Code: TP-11


Addams’ Radical Democracy:


Beyond Rights



To attain individual morality in an age demanding social morality, to pride one’s self on the results of personal effort when the time demands social adjustment, is utterly to fail to apprehend the situation.

--Jane Addams[1]


                One of the challenges of Addams’ philosophy is that she, like her contemporary, John Dewey, does not fit neatly into established categories of political thought.  Addams promotes social morality not at the exclusion of individual morality, but as its natural progression and complement.  In this paper I will suggest that Addams, while not disdaining rights-based ethics, finds the approach insufficient to the morality needed for a dynamic democracy.  As Addams describes it, "democracy like any other of the living faiths of men, is so essentially mystical that it continually demands new formulation."[2]  Part of that reformulation is the discursive move beyond static notions of isolated individuals who are endowed with rights to considerations of citizens’ responsibilities for others as part of an active and rich notion of public interest.  In developing Addams’ radical notion of democracy, I will first explore how she delineates "old style" classical liberal democracy versus her preferred concept of social democracy.  Then I will address how rights as they are traditionally understood are inadequate for Addams’ social project of communal morality.  To accomplish this we will look at some of the rhetorical positions taken by Addams to push forward her political agenda such as the elective franchise for women and the amelioration of women’s exploitation as prostitutes.  As we explore Addams’ concept of rights, perhaps we will discover that her approach is more radical than is typically attributed to her.


Classical Liberal Democracy versus Social Democracy

                On several occasions Addams takes issue with traditional understandings of democracy that she characterizes as antiquated and emphasizing autonomy and equality.  In Newer Ideals of Peace Addams contends that the founding fathers of the United States operated under a limited notion of personhood:

their idealism, after all was founded upon theories concerning the ‘natural man,’ a creature of the sympathetic imagination. 

Because their idealism was of the type that is afraid of experience, these founders refused to look at he difficulties and blunders which a self-governing people were sure to encounter, and insisted that, if only the people had freedom they would walk continuously in the paths of justice and righteousness.  It was inevitable, therefore, that they should have remained quite untouched by that worldly wisdom which counsels us to know life as it is, by the very modern belief that if the world is ever to go right at all, it must go right its own way.[3] 

For Addams, the founding fathers had conceptualized abstract, disembodied beings.  Classic liberal theory posed context as having no value operating under the assumption that human beings exist separate and prior to society.  Addams, given the successes of social programs in the diverse neighborhood of Hull House, would not willingly bracket out experience.  For Addams, context is of vital importance.  There is no "natural man;" only flesh and blood men and women whose lives are not marked by universal autonomy and contractual relations. Addams views people as fundamentally entangled in one another’s lives.  To speak of a natural man, or original position, unfettered by social influences is an exercise in abstract imagination not witnessed in human experience.  Addams wishes to address social conditions as they are experienced and therefore cannot accept the assumptions of traditional liberal democratic theorists.

                In Democracy and Social Ethics, Addams refers to John Stuart Mill’s concept of a living society: ". . . a man of high moral culture . . .  thinks of himself, not as an isolated individual, but as a part in a social organism."[4]  This idea of the social organism would remain a guiding metaphor for Addams’ notion of social democracy.  The health and thriving of the whole required the constituencies to work toward the benefit of all and not merely for individual gain.  Addams believed that for democracy to be successful, our shared investment in one another had to be cultivated:  ". . . surely the demand of an individual for decency and comfort, for a chance to work and obtain the fullness of life may be widened until it gradually embraces all the members of the community, and raises a sense of the common weal."[5]  Addams develops an idea of democracy that understands human connection as fundamental and therefore requires empathy, understanding, and action on behalf of one another to be effective.

