Should Parents Choose More Intelligent Children?

By Ben Saunders, Associate Professor in Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@DrBenSaunders,

The Oxford philosopher Julian Savulescu proposed that, where screening technology is available, parents have a moral obligation to select the children expected to enjoy the best lives. He terms this the principle of procreative beneficence. Unsurprisingly, this principle is controversial and it has been subjected to a number of criticisms, including accusations that it is eugenic. (I have criticised it myself here.)

My latest publication, ‘Procreative Beneficence, Intelligence, and the Optimization Problem’ (forthcoming in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy; doi 10.1093/jmp/jhv026), is a response to another line of criticism.

In a recent piece in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, Adam Carter and Emma Gordon argued that even if we accept the principle of procreative beneficence, the results are less radical than Savulescu suggests. They accept, at least for sake of argument, that parents might have an obligation to choose healthy children rather than those that will suffer (or are likely to suffer) from disease or disability. However, they argue that Savulescu fails to provide a clear example of a non-disease trait that parents have an obligation to select for (or against). In particular, they focus on Savulescu’s favoured example of intelligence, arguing that greater intelligence need not conduce to greater wellbeing.

My paper responds to this criticism, on behalf of Savulescu. First of all, I argue that while greater intelligence does not necessarily improve wellbeing, it is nonetheless plausible that if often does (at least within a certain range). Second, I argue that, even if this is false, Carter and Gordon’s objection to Savulescu succeeds only if the net effect of intelligence on wellbeing is neutral. If, contrary to my earlier argument, intelligence is inversely correlated with wellbeing, then parents should select in favour of lower intelligence.

Finally, I note that the effects of intelligence on wellbeing are likely to vary at different levels, partly for social or positional reasons (for instance, as Carter and Gordon point out, someone much more intelligent than his or her peers may have difficulty finding companions). Consequently, the optimum intelligence, with respect to wellbeing, is unlikely to be either the maximum or minimum possible. Further, this optimum level will likely vary depending upon the reproductive choices of other parents. Thus, the principle of procreative beneficence does make demands on parents, but compliance with these demands is likely to be more difficult than hitherto realised.

National Voting Rights for Resident Non-Citizens: The Luxembourg Debate

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, You can find more posts by David here.

On June 7th 2015, the people of Luxembourg will be voting in a referendum covering four separate questions:

  • Should teenagers aged 16 or over be given the active right to vote? (The active right means that they would be able to vote but not stand in elections.)
  • Should non-Luxembourg nationals be allowed to vote in national elections on the condition that they have lived in Luxembourg for at least ten years?
  • Should the state continue to pay salaries and pensions of priests, diocese staff or officials of other faith groups in Luxembourg?
  • Should government mandates be limited to a period of ten years?

Although all raise fascinating points for political theory and practice, it is the second – national voting rights for resident non-citizens – that raises the most challenging issues for contemporary states in contexts of migration and for EU member states in the context of the right to freedom of movement enjoyed by EU citizens. On the 20th-21st March I was privileged to be invited as an expert in a wide-ranging intellectual debate on this issue held in the Chambre des Députés du Grand-Duché de Luxembourg in which a group of historians, lawyers, sociologists and political scientists presented a range of perspectives on resident non-citizen suffrage to an audience of parliamentary representatives, activists, academics and students. Organized by Professor Philippe Poirier and his colleagues at the University of Luxembourg with the cooperation of the Luxembourg Parliament in order to enhance political debate, the event exemplified how academic research can inform, and be challenged by, the diversity of political perspectives that characterize a democratic state.

The question of resident non-citizen suffrage in national elections has real political significance for Luxembourg. About 45% of its residents are non-citizens (with about 85% of these being EU citizens). On the one hand, this looks like a serious democratic problem with almost half the population being denied national political representation in its legislative body. On the other hand, it is easy to see that the people of Luxembourg might reasonably be concerned that permitting national suffrage rights to resident non-citizens would undermine their ability to control their own political destiny.

One response to this dilemma is to make acquisition of nationality relatively straightforward and on the 1st January 2009 Luxembourg introduced new naturalization legislation that permitted dual/plural nationality and a double ius soli principle. This has had significant impact:

The number of valid demands for nationalisation quadrupled, going from 1065 in 2008 to 11770 for the period of the 1st January 2009 to the 31 December 2011. The Luxembourgish nationality was granted to 11736 persons, quasi 4000 per year. … By comparison, in 2008, only 1215 persons acquired the Luxembourg nationality. Furthermore, by double ius soli, 3414 persons of less than 18 years age, born in the Grand-Duchy of foreign parents of whom one was also born in Luxembourg, acquired Luxembourg nationality on the 1st January 2009. Following the assessment of the STATEC (National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies), from 2009 to 2011, approximately another 1000 children became Luxembourgers by double ius soli, and 2491 children were naturalised along with one of their parents. A total of about 18500 new Luxembourgers in three years, mainly because of the innovations introduced by the law of 2008.

