LanCog and Praxis Joint Seminar – Fernando Broncano-Berrocal on Epistocracy

October 18, 2018


Fernando Broncano-Berrocal

Autonomous University of Madrid


The Electorate As a Company: Some Reflections Against Epistocracy

18 October 2018, 14:00

Faculdade de Letras de Lisboa, Room 5.2

Abstract: In view of recent political events (e.g., Trump’s election, Brexit, the increasing popularity of xenophobic political parties), a revisionary anti-democratic alternative, epistocracy, is gaining traction inside and outside academia. Epistocracy is the idea that only people with sufficient political knowledge or competence ought to be the bearers of political power. This translates into the idea that people with insufficient political knowledge or competence should be disenfranchised, or else that their votes should count less. Jason Brennan (Against Democracy, Princeton University Press: 2016) has recently put forward two of the most damaging arguments against democracy to the conclusion that epistocracy is actually morally superior and therefore preferable to democracy. Brennan’s arguments are based on two ideas: (1) voters have an individual obligation not to vote badly (e.g., out of ignorance, irrationality or prejudice); (2) the electorate has a collective obligation to be competent and thus be reliable in appointing good leaders or approving good policies (the governed have a corresponding right to a competent electorate). According to Brennan, democracy (unlike epistocracy) licences systematic violations of these duties, hence its moral inferiority. The aim of this paper is to undermine Brennan’s moral justification for epistocracy using recent work on collective obligation and collective responsibility. I argue, first, that Brennan fails to distinguish individual from collective obligation properly: the individual obligation not to vote badly is actually located at the collective level. Second, I argue that from the fact that there is a collective obligation not to vote badly it doesn’t necessarily follow that bad voters should be disenfranchised (or their votes should count less). In this way, I aim to show that the conclusion that bad voters should be disenfranchised is not backed up by good philosophical reasons, but that, in the end, it rather comes down to an ideological choice: if one thinks that democracy and a fortiori the electorate is to be ruled like a company where workers (voters) should be fired if they perform badly, one will surely favor disenfranchisement. On the contrary, if one believes in old values such as solidarity, one will reject the idea that the epistemically unprivileged should be disenfranchised and instead advocate the idea that they should be epistemically empowered (e.g., through educational programs), so that they can arrive to election day in the best epistemic position. Still, this doesn’t mean that voters cannot be held responsible. I will also distinguish several ways in which bad voters can be considered blameworthy and excused for voting badly. In addition, I will try to show that good voters can be also considered blameworthy for not complying with their moral obligations qua members of the electorate, and especially with the moral obligation to improve the epistemic position of less epistemically privileged voters by actively sharing their political knowledge and competence.

Free Attendance