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CPP Colloquium with Annabelle Lever: "Democracy Without Liberalism?"

21 March 2019
CPP Colloquia 2018-2019
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden

The Center for Political Philosophy in Leiden is pleased to announce a talk by

Annabelle Lever (Paris)


How illiberal can a government be without ceasing to democratic?  How egalitarian?  Would it violate democratic principles/rights if luxury goods were prohibited as threats to our moral health, as though they were drugs that threaten our physical well-being?  At what point, if any, can we say – this is an undemocratic government, an undemocratic policy, an undemocratic principle or idea because it violates liberty?

These look like the sorts of questions that we ought to be able to answer if we assume, as many of us do, that democratic governments are presumptively legitimate in ways that undemocratic governments are not.  And it looks as though the answers that we give to these questions have practical, not just philosophical, importance. If democratic governments are presumptively legitimate in ways that alternatives are not, then they deserve support, protection, recognition, aid and respect which undemocratic governments usually lack.

However, as we will see, it is not easy to decide what limits to personal liberty mark the differences between democratic and undemocratic governments, because it is difficult to know which liberties are necessary for democratic government.  Moreover, the tendency to identify democracy with liberal democracy – which still affects political philosophy – means that we don’t have a good sense of how liberal democracy differs from other forms of democracy.

In this talk, I will briefly explain why it is harder to answer quite basic questions about democratic government than one might have supposed and, therefore, to decide when - if ever – it is appropriate to complain that an apparently legitimate act, by a democratically elected government, in fact constitutes an undemocratic violation of liberty.

I will then discuss two strategies that we might use to illuminate the limits of democratic government, without assuming that democratic governments must be liberal.

The first strategy takes the core idea of democracy as ‘government by the people, for the people’, and tries to clarify the constraints on liberty that it would allow, and that a liberal view of democracy would not.  This involves working outwards from a core idea of democracy towards what we might call ‘the boundaries of democracy’, even if those boundaries are sometimes internal, and concern the domestic relations amongst citizens, rather than their relationship to outsiders. The second strategy works in the other direction.  That is, it takes ideals which seem appealing, though not particularly liberal –for example, ideals of equality, solidarity, happiness, efficiency and beauty - and considers whether or not they are consistent with democratic government. 

The premise of both strategies is that something can be compatible with democracy, and with the presumption of democratic legitimacy, even if not inherently democratic.  Utilitarianism, for example, sometimes justifies undemocratic forms of government, but may also justify democracy as a way of promoting utility.  Utilitarians might even value democracy non-instrumentally because it instantiates a commitment to take people’s wellbeing equally seriously.

We can therefore see ‘democracy’ as the basis of an ‘overlapping consensus’ amongst competing moral and political perspectives, because people can value democracy for different, and often incompatible, reasons.  Our question, then, is whether, amongst those different reasons to value democracy, there are some that are inconsistent with liberalism.  The answer, we will see, is ‘YES’.

About the Center for Political Philosophy (CPP) Colloquia Series

The CPP is a collaboration between the Institute for Philosophy and the Institute for Political Science at Leiden University. Attendance of the Colloquia is free and there is no need to register. See CPP for more information. For further questions please contact dr. Dorota Mokrosinska at d.m.mokrosinska@phil.leidenuniv.nl

All are welcome!


Annabelle Lever now teaches political theory at SciencesPo, Paris, having held positions at the University of Geneva, the London School of Economics, MIT, Harvard and the University of Rochester. She is the author of “On Privacy,” “A Democratic Conception of Privacy,” the editor of New Frontiers in the Philosophy of Intellectual Property and has co-edited the “Routledge Handbook on Ethics and Public Policy” (with Andrei Poama), and an OUP collection in honour of Joshua Cohen, “Ideas That Matter: Democracy, Justice, Rights,” (with Debra Satz). She writes on sexual and racial justice, privacy, democratic theory, the ethics of voting, and is starting a new project on statistical discrimination.

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