Ethics & International Affairs Volume 22.4 (Winter 2008): Features: ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Michael Goodhart Replies to Eva Erman

Oct 15, 2009

Eva Erman offers two lines of criticism of my recent article, "Human Rights and Global Democracy" [Ethics & International Affairs 22.4 (2008), pp. 395-420]. The first is that I confuse causal, conceptual, and constitutive relationships throughout my argument. The second is that I confuse concepts and conceptions, and "[reinterpret] the concept of democracy to the extent that it misses its target."

With respect to the first claim, I began by saying that under-theorization of the relationship between human rights and global democracy has unfortunate conceptual and practical implications, and that I would address both (pp. 395-96). So I do move between conceptual and empirical arguments, and I had thought they were easily differentiable in context. I shall try to be clearer in the future. But Erman's complaint is not that she is confused, but that I am, because she says a relation cannot be both conceptual and empirical. It seems straightforward enough to argue that human rights are conceptually necessary to global democracy, because the former provide the best and only way to conceive constraints on power and meaningful political agency outside the state, and also to argue that one empirical implication of this is that achieving global democracy will require (at least) securing human rights. One might disagree, but theorists make this kind of argument frequently.

I am nonplussed by Erman's objection to my claim that one tradition of democratic theory sees democracy and human rights as mutually constitutive. She says that mutually constitutive relations can not be conceptual, but then in the next paragraph says that a mutually constitutive view can be a conceptual view of a specific kind but that I have not fleshed out the mutuality.1 Since I am not sure what her main complaint is, let me just reiterate my point: there is a way of understanding the relation between democracy and human rights in which each helps to create/sustain the other. Democracy protects and promotes human rights; human rights crystallize the ethos of democracy, clarifying what it means to treat people as free and equal.

Erman's second criticism is that I confuse concepts and conceptions, and that I "[reinterpret] the concept of democracy to the extent that it misses its target." What she takes as confusion on my part, however, is actually the main substantive disagreement between us. According to Erman, the concept of democracy, or rule by the people, has three "necessary conditions": popular self-government, political equality, and political "bindingness."2 These three conditions, she maintains, would have to be part of any conception of democracy.

It is apparent that Erman and I are working with different conceptions of democracy. I see popular self-government, political equality, and political bindingness as comprising a distinctive Westphalian conception of democracy. I reconceptualize democracy in terms of human rights, emphasizing how human rights help to constrain power and enable meaningful political agency beyond the state. I do so because, as I argue in Ethics & International Affairs and elsewhere,3 the Westphalian conception is unworkable in the context of globalization (p. 401).

Erman might well challenge my critique of the Westphalian conception or raise substantive challenges to my reconceptualization of democracy. Instead, however, she simply asserts that I am confused because my conception of democracy does not contain the three elements central to her Westphalian view. Since one of my points is precisely to challenge the coherence of that view on substantive grounds, this kind of response seems inadequate, even obtuse. Worse, Erman's reaction shows that she misses the main point at issue. She insists that democracy means "rule by the people"; I define it as a commitment to freedom and equality for everyone. This is a disagreement about the concept of democracy itself, not just about differing conceptions, and it illustrates my point about how deeply engrained Westphalian thinking remains. Democracy is an essentially contested concept, so disagreements like this are unavoidable. Still, her insistence that Westphalian democracy just is democracy conflates concept and conception, as she accuses me of doing, and it misreads the history of modern democratic thought and action.


1 The text that Erman cites (at note 17) to show the inadequacy of my argument comes from a reply to a potential objection considered before I raise the question of a "mutually constitutive" relationship.

2 Note that "necessary" here could refer both to conceptual and empirical relations, just as in my argument: we can't conceive democracy adequately without political equality, and any political system that lacked it would not be a democracy. A conception that lacked political equality might be called "insufficient."

3 See Michael Goodhart, "Civil Society and the Problem of Global Democracy," Democratization 12, no. 1 (2005), 1-21; Michael Goodhart, Democracy as Human Rights: Freedom and Equality in the Age of Globalization (New York: Routledge, 2005); Michael Goodhart, "Europe's Democratic Deficits through the Looking Glass: The European Union as a Challenge for Democracy," Perspectives on Politics 5, no. 3 (2007), 567-84.

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