Do democracies need values? The question seems absurd in the light of photographs of American soldiers torturing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners. But the fact is that the advance of democracy historically entailed the erosion of shared values and the rise of individual autonomy. It presupposed moral agnosticism and a plurality of meanings, none of which are sacred or compulsory to all.
Democracy does nurture some common values, but they are overwhelmingly liberal values - in other words, individual rights trump collective obligations. For contemporary democrats, the fullest possible respect for the autonomous individual is, as Thomas Jefferson put it, "self-evident." But are civil, political, and human rights enough to ensure the strength and survival of democracies? Are today's democracies virtuous enough to rally the energies - including self-sacrifice - needed to defeat their enemies?
Such questions were never so urgent in the past, partly because fundamental democratic values were less abstract than they seem nowadays. Such values animated the fight against Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism, fascism, and military dictatorship; in their name, decolonization was achieved, and minorities gained equality and dignity. Democracy's values may be one-sided on behalf of individual rights, but this has also made them universal, legitimizing the struggle against oppression, wherever it is played out.
But in the world's most advanced countries, the promise of material prosperity that freedom made possible has long since replaced attention to and defense of fundamental democratic values as the cement of society. Western citizens do not rush to emulate the freedom fighters who built their world, despite celebrations, memorials, and the persistence of oppression.