Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Telos of Democratic Freedoms (more on communitarian & individualist notions of rights)

(This morning I am reading David B. Wong, Natural Moralities, section 3.5, "The Communal Ground for Rights".)

According to Andrew Nathan's study of Chinese conceptions of democracy, democratic freedoms (the kind that enable meaningful political participation, such as freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom to influence public policy) ought to be in service of the common good. I think of this as a statement about the telos or purpose of democratic freedoms. That is, we ought to do more as citizens than merely insist that we be free from certain forms of coercion or from certain types of obligation--we ought to ask what we are free for.

Nathan writes (interpreting Chinese political thinker Liang Qichao):
"[T]he duties of citizens are to love and be concerned about the nation. Hence political participation should unelash energies that will contribute to the colelctive welfare; it would not--as a Westerner might see it--enable individuals to pursue personal interests that might be competitive with that welfare" (quoted by Wong, Natural Moralities, p. 86).

So, on this view: democratic freedoms are for the promotion of the common good; democratic freedoms are not for enabling the assertion of individual self-interest in competition with the common good.

It strikes me that this conception of the telos of democratic freedoms should have implications for how we as American citizens, as Ohio citizens, etc., think about economic policy, and other social policies. Is my entitlement to earn income and to keep my earnings, or my entitlement to generate profits and to keep my profits, a right we see as serving the promotion of the common good? That is, does our protection and assertion of this right help create and maintain a sustainable economy that promotes and/or secures the well-being of all members of society (including the disenfranchised and oppressed)? Or, does our protection and assertion of this right (to create and keep personal profit/wealth) serve instead the promotion of one's individual self-interest in competition with the common good?

I believe these thoughts should influence both how we defend our rights (our right to work, our right to keep our earnings, our right to personal property), and what we do with these rights.

Reasonable people may continue to disagree about both; my hope is that these thoughts will generate and shape civil and productive conversation among citizens and neighbors with diverse moral and political views.

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