Democracy and the Greater Good

Doubts about the future — or even about the value and viability — of liberal democracy are everywhere these days. The latest that I’ve read is Yascha Mounk’s recent article in The Guardian: “How populist uprisings could bring down liberal democracy“. There is an extensive mood of moroseness and malaise about its health and its prospects, and we are certainly today a far cry from the happy-face triumphalism of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” — or, at least the end as Fukuyama misunderstood and misinterpreted it.

Still, it’s somewhat of an “own goal”, as they say — just another way of talking about shooting oneself in one’s own foot. The malaise (demoralisation and disillusionment) that besets liberal democracy these days — such that even authoritarianism is seen as a cure for the malaise — is not difficult to understand.  Reams of analysis always seem to overlook, or even befuddle, the issue.

Liberal democracy is, very simply, the enactment of a principle — “the greatest good for the greatest number”. The idea is associated with Jeremy Bentham (and utilitarianism), although Bentham was preceded by Joseph Priestly’s Treatise of Government where the principle is expressed as “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. (A little history of the idea is posted here). And the word “demos” (the many) is this “greatest number”.

If liberal democracy is in crisis today, it is simply because this foundational purpose and project is no longer believed or upheld. This is why neo-liberalism and the gross inequalities it has produced have been something of a self-inflicted wound — or even suicidal.

The “greatest number” makes no distinction of race, creed, or colour. The greatest number is very inclusive in that sense. The greatest number would actually be “all” or “everyone”. This is one reason why democracy and populism are very often enemies, even though they are superficially sometimes treated as equivalent. But even Hitler’s propaganda minister could describe fascism as “ideal democracy” (as does every “People’s Republic”) if you restrict the meaning of “demos” to mean only ethnos, and not “the greatest number”. The same may be said of the name “National Socialism”, where values “social” and “national” are restricted to purely racialist concepts, and is a direct abrogation of the ideal of universality implied in “the greatest number”.

So, while “the greatest number” is, ideally, “All”, more problematic is, perhaps, our understanding of the “greatest good”. What constitutes the good — and even the greatest good — is controversial, and this is reflected in the “end of the Grand Narrative” and the attendant crisis of ethics and confusion about the ethical. There is no agreement about what constitutes the good, let alone the greater good. Some will say that it is “freedom”, others that it is “prosperity”, or even others that it is “enlightenment” (or “ennoblement”), or others that it is “happiness” or “maximising pleasure” and avoiding pain. Who gets to decide what is “the greatest good”? This is what underlies the issue of what constitutes “the Good Society”.

For some, then, “the greatest good for the greatest number” just distills to the formula “live and let live”. Considered as the greatest good, though, the formula promotes social isolation and ends up devouring itself in self-contradiction as well, since it leads to the disintegration, atomisation and fragmentation of the “Good Society” it seeks to realise through the formula. The formula has a libertarian flavour to it, but it lacks coherence. “Do your own thing” is basically the flip side of “live and let live”. At the extremity, the “Good Society” then becomes what does not exist, a la Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society”. There are just “individuals and families”. And we are, today, living with the consequences of this nihilism.

Liberal democracy was an attempt to realise the Good Society. And the Good Society was conceived in the ideal of “the greatest good for the greatest number”. Everyone, I think, now sees that this ideal — this goal — is no longer adhered to, even though great lip-service is still paid to it even as public policy contradicts it. This is, in many respects, the duplicity of our day.

So, we have to ask ourselves if we still believe in that ideal of universality — the greatest good for the greatest number, because everything today is moving in contradiction to it, and that, too, is connected with the “end of the Master Narrative”. It also means we have to come to some new understanding and unanimity about what is desirable — what constitutes the good.



24 responses to “Democracy and the Greater Good”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Different types of societies espouse somewhat different pinciples about what makes for the Good Society: “The true, the good, the beautiful” or “liberty, equality, fraternity” or “healthy, wealthy, and wise”.

    Same but different, in effect. Just different idioms of expression. Yet each of the express values are subject to controversy and confusion as well, if not destruction: “all higher values devalue themselves”.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    This is, by the way, pretty much what separates “progressives” from “conservatives”. Progressives believe in this principle of “the greatest good for the greatest number”, even though they may disagree about what the greatest good is and how to get there. Conservatives are generally characterised, instead, by a “preference for the familiar”, and even a “natural order of rank” in society, and so may even be hostile to the liberal notion of “the greatest good for the greatest number”. So these two principles “preference for the familiar” and “the greatest good for the greatest number” can come into conflict.

