How far does ‘democracy’ extend?

Recently I read this article regarding a public sponsored initiative to change the State Constitution of Mississippi. If passed it would extend the category of person, as in full legal right-holding person, to embryos from conception. This continuation of the pro-choice/pro-life conflict in the United States hits upon a number of different areas.

Firstly, the Mississippi Supreme Court decision to allow a vote on the basis that pro-abortion “groups had not met the legal burden required to restrict the right of citizens to amend the state constitution” and that any challenge would have to occur after, and if, the measure is enacted. This coupled with the discussion of appeals up to the Federal Supreme Court, which is the aim of the anti-abortion lobby, demonstrates the all-or-nothing situation in the US. Without a consensus or even the process of legislative enactment it seems that there is no longer a view that the decision is about social cohesion or even compromise but of winning or losing a series of legal battles.

Secondly, it also raises the question of how democracy should operate. The idea of the public originating laws or constitutional amendments is admirable in theory but in practice how does this work within a pluralist society? In the case of Mississippi the constitution (link above) only requires 12% of the previous electorate to sponsor an initiative. This alone raises questions of how representative a system should be, but in the case of abortion additional problems are raised because of the assertion of rights to control and integrity of the body, and an individuals private life.

Perhaps there should be some limits to public initiatives when they affect personal rights (for an example see the constitution of Mississippi) but how do we decide when a right should be left untouched and on what basis to we then balance competing claims on the same issue? Do we allow whichever will give each citizen (or in the case of the UK each subject) the most options? Or do we rely on a public debate? How can we rely on one when so much can be distorted and twisted that the lies can become the truth? Is not the recent Alternative Vote referendum campaigning and the adverts suggesting that children and babies would die if people approved the  AV system an example of the decline in real discursive debates?

Samuel Walker (PhD Student)


2 thoughts on “How far does ‘democracy’ extend?

  1. Hi Sam

    We do not have to rely on referenda but we do need to have a public debate. Hopefully philosophers and ethicists can contribute to that. But they do not make policy and law in a democracy – that is for the elected politicians. Those politicians are accountable to the people for the decisions they make. That does not mean they can ignore the reasons and slavishly follow popular public opinion, but it does mean they have a responsibility to explain their thinking to the public. In the end, in a democracy, we cannot expect the reasons to always prevail – resolving disputes is a difficult task and it would be naive to think that compromise is unnecessary. Sometimes that is the price for achieving some degree of consensus, and it can be a price worth paying for social harmony.

    Malcolm Oswald

    • Hi Malcolm,

      Thanks for joining us. Given your recent presentation I’m glad you decided to post a comment.

      I agree with you that compromise has to be reached but to me this means a balancing of competing views. I think that what I found so unacceptable about the Mississippi ballot was the extremity of it, and that it was clearly not aimed a reaching a balance. This got me to thinking about what democracies are based on. It is interesting that if the motion had passed there may have been a legal challenge in the State Supreme Court as popular motions cannot amend the Bill of Rights in the state constitution.

      Obviously we want to be careful of states imposing to many restrictions, even though sometimes actions can be taken which are in the public interest but which they dislike. EU membership springs to my mind. I wonder, not so much that compromise of positions must be reached, but that the system for balancing governments, elected representatives and popular motions is generally seen as a conflict.

      Perhaps this is just because of a higher level of polarity in the US, but I think that even here the conflict perspective is more prevalent. However I think that this may be reversed in policy committees and legal decisions, which perhaps supports the role you see for elected representatives. Perhaps I am overly concerned. After all simple majority domination is prevented by and one of the reasons that we have laws to protect minorities.

      Sam Walker (PhD Student)

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