The Problem of Utility and Democracy


Unlike Joshua Cohen and Thomas Christiano who argue that in ideal government institutions, justice and democracy are purely intrinsic; Richard Arneson’s paper on Democratic Rights at the National Level partakes in the conception of justice and democratic rights from an instrumental standpoint.  He argues that a protective account of democratic rights provides the most natural and convincing justification of modern political regimes.  Throughout his paper, Arneson argues for the instrumental view of social institutions because in pluralist societies, this particular view of justice and democracy brings about appropriate and just results.  This substantially differs from Cohen and Christiano’s intrinsic view because Arneson argues that their conceptions of an ideal government are strictly procedural.  It is not the fairness of the procedure that we are valuing and respecting, it is the result that comes out of it.  It fails to capture the intrinsic value that they both argue for.  In a sense, Arneson takes the conception of democracy through a utilitarian perspective.  This is especially seen when he discusses constitutional democracy.  In my paper, I will analyze Arneson’s instrumental conception of political regimes and the examples and arguments he provides in support of it.  This will go into detail his creation of the “expected justice score,” constitutional democracy, and the example he gives on parental rights.  Despite the various checks and balances he provides against majority tyranny, I feel that his view on political institutions fail due to his utilitarian slant on democracy.  I concur with Arneson that government should bring about just results but the ends do not justify the means.  This is especially important when discussing the fine line between democratic rights protecting fundamental rights (particularly in the case of the parental example).  This paper will critique Arneson’s paper and discuss the innate problem of his utilitarian-thinking of democracy.

Similar to Cohen and Christiano, Arneson divides his instrumental view under two foundations, justice and democracy.  These two foundations have different rights which are innate, justice contains fundamental rights and democracy contains democratic rights.  Arneson states in the beginning of his essay, “Democratic rights are protective. Their primary function is to safeguard other, more fundamental rights” (Arneson 95).  Fundamental rights are defined as any substantial guarantees of freedom of speech, privacy, and individual liberty.  He even says that “fundamental rights include egalitarian rights to material resources such as are implied by John Rawls’s difference principle… or by Ronald Dworkin’s principle of equality of resources” (Arneson 95).  Understanding the difference between fundamental and democratic rights, Arneson suggests that we “rank proposed conceptions of political rights according to how well they would operate in that society to prevent violation of fundamental rights” (Arneson 96).  This proposed rank will give us the society’s government institution’s “expected justice score.”  By using this score, Arneson believes that a “protective account of democratic rights provides the most natural and compelling justification of political regimes of substantive constitutional democracy under modern conditions” (Arneson 96).  More simply, the most ideal democracy according to Arneson’s “expected justice score” is a constitutional democracy; a system governed by principles of a democratic government overseen by a constitution ascertain fundamental rights to individual citizens that are enforced by “nonelected judges holding final powers of review” (Arneson 96).

Arneson gives an example illustrating that procedural rights are means to the fulfillment of fundamental rights through the right of parents to exercise their power over the lives of their children.  Supposedly, the biological connection between parents and their children create a powerful presumption that a parent who chooses to be the primary caregiver for his or her natural child should be allowed and encouraged too.  If there is a situation though which provides conclusive evidence that the parents are abusing their children, society has the duty to intervene to protect the child.  But take into consideration another situation, what if there was a research report printed just recently by a highly reputable social science journal that establishes that children would be better off if they were separated from their parents at birth and assigned to foster parents with certified parental virtues or “raised collectively on kibbutzim” (Arneson 97).  This example illustrates Arneson’s viewpoint on procedural fairness, even though the second situation of the parenting example seems unjust, it is the outcome that truly matters.  From Arneson’s stance, governments are created to protect the fundamental rights of individuals through the protective democratic rights.  In this case, society has structured democratic rights to protect the fundamental rights (the health and safety) of these children because that is the essential purpose of government through an instrumental view.  But should we be looking at the purpose of government from this standpoint?  It seems like in this case, the ends justify the means?

The parenting example draws very similar parallels to Plato’s Republic and the structuring of his ideal republic.  But let us not assume that Arneson is suggesting that we should take children from their biological parents to create a just government; he is only suggesting that if this is the only possible scenario that would improve the lives of the children and society, government should be structured to enforce and protect it.  But can we simply structure our government in a way that only getting the just results matter?  Arneson argues that:

“Democratic rights are exactly like parental rights… the rights exist insofar as they are rightly deemed to be effective means for the achievement of morally desirable state of affairs, and once better means to the same ends are available, the rights entirely lose their moral standing” (Arneson 97).

Sometimes I feel Arneson fails to comprehend the complexity that makes us human.  His instrumental view on government and his utilitarian-like stance to the purpose of political regimes fails to consider that compacting complex human behavior in a logical and rational procedure (such as in the previous example) is practically impossible.  Even if we assume that sending our natural-born children to foster parents or “kibbutzim” communes is more appropriate and utility maximizing than being raised by their biological parents, most parents in their right mind would not approve of letting their children go.  It might seem irrational and illogical from Arneson but is it really irrational?  If you were put in a similar situation, would you let go of your beloved children to foster parents?  There are situations where I believe people are justified to do irrational things and this is one of them.  I just feel that he fails to understand the complexity and enormity of human behavior and emotions, a problem that is encountered quite often from utilitarianism.  Also, according to Arneson, the government is supposed to protect the fundamental right of individuals with democratic rights.  Fundamental rights consist of many things though; “freedom of speech, privacy, and individual liberty” (Arneson 95).  Is the right to autonomy and freedom of individual liberty the same thing?  I believe that the protection of individual liberty through democratic rights is far more important than anything else.  Unlike Arneson, I believe that autonomy has intrinsic moral standing regardless if “better means to the same ends are available” (Arneson 97).  The parental example suggests that democratic rights must protect fundamental rights, even if it violates a lower fundamental right.  Arneson should be clearer about the justifications of democratic laws in protecting fundamental laws.  Is it just for a political institution to enact democratic laws that infringe on one or more democratic laws to protect a fundamental right?  I believe that from an instrumental standpoint, democratic rights should not be allowed to do this.  If a democratic right is to be created, it should be created in such a way that it protects the fundamental right it is supposed to be protecting and not infringe on any other fundamental rights.

Though Arneson’s instrumental view on political regimes has rational and logical standing behind it, its failures arise from its inability to understand the scope of complex human behavior and lack of clarity in the case of democratic rights protecting fundamental rights causes his argument to fall short.  Though he argues that it is not the fairness of the procedure that we are valuing and respecting but the results that come out of it, there has to be some consideration for the procedures that bring about just results.  Even though unjust procedures might bring about just results quicker, just procedures leading to just result are the type of democratic rights social institutions like constitutional democracies should be aiming for.  They have higher moral standing and have more intrinsic moral worth behind them compared to the unjust procedures that lead to just results.


Works Cited

Arneson, Richard. Democratic Rights at National and Workplace Levels, in Philosophy & Democracy, edited by Thomas Christiano.

……….(New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).


Min Shin (’11) is a Philosophy major at University of California, Davis.

One thought on “The Problem of Utility and Democracy

  1. Although I am not generally a utilitarian, it seems to me like government is one area in which utility is the proper criterion for success.

    This can be seen from a natural rights point of view. I subscribe to the opinion of Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes who, while having different conceptions of man in the state of nature, all agree that the state is not a natural construct.

    Men create government out of necessity, out of a desire to increase their chances of survival. In this sense, government has utilitarian origins and exists only to serve the well-being and happiness of its constituents.

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