However, as already noted, the number of resident non-citizens today is c.45% with c.85% being EU citizens. For Luxembourg, it seems a decision must be made.

The vote in Luxembourg is also, however, also significant for the EU. Currently the EU has a demos problem in that EU citizens who exercise their civil right of freedom of movement may find themselves disenfranchised at the national voting level in both their state(s) of nationality and their state of residence. This is a democratic wrong but it is one that the EU as an institution has no competence to resolve. There are several possible ways of resolving this problem. But given (a) that the institutional architecture of the EU is neither purely intergovernmental (which would support tying national voting rights to naturalization) or purely federal (which would support tying national voting rights to residence) and (b) that EU citizenship entitles EU citizens who move to other member states to be treated as de facto dual nationals for a wide range of purposes, one fitting way of addressing this problem would be for Member States to allow such Second Country Nationals to become ‘Resident Electors’ after a reasonable period of residence. A ‘Yes’ vote in Luxembourg’s referendum (although it would also encompass a small number of non-EU citizens) would provide an example to the EU of such a practice. A ‘No’ vote would push the agenda in the direction of either reciprocal arrangements between specific Member States or expatriate voting rights for Second Country Nationals or some combination of the two. Luxembourg’s decision thus has implications that are wider than its own national affairs – and it is also for this reason that the engagement of academics, citizens and politicians in the event organized by the University of Luxembourg in association with their Parliament was such a welcome endeavor.

Debate: Do Citizens Have a Moral Duty to Vote?

By Ben Saunders and Jeffrey Howard. Ben Saunders is Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@DrBenSaunders, Jeffrey Howard is Lecturer in Political Philosophy at Essex University. You can read more posts by Ben Saunders here.

As the general election of 2015 approaches, members of the general public are once again called on to cast their votes and decide who will represent their interests in the next government of the United Kingdom. But do the citizens of democratic states have a moral duty to answer this call?

Public figures like Russell Brand and Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, have weighed in on the debate. Now, The Conversation has asked two professors of political philosophy to set out their arguments for and against.

Jeffrey Howard – affirmative

“The history of the world has given to us many sublime undertakings,” proclaimed Frederick Douglass in his 1888 speech on the struggle for universal suffrage, “but none more sublime than this.” Today, few would doubt that the fight for universal democratic empowerment was among the most morally significant struggles in history. But what, exactly, was it a fight for?

“The right to vote” seems to be the answer: but it is a misleading one. My suggestion is that those who struggled for suffrage during the past two centuries were not simply fighting for the option to vote. They were fighting for something deeper: the job of the citizen. They were fighting for a seat at the table at which the great moral challenges of their nation are debated and decided.

The job of the citizen, I believe, places moral demands on those who hold it. Voting is one of those demands. Citizens have obligations to make their societies more just and, as others have argued, to refrain from being an accomplice – however minor – to injustice.

Voting in favour of just proposals, or in support of representatives who enact them, discharges both duties in one fell swoop. By voting, we join together with like-minded citizens to collectively nudge our nation in a morally better direction. And even if we are unsuccessful – even if the forces of injustice win out – our action disassociates us from complicity with that injustice. Voting frees us of the blame that rightly attaches to citizens who vote for evil or who sit silently as others do so.

Ben Saunders – negative

Jeff Howard’s vision of citizens striving to make their societies more just may be an ideal that we should aspire to, but is it really a duty incumbent on us all? I think not.

First, note that the duty envisaged is not simply a duty to vote, but to vote for just policies (or representatives who will enact them). This is more demanding, since it implies that many voters act wrongly.

Granting, for now, that there is such a duty, it is misleading to say that citizens have a duty to vote as such. Obviously, one can only vote rightly if one votes, but there is no distinct duty to vote. Those who vote for unjust policies are no better – and presumably worse -– than those who do not vote, and surely cannot escape blame for collective wrongdoing.

Indeed, it is not clear that those who vote rightly avoid complicity. We ordinarily expect those who take part in a democratic process to accept the legitimacy of the outcome, even if outvoted. Perhaps, therefore, it is better not to vote if the decision will be unjust.

Where there is serious prospect of grave injustice, citizens promote justice through other actions, such as protesting. Voting alone does little to achieve this.

Could civilian movements like the poll tax protest be a better way of fighting for justice?
Chris Bacon/PA

Jeffrey Howard

Ben Saunders has issued a powerful, three-pronged challenge to the thesis that citizens are morally required to vote.

