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Reviewed by:
  • Democratic Society and Human Needs
  • Frank Cunningham
Jeff Noonan . Democratic Society and Human Needs. McGill-Queen's University Press. xxii, 265. $75.00

Democracy for Jeff Noonan should be seen as 'a form of social order' based on a moral vision, of which he sees two main candidates: one [End Page 143] premised on the protection of individual rights, the other 'a life-grounded value system.' Noonan argues that the first of these evolved primarily to protect private property. He appropriates the value system from a thesis of John McMurtry, who prescribes as an overriding and universal value the satisfaction of basic life needs: for biological existence, for leading a creative and meaningful life, and for 'freely deciding and determining what shape and purpose to give our lives.' Satisfaction of these needs is valued for enabling people to develop their capacities in ways expounded by contemporary theorists drawing on Aristotle such as Amartya Sen. Noonan sees the rights-based underpinning of democracy as dominant, not just in classic authors such as Hobbes, Locke, and James Mill, but also in popular movements such as the Levellers and in the theories of John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, and Chantal Mouffe, whose views are criticized on this score in one of the book's four parts.

The concluding part addresses two challenges: a society where satisfaction of needs trumps individual rights would be anti-pluralistic and hence proto-authoritarian, and the economy of a life-based democratic society would not be organized around a competitive market (as this is the source of rights-based democracy), but, as the experience of Soviet-style plannification showed, this possibility is unrealistic. To meet the latter challenge Noonan draws on the proposal of Pat Devine that economic priorities be determined by society-wide deliberations involving all affected parties and starting at local levels. Since Noonan makes no reference to the fact that the large national and global corporations and financial institutions would certainly not themselves buy into such a scheme, but would sabotage it, I assume he is projecting a world where such institutions either do not exist or have been successfully reigned in. The overall thesis is an interesting one, and engagement by followers of Rawls, Habermas, and Mouffe with the arguments against them should help to advance democratic theory.

Regarding the authoritarian challenge, Noonan does not advocate undemocratically imposing life-affirming policies on a population. Those who cannot be persuaded to change their values will be obliged to submit to such policies only if the latter are 'mandated by democratic deliberation.' Aside from Noonan's further claim that such people will in the end see the benefits to themselves of these policies, this view muddies the analytic water by apparently privileging a narrower, procedural conception of democracy than one seeing it as a value-infused 'form of social order.' The book would profit from sorting out the different levels or senses of 'democracy' at play in its analyses.

It would also profit by engaging prior and major work on the book's topics, and in particular on the work of two seminal thinkers – both, [End Page 144] as it happens, also Canadians. One is the work of Christian Bay, whose groundbreaking The Structure of Freedom counter-posed a needs-based political ethic to power-political pluralist approaches to democracy. He saw an unavoidable tension between implementation of this ethic and democracy. Noonan's elaboration of a capacities-oriented conception of a democratic society would profit from attention to the earlier work of C.B. Macpherson, who pursued this theme in all his works and to whom only perfunctory reference is made in Democratic Theory and Human Needs. The analysis would also have profited from attending to Macpherson's much more sophisticated treatment of the logic and the historical roots of market-based concepts of democracy in his seminal The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke. (If one is going to reinvent the wheel, the result should be at least as good as the original.)

Frank Cunningham
Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto


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