Democracy is based on more than a set of principles. It also has three fundamental but often overlooked premises.

The first of these is that the basic rule of life is that actions have consequences. Few things in life are certain, but one thing that we can infer is this. Anything you do – everything anyone does – has consequences.

Secondly, we all have free will. We are free to choose among the many choices that are available in life. Indeed, without free will there would be no such thing as personal freedom.

Thirdly, if actions have consequences, and we are free to choose, this implies that we must choose well. We are responsible, personally responsible, for all of our consequences, both as individuals and through the different groups to which we belong.

There are many different types of consequences, including both intended and unintended. In addition, any single action may have innumerable consequences, even categories or levels of consequences, and of both types.

There are also consequences that are not only unintended; they are unseen. We do not even recognize that they have occurred. An increasingly common, and horrifying, example of this type of consequence is extinction: the death of the last individual of a species of life.

Consequences can be limited or they can be severe. They can be felt immediately or take a long time to become manifest. And, they can be positive or negative, or in complex cases both. For instance, consider the wide-ranging consequences of technology. Revolutionary improvements in health care and food production enabled great increases in population, but this also led to massive social pressures, civil conflict, habitat destruction and species extinction.

The fact that consequences are effectively eternal – time never stops – is the basis for the Precautionary Principle, which says that we should look before we leap, or think before we act. However, many people often choose purposeful ignorance. Rather than try to understand the complexity of their consequences, and prevent them where they might be bad, they choose to deny that they exist at all. This typically means that the offending behavior continues unabated and that the consequences become even more severe. A current example of this is the denial and inaction, in particular by the United States, regarding global warming.

As this suggests, inaction also has consequences.

For the second premise, free will, there is no use talking about personal freedom if it does not exist. Free will is actually the most important thing in life. Through will we can choose, and through taking care in our choices we can change things for the better. We have this power.

You have the ability to make your own decisions, about what to do and also what not to do, without regard to any influences and concerning every single, non-genetic aspect of your identity. Will can guide all of your decisions, from the smallest, such as what to do right now, to the greatest, such as what course to follow in your life to become the person you want to be.

One problem, though, is that there is also false free will. This occurs when you think you are acting of your own volition but are in fact following the wishes of someone else. An example of this is advertising, where people believe they are shopping independently but are actually fulfilling imprinted behavioral patterns that have been conveyed to them by advertisements.

In addition, there is such a thing as collective will, which is the coming together of individual wills to achieve a common goal. Collective will, though, can also be false, when we follow negative social influences and form mobs rather than ordered and disciplined groups.

Will is further the source of merit. It enables you to apply yourself to difficult and challenging tasks. This in turn requires commitment, and in many cases courage, in other words, to do what you want to do, not what you are told to do, and also more generally to confront the unknown. For example, the courage of free will is the basis for rebellion against a dictatorship. In a dictatorship your free will has been stolen from you; you have to fight to get it back.

We also use our courage to fight addictions, which reveals yet another principle, the principle of “no.” When fighting an addition, saying a firm and resounding “No!, I won’t do it ever again, not even one more time,” is actually easier than allowing yourself a few lapses.

Another example of this principle, where it is not applied, is that diplomats and political leaders in general almost never take a strong stand against, and actively seek to end, the atrocities that are committed by the dictatorships of the world.

Lastly, free will is essential for democracy, since democracy assumes the existence of an electorate that is able to make informed choices, and which is also free to do so.

For the third premise, everything you do affects the world, and yourself, and you are responsible for this. You are not a victim. You can’t say it wasn’t your fault. You are self-conscious, you have self-knowledge (admittedly it is imperfect), and because of this you know what you are doing. You are responsible.

It is important to distinguish between true personal responsibility, the responsibility that you bear regarding the choices that you make as an individual, and group responsibilities, where you are told that you must fulfill a certain social role. Such societal demands always harbor the potential for dictatorship, and you should only accept them after careful consideration and only then if you agree with them. Relinquishing personal freedom to a group demand should always be done with the greatest of care.

Related to this, the existence of personal responsibility also reveals that all of the different types of problems that we experience, and which we blame on social institutions, including governments, religions, schools, corporations and the media, begin with us and our personal failings as humans. Since individual humans are selfish, and compete rather than cooperate, human institutions do so as well. You cannot fix the second without altering the behavior of the first. We get the government, and all the other social institutions as well, that we deserve.

© Roland O. Watson 2008