First, he notes that it is implausible to think that all votes are morally meritorious. Votes for unjust policies should be condemned, not celebrated. He is right: the duty to vote must be a duty to vote well. And to do that, it is not enough simply to show up on election day and flip a coin. Voting is rightly preceded by thoughtful reflection on matters of public concern. If citizens have not done so, then they should not vote, just as a surgeon who has not researched a particular surgery should not perform it. The duty to vote, then, functions within a package of other related responsibilities.

Secondly, Ben suggests that those who vote for justice but lose may still be complicit with injustice, since their vote legitimises the process and could even obligate them to obey it. This is an important worry, but I have doubts. It cannot be true that those who go to the polls to register their fierce opposition to slavery are bound to support slavery if their opponents win the day.

Finally, Ben suggests that if achieving justice is our objective, voting may be an ineffective method, compared to other alternatives. No doubt this is sometimes so, but I believe voting retains a distinctive significance. Protests are useful, I suggest, precisely because they can alter people’s intentions about what policies and politicians they will vote for. Protests can move people to head toward a particular door, but only through voting can they unlock it.

Ben Saunders

Jeff suggests that voting can unlock the door to a more just society, but this is rather unusual. If a slave-owning society were having a referendum on the abolition of slavery, then all citizens may have an obligation to vote for its abolition (though my earlier point, that this is not a duty to vote as such, still stands). That some citizens are sometimes under an obligation to vote, however, is relatively trivial – one could easily demonstrate this simply by promising to vote.

My concern is whether citizens generally have a moral duty to vote, simply in virtue of being citizens. I do not think Jeff’s arguments give us sufficient reason to think that they do. Even if all citizens are under a duty to promote a just society, voting would only be one way to further that end, and not a particularly effective one at that.

We rarely face a situation like the slavery referendum, where there is a clear choice between justice and injustice. Ordinarily, citizens must choose between parties whose policies, taken as a package, may differ little from the viewpoint of justice. In such circumstances, citizens may better promote justice in other ways, such as by volunteering for charity.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Alternatives to Fixed-Term Elections

By Ben Saunders, Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@DrBenSaunders,

Until the present coalition government introduced the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, in 2011, the UK Prime Minister had discretion to call elections at will, a power often used for partisan advantage. As Petra Schleiter reports in her post on OpenDemocracy, 60% of the UK’s post-war elections were called early (i.e. more than six months before required). Further, her analysis suggests that this gave incumbents a 6% vote gain, roughly doubling the PM’s chances of remaining in office.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act allows early elections to be called only in very restricted circumstances (either with support of two-thirds of the House of Commons or following a vote of no confidence after which no alternative government is approved by the Commons within 14 days). Schleiter points to a number of advantages of this; not only does it stop PMs from calling elections opportunistically, in order to increase their chances of victory, but depriving them of this power also prevents them from using the threat of an election to bully backbench MPs or coalition partners, thereby making the government more accountable to parliament.

However, in focusing on the advantages of fixed-term elections, Schleiter does not consider whether there are certain advantages to the old system, in which an election could be called at any moment. Alan Hamlin has previously argued that fixed-term elections will not eliminate a bias in favour of the incumbent. Though governments will not be able to call an election at a moment that happens to be favourable to them, they will be able to pursue policies designed to produce favourable circumstances at the time an election is scheduled to take place.

Further, Hamlin argues that the constant threat of a surprise election requires opposition parties to maintain a certain level of campaign-readiness and to be active in holding the government to account. Where is it known that there will not be another election for 4-5 years, opposition parties may have little incentive to provide opposition to the government, being focused on their long-term electoral strategy. Knowing that there may be an election at any time, however, forces these parties to hold the government to account. Thus, while the PM’s prerogative to call elections at will may give them greater control over their own party, this same arrangement may result in more effective opposition.

Though one stated aim of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was to reduce instability and short-termism, unpredictability does have some benefits, preventing both incumbents and opposition parties from attempting to ‘game’ the electoral cycle. While giving power to call elections to the PM is undesirable, since it will predictably be used for partisan advantage, fixed-term parliaments are not the only alternative. One possibility would be to return the power to dissolve parliaments to the monarch, who is supposedly impartial, but this would doubtless be undesirable too. Indeed, giving anyone the power to call elections will raise the possibility of favouritism or corruption, since no one can be guaranteed to be impartial.

There are, however, alternative arrangements that do not rely on giving any individual the power to call an election. Hamlin also touches on the possibility of random election cycles. There are various ways that such an idea might be implemented. One would be for a random period of time to be set after (or just before) each election, so it was known when the next election would be. This would, in effect, amount to a fixed-term, albeit that the length of term might vary from one government to the next. There seems little advantage to this.