    As they are pretty much doing today in terms of “culture war”.

  3. Abdulmunem Othman says :

    Yes malaise is a general disease that effects not only the liberal but also attack all other units and aspects of our present life. Agreement were never amenable to humankind across its history. It is part of the tension that keeps it functioning toward harmonious balance. Crooks and charlatans have never and will never disappear from the parlance of history so do the other human archetypes. It is negligence of the content of the divine narrative and its guiding rules that is moving us to all this mess and preventing us from reaching the promised happy end. Replacing that narrative by human different narratives is the beast that is devouring our humankind. It is the denial and falsification of the divine narrative that derailed humanity and made it goes the route of illusive inquiry such as, who are we. where have we come from and where we are going etc . Thinking we are clever, forgetting the basic tools we are carrying that enable us to make such questions. We think we are progressing by replacing the divine selection by natural selection and give to selection a biological flavor and removing the basic spiritual flavor, the basic criteria of the human progress, not only that, but making also the human struggle a material one, killing the true spiritual base of the struggle. Once we forget that our awareness is part of His awareness that keeps us in the light ,we will fall in darkness, switching our attention toward the swamp of self interest that give birth to all these ill characters like Hitler and Thatcher and provide them with the soil in which they can flourish. I am devoting the few remaining years of my life to the one in order to come to the nearest point where understanding of reality become possible by his grace. There is a verse in the Koran which is traditionally called the mother of all verses and which I like you to ponder, that reads, God is the only real that has no resemblance, the alive and the life maintainer, the one that falls asleep not and slumbers not, to him belongs what is in heaven and what is in earth and no intercessions take place without his permission, know what is affront of mankind and what is behind and no one progresses in knowledge without his graceful allowance, his chair encompasses the heaven and earth without any burden and he is the high and the great. ( complete presence that nothing evades the attention of that present presence ) There is no compulsion in religion ,the distinction between the right and the wrong has become very clear and so whoever deny the false god and trust in the true god, has build his life on solid ground that shakes not, god is always in the state of hearing , knowing and responsiveness to the true seeker, Such reading put me in a state of wakefulness and alert awareness to see the loopholes in the embroidery of our deceiving mat. Oh!! how the oblivion of that One, is leading our humanity to a horrifying death.

  4. mikemackd says :

    Odd how the Christian commentator you linked did not mention John’s Gospel, where he says “God is love” (1 John 4:8). He went on to try to define the law love, lamenting that it was too general.

    If he’d gone with John, he may have discovered the truth of Jeremy Griffiths’ deep little phrase “God is integrativeness” (2003. A Species in Denial. FHA Publishing. Sydney, p.110), or similar, and therefore that you can no more make a law of love than make laws to tell God what to do.

    What democracy has going for it, in its less degenerate versions, is that: it can address complex and wicked problems far better than any one person can. Demagogues and their followers can gain tremendous power by their monological gaze on extrinsic values, but at the enormous cost of becoming deaf, dumb and blind to intrinsic values. Therefore they can never emerge from narcissism, and with that failure become the very “losers” they despise. I think Stalin’s question about how many divisions the Pope has is emblematic of such deficiencies, and while Stalin has gone, the obtuseness he had in this context remains.

    That is, when at 10:10 John’s Gospel says Jesus said “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”, despite what some say who affect Christianity, he didn’t mean monetary wealth, but spiritual. That’s why that statement is consistent with Jesus asking the rich young man to give all his assets to the poor. In contrast to the Satanic state’s call to hoard earthly riches, that call to life’s abundance has homologies with Csikszentmihalyi’s psychology for the new millennium, as delineated in the latter chapters of his work “The Evolving Self” (1993, New York, Harper Collins). On p. 292, he pointed out that “Strange as it may seem, life becomes serene and enjoyable when selfish pleasure and personal success are not the guiding goals”, and “a complex society required complex selves, yet complex selves usually thrive in complex systems” (p. 272).
    The megamachine does not deliver either complex selves or complex systems that they can develop within. Its power is its simplicity. Lots of simplicities add up to complicated, and they in turn add up to totals not wholes. It does not deliver the abundance of the evolving self. As Csikszentmihalyi put it:

    “This has resulted in great physicists as naive about social and political issues as a little child, in famous molecular biologists who study brain chemistry and understand less about how the mind works than Australian aborigines, and in social scientists—like the present one—who couldn’t solve a differential equation if their lives depended on it” (p. 275).

