TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

What Utility of Civility?

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Maja Sidzinska looks at Alessandro Pizzorno’s “On the Rationality of Democratic Choice” from Telos 63 (Spring 1985).


To presume that individual interests precede political action is not only to place the proverbial cart before the horse, it is to formulate a theory of social agency based on a belief in sequential phenomena sans justification for the particular sequence proposed. In “On the Rationality of Democratic Choice,” Alessandro Pizzorno argues that the system of political actions and interests is an annular one, which is why utilitarian and rational choice theories lack sufficient explanatory value. He proposes the goal of affirmation of socio-political identity is an alternative explanation of political action that does not speak the traditional language of costs and benefits, as that language is housed within a universalizing framework that doesn’t reflect reality.

Pizzorno challenges utilitarian theories of democracy on the grounds that they make no sense. Not only do voters install rather than control politicians, but just about zero utility is realized by voting (44). Furthermore, the variability of the costs of voting doesn’t appear to impact voter turnout. Thus the paradox of voting goes unresolved under utilitarian paradigms, and Pizzorno argues that theories deployed to solve it have not accomplished their task. He then asks if it is “tenable to analyze political action in cost-benefit terms? And is it tenable to attribute the production of political value only to policies, to laws, to measures that issue forth from organs of the state? . . . No: if we are to be realistic, it is necessary instead to discover other grounds of values in a political system” (45). As the predictive power of utilitarian theories of democracy has been low, and as voters often cite identical reasons for supporting different candidates, Pizzorno urges that alternative theories must be devised.

Pizzorno introduces a factor absent from utilitarian theories: trust. He proposes that “a theory of democratic choice, rather than addressing the utilities that citizens will derive from the parties’ programs, should turn to the study of the reasons why citizens express confidence in this or that party” (48). He argues that trust must precede the vote-policy exchange that occurs between citizens and their representatives under democracy. He analyzes M.P. Fiorina’s explanatory model, which advocates that voting behavior occurs according to four factors: voting on the issues, simple retrospective voting (punishing or rewarding past deeds), party identification, and initial bias. Although this model doesn’t account for the prerequisite trust, and Pizzorno is skeptical about the testability of certain of these factors, he nevertheless sees that even Fiorina’s model would require a revision of the idea that people engage in strict cost-benefit calculations when it comes to their political acts (49, 50).

Pizzorno also makes short work of symbolic theories of democracy. He considers the salience of the ideas of the solidarity vote, the rituality vote, and the theatricality vote, and finds that at the end of the day “whoever uses the concept of symbolic goods tends to run into the same error as those who rely on the concept of utility. It stops where the individual appears to reap the good, and it doesn’t ask which conditions are structurally necessary for that harvest to occur in fact” (54). Symbolic goods are argued to function just as tangible goods in the political marketplace. Thus, according to Pizzorno, symbolic theories are not truly the radical alternatives to utilitarian ones they may initially appear to be.

Another attack of utilitarian theories comes when Pizzorno notes that “[e]verything that is not a function of benefits produced by political measures but which is undertaken in order to achieve these benefits necessarily becomes a cost. From this it follows that politics knows no other source of value than political measures (decisions of political authorities) and that political values and social values are incommensurable” (55). But if we view political action as occurring in the service of social position or identity, our treatment of tangible versus symbolic goods must also change, since in such a case, symbolic goods may confer the right of association with a collective identity that renders exchange of any kind meaningful. The system of costs and benefits shifts as the identifying collectivity reflects a different (albeit related) collective identity to the subject. In short, the subject comprehends the costs and benefits of any choice in context.

Finally, Pizzorno addresses perhaps the most glaring deficiency of utilitarian theories: that one must presume that individual citizens are the best judges of their interest, that they prefer their best interest, and act in accordance with it. But this presents a tautology: as Pizzorno points out, every action must necessarily be considered in one’s best interest no matter what is chosen (59). Under this formulation it is futile to attempt to substantiate that individuals act in their best interest, yet this hypothesis is fundamental for utilitarian theories. In addition, Pizzorno queries utilitarian theories about the stability of the citizen’s identity as well as order of preferences (60). Just how stable is the metaphysical location of the citizen, given that shifting social collectivities must provide the citizen with an ongoing social status update without which interested choices would be impossible?

Pizzorno makes use of idealistic and existential perspectives when he notes that “no one can have the concept of utility without implying the intersubjective acknowledgment of the values that this utility realizes” (66). In other words, the concept of utility itself lacks status outside of social context. That social contexts differ or are porous presents a challenge to the types of cost-benefit analyses that mark utilitarian theories, as the currencies of exchange are dynamic rather than stable.

Pizzorno illustrates that the currency of democracy is not freedom of individual political choice, but rather freedom of association with an identity-conferring political collective. In the end, he tells us that “anyone seriously considering a career in politics would be well advised to study theater” (69), and it’s left to the reader to wonder whether this is said in earnest or with a hint sarcasm. Is this Pizzorno’s provocation to further consider just what principle really animates democratic politics? If identity politics rather than rational choice or self-interest best explains democracy’s ascent in the western world, we must consider, as Pizzorno entertains, that political liberty is an end in itself, rather than the most efficient means for satisfying our socio-economic needs. But if this is the case, theories widely accepted by the layperson and academic alike are left quite undermined. Pizzorno thus pushes utility-maximizing Homo economicus off of center stage, and rather enters intersubjective Homo relatus.

Read the full version of Alessandro Pizzorno’s “On the Rationality of Democratic Choice” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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