                Addams is not willing to support the liberal democratic path that is complicit with laissez faire capitalism.  For example, she does not concede that egoism is a sufficient motive for democratic action: "to give [an individual] a sense of conviction that his individual needs must be merged into the needs of the many, and are only important as they are thus merged, the appeal cannot be made along the lines of self-interest."[6]  Addams views the basis of democracy to be simultaneously social and ethical.  These statements reveal how complex Addams’ social morality is.  She is integrating moral motives, consequences, and caring for others.  Addams is also avoiding the public/private distinctions accentuated in classical liberal democracy.  She blurs the public/private divide anticipating the feminist credo of the later 20th century:  the personal is political.  In 1913, when Addams wrote her first regular column for The Ladies Home Journal, she penned a rare satirical piece titled, "If Men Were Seeking the Franchise."  In this gender reversal, one of Addams’ hypothetical criticisms of men’s voting competency was "Business seems to you a mere game."[7]  This criticism of the cavalier approach to commerce that men allegedly hold is made more fascinating by juxtaposing it against the influential 1968 article in The Harvard Business Review by Albert Z. Carr titled, "Is Business Bluffing Ethical?"  Carr contends that social morality should not extend to business and that commerce is like a poker game with distinct moral rules.[8]  Carr is advancing a privatization or segmentation of morality consistent with classical liberal assumptions of independent agents.  Addams focuses upon the commonalities of citizens in a democracy to create collective sympathetic understanding and action on one another’s behalf.  For Addams, democracy is social, active, engaged, and evolving.


Rights as Experienced Lateral Progress

                Addams was certainly not antithetical to rights.  She wrote and spoke often on women’s suffrage, child labor, the labor movement, and other social issues that have implicit or explicit interests in advancing civil rights.  However, Addams seldom constructed her arguments on these social issues using the language of rights.  When she did address rights, and it was often quite indirectly, she framed rights as a sign of social progress when widely experienced as such.  Because her approach to democracy was fundamentally social, her theory of rights centered on privileges experienced by all or what she called "lateral progress."  Addams thus reframes the concept of rights as to how they are broadly experienced rather than a theoretical a priori construction that one is born or endowed with.  For Addams, social experience is the truth test and a right is not legitimate if invoked by a privileged few.

                For example, when Addams addresses prostitution in A New Conscience and An Ancient Evil, she does not confront the issue as a contractual relationship between two consenting autonomous agents.  Addams provides numerous examples to demonstrate that those involved in prostitution are not free actors at all.  Theoretically, adult women can make a choice to exchange money for sexual acts, but Addams contends that most women are not making unfettered decisions but are instead coerced by economics, knowledge, and social forces.  Addams describes one example of a young woman whose ill and elderly family was depending upon her to earn money for their sustenance.  At first, the young woman attempted a number of "legitimate" professions only to be ultimately drawn to the lucrative profession of prostitution.[9]  Addams’ point is that the experience of freedom can be relativized to one’s economic standing.  At the conclusion of A New Conscience and An Ancient Evil, Addams lays out a vision for the mitigation of prostitution:

  . . . we are safe in predicting that when the solidarity of human interest is actually realized, it will become unthinkable that one class of human beings should be sacrificed to the supposed needs of another; when the rights of human life have successfully asserted themselves in contrast to the rights of property, it will become impossible to sell the young and heedless into degradation.[10]

This is one of the rare occasions where Addams explicitly addresses rights.   It reads more like a condemnation of the profit motive more than a treatment of the hierarchy of rights.  Notice that Addams frames this statement on rights by first making reference to human solidarity and then how subordinating a group of people to another becomes unthinkable.  Addams is more concerned with relations, and more specifically power relations, and the transformation of several ideas as felt experience than demanding or asserting rights; however, she is willing to use the language of rights in the limited sense of exemplifying the social change needed.  In Newer Ideals of Peace, Addams states that, "rights are not ‘inalienable,’ but hard-won in the tragic processes of experience."[11]  Again, Addams does not provide a comprehensive treatment of rights, but she grounds her reference to them in the reality of people’s lives as a tool for social progress given widespread actualization.


Rights as Insufficient for Social Democracy

                Despite her limited use of rights discourse, Addams generally regards rights as not doing enough of the work necessary to suggest the vision of democracy she holds.  Four interrelated criticisms of rights-based discourse emerge from Addams’ writings: 1) Because of their individualistic assumptions arising out of classical liberal theory, the language of rights fails to capture the entire story of what is necessary to create a moral community.  2) Because they are an abstraction, rights can never be an end in and of themselves but rather they are a means to an end.  3) Rights can become too fixed and fail to evolve with changing social conditions and dispositions.  4) Extrapolating #3, rights-based discourse in the U.S. is fixated on 18th century assumptions that included an elitist standpoint and a fear of diverse experience.  I will proceed to explicate these 4 critiques.

