Ethical Theory and Philosophy of Democracy

Democracy is a form of government in which citizens, either directly or through representatives, create and manage policy and law in order to govern themselves. Democracy’s roots can be traced back to ancient civilization, and many nations have adopted a system of government with democratic principles.

Philosophical Foundations of Democracy

Democratic philosophy can be traced back to Ancient Greece, where the philosopher Aristotle focused on personal freedom. According to Aristotle, “One factor of liberty is to govern and be governed in turn…And one is for a man to live as he likes.”

These two functions of democracy–the creation and enforcement of government by the people and individual free will–can be found in modern democratic philosophy as well. In the words of founding father Benjamin Franklin, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither safety nor liberty.”

Ethical Theory and Philosophy of Democracy

British philosopher and theorist John Stuart Mill believed in the concept of utility when ethically discussing democracy. The concept of utility is similar to what we commonly refer to as, “The Golden Rule,” in that it says people should treat each other as they would like to be treated themselves.

Mill took the principle of utility and applied it to democracy and government. Mill believed that government should only intervene in matters where individuals are harmed by others, and that individuals should be allowed to freely make decisions. In Mill’s own words, “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.”

In his lifetime, Mill was an advocate for personal freedom, free speech, and limited government control, but he did have ethical concerns about democracy. Mill was concerned that democratic governments would turn into an ochlocracy. An ochlocracy is a government in which popular opinion decides policies, and in some instances, those policies can limit the personal freedoms of the minority opinion.

Thinking About Media and Democracy

Have you ever watched American Idol and been surprised at the results? American Idol has become a poster for American culture, not only because of its popularity on American TV, but also because it uses democracy to pick winners. The level of democracy demonstrated by “voting shows” isn’t necessarily always the fairest practice, but it does reveal a growing trend in the use of democratic principles in converged media.

The entire model of how social networking websites operate can be seen as democratic. The more “likes” or “retweets” an individual post receives, the more likely it is that others will see the post. The more hits a website has, the further up that website moves on a search engine’s results page. The notion that the popularity of an idea or entity increases the chance of others finding and adopting it is a fundamental principle of democracy. Policy, after all, is created by popularity in the democratic system.

It’s also important to think about how democracies and governments use converged media. Whether it’s applied to politicians, organizations, or other arms of our government, the use of media has increased over the past century as better and newer technology is made available.

Citizens in a democracy can also use converged media to ban together and create new policies or protest existing unpopular policies. The invention of social networking and instant internet communication has made easier for both majority opinions to make their voice heard.

Future Implications

In the future, electronic means of communication will be embedded in the way we do almost everything. This may lead to both positive and negative results.

The positive implications may be that there will be more freedom of expression, more people will have a voice, government officials will be able to have more open conversation with the public, and governments may become more transparent. Democracy in the media may also make it harder for big media companies to push their own agendas because the truth will be easily accessible to the public.

The negative implications may be that the internet could strengthen dictators, help governments gain more control, create more cyber warfar, and make individuals feel more secluded due to only communicating electronically.

Can you think of any other ways in which media could affect democracy both positively and negatively?

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