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From the November, 2007 issue of Touchstone


Morality of Majority by Robert P. George


Morality of Majority

Robert P. George on Democracy as a Limited Means and Not an End

Religious faith is a hot topic these days among liberal political philosophers and constitutional theorists, but not because they’ve gotten religion. They are, for the most part, as doggedly secular as ever. They are worried about the “bounds of accommodation” of religious faith and practice in a democratic polity.

They ask: How much room for the free exercise of religion should a properly constituted democratic order allow? When, or under what circumstances, does religion in general or particular religions or religious institutions and practices pose a threat to democratic principles and institutions, or to other values served or protected by democratic rule?

From the perspective of a religious believer, however, this is the less interesting and urgent way to frame the issue. Where the secular liberal regards democracy as the given or fixed value, the believer takes as given or fixed a religious faith and its practical demands. The question for him is the extent to which political systems—including democratic ones—are compatible with the content and demands of his faith.

The believer will “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” But he may not countenance any demand of Caesar’s that impedes his rendering unto God that which is God’s.

Of course, a particular faith, or a particular understanding of a particular faith, may itself demand the governance of a political society by democratic institutions and in accordance with democratic principles. And such a faith may also demand a separation of temporal and spiritual authority, at least at the institutional level.

It may leave many questions—including some important constitutional ones—open to practical prudential judgments that cannot be derived (at least in any direct sense) from the content of faith. Such judgments may depend on contingent local or historical circumstances, which will account for what is from the vantage point of faith a legitimate diversity of policies in different polities and in different eras.

Democratic Means

Let me give an example, that of my own church, of how this proper rendering to Caesar and to God can be done.

Although there was a time when the Catholic Church was skeptical about democracy, Catholicism, as its authoritative teaching has developed, especially in and after the Second Vatican Council, preaches democratic ideals and promotes democratic institutions in the political sphere. Beginning in the pontificate of Pope John XXIII, the church has “brought forth from the treasury of faith,” which “contains both old things and new,” the proposition that the democratic governance of political societies is to be encouraged, nurtured, advanced, and preserved.

This teaching is put forth not as a mere prudential matter, much less as some sort of modus vivendi with modernity, but as a matter of justice in the dealings of human beings with one another. At its core is the idea that of all systems of political governance, democracy best comports with the foundational anthropological and moral truth that every human being, as a creature fashioned in the very image and likeness of God, possesses a profound, inherent, and equal dignity.

The principle of basic human equality demands not only that the interests of all be taken into account, without discrimination, in distributing the benefits and burdens of common life, but also that all competent adults have a voice in deciding between options for political choice—especially when the choice is between morally good but incompatible options that may nevertheless pertain to important matters of the public weal. (For example: how common resources are to be used, or how trade-offs between, say, liberty and security ought to be made.)

Democracy, however, is fundamentally a means rather than an end in itself. This, I think, reflects the church’s understanding, settled finally at the Second Vatican Council, that the common good of political society is fundamentally an instrumental good rather than an intrinsic good.

In this respect, the common good of political society is unlike the common life of the family and the koinonia of the church. The point of political society is provided by the ends or purposes it serves (e.g., the preservation of public health, safety, and morals, and the protection of people’s basic rights). The state, whether constituted democratically or otherwise, is fundamentally a means to these ends; it is in no sense an end in itself.

By contrast, the family and the church, though they may also be means to many valuable ends, are not mere means. Their value is intrinsic, and not merely instrumental. Whatever else the family does for its members or enables them to accomplish, for members of a family to be a family is intrinsically fulfilling and thus worthwhile. Whatever else the church does for its members, they intrinsically benefit simply by being joined together in its spiritual fellowship.

Limited Legitimacy

The social encyclicals of Pope John Paul II emphasized the instrumental nature of the political common good and the status of democracy as a means. He pleaded for democracy where it had not been established, yet at the same time he cautioned against making democracy an “idol.”

He repeatedly and forcefully warned that the outcomes of democratic procedures can contradict the very principles of justice and political morality that ultimately justify democratic rule, above all the principle of the profound, inherent, and equal dignity of all members of the human family. No outcome can be legitimate when it violates this most basic of truths.

The late pope taught that democracy can be fully legitimate and praiseworthy only insofar as democratic outcomes comport with the moral premises that justify democratic governance. Catholicism insists that a majority vote cannot by itself settle the question of the moral legitimacy of a policy where that policy is arguably inconsistent with the principle of human equality.

In this respect, the Catholic view is in line with the view advanced by certain Western liberal intellectuals, such as Ronald Dworkin. To be sure, the Catholic view differs profoundly from the liberal one on questions of how human equality is to be understood and what its implications are. And obviously, Catholicism has no official teaching whatsoever on the debate between people like Dworkin and people like Antonin Scalia on the value or proper scope of judicial review as a check on the power of democratic institutions.

Concretely, for Catholics, faith can accommodate—and even demand—a wide scope for democratic governance. Catholics cannot, however, settle for or rest content with even democratically enacted policies that deprive some members of the human family of the protection of the laws.

Even a democratic pedigree cannot justify such policies. Where a democratic outcome violates the principles justifying democracy itself, the bounds of accommodation have been crossed.

Robert P. George , a Roman Catholic, is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. His books include In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford University Press) and The Clash of Orthodoxies (ISI Books). He is a Senior Editor of Touchstone.

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“Morality of Majority” first appeared in the November 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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