When Addams wrote a book advocating the elimination of prostitution, she did not invoke a rights based approach.  She did call for a thorough analysis of the "resources that may at length be massed against it."[12]  These resources could include legal measures such as rights, but law alone would never solve the social problem as far as Addams was concerned.  Instead, Addams suggests that, "sympathetic knowledge is the only way of approach to any human problem . . . "[13]  For Addams, constructing and invoking rights, while not without merit, will never supplant eliciting broad based understanding and action.  Accordingly, if we want to reduce prostitution, we engage in social inquiry and carefully communicate the issue to the community who after attaining a degree of sympathetic understanding and engaging in deliberation may undertake measures such as a living wage system, education programs, and providing social opportunities to alleviate the problem.

                Addams addressed the issue of women’s suffrage in a similar fashion.  First, it should be made clear that for Addams, women’s suffrage was never an end unto itself.  The right of women to vote was important to Addams but she characterized it as a means to achieve social change that could only come about if a segment of the population that had the social experiences that women had had was given the franchise.  Addams did not directly address the rights to elective franchise nor the equal rights of men and women but rather chose to address the good that would derive of women voting.  For example, Addams recognized that society was in flux and domestic responsibilities such as education, housekeeping, maintaining safety of family members, etc. were no longer the exclusive purview of women-led households.  Increasingly social institutions were taking on vital domestic activities.  Addams argued since these areas had historically been the responsibility of women, they should be given the opportunity to influence decisions that impacted domestic affairs.

                Because Addams views a democratic community as a social organism, an assumption of natural rights based upon a fixed human nature is unworkable.  Addams quotes Josiah Royce in her concern about the static nature of rights:  "A man of this generation easily discerns the crudeness of that eighteenth-century conception of essentially unprogressive human nature in all the empty dignity of ‘inborn rights.’  Because he has grown familiar with a more passionate human creed, with the modern evolutionary conception of the slowly advancing race . . ."[14]  Like many intellectuals of her day, Addams embraced evolutionary theory and applied it widely.  The idea that a right, once established, resolved a social ethical need, was incompatible with her understanding of a society as growing and changing.  Rights could only be useful as an end-in-view that was amendable to an evolving context.

                Addams recognizes the situated nature of thinking and theory perhaps in part because of her experience at Hull House.  As already mentioned, Addams is critical of 18th century political ideas that she considered outmoded in the late 19th and early 20th century.  The reification of 18th century rights-based discourse is particularly problematic because it is derived from privileged authors who were suspicious of diverse experience.  For Addams, democracy was a living collective of diversified experience strengthened by its multivariate exchanges.  Addams wrote an article in 1930 entitled, "Widening the Circle of Enlightenment" where she places the highest value on social exchanges with immigrant peoples.  Addams describes such exchanges as having a "revivifying effect" that can be obtained "in no other way."[15]  Addams contrasts this standpoint with the work of Thomas Jefferson and others who eschewed heterogeneous experience.[16]  In Addams view, if rights are to be effective, they must move beyond the 18th century concept of them.

For Addams, the language of rights was not a sufficient argument perhaps because she invested a greater moral stake in democracy than most.  Democracy was more than a description of how individuals interacted in the political arena; it described a shared moral spirit.  Rights provide a theoretical baseline but are inadequate to carry the full weight of her social democracy.


Addams’ Radical Democracy

                While some have read Addams as exclusively interested in amelioration and because of her interest in social housekeeping and Victorian values, dismiss her as providing only mild social criticism.  Another reading of Addams is as a master subversive working from a position of mainstream acceptance to undermine traditional political discourse.  For example, in a 1912 commentary on the presidential campaign, Addams states,

The American is not content with the eighteenth century formulae of liberty and equality, high-flown as they are, for they do not apply to the situation.  Liberty has come to be a guarantee of equal opportunity to play our parts well in primary relations, and the elemental processes of birth, growth, nutrition, death are the great levelers that remind us of the essential quality of human life.  No talk of liberty or equality ‘goes’ that does not reckon with these.[17] 

Addams is declaring that liberty and equality as concepts are not enough and that they must translate into real opportunity as experienced by all.  What is striking about this statement is that Addams is critiquing the founding fathers on primary concepts of liberty and equality.  She is not dismissing these values (which have been translated into rights) but she is suggesting that they are not useful as ideas if they do not grow to match contemporary experience.  Context matters.  She is not so interested in what the writers of the Constitution meant by liberty and equality in an abstract, ahistorical sense, but she is interested in what their terms have evolved to mean for the society she was engaged in.  This is a strong critique that might elicit the label "radical" if uttered by others but Addams style and approach mask her edge.

