Philosophy 207 - 11.2.3 Representative Government

In representative government systems, individuals are chosen by various means to represent the larger group. Representative government likely has deeper roots than monarchies or aristocracies. Cheyenne, Iroquois, Huron, and other Native American peoples established tribal democracies prior to European settlement of the Americas, and San (Bushmen), Pygmies, and other African peoples practice “campfire democracy” (Glassman 2017). These examples and others suggest that cooperation between bands of peoples may have featured elements of representative government prior to urban settlements.

The story of democracy in urban settings is often linked to ancient Greece, specifically Athens, where the hand of government was extended to the people, but only to individuals in particular classes. The Athenian mode of government was unique in the region. Before 700 BCE, Athens was ruled by single individuals or small groups who often encountered social and economic problems that brought about instability. Around the year 600 BCE, the Athenian ruler Solon (c. 630–c. 560 BCE) implemented a proto-democratic system. He did not allow nonaristocratic individuals to hold certain offices, but he did allow all male citizens (which is not to say all inhabitants) to vote on local leaders, and he did his best to outlaw debt slavery. His successes were short-lived, but he paved the way for an impressive span of democratic rule in Athens.

In Thucydides’s (c. 460–c. 404 BCE) History of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles (c. 495–429 BCE) praises the Athenian constitution, in particular the idea that all members of a state should be allowed to participate in its governance. The Athenian constitution “favors the many instead of the few,” he says, and the laws “afford equal justice to all in their private differences” (Thucydides [1996] 2008, 112).

Pericles links the notion of freedom to success both in governance and in people’s daily lives. On both fronts, he holds that happiness is “the fruit of freedom” (Thucydides [1996] 2008, 115). His view is that, despite the imperfections in its implementation of democracy, Athens has the best form of government in existence. Athenians are happy in a way that members of other polities are not, says Pericles, so much so that Athens is worth defending in battle.

Current forms of democracy center on the notion of rule by the people, but today’s democracies are not administered by direct rule, with all policy decisions voted on by a majority. For example, the United States has a representative democracy, which means that individuals are elected to make legislative decisions on behalf of the people.

American philosopher Richard Arneson (b. 1945) holds that “what renders the democratic form of government . . . morally legitimate . . . is that its operation over time produces better consequences for people than any feasible alternative mode of governance” (2009, 197). This statement is an instrumental defense of democracy, arguing that democracy is a good in itself and that democracies must prove themselves over time. Many argue that democracies seem to outperform extant rival systems. Indian philosopher and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen (b. 1933) has argued that democratic nations are the wealthiest in the world, and because positions of power are determined through elections, their leaders are more likely to try to meet the needs of the population.

According to Sen, “No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press” (quoted in Christiano and Bajaj 2021). What is more, democracies are less likely to go to war with one another than are nondemocratic states. Sen also points out that democratic governments allow people with different moral and political views to coexist. He observes that democracy has allowed multiple religions to exist relatively peacefully in India. Nonetheless, democracy is not a flawless system; some of the problems found in the system are discussed in Section 11.4 below.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax