Liberal democracy is prevalent in the West. This political arrangement guarantees the rights of a people in relation to their government. Many Westerners, unfortunately, cannot give a philosophical explanation and/or justification for it. Ultimately, an examination of liberal democracy will demonstrate that it rests on notions of human dignity, equality and happiness, which are not recent developments in philosophy, but have their origins in classical and scholastic thought. It is in said examination that one can reasonably conclude that liberal democracy while not the best system of government is certainly better than the alternatives.
Democracy is not a contemporary phenomenon. It did not originate here in North America. Rather, its practice began---more than 2,000 years ago---in Athens, a city-state, in the Greek Mediterranean. The philosophers Aristotle and Plato attested to that fact in their writings. It is in Plato’s Republic that one finds the earliest definition of democracy, which is briefly, “the rule of the governed.” Plato compares democracy to monarchy, or rule of the one, oligarchy, or rule of the elite, and lastly, timocracy, or rule by property owners. Interestingly enough, the Republic’s author believed the rule of a philosopher-king was preferable to that of the masses. The Politics, written by Aristotle, provided a very robust explanation and justification of democracy, which will be detailed later in this paper. Nevertheless, democracy is synonymous with popular sovereignty or the notion that all within a human community have a say in the matters that affect them all.
If one accepts democracy as a practice, the question is then begged what kind of an institution sustains it? This discussion---though in different terms---is seen towards the end of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, in which he argues that the practice of virtue is not advanced, refined and promote by an individual, but by individuals. MacIntyre wrote:
A practice involves standards of excellence and obedience to rules as well as the achievement of goods. To enter into a practice is to accept the authority of those standards and the inadequacy of my own performance as judged by them. It is to subject my own attitudes, choices, preferences and tastes to the standards which currently and partially define the practice (190)
It would be arbitrary and subjective for individuals to judge their own craft, may it be the arts or sciences, without referring to authoritative tradition or body to gauge the quality of their work. Thus, institutions are needed because “practices [require] a certain kind of relationship between those who participate in it” (191). This relationship is not only with contemporary practitioners, but with past practitioners “whose achievements extended the reach of the peace to its present point” (194). Thus, the dissemination of knowledge, the observance of religion and the practice of medicine require schools, churches and...