Philosophy 925: Seminar in Democratic Theory

Mark van Roojen

Office: 1005 Oldfather Hall

Phone: 472-2428

Office Hours:

Subject Matter: The class will aim to familiarize us (including me) with recent work in democratic theory. Two of the main questions that will organize our thinking are (1) What is democracy, and (2) what is good about it? Since Josh Cohen will be out giving a paper to the department towards the end of the term, we will be reading a good deal of his work to enable class members to interact with him with a bit of background knowledge of his views.

Course Requirements: For everyone: One longish (15 page) paper due at the end of the semester, or two shorter (10 page) papers on some topic related to the subject matter of the course. For those wishing to get a B+ or above in the class: a class presentation of some of the material for the second portion of the class, preceded by consultation with me on the relevant readings to assign and on the outline of the presentation. There are, of course, no guaranties that those doing such presentations will get a B+ or above, but doing a presentation will be necessary for getting such a grade.

Grading: I will base the course grade on a global judgement regarding the overall work in the class. In the past when I have locked in rigid formulas for what percentage of the grade will be determined by the assignments, I have often felt constrained by those formulas to give grades that did not reflect overall class work. So this time I'm going to try to make a holistic judgement, based on written work, presentations, and participation in class discussion. (If you are concerned that this method of grading is open to arbitrariness, I will agree to contract with you to lock in a more rigid formula for your grade.)

Class Format: The class will be a combined lecture and discussion format. For the first several weeks, I will be primarily responsible for presenting the material and organizing the discussion. Starting approximately halfway through the semester, students in the class will be responsible for doing that for the remaining readings. Responsibilities will include, choosing which portions of the texts class members are to read, presenting an overview and critical commentary as part of a presentation, and leading a discussion by your fellow class members of that material.

Books to Buy or Borrow:

Robert Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics,

John Stuart Mill, Considerations on Representative Government,

John Hart Ely, Democracy and Distrust,

John Rawls, Political Liberalism,

Cass Sunstein, The Partial Constitution,

Cass Sunstein, Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech,

Lani Guinier, The Tyranny of the Majority.

The remaining readings will be available from me or through the office. Since some of the sessions in the final weeks of the class will be determined by your choices of what to present, some of that will have to be done on a seat of the pants basis.


1/11/96 Introduction. (Read Dahl, pp. 13-33, 135-152, & 163-175.)

1/18/96 Mill's Compromise. (Read: Considerations on Representative Government, chapters 3, 5-8, 10 & 15.)

1/25/96 Ely's Democracy as Interest Representation. (Read: Democracy and Distrust, chapters 4-6 & conclusion:)

2/1/96 Background for Rawls' Political Liberalism. (Read A Theory of Justice chapters VIII & IX, and Scanlon, "Utilitarianism and Contractarianism.")

2/8/96 Rawls's Political Liberalism. (Read Political Liberalism, Lectures I, II IV & VI.)

2/15/96 Assessing Rawls's Political Liberalism. (Read Joshua Cohen, "A More Democratic Liberalism" & Brian Barry, "John Rawls and the Search for Stability.")

2/22/96 Cohen's Deliberative Democracy. (Read Cohen, "Democratic Equality," "Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy," & "The Economic Basis of Deliberative Democracy.")

This is the end of the section of the class I plan to be responsible for as main presenter. On the assumption that Josh Cohen will be able to meet with the class on April 11, the day before he presents his paper (If not, we can discuss his paper and perhaps a bit more of his stuff on that date to prepare ourselves for the paper the next day.), that leaves 7 more class sessions for student presentations and discussions stemming therefrom. Two of those will have to be at other than the scheduled seminar times, since I will be giving papers at both the Pacific and Central APA meetings and won't be able to make the normal seminar times those weeks.

Below I have list some possible readings and/or topics that presentations and discussions could be organized around. Many of these topics could support more than one presentation.

Sunstein's theory of deliberative democracy and constitutional interpretation. (Most of the reading for this might be taken from his The Partial Constitution.)

I'd like to see a couple of presentations centering on the connection between democracy and free speech, particularly as to how we should view feminist challenges to pornography as limiting the speech of women. (Readings here might include selections from some of Katharine MacKinnon's writings, Rae Langton, "Whose Right? Ronald Dworkin, Women, and Pornographers," Philosophy and Public Affairs 19 (1990) pp. 311-359, and "Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts," Philosophy and Public Affairs 22 (1993) pp. 293-330, Joshua Cohen "Freedom of Expression," Philosophy and Public Affairs 22 (1993) pp. 207-63, and selections from Sunstein's The Problem of Free Speech.)

The relation of democratic ideals and other substantive moral ideals, using selections from Dahl's Democracy and Its Critics.

Majority rule, minority rights, and the problem of representation. (Readings here might be taken from Guinier's The Tyranny of the Majority.)

The problem of faction and conflicting allegiances. (Readings here might be from Hamilton, Madison and Jay, The Federalist Papers and sources you find for yourself.)

Arrow's Theorem and its implications for democratic theory if any. (Readings here would no doubt include Arrow's original paper on why it is impossible to design a social decision procedure that meets certain seemingly plausible constraints, and go from there.)

I would consider other presentation topics related to the theme of the course in addition to these. And I would probably be amenable to a presentation on the Rawls that either took off where I left off, or which supersedes some of what I plan to present.

1999 Mark van Roojen