After Brexit, What Next? Not Much Mandate for Anything…

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


As the dust settles after June’s referendum, it’s notable that the leaders of the Leave campaign (Johnson, Gove, Farage, Leadsom) have all vacated the main stage, leaving it to others to negotiate Britain’s exit from the EU. This is probably wise on their part, not only because the political divorce is likely to produce considerable short-term discomfort, but also because it seems that no one had any clear post-exit strategy.

We’re told that the British people have spoken and their will must be respected. But, even setting aside reports of widespread protest voting and regretful Leavers, it’s not clear what ‘the people’ (or 52% of them) voted for, beyond the obvious (leaving the EU). Leaving the EU doesn’t itself specify what alternative arrangements should be put in place.

Some want to withdraw as completely as possible from the European project – in particular, in order to control migration. Call this Total Exit, or TE for short. But not everyone in the Leave campaign favours TE. Others made quite clear that they welcome trade and cooperation with our European neighbours, they merely oppose the EU organisation and the threat of a federal European state. These people would be happy for the UK to adopt a position like Norway or Switzerland, not an EU member but not so different in practice. For want of a better label, call this Weak Exit or WE. (For simplicity, I’ll only consider two alternatives, though there are many possibilities.)

Obviously, these alternatives are incompatible. If the UK opts for WE, then we will have no more control over migration or over laws and regulations that continue to bind us. The referendum result will, officially, be respected – we’ll be out of the EU – but many of the 52% won’t be satisfied. But, on the other hand, if we got for TE then, though we’ll have control over these things, we won’t have the strong relations with Europe that were promised and, further, this is more likely to cause great economic disruption than WE. Again, a significant number of the 52% are likely to be dissatisfied – while they may have wanted out of the EU, they didn’t necessarily want TE.

It might be that the 52% are so strongly committed to leaving the EU that they would prefer either TE or WE to continued membership, but I doubt all of them feel this way. Someone who dislikes loss of sovereignty, but is also concerned about the possible economic effects of Brexit, might reasonably prefer WE to Remain, but also prefer Remain to TE. That is, their preferences might be WE > R > TE (with ‘R’ standing for ‘Remain). If they were moderately optimistic about what ‘Leave’ meant (i.e. WE), they would vote for Leave, but they would prefer Remain if the alternative were TE.

Conversely, someone whose chief concern was migration, while ideally wanting TE, might prefer Remain to WE. The Leave campaign emphasized the threat of Turkey joining the EU but, as a member, the UK would have a veto over this. If the UK ends up like Norway, having to accept free movement but without that veto, then the UK would actually have less control over migration than before. So it could be perfectly consistent for someone to prefer Remain over WE, even if their first choice would be TE. That is, TE > R > WE.

The Leave campaign was actually a coalition of people wanting inconsistent things. Some were voting for TE and some for WE. Since we can’t have both of these, it’s likely that a considerable number of Leave voters will end up disappointed, whatever the eventual outcome – and some of them might even have preferred to remain in the EU to the eventual outcome.

Given the closeness of the result, it might seem reasonably likely that, given a choice between ‘Remain or TE’ a majority of the population would have voted to Remain and, likewise, that given a choice between ‘Remain or WE’ a majority of the population would have voted to Remain. However, this isn’t necessarily the case. So far, I’ve only highlighted divisions amongst the Leavers, but the Remain voters might also have been influenced by lack of clarity over the options.

No doubt many amongst the 48% who voted to Remain prefer that to either TE or WE. However, it could be that some were simply pessimists about the likely consequences of Brexit. Suppose, for example, that someone would really prefer WE to Remain and Remain to TE (i.e. WE > R > TE). Such a person might nonetheless have voted to Remain if they (pessimistically) thought that Brexit was more likely to result in TE than WE. Had the ballot in fact given the choice between ‘Remain or WE’ then they would have switched their vote from Remain to WE. Likewise, someone whose preferences were TE > R > WE might have voted Remain had they feared that Leave would result in WE.

So, even if some Leavers would have voted Remain, given this choice, it’s also the case that some who actually voted to Remain might have voted to Leave, given a more concrete proposal. For all the talk about ‘respecting the will of the people’ the problem is that there are more than two options. The referendum didn’t really present a choice between two clear options, but rather a choice between the status quo and a mystery box. Now we’ve chosen to open the box, what’s inside is still unclear.

Though the referendum was not legally binding, I think it would be politically impossible for the government to ignore the result. The problem, however, with respecting the will of the people is identifying what it is that the people want. Given that the only really clear outcome of the referendum is that the people are deeply divided, and that both the Conservative Party and Labour Party have been plunged into leadership contests, probably the only certainty is that the political landscape will be unsettled for some time.

The New Alcohol Guidelines: Paternalism or Just Good Advice?

