The Virtues of Democracy


Democracy is one of the most commonly used forms of government in the world. It includes political processes and a system of fundamental rights that all citizens have the right to enjoy, regardless of whether they participate in democracy’s decision making. It entails free, fair and frequent elections in which citizens can vote directly or through freely chosen representatives, a freedom to communicate with others and to gather information, and the ability to exercise control over the decision making agenda.

Despite its popularity, democracy is not without problems. Anger at political elites, economic dissatisfaction and anxiety over rapid social change have fueled political upheaval in regions around the world. Some question the value of democracy when votes seem to produce policies they don’t like and when demagogues win power and challenge established democratic norms and institutions. Organizations from Freedom House to the Economist Intelligence Unit have documented declines in democracy’s health worldwide.

There are as many forms of democracy as there are countries that have them, and no single model can be taken as a “standard”. Some democracies are presidential, some are parliamentary, and some are both presidential and parliamentary. Some are federal, some are unitary, some use a proportional representation system, and some use a majoritarian one.

But no matter the specifics, all democratic systems are founded on the idea that it is morally right for citizens to have some form of political participation and that it is morally wrong for them not to have it. The main function of normative democracy theory is to settle questions about which, if any, forms of democracy are morally desirable independent of their consequences (Caplan 2007; Somin 2013; Brennan 2016).

Several different arguments have been made for the virtues of democracy. One is instrumental: well-functioning democratic institutions are correlated with a host of positive outcomes, including increased growth and reduced poverty (Acemoglu et al. 2019). Other instrumental justifications focus on the link between democracy and the protection of core liberal rights, such as the right to a fair trial, the right to privacy, the right to freedom of association, and the right to freedom of expression (see Gaus 1996: ch. 13; Christiano 2011).

A common epistemic justification for democracy is that democratic procedures are best able to exploit the underlying cognitive diversity of large groups of people. When a variety of views are brought into the decision making process, they help ensure that different possibilities are considered and that policy makers consider possible trade-offs. Moreover, democratic decisions are more likely to be just, since they take into account the concerns and interests of all members of the community. In addition, the very act of voting forces people to think carefully and rationally about the issues and to reflect on their own values. This can lead them to be more ethical in their conduct.