Philippe’s Democracy

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by Andrei Poama (SPS MW Fellow) *

A Max Weber Fellow’s reflections on interviewing a Max Weber Lecturer.

Last Fall, Philippe van Parijs was a Robert Schumann scholar at the EUI. I met Philippe in 2015 when, after having defended my PhD, I decided to spend a couple of months as a visiting researcher at the Hoover Chair in Louvain. Since time was short and everyone’s commitments were plenty, I only had the chance to speak to Philippe a few times. So I was very happy to know that, as a Max Weber Fellow, I would have the opportunity to continue the conversation that we had started earlier, but never really pursued in depth. Needless to say, but worth mentioning for those who don’t know him and repeating for those who do, Philippe is incredibly generous with his time, and always ready to brilliantly engage with his interlocutor’s projects and philosophical positions. For four months, I had the opportunity to meet Philippe for lunch and coffee, listen to his Max Weber lecture, go back to some of his writings on justice, democracy and the EU, and attend his master class. I also had the opportunity to interview him on his work and intellectual biography.

I learnt a lot from this encounter, and I also came to realize that, for all of our agreement on what the methods and style of political philosophy should be, there is one important point that we disagree on. This post is about this disagreement. The disagreement concerns Philippe’s philosophical position on the relationship between democracy and justice.

Philippe thinks that democracy is merely a tool for bringing about justice. The direct implication of this thought is that, when the tool doesn’t work properly, we should refrain from using it and prefer different (read: better and fairer) tools – say, the small committee of experts and bureaucrats or the philosopher’s imaginative institutional design proposals.

Democracy, that is, does not always lead to justice – a thing that seems to be obvious to anyone who is aware of what is going on in Europe and the US today –, and, when democracy can be shown to fail to bring about justice to a particular policy area, we are to prefer other, less democratic policy arrangements. Philippe insists that ‘democratic institutions should be treated as the sheer servants of social justice,’ and notes that ‘if we cannot assume a pre-established harmony between justice and democracy (…), let us stick to justice, and sacrifice democracy.’ He calls this an instrumentalist conception of democracy.

I tend to think that this instrumentalist view of democracy is in tension with Philippe’s own approach to political philosophy and that, all things considered, it is mistaken in and of itself. I believe that, when considered as a general philosophical standpoint, the instrumentalist view relies on two mistakes. The first one is epistemic; it has to do with whether and how we know what a just policy or institutional arrangement is when we see one. The second mistake is practical, and is tied to the way in which political philosophers relate to the beliefs, judgments and opinions of the non-philosophical public.

I’ll start with the internal inconsistencies. I might be wrong about them, and stand to be corrected. But my main thought is the following: most of Philippe’s positions in political philosophy are unimaginable without a background in democratic practice and a democratic way of doing political philosophy. More deeply, his conception of justice – which comes close to Rawls’s conception while fruitfully diverging from it – relies on a democratic attitude and is, when closely examined, democratic in its content. Philippe’s involvement and advocacy for a universal basic income policy (both in Europe and within the BIEN initiative), his fostering of a civic movement to reclaim the pedestrian space in Brussels or his pushing for alternative ways of channeling civic participation and the people’s claim to control and power inside the European Union are all initiatives that are at the same time aimed at justice and nurtured by a democratic ethos.

The fact that these initiatives are both democratic and justice-driven is not a coincidence. Ultimately, the best (if not the only) way to find out about what justice requires – for example, about the kinds of individual and collective liberties that matter from the standpoint of justice and the kind of institutions that are well placed at protecting these liberties – is by resorting to democracy. At the most basic level, this requires elections (both local, regional and national). But democratic practice is more than about elections; it is also about deliberation, and, in particular, about deliberating what justice is. Philippe might answer that I’m making an ad-hoc move and that I’m merely changing the topic by changing the definition of democracy. Furthermore, he might argue that, when democracy is construed as deliberation and not as free elections, we over-extend the concept in a way that will incorporate other values (like justice) and fail to see its possible tensions with these values. In other words, an overly extensive construal of democracy does not allow us to see how a policy can be both democratic and unjust.

There are two ways of countering this reply. First, restricting democracy to free elections seems to be an ad-hoc move as well, as it stipulates an overly narrow definition of democracy. Given that the concept of democracy can be construed in more than one way – and that lots of people think about things that go beyond free elections when they think about democracy – sticking to a narrow definition of democracy seems definitionally problematic. Second, since it seems that different and equally plausible conceptions of democracy cannot be satisfied simultaneously (see:, we should not worry that, when confronted with a policy that can be considered as both undemocratic and unjust, there is no other plausible conception of democracy on the basis of which that arrangement will be democratic. The upshot of this way of thinking about democracy is that it is usually possible to see how a policy can be simultaneously democratic in some sense and unjust. It thus dispels the worry about becoming desensitized about the possible tensions between justice and democracy.

This brings me to my two more general contentions. The first is that divorcing democracy from justice in the way we separate a tool from its end-product is epistemically unwarranted. If justice is a way of organizing our individual and public liberties by means of institutional arrangements, we need to know what those liberties are, how much they matter in relation to each other and what is the best (or second- or third-best) way of ordering them. The most reliable way in which we can gain knowledge about these liberties is democratic: it involves people choosing those liberties, deliberating about them and taking part in activities that make them real liberties. In the absence of these essentially democratic practices, there is no convincing way in which a person (philosopher or not) could claim to know what the content, limits and reality of these liberties are.

My second contention about the instrumentalist view is that it is practically problematic. This is because it tends to foster a way of doing philosophy whereby the views that the public holds about normative questions (such as justice) are peripheral to the right way of thinking about them. With some exceptions, philosophers tend to believe that the lay citizen’s normative views are not well thought-through, lack conceptual consistency and are not informed by the right kind of reasons. This is a big assumption that is hard to vindicate: while it might be true that the public’s views as expressed through opinion polls are often superficial and transient, this does not involve that, given the right circumstances – for instance, focus groups, online deliberation platforms, neighborhood gatherings, juries, etc. – lay citizens are unable to have well-considered normative positions.

My point, then, is more general.

The point is that a political philosophy that takes democracy to be no more than a tool for a just society and takes the broader (non-philosophical) public’s views about justice as considerations that can be dispensed with will, sooner or later, lose its relevance for how people make their collective choices and choose their public policies. If that happens, our philosophical theories of justice will fail to inform current political practice. If, then, political philosophers care about justice, they should care more about democracy, and give up on the idea that it is no more than a tool.

(*) The MWPBlog is a platform for MW Fellows and former Fellows to address scholarly topics and comment on current affairs. The thoughts expressed in the posts represent solely the views of the posting Fellows and not of the Max Weber Programme