Thursday, August 16, 2007

Research Summary

I spent most of yesterday trying to condense my present research and future aims into a punchy 1,000 word summary. I'm not sure this has enough on the interest, importance and originality of my work, but in case anyone out there doesn't know what I'm doing it does nicely summarise my thesis:

My doctoral thesis, Democracy-as-Fairness: Justice, Equal Chances and Lotteries, challenges the assumption that democracy requires majority-rule. I begin by arguing that democracy is a matter of citizen sovereignty and political equality, and thus majority-rule is not naturally-privileged, but is justified only if truly egalitarian. Therefore an argument is needed for majority-rule, and the next two chapters explore what seem the most prominent defences of such, appeal to utilitarian outcomes and procedural fairness.

My second chapter argues that majority-rule, although sometimes associated with the ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’, cannot guarantee utilitarian outcomes, since it ignores intensity of preferences or interests that are not reflected in votes. Further, if everyone votes to promote their own interests, this may be unfair because a permanent majority can always have their way at the expense of a minority. A more promising approach may be to assume each voter tries to identify and vote for ideal outcomes regardless of their personal interests. I reject this argument, partly because it places great epistemic and moral demands on the voters, but mostly because I think the idea of an ‘impartially best’ outcome is indeterminate – there will often be one pattern of coordination that benefits some and another that benefits others, so what matters is fairness to all involved.

Chapter three explores the idea of fairness, and the claim that majority-rule gives each person equal chances satisfaction. I argue this is only so when the composition of majorities and minorities is fluid, so it’s effectively random who is on the winning side. In cases of permanent majority/minority divides, however, it is predictable in advance who will win and who will lose, so the minority do not enjoy even prospective equality. I suggest using lotteries to adjudicate between competing interests. While giving equal chances to each group gives everyone equal chances of satisfaction, it is blind to numbers and faces practical implementation problems, e.g. deciding what constitutes an option. Instead I propose a proportionately-weighted lottery, which means while majorities have greater chances of victory, each person’s vote contributes equally to chances of success.

Chapters four and five address how proportional chances can be implemented in democratic practice, developing a procedure called ‘lottery-voting’, in which a single, randomly-selected vote determines the outcome. This means every vote has an equal chance of being decisive, and each option’s chance of victory is proportional to its number of votes. Also, since victory is never guaranteed (short of unanimity), all have incentives to turnout and to persuade others.

My final two chapters assess lottery-voting against normative conditions imposed on decision rules in the formal social choice literature, such as anonymity, neutrality, positive responsiveness, Pareto-optimality and rationality. I argue lottery-voting respects those that are important constituents of equality, such as anonymity and neutrality (respectively, requirements that no voter or option be favoured), while violating Arrow’s Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives and Collective Rationality simply because I conceive the purpose of democracy differently – as fairly-adjudicating between competing interests, rather than producing ‘socially preferred’ or best outcomes.

While lottery-voting could actually be used for making decisions, at least in small groups (I do not consider representative democracy), the importance of the thesis is primarily theoretical. Often defences of democracy and majority-rule are conflated; but showing political equality can be satisfied by a lottery shows they are not the same and means those who would defend majority-rule need to offer reasons why it is a better procedure.

Since few discussions of democracy engage with lotteries, beyond perhaps a passing reference to Athenian practice, I think this possibility highlights shortcomings in a number of contemporary arguments. For instance, in recent books both Richard Vernon and Anthony McGann claim that majority-rule maximizes the need for persuasion. In fact, however, a majority group do not need to persuade anyone of their case in order to ensure victory. Lottery-voting, while it does not require persuasion – because a small minority may be content to take their small chance – means all groups always have incentive to try to persuade others of their case, in order to increase their chances of victory.

Further, my work is original because, though I draw inspiration from a 1984 article proposing lottery-voting for representatives, I develop this for direct decision-making. This is a contrast to most work on political use of lotteries, which focuses on representative samples. Moreover, because it combines randomness with voting, lottery-voting ensures that reason also plays a role in selecting outcomes.

I currently have a complete, though unfinished, draft and aim to submit my thesis early in 2008. Taking up your Research Fellowship would allow me time to publish this material, either re-writing it for a monograph and/or working sections into journal articles. I envisage being able to make contributions in a number of areas, including the nature and normative theory of democracy, the fairness of lotteries and engaging with the formal analysis of social choice.

While I believe there is considerable scope for this further development, I am also keen to move on to pastures new. Alongside publishing my existing research, I would like to begin exploring the philosophy of education – an area I feel is of particular importance to those engaged in university teaching, and an interest that has been stimulated both by educational studies courses, including writing a teaching portfolio on problems of authority, and teaching two visiting students interested in political/philosophical issues around education.

Though the goals of this research will doubtless develop as I investigate the subject, I'm particularly interested in what goes on within schools and universities, rather than their interaction with wider society. I’d like to explore issues such as authority and democracy in the classroom and whether the syllabus can be neutral on the good life (e.g. should we be cultivating appreciation of ‘higher pleasures’ such as Shakespeare and Mozart or are we simply inflicting children with ‘expensive tastes’ that they will find harder to satisfy?).

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At 1:09 pm, Blogger Rob Jubb said...

You seen this?

They'll be suggesting paying people to vote next.


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