Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Democracy (Page 1 of 8)

Democracy’s Unpluckable Feathers and Presidential Term Limits

In this guest post, Mark Satta discusses the importance of presidential term limits for democracy, and that popular resistance is crucial in enforcing them.

In her book Fascism: A Warning, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recounts that “Mussolini observed that in seeking to accumulate power it is wise to do so in the manner of one plucking a chicken—feather by feather—so each squawk is heard apart from every other and the whole process is kept as muted as possible.” We often think of dictatorships as arising from wars or coups, but Mussolini’s analogy vividly expresses how nations can slip from liberal democracies to illiberal autocracies through a series of small, incremental changes.

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Consultation that silences

In this post, Dina Lupin Townsend discusses her recent article co-authored with Leo Townsend in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the silencing of indigenous communities in consultation processes.


Ten years ago, I was working as an attorney at the Centre for Environmental Rights, an NGO and environmental law clinic in South Africa. My work involved representing impoverished rural communities whose land and livelihoods were threatened by mining activities. With almost no resources, these communities were battling some of the most powerful multinational companies in the world.

Despite this inequality of resources, these communities should have been able to hold mining companies to account under South Africa’s rights-based legal system. The law requires that any development includes those affected within decision-making processes. Communities have a collective right to participation in these processes, and mining companies are obligated to consult with them before undertaking any activities.

On the face of it, the right to consultation should ensure that communities are kept informed and given a say in the decision-making process. In practice, however, consultation with affected communities is often little more than a box-ticking exercise. The clients I represented frequently complained of being unheard and marginalised by the very processes that were meant to empower their voices.

The experience of South African communities is far from unique in this regard. Faced with similar circumstances, Indigenous and rural peoples across the world have demanded that they be consulted and given opportunities to have their say about industrial activities on their land. But while states and companies are increasingly recognizing that they must consult affected communities, the consultation processes that they undertake often fail to give these communities a real say. Indeed, as Leo Townsend and I argue in a recent paper, there are consultation practices that routinely prevent communities from having their say and thereby silence their voices.

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Norms and Bias: Minding A Different Kind of Gap

In this post, Lacey Davidson and Daniel Kelly discuss their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on bias and social norms.


In our recent article, we argue that contemporary empirical work on norms and norm psychology provides a way to move beyond debates between proponents of individualist and structuralist approaches to understanding human social behavior, and to addressing oppression and injustice. We show how this empirical work fits into recent debates about implicit biases, and conclude how integrating norms and norm psychology into this conversation shows that theorists need not, indeed should not, choose between either the individualist or structuralist camp. We’ll briefly spell out the main elements of our argument below.

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Distributing the Deliberative Forum

There is an argument, appearing in both the higher and lower tiers of public debate, that goes something like this:

You can raise as many arguments as you want about solving Problem A (say, adoption rights for gay couples), but what you’re missing is that we should be dealing instead with the more prominent Problem B (say, how the budget is being balanced). It is there that we need to place our focus.

A first-semester philosophy student will easily recognize the red herring fallacy here. The proponent of the argument is not addressing the points presumably raised about how Problem A should be solved, but sidesteps into a different subject altogether. Some further claims might be made by the proponent that Problem A is being used as a smoke screen for Problem B, and that to deal with Problem A itself indicates a certain susceptibility of those involved to being distracted by ‘the powers that be’.

In an important sense, the philosopher’s annoyance is well warranted. The particularities of Problem B hardly bear any relevance to Problem A. But in at least some cases, I want to suggest that the ‘red herring’ could stand for a legitimate concern about how we are distributing our deliberative forum. The claim raised might not be an attempt to solve Problem A, but that another problem, Problem B, requires attention and is being overlooked without justification.

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Electoral Justice in Pandemic Times

The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped numerous aspects of our lives during the past few months. Even though it is less immediately felt in our daily routine, one of the most consequential by-products of the pandemic is its impact on the political life of our communities. Elections, in particular, have been heavily affected throughout the world, with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems reporting postponments of elections in 51 countries, as of the 27th of April 2020. In other cases, elections have been held in the traditional fashion, sometimes under heavy criticism and resulting in a severely depressed turnout. All of this prompts the question of what is the appropriate governmental response in respect to holding elections during pandemic times? Should we continue to go about our electoral business as usual? Or should we postpone elections until the outbreak is over? Or should we still hold elections, but under alternative mechanisms, such as postal voting or e-voting?

