Democratic Dispositions

Dispositions are distinct from knowledge, which is what we know about the world. Dispositions are also different from opinions, perceptions or even the skills that we possess. A person’s disposition is their general inclination, propensity or attitude toward life and the positive or negative ways in which they are likely to react in different situations. While dispositions do not predict someone’s actions, which are unpredictable and can depend upon the specificities of the situation and the context, dispositions are the essential qualities that make us who we are as people.

Democracy, based as it is upon rule of law, reason and negotiation, requires a citizenry that possesses the key dispositions that allow them to maintain a society based upon trust, generosity and tolerance.  Here are some key democratic dispositions.

Privileging Reason

Humans have a tendency to make decisions or resolve disputes by appealing to sentiment (emotion, charity) or through the exercise of power (material, status or brute strength). Democracy, by enfranchising even those without power, attempts to create a level playing field, where advantages of wealth, strength or status are constrained.  This however, still leaves society with the problem of how to make contentious decisions about who gets what and how much. In a democracy these decisions can only be made through a system that is seen as equitable and fair. While some ancient societies, such as the Greeks, have a documented reputation for developing the arts of philosophy and rhetoric, it is only in the past couple of centuries that large groups of people, especially in Western Europe and North America developed the arts and skills of debating ideas using evidence and reason. Decisions made using robust reason and empirical evidence have the advantage of being based on firmer ground than emotion and sentiment, which run the risk of extreme subjectivity and irrational escalation. In the highly imperfect world of human discourse and decision-making, reason is one of the few ways of achieving equitability and fairness.

Privileging Generosity

The ability to advocate for oneself and one’s own group is vital in a democracy, but this can easily deteriorate into aggressive selfishness that precludes any consideration of the needs of others. Most systems of social and political order are based on self-interest (defined as taking care of one’s self and one’s group). Democracy alone requires that sometimes compromises need to be made that disadvantage one’s own interests. This counter-intuitive disposition requires an ability to recognize the needs of others as legitimate, an ability to empathize with those who are unlike us and willingness to, if necessary, disadvantage oneself in helping meet their needs.

Privileging Dialogue

Most people, individuals and groups tend to want things to go their way, so it is not surprising that the strong, the rich and the powerful have almost always been inclined towards autocratic and unilateral decision making. A democracy is unusual in that the system is designed to prevent unilateral decision making by the powerful or the majority by submitting it to testing through debate, deliberation and negotiation. This is counter-intuitive to the human urge for immediate and complete gratification and hence a vital disposition to cultivate.

Privileging Negotiation


Traditional societies often have a culture of bargaining (also called haggling, horse trading or splitting the difference). This process typically yields winners and losers or mechanical and unsatisfactory solutions. Democracies cannot afford perpetual losers, even if they are minorities. All citizens need to know that their interests are legitimate, can be advocated for and, at least, partly satisfied. Negotiation is both an advanced skill and a disposition that inclines us towards collaborating with others in joint problem solving and to arrive at agreements that allow for mutual gains.

Privileging Deferred Gratification

Individuals and groups can struggle with deferring gratification, especially if they feel their needs are legitimate or that they have the power to force their demands on others. Deferring gratification is a higher order response that mature adults develop through discipline and much training. In illiberal and oppressive environments where freedoms and rights are limited or non-existent, demanding instant gratification and results is a useful tactic since there are few other avenues for meeting one’s interests. In democracies, that depend upon fair, transparent and structured processes for slow deliberation and decision-making, the employment of this tactic by one group is self-destructive since it reduces the incentives that others have to follow the process.

Privileging Democracy as Process

This disposition inclines us to view democracy as a political process that allows for decision making based upon deliberation and negotiation, not as one guaranteed to deliver pre-determined results. Much of the anger and disappointment about democracy comes from expecting it to deliver everything: well-paying and satisfying jobs, stacked shelves of innovative products, total freedom, complete physical and emotional safety, unstinting respect and happiness for everyone.  This is a serious and dangerous misconception. Democracy is not a cure or a silver bullet for all the ills of society or the planet. Democracy is merely a system of self-government that, when well-designed and implemented with efficiency and integrity, is an effective process for deliberation and decision making. The quality of the decisions and agreements made are solely dependent upon the people and their representatives.

