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  • Kenneth Jacobs

Democracy in Shared Experience

The current post is a part of the Thematic Quotes section of the Pragmatic Means blog. The purpose of this Thematic Quotes section is to present and reference the writings of pragmatic thinkers for two reasons: (1) to link readers to the pragmatic literature and (2) to illuminate other Pragmatic Means posts.


All quotes revolve around a theme specified in the current title: Democracy


In her opening sentence of Democracy and Social Ethics, Jane Addams (1902) said:

It is well to remind ourselves, from time to time, that "Ethics" is but another word for "righteousness," that for which many men and women of every generation have hungered and thirsted, and without which life becomes meaningless (p. 1).

We all strive, in one way or another, and with respect to our fellow travelers:

We are learning that a standard of social ethics is not attained by travelling a sequestered byway, but by mixing on the thronged and common road where all must turn out for one another, and at least see the size of one another's burdens (p. 6).

Addams continues:

To follow the path of social morality results perforce in the temper if not the practice of the democratic spirit, for it implies that diversified human experience and resultant sympathy which are the foundation and guarantee of Democracy (pp. 6-7).

There are strengths in our cognitive and identity diverse experiences, as they serve an important role in forming our opinions:

We realize, too, that social perspective and sanity of judgment come only from contact with social experience; that such contact is the surest corrective of opinions concerning the social order, and concerning efforts, however humble, for its improvement (p. 7).

Sharing in the lived experience of others is essential for a democracy that works for many and not just a few. If that shared experience is lacking, then so is the imagination it takes to build a world for everyone:

We have learned as common knowledge that much of the insensibility and hardness of the world is due to the lack of imagination which prevents a realization of the experiences of other people (p. 9).

Addams goes on to describe the moral obligation involved in social contact:

Already there is a conviction that we are under a moral obligation in choosing our experiences, since the result of those experiences must ultimately determine our understanding of life (pp. 9-10).

Who do you want to be? And what will its result mean for others? We need to take care in that our actions might hurt others:

We know instinctively that if we grow contemptuous of our fellows, and consciously limit our intercourse to certain kinds of people whom we have previously decided to respect, we not only tremendously circumscribe our range of life, but limit the scope of our ethics (p. 10).

A limiting of scope is both dangerous and undemocratic. Addams says as much here:

We know, at last, that we can only discover truth by a rational and democratic interest in life, and to give truth complete social expression is the endeavor upon which we are entering. Thus the identification with the common lot which is the essential idea of Democracy becomes the source and expression of social ethics (p. 11).

There is truth in a democracy that is shared, but it takes effort on the part of individuals to engage with others. If we do not communicate each other's lived experiences, then we will find it hard to imagine a world in which we, for example, defund the police. By all accounts, we should have defunded the police a long time ago.

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