much still out there -- and that they remain quite persuasive.

5:25 PM  

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