Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Democracy (Page 1 of 10)

How to kill a democracy in 10 easy steps (spoiler alert: exhaust your citizens)

This month we will be publishing a series of posts on the topic of fatigue. Two years after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, constant fatigue characterises the lives of too many of us. Here we think about some of the political and social consequences of fatigue. In this first post, Lisa Herzog writes about the dangers of fatigue for democracy.


How to kill a democracy in 10 easy steps
(spoiler alert: exhaust your citizens)

1) Make sure people work hard, so that there is time for little else in their lives. For the poor, that’s simple: low wages mean more hours. For the rich, make sure people desperate seek status. Let them think that to be respectable, they need to have an expensive house, an expensive car, that fancy holiday far away. By the way: don’t allow long holidays. It helps if people think that their God dislikes idleness. Time spent working is time not spent on politics!

2) Deny childcare. In fact, deny any form of support, for any form of care! It’s better for children to be with their mothers, isn’t it? Make childcare so expensive that people understand that. And for the elderly, it’s so much better if they are looked after by family members! Make sure any affordable homes for the elderly are just gross – put them in ugly concrete buildings with leaking roofs, somewhere near motorways. Time spent caring for children and the elderly is time not spent protesting.

3) Make all forms as complicated as possible. No matter whether it’s taxes or health insurance or an application for a driving license. You can rely on businesses to help you with this: let them include pages and pages to prevent liability. Keep people anxious about making mistakes in forms, so they will spend more time on them – that’s time they won’t spend calling their representatives!

4) Divide people into ideological camps early on. Make education competitive, so that people internalize that competitive gaze onto others that undermines solidarity. Keep them busy with competitive bickering in all areas of life, to the point of exhaustion. That will distract them from any questions of how the system should change!

5) Provide distraction. Endless, inexhaustible distraction, of the kind that makes people spend their free time in that strange zone where you can switch off from work, but not really relax. You wouldn’t want people to come to work truly rested and with fresh ideas, let alone an urge to ask deeper questions, would you? If you give them too much time to think, they just realize how shitty their working conditions are. You friends, the business owners, wouldn’t like that!

6) Abolish all institutions to which people could turn for help. Even better: convince them that it’s shameful to turn to them. Consumer associations, tenants’ associations, unions – those are socialist institutions, for losers not winners! Winners fight only for themselves! Don’t tell them that fighting only for themselves will just leave them more exhausted. For you, it means: divide and conquer!

7) You can do more to divide and conquer. Reduce social contact at work. Or better, abolish the workplace. Give people gig work, or home office (didn’t they want that “flexibility” all along?). They won’t trust colleagues whom they only know as little heads on screens. And they will be too tired to socialize with them anyway.

8) Destroy any habits of serious reading of news. Isn’t it much easier to just swipe through a “feed”? Reading a newspaper while having two coffees in the morning? Make sure the commute is too long to allow that, and that trains and subways are so crammed that nobody in their right mind would dare to unfold a real, paper newspaper. Also, if the news continues to be bad, that’s good for you. Your citizens get tired of reading the same old crap all the time. At some point they’ll just stop. Good for you!

9) Tell people protest is clicking on a link. Discourage any form of more sustained protest or engagement. Make sure that followers of social movements will be quickly exhausted, by following steps 1)-8) above. If followers are exhausted, so will be the leaders. It’s just too hard to keep going, isn’t it?

10) Always remember: exhausted citizens are submissive citizens. Or no citizens at all – at some point of sleep deprivation, they turn into subjects. That’s when you know you’ve won.


Essay by  Lisa Herzog

Why We Can’t Have It All When It Comes to the Future of Work

This is a guest post by Deryn Thomas, PhD Student in Philosophy, Benjamin Sachs, Senior Lecturer, and Alexander Douglas, Senior Lecturer, at University of St. Andrews. It discusses their recent research on a future with fair work for all and some of the trade-offs it involves. 


Two years into a world turned upside down by lockdowns, travel restrictions, and viral mutations, the way people work and make a living has changed dramatically. New challenges are being presented by rising childcare costs, increases in automation, the digitisation of the workplace, and the gig economy. So we need to ask: how do we make the future of work better for everyone?

At the Future of Work and Income Research Network, we’ve been thinking hard about this problem. As part of these efforts, we recently participated in a consultation for the Scottish Government on its Fair Work Goals, set to be implemented by 2025. The consultation document and stated goals offer an optimistic vision for the future of work in Scotland. But it risks being too idealistic: many of the stated goals conflict with each other.

We noticed at least four sets of incompatible goals. As it stands, the documents say nothing about how these compromises will be decided. But we think this leaves out an important step in the process. Therefore, we offer some reflections from philosophy about how to weigh up the values at stake.  In the end, we think that decisions like these need to be made in the context of a national conversation about the trade-offs surrounding work.

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Are Persons with Intellectual Disabilities Unjustly Disenfranchised?

