Democratic Equality and Political Authority

Philosophy and Public Affairs 42 (4):337-375 (2014)

Abstract

This essay seeks to provide a justification for the ‘egalitarian authority claim’, according to which citizens of democratic states have a moral duty to obey (at least some) democratically made laws because they are the outcome of an egalitarian procedure. It begins by considering two prominent arguments that link democratic authority to a concern for equality. Both are ultimately unsuccessful; but their failures are instructive, and help identify the conditions that a plausible defense of the egalitarian authority claim must meet. The first argument (discussed in Section II, after Section I clarifies what authority and democracy are taken to consist in) appeals to the simple idea that fairness disallows granting ourselves special privileges that we deny to others; and it suggests that fairness thus requires obeying democratic decisions rather than acting on our own judgment of the right policy. I show that this argument fails; and its failure indicates that we must invoke a less formal, more substantive understanding of equality to justify democratic authority. The second argument, recently suggested by Thomas Christiano, does just that. Democratic authority is, on this account, not justified by the formal demand for equal treatment but by the distinctive value of showing public equal respect to our fellow citizens. Such public equal respect requires treating as authoritative the democratic decisions in which citizens had an equal say. This argument does not, however, succeed in its goal either. While it plausibly establishes the value of democratic institutions, it does not provide grounds for a duty to obey democratic decisions (Section III). This essay thus develops an alternative argument, according to which egalitarian procedures have authority because, by obeying them, we can avoid acting on certain considerations that must be excluded from our intrinsically valuable egalitarian relationships. The authority of democratic decisions rests on the egalitarian fact that none of us has more of a say than any other, not on the further fact (crucial to the previous argument) that each of us has a positive say (Sections IV and V). The argument in turn helps us understand the limits of democratic authority: it is constrained not only by a demand for equality, and by considerations of justice, but also by a requirement of mutual concern without which our egalitarian relationships lack their distinctive value (Section VI).

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Daniel Viehoff
New York University

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Citations of this work

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