Why not have democracy as a personal ethic?

Democracy is often spoken of as if it were a purely political belief system, but why not have democracy as a personal ethic, alongside kindness and fairness and treating others with respect?

The problem with political beliefs is there’s not much you can do with them. Most people have little or no control over the form of government in the place where they live. If your government offends your sensibilities there’s little you can do except complain about it and perhaps try to convince others of your point of view.

You can of course try to bring about political change but this is a very large undertaking, and it brings a whole set of problems and compromises. Should you try to reform a corrupt system from within, while playing by its rules, or would this only serve to protect and reinforce corruption? Should you plot to overthrow the government? Even if you could, how could you ensure that what arose to replace it would not be even worse?

The great thing about personal ethics is they apply to everything you control, and nothing you don’t. My ethics apply to my own sovereign self; to my actions, my habits, my goals, my relationships and my interactions with others.

It’s strange that my culture (the culture of the West, broadly speaking, the dominant culture of North America and Western Europe and Oceania) places a very high value on democracy, yet has not incorporated it into day-to-day morality. At a guess, this is because democracy only appeared for us roughly 200 years ago, but our traditions of personal morality are much older, and haven’t kept up with the changes. So tradition fails us, and we are left to adapt our morality for ourselves to fit our modern values.

The answers to the question “What would a democratic person do?” are different from those to “What would a compassionate person do?” or “What would a just person do?” The compassionate person seeks to ease the pain of those who suffer. The person who is just doesn’t care about anyone’s feelings; she seeks the outcome that is fair to all involved. The democratic person cares less about the outcome than about the process; she tries to ensure that the outcome is determined by those who are most affected by it, and not simply by those who have the most power.

A democratic person would never impose a solution on others, even if that solution was kind and just. She would never utter the phrase “for your own good”, even in the privacy of her own thoughts. She would ask to hear from those who had not yet spoken, and encourage the powerful to listen and be still. She would influence others, not by force or intimidation or manipulation, but through persuasion, negotiation and compromise.

Of course it wouldn’t make sense to be 100% democratic all the time, any more than it would make sense to always be 100% compassionate or 100% fair. Nevertheless I find that it’s useful to ask myself the question “What would a democratic person do?” from time to time, and to keep a personal ethic of democracy, along with justice and kindness and all the rest, in my box of tools that I use to help me navigate my daily life.

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