Another possibility, however, would be to have a random device to determine whether an election should occur at a given moment in time. For instance, at the start of each year we might generate a number from one to ten and, if it is a one then an election must be held that year. There would, of course, be a chance (10% given these figures) that some governments could last little more than a year. There is also a chance that some may last a significant period of time; the chance of five random draws, without a one occurring, is almost 60%. The exact numbers, however, are not my concern here, but rather the principle, that we can avoid discretionary power without adopting fixed-term parliaments.

This is not necessarily to say that fixed-term parliaments are a bad thing. Perhaps, after due reflection, we may think it is good to allow parties – both in government and opposition – chance to step-down from constant election readiness and to implement (or devise) policy programmes. If so, then we may favour fixed-term parliaments because they allow for predictability and long-term planning, but these reasons are distinct from objections to the partisan effects of PM discretion. But if, like Hamlin, we value unpredictability as a means to ensure government accountability, and our only objection is to giving the PM power to call elections, then we may favour random elections rather than fixed terms. Thus, we need to decide whether predictable electoral cycles are a good thing or not, independently of any objections to PM’s discretion.

The University as a Civic Community

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, You can find more posts by David here.

Universities were founded as ‘civic corporations’ in the medieval sense (this sense of ‘incorporated bodies’ is most obviously exemplified by Guilds). This is why they have Royal Charters. This guild structure still persists in some professions such as architecture and medicine that are self-governing. Their rule is exercised over their membership (for example, both architects and doctors can be ‘struck off’) and over who can be a member (they control the qualification/certification process).

There are three crucial elements here for conceiving of the University:

  • It is to be conceived as a self-governing community;
  • It is a community oriented to the common good of its members;
  • Its standing as a corporation in the medieval sense is justified only to the extent to which acting for the common good of its members contributes to the public good.

In each of these respects, it is entirely distinct from a ‘private corporation’ in the modern sense. Why does this matter? And how should this inform how we see the University now?

It matters because universities today, struggling with the demands of marketized higher education and the increasing importance of commercial dimensions of their work, have too easily plumped for frameworks, vocabularies and values drawn from the realm of private business corporations – faute de mieux. Yet the ethos and grammar of the private corporation is both alien to, and at odds with, that of the public (or even private) university. So it is worthwhile to recall and explore a historical grounded alternative – what, then, does this alternative involve?

Consider, first, self-government. We need to distinguish two aspects of self-government here – the ‘legislative’ and ‘executive’ functions. The first point that arises from this is that Executive (the University Senior Management) are subordinate to the Legislature (the University Senate) in one crucial respect: although the ends or strategic goals of a university may be proposed by the Executive for the consideration of Senate, they are set by the membership of the university as civic participations in a self-governing community (via their representatives in Senate). The primary role of the university executive is to develop ways of realizing strategic goals compatible with maintaining the university as a self-governing community through policies, targets, etc. The second point is that the executive are accountable for their performance to the community which means that they report to the community and can be sanctioned by the community (via its representatives in Senate). In institutional terms, the legitimate authority of the Executive to issue commands, set targets, etc., derives from their role as agents of Senate who are accountable to Senate.

This picture is slightly complicated by the third feature, namely, that of ensuring the pursuit of the common good of the members of the University is also productive of the public good (the importance of this is illustrated by the history of guilds in which the common good of the membership could and sometimes did lead to practices that were definitely not directed at the public good). This is essentially the role of a body involving external members representing the Public (the Council of the University) – to make sure that the University is productive of the public good (for example by not being a liability for the public purse). The University as a civic corporation, represented for these purposes by the Vice-Chancellor, is thus accountable to Council as representatives of the Public. In this respect, the autonomy of the University, its capacity for self-government in the most general sense, can be limited by Council where this is deemed necessary or advisable for the public good or, put in modern parlance, for ensuring the University fulfills its mission.

(This double relation of the VC as, on the one hand, leading the Executive as servants of the civic community and as, on the other hand, representing the University in its accountability to Council can set up a tension that is liable to drive VC’s to seek greater power so that they can determine as executive that for which they are held responsible as representative.)

If we consider now the second element, namely, the common good of the membership, we need to address two dimensions. First, who is a member? Second, how is the common good to be worked out? The answer to the first is straightforward: every employee of the University from cleaner to professor, from first year student to communications director. It is, of course, the case that there are different kinds of membership in terms of the rights and duties that pertain to their different roles. It is also the case that their different functions have implications for the governance structures of the University, for example, one might adopt a consociational structure comprised of an Academic Senate that governs academic matters, a Professional Senate that governs professional matters and a Student Union that governs student matters encompassed within an overarching Senate in which all are represented. There can be significant debates on the best governance structures to adopt here but the really key point is that this is a civic community in which all are civic participants and should be able to conceive of, and experience themselves as, ‘citizens’ engaged in a cooperative venture directed at the common good and in the service of the public good.

