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  • Addams’s Radical Democracy:Moving Beyond Rights
  • Maurice Hamington

To attain individual morality in an age demanding social morality, to pride one's self on the results of personal effort when the time demands social adjustment, is utterly to fail to apprehend the situation.

(Addams 1902, 6)

One of the challenges of exploring Addams's social philosophy is that she, like her contemporary, John Dewey, does not fit neatly into established categories of political thought. Addams promotes social morality not at the exclusion of individual morality, but as its natural progression and complement. I will suggest that Addams, while not disdaining rights-based ethics, finds the approach insufficient to the morality needed for a dynamic democracy. As Addams describes it, "democracy like any other of the living faiths of men, is so essentially mystical that it continually demands new formulation" (Addams 1909, 146). Part of that reformulation is the discursive move beyond static notions of isolated individuals who are endowed with rights to considerations of citizens' responsibilities for others as part of an active and rich notion of public interest. In developing Addams's radical notion of democracy, I will first explore how she delineates "old style" classical liberal democracy from her preferred concept of social democracy. Then I will address how rights as they are traditionally understood are inadequate for Addams's social project of communal morality. To accomplish this we will look at some of the rhetorical positions taken by Addams to push forward her political agenda, such as the elective franchise for women and the amelioration of women's exploitation as prostitutes. As we explore Addams's concept of rights, perhaps we will discover that her approach is more radical than that which is typically attributed to her.

Classical Liberal Democracy versus Social Democracy

On several occasions Addams takes issue with traditional understandings of democracy that she characterizes as antiquated because of their emphasis on [End Page 216] autonomy and equality over social interdependence. In Newer Ideals of Peace Addams contends that the founding fathers of the United States operated under a limited notion of personhood:

their idealism, after all was founded upon theories concerning the "natural man," a creature of the sympathetic imagination.

Because their idealism was of the type that is afraid of experience, these founders refused to look at the difficulties and blunders which a self-governing people were sure to encounter, and insisted that, if only the people had freedom they would walk continuously in the paths of justice and righteousness. It was inevitable, therefore, that they should have remained quite untouched by that worldly wisdom which counsels us to know life as it is, by the very modern belief that if the world is ever to go right at all, it must go right its own way.

(Addams 1907, 32)

For Addams, the founding fathers had conceptualized citizens as abstract, disembodied beings. Classic liberal theory posed context as having little value because it operated under the assumption that humans exist separate from and prior to society. Addams, given the successes of social programs in the diverse neighborhood of Hull House, would not willingly bracket out experience. For her, context is of vital importance. There is no "natural man"; only flesh-and-blood men and women whose lives are not marked exclusively by universal autonomy and contractual relations. Addams views people as fundamentally entangled in one another's lives. To speak of a natural man, or original position, unfettered by social influences is an exercise in abstract imagination not witnessed in lived human experience. Addams wishes to address social conditions as they are experienced and therefore cannot accept the assumptions of traditional liberal democratic theorists.

In Democracy and Social Ethics, Addams refers to John Stuart Mill's concept of a living society: "a man of high moral culture ... thinks of himself, not as an isolated individual, but as a part in a social organism" (Addams 1902, 117). This idea of the social organism would remain a guiding metaphor for Addams's notion of social democracy. The health and thriving of the whole required the constituencies to work toward the benefit of all and not merely for individual gain. Accordingly, a foot or a...


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