    He then recommended:

    “Perhaps the most urgent task facing us is to create a new educational curriculum that will make each child aware, from the first grade on, that life in the universe is interdependent. It should be an education that trains the mind to perceive the network of causes and effects in which our actions are embedded, and trains the emotions and the imagination to respond appropriately to the consequences of those actions. What is the real price of driving cars, when all the costs to the environment are included? Of waging wars, when we consider the long-term impact of lives lost without reason, of cultures and social systems destroyed? What are the likely effects of letting all the hundreds of varieties of rice die out except the few most commercially profitable ones? What do “good” and “bad” mean, in terms of the total effects of a person’s actions?” (ibid).By this, Csikszentmihalyi did not mean that we can wait and pass it on to the next generation to do: he meant each of us engage in evolving our selves.

    Back to Robertson again:

    “In human evolution, the last part of the brain to develop was the frontal lobes … These make up more than 40 percent of the brain’s volume. This is also the last area in the brain to connect up in the child – in fact, it really only wires up fully in the late teens or early twenties. It is this part of the brain that makes us truly human.
    “In the frontal lobes you hold an image of yourself, and it is according to this image that you go out and meet the world. How you behave in that world will depend on the frontal lobes regulating the older parts of the brain … It is in the frontal lobes that you conceive of the minds of other people. … Of all the parts of the brain, the frontal lobes are the least hard-wired, the most adaptable to the world’s restless tugging and murmuring at our senses.” (Robertson, Ian. 2000. Mind Sculpture. Bantam, London, pp. 15-16).

    Which regulation takes us back to Mumford and McGilchrist. Csikszentmihalyi sees democracy as a facilitator of the cognitive and valuational fluidity that an evolving self can, when it becomes integrated, tap into: but not before; not when it can only see through the narrow chinks of its authoritarian self-imprisonment.

    This explains how our demagogic and authoritarian follower mindsets – all of us insofar as we wire our selves to the Satanic state by nurturing them, neurons firing together wiring together – are anti-life, anti the abundance of which Jesus spoke, and why he wanted the rich young man to change focus. A society facilitating complex selves is the opposite of what authoritarians want, and they are well on the way to achieving their goals all over the world, not just in the USA.

    I thought of Csikszentmihalyi in this context because he specifically addressed the concept of the Good Society from p. 266 to p.276. He concluded on p. 276 by saying:

    “A good society, one that encourages individuals to realize their potential and permits complexity to evolve, is one that provides room for growth. Its task is not to build the best institutions, create the most compelling beliefs, for to do so would be to succumb to an illusion. Institutions and beliefs age rapidly; they serve our needs for a while, but soon begin to act as brakes on progress. Even the Bible, even the Constitution are only steps in the process of continuing enlightenment. They are glorious achievements, to be admired and revered with the awe with which we approach the Parthenon, the Sistine Chapel, or Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto. And we should certainly not abandon their wisdom until we discover more compelling formulations. But the task of a good society is not to enshrine the creative solutions of the past into permanent institutions; it is, rather, to make it possible for creativity to keep asserting itself. Its task is to give people a chance to bring forth new memes to be evaluated, selected, and joyously implemented by informed, free, and responsible peers.”

    Like here.

    • Sue says :


      I was thinking while reading this post that the good must constitute Belonging at its base. What good are new definitions written out of the scrabblings of one-eyed overwrought nervous systems?

      • mikemackd says :

        Thanks, Sue

        I agree with you about the fundamental need for Belonging. It’s just that one must be very careful what one assigns one’s identity as belonging to, and why, and who, who benefits, etc: which is doubtless why you wrote your latter sentence.

        In that regard, while I can no longer call myself a Christian, indeed as belonging to any organised religion, over the years I have contributed on this forum I seem to have referred to Jesus a lot more than anyone else here has.

        Perhaps I should call myself a “Jesusian”. 😉

        • mikemackd says :

          Being as (I perhaps wrongly asume) you are new here, I should better caution you as to the meaning of my emoticon: that putting such labels on oneself as “Jesusian” may be building a cavern through which, eventually, one may only be able to see through narrow chinks of; a process of individualism, not individuation; belief, not faith; self-defeating, not self-evolving. I consider true belonging is not a left hemisphere self-labelling but a right hemisphere understanding.

  5. Scott Preston says :

    That last passage from Csikszentmihalyi about the good society brought to mind Blake’s definition of the good society as well: “The Arts and all things in common”.

  6. Scott Preston says :

    Harvard Business Review has published an article on neo-liberalism which is, I think, proof that it is not “globalism” that is the problem. It’s neo-liberalism, as I mentioned in the above post.

