Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Category: Democracy (Page 1 of 10)

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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Encouraging religious schools to teach good citizens

In this post, Baldwin Wong discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on how religious schools could participate in civic education.


Religious schools, such as the parochial schools affiliated with Christian churches, the cheder of Judaism, and the madrasas of Islam, are common in many democratic societies. These schools are usually established by private religious groups. Their environments are filled with religious symbols and celebrations that impact students’ learning experience. The content of education involves religious classics, theology, and the teaching of the virtues  valued in each faith.

Political liberals have long been worried about the partiality of religious schools. They argue that these schools should be carefully regulated. Otherwise, their partial education may create “ethically servile children” who have an ignorant antipathy toward alternative viewpoints. I agree that religious schools should be regulated, but, in my recent article, I further suggest that some of these schools should be encouraged and subsidized because they are crucial in addressing a problem that a government cannot single-handedly resolve—the reconciliation between faith and justice.

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Can Someone Be Too Rich?

In this post, Dick Timmer discusses their recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on why we should limit people’s wealth.


How we think about wealth has a profound impact on the world in which we live. Some years ago, philosopher Ingrid Robeyns proposed a new perspective on wealth, which she dubbed limitarianism. Robeyns argues that once people can live a fully flourishing life, additional wealth lacks moral value for the holder because it does not contribute their flourishing. And because such wealth threatens political equality, leaves many people’s urgent needs unmet, and could be used to address the current climate crisis, such wealth should be redistributed.

In my paper, I defend a version of this view. I argue that there are good political and ethical reasons to prevent people from having more than a certain amount of wealth. Above some point, wealth has little if any value for the holder, yet it could have huge value if redistributed.

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Introducing Political Philosophy with Public Policy

What is a good way to learn about political philosophy? Plausibly there is a variety of reasonable answers to this question, depending on what and why one wants to know about the subject, and it is some testament to this that there are excellent introductions that focus on the issues, concepts, and key thinkers in the field.

In our recent book – Introducing Political Philosophy: A Policy-Driven Approach – Will Abel, Elizabeth Kahn, Tom Parr, and I offer an approach that focuses on introducing the subject through the lens of public policy.

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