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Democratic Theory
Course Description

This is an advanced course in the normative theory of democracy that presupposes some familiarity with the main issues of political authority and democratic theory as they are discussed in contemporary analytical political philosophy. Normative theories of authority focus on the following question: states claim to have a moral right to rule–can this claim be justified? So-called philosophical anarchists reject the state’s purported right to rule. Opponents of the anarchist thesis hold that the claim of states to a right to rule can be justified, and so states can have legitimate authority, at least under certain conditions. Democratic theory insists that the democratic nature of political rule is part of the necessary conditions of the justification of political authority. This course is dedicated to the examination of these claims. We will address the problem of what the claim to a right to rule amounts to, what must be true in order for it to be justified, what role democracy plays in the justification, and what conception of democracy can fulfil this justificatory role. We will also explore the claims of individuals that give rise to the justificatory problem in the first place.

We start by introducing the concepts of authority, legitimacy, and political obligation, followed by an exploration of different reasons why the claim to authority by the state is often thought to create a special justificatory burden. Next, we turn to the question of the role of democracy in meeting this justificatory burden. First, we explore views that may be described as different versions of democratic instrumentalism. These views hold, first, that states’ claim to authority is grounded in their ability to secure certain independently valuable goods such as justice, peace, human rights or prosperity, and second, that democracies are better able to secure these goods than nondemocratic forms of government. Therefore, democracies have a stronger claim to authority than other regimes. Democratic instrumentalism sees individuals’ claim to an equal say in the political process as essentially derivative. Next, we turn to the so-called “epistocratic challenge”: epistocracy is rule by the wise or the competent. Epistocrats reject the legitimacy of democracy on the ground that in a democracy the incompetent are allowed the same decision-making rights as the competent. We examine various ways in which this challenge might be met. Finally, moving beyond instrumentalism and epistocracy, we investigate the influential view that the justification of the authority of democracy is crucially linked to the fact of deep and persistent moral disagreement and the consequent necessity of a decision-making mechanism that adjudicates individuals’ conflicting views on issues of common concern in a fair manner.

The second half of the course will be devoted to a deep dive into the most influential non-instrumental conceptions of democracy. These are customarily divided into two distinct groups. Theories in the first group link the non-instrumental significance of democracy to different understandings of freedom or autonomy. Views in the second group, by contrast, hold that the non-instrumental value of democracy is related to the fact that democratic arrangements instantiate some form of equality. Finally, the last two weeks of the course explores recent literature on “non-ideal democratic theory”, or the moral demands that apply to political agents – voters, candidates for office, etc., – when democratic norms are significantly eroded and democracy itself may be under threat.

For doctoral students in the Political Theory track, the course is mandatory. For MA students or non-PT PhD students who have some prior background in normative political theory, the course is elective.

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