Thoughts on Justice and Democracy

by Eric Chaet

Hyperlinks added by Tony Palmeri

I have been bothered, during the recent cycle of political debate, say, since 1989, by the use of key words, for instance, justice, by people who seem confident that they know what they mean, but don't say what they mean, and don't seem to be aware of the difficulties implicit in what they are saying. Therefore, I have begun to pin down some definitions, in hopes that our discussions may become more truly productive than otherwise. For starters, using language from an on-line abstract of Plato's Republic, by D. R. Bhandari:


According to Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic:

  1. Justice is the advantage of the stronger.
  2. Justice is obedience to the laws.
  3. Justice is the advantage of another.

According to Plato:

  • Justice is a human virtue that makes a person self-consistent and good.
  • Justice is a social consciousness that makes a society internally harmonious and good.
  • Justice to the soul is as health is to the body--not mere strength, but harmonious strength.
  • Justice is not the right of the stronger, but the effective harmony of the whole.


    Starting with some language from the "wikipedia," on-line:

    • Democracy is government in which all citizens can directly participate in the decision-making process--usually only in the legislative decision-making.
    • It might include binding referenda, effectively scrapping a law; and/or the right of recall of elected officials; and/or citizen-sponsored ballot-initiative.
    • Direct democracies have included New England town meetings (women and children couldn't vote, though); ancient Hellenic city-states (slaves, women, and children couldn't vote, though; and the Venetian oligarchy (that is, a "democracy" of the ruling group).
    • Indirect, representative democracy:
      • Edmund Burke's principle: that representatives should vote according to their consciences--as opposed to the principle of delegative democracy, whereby the representative should consider, or vote what the majority of his or her constituents want. (Problems with either choice seem apparent to me--you, too?)

    Problems with democracy:

    If the citizens are poorly educated, wrongly informed, under shared delusions, what then?

    Mainly from Aristotle's "Politics":

    • Monarchies (which are great in the rare case when a wonderful person is monarch) tend toward tyranny.
    • Aristocracies (government by the best ones) tend toward oligarchy--government by the strongest, as opposed to the best, ones. (Then the oligarchies tend, too, toward tyranny.)
    • Tyrants act in their own apparent self-interest, against the interests of the governed.

    *Democracy tends to the tyranny of the majority poor against both the deserving and undeserving rich (those whose wealth comes via efforts which provide benefits--at low real cost--to many, and those whose wealth is theirs otherwise).

    *Democracy tends, likewise, to the tyranny of the majority against the (in any way) outstanding. (Remember high school?)

    *E.g., Salem witch-trials and executions, trial and execution of Socrates, USA McCarthy-era persecution of intellectuals whether Communist or not.)

    Toqueville, "Democracy in America," 1835:

    "In America, the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within these barriers, an author may write what he pleases: but woe to him if he goes beyond them.... He is exposed to continued obloquy and persecution. His political career is closed forever ...every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused him... He is loudly censured by his opponents, whilst those who think like him, without having the courage to speak out, abandon him in silence. He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth..."