Philosophy Major Studies Value of Democracy for Summer Fellowship

Aidan Penn '17

Aidan Penn ’17

How important is democracy as a political system? If society can be run in a way that gives everyone their fair share, what does it matter whether we have the right to vote or not? These are some of the questions philosophy major Aidan Penn ’17 is wrestling with as he undertakes the Alan M. Christenfeld Fellowship, which supports research mostly in the social sciences and humanities.

By the start of the fall semester Penn aims to have written a thirty-page paper looking at the justifications for democracy, of which he said there are two major schools of thought. “First you have the ‘instrumentalists,’ who justify democracy by looking at the results it brings and look at it purely as a tool in bringing about substantively good political decisions,” said Penn. “The instrumental view,” he explained, “sees democracy only as the best available means to an end. The instrumentalists’ opponents, however, point out that this argument could theoretically be used to defend a benevolent dictatorship: if such a dictator could guarantee the best outcome for everyone, they say, then this would be preferable to a democracy, under the logic of the instrumentalists.”

This brings us to the second school of thought, which is called the “intrinsic” argument, said Penn. “This view effectively says that we have an independent reason for democracy besides what it gets us, and trying to suss out what that reason is, is the biggest difficulty.” Penn said the most promising suggestion has been that our concern for democracy follows from a concern for social equality. “Some intrinsic folks say the instrumental argument only succeeds if you rely on something like an intrinsic view that actually posits some value of social equality. Because without social equality, democracy would be this empty political instrument, a tool with no uses.”

Penn’s summer research, which he is conducting under the supervision of Assistant Professor of Philosophy Kristi Olson, is aimed at exploring the relationship between these two theories. He said he is particularly interested in fleshing out the intrinsic argument, and laying the foundations for an honors thesis in his final year. Penn said it is an area of political philosophy that has been fairly thinly researched and he thinks he can add to it in an interesting way.

One area of modern day politics where he feels this has real relevance is the debate over voter ID laws, which have been introduced in a number of states, requiring voters to show some form of official identification before they can cast their vote. “The problem with voter ID laws, at least from the liberal narrative, is that they give a greater relative power to white voters because white voters are more likely to have identification. Meanwhile, proponents of voter ID laws are also trying to give everyone equal influence over political decisions.

“I’m still working on my argument, but I think what’s interesting is that the liberal viewpoint would likely concede that it’s based on empirical facts: the facts being that voter ID laws effectively discriminate against non-white voters and that electoral fraud is not a big threat to democracy.” What Penn said he finds most compelling about this debate is “what the two sides share, namely a commitment to democracy, rather than the disagreements they continue to have.”

Penn is one of about 200 students working on campus over the summer engaged in faculty-mentored research.

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