 Privileging Expertise and Experience

democracy-5Through most of human history, access to information was limited to groups that either didn’t have the capacity to share them widely or chose not to. As a result, groups in power coveted knowledge and only shared it with their inner circles, leaving ordinary people living in relative ignorance. The communication revolution, starting with Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440 and accelerated by the development of public schooling, the telegraph, telephone, radio, TV and finally the internet, took information out of the hands of the elite and opened up the possibility of mass learning. It has also ushered in a tsunami of information so that the problem now is no longer scarcity, but that of uncontrolled plenty.

While this has been helpful for many who now have instant access to useful information, this plethora of information has not necessarily increased our ability to process, assimilate and make sense of it all, blurring for most the distinction between accurate and inaccurate information. We have lost the capacity to discern and instead occupy self-selected information bubbles that reinforce our own view points, while persuading ourselves that it is only we, and our circles, that have any real knowledge or even wisdom.

Some misinterpret this accessible excess as the ‘democratization’ of information, not realizing that information is only as useful as our ability to interpret and makes sense of it, requiring experienced mentors, teachers and experts who can help the rest of us comprehend and make sense of the what we read, watch and hear through TV, social media, blogs, vlogs, online courses and the like. It takes hard work and tremendous effort to engage in deep and broad learning and it is a dangerous kind of contemporary arrogance, born out of ignorance, which presumes that a google search makes our opinions as legitimate as that of someone who has spent thousands of hours in rigorous study or work.

Privileging Human (not Social Media) Connection

Our capacity for human connection and the socializing skills necessary for it are developed naturally when we live in close proximity with each other. Relationships of physical and psychological intimacy, requiring complex communication and engagement, are dynamic, unpredictable and take enormous energy and time to sustain. Highly individualistic lives that do not offer sufficient opportunities for the necessary bonds to grow, or for the relational skills to develop, result in people becoming socially incompetent and hence leading isolated and even self-centered lives. Technological connection, such as through social media, allows for tremendous psychological and physical distance giving participants the opportunity to disappear in times of discomfort. This ability to ‘disappear’ from discomfort provides a kind of ‘safety’ for those disinclined to do the self-questioning and self-reflection that comes with repairing relationships. A generation or two, weaned on technological connectivity, with its attractive and always present option to disconnect or disappear, has not learned how to talk with, engage, understand, negotiate, resolve conflict or build relationships.  In a democratic society, it is these skills and dispositions that contribute to the development of a healthy culture and successful democratic functioning.

Being Wary of Emotion and its Discontents

While people have questioned the benefits of the industrial revolution from the very days of the steam engine, it was in the middle of the 20th century that the reaction against modernity, especially the systems and values of a technological and capitalist society, developed into a blistering critique of not just machines and consumerism but also of logic, reason, empiricism and science itself.

While scientists and those responsible for building facilities and actual things that people needed to use in their daily lives continued to use the scientific methodology, this political way of looking at science and reason caught the imagination of many especially in liberal academia, who were angry with the polluting ways and materialism of large corporations, a hypocritical American foreign policy and the injustices that they perpetrated globally. Also, fired with a sense of idealism they yearned for a world that was respectful, kind, tolerant, just and wholly equal. Their sympathy towards traditional and indigenous cultures that had suffered through centuries of western colonization and whose cultures and ways of life had been demeaned as primitive and unscientific prompted them to elevate traditional ways of thinking and feeling such as emotion, folklore and myth over what was seen as aggressive, clinical and imperialistic science.

While humans have traditionally relied upon instinct, intuition, emotion and myth to make sense of their world in a complex and pluralistic society, these wholly subjective ways, while often satisfying and possibly even philosophically or spiritually profound, do not create a common basis for negotiation between differing peoples, competing world views and clashing interests. The advantage that reason and science have is that they provide a fairly common baseline from which to evaluate ideas and make decisions. When debating on the basis of emotion, anger or sense of grievance, decisions can be made only subjectively and the winner is usually the most stubborn. Conversing in this manner does not lead to a kinder discourse or a world where love, generosity, compassion and empathy reign. On the contrary, increasing subjectivity in conversations also increases the likelihood of people discounting others’ experiences and thus acting with aggression and disregard for positions that they cannot understand or relate to. When emotion takes precedence over reason and evidence, authoritarians and their ideologies, be they Fascists or Fundamentalists of any stripe, gain credibility and quickly step into the void surrendered by reason, evidence and deliberate process.