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Are some problems too big for democracy?
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“Morsi is an idiot,” says a friend of mine. “But he should have been voted out.” Like many people I know, he can’t endorse the military overthrow of a man who won a free and fair election (by a percentage that exceeded that of President Obama’s win, as The Economist points out this week). When we non-Egyptians try to grasp what is happening in that country, he feels, we should hold to our principle that democracy is the greatest good. I’m not so sure.

Reporting from Egypt (like this from Ben Hubbard and Kareem Fahim) tells of a country divided along a line that transcends divisions of party or class. It seems thousands of demonstrators in Egypt’s cities believe in what you could call the project of modernity: equal rights, the rule of law, material progress. They want a country in which religion does not dominate all aspects of life. The other thousands, who want Morsi back, are telling us they believe that religion should dominate public life. (Meanwhile, there are millions of people whose political concerns run to wanting a job and electricity and the ability to get a phone without having to bribe anyone. But in a crisis, it is the ideologues who define the sides—and in Egypt it seems they have defined the sides as pious versus secular.)

In the face of this difference, what does it mean to say you want elections to be respected and democracy to prevail? To my ears, that is a claim that the battle between Islamists and less religious Egyptians can be resolved by the apparatus of appeals to the people, party formation, voting, horse-trading and compromise. I think there are two problems with this view.

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The first is that this democracy above all argument is tantamount to saying that fights over values—which are over the meaning of life and the point of society—are the same as a debate over, oh, how to tax tourist hotels or where to build a new highway.

They aren’t. Horse-trading and compromise are fine for matters that don’t involve our deepest feelings about right and wrong, but when it comes to “sacred values,” as the anthropologist Scott Atran and his colleagues have pointed out (for example, here), the calculus is different. You don’t compromise about a sacred value; you don’t offer half a loaf in order to get a free trade deal. It is because there is no trading over such matters that you know there are sacred.

Read more at Big Think

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