In July 2020 the Romanian Constitutional Court declared that the institution of judicial interdiction, which deprived people deemed to have severe intellectual disabilities[1] of numerous civil rights, is unconstitutional. Thus, while the Constitution itself still requires that people with intellectual disabilities placed under judicial interdiction are to be disenfranchised, the provision is de facto inapplicable, making the next round of elections the first in Romania’s history where people with severe intellectual disabilities will be included in the demos. Other countries have more explicitly embraced this type of enfranchisement, with both France and Spain making legislative changes that grant voting rights to people with intellectual disabilities in 2018. Consequently, about half of EU Member States now endorse the electoral exclusion of people with intellectual disabilities, in some form, while the other half fully include them. At a global level, the situation is starkly different, however, with a 2016 study on all 193 UN countries showing that only 11% had provided full enfranchisement up to that point. Thus, it can be said that as of 2022, only a small minority of states abide by Article 29 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, according to which states should “ensure that persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in political and public life on an equal basis with others, directly or through freely chosen representatives, including the right and opportunity for persons with disabilities to vote […]”.

Of course, the normative force of arguments for or against any form of disenfranchisement cannot be primarily derived from the provisions of international law. And, in fact, even from this perspective any judgement would not be so clear-cut, considering the recent decision by the European Court of Human Rights to uphold the practice of disenfranchisement for reasons of intellectual capacity as legitimate in the case of Strøbye and Rosenlind v. Denmark. So what can be said in justification of this policy?

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The EU needs to be able to Expel Autocratic Members

This is a guest post by Tom Theuns, Assistant Professor of Political Theory and European Politics at Leiden University (tweeting @TomTheuns). It discusses his recent work on how the EU should handle member states that violate democratic values


The democracy and rule of law crisis in the EU has now lasted over a decade. One of the problems has been that the main instrument for responding to democratic backsliding in a member state, the infamous Article 7 (A7) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), is ineffective. Given that the two states most active in dismantling democracy in Europe—Poland and Hungary—have pledged to support one another, A7 is crippled by a unanimity requirement.

A7 is supposed to sanction violations of the fundamental values of the EU listed in Article 2 TEU. These include democracy, the rule of law and equality. The sanction in A7 is the disenfranchisement of a backslidden state in the Council of the EU. In a recent article, I argue that A7 is not only ineffective but also normatively incoherent. Instead of disenfranchisement, I think the final sanction for democratic backsliding should be expulsion from the EU.

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On how the Dunning-Kruger effect complicates normative considerations

Individuals are notoriously self-serving in assessing their competences either in absolute terms or when comparing themselves to others. We are likely to think we are more sociable than others, better than most at judging character and sincerity, or that we perform above average in our workplaces. We often overestimate our levels of knowledge when we objectively know very little. In fact, this bias seems most potent when we are oblivious about some matter. At such times, we may act quite unrestrained in peddling the most absurd notions as facts to others. Our virtual lives of late, cluttered with half-baked claims and notions about the pandemic, offer plentiful evidence for this. What is even more disheartening is that, as the famous Dunning-Kruger effect teaches us, the more incompetent we are, the less likely we are to become aware of our own incompetence. Individuals often fall victim to this effect regardless of their intelligence, social grouping, or their successes at anticipating and counteracting a self-serving bias in some other area.

Despite being familiar in some form for several decades, the Dunning-Kruger effect has not seriously grabbed the attention of normative philosophers. Only epistemologists have seriously considered how it may affect epistemic obligations, for instance, how we should act in circumstances of assumed peer disagreement (Wiland, 2016). We have hardly considered the kinds of moral obligations we might have as individuals, or how we ought to shape public policies and institutions in the face of widespread Dunning-Kruger effects.

Consider, for instance, the decision of a highly educated person whether she should go into politics and compete for public seats. Imagine that this person is educated broadly enough to offer meaningful contributions over a range of public concerns. “But alas”, she reflects, “I don’t know enough about all the relevant laws, or how to draw up or revise a budget. I wasn’t trained for public administration. So I’m hardly competent to take up such a job.” But the educated person fails to consider that if she decides not to pursue the job, a far less competent person, one with far fewer scruples of the aforementioned kind, may attempt to take it up instead. Apart from considering merely whether she is qualified, she must assess whether the Dunning-Kruger effect will generate unwavering confidence in candidates who are far less qualified. So in the face of a lurking threat of social harms arising from incompetence, is the educated person obliged to overcome her reservations?

A further complication arises from the flip side of the Dunning-Kruger effect: in some cases, the truly competent exemplify tendencies to second-guess their competences, even if the area of competence is much more specific than in the previous example. Bertrand Russell noticed both sides of these self-assessment difficulties, when he famously stated that “in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt” (1933). Simply, the awareness of the competent that there is still much they don’t know saps their confidence, whereas the incompetent are unperturbed in their lack of awareness of just how incompetent they are. But in that case, the obligation to overcome their reservations may include a psychological hurdle for the competent that makes it particularly demanding.