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


The UK government recently announced new guidelines on the consumption of alcohol, recommending no more than 14 units per week (for both men and women), adding that there should be some drink-free days each week, and stressing that there are no ‘safe’ levels of alcohol consumption. The guidelines also recommend complete abstinence during pregnancy – an issue that I won’t touch on here, though colleagues in Southampton’s Philosophy department have been conducting important research on pregnancy, including the demands made on pregnant women, with implications for this.

While some health campaigners have welcomed this move, others have described this as another instance of ‘nanny state’ interference, or hyperbolic and puritan, with Nigel Farage hitting the headlines for advocating mass protest. Amongst political theorists, such objections are usually expressed in the (still unfortunately gendered) language of ‘paternalism’. The objection is that to interfere with someone’s conduct for their own good is to treat them as a child, rather than to respect their autonomy.

Traditionally, paternalism has been something of a ‘dirty word’, though recently some political theorists have endorsed state paternalism, using ‘nudges’ or even coercion to promote the good of citizens. These discussions raise important issues about the legitimate role of the state, which cannot be satisfactorily addressed here. However, even for anti-paternalists, it is not clear that the government’s guidelines are objectionable.

One classic anti-paternalist argument comes in John Stuart Mill’s 1859 On Liberty. In this work, Mill defends what has come to be known as the ‘harm principle’ or ‘liberty principle’, according to which the only legitimate reason for state or society to restrict individual freedom is in order to prevent harm to others.

Mill does not, however, forbid all interference, but only coercive interference. He thinks the state has no business prohibiting alcohol, powerfully attacking the temperance movement of his time. He adds that no one should be punished for conduct that does not harm others. As I’ve argued elsewhere (eprints), it seems that he would reject minimum pricing measures for much the same reason: though not intended as a punishment, like a fine, such measures make certain choices more costly (and, unlike taxation, cannot be justified on grounds of necessity).

But Mill does permit state or society to seek to persuade others to mend their ways. It’s perfectly legitimate, in Mill’s view, to encourage someone to drink less, provided that one does so through rational argument, rather than by threatening her with punishment. Such measures, though not coercive, might still be considered paternalistic, since they involve an attempt to alter another’s conduct for her own benefit. Nonetheless, if this is paternalistic, then Mill is not opposed to all paternalism, but only the coercive kind.

In light of such considerations, it seems that the government’s latest guidelines are legitimate state action, since they merely offer advice and are not backed by any sanctions. In fact, there is more to be said than this; it is not merely that such guidelines are compatible with autonomy, they may even be necessary for it.

As I argue, in a forthcoming article, the traditional interpretation of Mill’s principle as relying on a self-regarding/other-regarding distinction does not adequately capture Mill’s real concerns. The principle would be better formulated in terms of preventing non-consensual harm, which in principle permits some interference with ‘self-regarding’ conduct. For example, Mill asserts that it would be permissible to temporarily prevent someone from crossing an unsafe bridge, in order to warn him of the danger. If the person is unaware of the risk, then he cannot consent to bear it; but once apprised of the risk then it should be up to him whether or not he is willing to take the chance.

Before I can make an informed decision as to whether the pleasures of alcohol are worth the associated health risks, I need to be aware of what those risks are. Consider, for a moment, a contrary case, in which people are unaware of the dangers. Suppose, in fact, that the government were to cover up evidence of health risks, perhaps because beholden to the alcohol industry or reliant upon tax revenues. In such a scenario, those who choose to consume alcohol, without knowing the dangers it poses, cannot be said to have voluntarily accepted the consequent risks, so they would suffer those harms involuntarily or, at least, non-voluntarily.

Mill insists that each of us should have the final authority to decide how to balance benefits and (risks of) harm in our own lives, but we can only do this when we are aware of the risks associated with choices, such as alcohol consumption. Thus, it is not simply that public education does not prevent people from making their own choices, but it actually facilitates rational choice. It seems that even an anti-paternalistic liberal, like Mill, ought to welcome government guidelines that inform people of the dangers of alcohol consumption.

There is, however, one possible ground to object to the latest government guidelines, since they do not simply impart information, but also recommend a particular consumption limit (14 units per week), even while stressing that no amount is ‘safe’. This recommendation was apparently reached by considering an acceptable level of risk, in lights of the risks involved in other regular activities, such as driving. Few activities, if any, are risk free.

However, it should be up to each of us to decide how much risk we are willing to accept. A set of guidelines more in keeping with Mill’s liberal principles might compare the risks of particular levels of consumption with a variety of other activities. For example, they might list other activities that are similarly risky to consuming 7, 14, 21, or 28 units per week. This will enable us to make a better informed choice about the risks of heavier drinking than the new guidelines, which seek to make the risk trade-off for us.

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.

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.