This is, of course, just a sketch of an alternative way of conceiving of the University but it demonstrates that there is such an alternative and that it has significant implications for how we relate to one another as members of a corporate community. The problem that we currently face is that many academic and non-academic staff see themselves in this kind of way but that they are placed within management structures that act in ways drawn from the opposed conception of the modern private corporation and thus, advertently or not, exploit this fact in order to extract greater labour and thereby generate understandable cynicism and disillusionment with, and alienation from, the University. The ‘connected university’ needs to attend to the character of its internal connections.

Who Are ‘the People’ in a People’s Constitutional Convention?

By David Owen, Professor of Social and Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@rdavidowen, You can find more posts by David here.

This post is a contribution to a debate at openDemocracy initiated by Stuart White and followed by Alan Renwick’s discussion of institutional designs for such a convention. David Owen’s contribution focuses on the question of who should be included in the People for these purposes.

There are a lot of questions raised by the idea of a People’s Constitutional Convention for the UK. The most fundamental, however, is ‘who are the People?’ for this purpose.

In Stuart White’s initial post and Alan Renwick’s acute reflections on the form of such a convention, they adopt the intuitive response to this question: the People are the (adult) citizens of the UK, which we might imagine to be those who can vote in General Elections. The rationale for this view is straightforward: a constitution sets the terms of a political association; it specifies the basic legal form of citizens’ political relationships to one another. This is a good start but I think for these purposes we need to construe the People a bit more widely.

Consider first that not all UK citizens can vote in General Elections, for example, citizens who have been resident abroad for more than 15 years or prisoners serving custodial sentences. Should they be able to participate? Well, notice first that a constitution applies to all citizens regardless of whether they are resident in the UK or not. Any changes to the constitution are binding on all citizens and change their relationships – so, for example, the result of a UK referendum on EU membership would be binding on all UK citizens whether or not they are resident in the UK, the EU or the wider world. Because a constitution sets the terms of their relationship, the People must include non-resident, as well as resident, citizens.[1]

If we turn to prisoners serving custodial sentences, we should note that even if we think that there may be both principled and pragmatic reasons for refusing voting rights in General Elections for some classes of those convicted of criminal offences, a constitutional convention is a different kind of event, one that stands in a much more intimate relationship to one’s standing as a citizen. The loss of voting rights in a General Election says that one is not a citizen in good standing; the loss of the right to participate in a constitutional convention says that one has no civic standing. So all citizens need to be included in terms of either having a vote for representatives or being in the population from which citizens selected by lot are chosen.

But a constitution doesn’t just set the terms on which citizens relate to one another, it also lays down the ground rules for:

  • What the public actors (aka the State) can and cannot legitimately do in relation to all those who live under its authority, that is, within its territorial jurisdiction.
  • What private actors (individual or corporate) can and cannot legitimately do to other persons in this territory.

Looked at from this angle, everyone who is a resident of (as opposed to a visitor to) the UK has an equally clear and vital interest in being protected from arbitrary exercises of public and private power. Indeed, given that immigrant non-citizens are typically much more exposed to exercises of arbitrary power by the State (perhaps most especially the kind of discretionary power with respect to immigrants currently lodged in the Home Office) and by private actors (perhaps most obviously unscrupulous employers), the case of the inclusion of non-citizen residents is overwhelming.[2] The People needs to encompass residents more generally, not just citizens.

What about non-resident non-citizens? This is a harder issue. It is fairly straightforward to see that this group should be able to make representations to a People’s Constitutional Convention since, in an increasingly interdependent world, their lives are likely to be shaped in part by our actions, but should they have representatives with the decision-making body? Some authors – Ian Shapiro and Robert Goodin, for example[3] – answer in the affirmative. What counts, on this view, is that your morally relevant interests are or may be affected. I am skeptical of this appeal to ‘the all affected interests principle’ as a criterion of democratic inclusion for the reason nicely put by Christopher McMahon:

The people who have a right, under democratic principles, to participate in a decision are not those who are affected by it but those whose actions are guided by it. That is, if the possession of [political] authority is a matter of having a right to direct the actions of some group, democracy is reflexive authority – the generation of authoritative directives by those who will be subject to them. The say in determining a decision that democracy confers is a say in determining what one will do or allow as a member of a group.