Assigning the competent with this obligation faces two other crucial difficulties. First, the main lesson of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that those who believe they are competent may very easily turn out to be incompetent. Thus, it’s quite possible that those taking up the obligation to save us from the incompetent, with the best of intentions, are themselves incompetent. When there is no one who could vouch for their competence, self-assessors will often overestimate themselves. Therefore, committing ourselves to beat the incompetent runs at least some risk that we are thereby enabling our own incompetence.

Second, even if we could safely and reliably establish, with the help of others, that we are truly competent, a moral question remains: how much should we be asked to do? How far-reaching is our obligation to clean up after the incompetent, or preventing them from ever making a mess? Surely, if we are competent, we are allowed to appeal to an “agent-centered prerogative […] a modest right of self-interest” (Cohen, 1996), not to invest most of our time, like in the case of taking up a public seat.

Whether moral complications arising from the Dunning-Kruger effect should affect the decisions of individuals, and how, remains an open question that requires serious thought. However, we might think that Dunning-Kruger effects are best neutralized at various levels of institutional structure. Education, for instance, might be attuned to help the most competent in overcoming their imposter syndromes, in steering and reassuring them towards positions of great social importance, and encouraging them to branch out of their epistemic comfort zones. This can, in turn, help the competent in overcoming their psychological barriers when taking up individual moral obligations.

If, however, education fails, the Dunning-Kruger effect stands out as an important consideration in setting up our electoral and governmental institutions. There is no doubt that the effect influences both the incompetent and the competent in their voting behavior, as well as in their decisions to pursue positions of leadership. An institutional arrangement that prevents the incompetent in some way from hijacking important public decisions may very well be the last frontier at which self-serving biases are to be repelled.

The United States’ Perils of Presidentialism

Photo of the White House. Credit to René DeAnda.

In his seminal 1990 article “The Perils of Presidentialism,” political scientist Juan Linz pointed out that “the vast majority of the stable democracies in the world today are parliamentary regimes” and that, in contrast, “the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States.” Based in part on this observation, Linz concluded that parliamentary democracies are more conducive to stable democracies that presidential democracies.

Linz thought the United States was the exception. What, according to Linz, made the United States exceptional? His answer was that it lacked political polarization and instead had a large moderate consensus that avoided catering to extremists. But this is no longer true.

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A Conversation with Philip Kitcher about Moral Methodology and Moral Progress

On Monday evening, I talked to Philip Kitcher about his novel account of moral progress, which he developed in his Munich Lectures in Ethics. Those lectures have just been published by Oxford University Press, together with comments from Amia Srinivasan, Susan Neiman and Rahel Jaeggi. In the Munich Lectures, Kitcher takes up the “Deweyan project of making moral progress more systematic and sure-footed”. He seeks to gain a better understanding of what moral progress is by looking at cases from history. He then proposes a methodology for identifying morally problematic situations and coming up with justified solutions to those problems. It is a methodology for moral and ethical practice (not theory!), and it manifests the hope that human beings are able to attain moral progress – even with respect to the highly complex moral problems of our times. In our conversation, we talked about the open-endedness of the moral project, the collective nature of moral insight, the kinds of conversations that Kitcher believes are needed to deal with the moral problems that humanity is facing today, and the role of technology in the moral project.

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Public-private collaboration in the governance of AI

Artificial Intelligence – Adobe Stock

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have seen impressive developments in the last decades. Think about Google’s DeepMind defeating Lee Sedol, the best human player of Go, with their program AlphaGo in 2015. The latest version, AlphaZero, is remarkable because it relied on deep reinforcement learning to learn how to play Go entirely by itself from scratch: with only the rules of the game, through trial and error, and playing millions of games against itself. Machine learning algorithms have a range of other practical applications, from image recognition in medical diagnostics to energy management.

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More equal compared to what? How central banks are fudging the issue on inequality

Since the financial crisis of 2007, central banks have become the central tool of macroeconomic management, being described as the “only game in town.” To avert financial meltdown and, subsequently, to stimulate the economy, they have launched unconventional monetary policies such as quantitative easing (QE). The latter injects huge amounts of liquidity into the economy through large-scale purchases of financial assets by central banks. Central banks have doubled down on QE in reaction to the Covid-crisis.

QE has unintended side-effects. By pushing up the prices of the financial assets purchased, it favours already well-to-do asset holders. Given these consequences, central banks found themselves in the spotlight and pressured to justify their policies.

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Should we revive the ancient practice of ostracism?

A well-known aphorism by George Santayana says that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Less well-known, though, is the sentence used to preface this aphorism, namely that “when experience is not retained […] infancy is perpetual”. While the former is often used to highlight the importance of learning from past mistakes, the latter underlines the importance of learning from the beneficial (albeit defunct) practices of the past. But can historical practices inform contemporary political philosophy? Anthoula Malkopoulou’s insightful analysis of the Athenian institution of ostracism suggests a positive response. On her view, we should understand ostracism as a mechanism of democratic self-defence, which could plausibly be revived in a modern version. In the following lines I will further explore this suggestion.

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