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  • Democracy's Normativity
  • Noëlle McAfee


This essay is about the meaning of democratic politics, starting from our motivations to engage in politics or public life and continuing through to the kind of deliberative and performative practice that makes engagement possible. As for motivations, there are at least two engines that drive our entry into politics. One is a deep desire to be part of something larger than ourselves. The other is a deep desire to make the world better than it is. The first is self-serving, the second, normative. But both converge in the idea that the world is a better place when all who are part of it have a hand in shaping what that world might be, hence increasing their own public happiness and well-being. This idea is the major premise of my argument in this essay. Behind political activity, especially democratic politics, is a desire to belong and to make things better. This premise cannot be proven in any logical manner. It is an observation, the same one that Aristotle made when he claimed that people are political animals: "It is evident from these considerations, then, that a city-state is among the things that exist by nature, that a human being is by nature a political animal, and that anyone who is without a city-state, not by luck but by nature, is either a poor specimen or else superhuman. Like the one Homer condemns, he too is 'clanless, lawless, and homeless.' For someone with such a nature is at the same time eager for war, like an isolated piece in a board game" (1998, 1253a4). The human condition, if we can talk about such a thing, is to want to be part of something larger than ourselves, not just as a member, much less as a subject, but as an agent who helps decide and shape what that community should be:

It is also clear why a human being is more of a political animal than a bee or any other gregarious animal. Nature makes nothing pointlessly, as we say, and no animal has speech except a human being. A voice is a signifier of what is pleasant or painful, which is why it is also possessed by the other animals (for their nature goes this far: they not only perceive what is pleasant or painful but signify it to each other). But speech is for making clear what is beneficial or harmful, and hence also what is just or unjust.

(Aristotle 1998, 1253a7–14) [End Page 257]

Other animals have voice; but only humans have speech. What's the difference? I gather that Aristotle means that other animals can cry out in pain or pleasure but only speaking beings can make clear why or how some state of affairs is beneficial or harmful, just or unjust. I want to pause here because there is a significant moral difference between, on the one hand, beneficial and harmful and, on the other hand, just and unjust. If I am down on my luck and cannot buy groceries, it is obvious that this situation is harmful; but it is an entirely different matter qualitatively to say that it is unjust. Any being with voice can express the former (by crying out in pain), but only a speaking being can make the case for the latter, by, for example, saying how and why this state of affairs should not be so, how another state of affairs would be better. To have a concept of injustice requires having the capacity to imagine a different kind of world. So there is something about the ability to speak, Aristotle seems to be saying, or I am inferring, that gives rise to, or at least accompanies, moral reasoning.

Language allows us not only to note current states of affairs (what we happen to find pleasant or not) but also to make clear what would be better than current affairs, what would be just: "For it is peculiar to human beings, in comparison to the other animals, that they alone have perception of what is good or bad, just or unjust, and the rest. And it is community in...


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pp. 257-265
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