Masthead CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996

* A Plea for Understanding--Beyond False Dilemmas on the Net, by Charles Ess

Freedom and Democracy in the traditions of Locke, Jefferson, and Habermas

By contrast, both positive notions of freedom and more social conceptions of human nature argue for what are called communitarian and pluralist conceptions of democracy. These conceptions seek to overcome the problems of plebescite democracy (a form of democracy associated with atomistic conceptions of the individual)--first of all, the problem of "the tyranny of the majority": if a majority vote is all that is called for to determine judgment and law--majority rule can crush the views and rights of both individuals and minorities.

Communitarian conceptions, by contrast, stress both service to a common good and participation in the public sphere of discussion and deliberation. Pluralist conceptions add the recognition that individuals and minorities are better protected from the dominance of any single community if we encourage participation by as many groups as possible in the public sphere.

Both communitarian and pluralist conceptions articulate the positive conception of freedom: public discussion and deliberation should lead to community determination of both central goals (what we are free to) and agreed-upon means (behaviors, rules, etc.) necessary to achieve those goals.

These communitarian and pluralist conceptions follow not only from classical notions of positive freedom and democracy: as I have argued elsewhere, these forms of democracy specifically emerge from Juergen Habermas's discourse ethics (Ess, 1996). Parallel to the anarchic/libertarian model, a Habermasian understanding of democracy begins with the intuition that "free speech" is central to democracy. But Habermas's central concepts of communicative reason, the rules of reason, and his discourse ethics implicate both a conception of human beings as naturally social (rather than as atomic isolates) and the positive conception of freedom characteristic of Enlightenment democracy.

Space limitations forbid fully developing this position here. But for our purposes -- three elements of Habermas's theory must be noted.


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