Tag Archives: democratic theory

Chapter 7. Reconciliation in Practice: Education.

I disagree with a good deal in Chapter 7 of Kevin’s book.  In fact, I am extremely sympathetic with the overall project of de-privatizing religious reasons: like Kevin I want a liberalism, and more importantly a polity, in which faith traditions engage and are engaged, in politics on a basis of mutual respect.  So the disagreement came as a relief, because there is nothing worse than being assigned commentary on something you agree with. Tthe kind of schooling system I would like to see is considerably different both from the one he rejects and the one he defends in very brief sketch form. This has the inconvenient consequence that engaging and explaining every disagreement would take many more pages than a blog post bears; the reader will be relieved that I am restricting myself to a couple of thousand words, and am willing to take the risk of being misunderstood (and to subject Kevin to that risk – so, if something I attribute to him seems in any way wrong, please assume the error is mine not his!!).
American public schooling is currently arranged roughly as follows: every child is required to have some formal schooling up to age 16 or 18 (depending on the state), and common schools which purportedly promote a common civic identity are provided free at the point of delivery. [1] Parents can legally refrain from sending their children to such schools, and send them, instead, to private schools which are very lightly regulated, and are permitted to foster sectarian identities (in practice the vast majority of children in private schools attend religious schools); they can also provide homeschooling which is, in most states, even more lightly regulated than private schooling.

Something like this system is widely defended by the ‘consensus’ liberals that Kevin takes as his opponents. Liberalism should, as Macedo puts it, embrace “the positive constitutional project of shaping diversity to the end of a shared public life” and should use the schooling system to this end, actively sculpting citizens to have certain liberal values once they reach adulthood. For these liberals, this end overrides religious considerations; the schools must not invoke or teach religious doctrines, because to do so would conflict with the driving purpose of civic education; and they should foster a civic identity that, once instilled, will override religious reasons when citizens are engaged in public debate and political action. More importantly, it requires that children be exposed to a diversity of views about what is of value in the world and how to live their lives – views and approaches that some parents may wish to ensure that their children not be exposed to. Freedom must have its due, of course, so homeschooling and private schooling are permitted; indeed, by permitting them we relieve potential pressure on the public schools which sectarian religious parents would exert, and free them up to do their work relatively unfettered by sectarian lobbyists.
Kevin offers an alternative. The current structure of schooling (in the US) should be rejected, and replaced with some sort of privatized school choice system. He does not object to government funding of schools, but he does object to the government using schools to foster the kind of civic identity that consensus liberals seek, and thinks it is unfair that parents with private identities that are nicely congruent with the kind of civic identity consensus liberals promote get schooling for their children free at the point of delivery, whereas citizens with religious identities have to pay twice, as it were, once for the public schools their children don’t attend, and again for the private schools they do attend.
Why? First, the kind of convergence liberalism he endorses (the right kind of liberalism) does not require the kind of civic identity promoted by consensus liberals. Rather citizens are free to follow their private, including religious, reasons when contributing to public debate and political decision-making and, in fact, they have no obligation to engage in politics at all. Second, though, he reminds us that citizens find tremendous value in raising children: “If we recognize the obvious fact that citizens’ reasons of integrity often involve raising children, then it is easy to see how citizens could have defeaters for state intervention in child development. Consensus liberals emphasize the state’s interest in sculpting children in its image, but on the convergence view shared civic ends are more easily undermined by intelligible defeaters”.
Kevin looks at the debate over whether Intelligent Design should be taught in schools. Whereas, as he observes, it might be possible to forge some sort of compromise between proponents and opponents of ID so that ID and evolution both get taught, there are a host of other issues, such as sex education, and religious education over which there will be dispute; and once all these issues are added up, there will be no sensible in-school compromise with which most people can live; the sensible measure will be to implement a privatized (though maybe publicly funded) choice system.

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Militant Democracy

kirshnerbookwebMy book,A Theory of Militant Democracy: The Ethics of Combatting Political Extremism, has just been published, so I thought I would post a brief description. The book considers how pro-democratic forces can safeguard representative government from anti-democratic groups. By granting rights of participation to groups that do not share democratic values, democracies may endanger the very rights they have granted; but denying these rights may also undermine democratic values. New and unstable regimes often confront this difficulty and those regimes frequently end up banning significant political parties and restricting participation.


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This is a reminder that the Political Thought Specialist Group of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom
will hold an one-day conference on the theme of “Democracy and Its Critics: Ancient and Modern” at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford on Saturday,
22nd October 2011. For the conference programme please go to http://www.psa.ac.uk/spgrp/39/PolThought11.pdf.

There is a participatory fee of £37.00, which will cover mid-morning tea/coffee and biscuits, a sandwich lunch and mid-afternoon tea/coffee and cake.


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Book Announcement: The Ethics of Voting

The Ethics of Voting

Hi everyone,

I’m pleased to announce my book The Ethics of Voting (Princeton University Press) is now published. You can read the introduction here.

(I get about $3.00 in royalties if you buy it, so here are links to Amazon, which has sold out its initial batch, and Barnes and Noble.)

The main positions I defend in the book are:

1. There’s generally no duty to vote.

2. People can exercise exemplary civic virtue and pay whatever debts they have to society (if there are such things) without participating in politics. Political participation (and knowledge) is nothing special when it comes to civic virtue.


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Condorcet’s Jury Theorem as an Argument against Mass Democracy

Ok, if the mathematics discussed in my last post are right, here’s the upshot:

Condorcet’s Jury Theorem (in its original formulation) says that in an election between A and B (where A  is the right choice and B is the bad choice), for an electorate in which each voter has an independent probability p>.5 of voting for A (the right choice), then as the size of electorate increases, the probability that the electorate will elect A (the right choice) approaches 1. Even for a low value of p, such as p=.51, the probability that the electorate will choose A approaches 1 rather quickly. For instance, with 10,001 voters, the electorate already has about a 99% chance of picking A.


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Condorcet Jury Theorem Mathematics Help

If the conditions of the Condorcet Jury Theorem hold, then every additional jurist/voter adds some marginal amount of accuracy to the jury as a whole.  However, this jury experiences diminishing marginal returns.  If every juror has a 51% chance of being accurate, then the jury of 101 members has about a 57% chance of being accurate, a jury of 501 members has a 67% chance of being accurate, a jury of 1001 members has a 73% chance of being accurate, a jury of 5001 members has 92% chance of being accurate, and a jury of 10,000 members has a 99.99% chance of being accurate.I’d like to know what the marginal value (in terms of her contribution to accuracy of the jury) of the Nth voter is when N is rather large.

The accuracy of a jury of N members when each juror has  a 51% chance of being accurate is given by the formula below:


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