    There’s lots of confusions about this: some people treat globalism and neo-liberalism as the same, while others seem to believe that they can keep neo-liberalism but dump globalism.

    It’s all helter-skelter (just another term for “havoc”, “chaos”, “mayhem”, “pandaemonium”, etc).

  7. Scott Preston says :

    How to explain Gebser’s “double-movement”? Things are exactly as they appear to be; things are not as they appear to be. Everything seems to equivocate. It’s possible to understand this paradox through McGilchrist’s neurodynamic model in The Master and His Emissary — the two distinct modes of perception of the divided brain.

    it’s in that sense that all this over chaos we see today also has an implicit logic of its own — one that we need to discern and decode. Perhaps Rosenstock-Huessy described that logic best when he noted that in nature, life precedes death; but in the spirit, death precedes life.

    So, though the present state of affairs appears abysmal — which it is — it may not be the whole story about what is going on. That should be encouraging.

  8. InfiniteWarrior says :

    The “greatest number” makes no distinction of race, creed, or colour. The greatest number is very inclusive in that sense. The greatest number would actually be “all” or “everyone”.

    Obviously not. The “greatest number” is a “majority” in liberal democracy. “Utilitarianism” (and Megamachine efficiency) at its finest. And we all know what Samuel Clemens had to say about that: “Whenever you find on the side of the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.”

    Excellent advice. The “greatest number” pertains to the total, not the whole, and this is a distinction you’ve been driving home for years. Let’s not abandon it now just because “majorities” and “minorities” are all anyone can seem to think or talk or write about anymore. It’s the whole and “all things in common” with which we’re concerned or, at least, I am.

    A social democracy, by contrast, is obviously concerned with the whole and not mere totalities, no doubt the reason Scandinavian countries are so often recognized as the “happiest” countries in the world and cited as “model” societies, though they obviously still have their own share of issues, thanks to “globalization” (as opposed to globalism, a distinction you’ve also drawn many times over in the past).

    Community spirit is a difficult thing to create in a society, but Helliwell added that governments looking to make their citizens happier should “make room” for local initiatives.

    Thank God, western societies are finally beginning to talk about the importance of “communities of place,” the local portion of the local-to-global imperative.

    Perhaps not the best example of this, but certainly the most recent: the HQ2 dillemma. Cities across the US are falling all over themselves attempting to land Amazon’s second headquarters, but some of us are asking why they’re not investing in their own communities of place instead.

    Good question.

    • Scott Preston says :

      The “greatest number” pertains to the total, not the whole, and this is a distinction you’ve been driving home for years

      Apparently, without success. We really have to get beyond dualism. Whole and Totality are not exactly opposites. They only become so with the estrangement of the Emissary from the Master, to use McGilchrist’s metaphor. They aren’t opposites. The totality is the Emissary’s way of reconstituting what is given by the Master as a Whole. this isn’t a question of good versus evil after all. This is a matter of the paradoxical.

      The greatest number would not in fact be a “majority”. The greatest number is All. And as Rosenstock-Huessy put it in Multiformity of Man, All = 1. Ergo, unanimity.

      Take the statement “Christ is all things to all men”. In that statement, the “greatest number” is all. There is no contradiction here at all between the Totality and the Whole. The former is an authentic and faithful reflection of the latter. It’s when they become dissociated (“distantiated” in Gebser’s terms) that dualism arises. They are, otherwise, polarities, reflecting the two modes of perception in their ideal harmonious functioning.

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        Ergo, the “mere” in “mere totality” in my statement.

        The former is an authentic and faithful reflection of the latter.

        It’s obviously not an authentic and faithful reflection of the latter in “liberal democracies,” overridingly and overwhelmingly concerned today with majorities and minorities, whereas (arguably) in social democracies, it is.

        • Scott Preston says :

          Perhaps in “eco-social democracies”. I think I like that term better.

          I have known people, who I consider enlightened, who use “total”, “perfect”, and “whole” interchangeably and without confusion. They are in their rights to do so because they know, whereas it is necessary to make the distinction between the Whole and the “mere totality” for those who don’t. Just as life and death are paradoxically “entangled” with one another, like quantum’s wave-particle paradox, so it is with “whole” and “totality”. In fact, the wave-particle paradox is a very good analogy.

          You’ve probably heard the phrase “the All-in-all”? Usually it refers to what people call “God” or “Supreme Being” — the Being-in-beings. Panentheism. The “All-in-all” is this paradox of the One and the Many. Blake calls it “infinity in all things”, but it’s the same meaning.

