Democracy and Desire



The essence of democracy is collective decision. Each citizen is accorded equal power to determine the outcome of elections and hence to influence public policy. The simplest version of the democratic principle is majority rule: what the majority wants determines the decisions of the state. There have been criticisms of democracy since its earliest forms, mainly centering on the qualifications of citizens to make wise decisions and on the “tyranny of the majority”. I want to come at the question by considering individual decision-making and a comparable democratic principle concerning desires, because the analogy sharply highlights the deficiencies of democracy.

Suppose I make a list of all my desires—from the sublime, to the ridiculous, to the base. It’s hard to know how to count desires because we can be more or less fine-grained about their objects, but for concreteness let’s suppose that I have a million desires. Now I assign to each desire a numerical weight according to a principle of equality: each desire gets one “vote”. My rule of action is then to select all the desires relevant to a given possible act and add up the votes for and against; the act will be performed according to whether numerically more desires favor it than disfavor it. For example, suppose I am deciding whether to study for an exam: I desire to pass the exam but I also desire to watch TV, go down the pub, have a nap, read a novel, and get some exercise. Some of my desires favor studying and some favor not studying. It is perfectly conceivable that more of my desires are against studying than are for it, so my democratic decision rule will result in my not studying. But that may be entirely the wrong decision and known by me to be the wrong decision: for I have stronger reasons for studying than for doing any of the other things I also desire. My desire to study (and hence pass the exam) is stronger than any other desire I have, but if I count each desire equally that difference will play no role in my decision. I will just go by majority vote without regard for the nature of the desire or the strength of the desire or the wisdom of the desire. I simply do what most of my desires urge me to do, which may well mean skipping the study session, against my better judgment.

This is obviously a terrible way to make decisions, since it omits so much about desires that is relevant to rational decision-making: one’s actions are liable to flout all norms of prudence and morality, being guided only by the principle of majority rule. The desire to do nothing is regarded as equal to the desire to stay healthy; the desire to watch TV is regarded as equal to the desire to save someone’s life; the desire to hit someone is regarded as equal to the desire to help them. There is no ranking, no evaluation, and no discrimination—just the bare principle of one desire-one vote. That is a recipe for disaster. But isn’t it exactly the principle of democracy—one person-one vote, without regard to the nature of the person? In fact, isn’t democracy really a special case of it, since each individual agent precisely is (among other things) a collection of desires? The desires of one person are always accorded the same weight as the desires of anyone else, irrespective of the nature of those desires and the other qualities of the person (intelligence, virtue, etc). In democracy each desire-set is awarded a single vote, no matter what those desires may be—no matter how dangerous, foolish, or unethical. All we look at is the sheer quantity of desires that favor a certain outcome—say, how many people desire the death penalty. But if I looked at my own desires on this question and decided to act on what most of them favor, I might easily end up favoring the death penalty, even if I don’t favor it. I do desire to protect the lives of innocent people, I do desire retribution for murder, I do desire to save the state money—but I don’t favor the death penalty, because I believe it is morally indefensible. That’s three votes to one in favor of the death penalty! Democracy just adds up desires across individuals, but this is no more acceptable than adding desires up within an individual. The fact that I have more desires that favor a certain act is at best a highly fallible guide to right action; all these voices might well be overruled by a single desire that outweighs them in importance.

The way to remedy the problem with “desire democracy” is obviously to take account of more than the sheer number of desires that favor a particular course of action—such as their strength, importance, prudence, morality, and so on. So some desires will be accorded more weight than others and hence have more power in influencing decision. That makes individual decision more like oligarchy at the political level—some people have more power than others to shape government policy. It is the exact opposite of democracy, but it is clearly the right way to make decision for individuals. Can’t we adopt a similar structure at the political level? We choose certain individuals as more reliable guides to state conduct than others, so that we end up with better decisions.[1] Such individuals must exist—those with the best desire-sets—and they will ipso facto make the best decisions. Isn’t that the ideal form of political decision-making?

The answer is that it is indeed the ideal form but that there are problems in implementing it: for how do we make the selection of individuals and how do we guard against the corrupting influence of power? So the ideal system, despite its idealness, is not one that we can safely bring about, practically speaking. It’s as if in the individual case the dangers of preferring some desires over others are so great that the best course is to adopt a one desire-one vote rule, even though that principle is manifestly very far from ideal. This is certainly better than making an arbitrary selection of one desire as always overruling all others (the equivalent of monarchy). The upshot is that in politics we know what an ideal system would look like (it would be like our individual system) but for practical reasons we cannot institute this ideal system; we must content ourselves with a patently flawed system. This guarantees discord and poor decision-making much of the time, but we accept it because the superior system is precluded by the problems of selection and corruption. If we could be sure we had chosen the right rulers, in terms of wisdom and incorruptibility, then we should certainly adopt this system instead of the democratic system with its built-in weaknesses. No one in their right mind would choose a method of decision-making that went by sheer numbers unless they really had to—either numbers of desires or numbers of people (which comes down to the same thing).



[1] Should we choose those individuals democratically, thus getting the best of both worlds? But that will involve the same problem: the choice of representative will be governed merely by majority vote.

6 replies
  1. Mike Hampton
    Mike Hampton says:

    Loved your example of desires as votes. We’re selfish, prejudiced because of it. Doing the right thing is rarely the same as listening to our inner animal, our evolution crying to be number one. If anything, we, too often, do the right thing because of fear, a conformity seeking approval to exist. Democracy may just be a society of cannibals trying not to be eaten. Maybe the sociopath is hated by our subconscious envy. In my country of South Africa, there are less curtains of pretend civilisation, a person less hated for their wielding of harmful power than for the desire to wield such oneself. No matter how i reasonably try reason (a clattering of knives on the kitchen floor of my mind), it fails to alter that the extinguishing of my hope in the intended equality of democracy finds me darkly depressed, sometimes overcome with hopelessness as my age insists that not all are equal no matter how much i want to foolishly believe otherwise. I couldn’t bare the thought of Clinton or Trump as US President, one for their cunning deceit, the other for their bigotry… but the positive of ‘Drumpf’ winning is that half the masses, the losers, and the powers that be, are now confronted by, and cannot disregard, the enormity of dissatisfaction. We, as a species, can no longer be as blind. After more burning, that truth, bigger than individuals, can seek solution. Our hopes and intentions as individuals are lonely, our egos pathetic in the face of biological zeitgeist we do not understand.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] this so that you better understand my response and, importantly, are encouraged to visit the full ‘Democracy and Desire’ […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.