Perhaps the one time that the general public recognized Addams’ radical streak was when she opposed the U.S. entry into World War I.  Again, the themes Addams employed to critique classical liberal democracy emerged.  In her infamous, "Revolt Against War" speech at Carnegie Hall, Addams depicted the conflict as based in terms of older abstractions coming in opposition to newer experience:  "the older men believed more in abstractions, shall I say; that or nationalistic words, these meant more to them than they did to come to take life much more from the point of view of experience; that they were much more—pragmatic . . . ."[18]  Perhaps radical is not the correct descriptor but Addams, as we have seen, has always had a critical edge even prior to her public pacifism.


Why is Addams’ Critique of Rights Significant?

                Addams provides a useful approach for thinking about rights even as she eschewed the subject.  For Addams, the important question is, "how are rights experienced?"  She is less concerned whether people hold rights in an abstract sense and is more interested in what the real result, or "cash value" of the rights is.  From Addams’ position as a member of the Hull House community, she is acutely aware of how economics, prejudice, and illiteracy can erode the impact of rights.  Addams’ observations about rights are just as pertinent today as they were 100 years ago.             

For example, relatively recent Supreme Court rulings have upheld campaign financing as an expression of freedom of speech.[19]  Every American has the right to donate money to political campaigns to communicate their support, beliefs, trust, etc.  Tying campaign donations to freedom of speech is a type of reification because freedom of speech is one of the hallowed rights of our democracy.  Many have explored the limits of free speech, but few question this founding principle of the country.  As we have seen, Addams was not afraid to question foundational concepts.  Were she alive today, Addams might ask how freedom of speech is experienced.  Of course, for most Americans there is no possibility of self-expression in political campaign when speech is for sale.  Only an elite few with the available resources can truly exercise this right in a meaningful way.  Political speech becomes an abstract right rather than widely held experience.  For Addams, lateral progress would occur if mechanisms were established whereby widespread participation was a reality. 

Addams provides language and moral commitments rooted in sympathetic social understanding to suggest that the language of rights alone is insufficient for the robust notion of democracy that our country sorely needs.


(traditional paper)



Addams’ Radical Democracy:


Beyond Rights



Jane Addams worked on behalf of women, children, immigrants, and laborers as an activist and prolific writer.  Surprisingly, Addams did not employ a rights-based discourse in supporting these various movements.  She was not antithetical to rights but she did not believe that establishing rights would be sufficient for the social democracy she envisioned.  Addams viewed democracy as representing a community with shared moral commitments including empathy and care that 18th century notions of rights did not fully capture.  This paper explores Addams’ critique of traditional formulations of rights and reveals a radical edge to her political philosophy.


[1] Jane Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 6.

[2] Jane Addams, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1972), 146.

[3] Jane Addams, Newer Ideals of Peace (New York: MacMillan & Co.: 1907), 32.

[4] Addams, Democracy and Social Ethics, 117.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] "If Men Were Seeking the Elective Franchise," Ladies Home Journal 30 (June, 1913), 21.

[8] Albert Z. Carr, "Is Business Bluffing Ethical?" Harvard Business Review, (January-February 1968).

[9] Jane Addams, A New Conscience and An Ancient Evil (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002), 29-30.

[10] Ibid., 98.

[11] Addams, Newer Ideals of Peace, 33.

[12] Addams, A New Conscience, 6.

[13] Ibid., 7.

[14] Addams, Newer Ideals of Peace, 32.

[15] Jane Addams, "Widening the Circle of Enlightenment," Journal of Adult Education 2, no. 3 (June, 1930): 279.

[16] Addams, Newer Ideals of Peace, 31-32.

[17] Jane Addams, "Pragmatism in Politics," The Survey 29, no. 1: 112.

[18] Jane Addams, "Revolt Against War," The Survey 34, no. 16 (July 17, 1915): 357.

[19] For example, in March of 2001, the Supreme Court ruled against capping financial contributions to political parties in Federal Election Commission v. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee.  Although not an absolute right, campaign finance contributions have been repeatedly protected as a manifestation of free speech.