Democratic Autonomy and the Shortcomings of Citizens

Journal of Moral Philosophy 18 (4):363–386 (2020)
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A widely held picture in political science emphasizes the cognitive shortcomings of us citizens. We’re ignorant. We don’t know much about politics. We’re irrational. We bend the evidence to show our side in the best possible light. And we’re malleable. We let political elites determine our political opinions. This paper is about why these shortcomings matter to democratic values. Some think that democracy’s value consists entirely in its connection to equality. But the import of these shortcomings, I argue, cannot be explained in purely egalitarian terms. To explain it, we must instead think of democracy’s value partly in terms of collective autonomy. Our ignorance and irrationality undermine the epistemic conditions for realizing this kind of autonomy. They stop us knowing the outcomes of our political choices. Our irrationality and malleability undermine the independence conditions for realizing such autonomy. They mean our political choices are subject to problematic kinds of interpersonal influence. Thus, at root, the import of the widely held picture is that, if accurate, it closes off this critical aspect of democracy’s value.

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Adam Lovett
London School of Economics


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