Citizens and residents are subject to the authority of the constitution, non-resident, non-citizens are not. This isn’t to say that there are not good moral and epistemic reasons to consult widely with outsiders, there surely are! It is just to say that they need not be included within the People. So non-resident non-citizens should be represented in some way, but probably should not have voting rights in a People’s Constitutional Convention.

Thus far I have treated the People in terms of existing adults, whether citizen or not, resident or not, but ‘the People’ denotes an intergenerational community that exists through time and the decisions, perhaps particularly constitutional decisions, that we make now will shape the world that future generations of UK inherit. If we think about children first as an existent future generation of adult citizens, it is clear first that they have important interests at stake and second that their lives, values and self-understandings as political agents will be significantly shaped by the constitutional character of the UK. Saying simply that they can change the constitution when they reach adulthood fails to acknowledge the fact that they have interests at stake now and that much of their political identity as citizens will already have been formed by then. For these reasons I think that the People needs to encompass the representation of children.

What of not yet existent future generations whom we can envisage only as an indeterminate abstract collective of the yet to be born? It is clear that they, like non-resident non-citizens, will be affected by our decisions – perhaps vitally in respect of whether we include significant environmental norms in any constitution – but should they be represented? In relevant ways, this case looks like the temporal equivalent of the spatial case of non-resident non-citizens and I am inclined to think that they should be treated in the same way, that is, as having rights to make representations to a People’s convention but not be represented within the decision-making People.

If this is cogent, the People for the purpose of a constitutional convention cannot be restricted simply to resident adult citizens. And this expansion of the People has implications for the design of a constitutional convention as well. In order to ensure that the relevant classes of persons are appropriately ‘present’, it is sensible to adopt a design that includes at least some element of structured random selection so that there are not only resident citizens present but also resident non-citizens and non-resident citizens as well as some element of inclusion of governmental representatives such as a Children’s Ombudsman. I therefore favour – in this respect at least – the approach used in Ireland’s recent convention, as discussed by Alan Renwick, as the best way forward for a People’s convention to accommodate an appropriately expansive understanding of the People.

[1] For a fuller discussion, see David Owen, ‘Transnational Citizenship and the Democratic State’ Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 14: 5, 2011, pages 641-663.

[2] For related observations on access to citizenship for residents, See David Owen (2013) ‘Citizenship and the marginalities of migrants’, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 16 (3): 26-343 & (2014) ‘Republicanism and the Constitution of Migrant Statuses’

17 (1): 90-110.

[3] Ian Shapiro The Moral Foundations of Politics (New Haven, Yale University Press) pp.219-20 as well as Robert Goodin ‘Enfranchising All Affected Interests, And Its Alternatives’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 35 (1): 40-68.

If a Community Speaks and Nobody Hears It, Does It Make a Sound?

richpennyBy Richard Penny, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory and PhD student at the University of Southampton ( You can read more posts by Richard here.

I was fortunate to attend a public meeting last week, called to discuss residents’ fears over the sequel to ‘Benefits Street’ (creatively titled ‘Immigration Street’) which is to be set in the Derby Road area of Southampton. Around 200 local people, charity workers and community leaders lined up to explain their opposition to the filming of the series to its director, Kieran Smith, of Love Productions.

The residents’ anger was both palpable and wide ranging. Speakers wanted to know why Derby Road was chosen as an ‘Immigration Street’ when most residents were British citizens, born and raised in the UK. “We’re all as British as each other,” one resident shouted, “you’re here because of the way we look!”. Smith replied merely that they wanted to find an area that had been ‘influenced by immigration’. In this case then, another resident asked, why were they not filming in her community – built on generations of Irish-Catholic immigrants?  In fact, as others pointed out – which parts of Britain haven’t been influenced by immigration? Smith didn’t answer, and it was hard to escape the conclusion that – intentionally or accidentally – Love Productions had failed to grasp the difference between ethnicity, and nationality. Either way – as one colleague noted – it raises doubts about their ability to make a ‘nuanced’, ‘careful’ documentary about immigration.

Many residents also pointed to the impacts on the residents of James Turner Street, aka Benefits Street. Local councillor (and PAIR graduate) Satvir Kaur asked Smith if he really cared about the community on Derby Road – and if so, why he was happy to expose them to death threats, intimidation, media intrusion, and a stigma that could last for generations. Smith argued that he wanted to portray the community positively, and would offer residents influence over the final output. If this were the case then, Smith was asked, why were the residents of James Turner Street so unhappy with the way they were portrayed? Had Love Productions failed to inform them of the framing they were putting on the series, or had they failed to listen to their objections?

