What are reasonable basic obligations of citizens in democratic societies?


Theorists (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel) have often discussed the state's obligations to its citizens, but nowadays it seems we need a definitive-but-succinctly articulated account of citizens' obligations to sustaining healthy, functioning democracy. Have such obligations been proposed in detail? For example, I take it that we must be reasonably informed for the healthfulness of our democracies (follow the news, know history), but how well-read does one need to be to think of oneself as a reasonably informed? How much is one obliged to know about, e.g.,

  1. The current and historical geopolitical conditions in Syria, Israel/Palestine, Europe, the United States, Russia, Bhutan, Somalia, Haiti to be able to contribute meaningfully to discussions about foreign policy?
  2. Macroeconomic forces, social psychology, decision theory, and the history of capital to contribute meaningfully to debates about economic policy?
  3. Scientific advances, research programmes, emerging technologies?
  4. The struggles and interests of various underrepresented or marginalised social or political groups?
  5. The legislative decisions being made (and policy proposals) by our municipal, metropolitan, community, provincial, and national elected representatives?

By what metrics do we identify the specific obligations we have? And then, how incumbent are they upon us for the well-being of our democracies? At what point do these obligations become overly-demanding of citizens?

Mavaddat Javid

Posted 2017-04-09T02:10:05.470

Reputation: 93

Your last question is a thorny one that can lead to the need for experts, which introduces in turn important difficulties (are the experts neutral? can they be swayed? ...) – Frank – 2017-04-09T17:39:50.360



The question is how much well-informed citizens need to be to exercise their democratic rights. The answer depends on theories of democracy. The duty of citizens to be well-informed can be very demanding or not demanding at all. Some theories even require moral duty not to vote. I explain these three views in the following.

J.S. Mill's theory can be argued to be very demanding. In Considerations on Representative Government, Mill posits the thesis of the inequivalence of the peoples. The thesis states that the people of democracy are intelligent and active while the people of a benevolent despot are vapid and torpid. The thesis then entails that, even if the outcomes of the benevolent despot and democracy are the same in terms of promoting the public good, there is reason to choose democracy. According to Mill, democratic citizens are active and intelligent since, to exercise their rights to vote, the people of democracy will have to study political issues and agenda in search of the public good. For this reason, Mill called democracy the school of public spirit. To ensure this, Mill ponders on public voting that people can see how each others voted. Mill infamously proposed plural voting (that the educated should have more votes than the uneducated) to ensure that voting results reflect the public good.

Many theories of voting are not as demanding as Mill's. Reasons vary, however. I offer two scholarly arguments for the reason. One is to view the democratic decision making process as a machine. That is, by merely implementing universal and uniformly-weighted franchise, correct answer for the public good will rise to the top. The idea is most strongly supported by Condorcet Jury Theorem, which states that, if each voter is more likely to vote correctly, and independently, then the majority will find the correct answer with certainty as the number of voters increases. James Surowiecki popularized this idea with The Wisdom of Crowds. Under this view, individuals can just vote based on what they already know, and there is no need to be well informed. StackExchage and Quora utilize this wisdom of crowd to find the truth (or knowledge).

The other reason is based on non-epistemic nature of democratic decisions. This view used to be popular thanks to the contribution of social choice theories. The premise for this view is that the core of democratic decisions is empty (non-epistemic due to cyclicity). Then why should we vote? Their answer is similar to the way moral anti-realists explain our moral responses: "Hooray" or "Boo." We vote to approve or disapprove policies or representatives. Under this view, voting is like cheering for your favorite football team, and thus unnecessary is being well-informed. A San Diegan would cheer for Chargers however poorly they performed in the games.

The third view is that it is morally impermissible for uninformed citizens to vote. This view is articulated by Jason Brennan in his The Ethics of Voting. To him, voting is to find the correct answer for public policies and thus ignorance will get in the way in this pursuit of the truth. The argument clearly assumes the correct answer and can be unpersuasive to political skeptics.

Nanhee Byrnes PhD

Posted 2017-04-09T02:10:05.470

Reputation: 3 550

I appreciate your detailed yet succinct answer by way of attending to different theories on the nature of democracy. I see now that my question ultimately seeks after a compelling and elaborated theory about democracy itself. Thank you! – Mavaddat Javid – 2017-06-01T20:56:19.613

2Thanks! Aristotle's The Politics is to search for the best form of government, and he thought democracy is pretty ok. In my dissertation, I tried to show that democracy is the most ok form of govt from a consequentialist perspective, and the consequentialist perspective is the only viable non-bs way to justify democracy. – Nanhee Byrnes PhD – 2017-06-02T15:02:30.087

Neat. Is this your dissertation that you mention?

– Mavaddat Javid – 2017-06-02T16:17:04.790

1The link is right. – Nanhee Byrnes PhD – 2017-06-02T16:24:27.677