          So, in those terms, “All” would be the greatest number, and the “All-in-all” the very essence of this Whole and Totality.

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        Re: “the two modes of perception.”

        As I sadly haven’t the luxury of buying books anymore (and, just as sadly, most of the books under discussion here are not available in local libraries), could someone kindly refresh my memory? Does McGilchrist’s hemispheric “division” refer to “two modes of (sensate) perception,” “consciousness,” both? Or is “two modes of perception” The Chrysalis’ interpretation of hemispheric differences?

        To the best of my knowledge, there is one means of perception: “awareness,” Gebser’s “aperspectival” awareness, the “third eye” (not to be confused with “single vision”) in our wisdom traditions, whereas the brain hemispheres pertain to “modes” of consciousness and cognition. At least, this is how I understand Gebser’s “aperspectival consciousness” as well as the distinction The Chrysalis has often made between awareness and consciousness.

        There’s been a great deal of discussion here regarding Nietzsche’s “boast” of switching between “background and foreground,” “tonal” and “nagual,” immaterial and material, “levels of manifestation,” etc.

        I’d like to be clear on this because when I hear things, e.g. “‘the Master’ can only be approached through the right hemisphere,” I tend to think “the Master” is being “approached” from the wrong direction: outward-in.

        • Scott Preston says :

          To the best of my knowledge, there is one means of perception: “awareness,”

          You might recall that I dealt with that question in The Chrysalis even before encountering McGilchrist, which I cast as the distinction between consciousness and awareness. This caused some confusion back then, and still does.

          You might recall that I spoke to the issue of awareness in two modalities even before discovering McGilchrist — in terms of attentional aspects and intentional aspects, so I don’t quite see the difficulty we might have with “two modes of perception”. It would be a mistake to see this as separate in nature because every act of perception implies both an intention and an attention.

          McGilchirst makes no claim that there is a neurological BASIS to this. Basis isn’t the proper word. Hes’s not a convinced materialist. He thinks there is a correlation between this and the divided brain.

          As the Buddhist puts it: “He who sees the action that is in inaction is wise indeed”. Same meaning.

          • InfiniteWarrior says :

            I don’t quite see the difficulty we might have with “two modes of perception”.

            How to put it, then?

            Workin’ on it.

        • Scott Preston says :

          In some respects, the distinction between awareness and consciousness is implied in the very structure of the two words. “Con-sciousness” means an assembling a “bringing together” like “congress” or “congregate” and so on. What is being brought together is the data of the senses, and thus consciousness has more in common with the notion of “the total”. What we call “consciousness” is usually what is referred to as “mind” in Buddhism, but “mind” is considered an aggregate of the senses — the sensorium — and thus a sixth sense.

          Waring is a different motion from assembling or arranging, and “a-waring” expresses something more akin to waking or “a-waking”. One can even become a-ware that one is con-scious.

  9. Abdulmunem Othman says :

    I like to say, that we do not have two souls but only one, and it is our unseen tool of perception which no one can claim knowing, how it perceives or how it delivers what it perceives. This duality of perception is misleading and not helpful. We are creatures created with two antagonistic forces with one tool to express either the positive forces or the negative or receive them. Some time I feel all this staggering flow of words and metaphors are more confusing than clarifying, then there is the basic question of our life, is it happiness or the great material good for the great number or is it something far greater and more precious. I also have leaned in Scott school that totality is an aggregating sum that comes at last while wholeness is a concept we start with and we must never forget because it keeps our doors open to the abode of holiness. Then also why all this dependence on the head while the hear is put aside in this play of perception while we all know its importance in human affairs.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      why all this dependence on the head

      Why all this focus on the head?

      As aggravating as that can be, I’m going to take it as as a good sign that the head and brain (and associated metaphors) are the primary focus of so many today. I like to imagine that means humanity may be in the process of bringing its Ajna into balance.

      Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Heart and head are longstanding metaphors for the same thing that McGilchrist describes in terms of Master and Emissary, and that becomes quite apparent in Bolte-Taylor’s “stroke of insight”. “Heart” is a metaphor for what Gebser also calls “the vital centre” — or others call “the core self”.

        Just as the expression “the heart of the matter” doesn’t refer literally to a heart (but to “the crux of the matter”) so are head and heart metaphors, and in some respects for what Yeats described as the Falconer and the Falcon in his poem “The Second Coming”.

        • InfiniteWarrior says :

          Too bad, then, that so many people are associating “right hemispheric” brain function with “vital centre.”

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