From the outset the degree of trust in the room was low – and it declined from thereon as residents presented a list of revelations about the conduct of Love Productions. The first of these was that prior to this ‘consultation meeting’ Love Productions had already been filming for between 10-12 weeks. Some consultation. Further, many participants had been told only that they were taking part in a ‘documentary about immigration’ with no mention of the show’s title, or its connection to ‘Benefits Street’ – a fact that for many, was very significant.

Perhaps most worrying of all were the testimonies from a number of care workers, regarding how Love Productions had operated thus far. In particular, it was alleged that crew from the series had entered, and loitered outside a day centre in the area, looking to speak to residents with a range of vulnerabilities including substance abuse problems, learning difficulties and mental health issues. Did Smith understand the notion of ‘informed consent’ it was asked? Another care worker asked why Love Productions had been speaking to members of the National Front in Southampton (and not resident in the area) if they didn’t wish to spark ethnic division. Another case was raised in which it was alleged that Love Productions had sent cameras to record a resident being sectioned under the mental health act.

By this point Smith had all but given up justifying the filming. He responded incredulously to the allegations regarding targeting vulnerable people (including the line of the night: Smith: “Are you really questioning our ethics as TV producers?” Whole room: “YES!”), before refusing to comment on specific allegations regarding who they had spoken to. Increasingly he fell back on the argument that if residents didn’t want to be filmed, they didn’t have to consent – but that Love Productions had the right to film consenting individuals. What Smith didn’t seem to be able to grasp was that the community itself might have rights of its own. It is, after all, the community that his show is seeking to represent, and yet the community seemed utterly united in its opposition to the programme.

It was this impasse that underscored much of the bad feeling during and after the discussion. In a sense the meeting was heartening. The residents of Derby Road had a keen sense of their identity – of how to reconcile what it means to be British, and what it means to be an immigrant – and of how they needed to speak and act together to protect the proud and diverse community they had built (in what is historically one of the most troubled areas of the city). And yet, at the same time, there was no obvious idea of what they could do to stop the production of ‘Immigration Street’. One community leader urged attendees to write to OFCOM, but this suggestion was met with utter derision from most – who were acutely aware that the regulator dismissed all complaints about Benefits Street.

Indeed, the question was put to Smith (by Alan Whitehead MP) as to what it would take for his team to stop the filming. Smith’s couldn’t provide an answer. And why should he? Contracts have been signed with Channel 4. Money had been paid. Filming has started, and they will have no trouble finding a pool of participants for whom the lure of being on television, and a potential route to stardom is too much to refuse. There are Bafta’s at stake, and nothing that either the law, or regulators can (or will) do to prevent the filming. Indeed, to the extent that the authorities are involved in the filming of ‘Immigrant Street’, it’s likely that it will be in the role of protecting the film crew as they do their work – at least if the threats of interference from some community members are realised.

The overriding sense at the end of the meeting then was one of powerlessness, and frustration. And in this sense it was hard to escape the conclusion that the meeting in question was also something of a microcosm for British society more generally. Smith will make his show, he will make money, he will advance his career, and he will do so unhindered by regulatory bodies and unaffected by its consequences. Smith, of course, is part of a strata of British society for whom the law, the economy, the media and the regulators work perfectly well.

On the other hand there is a community for whom – despite its obvious strength – none of these facts are true. They are not organising from a position of wealth, resources or power. They do not have the luxury of choosing how they are presented to the nation, and nor can they call upon the law or the political system to protect them. One of the most telling parts of the evening was the meetings’ reluctance to let the BBC and ITV news crews report on the discussion. Almost no-one trusted them to do so impartially. And who can blame them?

For the most part these differences bubble under the surface. Both the advantaged and disadvantaged in Britain have priced their status into their worldview to a large extent. But increasingly these two worlds are unable to ignore one another – and when they do collide – when privilege and power comes face to face those who lack it – the result is toxic. The show will doubtless be made. The economic and political interests behind it are simply too strong. Yet, with no alternatives there will doubtless be confrontations – legal and otherwise – as residents try to stop it. But this controversy will only feed the fire further, until it moves on, to quench its insatiable appetite for outrage elsewhere. And the community will be left to pick up the pieces by itself. It feels chillingly like as there goes Derby Road, there goes Britain. What is to be done?


Jonathan HavercroftBy Jonathan Havercroft, Senior Lecturer in International Political Theory at the University of Southampton (Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by Jonathan here.


My current research project examines the ideology of misarchism. Misarchism means the hatred of government or rule.  I am interested in both the intellectual history of the concept and its revival in contemporary right-wing populist movements in the U.S. and Europe. The term originally appears in German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, second essay, section 12, where he writes:

The democratic idiosyncrasy of being against everything that dominates and wants to dominate, the modern misarchism (to coin a bad word for a bad thing) has gradually shaped and dressed itself up as intellectual, most intellectual, so much so that it already, today, little by little penetrates the strictest, seemingly most objective sciences, and is allowed to do so.

