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Democracy and the Ethical Life

A Philosophy of Politics and Community (Second Edition, Expanded)

Claes G. Ryn

Publication Year: 2012

This study goes to the heart of ethics and politics. Strongly argued and lucidly written, the book makes a crucial distinction between two forms of democracy

Published by: The Catholic University of America Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-7

Prefatory Note for the 1990 Edition

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-11

In writing this book I have benefited from contacts with many individuals. lowe a large debt of gratitude to Rene de Visme Williamson. He has given very generously of his learning, wisdom, and personal warmth. In a sense of the word representative that he would recognize...

Part One: Democracy as an Ethico-Philosophical Preblem

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I. Democracy and Man's Moral Predicament

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pp. 3-26

The prevalent tendency among modern political theorists is to define democracy without reference to a transcendent ethical standard. Democracy is usually treated as a kind of procedural form, neutral in regard to the substance of the popular will. It is viewed as a "method" for...

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II. Human Experience and the "Scientific Method"

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pp. 27-51

The development of an ethical theory of democracy comes up against a number of modern preconceptions about what type of evidence may be accepted by the political scientist. As has already been stated, conscience will be regarded here as an opening to the transcendent purpose...

Part Two: The Ethical Life

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pp. 52-80

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III. The Duality of Human Nature

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pp. 81-91

I have argued in a preliminary fashion that politics has a transcendent moral end and that a truly civilized society is possible only if the demands of the ethical life are recognized and respected. A treatment of the implications of that observation for democracy requires a more extensive explication of the ethical philosophy which is...

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IV. The Ethics of Community

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pp. 92-101

Man is by nature a social being, said the classical Greek philosophers. They are joined in that view by Christian thinkers. It has been a fundamental tenet of the tradition resulting from these sources that social life aims beyond cooperation for the attainment of material well-being and social peace to the realization of the good life. Against the background of the above analysis we are better...

Part Three: Rousseau's General Will: Moral Fact or Utopian Fiction?

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V. The Political Moralism of Rousseau

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pp. 92-101

Having developed with some care the idea of the duality of human nature and the relation of ethical conscience to community and culture, we are in a position to examine in depth the implications of man's moral predicament for the theory of democracy. The ethical reasoning should now be applied to the difficult question of which...

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VI. The Rebirth of Nature

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pp. 102-116

In order to put the idea of the general will in the proper context, Rousseau's concept of the state of nature needs to be examined. It is evident that it is central to his political thought and philosophical doctrine in general. In the First Discourse Rousseau argues that civilization has degraded and corrupted man. Deeply alienated from society, he identifies with the plight of the descendants...

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VII. The General Will

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pp. 117-145

It is assumed by Rousseau that the general will is not some sectional, particularistic, arbitrary expression of opinion. On the contrary, it is the very principle by which morality is defined. In spite of that, Rousseau frequently speaks of the general will as a mere aggregation or ha~mony of "private interests." "It is what is...

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VIII. Utopian Dreams and Harsh Realities

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pp. 146-151

It has not been my purpose to deny that Rousseau's concept of the general will has features which connect it with the real, transcendent standard of morality of which most men have some awareness. I have only tried to show that in its central inspiration this concept owes more to Rousseau's utopian-romantic imagination...

Part Four: The Ethics of Constitutiona Democracy

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pp. 152-164

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IX. Constitutionalism and Popular Sovereignty

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pp. 154-165

So far we have sought mostly by elimination to determine how popular self-government can be made compatible with the needs of the ethical life. I have tried to show that Rousseau's influential theory of democracy does not come to grips with man's moral predicament. Only because he denies that man's baser inclinations are...

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X. The Spirit of Constitutionalism

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pp. 166-181

Insofar as it is compatible with the needs of the ethical life, democracy seeks to promote a certain quality of popular will. This leads us to the role of the constitution. It may be viewed in analogy with the rules or principles which the individual person adopts for his "private" behavior. Aware of his own moral and other weaknesses, he gives sovereignty not to his impulse of the moment...

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XI. Constitutionalism versus Plebiscitarianism

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pp. 182-198

It is not my purpose here to develop a set of constitutional prescriptions. I have used the American constitution to illustrate a general principle and not to assert that in the American context its provisions offer the practical solution to the problem of making democracy compatible with the needs of the ethical life. The Constitution does tend to restrain temporary popular majorities...

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XII. Democracy, Leadership and Culture

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pp. 199-203

If popular rule without effective constitutional restraints is an ethically unacceptable notion, popular rule under such restrictions offers no guarantee that moral motives will be promoted. Constitutional restraints are a necessary but not sufficient condition for the furtherance of community. Everything turns on the absence or presence of what I have called the spirit of...

Part Five: A Postscript

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pp. 204-216

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XIII. The Common Good and History

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pp. 206-231

This book has sought to determine to what extent and in what form democracy is compatible with the ethical imperative of human existence. In arguing for a fundamental distinction between constitutional and plebiscitary democracy and demonstrating the ethical deficiency of the latter, it has set forth a general understanding...

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XIV. The State of Democracy

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pp. 232-240

To write of the ethical potentialities of Western democracy in the closing years of the twentieth century may be to write about missed opportunities. It is an open question today whether constitutional democracy will be able to maintain itself into the next century. There are many signs that its ethical, intellectual and...


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pp. 241-245

Back Cover

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p. 257-257

E-ISBN-13: 9780813220864
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813207117

Page Count: 255
Publication Year: 2012

Edition: 2nd ed., expanded.

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Political ethics.
  • Democracy.
  • Representative government and representation.
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