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An interview with Rebecca Lowe (Beyond the Ivory Tower Series)

This is the fourth interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series (following Onora O’Neill, Marc Stears and Jonathan Wolff). In February, Aveek Bhattacharya spoke to Rebecca Lowe about her efforts to increase the level of philosophical discussion on the political right.

Rebecca Lowe was founding director of FREER, a think tank dedicated to promoting social and economic liberalism. She was the Conservative party candidate for the City of Durham in the 2015 general election, and for several years wrote a regular column for the ConservativeHome website, where she was an assistant editor. She is currently working as research director at an investment company, while studying for a PhD at King’s College London, researching Lockean justifications of private property.

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Making Sense of “Erasing History”

In this post, Daniel Abrahams discusses his recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on the role of history in erasing-history.


The last five years have seen a re-evaluation of public history. Beginning with the Rhodes Must Fall movement in Cape Town, popular movements have argued and fought for the removal of commemorative statues of toxic historical figures. Movements have targeted memorials of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, statues honouring Confederate soldiers from the American Civil War, and honourifics for Canada’s first Prime Minister, John A Macdonald.

In each case, defenders of the statues have argued that removing the statues would constitute “erasing history.” This might seem like a curious complaint at first: Canadians are not about to forget about Canada’s first Prime Minister any time soon. The internet provides plenty of resources, and history will still be taught in schools. Taking down a statue is obviously a long way from the Orwellian project of deleting something from the historical record. However, the complaint must have some intuitive pull as people keep making it. In a recent article, I take up the case of Macdonald and use it to spell out both the best way to understand the erasing history defence, and suggest ways to engage it on its core concern.

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Should we buy from dictatorships?

This a guest post by Chris Armstrong (Professor of Political Theory at the University of Southampton). He researches matters of global justice. Here he discusses his recent work on dealing with dictators.


Dictators have been responsible for many grievous crimes. They have left behind them a trail of genocides and ill-considered wars. Even when they are not killing innocent people, dictators commit a major wrong by denying a voice to their subjects. They also frequently squander their countries’ wealth on Western luxuries even in the face of grinding poverty at home. There is little doubt, therefore, that a world with fewer dictators would be a far better one in many respects.

This leads naturally to the thought that those of us who are fortunate not to live under tyrants ought to do whatever we can to avoid supporting dictators – and indeed to avoid incentivising the emergence of more of them. But what can we do? One thought is that we should avoid buying goods such as oil from them, because in so doing we provide a stream of income for continued repression, and remove from dictators the need to rely on their own citizens for revenue (a reliance which, many political economists believe, can lead to improvements in governance over time). Another suggestion is that we should deepen our engagement with dictators, trading with them to an even greater extent. While this will strike many readers as deeply controversial, in a recent paper I argue that this is the more persuasive view: we should probably buy more, not less, from dictators.

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Should Parties Be Democratic?

Should political parties organize their internal affairs in a (more) democratic way? By this, I do not mean merely allowing party members to select candidates for a presidential election or to elect the president of the party. The question is also whether party members should be involved in the writing of political programs and in deciding which policies to pursue.

The answer might seem obvious at first sight: given that parties play an important democratic function (aggregating multiple demands and uniting citizens behind competing political projects), it would seem odd if they were themselves organized undemocratically. And yet we know that parties tend to be very hierarchical – it has even been described as an “iron law”. To what extent is this regrettable?

Résultat de recherche d'images pour "cartoon party discipline"

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An Interview with Marc Stears (Beyond the Ivory Tower series)

This is the second interview in our Beyond the Ivory Tower series, following Onora O’Neill. Back in November, Aveek Bhattacharya spoke to Marc Stears about his experiences in politics, focusing on his time as a close adviser to then leader of the opposition, Ed Miliband.

Prof Marc Stears is Director of the Sydney Policy Lab. Stears was Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford in 2010 when his university friend Ed Miliband was elected leader of the opposition Labour party. After a secondment to the think tank Institute for Public Policy Research, Stears left academia in 2012 to become Chief Speechwriter for Miliband. He was a co-author of the 2015 Labour election manifesto and a member of the party’s general election steering committee. In 2013, the Telegraph ranked him the UK’s eighth most influential left-winger. After Labour’s election defeat in 2015, Stears joined another British think tank, the New Economics Foundation, as Chief Executive, before his move to Australia in 2018.

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