In developing this term, Nietzsche was critiquing the political philosopher Herbert Spencer for attempting to ground political philosophy in the new science of evolution. Nietzsche objected to these types of philosophies on two grounds. First, evolutionary philosophies were reactive ideologies – they focused on the process of adaptation to explain change – where as Nietzsche felt that change was brought about through power struggles by conflicting entities. Second, these evolutionary philosophies denied the roles of power, struggle, and domination in both political and biological processes.

Today, we tend to label the political philosophy of Herbert Spencer and his followers social Darwinism, but this term is doubly misleading. First, it is misleading because what 19th century theories of evolution had to say about politics was (and still is) a contested terrain. Second, it is misleading because Darwin’s theory of evolution was not the most influential biological theory in this debate. That distinction belonged to the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Lamarckian evolution posited that a mechanism of inherited characteristics was the driving force behind how species evolved. Conversely, Darwin argued that random variation in the traits of organisms drove the process of evolution. This difference in causal mechanisms leads to two different views about what evolution is. If one sides with Lamarck, then evolution is a progressive process in which only the fittest organisms survive over time. Conversely, if one agrees with Darwin, then evolution is a process of random selection in which mutations in an organism’s traits and changes in the natural environment lead to species variation, but there is no clear progress or teleology in the evolutionary process. In this debate Spencer sided decisively with Lamarck and argued that social changes in areas as diverse as economics, politics and morality were all driven by an evolutionary process in which only the best traits were inherited from one generation to the next.

For Spencer, this process of “survival of the fittest” meant that society itself was getting better over time and individuals were becoming more moral. This belief that society was progressing through a process of the survival of the fittest, led Spencer to defend a radical laissez-faire ideology. He believed that any attempt by the government to intervene in the market place or offer assistance to the poor or disadvantaged would undermine the process of social evolution, and as a consequence would weaken society.

This 19th century ideology of misarchism had four core features: 1. opposition to any kind of government action except for the administration of justice; 2. opposition to any assistance to the poor and disadvantaged; 3. belief that the social system will produce the best possible outcomes for society as a whole when the individual members of society act without government assistance; 4. the belief that morality, rather than government, should regulate the behavior or society. What this added up to was a fierce opposition to any government action outside of the use of a judicial system to punish crimes against individuals and private property.

In labeling Spencer’s philosophy as misarchist, Nietzsche points out that it is hatred of government that animates these types of movements. The term combines the ancient greek roots mis for hatred and arkhein for government or rule. This makes misarchism distinct from two other right wing ideologies – libertarianism and social conservatism. Libertarians ground their ideology in a defence of individual rights and freedom. And while libertarians would agree with misarchists on issues of the government’s role in the economic sphere, they differ when it comes to the police powers of the state as misarchists tend to favour heavier police interference in areas of personal conduct such as drug consumption. Conversely, social conservatives ground their ideology in the preservation of the existing social order and defend the use of government in areas that preserve traditional values and social institutions.

David Marsh Presents a New Working Paper “In Defense of Historical Institutionalism” at C2G2

Abstract: The paper takes issue with two standard critiques of historical institutionalism: that it can only explain stability, not change, and that the focus should be on discursive path-dependency, not institutional path-dependency. In response to the initial critique, I argue, first, that it wrongly equates path-dependency with path- determinacy and, second, that the challenge  can be addressed if we acknowledge that the relationship between institutions and ideas is a dialectical one, that is interactive and iterative. In response to the second critique, I argue that we should acknowledge that there are 3 path-dependencies: institutional; discursive; and political-economic. They interact and provide the context within which agents act; constraining and facilitating, but not determining, agents. These arguments will be illustrated by an examination of  the role of the British Political Tradition in British politics.

You can find David Marsh’s published research on his Google Scholar page.

Demos Problems and the European Union: An Exercise In Contextual Democratic Theory

by David Owen, Anali Hrvatskog Politološkog Društva (English), vol. 10, No. 1 (2013), pp 7-23.

Debates concerning the ‘democratic deficit’ have been a prevalent feature of the normative literature on the European Union, but rather less attention has been paid to ‘demos problems’ constructed by the normative ordering of the EU and what such problems reveal about the nature of democratic citizenship in the EU, the character of the EU as a normative order and the institutional character of the relationship between the constitution of the EU as a normative order and as a structure of political incentives. This article addresses this topic by focusing on one such ‘demos problem’.

Read this article now at Citizenship Observatory.